Saturday, March 18, 2006

Damn the planners, full sprawl ahead!

As some people like to say, Americans are an anti-intellectual lot. It seems that view is confirmed by our penchant for bursting out of the caged confines of intellectually approved and designed living spaces otherwise known as cities, and plopping down wherever we damn well please. Why the intellectuals complain about, and why the rest of us approve of the resulting unplanned chaotic landscape known as sprawl is the topic of this review by Vincent Cannato of Robert Bruegmann's book "Sprawl: a Compact History".

What is sprawl? Bruegmann, a professor of art history and architecture at the University of Illinois at Chicago, defines it as "low-density, scattered, urban development without systematic large-scale or regional public land-use planning."

Critics charge sprawl with all manner of sin: causing global warming, pollution, and the depletion of natural resources, aiding the nation's so-called obesity crisis, increasing economic and racial inequality, destroying the family farm, and despoiling open spaces, killing off American cities, encouraging "big-box" retailers like Wal-Mart who underpay their workers and kill "mom-and-pop" businesses, and creating conformist communities whose residents neglect the public interest for their own personal "privatopia." On top of that, they argue, suburban sprawl is just plain ugly.

The ideology of the anti-sprawl camp is easy to pare down to basics. Cars and roads are bad, public transportation is good. Low-density development is bad, high density is good. Local government is bad. Regional or metropolitan government is good. Private, "unplanned" development driven by the market is bad. Planned development according to the dreams of urban planners is good. Cities are the apex of American civilization and society. Suburbs and exurbs are drab, conformist, and politically reactionary.

Sprawl: A Compact History tugs at nearly every aspect of the anti-sprawl critique and finds many of the theories wanting. Bruegmann also places the issue within the larger historical context. He attempts to show that dispersal from high-density core areas to low-density outer areas is a phenomenon common not just to modern America, but also ancient Rome and 19th-century England. He also argues that sprawl is not simply a phenomenon found in free-market-mad America, but also in more "noble" societies like Europe, Canada, and South America.
So what really lies behind the arguments against sprawl? Bruegmann seems to pinpoint the issue. Although suburban sprawl, like any other social or economic trend, creates it own set of issues, "the driving force behind the complaints at any period seems to have been a set of class-based aesthetic and metaphysical assumptions, almost always present but rarely discussed."

Although the current sprawl debate dates back to the mid-1990s, it's really a much older story. The crusade against sprawl is merely the latest saga of the battle against suburbia that began in the 1920s, blossomed in postwar America, and continues with today's jeremiads against sprawl.

It was not until after World War II that suburbia became a mass phenomenon. Thanks to a booming economy, lower down payments, and the Federal Housing Administration and GI Bill, even working-class Americans could afford a suburban home. And that seems to have set off much of the criticism. Lewis Mumford captured the feeling when he wrote that suburbia was not much of a problem when it "served only a favored minority . . . But now that the drift to the outer ring has become a mass movement, it tends to destroy the value of both environments without producing anything but a dreary substitute, devoid of form and even more devoid of the original suburban values."

John Keats published his famous satire of suburbia in 1956 called The Crack in the Picture Window, featuring suburban residents John and Mary Drone. And when counterculture icon and self-styled man of the people Pete Seeger sang about working-class suburban housing, they were "little boxes of ticky tacky."

So much for the "people."
Just a few of the conclusions that Bruegmann makes about sprawl are: commuting times nationwide have not increased dramatically; Los Angeles, often seen as the epitome of sprawl, is actually one of the densest cities in America; densities in most American cities have either leveled off or are increasing; and automobile use in mass-transit-friendly Europe is quickly catching up to American levels.

Bruegmann reminds us that, for years, planners and reformers complained not of low-density sprawl, but of high-density urban settlements. These overcrowded city neighborhoods were seen as incubators of disease, crime, and poverty by progressive reformers. It is no wonder most residents of these areas left for greener and more spacious pastures.

Bruegmann is also skeptical of the conventional wisdom among historians that federal policies, like the FHA, interstate highway system, and federal homeowner tax deduction, helped favor suburbs over cities. He also downplays racism as a factor, noting that black city residents have been just as interested in moving to the suburbs as their white counterparts. In fact, today, immigrant melting pots are more often found in suburbs and exurbs than in big cities. (I recently visited a strip mall in Rockville, Maryland, a classic sprawl community, where a halal meat shop was next to a flower store owned by Indians and across the street from a Peruvian chicken restaurant.)
While some critics of sprawl are residents of areas affected by such growth, most of the intellectual and policy critiques are driven by other reasons. The anti suburb and anti-sprawl literature betrays a growing alienation of some of the New Class from modern American society, as it continually bumps up against reality. "Within the past several decades, many of the people who still think of themselves as progressive have turned pessimistic," Bruegmann writes, "and have concluded that things have actually gotten worse rather than better." As a result, they want to limit growth (actual and economic) and wax nostalgic for an older way of life.

There is more to the debate over sprawl than just anti-Wal-Mart hysteria and anger over traffic. At heart, it's about politics, broadly speaking. The decentralizing trends in living and working patterns, first in suburbs and later in exurbs, have been deeply problematic for the Democratic party and the American left. So have the decentralizing patterns of the American economy in the last several decades, and the ongoing decentralization of information and media.
While suburban sprawl might not be everyone's cup of tea, (including mine) sprawl-like communities seem to afford a large number of people the kinds of lives they wish to lead. Sprawl critics have yet to convince large numbers of Americans that their solutions for engineering private choices about how and where to live and work will result in greater social benefits or happiness.

