Thursday, January 12, 2006

Review of Bruegmann's "Sprawl: A Compact History"

Bruegmann makes himself sound like a daring contrarian by saying that sprawl dates back at least to Roman times and is needed to get people out of dense, industrial cities. Actually, he is just playing with words by using "sprawl" to mean "suburb."

The term "suburban sprawl" was invented during the 1950s to describe post-war American suburbs, which were different from earlier suburbs in obvious ways. Sprawl was much lower density than earlier suburbs. Sprawl made it impossible for people to walk, because it was designed with a discontinuous street system (large arterial streets and local streets that are either indirect or cul-de-sacs). Sprawl is designed purely for the benefit of automobiles and ignores the pedestrian; no one wants to walk around a strip mall.

If Bruegmann contrasted sprawl with the streetcar suburbs that were popular in American cities before World War I, it would be obvious that the streetcar suburbs provide all the benefits of sprawl without many of the costs.

Streetcar suburbs let people get out of congested industrial cities to greener neighborhoods where they can own their own homes. They let people at every economic level live in the way that the elite used to live. They are at least as livable as sprawl.

But streetcar suburbs use only about one-third as much land as sprawl suburbs. They have continuous street systems that allow people to walk. They are designed for pedestrians as well as for cars, with shopping on walkable Main Streets instead of strip malls.

For the last twenty years, the New Urbanists have been building new suburbs that are like the old streetcar suburbs, claiming that they are more livable and less damaging to the environment than sprawl. This is one of the most important developments in urban design in recent times, and Bruegmann ignores it by assuming that suburb means the same thing as sprawl.

Bruegmann also makes the false claim that people move to sprawl suburbs as a matter of free choice.

In reality, the federal government has given most transportation funding to freeways over the last sixty years, so most Americans do not have the choice of living in transit-oriented neighborhoods.

In reality, also, most localities in the United States have zoning laws that require you to build sprawl. New Urbanists who have been trying to build modern versions of streetcar suburbs find that the zoning laws get in their way, that they have to go through endless hoops to build a suburb that is not sprawl. They have called for "zoning choice" to give developers the option of building sprawl or building streetcar suburbs -- and Wisconsin has enacted such a law.

Let's allow people real democratic choice -- including more transportation choice and the choice of living in suburbs that are not sprawl.

If people had this choice, and if they had to pay for the full costs (including the environmental costs) of the option they chose, then very few people would choose sprawl.


Blogger Philip Small said...

Welcome back.

8:41 PM  

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