Why did sprawl get out of hand?

Lawrence Solomon
National Post
November 12, 2005

Urban elites and the left have for decades savaged the suburb, arguing that the suburb is environmentally unsustainable, an aesthetic blight on the landscape, homogeneously white bread and morally defective.

A backlash is now well underway, with a slew of pro-suburb writers and policy wonks ─ most of them American and from the ideological right ─ attacking these politically correct views and defending the homes of what has become the majority of Americans. The latest defence ─ an engaging and non-ideological book entitled Sprawl: A Compact History by University of Illinois art historian Robert Bruegmann ─ promises to become the most influential of the lot.

Bruegmann has written a short history of sprawl, showing its ubiquity in societies around the world, and he has written a survey of the present, taking critics to town for their many overblown claims. The American suburb is not unsustainable, he demonstrates. It is not devoid of culture. It is not devoid of diversity. It is not a wasteland.

Bruegmann is good at describing the hodge-podge of anti-sprawl campaigns of the past and how, because sprawl is a vague, even undefined concept, all manner of discontents have rallied under its banner to justify their opposition to developments that displease them. He is especially good at describing the failed attempts by governments to stop sprawl. Queen Elizabeth, in the 16th century, issued an edict prohibiting building at the edge of London and in the 17th century, French kings tried to preserve Paris’s limits. After the Second World War, Britain’s Labour government nationalized development rights on land and created an immense green belt around London. In post-war France, the government built enormous blocks of apartments in the suburbs of Paris ─ the grands ensembles that are now going up in flames ─ to contain the working-class households it was evicting from the central city, and prevent them from settling further afield.

Almost all government attempts to control settlement patterns backfired in one way or another, Bruegmann shows, often because of these measures’ side effects. When governments succeeded, as in the case of Communist Moscow, it required a very heavy hand.

Bruegmann is convincing in describing city and suburb as dynamic and interdependent, and in viewing skeptically the efforts of government to stop sprawl. His history informs and illuminates. But in making his central case ─ that sprawl is inevitable, necessary and desirable ─ he becomes halting and insecure. In taking on anti-sprawl advocates, his arguments become confounding and contradictory.

For example, he fairly paraphrases anti-sprawl advocates who argue that “if the federal government had not built superhighways, subsidized suburban infrastructure, fostered long-term self-amortized mortgages, initiated federal mortgage insurance, allowed ‘redlining’ of neighbourhoods, and provided massive tax breaks for suburban homeowners, many city dwellers would have preferred to remain” in cities rather than move to the suburbs. But rather than compellingly refute the case that the federal government caused sprawl, he strengthens the anti-sprawl case by showing that municipal, county and state governments were all allied with the federal government in delivering the massive subsidies. Even more surprisingly, he then dismisses the critics’ arguments.

“None of these arguments is very convincing” because the cities wanted the government programs, he states. “Most cities and urban areas had extensive plans for superhighways in place already in the 1930s; many of them had allocated large sums of county and state money to begin construction of these roads long before the federal interstate highway program of the mid-1950s. These roads were heavily supported by central city interests because they were considered an important way to rejuvenate the city.”

That the policies of municipal governments might backfire on cities would surprise no reader of Sprawl ─ Bruegmann had repeatedly shown how government actions had unforeseen results. As if to blunt this criticism, he argues that: “Given the strong rebound of many of these cities in recent years, it is altogether possible that, at some point in the future, most people will conclude that they were actually largely beneficial for central cities.”

Maybe. But what would a change in public opinion prove as to what caused sprawl? And if cities actually did gain from sprawl ─ a claim he at no point substantiates ─ why would that negate the many other adverse consequences of sprawl that critics point to, such as loss of farmland and environmental amenities?

Bruegmann, in the end, less refutes than tempers the claims of the anti-sprawl advocates. Throughout much of his book, he seems to be saying, yes, they are right to say that governments promoted sprawl, but the sprawl probably would have occurred anyway, and besides, what’s so bad about sprawl ─ other countries have it, too.

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