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.

If that exodus was unprecedented, it was also logical. The rights to freehold tenure and development are entrenched in American values, while natural limits to expansion and the high land costs they prompt have constrained fairly few American cities. Almost more striking is the doggedness of homegrown opposition to sprawl in the US, and the ease with which the tricks of its trade have been copied by other countries with different patterns of ideology, land supply and ownership. In part, it is the resounding success of sprawl as an export over the past generation that drives Bruegmann to demand respect for the phenomenon.

To judge whether sprawl is a symptom of global capitalism at its most rampant and wasteful (or of democracy, choice and the demise of ‘highbrow planning’), technical arguments must be addressed. Bruegmann takes us through them lucidly and economically, neither flinching from nor getting mired in detail, and steering deftly between neo-con smugness and liberal anguish. These qualities make Sprawl a textbook for our times.

His first duty is to establish the facts, amid a welter of statistics. Take density, the crucial yardstick for both populations and buildings. Urban densities depend on the definition of the area measured. Most of us imagine New York to be the densest major city in the United States, and Los Angeles among the most sprawling: from the nature of the downtown area we deduce the character of the whole. To the contrary, Greater New York is less dense than Greater Los Angeles, constrained as the latter is by desert and water supply. At some 7000 people per square mile, Los Angeles is ‘today the densest urban area in America and at least as dense as many urban areas in Europe’. Miami comes not far behind, on a par with New York. Near the bottom of the density league lie Kansas City, at fewer than 2000 per square mile in 1990, and Phoenix, not far short of 3000 and rising.

Projected over time, the density figures show what Americans are doing. The surprise is that in many places – Bruegmann’s home city of Chicago, for instance – decentralisation peaked in the 1960s. Though it continues, it is slowing down. Correspondingly, the suburbs and, as the jargon has it, ‘exurbs’ are thickening up, especially in later-settled areas away from the East Coast and Midwest. It takes time and patience for piecemeal communities to get to the point of being regarded seriously, but that may be on its way. The so-called ‘edge cities’, amalgams of super-sized shopping malls and office plazas that mushroomed sensationally round about 1980 near freeway junctions, are one symptom of that adjustment. Few new edge cities are taking shape now, Bruegmann writes, while those that are already in place were rarely built on virgin land beyond existing conurbations. Most were suburban shopping malls in the process of turning into regional business centres, as the outlying communities diversified and matured.

Objections to sprawl divide into the economic, the social and the aesthetic. The most complex and least conclusive debate is about costs, and addresses the issue of sustainability. Sprawl happens because it makes short-term economic sense. People live far from city centres because land is cheaper and housing simpler to build there. Everyday facilities of shopping and schooling are generally available close by, while jobs are not too far away (since the 1950s more than half of American industry has been sited outside old city centres). All this, say sprawl’s opponents, comes at an unaffordable expense in infrastructure, and destroys land which has vital agricultural or amenity value, often both. To each charge there is a counter-argument. To take one example: if a given population were rehoused in a city centre, renewing the infrastructure might cost more than laying it out on virgin land – or it might not. Disagreement on the costs of sprawl has created ‘a cottage industry among social scientists’, Bruegmann reports, but there have been few clear conclusions.

When the experts can’t sort things out, we veer back to morality. Ethical versions of the economic case against sprawl tend to take the form of high-mindedness about transport, resources and sustainability in general. But ideals can rapidly switch around. When, in the 1930s, Frank Lloyd Wright explored the possibilities of the extended city in his Broadacre City scheme, he saw the automobile as the saviour of the common man, the route to a democratic utopia. Now, for the good of our health and the planet, we are being asked to abandon our cars and walk or ride. The difficulty is that we don’t, and those who ask us to do so beyond a narrow range of urban uses often sound like innocents or hypocrites. Since cars have allowed us to taste freedom and independence, it’s more likely that the current fuel problems will be alleviated than that we will allow ourselves to be corralled back into the old restricted matrix of space and movement.

That is where the sorry history of efforts to revitalise American public transport seems to point. The pleasant Oregon city of Portland has done the most to sustain the public fight against sprawl. Bruegmann awards its efforts a middling mark. Densities have edged upwards, but the huge sums of money spent on new rail systems have not paid off: ‘ridership’ is low. The moral, in Bruegmann’s view, is not that public transport is dead but that it must be more flexible if it is to compete with the car. Buses are the future, he believes. That may also be true for London, where Livingstone has found it easier to raise passenger numbers by adding buses than to tackle the Underground. Even tram systems, in fashion a decade ago, are less in favour now because of their cost and rigidity.

Faced with the contention that sprawl is unsustainable because it generates high energy costs and entails losses of habitat, even of species, a touch of sceptical environmentalism seeps into Bruegmann’s brief answers. These are points to take seriously, he agrees, but the science remains fuzzy. To set the environmental evils of sprawl in perspective, they have always to be compared with the equally questionable effects of the compact city. Often the data seem just not to be there.

