Can Sprawl Be Beneficial?

Panelists on suburban sprawl: Eugenie Birch, James Russell, Robert Bruegmann and Alexander Garvin.

Folks who went to yesterday’s Municipal Art Society forum "Can Sprawl Be Beneficial" heard what must be the best possible defense for suburban sprawl from one of its recently arrived boosters: "I’m not saying that sprawl is good," said author Robert Bruegmann. "All I’m saying is that it is not necessarily bad."

In other, tepid, words: Sprawl is not good. In fact, it might be bad. But it’s not necessarily bad.

Rather than struggle to fill a room in an office park at the intersection of I-287 & I-78 out in Jersey, Bruegmann, who is promoting his new book providing intellectual cover for sprawl, bravely ventured into Midtown Manhattan to tell an evidently skeptical crowd that skyscrapers use a lot of energy, cities have more pavement than suburbs, and sprawl, if you define it the right way, isn’t the huge problem that people make it out to be.

Bruegmann says that the desire to flee the city is the natural order of human existence from Herculaneum to today, that it is the natural choice people make when it is given to them. And that we ought to embrace it for that. Casting himself as one who is overturning conventional wisdom, Bruegmann waters down the definition of sprawl as it is commonly understood, rendering the rest of his pro-sprawl assertions more or less meaningless. In doing so, he confuses growth of the city with sprawl. Here is the image of Leicester Square in 1750 that he used in his slideshow to define early sprawl.

London’s Leicester Square in 1750: If this is sprawl, let’s have some more.

Harlem was once considered a suburb too, but it was never considered sprawl. Both Leicester Square and Levittown may have been created with the impulse to escape the city center, but they are still fundamentally different in form. Call me a stodgy supporter of the conventional wisdom, but Leicester Square in 1750 looks like a fundamentally different built form than modern American strip malls and subdivisions. The neighborhood in the photo is walkable, it is dense, it consumes little land, it provides a public open space rather than many private open spaces, and it is located close enough to the city center to be a short commute by horse and carriage. This Bruegmann calls "sprawl," in his effort to redefine the term so that it’s not such a dirty word anymore. But this new definition allows him to make the claim that transportation policy has nothing to do with the creation of "sprawl." It wasn’t the Interstates that created sprawl, then. It was an innate human urge. How could that be bad?

A second critical fallacy to Bruegmann’s thesis arose during the question-and-answer session, when he admitted that sprawl is associated with excess use of fossil fuel energy, at present. But he tried to sidestep that inconvenient fact by arguing that it isn’t sprawl per se that is the cause of greenhouse gas emissions, it is the oil-powered internal combustion engine. "We shouldn’t be using the 19th century technology that we are for cars," he said. "It’s outrageous that we do."

On a side note: Guns don’t kill people, you know. Bullets do. It is outrageous that gun control advocates still exist when we as a society really ought to be outlawing bullets.

So given that sprawl encompasses everything from four-story rowhouses within a 20-mph carriage ride from town to dense Corbusian towers outside Paris, and that you can’t blame the single-family detached houses themselves for being accessible only by the car, what does Bruegmann want us to know about sprawl?  Three things.

  • Before he came along it has always been ill defined. (His less offensive definition is better.)
  • The criticism of sprawl detracts attention from real problems. (How can we be worried about culs-de-sac when favela dwellers lack clean air and water?)
  • Scholars, writers and commentators of all stripes (everyone from David Brooks to Herbert Gans presumably notwithstanding) haven’t given the suburban landscape its due as an object worthy of study. It is a landscape, he says that is "as as varied, as rich and as dynamic as any central city."

I have taken issue with his first point already, so I will jump to his second. It is admirable that he shows such concern for third world environmental degradation, but he fails to note the historical context in which that came about. It was precisely at the moment that U.S. sprawl mushroomed that once mighty American urban manufacturing began moving overseas to cheaper third world labor. The hollowing out of American manufacturing and the postwar building of sprawl were part and parcel of the same exodus from cities: As manufacturing jobs dried up, people moved away from cities, where they created things, and into sprawl, where they consume things made in cities in the third world. Bruegmann fails to make the connection that by reducing sprawl here, we’d reduce the environmental degradation in the third world.

Bruegmann’s unpersuasive third argument, that suburbs are as varied, rich and dynamic as cities, is not new. David Brooks unpersuasively made the same argument in 2004 in describing the atomized diversity of the "crunchy suburbs," "professional zones" and "immigrant enclaves" and concluding that they achieve the same synergy as a polyglot city where people of all types, ages and socioeconomic strata find themselves on the same sidewalk. This is less an argument than a value judgment, and one that I don’t buy. 

About the only persuasive point that Bruegmann has to make about sprawl’s positive attributes are that it allows for cheaper housing. As for commuting times in sprawl and in transit-rich areas, he observes that Kansas City has faster commutes than Tokyo attributes that to KC’s easy motoring and Tokyo’s slow mass transit. But he’s comparing an elephant with a housecat. The real reason for Tokyo’s longer commutes is that it is a much bigger city. If you were to condense KC into Tokyo-level population density, you’d have the fastest commutes of all. Bruegmann fails to see that KC’s sprawl actually gets in its own way.

The most baffling thing Bruegmann said is that, while there may be a link between sprawl and species extinction, he sees no connection between sprawl and global warming. "I don’t think there’s any real clear cause and effect here," he said, and noted that if everyone moved to small Parisian-style apartments, "It would not solve global warming," but that if everyone had two acres, each household could get all its energy right on site with geothermal, wind power, etc. As for why New Yorkers consume less energy than anyone else in the United States, he said he thought Californians actually used less, then lapsed into the argument that it isn’t sprawl’s built form that is the problem, but the way it is accessed. He criticized New York’s skyscrapers for requiring elevators, but doesn’t criticize sprawl for requiring cars.

Incredibly, he also said "induced traffic," the notion that building more lanes of roadway encourages people to drive, "is false." "We need much more money for highways to dramatically increase their capacity," he said, alluding to guideways that would take all the fun out of driving. His said he would improve mass transit and roadways simltaneously, even though he asserts that public transit is more highly subsidized "per mile traveled" than roads are. 

As for concerns that we’re paving the planet with sprawl building, he said "It’s the city that’s paved over." What about the fact that human habitat wrecks the planet’s natural meta-systems on which we all depend? "We have to figure out how to live in harmony with nature, not to keep man out of it."

So can sprawl be beneficial? Sure. If the most important end of all human achievement is cheap housing.

  • Great review, AD. This guy sounds like a complete ding dong. How does a guy like Bruegmann get to be considered a credible public intellectual?

  • Taking a contrary position on conventional wisdom is a cheap way to make a name for yourself. It got John Tierney all the way to a regular column in the NY Times…

  • AD

    Aaron, simple: he wrote a book! And it got reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.

  • brent

    Aaron- another reason is that we have are a nation with 220 million automobile owners who need something to cling to justify a way of life that is going to crumble (sooner or later). Anyhow, I thought conventional wisdom is that we, as Americans, have a divine right to enjoy McRib sandwiches at the drive through while listening to right wing propaganda on Car Talk.

  • Ian

    I don’t know if his arguments are very good, but on some level the arguments for sprawl should be made. Or, rather, the reasons for sprawl should be understood. It’s not because of irrationality that people move to the suburbs. It’s not transportation policy either — transportation policy unleashed a pent up desire, it did not create that desire.

    Sprawl is a decentralized development and it requires a decentralized transportation system (cars and trucks — trucking is just as essential to sprawl as cars). The result isn’t just people moving to the suburbs, it’s also light industry moving to the suburbs and beyond. And why wouldn’t they? The land is cheaper and the infrastructure is more logistically efficient, and the cost of living is at least somewhat lower, meaning that wages can be lower.

    To me, arguments that transportation policy drives sprawl are kind of weak. The cities we have are pretty broken logistically. The suburbs are broken too, but in different ways, and in some important ways they’ve been less broken. People who like cities (and I’m one of those people) should look to *fixing* the cities, not whining about things that enable the suburbs. We should want a better country for everyone. Arguing only that people’s values are misplaced when they choose suburbs is not very constructive, but that’s a lot of what anti-suburb arguments are made of.

    We don’t want the city to be like the suburbs, we don’t want to lose the values of the city, but we don’t have to. Instead if we fix the non-value-based problems with the city we can give people real reasons to stop sprawl.

  • Ian

    I should temper my last comment by saying that I think car-free or anti-traffic activism is really important and constructive. But I like the carrot approach more than the stick — instead of advocating policies meant to starve people out of their cars, advocate policies that can draw them out voluntarily and happily. To a degree NYCSR has been doing that with bicycle advocacy, though I think public transit needs to be viewed much more critically.

    Another important argument for reduced car usage — especially in the city — is that it gets in the way of productive commercial use of the roads. I think an eye towards traffic efficiency doesn’t always conflict with the goals of a more humane cityscape.

