Thursday, December 08, 2005

History of Sprawl

In Glenn Reynolds' review of Robert Bruegmann's Sprawl: A Compact History, he explains that Bruegmann is turning the conventional wisdom aboutsprawl--that it's "a recent, and largely American phenomenon; it encourages wasteful use of resources; it's aesthetically unpleasant; and it benefits the rich at the expense of the poor."--on it's head. Instead, according to Bruegmann, it's not that sprawl is new: rich people have always engaged in sprawl. How else to explain the Roman villa? Sprawl only became a "phenomenom" when the middle-class started leaving the cities, too. As Reynolds summarizes:
Sprawl didn't become a problem until the wealthy and powerful were joined by the hoi polloi. Thanks to greater wealth and improvements in transportation, they were able to move from teeming tenements to less-urban settings. Once this started to happen -- before the automobile hit the scene, and beginning outside the United States -- social critics began to complain that sprawl was ruining pristine landscapes, and destroying the charm of urban life. (Ironically, as Bruegmann also points out, some of the very aspects of sprawl criticized by earlier generations -- like the miles of brick terrace row houses built in South London during the 19th century -- are now regarded as quaintly charming: "Most urban change, no matter how wrenching for one generation, tends to be the accepted norm of the next and the cherished heritage of the one after that.")

Bruegmann also notes that sprawl is not, in fact, a particularly American phenomenon, and illustrates his book with pictures of strip malls and low density housing from places as diverse as Bangalore and Paris.
What the rich call sprawl, the middle and lower class consider "opportunity." And, ironically enough, the houses that were once considered sprawl--like the tri-deckers so prevalent in Providence, RI and Fall River, MA--are today "being reappraised by hip, young urbanites who see them as charming period pieces."

No comments: