If all the sprawl subdivisions covering America is heaven, then we know that people get to heaven in their cars. On the other hand, when sprawl residents fill up their several household cars with gas and choke on what all their driving is costing them, they are likely to think they’re in hell. And when they arrive home tired and stressed out and have a few spare minutes to pay their bills for electricity, natural gas and – for many – rising mortgage costs and soon reach for the bottle of anti-depressant pills and later some prescription sleeping pills, they know that life in suburban sprawl is no longer the heavenly American dream.
Though I once lived in classic suburban sprawl – in Madison, Wisconsin – and eventually learned to hate that automobile dependent lifestyle, it was not until I worked on the sprawl issue from a public policy perspective for the National Governors Association that I learned just how awful the past half-century of relentless sprawl has been for our nation. Mae West said “too much of a good thing is wonderful.” Maybe that’s a good way to decide whether something is good or not. For me ice cream and Chinese food are good and too much of each of them is definitely wonderful. You can probably think of a number of good things in your life. However, think about what you have seen outside of downtowns – the congested roads and highways, the endless strip malls, the big box stores with their seas of parking lots, the never-ending rows of chain restaurants and fast-food joints (that are pretty much the same everywhere in the nation), and all those cookie-cutter subdivisions covering hills, valleys and once beautiful farmland. Is all of that “wonderful?” If not, suburban sprawl is definitely not good. And we certainly have much too much of it covering an incredible amount of America from Puerto Rico to Hawaii to Alaska and everywhere in between.
Contagious sprawl has made us a nation of overweight, obese and time-poor Americans too shackled to our cars. Yet there are certain people who want to convince the public that suburban sprawl is not just inevitable, but that it is terrific. For consumers, what the sprawl issue ultimately is all about is freedom – freedom to choose housing and a community that does not sap our time, heath and money. Right now business interests have too much freedom to make money from sprawl, including land developers, home builders, real estate agents, road builders, and chain stores and restaurants.
For months I have held my breath as Robert Bruegmann received national attention because of his recent book on sprawl. I’ll use my critique of his book to shed some light on the sprawl issue. Bruegmann has used his academic credentials to boldly go where so few other academics have gone – to become the newest outspoken advocate for suburban sprawl. He has achieved exactly what the right-wing pro-car, pro-sprawl crowd has been unable to do – get respect for praising sprawl – and for doing that he has been embraced by pro-sprawl conservative groups, such as the American Dream Coalition, the Heartland Institute, and the Thoreau Institute. Yet his contrarian position does not hold up well to scrutiny. It’s as if some academic physician spoke out in favor of fat-laden, sugar-loaded fast foods and was taken seriously. So I have put together some essential points about the vacuousness of Bruegmann’s views. I acknowledge that I published a book on sprawl and its alternatives some time before Bruegmann’s, and did not receive nearly as much attention as his. Bruegmann sees sprawl as heaven. I see it a lot more like hell.
Bruegmann really thinks sprawl is terrific. When reviewing his book on Planetizen.com, Josh Stephens considered Bruegmann a “devil’s advocate” for smart growth, the umbrella term in recent years for alternatives to sprawl. How wrong that view is. Bruegmann has not shone any light on smart growth. He is simply an unabashed supporter of sprawl who has got it all wrong. His half-baked views, shoddy analysis and misinformation have already done damage by weakening the push for more alternatives to sprawl. That means fewer choices for you.
Here is a typical grand statement by Bruegmann: “Many Americans today, including suburbanites, are happy where they live, work and play.” The key word is “many.” Also: “There is overwhelming evidence that urban sprawl has been beneficial for many people. Year after year, the vast majority of Americans respond to batteries of polls by saying that they are quite happy with where they live, whether it is a city, suburb, or elsewhere.” What Bruegmann ignores is a truck load of opinion polls over many years that present a compelling case that millions of Americans – certainly between a third and a half! – want an alternative to sprawl. This is especially true for two demographics: aging baby boomers and households without children, nor planning them. Even the considerable market research by the land development and home building industries has found this.
