Monday, March 20, 2006

Sprawl: A Compact History, by Robert Bruegmann

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.


Nate said...

Hey Al,

Nice write-up. I haven't read Sprawl yet, but I did read the interview in USN&WR, and found my way here by way of a trackback there. I'm still waiting for Los Angeles Public Library to deliver Sprawl to my local neighborhood branch, as I'm thinking about going to Urban Planning school. And I'm also an IV grad. So I'm glad to have found your blog.

That he's dismissive of white flight based on the ethnic and racial makeup of today's surbanizers makes sense to me, but I think he's missing the fact that there's still a kind of flight going on, I think. It's just that minorities are fleeing as they can now, too. Call it socio-economic flight, maybe?

Those left behind are still largely minorities, though. It's complicated of course. Downtown L.A. is going through it's own suburbanization right now, and I figure in a few years, there'll be an increase of private space for affluent Downtown dwellars to enjoy.

So your point about urban areas suburbanizing, and surburbans urbanizing really makes a lot of sense to me.

I'm new to your blog, so I'll have do some more reading to get your take on the Christian suburban life. My thing is, I think, is that I think communities ought to be so much more hetergenous socio-economically than we let them be. Do you think urbanizing suburbans and suburbanizing urban areas are a good trend in this regard? As far forcing us to confront fears. Sprawl as good seems a little too easy, I'm sure his book is more nuanced than that, but that seems to be what he's saying. Hope you can forgive this already too long comment.

Al Hsu said...

To give Bruegmann a little more nuance - I don't think he would say that race is not a factor in suburbanization or that white flight is a myth - I think he would say that race is a factor but not the primary or determining one, that there are larger economic forces at work. Especially in the origins of suburbia. It's not that white flight started suburbia - it's rather that suburbia started and whites (and others with the economic means) were quick to go there once affordable new housing developments were made available.

In general, I think suburbia will continue to follow demographic trends and diversify, but it's true that suburbia is a commercial environment, and if you can pay, you can play. I say in my book that I'm more optimistic about ethnic and racial diversity in suburbia than I am of socioeconomic class diversity in suburbia. Neighborhoods and subdivisions tend to be economically segregated - one community has $250,000 homes, another has $400,000 homes, another has $800,000 homes, etc. So even if there is increasing racial diversity within particular suburban neighborhoods, there tends to be socioeconomic homogeneity.

Suburbanizing cities and urbanizing suburbs points to a larger umbrella concept - thinking in terms of the overall metropolis rather than a dichotomy between city and suburb. Older suburbs are increasingly having many of the same infrastructure problems of disinvestment, poverty, etc., and so the tools of urban ministry and community development are increasingly relevant to older first-ring suburbs. As new suburbs become new cities, old suburbs become old cities. It just points to a lot of complexity across the board!