This Slate book review (found via Brad Plumer) covering the history of sprawl is so infuriatingly silly, it’s hard to know where to begin.

In a nutshell: Slate architecture critic Witold Rybczynski reviews a book by University of Illinois at Chicago professor Robert Bruegmann that argues — quite correctly — that suburbs have been part of urban life for millenia. In ancient Rome, wealthy patricians escaped to exurban villas. Just so, the walled cities of medieval Europe were surrounded by noxious industries such as slaughterhouses, as well as many of the people who worked there. Since cities have always had low-density outskirts, Bruegmann argues, it’s simply inaccurate to characterize "suburban sprawl" as entirely an invention of 20th century American car culture.

All that’s fair enough — the suburbs have always been with us, in one form or another. And for good reasons: Some folks prefer not to live in the city, and some cities prefer to locate public nuisances outside of town.

But from this, the article (I’m not sure whether it’s Rybczynski or Bruegmann who’s responsible) draws conclusions about sprawl that are hard to fathom — and even harder to square with reality.

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Consider this quote:

It appears that all cities — at least all cities in the industrialized Western world — have experienced a dispersal of population from the center to a lower-density periphery. In other words, sprawl is universal.

OK. Granted, pretty much all cities have suburbs. To that extent, sprawl is universal. But also, quite clearly, different cities sprawl in different ways, and to vastly different degrees. Even within the Pacific Northwest — an area with a comparatively uniform culture and politics — the major cities display surprisingly different patterns of urban density, walkability, and car dependence. To that extent, sprawl is highly malleable, and manifests very differently in different places; it’s not universal at all.

And quite clearly, patterns of sprawl are affected by policy differences among the cities. Vancouver promotes downtown development and compact regional centers, restricts the development of farmland at the urban fringe, and has built few lane miles of urban freeways. Consequently, it sprawls least among all Northwest cities. Oregon’s growth management laws have limited rural sprawl in greater Portland, in a way that neighboring counties in Washington State have not. And so on. Clearly, policy matters — quite a lot — in determining the shape of cities, and how they grow over time.

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Extending that sort of study to other cities in the U.S. (PDF) and the world, it’s clear that there are both far more sprawling and far more compact cities than those of the Pacific Northwest. Some of the differences in urban design and layout have to do with geography, climate, and cultural preference; others with wealth, history, and technology. But some, quite clearly, are related to policy choices. Places that choose to build lots of miles of freeway through the city core, and ring roads around the periphery; that require minimum lot sizes for homes; that mandate street patterns that are branching rather than gridded; that strictly separate housing, jobs, and services; that fail to protect open space and farmland at the urban fringe; that allow taxes from central cities and inner suburbs to be used to pay for infrastracture at the urban fringe — the places that pursue these sorts of policies tend to have more of their residents living in low-density, sprawling suburbs than places that don’t.

But the book (or perhaps just the review — I don’t know who’s at fault) draws the opposite conclusions:

What this iconoclastic little book demonstrates is that sprawl is not the anomalous result of American zoning laws, or mortgage interest tax deduction, or cheap gas, or subsidized highway construction, or cultural antipathy toward cities. Nor is it an aberration … Sprawl is and always has been inherent to urbanization. It is driven less by the regulations of legislators, the actions of developers, and the theories of city planners, than by the decisions of millions of individuals — Adam Smith’s "invisible hand."

How’s that again? It’s one thing to claim that the impulse to spread out is both common and understandable. It’s quite another to claim that policies that quite clearly encourage and subsidize sprawl are irrelevant to how cities grow. The former is defensible; the latter is laughable; and how you move from one to the other is beyond me.

I wish I were inclined to read the book to see whether Bruegmann backs up his arguments with facts, or if Slate‘s reviewer mischaracterizes the book. But life’s just too short. If anyone wants to read and review the book themselves, please, by all means, enlighten me.

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