People inevitably get stuck about how to define sprawl. For me, sprawl signifies an automobile dependent lifestyle in relatively low housing density settings outside of urban centers. Bruegmann says “sprawl, like the terms ‘urban blight,’ the ‘slum,’ and many of the other terms associated with urban development, is not so much an objective reality as a cultural concept.” People do not suffer in a “concept.” They suffer in a physical reality. His conflation of sprawl with urban problems is intentionally misleading. The sprawl debate has nothing to do with forcing people to live in cities. Most Americans do not want city life. Fine. However, there has been a steady rise in recent years of people leaving their sprawl locations. Go to any central city in the nation and you will see an enormous level of new residential development, because of genuine demand for walkable city places and reduced automobile dependency.
Bruegmann admits: “When asked, most Americans declare themselves to be against sprawl, just as they say they are against pollution or the destruction of historic buildings. But the very development that one individual targets as sprawl is often another family’s much-loved community. Very few people believe that they themselves live in sprawl, or contribute to sprawl. Sprawl is where other people live, particularly people with less good taste. Much anti-sprawl activism is based on a desire to reform these other peoples’ lives.” It’s not a matter of reforming other people lives. What matters is giving people who want something other than sprawl a real choice in suburbia.
An important point is that people who live in sprawl are not – and usually do not consider themselves – residents of the cities that are closest to their sprawl location. For the sake of simplicity and convenience sprawl residents are likely to say that they live in Atlanta, or Houston or Las Vegas, for example, because the sprawl area where they actually live has little meaning to others, and because many they would rather not acknowledge their sprawl status. Yet no one living in sprawl should be ashamed or feel guilty about it, because for nearly everyone there was no other practical choice. As in condemn the sin not the sinner, condemn sprawl not its residents.
What strikes me most about Bruegmann is his remarkable out-of-touchness with American society. He proclaims: “We are more affluent than ever; home ownership is up; life spans are up; pollution is down; crime in most cities has declined. Even where sprawl has created negative consequences, it has not precipitated any crisis.” Crisis does exist for individual working- and middle-class households. I have read hundreds of interviews with sprawl residents who describe their lives in starkly negative terms. They are time poor because of excruciating commutes and endless car drives to do just about everything. They cocoon themselves inside their homes as they drop exhausted from long, stressful hours at work and on the road. They are too tired to cook healthy, home-made meals or use the exercise equipment in their home or go outside for a walk or jog. Their neighbors are mostly strangers.
Bruegmann says “A fast-rising economy often produces a revolution of expectations. I believe these soaring expectations are responsible for many contemporary panics.” What empty rhetoric. Apparently he not informed himself about the staggering and rising economic inequality that plagues working- and middle-class Americans. In our mainly sprawl world, the rich are getting richer and everyone else are getting poorer. Forget expectations, the well documented problem is that non-wealthy Americans have seen their incomes decline as necessary expenses for health care, child care, and gasoline have risen. They have gone into historic debt to buy their homes. If the housing bubble bursts, they will discover disaster. Nor does Bruegmann really understand that sprawl developments with their absence of mixed-income housing are tailored for narrow economic classes. We see large lot, McMansion style and very low density sprawl for the rich, especially in many Western states. And we see high density sprawl projects for lower income people, often with just condos and rental apartments and no single family homes.
With chutzpah Bruegmann asserts these arguments against sprawl: “The four major ones are that it’s economically inefficient, that it’s socially inequitable, that it is environmentally degrading, and that it’s aesthetically ugly.” He seems ignorant of other strongly supported cases against sprawl living. It took time but eventually the medical community came to understand and document how declining physical activity of Americans was a prime cause of the national epidemics of obesity, overweight, diabetes and other illnesses. At the same time, research studies found the connection between sprawl and reduced physical activity. Only a fool would ignore the 50 plus years of sprawl’s impact on declining physical activity.
As to economic inefficiency, what Bruegmann ignores is how sprawl development has continued to be subsidized by the general public through taxes necessary for more public infrastructure. Sprawl residents still do not come close to paying for the new roads, schools, water lines, libraries, police and fire facilities required, despite increased use of impact fees and other devices to get sprawl developers to pay their fair share. Long term rural residents are often forced to move because of new sprawl development causing major tax increases.
