The side effects of stopping sprawl

October 13, 2012

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No one likes the suburbs. At least, not if pop culture touchstones like The Ice Storm are to be believed. They are often portrayed as devoid of culture, terrible pits of ennui where bored housewives and angsty teenagers pop pills, conduct affairs and search in vain for meaning.

Many planners hate them, too: The New Urbanists are calling for higher density, mixed-use neighborhoods and an end to the vicious cycle of far-flung housing developments, automobile reliance and hellishly long commutes.

But if no one likes the suburbs, why do so many of us live there? Older American cities like Chicago and New York have actually become less dense over time (even if people are filling in some parts of the old urban core and increasing population in say, the Loop).

Enter Robert Bruegmann: A professor emeritus at UIC, Bruegmann is something of a contrarian who sees pleasure and possibility where most have seen only cause for panic. His 2005 book Sprawl: A compact history establishes an alternative narrative for America’s – and, so, he argues, the world’s – love of spacious, low-density living. He contends that urban sprawl can produce a more humane way of life, especially in poorer parts of the globe where basic sanitation is lacking, and that when given more resources and a choice, people almost always choose more space over less.

Critics have not taken taken kindly to Bruegmann. In a review, social thinker and city-lover James Howard Kunstler — who lambasted the dreary repetition of America’s strip-mall-laden, fast-food-chain-strewn exurbs in The Geography of Nowhere and predicted a post-fossil-fuel end to suburbia in The Long Emergency — sneered that any traction Bruegmann gained was proof of “what a nation of morons we have become, and how deep the intellectual rot runs.” (Kunstler has his own critics, but that’s another story.)

Many of Bruegmann’s assertions will indeed sound questionable to readers used to hearing about the efficiencies of urban life. For one, he states that on average, public transportation is less energy efficient than car travel when you factor in the wide range in ridership from high peak to low usage hours.

But Bruegmann does make a compelling argument for what happens when we try to stop sprawl: He contends there are a lot of unintended consequences.

He offers some case studies: The green-belt dreams of post-war London, which led to the immense growth of other British cities but also a poor-quality housing stock; Hong Kong, which is wealthy and incredibly dense but also semi-authoritarian; and Nantucket, where historic preservation laws have curbed development but have also caused the average housing prices to skyrocket. Hear Bruegmann go into more detail on the side-effects of stopping sprawl in the audio above.

Dynamic Range showcases hidden gems unearthed from Chicago Amplified’s vast archive of public events and appears on weekends. Robert Bruegmann spoke at an event presented by Elmhurst College in May. Click here to hear the event in its entirety.