I received a copy of “Sprawl: A Compact History” by Robert Bruegmann (Univ. of Chicago Press, 2005), for Christmas, and have so far read only the introduction. This book, received a glowing review in, where else?, the Wall Street Journal from, who else?, Joel “Rule, Suburbia” Kotkin. The book attempts to refute the many commentators — in Mr. Bruegmann’s words, apparently “every right-minded individual and organization in the country” — who in recent decades have criticized sprawl as “economically inefficient, environmentally detrimental, socially deplorable, and aesthetically ugly — in short, an unmitigated disaster.” Mr. Bruegmann ends the introduction with this:
It is hard for us to imagine today the existence, in the industrial cities of one hundred years ago, of millions of urban dwellers who were obliged to endure cramped and unsanitary tenements, traffic, and pollution-choked streets and deadly factories. Today, by comparison, most residents of affluent metropolitan areas live in relatively low-density suburbs, areas that are much cleaner, greener, and safer than the neighborhoods their great-grandparents inhabited. They also have a great deal more affluence, privacy, mobility, and choice. At very least, it seems to me, our highly dispersed urban regions deserve some respectful attention before we jump to the conclusion that they are terrible places that need to be totally transformed.
It’s a fair point. Many commentators see absolutely nothing of value in the suburbs, and this book, hopefully, would bring about a sober discussion that admits that the ‘burbs may not be as bad as all that. But this is a fair point only when taken with an enormous, 800-lb. caveat: The pollution choked streets and deadly factories haven’t disappeared. We’ve sent them to the Third World, where they have multiplied to numbers beyond what would have been found in the 19th century industrial American cities. Mr. Brugemann admits that he isn’t interested in those impoverished Third World toilers who furnish our sprawl with Wal-Mart purveyed socks and underwear and picture frames and everything else.
The story that I write about in this book is primarily the story of affluent parts of cities in the developed world. I say little in these pages about the poorest residents of American public housing projects or the hundreds of millions of inhabitants of the shantytowns and “informal” communities of Latin America, Africa, or Asia.
That’s a giant omission. Affluent sprawl does not exist in a vacuum, and is impossible to understand without an equally deep look at the favelas and similar slums throughout the world. Recently, Peter Maass noted that Americans, wealthy as we are, are able to afford environmental regulations that keep the North Slope of Alaska and our offshore waters pristine and free from oil drilling rigs. We’ve outsourced the pollution of oil exploration and drilling to poor nations, but imported the oil, which is used to fuel our sprawl.
Also worth noting: For the most part, our cities are no longer the polluted, overcrowded rookeries they once were. That’s why the post-industrial New York, for one, is coming back with surging housing values and a record population. If people are fleeing cities because they have the image of turn-of-the-20th-century belching smokestacks in mind, they’re fleeing an imaginary menace.