Learning from Sprawl | Worlds Away

Worlds Away: New Suburban Landscapes


Walker Art Center,
February 16 - August 17, 2008

Carnegie Museum of Art,
October 4, 2008 - January 18, 2009

Yale School of Architecture
March 2 - May 10, 2009

Because suburbia occupies a dominant presence in so many lives—a place of not only residence but also of work, commerce, worship, education, and leisure—it has become a focal point for competing interests and viewpoints. The suburbs have always been a fertile space for imagining both the best and the worst of modern social life. more

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Learning from Sprawl

by Robert Bruegmann

(excerpted from Worlds Away: New Suburban Landscapes)

Robert Bruegmann, professor of art history, architecture, and urban planning at the University of Illinois, is a historian of architecture, landscape, and the built environment. His most recent book, Sprawl: A Compact History (2005), has created a considerable stir.

It is curious that we still have sprawl. After all, for generations, “right-minded” individuals have savaged it; planners have advocated policies designed to counter it; and public agencies have succeeded in pushing through measures to stop it. With all this firepower directed against sprawl, one would think that by now it would be a thing of the past.

In fact, sprawl is more visible today than ever before. It can be found in Peoria and Paris, Boston and Bangkok—in fact, in every city in the world where ordinary citizens have a real choice either at the ballot box or in the real estate market. Even in places such as Moscow or Shanghai, where these conditions have not yet been fully met, sprawl is very much in evidence. It has become the middle-class settlement pattern of choice throughout the world. How has it been possible for anything so widely reviled to survive and thrive?

Why Has Sprawl Persisted?

I would like to suggest two answers to this question. The first involves the confusion surrounding the term “sprawl.” There has never been an agreement on what it actually means. As a noun with something like its current meaning, the term first became popular in England immediately after World War I. However, just as the weed of one generation can become the prized native plant of the next, so too could the kind of development criticized as sprawl during the 1920s and 1930s in England later be considered quite compact and admirable.

This confusion has persisted for some very good reasons. One is that it has been essential to the anti-sprawl movement. After all, very few people who criticize sprawl believe they live in it. Sprawl is the kind of place inhabited by other people with less good sense and good taste than the person using the term. One person’s sprawl has always been another’s cherished neighborhood. Leaving the term vague has allowed for the creation of a massive coalition against sprawl, even when many members of that coalition live in places that would be branded by the rest as perfect examples of it. For example, it allows the person living in the last house in a subdivision to join the anti-sprawl bandwagon to attack a new subdivision of houses exactly like her own in the fields behind her backyard.

One of the consequences of the lack of agreement on any clear definition of sprawl has been the disconcerting tendency of efforts directed at one kind of sprawl or another to backfire. The modern world’s most famous attempt to stop sprawl was the one put in place in England immediately after World War II. It provided the legal framework for executing plans such as that created for Greater London in 1944 by architect and town planner Patrick Abercrombie. His solution was simple: he surrounded the city with a green belt, or urban-growth boundary. London could grow, but only up to the green belt. In one stroke, he believed, he had stopped sprawl and given a coherent shape to the city.

From one point of view, this plan succeeded. As visitors drive outward from central London, they are often impressed with the way the urban fabric abruptly stops at the inner edge of the green belt. If these visitors had traveled a little further, however, they would have found that the green belt did not actually halt sprawl. In fact, the postwar population of London grew much more quickly than Abercrombie had predicted and became more affluent than he had imagined. Within a few decades, growth in the London area jumped over the green belt and sprawled across much of southeast England, scattering the urban population much further than it would have without the belt.

The same thing has happened more recently in Portland, Oregon—another place that tried to use a boundary to direct urban growth. Even though the Portland growth boundary is legally mandated to move in order to accommodate growth (as the boundary has started to pinch in places in recent decades), much new development has simply been redirected even further out. The places that have grown most quickly in the Portland region have not been within the growth boundary but in towns outside the boundary, particularly in Vancouver, Washington, which is across the river from Portland and not part of the Oregon growth-management system.

