lessons on Urban Sprawl

This book really got my gut, maybe that was the point. I can’t stand fear tactics (although this stuff does actually keep me up at night) but I also can’t stand the attitude that we have had rampant consumption so far and the world hasn’t ended so let’s keep going! I tried to shorten my paper for your enjoyment but I’m afraid it’s still long, so skip to the end if you must:

A REPORT ON: Sprawl: a compact quashing of the anti-sprawl debate (damn affluent hippies)

I nearly threw Robert Bruegmann’s Sprawl: a Compact History on the tracks of the subway about fifty times. My fellow passengers probably thought I was a bit nuts making scoffing “ha!” sounds and scrawling in the margins every thirty seconds, but I plugged on, thinking maybe I better hear out this “rational account.” For I agreed with a quote on the back cover, that we do indeed need a realistic look at our growth patterns and ideas on “better ways to manage sprawl” rather than the infinite ‘solutions’ to sprawl. Population growth and thus urban growth is inevitable, and because we are who we are and because we can what we can sprawl may be inevitable too. However, I do not agree with an infinite number of Bruegmann’s counter arguments to the anti-sprawl debate which strike me as infinitely unreasonable even though they are oft-heard arguments in America today.

To begin at the beginning though, Bruegmann does offer a fine brief history of the growth patterns of American cities. Briefing his readers on the expansion of the urban environment from a sharp delineation of rural and urban (think of the walled city) to the earliest moves out of the city, a softening of that boundary as an “exurban” area is created and how this was made possible through developments in transportation and communication. Transportation developments in particular brought a new way of living to the city, commuting and escape from the density of the urban core were possible at first for those who could afford the transportation and development occurred along transportation corridors (look at NYC’s commuter lines and streetcar suburbs elsewhere). This would change with the automobile, which rather quickly became widely available to all classes, and so has been considered “the great equalizer.” A large part of Bruegmann’s opposition to anti-sprawl is that he sees anti-sprawlers as a bunch of affluent elitists, trying to keep down the lower and middle classes and force their own ideas of civilization onto them to ultimately to serve their own ends (he says anti-sprawlers promote public transportation just to free up the roads for their own use… um, no? I don’t want to drive my car, i want public transportation to work for ME).

When in doubt, Bruegmann can always pull out a card to destabilize his opponents, but this is merely the mark of a good debater, and that tactic works both ways.

After a few short chapters his “brief history” has broken down. Chapter four disputes traditional ideas about suburban sprawl in the 1950s and chapter five covers the 1970s onward in which he points out that earlier subdivisions are already being gentrified, and old buildings are being replaced with newer, bigger ones. Then he suggests that this should please anti-sprawlers—though why they would be pleased with a ranch house holding 4 people replaced with a McMansion holding 4 people is a bit confusing but there is no time for questions for by this point he is so worked up that he uses that brilliant point to suggest that anti-sprawlers are just scared of change! Ouch.

In the course of Part II after reducing the amount of sprawl post-WWII to peanuts, “suburban development of the postwar decades actually occupied very little of the total land mass of America,” he manages to sneer at the concept of ‘sustainability,’ imply that an endless supply of land and resources exist for us to use, and vindicate the automobile from its role as a polluter and perpetuator of sprawl among other things. It was these points which almost landed his words, ironically, on the tracks of a public transit line in the sprawling metropolis of Atlanta, Georgia.

Bruegmann has lost me and I am analyzing his writing for tactics now, unable to put much faith in his figures. For instance, he uses statistics as appalling as his opponents’ are (he says), to galvanize their arguments and in doing so he also galvanizes his own by successfully demonstrating the ability to use any statistic to your own advantage:

…automobile manufacturers have been so successful in boosting fuel efficiency [they have?] and reducing emissions, and public transportation in the United States today carries such light loads, that even with only 1.5 occupants per vehicle in cars, most new automobiles generate little or no more pollution per person per passenger vehicle mile than the average bus.

Despite my many quarrels with this statement (Priuses vs “average” buses or fuel efficient CNG buses?), what I ultimately find most interesting is that Bruegmann obviously views this as a reason to just go ahead and drive your own car, rather than a reason to get more people on the buses so as to tilt the equation the other way. Proof that, in the end, despite all the reasoning we can do, most of us who are strongly situated one way or another will be able to support our own separate arguments from the same data and sound equally convincing. As he so rightly says later on: “the ‘solution’ to any given problem depends on the vantage point of the person doing the proposing.”

For all the quotations on the back cover about Sprawl being a “sound and reasoned history of this pattern of living,” Bruegmann has let his light shine and comes across time and again as an idiot who is as much against change as his opponents. While anti-sprawlers may be afraid of change to the built and natural environment (for many reasons and rightly so), Bruegmann speaks for himself and a multitude of patriotic Americans, in that they are even more afraid of any change to their lifestyle, particularly if that change might perceptively “cramp” their lifestyle.

Here is the take-home from my soapbox:
For my part, I don’t care if you dream of a house made of ticky tacky and 1.5 hour commutes alone in your car but why would it ever be a bad idea to conserve? God made this world right? We should treat it with the respect and care it deserves, use what we need but only what we need and preserve its beauty. But even so, whether you believe God has provided an infinite supply of fresh water, clean air, and amber waves of grain or if it is at least just going to last to the end of your life, why would it be a bad idea to go ahead conserve those resources anyway? Just because there IS a whole tray of cupcakes in the fridge does that mean you should eat them all before the kids come home? Just wondering.

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