In Sprawl, cheekily subtitled "A Compact History," Bruegmann, a professor of art
history at the University of Illinois at Chicago, examines the assumptions that underpin
most people's strongly held convictions about sprawl. His conclusions are unexpected.
To begin with, he finds that urban sprawl is not a recent phenomenon: It has been
a feature of city life since the earliest times. The urban rich have always sought
the pleasures of living in low-density residential neighborhoods on the outskirts
of cities. As long ago as the Ming dynasty in the 14th century, the Chinese gentry
sang the praises of the exurban life, and the rustic villa suburbana was a common
feature of ancient Rome. Pliny's maritime villa was 17 miles from the city, and many
fashionable Roman villa districts such as Tusculum—where Cicero had a summer house—were
much closer. Bruegmann also observes that medieval suburbs—those urbanized areas
outside cities' protective walls—had a variety of uses. Manufacturing processes that
were too dirty to be located inside the city (such as brick kilns, tanneries, slaughterhouses)
were in the suburbs; so were the homes of those who could not afford to reside within
the city proper. This pattern continued during the Renaissance. Those compact little
cities bounded by bucolic landscapes, portrayed in innumerable idealized paintings,
were surrounded by extensive suburbs.
.......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. Bruegmann shows that asking whether sprawl
is "good" or "bad" is the wrong question. 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." This makes altering it very complicated,
indeed. There are scores of books offering "solutions" to sprawl. Their authors would
do well to read this book. To find solutions—or, rather, better ways to manage sprawl,
which is not the same thing—it helps to get the problem right.
Sprawl - technically defined as "low-density, automobile-dependent development beyond
the edge of service and employment areas" (Sierra Club)
While there's no universally accepted definition, the Vermont Forum on Sprawl concisely
defines sprawl as "dispersed development outside of compact urban and village centers
along highways and in rural countryside." (www.plannersweb.com/sprawl/define.html)
Transportation Research Conference, identified ten "traits" associated with sprawl:
1. unlimited outward extension
2. low-density residential and commercial settlements
3. leapfrog development
4. fragmentation of powers over land use among many small localities
5. dominance of transportation by private automotive vehicles
6. no centralized planning or control of land-uses
7. widespread strip commercial development
8. great fiscal disparities among localities
9. segregation of types of land uses in different zones
10. reliance mainly on the trickle-down or filtering process to provide housing to
The following definition (and explanation) was e-mailed to us by Kurt Seidel of Phoenixville
"Sprawl is characterized by housing not located within walking distance of any retail."
Explanation: "This is a powerful definition because of its simplicity. All of the
benefits of traditional neighborhoods flow from the ability to walk to a destination
walking to, even a pizza shop, but preferably a cafe or pub.
If people walk to a cafe, they would walk to a bus or train-station located near
the cafe. If you provide one, just one, retail establishment worth walking to, people
will do it, and all else follows from that.
Especially the 1/3 of people in our society who can't drive, be they elderly or 10-15
The following was e-mailed to us by John Elsden of Manchester, New Hampshire (which
John notes is "A walkable city!"):
"Sprawl is the result of inappropriate land development policies over the past 50
years which has made the American Public unable and unwilling to walk anywhere, except
in older cities where there is a great mix of development."