Another classic way to stop sprawl has been to dictate large lot zoning. In the Portland region, for example, to stop the development of rural areas, particularly those in the Willamette Valley, legislators mandated large minimum lot sizes. This technique, which has been widely used across the United States, suggests that stopping the proliferation of subdivisions is a good way to stop the growth of suburbs, to contain the urban area and maintain a rural landscape beyond it. If there is a 40- or 80-acre minimum lot size, it obviously makes it impossible for developers to create standard subdivisions.

In some cases this technique has worked as planned, at least initially. It hasn’t stopped the exodus of urban citizens to rural landscapes, though. If they are affluent enough, these families simply buy 20 or 80 acres, or whatever the minimum requirement happens to be, and build their dream house on that. In the near term, the insertion of a few houses is not likely to compromise the rural atmosphere. Of course, these regulations mean that many buyers purchase much more land than they really want. Over the years, moreover, as the urban population spreads outward toward these exurban communities, there is often an increasing demand for services that can only be provided economically at higher densities. In response, public officials rescind the large-lot zoning and put in, often at great cost, the roads and sewers that weren’t necessary in the era of large-lot development. Both growth boundaries and large-lot zoning provide classic cases of the unintended consequences of regulations trying to curb something as hard to define as sprawl.

The second reason that sprawl persists is that it has brought a large number of important benefits to millions of people for many centuries. Since the birth of cities, whenever a group of citizens has gained enough wealth, many members of that group have chosen to move from congested city centers to lower-density settlements at the edge. This was just as true of the suburbs of ancient Rome and nineteenth-century Paris as it is of the extremely low-density exurbs of American cities today.

The reason that this happened is because, throughout urban history, living in city centers has been unpleasant, and often quite unhealthy, for many ordinary citizens. Although rich and powerful families have always been able to take advantage of all the cultural and social amenities that high density can offer and can mitigate its problems, many ordinary citizens had little interest in the opera or the court ball and instead were the ones who suffered most because of the noise, congestion, and dirt of city centers as well as the diseases that periodically swept through—and continue to sweep through—high-density poor neighborhoods. Moving to lower-cost and lower-density peripheral areas has typically allowed many of these ordinary citizens a way to own their own land and to enjoy far more space, more greenery, and more contact with the land than they would have had in an apartment in the city center.

In this century, in many affluent countries, a large percentage of the population has chosen the single-family suburban house on its own land, with an automobile at the ready in the driveway, as a way to obtain for itself the kind of privacy, mobility, and choice once possible only for the wealthiest urban dwellers. As society becomes more and more prosperous, it may become more attractive for families of relatively modest means to live at high density, but until very recently, there were extremely powerful reasons for ordinary people to want to sprawl outward from the city.

Why Has Anti-Sprawl Persisted?

If what I have said is true, then the more interesting question is no longer why cities have sprawled but why, despite the weight of evidence on the benefits of sprawl, have so many people fought so vigorously against it? I would again like to propose two answers to this question.

The first is that many people fight sprawl because it is in their own interest to do so. It is easy to see how this is the case for the resident of Manhattan with a country house in the Hamptons.

For him, the burgeoning suburbs of Suffolk County are a double loss. Not only do they slow up his weekend drive to the country, but they also ruin the view that he used to enjoy on the way.

Even for individuals who don’t appear to have a direct stake in the fight against sprawl, there are often considerable benefits. Throughout the affluent world, those urban areas that have instituted the toughest anti-sprawl measures—Los Angeles, Vancouver, London, Hong Kong, Sydney, or Perth, for example—have seen housing prices soar. None of this is surprising. It is hard to imagine how an urban area, all other things being equal, can implement significant restrictions on the land supply without raising prices. Of course, it is not just anti-sprawl measures that cause the pinch in supply. All kinds of environmental and heritage restrictions can do the same thing, and it is not so much the statute books as the way the regulations are enforced.

Not surprisingly, it is almost always the case that in the urban areas with the strictest anti-sprawl measures, there will also be found the greatest restrictions on what can be done within the already developed area. This is because the one thing that most citizens living near the center dislike more than low-density sprawl at the edge is higher density and more congestion near themselves. The result has been an impasse and an upward pressure on prices that will inevitably occur when it becomes simultaneously harder to develop at the edge and to redevelop at the center.

