You Got to Be Kidding Me!

Sprawl, anti-sprawl, and anti-anti-sprawl

Posted in Books, Economics, Urban Planning by Stacy McMahon on December 16, 2005

The Washington Times has a review of Robert Bruegmann’s Sprawl: A Compact History (link via Planetizen). The book, which I haven’t read yet, is said to dispel “anti-sprawl shibboleths”, but the review engages in a few anti-planning shibboleths of its own.

[…] if we limited growth, wouldn’t we relieve traffic congestion and pollution? It’s a mystery how this argument ever got any traction. Trapping more people into a tighter space can only make pollution and traffic congestion worse.

Well, the argument has traction because of research showing that compact developments generate fewer and shorter car trips. That aside, in 1898, the approximate reference year for people who use the term “grimy city”, the above was a true statement. Today it is not. Wood and coal smoke from trains, private chimneys and factory smokestacks has long vanished from the horizon, and the lack of sanitation facilities that characterized 19th-century towns and cities is a thing of the past. Depending on your preferred proximity to other people, modern downtowns are no more unpleasant than any suburb. And the increasing popularity of downtown “lofts” and town center-style shopping suggests that the conventional wisdom of the ideal tree-lined suburb may be equally obsolete.

That idea, however, is the central shibboleth of the anti-anti-sprawl movement, and the Times review marches it out in full dress uniform:

Central planners and cultural elites don’t like to hear arguments about choice because they think that given a choice, ordinary citizens will usually make the wrong one.
Mr. Bruegmann repeatedly emphasizes the cardinal virtue of American suburbia. To wit, the suburbs have made it possible for ordinary Americans to enjoy the privacy, space, leisure time and choice that were once available only to the richest of the rich. The suburbs aren’t a deviation from the American Dream — they are the American Dream.

That for most of history a country cottage has been the preserve of the wealthy, and that ordinary citizens in the English-speaking countries have long aspired to similar conditions is historically undeniable–but as a commenter on Planetizen points out, the idea that Levittown-style suburbs are a natural result of free-market choice is laughable. Every built-up part of the United States has a zoning ordinance, and those ordinances regulate the use of property in excruciating detail with restrictions on building height, what part of a lot can be built (setbacks), ratios of parking spaces to building occupancy, ratios of building floorspace to lot size (a method of controlling building height), and in some cases complex formulas to determine the length of the shadow a house may legally cast on the neighbor’s property.

Besides the zoning ordinance, municipalities often use existing residents’ tax dollars to build water and sewer infrastructure (and any other public utilities they may provide) and improve local roads to support the traffic increase from new subdivisions. In a pro-market move, some are beginning to assess new construction for this externalized cost. Developers who often paint themselves as white knights of the free market can be seen fighting tooth and nail to preserve public subsidies for their profit-making business endeavors.

A truly free market might produce something that looks like sprawl, but nobody knows because it’s never been done. There certainly are the Jim Kunstlers and Andres Duanys out there, peddling New Urbanism in a manichean, save-the-world ideological frame. Movements need that kind of fire at their core. But there are also those of us quietly suggesting–with more and more market data to back us up–that perhaps the problem isn’t too much freedom of choice, but too little.