“Sprawl, A Compact History”: The Liveblog, part 1

Can one liveblog a book? Particularly a book that was published several years ago?

I’m motivated to try, anyway, because of the minor blogging fiasco (although even a regular-sized blogging fiasco, I think, is the smallest kind of fiasco that can exist) that became of Rethinking Federal Housing Policy by Glaeser and Gyourko, which was a fantastic book, and about which I’ve been meaning to write for a month. But I haven’t, and when this week I finally sat down to do it, I had forgotten half of what I wanted to say.

So this time we are being proactive.

So far I have only read about 10% of Sprawl, which comprises the Introduction and a few chapters on the history of sprawl up to World War One or so. So let me say up front that I am expecting some of the questions or objections I raise to be answered or ameliorated further on, in the 90% of the book I have not yet read.

But still: particularly the Introduction, I think, contains Bruegmann’s – the book is by Robert Bruegmann, a professor of history at the University of Illinois at Chicago – ideological narrative about what sprawl is, and how we should think and talk about it, and that is important on its own.

What’s immediately obvious after only a few pages is that a) Sprawl is delightfully iconoclastic in its appreciation for low-density environments, and b) Robert Bruegmann is very smart. This is not a New Geography piece about how urbanists hate children, or how feminists want to use cities to emasculate men. It has an agenda, but it pushes that agenda with a great deal of rigor and skill.

The best moment, I think, comes when Bruegmann writes that sprawl “is not so much an objective reality as a cultural concept,” like “blight” before it, and then goes on to draw a straight line between blight and sprawl, as the particular types of neighborhoods most disfavored by the elites of their time and place. Bruegmann isn’t the first person to notice that urbanists have a class problem, of course – there have been tomes written on new urbanist gentrification, and the socioeconomic politics of bike lanes, and so on – but vanishingly few popular urbanist writers so clearly establish the city as an environment that is inherently political, down to the most basic words we use to describe it, and which is purposefully shaped by the interests that compete over it. Interests which may be slightly more threatening than gallery owners or bicyclists.

I hope, in fact, that the few paragraphs that Bruegmann uses to set up those ideas are greatly expanded upon later; they raise an awful lot of questions. The juxtaposition of “sprawl” and “blight” is particularly provocative, especially for someone, like me, who has spent many hours reading about the truly horrific things that happened in the name of blight removal. Of course, the fact that the elite supports a particular idea doesn’t mean it has to be bad for the rest of society. Not only that, but the anti-sprawl crusade has a long way to go before it has the sort of monolithic elite support that anti-blighters enjoyed from, say, the 1930s to the 1960s. There are still many powerful interests – builders, real estate people, not to mention the millions of voters who live in low-density suburbs and the elected officials who are accountable to them – in favor of sprawl. Then again, the anti-blight movement also began with lefties and academics who, in the late 1800s, came up with theories about the pernicious effects of high-density living on health and morality, and whose appeals to the general public eventually won over. Clearly, the anti-sprawlers have already made huge inroads on that front since the 1980s; who’s to say what the ideological landscape will look like in another two decades?

The prospect of anti-sprawl as an anti-blight-style class war is even more troubling in light of the sort of Great Inversion-type demographic shifts going on between suburbs and inner cities. It is hard to imagine large, invasive, confiscatory government programs to retrofit the suburbs along urbanist lines as long as the residents affected are members of the middle class. It is much easier to imagine that happening to a relatively poor community in, say, an auto-dependent inner-ring suburb along a light rail line and in a potential path of gentrification. In a sense, that precedent has already been set in Chicago, with the demolition of public housing towers and their redevelopment as urbanist-style mixed-income housing. The diagnosis of the towers’ failure, after all, wasn’t just about the sin of segregating poor people from the rest of society; the popular narrative is that the form of the buildings themselves made it impossible for them to house decent communities.


Bad midcentury towers in parks

And so, just like the midcentury planners who bulldozed the ghettoes instead of rehabbing existing buildings because they thought the traditional urban form was inherently dysfunctional, Chicago scattered CHA residents and started over in a way that was more attractive to the middle-class and business interests. All this, while just a few miles away, private residential towers built at the same time and in the same form survive as thriving middle-income homes, in defiance of the theory that cities must look a certain way if they are to function.


Good midcentury towers in parks

I am less excited, so far, about Bruegmann’s dissembling about the definition of sprawl. It is one thing to note that the word is used in ways that are colored by class and cultural politics, and that there is not necessarily any obvious red line between what is popularly considered sprawl and what is not. True, streetcar suburbs that are today widely admired by urbanists would have been considered low-density a hundred years ago; true, one person’s comfortable urbanity is another person’s suburban hell.

