“Sprawl, A Compact History”: The Liveblog, part 3

A more curated set of my reactions, because the point-by-point thing can get kind of tedious. This time we cover Bruegmann’s history of anti-sprawl campaigns.

The first is that I have made a certain peace with this book, having realized that what really animates Bruegmann, I think, is less the sort of policy questions that I take to be of major importance, and more a kind of cultural and aesthetic criticism about What We Talk About When We Talk About Sprawl, or thereabouts. And he’s on much more solid ground making those kinds of anti-elitist critiques about the use of the word “sprawl,” tying it to the history of elitist urban reform programs, disdain for the striving mass middle class, and all of that. Then again, there’s a certain amount of “well, yes”-ism, if you get my drift: I have the same thoughts about this as I had about other critiques of urbanism’s progressive cred, which is that the general rule is that basically all ideological and political projects are used by the governing class for their own aims, and pointing out that some particular project has been co-opted isn’t really that interesting or damning. Then again, there are clearly a number of people in the urbanist community for whom this would be news, that many things labeled “urbanist” are in fact very problematic. So okay.

I will say that making this sort of cultural criticism, especially if you are (as Bruegmann is) an academic in a rarified urban setting (Chicago), carries the risk of mistaking cultural power in upper-middle-class social circles for the only, or the most important, kind of power. That mistake seems to drive a lot of Sprawl. Time after time in this section, Bruegmann slips in – as if it were unimportant – that he actually comes down on the side of the anti-sprawlers on their most fundamental criticisms of postwar urban policy. “There are probably good reasons to provide more subsidies to some forms of public transportation in the United States today,” he says at one point. “A very good argument can be made that automobile owners should pay more to compensate for the costs to society associated with their driving,” he says at another point. Really? Then why write an entire book defending the status quo?

The answer, I think, is that Bruegmann and I have very different senses of what the status quo is. For Bruegmann, the status quo is the politically correct thought you would find at a professor’s dinner party in Chicago, or in an academic journal. It’s absolutely true that in those contexts, the anti-sprawl position is pretty hegemonic. Thinking within those contexts – and only those contexts – is the only way it makes sense to write something like, “By the middle of the 1990s the anti-sprawl forces had become quite powerful,” as he does.

Because from almost every other perspective – the laws that govern what development looks like, the policy positions of the vast majority of elected and unelected officials in the United States, the mainstream practices of the development industry – anti-sprawl forces were anemic in the 1990s, and are only somewhat less so today. For Bruegmann, looking at the leftist bons pensants, the country has gone too far in the anti-sprawl direction, and needs a counterweight; for me, looking at public policy and changes in the actual urban environment, we haven’t gone nearly far enough.

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