A Call to Rethink Sprawl
The unruly expanse of subdivisions, malls, office parks, and congested roadways spreading far beyond the old urban centers has come to be known--and often condemned--as sprawl. But does sprawl deserve such a bad rap? Robert Bruegmann, a professor of art history, architecture, and urban planning at the University of Illinois-Chicago, talked to U.S. News about his own distinctive take on the subject, set forth in his new book, Sprawl: A Compact History.
Sprawl is a loaded word. How do you define it?
I try to define the word in the most objective way possible, as relatively low-density settlement without any overarching master planning.
Is sprawl a modern phenomenon?
It goes back at least as far as we have historical records of cities and seems to be a reaction to the reality that, from the earliest days up to very recently, cities have been extremely dense--up to about 150,000 people per square mile in most of the larger ones. Cities had to be very compact because the main way of getting around was walking, and also, up until recently, cities had to have walls to protect them from attacks. The wall was a crushing financial burden, so cities had to be built at absolute maximum density to cut down on these tremendous costs of defense. This density was something people wanted to avoid because of all the pollution and congestion. But the only people who could take advantage of less densely settled areas beyond the city walls were the very powerful and wealthy members of society. If you were a very wealthy Roman, you could have a villa at Herculaneum or on the seashore.
So what is new about sprawl in the past two centuries?
A much larger percentage of society, including the middle class and then later the working class, has been able to afford to live in the same way that the wealthy and powerful once did.
What are some of the major arguments against sprawl?
The four major ones are that it's economically inefficient, that it's socially inequitable, that it is environmentally degrading, and that it's aesthetically ugly.
How well do these arguments hold up?
I find them weak. True, you have a slight premium in the amount of money it takes to build sewers and roads if you have people living at lower densities, but so much of that cost is now being transferred directly to homeowners. If they can pay for it, why shouldn't they have it? Then, too, as more and more people telecommute, you have a revolution in the way people live that will be much more energy efficient and less polluting than living at very high densities. Socially, it is true that the suburbanizing trend has left a heavy concentration of minority and poor people at the center of cities. But thinking you can stop social problems by bottling everybody up in the city seems to be an unworkable solution when you see even within the city we can't solve the inequities. The aesthetic arguments generate the most heat. The important thing to remember is that every generation's sprawl is the next generation's historic landmarks.