As to the environment, Bruegmann chooses to ignore sprawl’s land gluttony and the inescapable loss of open greenspace and farmland that has been well documented. Indeed, sprawl shills have stubbornly refused to recognize what the numbers tell us, namely that in areas where Americans want to live (near water, and not in places like Kansas and Nebraska) we are truly running out of developable land. A shocking statistic is that over 50 percent of new single family homes are on five acres or more. In places like New Jersey and San Diego County, there is hardly any land left for new development.
As to social inequity, all research has confirmed that sprawl development leads to segregation on the basis of income and race. We have equal opportunity sprawl, but not sprawl with a mixture of people with different values, politics, religions, or sexual preferences. Bruegmann does not recognize that every imaginable group has found a way to live in suburban sprawl – but by themselves. Sprawl segregation has harmed our nation and precipitated political divisiveness.
And now for Bruegmann’s favorite phony issue, that sprawl critics focus on its ugliness. Sprawl’s lack of aesthetic quality is an old story. It is rarely brought up anymore in serious “discussions of what’s wrong with sprawl. Yet Bruegmann says: “if you look at the anti-sprawl literature over time, you see that the thing that really gets people annoyed and angry, and has for centuries now, is aesthetics. That is really the emotional linchpin of a tremendous amount of anti-sprawl agitation. …the number of people complaining about the visual impact of sprawl, and the vehemence of their rhetoric, have increased with each successive campaign against it.” Wrong, totally wrong. Just the opposite is true. Apparently Bruegmann has focused only on the early works of James Kunstler. To his credit, Josh Stephens noted that Bruegmann “dismisses aesthetic concerns by way of mockery. With as much snarkiness as has ever been applied to urban planning, he admits, ‘and, by the way, it is ugly.’ …Bruegmann does not actually deny the visual degradation of sprawl – he concedes it, in fact – but instead tries to imply that it does not warrant serious discussion, presumably because aesthetics do not lend themselves to objective measurement and therefore have no impact on people’s lives.” The historical truth is that so many other negative impacts of sprawl on peoples’ lives have emerged that ubiquitous ugliness is now taken for granted and receives scant attention by anyone, including sprawl critics. And that’s sad.
Worse yet, Bruegmann actually says that “every generation’s sprawl is the next generation’s historic landmarks.” Are you kidding? I cannot conceive of any typical sprawl places, residential or commercial, ever becoming historic landmarks, except as being selected for their total absence of aesthetic quality by any standard. In the early years of post-World War II sprawl development there were many touches of truly excellent design. But that ceased decades ago as sprawl became a commodity devoid of distinctive design. A Wal-Mart store has no redeeming aesthetic quality, nor does single land-use residential sprawl developments covering hillsides and valleys throughout the country. In many places it is not sprawl’s ugliness that is the issue. It is the destruction of scenic vistas.
Bruegmann speaks of self-interest: “Although opponents of sprawl believe they are making rational and disinterested diagnoses of urban problems, their actions usually involve powerful, often unacknowledged, self-interest.” He conveniently ignores the ultimate self-interest, the economic self-interests of the sprawl industry, narrowly seen in terms of land developers and home builders, and more broadly seen as including the fast food, road building, and big-box chain retail industries, for example. There is in fact no hidden agenda of sprawl opponents. Environmentalists have always been clear about their considerable attack on sprawl. Others have articulated the many reasons for attacking sprawl, as I have. The three themes in my book were that sprawl harms peoples’ health, robs them of their time, and hurts them financially, all backed up by considerable data.
How has Bruegmann praised sprawl? He says: “The most important thing about sprawl is that it has given to millions and millions of people the kind of privacy, mobility, and choice that was once the privilege of a very small number of people.” On the issue of privacy, what Bruegmann misses is the tradeoff between privacy and true neighborliness and social capital. Americans have paid a heavy price for their sprawl privacy and even today relatively few people understand what so many researchers have confirmed, namely how social isolation negatively affects human health and quality of life. Sprawl residents were the basis for the concept of “bowling alone.” How anyone can argue that sprawl provides mobility is beyond me. Becoming automobile dependent without opportunities for public transit, walking or bicycling is totally inconsistent with true mobility freedom. And choice? My god, Bruegmann seems to have totally ignored the reality of the American housing market, namely that 99.999 percent of housing for many decades has been sprawl. That’s the point about the dominance of sprawl – there simply is too little true housing choice. The overwhelming majority of Americans have no choice in the area where they want to live other than sprawl. Look at all the new housing in every high growth area in the country and there are virtually no alternatives to sprawl in suburban areas. With all the defensiveness about smart growth and new urbanism among sprawl supporters, the fact remains that these movements have been completely constrained and marginalized. They have not put a dent in the sprawl market. The continued success of sprawl is not solely a result of Americans’ conscious housing choice. It is more a consequence of the choice of the land development and home building industries to provide what they know how to do well and profitably – produce sprawl. Build sprawl and they will come, because they have to!
