Sprawl: A Compact History

Sprawl: A Compact History

Sprawl: A Compact History

Sprawl: A Compact History


As anyone who has flown into Los Angeles at dusk or Houston at midday knows, urban areas today defy traditional notions of what a city is. Our old definitions of urban, suburban, and rural fail to capture the complexity of these vast regions with their superhighways, subdivisions, industrial areas, office parks, and resort areas pushing far out into the countryside. Detractors call it sprawl and assert that it is economically inefficient, socially inequitable, environmentally irresponsible, and aesthetically ugly. Robert Bruegmann calls it a logical consequence of economic growth and the democratization of society, with benefits that urban planners have failed to recognize.

In his incisive history of the expanded city, Bruegmann overturns every assumption we have about sprawl. Taking a long view of urban development, he demonstrates that sprawl is neither recent nor particularly American but as old as cities themselves, just as characteristic of ancient Rome and eighteenth-century Paris as it is of Atlanta or Los Angeles. Nor is sprawl the disaster claimed by many contemporary observers. Although sprawl, like any settlement pattern, has undoubtedly produced problems that must be addressed, it has also provided millions of people with the kinds of mobility, privacy, and choice that were once the exclusive prerogatives of the rich and powerful.

The first major book to strip urban sprawl of its pejorative connotations, Sprawl offers a completely new vision of the city and its growth. Bruegmann leads readers to the powerful conclusion that "in its immense complexity and constant change, the city-whether dense and concentrated at its core, looser and more sprawling in suburbia, or in the vast tracts of exurban penumbra that extend dozens, even hundreds, of miles-is the grandest and most marvelous work of mankind."

"Largely missing from this debate [over sprawl] has been a sound and reasoned history of this pattern of living. With Robert Bruegmann's Sprawl: A Compact History, we now have one. What a pleasure it is: well-written, accessible and eager to challenge the current cant about sprawl."- Joel Kotkin, The Wall Street Journal

"There are scores of books offering 'solutions' to sprawl. Their authors would do well to read this book."- Witold Rybczynski, Slate


When the plane banks sharply to the left about an hour and a half into the flight from Chicago, I know that we are starting our long descent into New York's LaGuardia airport. Looking down, I can see long, wooded ridges running diagonally from the southwest to the northeast, alternating with wide stream valleys between them. This part of western New Jersey is beautiful from the air. In summer the deep green of the oaks and maples on the ridge tops forms a striking contrast with the lighter greens that make up the patchwork quilt of fields in the valleys. At first glance, this landscape of cropland, farmhouses, roads, and streams seems timeless, little changed over the centuries.

Of course, the landscape is not natural but almost entirely manmade, and it was created relatively recently, mostly within the past one hundred years. Even from 15,000 feet, moreover, it is clear, if you look carefully, that a great deal has changed very recently. There are many more houses in the valleys than the small number of people who still farm there could possibly occupy, and it is possible to make out through the dense tree cover of the hillsides many other houses that clearly have no connection with agricultural production. This is not at all the completely rural scene that it might appear to be. All the evidence suggests that most of the people living here have little to do with farming or any other traditional rural activities.

It is difficult, at least at first glance, to imagine what all the people living in these houses do, where they work, shop, and play since there are no office buildings, shopping centers, or movie theaters in sight. It is possible that some of them work from their home, relying heavily on the phone, Internet, and express delivery services to keep them connected to the urban world, and it is possible that others drive to jobs in small towns nearby. The substantial number of houses, however, suggests that the majority must commute some distance . . .

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