I recently read Robert Bruegmann’s book Sprawl: A Compact History, which serves as something of a contrarian voice in all the current literature about suburbia. I’ve already returned it to the library, so I don’t have any cool quotes from it handy, but there’s an interview with the author in a recent issue of U.S. News & World Report.
I found several things helpful in Bruegmann’s book. First of all, many authors, myself included, have assumed that suburban growth patterns are a largely North American phenomenon and that global cities have tended to be more compact and less sprawling. Bruegmann argues that suburban expansion is nothing new or particularly American, and that cities throughout history and around the world exhibit many of the same patterns. Suburban areas around Paris look just like those in the U.S. So suburban sprawl need not be seen as a 20th-century American deviation, but rather as fairly consistent with historical and global norms.
Second, Bruegmann makes the case that suburban growth is not necessarily linked to white flight from urban racial diversity. The conventional wisdom in many circles has been that whites fled urban cores to the suburbs out of racism or fear of diversity, leading to disinvestments in the cities and urban decay, and that suburban growth came as a result of racial fear. Bruegmann points out that the biggest problem with this theory is that suburban growth patterns have been largely the same across the board, whether in cities with low minority populations, like Minneapolis, or those with high minority populations, like Chicago. In other words, suburbanization is a larger phenomenon than alleged white flight, or white flight is just one of many factors and by no means the most significant. Suburbanization takes place regardless of the racial and ethnic makeup of the cities and suburbs concerned.
Third, Bruegmann argues that the places most alleged to be sprawling suburban metropolises, like Tucson and Phoenix and other newer cities in the American south and west, actually have denser population and land-use patterns than many older cities. I suspect that economic forces are at work here; developers and city planners get more bang for the buck in new developments to have more property owners and tenants in their areas. Hence bigger houses on smaller plots of land and compact retail space that clusters more stores in smaller areas, rather than sprawling estates and wide-open suburban spaces. So “suburban sprawl” is not quite as distinct a phenomenon as previously assumed; many suburban areas are actually taking on the civic traits of denser urban communities. I think of this as the suburbanization of cities and the urbanization of suburbs—these are no longer neatly divided categories, but both are morphing as interdependent parts of a metropolitan whole.
I think Bruegmann may be a little too dismissive of the problems inherent to suburban environments, but his contribution is a helpful corrective to other literature that is more unilaterally dismissive of suburbs in general, as if nothing good can come of suburbia. Bruegmann’s take is more neutral than many. Suburbia is what it is, for good and for bad, and Bruegmann’s data will help us avoid making blanket generalizations about suburbia’s flaws.