For the Good of Our Health

Andrew Saint

  • Sprawl: A Compact History by Robert Bruegmann
    Chicago, 301 pp, £17.50, January 2006, ISBN 0 226 07690 3

Just beyond Croydon – I will not share its exact whereabouts – there is a lane I take whenever I drive to visit my father in his retirement. For six precious minutes, it unfolds up and down hill through unspoilt Surrey countryside. There are just three houses along its length, one a farm. I seldom meet another car, but often see pheasants and once encountered a badger. On the way home, from its highest point I glimpse a panorama of central London laid out before me, 14 miles to the north.

I owe my Surrey lane to the generosity of the Green Belt, that girdle of inviolate land drawn around London with seeming foresight in the 1930s. Because of such planners as Patrick Abercrombie and Raymond Unwin, who believed the countryside was virtuous and cities should be contained, Londoners like me can still relish and appropriate scenes that New Yorkers, Angelenos and even Parisians, Romans and Milanese must go further to find. Prosperity has made that veneer of rural values something of a charade. The Green Belt’s villages and farms look too tidy, it is criss-crossed by ever heavier traffic and grosser vehicles, and its interstices are remorselessly nibbled at by the sharp tooth of development. But it still just about holds.

In Sprawl, Robert Bruegmann bids those of us who cherish the division between city and countryside to take stock and review our values. Everywhere, the arbitrary containment of communities is dead or dying, he argues. Where it is maintained, it is only at a cost and by a conservative ‘highbrow’ culture, led by a cabal of landowners, intellectuals and aesthetes who have shaped planning to their interests and decline to face change. In London’s case, Bruegmann ascribes the sky-high prices of central property and the ills they cause in large part to the distortions of the Green Belt. If ‘my’ lane and others like it had been given over to the builders, they might not now be building housing all over the flood plain of the Thames Gateway, with high infrastructural costs and dubious environmental implications.

Sprawl is international in scope. It begins with a view from an aircraft on its final approach. From his window seat Bruegmann gazes down entranced, taking snapshots as the plane descends. Whatever his eye falls on – on Paris (where his train of thought began), on Istanbul, Munich, Palermo, Phoenix, Los Angeles, Delhi, on inchoate Mexico City, on China’s bursting cities, on land-starved Holland, even on mollycoddled London – he sees the same thing: a carpet of buildings at low density, without limit, without differentiation, without guiding form. This is sprawl. It’s neither city nor countryside nor even suburb. Nor is it just housing, though that fills most of the prospect, but housing with industry, offices and transport infrastructure mixed in. We’ve all seen it, and because it’s ubiquitous we easily despise it. Bruegmann starts from the contrary standpoint. Since sprawl is everywhere, it must be popular; and if it’s popular, it can’t be all bad.

Bruegmann’s plane has many global destinations, but it is from the United States that it takes off, and to the United States it always returns. One theme of his book is that sprawl is not now an exclusively American condition, another that it was never an exclusively American invention. But the US is where it has gone furthest and elicited the fiercest polemics, and it is in its Americanised form that it has proved most infectious. Ramshackle development beyond the law’s reach on the fringes of ancient European cities was a minor irritation. Commuter suburbs spreading along railway lines gave pause for thought. But the outrush of urban populations in the United States since the Second World War, in tandem with car ownership, was on a graver scale.

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