Learning to Love Sprawl

By Reynolds, Glenn Harlan | The Saturday Evening Post, March/April 2006 | Go to article overview

Learning to Love Sprawl


Reynolds, Glenn Harlan, The Saturday Evening Post


Is sprawl is a natural process, as old as the world's oldest cities?

Everybody knows some things about sprawl: It's a recent, and largely American, phenomenon; it encourages wasteful use of resources; it's aesthetically unpleasant; and it benefits the rich at the expense of the poor. We also know that It could be conquered if Americans just gave up their "love affair with the automobile" and favored mass transit.

Everybody knows these things, but Robert Bruegmann's new book, Sprawl A Compact History, argues that they're untrue.

Sprawl isn't recent, says Bruegmann. Rich people have always wanted to sprawl:

"Ancient, medieval, and early modem literature is filled with stories of the elegant life of a privileged aristocracy living for large parts of the year in villas and hunting lodges at the periphery of large cities.... High density, from the time of Babylon until recently, was the great urban evil, and many of the wealthiest or most powerful citizens found ways to escape it at least temporarily."

Sprawl didn't become a problem until the wealthy and powerful were joined by the hoi polloi. Thanks to greater wealth and improvements in transportation, they were able to move from teeming tenements to less-urban settings. Once this started to happen-before the automobile hit the scene, and beginning outside the United States-social critics began to complain that sprawl was ruining pristine landscapes, and destroying the charm of urban life. (Ironically, as Bruegmann also points out, some of the very aspects of sprawl criticized by earlier generations-like the miles of brick terrace row houses built in South London during the 19th century-are now regarded as quaintly charming: "Most urban change, no matter how wrenching for one generation, tends to be the accepted norm of the next and the cherished heritage of the one after that."

Bruegmann also notes that sprawl is not, in fact, a particularly American phenomenon, and illustrates his book with pictures of strip malls and lowdensity housing from places as diverse as Bangalore and Paris. …

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