Saturday, February 25, 2006


I have been reading, with pleasure, Robert Bruegmann's, Sprawl: A Compact History. This is a learned discussion that looks at urban sprawl from a historical perspective. To begin, it is not obvious what sprawl is - the distant exurbia or the newly emerging suburban subdivisions - but even the word itself suggests that, whatever it is, it is something unpleasant. RB define it roughly as 'low-density, scattered, urban development without systematic large-scale or regional public land-use planning'. A useful wiki on sprawl is here.

The negative arguments against spawl are that it encourages use of cars, creates pollution and high costs of providing public transport, roads, water supply, sewerage and other infrastructure. Sprawl also is claimed to involve the destruction of nature reserves, forests, agriculture and recreation. It is also popularly associated with an sterotyped idea of cultural homogeneity and bland, uninteresting lifestyles. Supporters of low density development, however, claim that sprawl has advantages since traffic intensities are less, traffic speeds faster and, as a result, air pollution emissions tend to be less intense per square mile: see demographia.

RB emphasises the positive side of modern sprawl in the affluent developed world by examining issues historically. The argument is that, even though sprawl has existed since ancient imperial Roman times, cities have become progressively less dense but much more attractive and livable with time. Instead of only the very wealthy living on large blocks on the boundaries of large cities, now many people live on such blocks. This areas are not culturally-barren slums but differentiated, inviting places to live with gardens, parks, good roads and often with both good public and private facilities such as libraries, swimming pools, a range of shops, quality restaurants, bars, sporting venues, Buddhist temples and (in my suburb) a Hells' Angel motor cycle club.

In addition inner city areas, such as the row houses of London, which horrified highbrow British ctitics in the 19th century when they were built, are now considered to be a stylish model of compact urban life. The same thing could be said of the residential sections of suburbs like Carlton in Melbourne or Paddington in Sydney which have also been gentrified over recent decades.

RB's book is scholarly but he admits that much of his research was carried out in a hire car and driving around cities or by observing cities while travelling by plane or other public transport. Its a useful tip that have been following over recent weeks while driving around Melbourne and Sydney. Many of suburbs that would typically be described as sprawl (including those with McMansions) are anything but unpleasant. You have only to open your eyes to see the myth or at least the ambuity in the prevalent stereotype.

RB is seeking greater respect and appreciation for our urban landscapes. His main point is that much criticism of sprawl is either elitist cultural criticism or just confusion. The latter is noteworthy - ask the next dinner party guest who complains to you about sprawl whether they live in it. Chances are they will say they don't. Indeed, generally, we don't live in sprawl others do! I will refer to other parts of RB's excellent book in later posts. RB has interesting things to say about such things as traffic congestion - he argues that attempts to reduce sprawl generally worsen congestion.


P.A. Coplay said...

It sounds like an interesting book. The question of sprawl, car use etc seems to require close consideration (probably has been done) because it is not purely the outcome of a competitive market with uninternalised externalities. A combination of land use regulation, non-competitive setting of costs of /water/electricity/telephone etc connection makes it possible that the amount of space taken up by the city is actually an outcome of poor policy settings (which may have subsidised settling outwards) rather than market failure. Does the book (or other literature you have seen) present a careful and complete accounting for this?

hc said...

It goes into it but not as carefully as other treatments. It is a large and well-known debate that I intend to come to grips with. The conventional wisdom is that infrastructure is underpriced so cities become too spread out. RB's line (and that of many others) is that attempts to contain sprawl worsen congestion and add to external costs.

I want to evade a direct answer to your question. It is easy say 'internalise all the externalities' and the optimal city structure will pop out. But non-one believes this because, as you say, there are many intractable distortions. Its a complex second-best issue.

People living out there in all that 'sprawl' are living well for the most part and one should avoid 'tail-wagging-the-dog' policies. Seeking more compact cities to avoid congestion is not very sensible if what you really want are efficient trips. How to secure this when lots of distortions are inbuilt is difficult.

I have been working on this topic for a while and will post soon on it.

lesleym said...

I am reading your blog backwards since I am catching up after some days away with family:-))
- and it seems rather ironic that this one on sprawl is followed by one on happiness.
Should one define a successful urban sprawl as one that makes the maximum number of people unhappy through their rejection of excessive consumption and refusal to indulge?

Russ said...

Harry, this is the fourth or fifth time I've seen this book recommended. I must chase it up.

The elitist point is interesting. To an extent, people who live in the inner suburbs do so because they value public cultural services (most of which are centrally located) over private services (like a backyard and large house). So there is a certain snobbish "those people" attitude towards people who don't share those same values.

A lot of the evils of sprawl are over-stated, although there is one I generally agree with: anyone who drives to another part of the city reduces the local amenity of places they travel through. It makes them harder to walk around, noisier, and more polluted. Modern suburbs and shopping malls have been built as islands surrounded by traffic. But it is interesting that there has been a trend over the past decade for city centres (in Europe especially) and inner suburbs (North Carlton for example) to do the same thing by blocking off certain streets.

I think it raises an interesting question, namely: what is more valuable, the lifestyle of a local neighbourhood, or the transportaion of many more people through that neighbourhood? I am heavily biased towards the former, but their are arguments both ways.

hc said...

LesleyM that cynical view has an element of truth. Sprawlk is a cultural phenomenon - at least in part. Its the late' set telling us how to live and what is 'tasteful'.

Russ, First I like your blog which I didn't know about and which I have bookmarked.

I think gentrification and spawl are comnnected and the interesting thing in RB's book is that the slums of yesteryear become the gentrified areas of today. As a poor uni student in Sydney I lived in Newton/Stanmore/Surrey Hills only because they were cheap and slum-like. Today they shine.

Look at the suburbs - basically people are living well. Sprwal is an ugly word that almost with its ugliness condemns the things it describes.