Eyesore or Opportunity?

May 14, 2012 | by the Office of Marketing and Communications

“Sprawl” has become a dirty little word.

It conjures images of sweet meadows transformed into subdivisions, shopping centers and traffic-choked roads. Sprawl has been blamed for ruining the environment, segregating rich from poor, damaging visual aesthetics, destroying culture and reducing social interaction.

So when architectural historian and author Robert Bruegmann spoke in defense of urban sprawl during a lecture at Elmhurst College on Tuesday, May 8, he raised a few eyebrows. But he challenged the audience in the Founders Lounge to join him in a closer examination of sprawl before passing judgment.

“Even if we don’t like sprawl, we should at the very least know enough about it before we go and try to stop it,” Bruegmann said during the Andrew K. Prinz Guestship Lecture for Political Awareness, sponsored by the College’s Student Government Association.

Bruegmann is a professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where he has spent three decades teaching art history, architecture and urban planning and policy. He also authored the controversial book, Sprawl: A Compact History, in which he argued that people historically have sought to move out of central cities in pursuit of freedom and social mobility.

Building on this theme at his presentation, Bruegmann dispelled the myth that urban sprawl is an American invention. He offered up evidence that since the founding of civilization, the affluent have sought refuge from densely populated central cities by building residences in the country. Consider the creation of the Roman villa and the French chateau. “Sprawl is as old as cities,” Bruegmann said. “If it’s so bad, why does everyone keep doing it?”

By the 19th century, sprawl was becoming decidedly middle class, Bruegmann said. It happened in London during the Industrial Revolution, when factory workers suddenly were able to leave the dense city center to live in newly built row houses on the outskirts of town. It was at that time that sprawl started to get its first critics, Bruegmann said.

“For an artistic and intellectual elite, this was the worst thing they had ever seen. It was ruining the beautiful British countryside. It was greedy developers out to get the last cent out of every square inch of land. … All the complaints we have about sprawl today were conferred in 19th-century London,” Bruegmann said.

But sprawl really gained a bad reputation in post–World War II America, when the burgeoning middle class fled the big city for the suburbs. By the late 1960s, inner cities were in decay. Suburbanites became reliant on the automobile, clogging roads and causing air pollution. Family farms were being replaced with cookie-cutter homes and shopping malls.

“This is where most people think sprawl begins: After World War II, Americans move out in great numbers to the suburbs,” Bruegmann said. “But history shows this is not exclusively an American phenomenon.”

In fact, modern evidence suggests that sprawl continues to be a global force. Planners have struggled with urban sprawl in Moscow, Munich, Sydney and Hong Kong, among other large cities, Bruegmann said.

“Whenever there are polls asking people where they want to live, nobody ever says, ‘Oh, I want to live in a big apartment building.’ The majority of people say they want to live in a single-family, detached house,” Bruegmann said.

But what really surprised Bruegmann was that even in Third World countries, there is evidence that people want to live away from the densely populated city center. Sprawl, once the privilege of the affluent, and later the middle class, now has become an opportunity for the poor.

“In India and much of Africa, people are moving off the land and into the cities where the jobs are. But even in those places, there are enough outward movements so that the overall [city] densities are declining,” Bruegmann said.

The point of his research, Bruegmann said, is not to be an advocate of urban sprawl, but to present information that allows people to discern fact from fiction.

“I’m not saying sprawl is either good or it’s bad,” Bruegmann said. “I’m saying that this word ‘sprawl’ is very inexact. I think it’s that way deliberately because the anti-sprawl people don’t want to define it very carefully. If they did, they’d find that most of the people who support them live in sprawl. … Sprawl is a terrible diagnostic tool–it lumps together some real problems with some things that shouldn’t be attributed to sprawl at all.”

While Bruegmann’s remarks are provocative, the purpose of the Prinz lecture is to bring diverse voices to campus, said Constance Mixon, director of Elmhurst’s Urban Studies Program. The lecture series was named in honor of the late Andrew K. Prinz, a popular and esteemed professor of urban studies who taught at the College from 1969 to 2003.

“I am more of the ‘sprawl is bad’ philosophy, and I disagree with Dr. Bruegmann on a number of points. But I think it’s important to have different viewpoints presented on campus,” Mixon said. “That is the value of this lecture series.”

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