  • brent

    Ian- How are we supposed to fix the cities that people stopped giving a fuck about decades ago when the VAST majority of our tax dollars are funneled to the very institutions that enable sprawl (oil wars, super- highways, low taxes for rural land, etc)? Suburbanites have always been critical of the values of urbanites. I believe we should just accept that this is, in fact, an irreconcilable clash of values.

  • Ian

    “How are we supposed to fix the cities that people stopped giving a fuck about decades ago when the VAST majority of our tax dollars are funneled to the very institutions that enable sprawl (oil wars, super- highways, low taxes for rural land, etc)?”

    Who stopped giving a fuck about cities? Frankly I don’t buy this argument at all. They have low taxes in rural areas because they have low expenditures. Maybe that’s in part because they are subsidized, but I don’t think that’s most of it. And cheap oil, whether we like it or not, has helped cities too. And the super-highways aren’t exactly skipping cities.

    I think there’s a mentality of false poverty. Cities have the resources and the talent to fix these problems — NYC more so than anywhere — and we can’t wait for someone to give us more money before we start trying. I’m all for lowering federal taxes and giving control to local communities; I’m sure we could use our tax dollars better locally than they are used federally. But that’s not something we can wait for.

    “Suburbanites have always been critical of the values of urbanites. I believe we should just accept that this is, in fact, an irreconcilable clash of values.”

    What, because they want to own their home? They want a place for their kids to be able to play outside? They want to buy affordable groceries for their family without making a big production of it? Because many of their *jobs* are already in the suburbs?

    There’s lots of suburban values that aren’t very appealing, but there’s lots of values and priorities that are very understandable. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done to make our cities family friendly. Because they haven’t been we have a generation of people who only know the suburbs, and even when they *want* to find something different it’s hard for them to adapt.

  • AD

    Ian, yes you are right that we have to improve cities from within to make them more attractive to people. From a development perspective that probably means building more inner-core housing so that it isn’t so expensive to live there. From a transportation perspective I think that means stop the project of road building. Yes, the highways serve the cities too – serve to draw people away from them, that is. We don’t need any more roads. When we had a railroad nation we had busy small town main streets not far from train stations. The car eliminated that pretty wholly. I think it is counter to logic to disassociate transportation policy from urban form.

  • brent

    Suburbanites hate us for our freedoms and diversity. Errr… wait, maybe I got that mixed up!

    In any event, “even when they *want* to find something different it’s hard for them to adapt.”- The inability to adapt to changing conditions has led to the collapse of countless societies. Suburbia will be no different.

  • Nicolo Macchiavelli

    Suburbs exist to harvest the real estate value of being close to cities. It is proximity to employment that creates real estate values. Why are NJ and Conn the two richest states in the country? Is it the great value of the Raritan, Passaic and Connecticut rivers or do they just happen to be within an easy commute of NYC? They harvest property taxes based on the real estate value created by proximity to the city. They harvest jobs too by manipulating zoning regulations and bribing employers to relocate. The suburbs are largely and American phenomena partly because European and Asian cities predated the development of the nation state and exert independent political power of their own, usually given special representative power within the parliamentary democracies. New York City is the greenest city in America.

  • Certainly, transportation policy influences the urban form. But then, so do urban housing costs. In cities like mine (Seattle), and certainly in New York, people (especially people with kids) simply cannot afford to live close to the urban core. Yes, part of this is because they perceive the suburbs as cheaper without factoring in transportation costs. (My husband and I live right in the city, neither of us has a car, and we have a lot more money in the bank than our suburban friends who “can’t afford” Seattle.) And yes, it’s also true that Americans tend to believe they need large homes and enormous, park-like backyards. Still there’s no denying that it’s darn near impossible for a couple with children to afford a two bedroom space in any dense, vibrant, desirable city.

    I don’t know much about urban planning, but I’d love to find a solution to this, as I think it’s one of the major contributors to sprawl. My instinct tells me that increasing density would drive down housing costs, but (if Vancouver, BC, Paris, and NYC are any indication)it seems to have the opposite effect–I assume because it increases a city’s desirability. I’d love to hear others’ ideas about this.

    P.S. – I totally agree about the broader, global consequences of sprawl. Perpetuating our car-centric culture will have catastrophic consequences–not just for us, but for the world.

  • ddartley

    Sprawl might be the result of a *common* human urge, but not an innate one. (And in fact, I’d guess that that urge has traditionally resulted from unenlightened urban planning, not just the innate density of a city.)