This has obviously had very negative effects on housing affordability. However, for many current owners—what we can call the “incumbents’ club,” or people who are already happy with their current living situation—it has created a vast windfall. These individuals, even if they are worried about the loss of affordability for their own children or grandchildren, find it difficult to argue too strenuously against policies that not only deflect unwanted growth away from them but also simultaneously increase the value of their own house, in many cases today doubling or tripling their net worth over a relatively short number of years. For this reason, it is clear that in societies where the majority of voters are homeowners, there are powerful incentives to approve anti-sprawl policies and stringent environmental and preservation regulations, even when it hurts some part of the current population and most of the future residents of the area.

In the case of anti-sprawl measures, this has been particularly easy, because until the past few years there has been no concerted effort to show how harmful many of these policies have been. It is only now becoming clear how much less erosion in affordability has occurred in urban areas such as Atlanta or Houston, which may be growing as quickly as any highly regulated city but with more relaxed planning regulations.

The second reason for the persistence of the anti-sprawl campaign is more complex. It has to do with the way this debate, although apparently informed by reasoned arguments based on empirical data, has actually been fueled by a set of class-based assumptions that are primarily aesthetic and metaphysical, many of which rarely surface in the public debates about sprawl. To understand these, it is often easier to look back into history.

In the case of attacks on sprawl in the twentieth century, there have been three major campaigns. Not surprisingly, they correspond with the three great periods of economic and urban expansion—the 1920s, the post–World War II decades, and the interval starting in the 1980s that continues, in diminished fashion, today.

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We asked people to make a video telling us about the suburbs and put it on YouTube. Selected videos are showing in the gallery at the Walker Art Center during the run of the exhibition.

Selected Videos

See all submitted videos

Original Submission Call

See YouTube video call

Do you live in a suburb? Do you work or go to school in one? What is your experience of the “burbs? ”…

Whether you love them or hate them we’re interested in your thoughts on the phenomenon of the American suburb. We invite you to make a 5-minute video about strip malls, cul-de-sacs, office parks, and green lawns or whatever suburbia means to you. A select number of videos will be chosen to screen as part of the exhibition Worlds Away: New Suburban Landscapes in the Target Gallery from February 15 to May 18, 2008.

To participate, upload your video to YouTube and add the tag “walkerworldsaway” or post it as a response to our video above. We’ll feature all videos on the Walker’s YouTube page. To be considered for gallery screening, entries must be 5 minutes or less and be online by January 18, 2008.

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Adaptive Reuse
Anchor Store
Asphalt Nation
Auto Park
Baby Boomer
Ball Pork
Bedroom Community
Big Box
Category Killer
Chain Store
Collector Road
Community Interest Development
Compact Land Use
Crunchy Suburb
Cup-holder Cuisine
Curb Appeal
Dead Mall
Deeded Community
Discount Department Store
Drive Til You Qualify
Edge City
Edifice Rex
Empty Nester
Family Room
Fast Food
Fast Food Cluster
First Ring
Food Court Druid
Garage Band
Garage Mahal
Gated Community
Group Attributes
Growth Machine
High Density
Home Office
Home Owner Association
HOV Lane
Inner Ring
Lifestyle Commuter
Light Rail
Logo Building
Low Density
Mall Rat
Media Room
Mixed-use Development
Monster Home
New Suburbanism
New Urbanism
No Growth
Noise Barrier
Office Park
Outer-ring Suburb
Outlet Store
Park and Ride
Patio Man
Peter Pan Suburb
Picture Window
Pork Chop
Power Center
Property Owner Association
Quality of Life
Realtor Mom
Ring Road
Slow Growth
Smart Growth
Snout House
Soccer Mom
Speed Bump
Sprawl Stress Syndrome
Spread City
Sprinkler City
Starter Castle
Streetcar Suburb
Strip Mall
Suburban Plantation
Tank Farm
Theme Park
Tower Farm
Tract Mansion
Trailer Park
Value Retailer
Warehouse Club
Weekend Home
Weekend Warrior
White Flight
Willow Syndrome
Yea it is That Way

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