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Monday, December 12, 2005

"Learning to Love Sprawl"

Here is a worth-reading review by Glenn Reynolds of Robert Bruegmann's new book, "Sprawl:  A Compact History."  (The Other Professor Garnett -- a property and land-use scholar -- is also working on a review, I hear . . . ).  Here's how it opens:

Everybody knows some things about sprawl: It's a recent, and largely American phenomenon; it encourages wasteful use of resources; it's aesthetically unpleasant; and it benefits the rich at the expense of the poor. We also know that it could be conquered if Americans just gave up their "love affair with the automobile" and favored mass transit.

Everybody knows these things, but Robert Bruegmann's new book, Sprawl: A Compact History, argues that they're untrue.

Sprawl isn't recent, says Bruegmann. Rich people have always wanted to sprawl:

"Ancient, medieval, and early modern literature is filled with stories of the elegant life of a privileged aristocracy living for large parts of the year in villas and hunting lodges at the periphery of large cities. . . . High density, from the time of Babylon until recently, was the great urban evil, and many of the wealthiest or most powerful citizens found ways to escape it at least temporarily."

Sprawl didn't become a problem until the wealthy and powerful were joined by the hoi polloi. Thanks to greater wealth and improvements in transportation, they were able to move from teeming tenements to less-urban settings. Once this started to happen -- before the automobile hit the scene, and beginning outside the United States -- social critics began to complain that sprawl was ruining pristine landscapes, and destroying the charm of urban life.

Now, I am -- I confess -- an urbanist who agrees with Philip Bess that human beings flourish in walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods.  At the same time, I am put off by many of the arguments and elitism of many urbanists, and I really like big-box retail and high-end chain restaurants.  It sounds to me like Reynolds and Bruegmann are on to something . . . . 

Posted by Rick Garnett on December 12, 2005 at 04:49 PM | Permalink


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If you are interested, Michael Lewyn takes on Reynolds's argument on sprawl here: http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/property/2005/12/reynolds_on_bru.html#comments

Posted by: Ben Barros | Dec 13, 2005 2:16:38 PM

What about the health care implications of chain restaurant food?

Posted by: keith talent | Dec 13, 2005 2:42:52 AM

I'm sure those places serve food I'd be happy to eat on many occasions, though I've never eaten at them (not becuase I'm such a snob, but more becuase I don't eat out much, I've not heard of many of them, and they are not conveniently located for me.) Surely if the choice is between one of those places and, say, a Denny's I'd follow your lead. My only worries are when all we seem to get is yet another stip mall w/ yet another applebees or whatever. (I speak of my home town in that description, unfortunately.) It's that sort of thing I find soul-crushing. Of course, so long as it's a strip mall it's unlikely that there will anything other than an Applebees or whatever there.

Posted by: Matt | Dec 12, 2005 11:06:57 PM

Fair enough, Matt. But in all seriousness . . . I really do think that, generally speaking, places like the Cheesecake Factory, Maggiano's. Bonefish Grill, P.F. Chang's, and Roy's have made life better. (This is not to say that I wouldn't much rather have fabulous hole-in-the-wall ethnic places.)

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Dec 12, 2005 10:22:57 PM

Admit it Rick- you're last bit is just an adaptive preference given the fact that there are no good independent resturants in the cultural waste-land of South Bend! (I expect I'm joking, since I don't actually know anything about the resturants in South-Bend- but, of course, adaptive preferences are real and must be considered, and places in some ways like South Bend are good candidates to lack high quality local fare.)

Posted by: Matt | Dec 12, 2005 9:56:14 PM

Reynolds, per usual, is all excited pseudo-populism with no facts or arguments. Land may be cheaper further from the metropolis but it's the socialization of costs such as building roads and extending services out to the remoter areas that makes that so. If developers were forced to internalize those costs, suddenly sprawl would be far less attractive. He suggests with no example or authority that the efforts of urban planners make things worse (ah, meta-Reynolds theme meets facts, oh happy coincidence), but is this so? Imagine if state legislators subsidized density and penalized sprawl according to a plan that took into account all the costs associated with the latter? What if, for example, they incorporated the hidden costs of commuting into an impact tax levied against developers?

Posted by: Bart Motes | Dec 12, 2005 6:02:36 PM

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