Of course, sprawl shills ignore what I call sprawl politics, the use of big money to buy politicians in order to preserve zoning and other laws that favor sprawl.
Now, consider the important issue of cars. An Atlanta journalist asked Bruegmann: “To many, the car has come to symbolize much of what is wrong with America – – particularly here in Atlanta. But you rise to its defense.” To which Bruegmann answered: “If we’re talking about those three things that it seems people all over the world really want – – privacy, mobility and choice – – I don’t think there’s any single thing that’s happened in world history that’s given more people more of those three things more quickly or more dramatically. …The automobile has enabled [families] to have two people working.” Got that? People have been blessed because all household adults must work long hours. For Bruegmann, “the problems of sprawl are really, to me, the problems of an awful lot of people having all kinds of choices and privileges that once were simply unavailable to most people.” Mobility – stuck in traffic whenever you drive? Excuse me, but this is sheer nonsense. Statistically, few Americans have rejected sprawl and been able to find an alternative either in suburbia or cities, but those who have reduced their automobile use by 50 percent or more. But as energy and gas prices skyrocket, more will flee sprawl.
Family life has eroded because households have several cars and no one has any free time to interact substantially with family members. Anyone who has been raised in or lived awhile in an old fashioned mixed-use community or city knows the wonders of being able to do all kinds of things without spending so much time in cars. And as to American economics, households must have two wage earners just to survive. More than any other country, Americans spend more time working and driving, not by choice, but by necessity, because of a lack of housing choice. Beyond his love of automobile dependency, like all other sprawl shills, Bruegmann also denigrates spending on public transit, completely ignoring the fact that compared to road building and maintenance, hardly any public funds are spent on public transit, and that countless public opinion polls have found that Americans would rather have tax dollars spent on public transportation rather than roads.
Like other sprawl shills, Bruegmann obfuscates the choice Americans make, as if the choice is only between suburban and city living. In truth, the smart growth and new urbanism movements are much more about giving Americans more choice in suburban locations. Sprawl shills like to talk about forcing Americans to live in cities. Nothing is farther from the truth. The most successful mixed-use, smart growth types of new communities have been in suburban locations. People move into sprawling metropolitan areas – suburban sprawl takes place at increasing distances from city cores. It is exactly like expanding body fat on a person. The jobs are not in urban centers, as Bruegmann talks about, but within countless expanding suburban or exurban places with office centers and retailing. Long commutes take place between suburban sprawl locations, not just between suburbia and central cities.
One of Bruegmann’s annoying habits is to talk about anti-sprawl “elites” trying to protect their wealth and privileges. After many years of working on sprawl issues I see no evidence of this, with the possible exception of the relatively small number of architects in the new urbanism movement. As Inga Saffron, the urban design writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer, noted in a review of the book: “The attack on so-called elites should set off alarm bells. Are people who have moved to the exurban frontier for the sake of the kids really happy with the sprawl that forces them to spend more time commuting than parenting? And the fact that Americans desire something doesn’t mean it’s the best policy.”
