As anyone who has flown into Los Angeles at dusk or Houston at midday knows, urban areas today defy traditional notions of what a city is. Our old definitions of urban, suburban, and rural fail to capture the complexity of these vast regions with their superhighways, subdivisions, industrial areas, office parks, and resort areas pushing far out into the countryside. Detractors call it sprawl and assert that it is economically inefficient, socially inequitable, environmentally irresponsible, and aesthetically ugly. Robert Bruegmann calls it a logical consequence of economic growth and the democratization of society, with benefits that urban planners have failed to recognize.
In his incisive history of the expanded city, Bruegmann overturns every assumption we have about sprawl. Taking a long view of urban development, he demonstrates that sprawl is neither recent nor particularly American but as old as cities themselves, just as characteristic of ancient Rome and eighteenth-century Paris as it is of Atlanta or Los Angeles. Nor is sprawl the disaster claimed by many contemporary observers. Although sprawl, like any settlement pattern, has undoubtedly produced problems that must be addressed, it has also provided millions of people with the kinds of mobility, privacy, and choice that were once the exclusive prerogatives of the rich and powerful.
The first major book to strip urban sprawl of its pejorative connotations, Sprawl offers a completely new vision of the city and its growth. Bruegmann leads readers to the powerful conclusion that “in its immense complexity and constant change, the city-whether dense and concentrated at its core, looser and more sprawling in suburbia, or in the vast tracts of exurban penumbra that extend dozens, even hundreds, of miles-is the grandest and most marvelous work of mankind.”
“Largely missing from this debate [over sprawl] has been a sound and reasoned history of this pattern of living. With Robert Bruegmann’s Sprawl: A Compact History, we now have one. What a pleasure it is: well-written, accessible and eager to challenge the current cant about sprawl.”—Joel Kotkin, The Wall Street Journal
“There are scores of books offering ‘solutions’ to sprawl. Their authors would do well to read this book.”—Witold Rybczynski, Slate
After 70 years of suffering the slings and arrows of academic criticism, suburban life finally finds a compelling defender in Bruegmann. A professor of art history and urban planning at the University of Illinois Chicago, Bruegmann demonstrates that urban sprawl is a natural process as old as the world's oldest cities, wherein large metropolises reach a point of maturity and those with financial means escape the congestion and high prices of city life. What has changed over the past century, the author says, is that an increasing number of citizens have achieved the financial means to participate in what was once an exclusive luxury of the wealthy. Bruegmann acknowledges that the effects on cities are not always positive, but he also demonstrates that many of the criticisms of suburban sprawl e.g., that it is culturally deficient and environmentally noxious are greatly exaggerated and ignore the very real benefits sprawl offers in terms of privacy, mobility and choice. With his disdain for doomsday predictions and his disregard for the academic consensus, Bruegmann's thorough analysis is sure to be controversial, but a shot of controversy ought to do the field, and public dialogue about it, some good. 25 b&w illus., 5 maps.