Is Inequality the Purview of City Government?

I haven’t paid an enormous amount of attention to Bill DeBlasio’s mayoral platform – although at some point I probably will – but his candidacy has had the pleasant effect of provoking a conversation about whether, and to what extent, city halls ought to grapple with economic and social inequality. Responses range from Yes, it’s about goddamn time, to No, that’s terrifying, to a sort of sickly cackle.

My position – in fact, the premise of this blog and of many, many hours of my time over the last few years – is that yes, local governance has an enormous amount to do with inequality. I would say there are at least four major ways, roughly in order of big-picture importance:

1. Housing policy. People who don’t believe that cities have a major role to play in the story of inequality tend to emphasize the national and global economic trends that brought us to this point, like offshoring and automatization, which they say can only really be effectively dealt with – to the extent they can be dealt with at all – by high-level policy organs. This is true, I guess. But the experience of poverty and the replication of poverty both heavily – HEAVILY – depend on where you live. Specifically, whether or not you live in a high-poverty neighborhood. Up and down the line – physical and mental health outcomes, educational outcomes, employment and income outcomes both in a single generation and over multiple generations – an enormous body of research shows that neighborhood effects are pretty massive. And income segregation has increased faster over the last 40 years than income inequality, meaning right now cities are actually exacerbating those global-trend-derived problems. A housing policy that promoted income integration would not only help to decouple miserable living conditions with being on the lower end of the income distribution, but also, most likely, improve social mobility.

2. Transportation policy. Places where public transit isn’t an option force low-income people to pay massively more for transportation than they would otherwise. The actual number is something on the order of $10,000 a year per household. Those people who truly cannot pay for a car – or choose not to because they would like to, say, buy their kids new clothes for school, or go to the doctor instead – end up incredibly isolated, both from the broader metropolitan society, and from necessary amenities like stores and jobs. The average American, willing to travel up to 90 minutes each way on public transit, can only reach 30% of all jobs in their metropolitan area. That’s a disaster if you need a job and can’t afford a car.

3. Education policy. The obvious one, but all the way down here because so much of what matters is wrapped up in housing policy. Segregated neighborhoods equal segregated schools, most of the time. Which equals major operational and pedagogical challenges, most of the time.

4. Constituent services. James Fallows wrote once that wealthy people live pretty well all around the world, and so the difference between a developed and developing country is in the quality of life of people who need some kind of direct support from the state. Something similar goes on with cities. If you are middle class, and have always been, you probably are not very upset by, say, the closure of public mental health clinics. If you are not middle class, and need mental health care, you’re devastated. (The situation is made worse, let’s point out, by lackluster transit access to the remaining clinics.) The public services cities provide are a real and important part of the safety net. Without them, more people fall to the point where it’s almost impossible to pick themselves back up, and mobility – at least upward mobility – suffers to some extent. City services are about more than just street-sweeping.

Gentrification in the Public Schools

This is an ovewhelmingly great essay in The Atlantic by Maria Bloomfield Cucchiara about the many problems with having middle-class and professional families move into previously segregated and poor public schools. I’m particuarly excited every time I see someone mention that Milliken v. Bradley is one of the most disastrous Supreme Court cases of the last 50 years.

But I’m worried that the title – “Cities Are Trying to Fix Their Schools by Luring the Middle Class: It Won’t Work” – isn’t cynical enough. What if, in fact, it works exactly as well as it needs to? The evidence suggests that when a committed group of middle-class parents integrate a public school, as long as there are enough other gentrifiers around to keep their numbers strong, test scores at that school skyrocket. Does it increase segregation? Does it fail to address the needs of schools not fortunate enough to be located in gentrified neighborhoods? So what?

Urban politicians have weathered the problem of school systems that fail the poor and non-white for many decades now. What has clearly animated them – and the sort of moneyed business class that holds a lot of influence with them – instead is the fact that a lack of decent public schools is chasing away middle-class parents who might otherwise live in the city. But in many places, we appear to have found the solution to that. Given a critical mass of middle class families in a given neighborhood, there’s a pretty clear path to gentrifying the local school – not easy, maybe, but it’s been done at least a dozen times in Chicago.

From the mayor’s perspective, the problem has, in fact, been “fixed.” But that’s because he’s not talking about the same problem that Bloomfield Cucchiara is.