There is a long history of anti-sprawl sentiment, stretching back to the 1950s and 1960s. Our nation had clear warnings decades ago from prescient thinkers like Lewis Mumford, William H. Whyte, and John Keats. But they were largely ignored. A favorite early study of mine was a 1981 report: “The Affordable Community: Growth, Change, and Choice in the ’80s.” It was produced by the Council on Development Choices for the ’80s that had a distinguished, diverse group of 35 members, including some notables, such as Bill Clinton, then governor of Arkansas, and James W. Rouse, a pioneering developer, as well as several other governors, and a number of mayors, architects, and developers. Terms like smart growth and new urbanism were not yet used, but correspond to what the report called urban villages, a few of which existed even in 1980. The group endorsed a mix of land uses in neighborhoods and communities, and a mix of housing types in them, as well as higher densities of housing on land rather than what had evolved over the prior thirty years of sprawl dominance. And what was said about car use is even truer today: “Americans will never willingly give up their cars, nor should they. But…they may well want to drive less, and they should have that choice. People seem to want more transportation choices… More homebuyers are seeking housing located near to their workplace.” Today, one of the hottest types of housing is Transit Oriented Development. Listen to the Council’s three co-chairs: “[Americans] need to be made aware of new forces in the marketplace and the choices that could and should be theirs.” Choices they still don’t have. Elitism has nothing to do with sprawl criticism. Choices are needed.
A more widely read report “Beyond Sprawl” was released in 1994 by the Bank of America and several other California groups. It forcibly made the case against continuation of the sprawl pattern of development in California. It said that the need to move beyond sprawl “has never been more critical or urgent. …we must move beyond sprawl in the few remaining years of the 20th century. …We cannot afford another generation of sprawl. [The state] is increasingly characterized by a limited supply of developable land. …A do-nothing approach, in effect, constitutes a policy decision in favor of the status quo. …We must act now.” Here we are in the next century and clearly the urgent call for curbing sprawl has not worked in California or anywhere else. Forget elitism. Anti-sprawl sentiment is universal. The fact that sprawl has prevailed despite so much criticism of it only shows how strong the sprawl industry is and why sprawl shills like Bruegmann are so dangerous. Sprawl critics have gotten it right. Bruegmann has it wrong. You have lost more access to alternatives to sprawl, like the several hundred new smart growth communities in suburban locations that have sold quickly because of high demand.
Journalist Inga Saffron also saw the truth: “Bruegmann, who teaches in the art history department, has received mostly sympathetic responses to his book, which might have easily been titled, Sprawl: The Bright Side. …At first glance, Bruegmann’s book gives the appearance of being an objective historical survey. He comes with an impeccable urbanist pedigree: A professor at a downtown Chicago university. …Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania. But the book is, in fact, a polemic on behalf of unfettered, free-market development, wherever it might be. … Bruegmann is right that some people will always gravitate to the next suburban frontier. But that doesn’t mean our government policies should encourage them.” Actually local, state and federal agencies subsidize suburban sprawl development and the sprawl industry distributes money to politicians to maintain this system.
James Kunstler, who energized attempts to curb sprawl with several hit books, identified the “interesting symptom of the infantilization of the American public that the most common intellectual defense of suburbia states that it must be okay because people choose it (see David Brooks, Robert Bruegmann, Joel Kotkin, Peter Huber, et al, on that).” So true. Choice without options is meaningless.
There is only one rational conclusion to be made about Bruegmann’s apparent success in shilling for sprawl: academic credentials trump substance. I agree with Josh Stephens assessment: “The result is a cartoon version of scholarship that advocates little but the status quo.” In truth, we have an enormous amount of data to objectively reach conclusions about sprawl. In the end, what all the information and personal experience show is that uncontrolled sprawl has harmed America in many, many ways – our culture, our health, our environment, and even our politics. The marketplace has not worked for a long time, because housing supply determines demand more than demand determines community design and housing choices. The sprawl industry has a new ally in Bruegmann, but he is not serving the interests of all the Americans who want a choice other than sprawl. If you value what little free time you have, don’t waste it on Sprawl: A Compact History. If you want details about finding and choosing an alternative to sprawl, read my book. Most of all, pay attention to your local politics, because inevitably there are struggles to fight new sprawl development.
Decide for yourself whether our dominant sprawl way of life represents a heavenly or hellish existence – a healthy or unhealthy lifestyle. Especially think about this the next time you’re driving in suburbia, when you realize that you can’t walk to your destination, and when your inner voice reminds you that you need to walk more.
[Formerly Director of Environment, Energy and Natural Resources at the National Governors Association, Joel S. Hirschhorn is the author of Sprawl Kills – How Blandburbs Steal Your Time, Health and Money and the forthcoming Delusional Democracy – Fixing the Republic Without Overthrowing the Government; he can be reached through www.sprawlkills.com or www.delusionaldemocracy.com .]