Sprawl is messy, chaotic, and sometimes annoying. In short, it is everything one expects from a free and democratic society. Leave the neat and clean societies for totalitarian regimes.

I would disagree with the judgment that it is messy and chaotic, unless by "chaos" you mean a landscape that sees frequent changes. I guess it all rests on your tolerance for change. Some people dread change, others need it, like their morning cup of coffee. I'm in the middle, though I lean toward the change side.

I think that the intellectual establishment's biggest gripe stems from the fact that noone is in charge of sprawl. It is unplanned. More accurately, it is not centrally planned. Modern intellectuals are the heirs of Plato. They love the idea of things more than the things themselves. They have an ideal view of society and the people that inhabit it, an ideal that is orderly, symmetrical and aesthetically pleasing. When they zoom in to the atomic level, the level of actual individuals and the choices they make, they are horrified, as if they are seeing germs through a microscope on a surface they believed to be clean and spotless.

This view of society is more comfortable with representative collectives of people rather than individuals. They'd rather that people stay within their class, their collective economic or ethnic identities, as proletarians, or "people of color". Cannato is right to point out that this is a view that aligns nicely with totalitarianism. It is a view that has mostly found itself on the left side of the political spectrum, but it appears that bad ideas have a way of replicating themselves. I'd say that the nascent "Crunchy Conservative" movement borrows much of this longing for a more tidy, collectivized citizenry than what the unruly, individualistic American ethos will give them.


Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Yeah, you hardly ever hear complaints about corrupt suburban political machines.

Anti-sprawl theory is -- here's a surprise! -- indifferent (or worse) to the poor. The cheap, third-hand automobile allowed the poor to break out and do stuff. Rub shoulders with their betters.

March 18, 2006 9:47 AM  
Blogger Bret said...

I think it's striking how similar the anti-sprawl article and the not saving enough article provided by oroborous are. Both have an attitude that people individually are so awful, short-sighted, selfish, short-termed, etc. because they don't do X, where X is deemed to be the optimal way for humanity to live according to the intellectual elite.

March 18, 2006 10:46 AM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

Critics charge sprawl with all manner of sin:
...destroying the family farm...

By paying family farmers millions for their acreage. O, the humanity !

...despoiling open spaces...

That only the elite used to see.
You want open spaces, move to Texas. Or Wyoming.

...killing off American cities...

The only cities that are "dying" are ones that failed to provide people with any reason to stay: Cleveland, Detroit, Toledo...

Current existence in no way guarantees future existence.
Besides, all of the big cities that currently exist west of the Great Lakes "despoiled open spaces", so don't they deserve destruction ?

...encouraging "big-box" retailers like Wal-Mart who underpay their workers and kill "mom-and-pop" businesses...

An ignorant libel.
As Harry says about anti-sprawl activists, anti-big-box idiots are "indifferent (or worse) to the poor".

Workers may or may not be underpaid by big-box retailers, but they aren't trapped.
Wal-Mart stores average 50% turnover annually. Those people leaving either got better jobs, or were being overpaid by Wal-Mart.

It's not like they got paid any better by "mom-and-pops", and a low-wage worker's pay goes A LOT further at Wal-Mart than it does at a "mom-and-pop".
That's why those smaller places went out of business.

But, despite the fact that direct competitors to Wal-Mart usually fare badly, when a Wal-Mart is built it increases traffic to that area, and the number of non-competing businesses increases.
Wal-Marts are good for small business like nail salons and ice cream shops.

They love the idea of things more than the things themselves. They have an ideal view of society and the people that inhabit it, an ideal that is orderly, symmetrical and aesthetically pleasing. When they zoom in to the atomic level, the level of actual individuals and the choices they make, they are horrified, as if they are seeing germs through a microscope on a surface they believed to be clean and spotless.

That insight nails it.
I talk to a lot of Leftists who are like that; they like to talk about "power to the people", as long as it's limited to the power to make collective choices.

[T]he not saving enough article provided by oroborous [has] an attitude that people individually are so awful, short-sighted, selfish, short-termed, etc. because they don't do X...

My view was that the article's most basic message is that a lot of people are going to be surprised to find themselves living in poverty, or nearly so, in their dotage - or else working much longer than they'd planned.

You see them as consciously choosing present consumption over investment, and greater future consumption.

I don't think that such is necessarily a bad choice, but I also don't think that's what's going on.

In my opinion, most middle-aged people who aren't saving for retirement are simply not paying any attention to the probable consequences of their actions, or have back-burnered the whole issue, intending to get around to it "someday".

Problem is, compounding gains take time to work their magic.
$ 1,000 saved at age 30 is worth $ 10,000 saved at age 60.

March 18, 2006 10:55 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

I happen to live in sprawlburbia.

If you happen to both have children and like them, living in urburbia is a distinctly unappealing alternative.

However, I'm not sure that tastes haven't drifted too far towards large homes and very low density neighborhoods.

Where I grew up, houses were 1500 square feet on smallish yards. Getting enough kids together for a pickup baseball game was a doddle. Not only because there were so many more houses in a given area, but also because neighborhoods were pretty large.

Now I live in a subdivision of 80 some-odd houses of 2400-3000 sq feet and ample, but not large, lots. There is no way to get to the next sub without getting on a busy highway, so letting the kids roam on their bikes is out of the question, and pickup baseball games even less likely than cold fusion.

Oh well. It's my bed, and I find it far more comfortable than one someone designed for me and forced me to live in.

Also, I have to note that the subdivision's environment is far more diverse than the surrounding near monoculture of natural forest.

March 19, 2006 5:22 PM  

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