A Market in Education

An incredible story from WBEZ about how the skyrocketing number of public high schools in Chicago – up 50% over the last decade – has left those with poor reputations struggling to maintain enrollment:

Roberto Clemente Community Academy in Humboldt Park is one of those. It’s an eight-story building. Until recently escalators carried 1,800 kids from floor to floor. There are just 130 freshmen enrolled today. Another 473 freshmen live in the area but go to high school somewhere else. In fact, the Noble Street network of charter schools, with its various campuses, enrolls more students from Clemente’s attendance area than Clemente.

On the one hand, whatever you think about it, this is exactly what the charter folks said would happen: under competition, weak schools would shrivel and die. The only question from the reform perspective is whether or not the dying schools are actually weaker in their academic and social support for students than the ones that are “winning.”


I saw that hashtag in the headline of a DNAinfo story and got excited. Maybe truth in crime reporting was going viral! But no.

You won’t hear Lakeview’s top cop talk statistics at community meetings anymore — even if numbers suggest that crime is down from the year before in the neighborhood…. At a heated August policing meeting, residents both decried the statistics showing crime was too high — a beat in Lakeview led the city in robberies — and questioned whether the official data could be believed…. The [Lakeview] blog [Crime in Wrigleyville and Boystown] has taken on a popular hashtag, #crimeisdown, to express frustration.

So some group of Lakeview residents have taken a factual statement and turned it into a slogan for a bizarre form of trutherism, and then whipped up enough fear around that (again, factual, even though it is meant to be ironic) slogan to bully their local police contacts into tiptoeing around the fact that this supposedly ironic slogan is, in fact, non-ironically accurate, because to do otherwise would be too upsetting for those residents. This is hyperlocal news by Orwell.

There is the mandatory caveat that, of course, it is very possible to use statistics to callously dismiss the victims of crime. Individual experiences matter, obviously, even in the context of an overall crime decline. It’s even possible that some police officers at earlier Lakeview meetings were callous in exactly that way; I don’t know, because I didn’t attend them. If that’s the case, then shame on them.

But sometimes I think there is the opposite problem, which is people thinking that statistics have nothing to do with individual experiences. In fact, the “statistics” at issue are simply the result of counting how many people have been victimized by crime. There is no fancy manipulation. If the statistics go down, that means fewer people have been made victims. That means that you, personally, might be one of the people who weren’t robbed, or broken into, or shot. It’s impossible to prove that a given individual is the one who escaped that fate, of course; but it is a fact that had Chicago’s murder rate held steady over the past 20 years, for example, many thousands of people who are still alive would have suffered violent and tragic deaths. That is an amazing and wonderful thing.

The Lakeview residents quoted seem to think that the official statistics greatly undercount the real number of victims; it’s almost certainly true that the police numbers are at least somewhat low, since not every victim reports their crime to the police. But there’s absolutely no evidence that I’ve heard of that would suggest this problem has been getting bigger, and certainly not so much bigger that it would offset the truly enormous declines in assaults and robberies the city has seen over the last two decades. There’s also no reason to believe, as far as I can tell, that this problem would be especially severe in Lakeview as opposed to elsewhere in the city. In fact, I would tend to think that the residents of Lakeview would be much more likely to report a crime than in one of Chicago’s many non-white neighborhoods, where relations with the police are considerably more fraught. That means that the official statistics, if anything, probably understate how safe places like Lakeview are compared to the rest of the city.

As for the fact that, in the second quarter of 2013, the beat that encompasses the Southport and Halsted bar scenes in Lakeview had the highest number of robberies in the city – well, yes, that’s true. And maybe that suggests there ought to be some extra police presence there. But it also seems likely that the number of robberies in that precinct has something to do with it being one of the premier night-life areas in the entire city. That means that 1) there are a huge number of people there, several nights a week, which raises the total population and therefore should raise the total number of crimes, and 2) there are a huge number of people stumbling around drunk late at night, probably with cash, which is checking pretty much every box you need to increase your chance of being robbed. Not, of course, that you shouldn’t be able to feel safe at any time, anywhere, but the reality of pretty much every big city in the U.S. is that lots of drunk people with money late at night = some increased number of muggings. My guess is that if you are a non-drunk person, not spending a lot of time walking around by  yourself very late at night, Lakeview is an incredibly safe place to be.

In fact, I don’t have to guess: Looking at the incident log at the Chicago Data Portal, I can confirm that, for example, of the 22 robberies committed in this beat during the second quarter of 2013, exactly three happened between 5 am and midnight. Three. That means 19, the overwhelming majority, happened at some time between midnight and five in the morning.

