Sunday, 21 May 2006

Sprawl: A compact history

"Urban sprawl is one of the greatest enemies of good urban design," say some. I don't agree. As I've said here before, numerous times, urban sprawl is not your enemy. Sprawl is good -- good because it offers people living within a region choices in how they live, without the expensive barriers to entering the housing market that anti-sprawl regulation brings. Where zoning and planning regulations are nothing more than a windfall for existing owners, and a highly regressive form of taxation on those with lower incomes and wealth,
'sprawl' is simply a reflection of letting people live free, in the manner of their own choosing. Allowing cities to sprawl does not preclude those who wish to live in higher densities from doing so, it simply removes restrictions on all those who don't.
I've already posted a review of Robert Bruegmann's book Sprawl: A Compact History but a recent and very good review by Randal O'Toole makes the argument again that the cost of planning is a greater evil than the evils planning is supposed to remove :
Bruegmann's book makes three major points. First, urban sprawl--that is, low-density development at the urban fringe--is not a new phenomenon; indeed, its history goes back hundreds of years and perhaps even to the first cities. Second, opposition to sprawl comes primarily from elites who are protecting their wealth and interests from lower classes whom the elites believe are less deserving or less appreciative of the benefits of low-density lifestyles. Finally, Bruegmann shows that most, if not all, of the remedies for sprawl do more harm than good, mainly by increasing traffic congestion and housing costs.
Sounds good, right? Bruegmann's point about the noisier opponents of sprawl is instructive. It's the urban equivalent of the environmentalist who already has his bush cabin. Read the full review here [hat tip Commons Blog]. Read Glenn Reynolds earlier review here. And check out the links below for my own posts on sprawl, and on urban design in general. They do a fair bit of sprawling themselves.

LINKS: The perils of planning - Randal O'Toole, Regulation [six-page PDF]
Sprawl has always been good - Not PC
Sprawl is good - Not PC
Decentralisation, and those who oppose it - Peter Cresswell, Not PC
Sprawl is good, regulation is not - NotPC
Countywide zoning is unwanted government control - Not PC
Frank Lloyd Wright: Broadacre City - Peter Cresswell, Not PC

Urban_Design Socialism Architecture Environment Libertarianism


  1. A fascinating and contrarian take on a key issue. I think your argument has lots of merits, but then i'm a child of sprawling American 1960s suburbia and stranger yet a suburbia which was never really connected to a larger urban metro center (Tallahassee, FL and the surrounding four county area plus the highway band through borderland South Georgia quail hunting plantations–where jJackie O hid out after Dallas '63–on the way to Thomasville, GA). In Gloria Jahoda's famous words, 1960s Tallahassee was "two hundred miles from anywhere else."

  2. I think suburbia (and the associated sprawl) was a living arrangement that suited the post WW2 age. But it's really a gross waste of resources. It gobbles up productive land so that people can live in car-dependant culdesacs.

    Suburbia is really nothing more than a rural halfway house. I think the entire suburban project is a delusional enterprise predicated on the ability of everyone to jump in their SUV and drive 60k everyday to and from their work places. Once this sort of behaviour becomes problematic so too will the living arrangement that depends upon it.

    To be honest the majority of New Zealanders with 2.3 kids, mortgaged to the hilt and earning less than 45k a year are going to find the suburban dream quickly descend into a nightmare as the decade draws to a close and oil moves beyond $100 a barrel.

    I think there will be a mad rush to get out of the suburbs. I think the last thing we need is to be perpetuating the false belief in the average punter that the use of resources in this way (more suburban sprawl) is sustainable.

    There ends up being a conflict between what you might want and what you can actually have.

  3. Just found an alternative to PC's view on Bruegmans ideas -


    "There is a species of fatuous thinking these days in America which states, in so many words, that suburbia is fine and dandy because so many people like it. Variations on this theme range from the idea that suburbia is the highest expression of free markets, to the notion that it is the natural outcome of our democracy, to the belief that God has ordained it. "

  4. Geez Steve, how many non-sequitirs can you get in there?

    Gobbles up productive land? No, it doesn't.
    Jump in SUVs? No, look round an average suburb.

