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Volume 5, Number 2
Fall 2007

    Book Review of: Sprawl: A Compact History


George H. Conklin

North Carolina Central University

    Sprawl: A Compact History by Robert Bruegmann (ISBN 0-226-07690-3) has been heavily marketed to sociology departments and urban sociology professors by the University of Chicago Press (2005).   This is somewhat unusual because publishers today tend to let the journals notify scholars of a new book which they might use in class.  But so far reviews of this important scholarly book have been few in the social sciences, although one geographer has written, "This is a book a geographer should have written. Scholarly, yet accessible to a wide audience, it treats an important subject that is both controversial and inherently spatial (Harris 2006)."  Likewise it can be said even more forcefully that this is a book which a sociologist or a demographer should have written, because human ecology is a core subject in our discipline.

    Bruegmann explains that while he found endless books about city centers, he could find little about city patterns as a whole, which is alarming because in both Europe and the United States more people live in the suburbs and exurbs than either city centers or in rural areas.  In 2006 for the first time in human history the majority of the world's population is now urban and cities are growing rapidly.

    As cities grow, however, the critics have a new term  to label the process.  That term is sprawl, which even little children know is supposed to be very bad indeed.  But Bruegmann reminds us that the density gradient for London (and other cities) flattened over time, showing that the so-called suburbs are in fact getting more dense even as center cities are becoming somewhat less densely populated. (Bring Up Gradient Chart in New Window).    Further, as economic development takes place, cities all over the world are becoming less dense. (Bring Up Regression Chart in New Window).

    Bruegmann's demography is excellent and he easily shows what demogaphers already know from other United Nations data:  that when an population becomes less than 50% rural, what critics want to call sprawl becomes the norm.  Sprawl, in other words, is not culture-specific, nor is it nation-specific and began long before the automobile.  If sprawl is scattered urban development without systematic large-scale or regional public land-use planning, then nearly all the cities of the world fit into that category, and have historically also.

    But what Bruegmann is very good at is locating the focus (and probably the cause) of the anti-sprawl movement, something which the book reviewers  link so far have ignored: the class bias of those against the suburbs.  The anti-sprawl debate is and has been drenched in class resentment. Here is an example from a British author in 1932:

Tradition has broken down.  Taste is utterly debased.  There is no enlightened guidance or correction from authority.   The town, long since degraded, is now being annihilated by a flabby, shoddy, romantic nature-worship.  That romantic nature-worship is destroying also the object of its adoration, the countryside.....  Two diametrically opposed, dramatically contrasting, inevitable types of beauty are being displaced by one drab revolting neutrality....  The strong, masculine virility of the town; the softer beauty, the richness, the fruitfullness of that mother of men, the countryside, will be debased into one sterile, hermaphroditic beastliness (p. 118).
    Indeed the vocabulary of the anti-sprawl movement was established very early, and continues to this day.   As if to confirm Bruegmann's analysis, a review from the Harvard Design Magazine (Fall 2006/Winter 2007, Number 25, listed on the link above) writes:
Robert Bruegmann has performed a rare feat by writing a book about sprawl in which nobody has bad intentions.  The usual suspects (venal developers, pushy lenders, road and housing lobbies, big-box retailers, traffic engineers) are cleared of all charges and sent back to continue their work---plowing under farmland and spitting up cookie-cutter subdivisions (Ross 2006/2007). (Italics added). 
It is interesting how writers from Harvard University easily confirm the charge Bruegmann makes that the anti-sprawl movement is simply typical highbrow disdain of the middle-class.  A review from Skidmore College even comes close to saying that books like Sprawl should not even be allowed to be published:
That so many editors, foundation board members, and deans of faculty allow this obvious casuistry to pass as thinking at all says a lot about what a nation of morons we have become, and how deep the intellectual rot runs (Kunstler 2006).
Rather than deal with the obvious demographic changes taking place in the world, as Sprawl contends we should, the critics have continued their so-called "objective" view of the world using words like flabby, shoddy, cookie-cutter and morons. 

    As Bruegmann has pointed out, being against urban growth is hardly new.  Queen Elizabeth I tried to stop London's expanding, and failed, of course.  After mechanical transportation in the form of steam trains began to influence human ecology and trade,  British aristocrats were against railways because they would "only encourage common people to move around needlessly."  But move the people did, long before any city became auto-dependent. 

    The automobile has become the whipping boy of modern planners, who want to contend that Europe, through its planning process, has been an exception to the usual pattern of urban growth found in the United States.  The argument is also put forth frequently that sprawl can be defined only as auto-dependent development, thus getting rid of the entire history of urban expansion and allowing arguments to be made that the United States is an exception among the nations of the world.

    But is the United States an exception when it comes to sprawl?  Bruegmann once again points out that car use in Europe is now similar to that in the United States.  More importantly, he comments (p. 75):  "The Paris known to most tourists and most academics is a very small piece of land....  Actually, at least four out of every five Parisians live in the suburbs that surround the city, for example, in this subdivision of Senart."  (Bring Up Image in New Window.)  Tourists do not notice how the average person lives in France.  One interesting feature of the photograph of the residential areas of Paris is the wall around the private houses.  Were that to happen in the United States, another planning lobby would start to warn us about gated neighborhoods and about not putting our single-family houses in the middle of a large piece of grass. 

    If there is any one statement which seems to summarize the detailed analysis found in Sprawl it might be the author's comment that the vocabulary against urban blight and modern sprawl have been the same.  In reference to the garden city solution to urban sprawl, certain well-known examples can be cited.  Among these examples would be Columbia, Maryland, Reston, Virginia, and many New Urbanist plans since then, including Celebration, Florida.  These expensive garden cities are put forth as models of human ecology. 

Today it is accepted wisdom among many planners and smart growth advocates everywhere.  That the remedies for high-density blight look very much like the remedies for low-density sprawl suggests that from the beginning many experts thought they had the answer to urban problems.  They just needed to find the correct problem to solve with it (p. 171). 
    Sprawl (the book) puts human urban ecology into its cross-national context.  It makes no more sense to think of sprawl as uniquely American as it would be to label the falling birth rates in the United States since World War II a uniquely American pattern, and then to argue that we cannot look at the birth rates of Europe or the rest of the world because other nations are different culturally or historically, even if this is how the anti-sprawl campaigns like to discuss American urbanization. 

    The discussion of the class-based hatred of urban growth, confirmed unfortunately by many of the reviews of this book published so far, is the most valuable contribution of the book.  Anti-sprawl activity is not only class-based, but race-based too.  As the African American population of the United States is starting to suburbanize, we now face increased anti-sprawl propaganda as well as calls for tax-supported development in central parts of cities for upscale condominiums for our rich Yuppie populations. Anti-sprawl activity today in the United States is quite racist indeed, an integral part of the revanchist city. 

    Sprawl: A Compact History should be in every university library and it is high time that sociologists stop ignoring human ecology as an important on-going field of study.  And yes, this book should have been written by a sociologist!

Works Cited

Harris, Richard. (2006).  Review in the Annals of the Association of American Geographers 96(3): 666-667.

Kunstler, James Howard. (2006).  Review in Salmagundi, The Quarterly Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences of Skidmore College Fall 2006.  Page numbers not recorded on web.

Ross, Andrew. (2006/2007). Review in Harvard Design Magazine Fall/Spring 2006/2007): 1.

 Note: Bruegmann has gathered together the reviews of the book at
reviews.html> link. A search of Sociological Abstracts (accessed on 17 October 2007) revealed no book reviews not previously located by Bruegmann in the social science literature, nor did a careful scan of Google and Google Scholar reveal any new reviews listed as of that date.  

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