The other thing I’d like to say about all this is it indicates one problem with conventional approaches to “democratic” community interaction with local government. If the police hold a community meeting, by definition the people who show up are going to be the people who are most alarmed about crime. In some parts of the city, that’s fine, because they actually have serious crime problems by almost any metric, and I think most residents – even those who appreciate the many other positive things about their community – would agree. In Lakeview, though, this dynamic can lead to some pretty skewed demands. An unscientific survey of friends who live in/frequent Lakeview suggests that very few of them consider that neighborhood particularly dangerous. In fact, most of them say they appreciate how safe it is. But these meetings are full of angry people shouting about how terrible crime is. If you’re a public official or community leader at that meeting, how do you respond to that?

“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.

“Sprawl, A Compact History”: The Liveblog, part 2

So after the last installment, I actually raced through the next 80 pages or so in two days, and my brain was overflowing with things to say about them, but life has a frustrating way of proving that the things you are excited about doing are, as the government shutdown managers would put it, non-essential.

But here we go. I’m now halfway through the book, and have finished all of Part 1, Bruegmann’s history of sprawl, which is a nice place to stop and reflect before going on to new themes.

These last 80 pages largely pick up where the Introduction and beginning chapters left off, which is assembling the evidence that sprawl is a normal (in the sense that it has occurred in every era of human history, and in nearly every civilization), and healthy, process for economically maturing cities to go through, and that most of the received wisdom in urbanist circles is either exaggerated or entirely false.

It’s an odd and frustrating read, alternating between important and incisive critiques of anti-sprawl motifs – usually cultural or aesthetic – and factual claims that it’s hard to believe the author believes accurately represent reality. It feels a bit too often like the presentation is being shoehorned into the thesis, and there are a few moments when the author sort of winks at the reader – so fast you could miss it if you weren’t looking – to indicate that he knows he’s not being entirely fair. More on that next time. This time, just a few notes on Bruegmann’s “history of sprawl,” which takes up the rest of Part 1.