He is firmer on the purely social objections to sprawl, which are riddled with snobbery and presumption. The dispute about the quality of suburban life is an old one. In a famous study of a 1950s Pennsylvania suburb, the sociologist Herbert Gans found that the urban elite looked on ‘the lower middle and working class with whom I lived in Levittown as an uneducated, gullible, petty “mass” which rejects the culture that would make it fully human, the “good government” that would create the better community, and the proper planning which would do away with the landscape-despoiling little “boxes” in which they live’. Bruegmann joins Gans in scouting that prejudice.

At this point he reaches for the British casebook. Britain matters to Bruegmann’s researches because of its unique record in both dispersing and restraining its population. What strikes him is the prevalence of class attitudes throughout its planning policies. Whether it is the Duke of Wellington worrying that the railways would ‘only encourage the common people to move about needlessly’, the risibly posh voice of Abercrombie talking on postwar newsreels about the rosy future awaiting the industrial population in the New Towns, or Young and Willmott’s jeremiad of the 1950s that the working families of the East End sent out to pasture were going to pieces, class percolates every pronouncement. Bruegmann does a service in reminding us of that.

Sometimes he oversimplifies. He tends to conflate British landowners with the aristocracy. And he should not get away with the view that the planning system has only favoured what he calls ‘the incumbent’s club’. Tallying with his own belief that ‘rapid dispersal . . . appears to have been beneficial to most urban dwellers,’ there is now a well-researched line of thought to the effect that Young and Willmott’s championing of Bethnal Green was sentimental eyewash, and that the best thing that could have happened to young East Enders in the 1950s was to be decanted to Basildon or Harlow. Not that new towns in the British, French, American or any other version have ever been dream towns; they take too long to mature. Venice can’t have looked nice for its first few centuries.

The last of the social arguments against suburbia, and a fortiori against sprawl, is that it abets segregation. Cities, if Richard Sennett is to be believed, are places where you are forced to learn tolerance and explore difference, whereas sealed in your car between home, mall and corporate campus you can hate away to your heart’s content. Bruegmann’s answer is that most things in population movement have to do with timing. ‘White flight’ was a phenomenon of the 1950s and 1960s. But blacks, Hispanics and other ethnic minorities like living outside American city centres too, and increasingly do so; the richest now join in the building of the ‘McMansions’ or ‘ranchettes’ with vanity-farms attached that have become the height of exurban aspiration. New communities tend to be more flexible than old ones. Unless they are sent to segregated schools, the children of sprawl are well placed to learn tolerance. Conclusion: ‘There is no simple relationship between race and sprawl.’

From a European standpoint the one obvious omission in this book is its reluctance to enter into aesthetics. It is the odder because its author isn’t an econometrician but a professor of architectural history. In Britain, the early objections to sprawl in the form of ‘ribbon development’ bound social and aesthetic judgments together: it was decried as vulgar, tasteless and hideous. The appeal to one type of taste or another can still be heard, whether from the Council for the Preservation of Rural England standing up for the beauty of the countryside, or from Richard Rogers challenging suburban dross with cities full of adventurous architecture. The aesthete begins with what places should and shouldn’t look like and goes on from there to say how people should and shouldn’t live.

Such voices are audible too in the United States, where there is resentment at the spoliation of amenity land by development and where a ‘new urbanist’ movement manages to get the occasional suburb or urban extension neatly laid out. But in planning matters the aesthetic voice is undoubtedly weaker there: it is more effective to cite the ecological or racial effects of sprawl than to say it is downright ugly. In fact, sprawl is by no means always ugly. But it is often anodyne or formless, which bothers the ordering instinct in some of us. Probably Bruegmann would call this a highbrow instinct. If that is accepted, aesthetics dwindles from a general to a particular issue, to just another matter of choice: no highbrow should tell me what my house should look like.

Choice, of course, cuts many ways. That people should be free to live where they wish and should not be judged as better or worse because of it needs to be said loudly to counter urban arrogance. Nor are we obliged to choose between city centre and beyond: many of us oscillate between the two. On this pattern Bruegmann brings in the community theorist Thomas Sieverts, who argues that man’s natural habitat lies not in the open field nor in the forest but at the border between them, so that he can choose which way to go.

Nevertheless, under capitalism choice is always bound up with money and class. Bruegmann’s confidence in the benefits of sprawl goes with an American faith in the blessings of the invisible hand – the mother and father of all ethical value-systems. To those who do not yet have a choice as to where and how they live (one thinks of the hidden underclass without cars left stranded by Hurricane Katrina) the only answer that system can give is that one day they will have, and the only gesture planning can make is to promise them the same deferred future choice. On that view any obstacle to the market will cause more problems than it solves. If we aren’t able to stem market forces in planning, we must protect those who are disadvantaged or damaged by them and insist they be circumscribed within a firm framework of law, negotiated consent and – why not? – national tradition. Choice can’t make all the running. It may open the door to opportunity, I reflect as I wind along my sunlit Surrey lane, but it hardly provides the key to happiness.