Walking the Walk

Urban design from the front lines

Kevin Klinkenberg

Using urban design to make our lives more enjoyable and create wealth

This site is for all those interested in the making of cities and towns, and especially the lives of the humans that inhabit them. Kevin Klinkenberg is an architect and urban designer who's practiced from coast-to-coast. 

Learn to love Sprawl?

One of the downsides of our modern world of communication is that contrary voices are often given equal weight and airtime, whether they deserve it or not. Media is so eager to present “the other side” that nearly anyone can trot out an opinion and give it some amount of credence, even when it’s absurd. The challenge then is – do you respond? Do those of us who know better bother to give our time to someone who is so obviously wrong about an issue? I thought about this as I listened to Robert Bruegmann speak last night at the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), giving his lecture titled, “Sprawl: Learning to love it or at least think twice about trying to stop it.” Bruegmann’s title is provocative on purpose, as he promotes a book that he published in 2005. His lecture was rife with so many inaccuracies, cherry-picked statistics and flawed assumptions that, by his own admission, it tends to anger people. With about 200 people in attendance, mostly students, I feel it’s too important not to respond.

Since Bruegmann is being provocative on purpose, I feel no remorse for calling much of what he promotes as misleading at best, blatant lies at worst.  As I said following the lecture, I almost don’t know where to begin.

And so, I’ll begin with how he defines sprawl. Like many people who rely on statistics, Bruegmann lumps all urban expansion of the last 150 years together as the same thing, as if there’s no material difference between the streetcar suburbs of the 19th century and post-WWII automobile-dependent suburbs. Sadly, though, Bruegmann teaches in an architecture school, so he should know better. But for those who don’t, let me reiterate a basic point – all urban expansion is not sprawl.

There is a fundamental difference between how cities expanded in the 19th through the early 20th century, and how they have expanded since. In the former, cities expanded as a series of connected neighborhoods. They were arranged on streets designed for walking, riding a bicycle and even had access to quality public transportation. Yes, they were lower density and more spacious than the city centers that they were attached to, but they were fundamentally walkable neighborhoods. Since the end of WWII, cities around the world, but most especially American cities, have expanded as a disconnected set of subdivisions, shopping centers and offices, only held together by a network of car sewers. This is not a minor difference – the two patterns of development are qualitatively and quantitatively different in every respect. Understanding this is Urban Planning 101. Equating all urban expansion as sprawl is a fundamental error underlying this book and lecture.

Brueggman then presents us with a series of statistics to show the shocking idea that as people become wealthier they tend to want a little more space, and even single family houses. Well, duh. Those of us who are New Urbanists or critics of sprawl would never argue otherwise. Single family houses do not equate to sprawl. Car ownership does not equate to sprawl. This is the point of decades of critique – it’s not about all the pieces that make up our cities’ growth areas, it’s about how they are arranged. He argues we are “forcing people to live another way” – an often parroted critique of urban planners. I must say, it gets really old to mention that the whole system today in virtually every city and town in the US, whether it’s zoning, lending standards, transportation planning, construction techniques, etc etc is all set up to produce sprawl. But really, shouldn’t a professional in the field know this?

I feel that I could go on for pages regarding the foolishness of these arguments and the inaccuracies. But in order not to bore you, the reader, here’s a quick summary of some other points:

  • His critique that all the planning Portland, OR has done hasn’t changed travel patterns or lifestyle is another lie from the playbook of Randall O’Toole. Fortunately, this was debunked years ago by Michael Lewyn, at www.cnu.org/node/1532
  • He stated that building in a denser fashion “might be more efficient economically.” Um – here’s the truth. It IS more efficient. On a per unit basis (the only metric that matters), it is unequivocal. Ever wonder why developers want to squeeze more units in?
  • Not surprisingly, he minimized the threat of Peak Oil. Well, I suppose it’s also possible that gravity is still a theory, but I wouldn’t hedge my bets on it. Finite resources are just that – finite.
  • He frequently cites European sprawl (and sometimes Asian) as examples that this phenomenon is everywhere, and that it is the same as in the U.S. Yes, other countries have their sprawl, too. But to say it works the same or is on the same scale as the U.S. is patently absurd.  Many of those European suburbs are still walkable, and the actual amount that is auto-dependent is infinitesimal compared to American cities.
  • He argues that buses as less efficient and worse for the environment because they get worse gas mileage and are typically under-utilized. Well, yes, buses in this country largely run under-used, but it’s BECAUSE we’ve built places that make it difficult at best to ride a bus, if not impossible. In debate, they call this a straw man. And is there even a point to mentioning that buses can (and often do) run on alternative fuels?
  • Like many sprawl apologists, he equated car usage with freedom of mobility. I like to equate freedom with having choices. In this case, choices include not only driving, but also walking, biking, or even taking transit.  Anything less is dependence, not freedom.

I appreciate a good debate & intellectual challenge as much as anyone. And, I agree with Brueggman that many professionals tend to look down their noses at the suburbs and suburban expansion. And I would even go so far as to say that this can be a fascinating topic for debate – the question of “what to do about it” is one that divides us into many different camps professionally.

But to say that sprawl is not a problem is not only untrue, it’s destructive. The environmental and economic consequences of our development patterns are proven facts. The social aspects are debatable, but they are real. Aesthetic critiques can be snobbery, but beauty does matter – human beings always gravitate toward it.

What I’m most left with after this lecture is the question of how can someone be a professional in the field of planning/architecture and deny the importance of this issue? It strikes me as no different than being a climate scientist and saying climate change is really no big deal, or being a health professional and poo-poohing the obesity epidemic. Yes, repairing sprawl may not be as important to humanity as feeding the poor or securing clean water for all, but within our profession it’s the most important issue of our time.

Contrary views are very important to advancing intelligence and understanding. But sometimes they are just contrarian for the sake of being contrarian. That’s not debate – that’s either self-promotion or masturbation.