December 12, 2005

Sprawl Is NOT a Four-Letter Word

Filed under: Economy,Environment,Taxes & Government — Tom @ 11:40 am

….. unlike many of the word uttered in traffic jams.

In a Saturday Wall Street Journal book review (“In Praise of ‘Burbs”) on the history of urban sprawl over several millenia (“Sprawl: a Compact History” by Robert Bruegmann), Joel Kotkin notes, contrary to widely-held belief, that sprawl is not a uniquely American phenomenon:

Mr. Bruegmann finds this pattern of flight taking place virtually any place dense urban centers develop, whether in Ming China, Renaissance Italy or early modern Europe. But it was the Industrial Revolution that really pushed the growth of suburbia. Industrial-age cities of the 19th century were even more crowded, more dirty and more polluted than their premodern counterparts.

….. With the rise of commuter rails, telegraph, telephones and then automobiles in the 20th century, urban dispersion accelerated dramatically. “Sprawl,” loosely defined, became a global phenomenon. Cities in North America, Australia, New Zealand and South America — with cheap land and growing populations — took the idea of fleeing dense urban centers and, so to speak, ran with it.

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.”

Nor, as already hinted above, is it intrinsically evil:

In our own time, Mr. Bruegmann observes, much of the anti-sprawl venom comes not from the working class or middle class but from well-heeled urbanites with expensive apartments in Georgetown and Beacon Hill or on Central Park. Many such critics — just think of John Kerry or Al Gore — also own spacious country estates and naturally are not happy about exurban developers luring the masses too close to their weekend idylls.

Mr. Bruegmann rightly dismisses “the campaign to reform other people’s lives” launched by these anti-sprawl scolds — such as urban-growth boundaries and restrictions on the construction of single-family homes. Rather than try to strangle suburbia, he suggests, we ought to try to live with this new, expansive form of city.

As powerful as sprawl logic may be, the traditional city is far from dead. Mr. Bruegmann, a longtime Chicago resident and a professor at the University of Illinois campus there, is particularly bullish on amenity-rich older cities — New York, Boston, Seattle and Portland, as well as Chicago. They can lay claim to a promising demographic niche among the nomadic rich, the young and those who cater to their needs.

Sprawl is just another manifestation of the ability of people in a free society (or, in China’s case, grudgingly moving towards becoming free) to move where they wish to live as they wish.

Call it “voting with our feet.” I maintain that much of the sprawl that central-planning nannies so decry would not have occurred, or would have occurred much more slowly, if urban centers had not arrogantly assumed that they were the only game in town long after that ceased being the case.

All of Ohio’s major cities except Columbus have lost large percentages of their populations over a 40-plus year period for four reasons. The first, an innate desire in many not to be in an urban environment if they can manage it, explains why some out-migration would probably have happened regardless of how well the cities were run. But the other three reasons accelerated the trend. Those reasons are high crime, poor schools, and high taxes. Many of the same people who deplore sprawl are in the same camp as those who resist meaningful attempts to crack down on crime, reform underperforming schools, reduce taxes, or control city spending. To the extent that this is true, these critics forfeit the right to credibly complain about the “evils” of sprawl.

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5 Comments

  1. In our own time, Mr. Bruegmann observes, much of the anti-sprawl venom comes not from the working class or middle class but from well-heeled urbanites with expensive apartments in Georgetown and Beacon Hill or on Central Park. Many such critics — just think of John Kerry or Al Gore — also own spacious country estates and naturally are not happy about exurban developers luring the masses too close to their weekend idylls.

    Hey that’s not true. Not all of we well-heeled urbanites from Beacon Hill own country estates.

    Comment by Kevin Irwin — December 12, 2005 @ 12:27 pm

  2. #1, does that mean your anti-sprawl venom, if it exists, is OK? :–>

    Comment by TBlumer — December 12, 2005 @ 12:33 pm

  3. I wouldn’t say that I am anti-sprawl. I think it’s tacky, but to each his own.

    Comment by Kevin Irwin — December 12, 2005 @ 2:21 pm

  4. I can’t wait to get my hands on Bruegmann’s book. I read Joel Garreau’s “Edge City” and now I’m fascinated by the reality that is shaping at the fringes of our city. I’ve always believed that sprawl had a little bit to do with people’s natural inclinations to go out and be left alone. I wrote about Kotkin and the fallacy of urban design at my blog, if you’re interested.

    Comment by corbusier — December 14, 2005 @ 12:47 am

  5. #4 – Wow, you went to a lot of trouble.

    Urban planning has always had that element of control that I find annoying, and I don’t think I’m alone. That said, I don’t think you can turn around a decayed city without engaging in it, just not the way a typical (left-leaning elitist) urban planner would.

    I think this elitism is partially behind why Kelo went the way it did, and why certain people are thrilled to death (though for now, pretty quiet) about the ruling.

    Comment by TBlumer — December 14, 2005 @ 1:01 am

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