Sprawl is the natural human condition

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Robert Bruegmann's book Sprawl: A Compact History has inspired some interesting reviews. One is by the witty architect and architectural critic Witold Rybczynski, who has written many fine books himself. Another is by Joel Kotkin, author of the recent The City: A Global History. Rybczynski and Kotkin reach similar conclusions.

Rybczynski: "It appears that all cities–at least all cities in the industrialized western world–have experienced a dispersal of population from the center to a lower-density periphery. In other words, sprawl is universal. Why is this significant? 'Most American anti-sprawl reformers today believe that sprawl is a recent and peculiarly American phenomenon caused by specific technological innovations like the automobile and by government policies like single-use zoning or the mortgage-interest deduction on the federal income tax,' Bruegmann writes. 'It is important for them to believe this because if sprawl turned out to be a long-standing feature of urban development worldwide, it would suggest that stopping it involves something much more fundamental than correcting some poor American land-use policy.'"

Kotkin: "Yet the reasons for the sprawl around Los Angeles, Houston, Phoenix, Mexico City, Buenos Aires, and Tokyo are not so unlike those of third-century Rome. The needs and preferences of individuals, families, and businesses matter most. To attempt to understand sprawl from this perspective, of course, flies in the face of most academic 'urban theory' as well as the collected wisdom of most planners, architects, and the media.

"It is believed, for example, that sprawl is a peculiarly 'American' disease, another sign of our decadence and wastefulness. Yet in reality, U.S.-style sprawl can be found everywhere now, including metropolitan Paris, where the far-out suburbs of the Grand Couronne are harvesting much of the region's job and population growth. Even crowded China has its suburban tracts, some with odd names like 'Orange County.'"

And here's another posting, from Virginia Postrel, author of The Future and Its Enemies and the Substance of Style. Postrel writes, "The densest metropolis in America is Los Angeles. Just because the city goes on and on and on doesn't mean you can't find just about anything you want, not to mention thousands and thousands of people, within a short walk."

Where does the idea that sprawl originated in post-World War II America come from? From New York-centric writers, I think. They observed that the empty potato fields of Nassau County started filling up with suburbs, like the original Levittown, right after World War II. New York-centrics tend to think all cities are like New York, where most people live in apartments and very many never drive a car. But of course New York is the exception, not the rule, not just in America but in most of the world. And the postwar suburban development in metro New York was especially rapid, since there hadn't been much housing built in the 15 years before 1945. Los Angeles–and its equally horizontal cousin London–are more typical of great cities, and, as Bruegmann points out, Londoners have been moving out to leafier territory at least since the restoration of King Charles II in 1660. Sprawl is not just as American as apple pie; it's also as English as Yorkshire pudding, as French as creme brulee, as–well, I'll let you finish up the series.