Sprawl and social mobilityOK, this is going to be the fourth time I post on the "Sprawl: A Compact History" book by Robert Bruegmann. I'll try not to cover anything in the earlier posts, but there are some excerpts I wanted to pass along, and both articles mention Houston several times.
First up is a book review by Joel Kotkin in the Wall Street Journal.
Next, from the Architecture section of the LA Times:
No, Mr. Bruegmann says, don't go blaming the Federal Highway Administration for sprawl or the executives at General Motors and Exxon or racist developers fleeing urban environments. Don't even blame Karl Rove. You really don't need to blame anyone. Mr. Bruegmann notes that contemporary sprawl -- best defined by places like Los Angeles, Phoenix and Houston -- is nothing new. It represents "merely the latest chapter in a long and curious history."
What propels that curious history is something often overlooked by the makers of grand theories -- the particular choices of individual human beings. Mr. Bruegmann places the urge to sprawl squarely where it belongs: on people's logical desire to escape the high costs, crime, pollution, congestion and lack of privacy that accompanies life in dense cities. [and I would add bad schools to that list]
As powerful as sprawl logic may be, the traditional city is far from dead. Mr. Bruegmann, a longtime Chicago resident and a professor at the University of Illinois campus there, is particularly bullish on amenity-rich older cities -- New York, Boston, Seattle and Portland, as well as Chicago. They can lay claim to a promising demographic niche among the nomadic rich, the young and those who cater to their needs.
Yet Mr. Bruegmann understands that the future of urbanity will likely be shaped not in these adult Disneylands but in the peripheries to which families, jobs and industries are now fleeing. Such flight should not be a cause for despair among those who love cities. Suburban communities are not frozen in their current form; many are busily developing their own core districts, cultural facilities and particular identities.
Urbanists interested in the future need to pay more attention and give more respect to such places. Mr. Bruegmann has told us why they grow and will continue to do so. The next step is figuring out how to make them work better.
One of his most shocking assertions is that suburban spread helps cities and their urban centers: Look at the way immigrants and the poor moved out of Lower Manhattan, for instance, only to have the area later reborn as a chic living space for artists and young people. It wouldn't have happened, he argues, if the highways and houses beyond the city center hadn't siphoned off population, allowing these neighborhoods to be reborn.That link between sprawl and social and economic mobility would go a long way towards explaining the population booms in sprawling cities like Phoenix, DFW, Houston, and Atlanta: people seek out opportunity, and it is generally found in more sprawling areas where housing supply meets demand and keeps things affordable.
Even fans of Bruegmann's book blanched at this notion.
"It's certainly true that deindustrialization of any downtown presents some opportunities," author and journalist Alan Ehrenhalt wrote in an approving review in the trade magazine Governing. "But for every inner-city district that has emptied out and retooled, many more have been emptied out and are waiting desperately for the revival to begin. Abandonment is an awfully high price for the chance to start over. I wouldn't expect the leadership of Detroit or St. Louis to find Bruegmann's long view of urban history very consoling."
But Bruegmann points at downtown L.A., where he sees this process, despite some rough years, bearing fruit.He has some emotional sympathy with anti-sprawl critics, just as he does with environmentalists. But he thinks both groups are a little shortsighted when it comes to the real costs of their programs.
"By trying to stop sprawl, you'll be doing something very beneficial to the incumbents' club," he says. "It stops change and makes it harder for people to get onto the middle-class ladder. It has a definite effect on social and economic mobility."
Sprawl may not be inevitable, but it is, he says, "completely essential" to the functioning of a free society. "It goes absolutely to the heart of people's aspirations — what it is they want to be, of how they want to live," Bruegmann says. "And tampering with that is very, very fraught."