  • Bruegmann tries to take on the popular urbanist narratives about the causes of urban sprawl; I guess it’s worth reminding people about the big picture, or part of it, which is just economic growth: People consume more resources (i.e., a car, a detached house) because they can. For most people, making the jump to a single family home and their own car is a triumph. B. is right that urbanists who don’t want to be assholes shouldn’t sneer at that, whether or not those are the material things they happen to prize most.
  • But we need to be careful about writing things like: “Another common explanation of…the rise of sprawl is that it was caused by white flight fueled by racism. Although no one would deny that race has played a key role in many aspects of American life, it is significant that urban areas with small minority populations like Minneapolis have sprawled in much the same way as urban areas with large urban areas like Chicago.” First, it is unfortunately characteristic for Bruegmann to dismiss the entire history of race-based urban policy with the single clause quoted here. (This is the sort of wink that suggests B. actually knows the immensity of what he is omitting, but it is not fair to assume that all of his readers do.) Second, this book’s perpetually loose definition of “sprawl” is doing an awful lot of work here. It is certainly true that the growth of suburban-style communities did not anywhere depend on racial animosity. But it’s also true that the counterpoint to the growth of those communities – that is, the collapse of inner-city communities – is highly correlated with racial politics. The parts of inner-city America that have had catastrophic population declines are, in fact, largely those neighborhoods that became segregated black ghettoes during the first or second Great Migrations. Given that Bruegmann has taken pains elsewhere to point out that suburban sprawl has had effects on urban neighborhoods, it’s curious he doesn’t feel the need to make that point here.
  • About claims that government policies – redlining, highway construction, zoning, and so on – have furthered sprawl, Bruegmann says: “None of these arguments are very convincing.” But he brings up arguments about transportation spending and highways during his discussion of federal influence, and dismisses them by pointing out that state and local governments had plans to build even before federal money came; then when he gets around to talking about state and local influence, he forgets (?) to bring the subject up again.
  • Bruegmann claims that “the self-amortizing mortgage…could have benefited any homeowner, whether in the central city or suburbs,” before admitting only a few lines later that in practice, banks refused to lend to “poor and racially changing neighborhoods,” and then justifying it by claiming that “a great deal of evidence [indicates] that property values did tend to drop as neighborhoods got older and experienced ethnic or racial turnover.” Well, yes. But why did those prices decline? Because in the context of mid-20th century America, a “changing” neighborhood meant a place that, in a matter of a few years, would be an all-black ghetto deprived of capital and given inferior city services. Because of, you know, racism. And, in fact, nearly the entire central cities of many American metropolises were redlined on those grounds during that period, up through the 1960s. How exactly does this jive with the claim that race played little role in the decline of urban areas?
  • Staying on the subject of government influence, what is with the admission – again, given a single sentence – that “in city after city across the country, old zoning codes have been downzoned time and again to reduce the ultimate possible population and prevent existing densities from rising”? Should that not maybe come up when we use changing population patterns as the evidence for people’s “preference” for sprawl? If cities have capped their populations, that would seem like a relevant confounding variable.
  • The book continues to suffer from not considering the idea – which is not exactly obscure – that car-dependence is a line, maybe the only one, that very clearly divides one type of development from another. As a result, a lot of arguments get confused. For example, at one points he claims that cars can’t possibly cause sprawl, because “the Los Angeles region has become dramatically denser since the 1950s in an era when the vast majority of people have relied on the private automobile.” It’s true that there isn’t any linear relationship between car-reliance and low population density (look at Houston); but that doesn’t mean cars are irrelevant. There is absolutely an upper limit to the density at which cars can function in any kind of efficient manner, and designing for maximum car efficiency almost always makes it much more difficult to design for efficiency or safety for pedestrians and public transit users. There is absolutely a trade-off involved, and one that has very serious consequences for the low-income and anyone else who can’t or doesn’t want to drive; but Bruegmann’s resort to population density as the ultimate arbiter of sprawl in this case papers that over.
  • Later, apparently deciding that cars are a good proxy for sprawl – this sort of goalpost-moving, depending on what point needs to be made, is annoyingly common – Bruegmann argues that the advent of personal automobiles is a good thing, since it improves mobility and “allowed a dramatic expansion of educational and employment opportunities.” Maybe. But why doesn’t he even mention the difference between mobility (how much physical ground you can cover) and access (how many resources you can get to)? Cars absolutely improve mobility, but highly car-dependent development tends to work against access, since residential, institutional and commercial uses are separated and you have to cover much more physical ground to get to them than you do in an urban area where the pharmacy, grocery store and neighborhood school are all within half a mile of your house. The costs of car-based mobility are also radically higher than any other form of urban transportation, which reduces access to anything that requires the money you just spent on insurance and gas. And none of this applies to people who can’t or choose not to drive because of their age, disability, or income level, whose access and mobility are dramatically cut down by car-dependent development. That’s how you get a situation where the average low-income person in the Chicago metro area can only get to 14% of the region’s jobs within a 90 minute public transit commute.

I don’t mean to be quite so relentlessly negative; this is still a book worth reading, especially if you feel yourself nodding along with most of my criticisms, because it forces you to consider which of your feelings are cultural prejudices, and which are actually linked to some non-aesthetic conception of the good. I’m generally on board with the American liberal idea that the freer people are to choose how they want to live their lives, the better, and my own ideas about the good life shouldn’t matter in those calculations. It’s worth remembering, if you feel the same way, that suburbanization, broadly speaking, enormously increased the average person’s choices about how to live. But it’s also worth remembering – if you find yourself nodding along more often with Sprawl – that car-dependent development has had a dramatically shrunk the options available to many other people. The way forward, I think – and so far I’m disappointed that Bruegmann hasn’t moved this direction – is to acknowledge that the argument should not be between urban elitists and defenders of the status quo. It should be about finding the policies that best allow people to live their lives the way they want. Ultimately, single family homes and decent public transit access are not mutually exclusive. More on that in future installments.

An evilness still possesses this town and it continues to weigh down my heart.

Via the miracle that is link-hopping, I stumbled on a thirty-year-old essay by the late Leanita McClain last night. It was written in 1983, shortly after Harold Washington’s first election as mayor. It ought to have a place in the Chicago nonfiction canon, I think, next to books like Making the Second Ghetto and Boss, and Studs Terkel’s work. The only website I could find with the full essay is here. More about Leanita McClain here.