But it’s an entirely different thing to claim, as the Introduction seems to do, that there is no obvious or important difference between the suburbs produced over the last fifty years and the ones that sprouted up outside gated cities during the Roman Empire or along commuter rail lines in Europe and North America in the 19th century. From all of the perspectives that I take to be the most common and serious urbanist critiques – that is, roughly in descending order according to how much I care, economic justice, environmentalism, public safety, social interaction, and aesthetics – there is a major break that occurs when all local travel must happen by car. That is the point at which lower-income people must choose between an untenable financial burden or a loss of access to jobs, stores, and cultural amenities; when the greenhouse gases produced per household can rise most quickly; when streets become designed so that they are dangerous for anyone not encased in a metal shell; when the sort of spontaneous or casual social interactions that are common in public spaces in cities become much more rare; and when most visual charm usually evaporates. (Making local travel by car mandatory, by the way, also makes non-car long-distance travel incredibly difficult, since it requires sufficiently low densities that the number of people within reasonable distance of any given commuter rail station will be very low. This is part of why commuter rail lines built into car-dependent neighborhoods have generally been such miserable failures.) And until roughly World War Two, those types of communities were vanishingly rare. The invention of the railroad, of course, allowed people to live in suburbs where non-local travel – to downtown, say, or far-off factories – couldn’t be done by foot, and developments in the early automobile era were also planned so that people might drive to a distant central business district. But walking to accomplish local travel – to the nearest school, grocery store, shopping district – was still possible, or even preferred. That’s why in the older suburbs of Chicago or other Northern cities, you often have commuter rail stations every half-mile, so that almost everyone could be within walking distance. That’s why in the older car-based suburbs – here I’m thinking of some place like Dempster Street in Skokie – you have sidewalks, and a street grid, and stores placed behind only very small parking lots, if any.

Dempster: A wide road for fast driving, plus sidewalks, stores reasonably close to the street, and a surrounding neighborhood with single family homes sufficiently dense that a good number of people can walk to these stores.

The failure to make that distinction – that of local walkability – infects several other aspects of his argument. Take, for example, this passage:

Gentrification and sprawl at the edge have been flipsides of the same coin. In a typically paradoxical situation, no matter how much the new, more affluent residents profess to like the “gritty” urban character of the place, so different in their minds from the subdivisions of the far suburbs, what makes the neighborhood attractive today are less the things that are actually traditionally urban but those that are not. The most important of these are sharply lowered population densities, fewer poor residents, less manufacturing activity, and the things that the Lower East Side finally shares with the suburbs: reliable plumbing, supermarkets with good produce, and a substantial cohort of middle-class residents.

This is right, as far as it goes, and in fact dovetails very nicely with what I’ve written before about most people wanting, above all, safe neighborhoods with access to jobs and amenities and decent schools. Here, Bruegmann suggests, correctly, that there is no reason that those things are the natural domain of the suburbs. Whether or not it makes sense to say that urban neighborhoods that have acquired those characteristics have “suburbanized,” it does make sense to point out that having those characteristics is a prerequisite for any place that aspires to house middle-class people, regardless of its urban form.

But if all that’s attractive about these inner-city neighborhoods is their “suburban” qualities, why do people pay such a premium to live in them, not only in American cities like New York or San Francisco, but in central cities around the world? What is the extra desirable quality? All the evidence suggests that it’s the massive access to jobs and amenities which, for the most part, can only exist in cities dense enough that having all local travel done by car is logistically impossible.

Or take this line:

Using the most commonly accepted and objective characteristics attributed to sprawl – that is involves low-density, scattered development with little overarching regional land-use planning – I try to show that…our understanding of urban development is woefully out of date because it is based on old and obsolete assumptions about cities, suburbs, and rural areas. In fact, I argue that many of the problems that are usually blamed on sprawl – traffic congestion, for example – are, if anything, the result of the slowing of sprawl and increasing density in urban areas.

If we don’t believe that sprawl has a real definition – or if we use a mushy one like “low-density,” which Bruegmann spends pages correctly accusing of being a massively subjective and relative descriptor – then I guess this makes sense. If suburbs are densifying, then that must mean that the problems associated with “sprawl” should be declining, right?

But if we realize that the actual issue, again, is the requirement to use a car for all local transportation, then this makes much less sense. Of course, given how much space cars take up, denser car-dependent cities will have worse traffic than less-dense ones. And, I mean, consider the alternative: if cities avoid traffic congestion by making all neighborhoods sufficiently low-density that all travel can be done by car without traffic jams, then you would have to travel quite far to actually get to anything. Which means that either 1) you won’t avoid traffic jams after all, because the number of miles driven per person will rapidly increase as development spreads further and further away from job and amenity centers, or 2) people will only be able to access the jobs and amenities that are very close to them. In other words, they won’t do any non-local travel at all. And that would defeat the entire purpose of living in a big city.

All of this said, I am more excited about reading Sprawl than I have been about any other urban policy book for quite some time. It’s an extremely smart analysis of the issue from a perspective that is woefully underrepresented in contemporary conversation. I’m very much looking forward to writing up the next installment.


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