    You totally miss the point anyway. Suppose you are right and there is this mass flight from the burbs... Well so what? Means that people are doing it rationally for themselves. Suppose you're wrong though, then what are you going to do if they stay and more people want to move out there?

    Anyway, the burbs aren't going away soon. Even if oil rises over 100 there are trains, busses and shock horror *other vehicles* to buy.

    Conflict between what you want and can actually have? Well that is life after all. The point you might have missed in Bruegman's article is that it is universally better if people figure it out for themselves rather than having regulations telling them they can't live where they'd prefer.

  5. Steve, the critical points are:

    1. If someone buys the land or rents it off the owner, why does it matter if a house, apartments, shops, farm or nothing is built on it? Why is it your business?

    2. Why is your business if someone drives, walks, rides or bikes, as long as you are not made to pay for it or the infrastructure they use?

  6. Dear Chefen,

    I think you are confusing non-sequiter with smart-arse comment. There is a distinction.

    No everything written here (from my observation) is a "well structured argument" so drop the wanky puffed up hubris mate. Just because you did a first year philosophy paper doesn't mean you're entitled to wander around correcting perceived logical flaws in comments you happen to disagree with.

    Simply telling me I'm talking a lot of crap would have been better than a weak attempt to flatter your own ego.

    God, what's with you Ayn Rand obsessors anyway.

  7. Furthermore,

    Anyone seriously trying to argue that urban sprawl is a good thing, is seriously fucked in the head.

    I think that's a given.

    And, that really is the point.

    However, Libertarians, seemingly obsessed with first year informal logic will argue a shit sandwich is good, in the face of advice to the contrary.

  8. Steve - Anyone who believes that sprawl's antithesis, namely high-density housing, is a good thing, is seriously fucked in the head and fucking society up the arse, like our city government is currently doing in my town.

  9. "seriously fucked in the head" well done Steve. That's not first year studies, unless you mean first year at high school.

    I guess there is a shortage of land for non housing purposes in that tiny country called the USA?

    Tell me how high density housing, funded or forced by local authorities has been a social good? I don't want to live in a fucking high rise apartment - if you do Steve, then good for you, you can share it with the rest of those who have no other option but live in highrise blocks of despair.

    You're planning fascism is what spawned the 1950s/1960s tower block hellholes of the US, UK and elsewhere - and those places are still getting over the vision of little self-righteous do-gooding wankers who thought it would SO wonderful for low income people to be in high rise communities with open spaces below them, and close to the public transport they thought it would be good for them to use.

    and they are accountable for no one for what a disaster it was.

  10. Dear Steve
    Nice comeback. Anyone who disagrees with me is fucked in the head. OK, your call on that one.

    Never read an Ayn Rand book in my life. Didn't do first year philosophy. So?

    Anyone seriously trying to argue that urban sprawl is a good thing, is seriously fucked in the head.

    I think that's a given.

    And, that really is the point.

    Let's see... ad hominem (sorry, I didn't do Latin either), begging the question and then a deductive fallacy. Crikey mate, you'd better get back to your first year logic class.

  11. The funniest thing about efficious pimply faced poofters is it's so easy to push the appropriate buttons thereby eliciting a cot/toy throwing episode. oooh matron, my sincere apologies for not adhereing to the rules of informal logic. Shame on me.

    I suppose it's a bit like playing with a furby, fun for a few minutes before you become utterly bored.


1. Comments are welcome and encouraged.
2. Comments are moderated. Gibberish, spam & off-topic grandstanding will be removed. Tu quoque will be moderated. Links to bogus news sites (and worse) will be deleted.
3. Read the post before you comment. Challenge facts, but don't simply ignore them.
4. Use a name. If it's important enough to say it, it's important enough to put a name to it.
5. Above all: Act with honour. Say what you mean, and mean what you say.