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Sprawl: It isn’t new — and it isn’t all bad

Editor’s Note: Robert Bruegmann will deliver a lecture titled “Sprawl and Its Enemies” Thursday at 4 p.m. at the University of Minnesota’s Institute for Advanced Study. The event, part of the institute’s “Thursday at Four” series, is open to the public; it will take place in Room 125, Nolte Center for Continuing Education.

By the end of the 20th century a large percentage of citizens in the affluent world had come to believe that sprawl was a bad thing and needed to be stopped.

They believed that it was economically inefficient, socially inequitable, environmentally damaging and aesthetically ugly. They also believed that it was recent and peculiarly American, the result of extensive automobile usage, the logic of the private market and some poor public policies. If this were the case, they thought, it ought to be relatively easy to turn matters around with better policies that would stop sprawl and end the problems that it caused. And in many places they have put in place an entire arsenal of measures to do just that.

Unfortunately, things haven’t worked out the way the anti-sprawl crusaders had expected. As I explained in my 2005 book, “Sprawl: A Compact History,” very few of these policies actually did stop sprawl. In fact, in many cases they seem to have produced unintended consequences worse than the problems of the sprawl itself. This was not surprising, I argued, given that many of the most basic assumptions about sprawl are either incomplete or just plain wrong.

Sprawl, I attempted to show, was not recent, particularly American or caused by the automobile. If we take the most basic definition of sprawl, that it is growth at the periphery of urban areas at constantly lower densities and without any overarching master plan, then sprawl is as old as cities themselves. It was very visible in the extensive suburbs and exurbs of ancient Rome, for example, or London in the 19th century.

Space, light, air and freedom

The reasons for this sprawl are easy to find. Cities throughout most of history were congested, polluted and unhealthy places to live. As soon as a new group of people became affluent enough to do so, they tended to move out from the central city, creating either full-time or temporary houses at the urban periphery where they could enjoy more space, light, air and freedom of movement than they could in dense city centers. Sprawl has provided great benefits to millions of urban dwellers over many centuries.

This movement of people sped up dramatically in the modern era as more and more people became affluent and new modes of transportation created greater mobility. In the 19th century, for example, London, the largest and most affluent city in the world, exploded outward, converting hundreds of square miles of surrounding countryside into brick row houses for a burgeoning middle- and even working-class population. All this happened, of course, decades before the automobile. What made it possible was that remarkable new innovation in transportation technology, the steam railroad.

For the inhabitants of these row houses, this was an enormous step upward. It gave them, at a relatively low cost, some of the privacy, mobility and choice that were once only available to the wealthiest urban dwellers. For many great landowners, artists and intellectuals, on the other hand, this was a complete tragedy. They saw it as the ruination of the beautiful British countryside, replaced by what they considered to be ugly, monotonous brick boxes, created by greedy developers out to wrest the last penny from every square inch of land. They confidently predicted that it would all become a slum within a generation.

Of course, within a generation, new members of that same elite group had changed their mind. Those row houses weren’t so bad, they thought. In fact, they were soon seen as the essence of central London, something different in kind from the sprawl then going on at the urban periphery.

More sprawl, more outcry
And so it went for nearly a century as affluence spread and more people tried to take advantage of the benefits of lower-density living at the urban periphery. The greater the sprawl, the louder the outcry and the more fierce the attempts to stop it.

In the 1920s, as the outward movement reached unprecedented proportions around London, the great landowners and various urban professional groups that had always opposed the move of middle- and working-class people into the suburbs, waged a particularly successful campaign to stop urban spread, in the process coining the term “sprawl” as a noun with the meaning we now recognize.

The great moment for this group occurred immediately after World War II when, responding to the challenge of rebuilding after the war, the British government took the draconian step of nationalizing all development rights and giving government planners enormous power to regulate growth, specifically to rein in urban sprawl by creating green belts around all British cities. After more than 50 years it is now possible to assess the consequences.

The green belt still surrounds London and other British cities, something that many people consider an aesthetic triumph. However, this did not stop the sprawl. In the case of London, for example, development soon jumped over the green belt, leading to the urbanization of much of the southeast of England. The sprawl extends further and the commutes are probably longer than they would have been with no policy in place at all. Also, at least in part because of the restrictions on development, house prices are now the highest in Europe for houses that are, on average, substantially smaller and older than elsewhere. Similar results have been seen everywhere that these kinds of anti-sprawl measures have been used.

Growing recognition of consequences

It has been particularly interesting to me to watch what has happened since my book appeared. Although anti-sprawl measures continue to be popular in many places around the world, there has also been a growing recognition of the unintended negative consequences of these policies, particularly in the case of the unprecedented spike in housing prices in the most heavily regulated urban areas. 

Affordability has declined dramatically in cities like London, Hong Kong, Los Angeles, Vancouver and Perth,  while urban areas like Houston or Atlanta — which are at least as dynamic economically but have resisted the calls for anti-sprawl measures — remain relatively affordable. And the assumption that sprawl is inherently bad has been replaced, at least in the world of people seriously interested in the topic, by an energetic “sprawl debate.”

Robert Bruegmann is a professor of art history, architecture and urban planning at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “Sprawl: A Compact History” was published by the University of Chicago Press. 

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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 04/03/2008 - 10:28 am.

    A couple of points:

    1. The kind of sprawl that cities experienced in the past was not automobile dependent. In sprawling cities like London or Tokyo, you can drive if you wish, but there are also extensive transit systems stretching far out into the suburbs, so owning a car is an option, not a requirement, as it is in most sprawling American cities. In addition, the suburbs of both London and Tokyo remain extremely pedestrian friendly. I stayed with a friend in a relatively new outer exurb of Tokyo once, one that actually had American-style houses on individual lots, and the majority of the “traffic” was people walking or cycling to the commuter train station or to the stores that surrounded it.

    2. The “affordability” of sprawl cities diminishes when the cost of owning a car is factored in. Running my hand-me-down used car costs $3,000 a year, although I live in a convenient urban neighborhood, work from home, and rarely drive, and would cost vastly more if I had car payments and a long commute, and, like many suburban households, had two or three cars. Think of how much more house a person could afford with one less car.

    3. The cities with high housing costs having high costs because people want to live there. If you want to see some of the lowest housing costs in the country, go to impoverished Rust Belt cities, sprawled or not, where the main industries have shut down. In fact, with Dell Computer cutting 80,000 jobs, Austin, Texas, may become really, really affordable. And since when is Los Angeles a “non sprawl” city? The metropolitan area is something like 50 miles in each direction, isn’t it?

  2. Submitted by Tony Wagner on 04/03/2008 - 02:05 pm.

    In addition to Karen’s points, it’s curious that the author characterizes recent “anti-sprawl measures” as artificial and unnatural, yet he seemingly ignores the wealth of “pro-sprawl measures” that have been enacted over the years. It’s not as if the post-WWII suburban sprawl boom occurred without any government help. In fact, off of the top of my head, I can think of far more government measures that have encouraged sprawl in the past century (greater interstate funding, suburban zoning, etc.) than specific measures to counter it.

    Some of his impressions of sprawl may well be on the mark, but his data and reasoning seem about as biased as that of the “anti-sprawl” crowd he criticizes.
    And both of these sides contribute about as much to the “sprawl debate” as CNN’s “Crossfire” contributes to public policy.

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