Bitter am I? That is mild. This affair has cemented my journalist’s acquired cynicism, robbing me of most of my innate black hope for true integration. It has made me sparkle as I reveled in the comradeship of blackness. It has banished me to nightmarish bouts of sullenness. It has made me weld on a mask, censor every word, rethink every thought. It has put a face on the evil that no one wants to acknowledge is within them. It has made me mistrust people, white and black. This battle has made me hate. And that hate does not discriminate.

Data Points for Glaeser, Krugman et al

On the train coming home from school today, I came across two headlines on my phone. Headline number one:

“The Great Growth Disconnect: Population Growth Does Not Equal Economic Growth,” at The Atlantic Cities. Upshot: There isn’t really any correlation between metro areas that are becoming richer and those that are becoming more populous. This goes against all sorts of economic theory and common sense and observed history, but is a pretty well-established recent trend, and also is actually a major contributor to the divergence of income across the country.

Headline number two:

“Development Watch: Lincoln Park,” on Curbed Chicago. Here we learn that a developer wants to build a six-story apartment building in the highly desirable neighborhood of Lincoln Park, just north of downtown Chicago, replacing a three-story building and increasing the total number of dwelling units on the property from 43 to 60. But the neighbors – whose annual income, if memory serves, is somewhere in the vicinity of twice the average of the Chicago metro area as a whole – don’t want to have six-story buildings around. And so probably the building will get downsized, and fewer people will get to live in one of the highest-quality-of-life neighborhoods in the city, meaning more people will have to choose between living in a less-desirable neighborhood, or not living in Chicago at all.

Most of us understand externalities, and the need to regulate them. We understand, for example, that a neighborhood’s right to determine its own development patterns does not include, say, building an industrial facility that dumps its toxic waste downriver. Why should it include preventing people who want to live there from living there, when there are national consequences to this kind of behavior if every such neighborhood engages in it?

Book Liveblog in Action

Not actually an update on Sprawl, although I have reams of notes to deliver at some point this week.

BUT: I was walking down Cottage Grove in Woodlawn today, heading to the Green Line, when I realized that I was literally passing through the middle of a very stark example of the sort of New Urbanist Urban Renewal that I wrote about last time. Specifically this:

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.

This is the west side of Cottage Grove, right around 62nd Street:

It’s a little hard to see – the light was pretty harsh – but this is Grove Parc Plaza, a 500-some unit public housing complex from the late 1970s. It used to run on both sides of Cottage Grove from 60th to 63rd, but now maybe a third of the project has been torn down. Directly across the street from these buildings is Woodlawn Center South, part of the mixed-income complex that’s replacing it:

Design-wise, Grove Parc Plaza is nothing stellar, although it doesn’t appear as cheaply built as some of the worst of the high-rise projects. In fact, it looks solid, if inelegant; certainly some new paint, a bit of landscaping, and maybe some added details around the windows and doors or a cornice would make the buildings more appealing. Woodlawn Center, on the other hand, is everything modern urban housing is supposed to be: a solid wall addressing the street, human-scaled but dense, bright, lots of windows.

Chicago Weekly, the University of Chicago newspaper, puts it this way: “Technically, the remnants of Grove Parc lie just across the street on 62nd and Cottage Grove, but it now looks so different next to these modern visions of subsidized housing that it might as well be in a completely different world. Shabby and brown, faded signs out front state the now defunct number of the housing manager’s office, a parking lot of cracked-up tar.”

Certainly, the complete reconstruction of this stretch of Cottage Grove makes it look more attractive – or, at least, more truly mixed-income, or, one more step away from euphemism, more middle-class – than it might appear if Grove Parc had just been rehabbed and marketed as mixed-income housing. But it’s also notable that the design excuse, the same one that was used to level huge parts of Bronzeville and other neighborhoods in Chicago and around the country, has the ancillary benefit to the city of removing all of the poor people who used to live there. Sure, the new buildings will also have low-income units. But the process of starting from a blank slate, of uprooting existing residents and physically demolishing their homes, obviously changes the sense of community ownership, and the fact that the CHA loses track of many of those residents before their new homes are ready can’t hurt, either.

It’s also the case that older buildings, in most neighborhoods, are the bread and butter of affordable housing in otherwise desirable areas: most people are willing to put up with floors that creak a bit, or smaller kitchens, in exchange for access to jobs, amenities, and education, if their budgets won’t let them have both. Destroying older buildings because they don’t fit the right design profile, then, reduces affordable housing even outside the context of subsidies.

So: New Urbanist Urban Renewal in action. I’d love to hear any other examples people can think of in comments.

“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.