June 24 2013

Sprawl: Taking the Other Side of the Suburbia Argument

Sprawl: A Compact History

If you are interested in hearing the ‘other’ side’s point of view on suburbia and the concept of sprawl, I recommend Robert Bruegmann’s book – Sprawl: A Compact History (The University of Chicago Press, 2005). Sprawl is a proponent of the concept of sprawl and the suburban lifestyle. Bruegmann argues that sprawl (defined below,) is a “logical consequence of economic growth and the democratization of society.” The book is divided into three parts: definition and history, battles against sprawl, and remedies for sprawl. The history covers Buregmann’s view on the earliest forms of sprawl, from Rome to England, Paris, and the United States, as well as sprawl patterns during and after the World Wars. He concludes his historical examination with more recent sprawl trends since the 1970s and the overall causes of sprawl Bruegmann believes emanate from its history. Part 2 of the book focuses on the campaigns against sprawl, divided up into pre-twentieth century, the British push in the 1920s, the United States after WWII, and from the 1970s until the present. Bruegmann finishes with the ‘prescriptions’ used throughout the history of sprawl. Overall, one could say he uses Sprawl to prove the concept of urban sprawl has deep roots in history as a well-reasoned, organic approach to growth over time.

First off, Bruegmann questions the definition of sprawl. His definition is “low density, scattered urban development without systematic large-scale or regional public land-use planning,” (18). Bruegmann was correct in questioning the definition of sprawl, but was his own definition correct? Secondly, Bruegmann uses statistics and examples to his advantage. In one sense, the limiting of statistics and case studies makes sense; the length of the book would be doubled if it were to be completely thorough on the topic of sprawl. At the same time, ignoring some examples, mostly the more complex environmental concerns, that mostly pertain to the critics of sprawl makes for an incomplete argument.

The biggest problem with Sprawl is the ‘okay’ on suburbs as long as they become denser than they originally were. For example, Bruegmann cites Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and Phoenix as cities that have become denser over time, and therefore refuting that they are sprawling suburbs. He looks at them as developing cities. He seems to not understand that the most densely populated area in the US is in part that way because of the massive land area, which Bruegmann himself calls “an extremely large area.” When looking at the actual city boundaries, not the urbanized area boundaries, New York is most definitely denser than Los Angeles (Map 3.)

New York City is 4x denser than Los Angeles. Sprawl: A Compact History

New York City is 4x denser than Los Angeles

Maybe this argument stems before the definition of sprawl and actually from the definitions of urban and rural. The US Census Bureau defines ‘urbanized areas’ as 50,000+ people, whereas ‘rural’ is anything not included in an urban area. Bruegmann took an interesting look at the newer cities of the west, but ignored actual city boundaries for favor of ‘urbanized areas,’ which in my eyes, is sprawl.

In all honesty, I respect Sprawl for the research and time Robert Bruegmann put into the writing of it. (Maybe partly the acknowledgement of Alexander Garvin’s understanding of cities.) An avid reader of books and all viewpoints (well, I try), myself, I value the perspective of  those in opposition with the societal norm: those ideas promote societal advancement much of the time. Great ideas and discoveries do not always have the welcoming of society’s open arms, and some ideas and conclusions take years for acceptance. (Possibly how sprawl was looked at as a great idea in the late 20th century?) With that said, I am not convinced of Bruegmann’s point of view in Sprawl; there was not enough evidence against the environmental harms of sprawl, nor enough statistics to prove what Bruegmann was advocating. I still view suburban sprawl as inefficient and unsustainable.

What side of the sprawl argument are you on?

Sprawl: A Compact History is available online via The University of Chicago Press and Amazon. For more information on Robert Bruegmann, visit his website.

The Grid is giving away four copies of Sprawl: A Compact History. If you would like to enter to win your copy, please enter here: Rafflecopter giveaway.

Credits: All quotes and images from Sprawl: A Compact History, unless otherwise noted.

Katie Poppel

Katie Poppel comes to The Grid as a student constantly on the go. Set to graduate from the University of Cincinnati in 2014, she is studying for a bachelor of urban planning with focuses in urban design and sustainability. Her program has allowed her to work for the City of Chicago and the Congress for New Urbanism this past year, as well as study abroad at the University of Amsterdam, College of Social Sciences. In her free time, you can find her exploring cities, playing soccer, or skiing. She has a serious case of wanderlust and enjoys the rush of cities over the countryside. Katie writes from Colorado, as she interns for the small town of Buena Vista south of Denver.

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This entry was posted on Monday, June 24th, 2013 at 9:16 am and is filed under Environment, Environmental Design, History/Preservation, Housing, Land Use, Urban Planning and Design. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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2 Responses to “Sprawl: Taking the Other Side of the Suburbia Argument”

  1. Steven Boxall, Regeneration X Says:

    Remember that UK suburbs are quite different from USA ones – too often this is ignored by theorists
    (in the UK),and I think that too often the UK’s suburbs are denegrated when they are not actually ignored by urbanists.

  2. Brighton Says:

    You may appreciate the humor in this webseries. It’s the opposite of Portlandia, based in Portland’s northern suburb Vancouver Washington.

    The Dream of the Suburbs is Alive in Vancouver!

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