A New View of SprawlI know I've commented on this topic before, but Alan Ehrenhalt's review in Governing magazine of Robert Bruegmann's new book "Sprawl: A Compact History" has a lot of great excerpts that are very relevant to Houston. The main point, which I've been making for years, is to stop fighting sprawl and focus on developing a vibrant urban core.
But while the icons that stand for sprawl may be subject to change, Bruegmann believes that the phenomenon itself derives from a fixed element of human nature: the desire to spread out and settle one's family in larger spaces as soon as this becomes feasible. In other words, the low-density residential development that most of us currently recognize as sprawl wasn't created by greedy developers, or incompetent urban planners, or misguided federal policy, or even by the emergence of an automobile culture. It reflects an easily documented historic tendency for people, given the financial and geographical chance, to choose lower densities over higher ones. Sprawl, Bruegmann says, "is the preferred settlement pattern everywhere in the world where there is a certain measure of affluence and where citizens have some choice in how they live."It's funny how Houston ends up the poster child for sprawl even though metros like Atlanta and DFW are far more sprawling. Atlanta has only two-thirds of Houston's density! I think it must be the lack of zoning and some of the less-attractive results of that that have locked "Houston=ugly sprawl" into most peoples' minds. But with our urban renaissance, low cost of living, and strong economy (esp. immigrant entrepreneurship), I think people are also very slowly starting to equate "Houston=vibrancy".
But this is where Bruegmann throws us a fascinating curve. He doesn't hate cities at all: He's a passionate urbanist. He calls cities "the grandest and most marvelous work of mankind." He doesn'’t live in the suburbs but in a townhouse on Chicago's Near North Side. He just thinks that the prevailing obsession with sprawl and suburbia is a distraction from the important task of urban revival.
In fact, Bruegmann believes that sprawl has been good for downtowns and inner cities. When traditional downtown functions relocated to the suburbs (not just housing but manufacturing, warehousing and even some retail business), the opportunity arose to rebuild the urban center around a new functional core -— as a hub of entertainment and leisure and a residential magnet for singles, high-income couples and older people eager to sample a new form of urban life. "The stage was set," Bruegmann writes, "for a remarkable revival... While central cities have traded on their 'traditional' character, much of what is most attractive about them is the fact that so many of the things that once defined them have disappeared."
Bruegmann is correct: Sprawl is largely a force of history and geography and not primarily a consequence of any policy of government or any conspiracy by developers. Different policies might have altered the suburban landscape in modest ways over the past 50 years, but they couldn'’t have reversed them. What we can do, many decades after the fact, is work to ensure that real choices exist for those who want to fashion a new form of urban life in the new century. That means public support for central-city residential living, investment in modern public transportation, and sensible zoning that allows experiments and supports developers willing to take risks. If we do those things, I'm reasonably sure that the new generation of urban-dwellers will show up. They are already showing up. Bruegmann is right about that. And we don't need to expend as much energy as we currently expend denouncing sprawl and wishing it didn't exist. In his words, "there is room for both Houston and Portland in a country as large as the United States."