The Virtues of SprawlInteresting article in the Boston Globe on the virtues of sprawl (thanks to the Out of Control blog for the pointer). A lot of good thoughts in here, so I'm gonna go overboard on the excerpts (highlights mine):
But is all that a bad rap? Maybe, says Robert Bruegmann, a professor of art history, planning and architecture at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who identifies many good things about sprawl. ''It's no better or no worse than any other settlement pattern," Bruegmann says. ''It works because it satisfies a lot of needs. When people have been able to afford it, people move out of cities. We now have tens of millions of people who can do what only a small minority once could do."
Bruegmann, whose new book, ''Sprawl: A Compact History" (Chicago), will be published this month, joins consultant and author Joel Kotkin, New York Times columnist David Brooks, and others in finding inspiration in the subdivisions, like a Jane Jacobs of suburbia. The embrace of dispersal follows a long tradition started by Thomas Jefferson and followed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Today Bruegmann and others feel it's important to identify what's good about spread-out development because sprawl has been hammered for over two decades by activists urging ''smart growth" and New Urbanism, the latter an architectural movement promoting compact traditional neighborhood design.
Sprawl gives us ''decentralization and democratization," Bruegmann says—an orderly use of land that draws in working-class and middle-class people and allows them to head upward in the economy and society. Homes in new subdivisions in the South and West commonly start at $120,000. To try to curb sprawl is to stand in the way of the flourishing of the American dream.
''It's a way to get things once possessed by only a few," Bruegmann says. ''Privacy, mobility—social and physical—and choice."
Nor is sprawl a new phenomenon. From ancient Rome and China to 19th-century London to Paris and Los Angeles today, society has spread out during economic good times. ''There's a massive out-migration as soon as people can afford it," Bruegmann says. Accordingly, maybe we should all stop worrying and learn to love the subdivision.
Most smart-growth activists today don't spend a lot of time criticizing sprawl or predicting suburbia's demise. Their main focus is providing more choice for those people who don't want to live in sprawl—changing outdated zoning that prevents compact, mixed-use development near train stations, for example.
''Smart growth doesn't say all sprawl is awful," says John Frece, associate director of the National Center for Smart Growth Research at the University of Maryland. ''It's not about taking away the ability to develop sprawl—just to add the ability to do different kinds of development and put that on equal footing. Then let the market decide."
Bruegmann says he's quite open to the idea that Americans choose different living arrangements at different times of life. And, just to complicate everyone's thinking a little further, he also predicts that as societies get ever more affluent, more people want to come back to cities. It's just a matter of understanding how wealth drives the popularity of different physical landscapes.
''If you have enough money, living at high density is very alluring," he says. ''I think there will always be some people who will want to live in suburban settings no matter what. But if you have a spacious apartment on Fifth Avenue with a doorman, and you can get in a taxi or walk to the Metropolitan Museum of Art...millions of people would love to do that."
Ultimately, says Kotkin, author of ''The City: A Global History" (2005), ''The problems of sprawl have to be solved within the context of sprawl. You're not going to stop it. You can't reengineer society by getting everyone to move back to Boston. Forget about it. It's not happening."
Sprawl is getting better, Kotkin says—more dense, and eventually featuring a better mix of uses, with stores and workplaces closer to homes. Kotkin predicts more of these kinds of suburban villages, which he calls ''the new suburbanism," a deliberate echo of the New Urbanism. With the help of technology, more people will be able to work from home or closer to home. Car trips will still be necessary, but they could be shorter and done using hybrid and energy-efficient vehicles.
''In southern California we've been saying this for years: 'It's just a different kind of city,"' Kotkin says. ''It's like someone from Florence coming to 19th-century Manchester. They'd say, 'Where's the church in the middle?' It's just different. The urbanization of suburbia is the great challenge of land-use planning in early 21st-century America."
I think the smart growth movement realized they really poked a stick in the hornets' nest by being so anti-suburbs, so now they're backing off and focusing on providing higher-density housing and lifestyle choices for those who want to live that way - which I happen to totally agree with. Help remove barriers to attractive and practical new urbanism and transit-oriented development, and hopefully it will flourish.
I'm glad to see that others are also starting to point out the important linkages between sprawl, housing affordability, and social and economic mobility. Home ownership is a proven path to a financially stable middle class family lifestyle - and a lot of unaffordable smart growth communities have cut off that path. But smart growthers shouldn't worry too much: inevitably, the kids of those families will bore of the suburbs and desire to move into the fast-paced, amenity-rich city when they become young adults.