    On the other hand, socialization and interaction indisputably are “innate” human urges. Cities foster those things; suburbs (like where I grew up) stifle them.

  • J:Lai

    Macchiavelli – it’s true that suburban sprawl originally started (post WW II era) in order to “harvest” urban value – jobs in particular – but 50 years later most suburban areas have developed to the point where much of the economic activity and the jobs are actually located in the suburbs. The collapse of many core cities in the 1970s and 80s was a result of this phenomenon (not exclusively, but it was a major contributor.) Certain transport infrastructure, like ring roads and belt roads, which allowed easy car travel between suburbs without going through the city, allowed the growth of large suburban areas that were more independent of the central city than the classic suburb.

    The more recent revitalization of many cities, since about the mid 1990s, proves that centralized cities are anything but a dying form of habitation. However, suburbs are here to stay. They do represent a way of living that many people prefer, and people can and do pay a premium to live there.

    Also, let’s not overlook the way that decisions made at the city-level of urban development have encouraged the growth of suburbs (can’t blame everything on federal transportation policy.) NYC has undersupplied housing for decades, largely due to zoning, regulation, and other disincentive to development. That is the #1 reason why housing is so expensive, and it is a driver for at least some people in making the decision to live in the suburbs.

  • AD

    Bus Chick wrote: “(My husband and I live right in the city, neither of us has a car, and we have a lot more money in the bank than our suburban friends who “can’t afford” Seattle.)”

    Ha! Well, the average costs of car ownership are approximately $8,000 per year, so you can afford more house without a car. I also think you are correct that increasing density (i.e., increasing housing supply) in a city should cause prices to decline, according to conventional economic theory of supply and demand. That’s why I agree with J:Lai that it is important to encourage urban housing production through reduced regulation, and more generous zoning. People will complain that this is lining the pockets of already-rich developers, but I think the urban developers ought to be rewarded for creating an environmentally friendly and socially important product.

  • brent

    I would argue that it isn’t financially practical to NOT own a car. As I mentioned above, the VAST, VAST majority of our nation’s wealth is spent on the infrastructure that enables motoring. Your tax dollars support highways, oil wars, cheap land for box stores (plus their utility connections), school busing, etc. Locally, you are looking ate dirt cheap/ free parking, tax breaks for developers who spend big it on parking structures, even medical bills for crash victims and asthmatics. If you choose to live without an automobile, you are not cashing in on your entitlement.

  • AD

    Very true Brent. I’d say New York City is probably the only place in the country where that doesn’t hold true.

  • Great takedown of Bruegmann- especially providing the picture of Leicester Square.

    Yes, the political art of using public money to profit from the demand for suburban living reached a high point during the last half century. The recent use by Dennis Hastert of a budget “earmark” to pay for a highway past land he owned, enabling him to make over $2.5 million in pure profit on an original investment of $339,000, is the process in a nutshell.

    People wanted to leave cities, in part, because they were ruled by a sort of mob composed of businessmen, politicians, and the Catholic Church, and in part because cities were polluted. The exodus eventually broke the power of the old mob, and clean government has also cleaned up the cities.

    At the bottom line, Bruegmann is arguing for the continuance of subsidies (freeway building) for a lifestyle that can’t continue without them. People like living in the suburbs, but usually not enough to pay the real costs of transportation or dealing with the problems created by them living there.

    As for cashing in on all the wonderful benefits for car owners, that’s like using the two-for-one dinner coupon at the Hungry Heifer. But don’t believe me- go spend your Saturday at the strip mall and see how that makes you feel. If you like it, you will absolutely love America.

  • Skeller

    “NYC has undersupplied housing for decades, largely due to zoning, regulation, and other disincentive to development. That is the #1 reason why housing is so expensive, and it is a driver for at least some people in making the decision to live in the suburbs.”

    Lack of housing supply is a common reason cited for high housing costs, yet I have yet to see a number attached to this claim, nor have I seen one case study showing that increased housing supply had an appreciable impact on housing cost. How many more units must NYC build before the costs start to come down? Housing costs are high in NYC because it is a desirable place to live for a wide variety of reasons (and no doubt exclusivity plays a part). True, many folks move to the suburbs because they can’t find an affordable unit in the city, but many also move to the suburbs because they believe it suits their value system – they don’t want to live in a city with all it’s associated “problems” (real and perceived). More development is not the answer.


  • I am really glad I read this article! With this it has really helped me with my decision.



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