I have been reading, with pleasure, Robert Bruegmann’s, Sprawl: A Compact History. This is a learned discussion that looks at urban sprawl from a historical perspective. To begin, it is not obvious what sprawl is – the distant exurbia or the newly emerging suburban subdivisions – but even the word itself suggests that, whatever it is, it is something unpleasant. RB define it roughly as ‘low-density, scattered, urban development without systematic large-scale or regional public land-use planning’. A useful wiki on sprawl is here.
The negative arguments against spawl are that it encourages use of cars, creates pollution and high costs of providing public transport, roads, water supply, sewerage and other infrastructure. Sprawl also is claimed to involve the destruction of nature reserves, forests, agriculture and recreation. It is also popularly associated with an sterotyped idea of cultural homogeneity and bland, uninteresting lifestyles. Supporters of low density development, however, claim that sprawl has advantages since traffic intensities are less, traffic speeds faster and, as a result, air pollution emissions tend to be less intense per square mile: see demographia.
RB emphasises the positive side of modern sprawl in the affluent developed world by examining issues historically. The argument is that, even though sprawl has existed since ancient imperial Roman times, cities have become progressively less dense but much more attractive and livable with time. Instead of only the very wealthy living on large blocks on the boundaries of large cities, now many people live on such blocks. This areas are not culturally-barren slums but differentiated, inviting places to live with gardens, parks, good roads and often with both good public and private facilities such as libraries, swimming pools, a range of shops, quality restaurants, bars, sporting venues, Buddhist temples and (in my suburb) a Hells’ Angel motor cycle club.
In addition inner city areas, such as the row houses of London, which horrified highbrow British ctitics in the 19th century when they were built, are now considered to be a stylish model of compact urban life. The same thing could be said of the residential sections of suburbs like Carlton in Melbourne or Paddington in Sydney which have also been gentrified over recent decades.
RB’s book is scholarly but he admits that much of his research was carried out in a hire car and driving around cities or by observing cities while travelling by plane or other public transport. Its a useful tip that have been following over recent weeks while driving around Melbourne and Sydney. Many of suburbs that would typically be described as sprawl (including those with McMansions) are anything but unpleasant. You have only to open your eyes to see the myth or at least the ambuity in the prevalent stereotype.
RB is seeking greater respect and appreciation for our urban landscapes. His main point is that much criticism of sprawl is either elitist cultural criticism or just confusion. The latter is noteworthy – ask the next dinner party guest who complains to you about sprawl whether they live in it. Chances are they will say they don’t. Indeed, generally, we don’t live in sprawl others do! I will refer to other parts of RB’s excellent book in later posts. RB has interesting things to say about such things as traffic congestion – he argues that attempts to reduce sprawl generally worsen congestion.