Sprawl: natural and democratic?

In his book ‘Sprawl: A Compact History' Robert Bruegmann argues that a preference for low density living is natural, democratic and as old as the world's cities. Speaking in Sydney to the Urban Development Institute of Australia (UDIA) last week, Bruegmann was presented as the curious academic, questioning conventional wisdom. Positioning himself as a ‘'sceptical urbanist' (ala ‘'sceptical environmentalist' Bjorn Lomberg), Bruegmann calls for a re-evaluation of sprawl. By all means, let's discuss what we mean by sprawl and assess its consequences for society.


In his talk Bruegmann defined sprawl to be ‘low density, scattered development without an overall masterplan'. As such, his history of sprawl includes Roman villas, 19th century London row terraces and five storey apartment buildings in Paris in the early 20th century. This all-embracing definition together with the presumption that sprawl is natural and democratic raises some interesting questions. If sprawl is as natural as 19th century row terraces in London, is it as natural as the industrial factories in which the residents worked? If sprawl is as democratic as Roman villas, how democratic is that? Unsurprisingly, the structural factors which create sprawl were absent from this analysis. In Bruegman's view, sprawl is caused by individual choice.

This conception of sprawl as simply decentralisation, through the use of a historical lens that projects back thousands of years, allows Bruegmann to posit an antithesis to current urban planning theory and practice. He claims that sprawl has brought ‘privacy, mobility and choice', all of which are consistent with a climate, culture and ideology of individualism and predicated on mobility by private car. If privacy is socially desirable what about its flipside, social isolation? If sprawl is low density, then the implication is that the distance between homes, workplaces, schools and parks will be long, and therefore people will not be able to walk, and hence will potentially be less mobile — which could, in fact, be seen as an urban form that constrains choice.

As both Howard Frumkin (Urban Sprawl and Public Health) and Larry Frank (also North American academics who have spoken in Sydney recently) have noted, there is growing evidence not merely of correlation, but causation between sprawl, a lack of physical activity and major health problems such as obesity, diabetes and depression. Frank's 2004 study ‘Obesity Relationships with Community Design, Physical Activity, and Time Spent in Cars', found that every additional 30 minutes per day a person spends in a car translates into a 3 percent increased likelihood of becoming obese. Last week Diabetes Australia launched a report by Access Economics which predicts that by 2025 up to 7.2 million Australians (28.9% of the population) could be obese, up from 3.2 million currently. Such research suggests the metropolitan strategies for Australian cities ought to further limit greenfields development and fast-track the implementation of public transport improvements within existing suburbs.

Bruegmann, by contrast, says the notion that suburbs cause obesity is ‘dumb'. He seems to focus solely on the criticism of low density, denying the sophistication of the research which discusses the range of neighbourhood design characteristics usually defined as being associated with sprawl; in particular, poor connectivity and long distances for walking and cycling, and low frequency public transport services.

Viewed in terms of such neighbourhood design characteristics, sprawl is clearly a societal problem, not only in terms of the health consequences, but also the social and economic effects. Jago Dodson and Neil Sipe of the Griffith University Urban Research Program's ‘VAMPIRE' index shows how the outermost (i.e. sprawling) suburbs in Sydney and Melbourne are the ones with the highest ‘vulnerability assessment for mortgage, petrol and inflation risks and expenditure' (VAMPIRE). People that live in the most decentralised areas are therefore the ones who are exposed to the greatest financial risk. Is this natural or democratic?

Aerial shot of Sydney Harbour. Thanks to sxc

Bruegmann does concede that species extinction is directly connected to sprawl, but on the other hand warns that allocating land for wildlife preservation increases average house prices. However, because he disconnects sprawl from car-dependence (i.e. land use from transport planning), Bruegmann claims low density development does not contribute to global warming. Rather if we each had a one hectare block, we could grow our own food and harvest our own water and electricity. Furthermore, he claims that attempts to prevent sprawl have been largely unsuccessful and have simply led to higher house prices. Stopping sprawl was possible, he said, but only at ‘great cost to personal freedom'.

Despite the use of some statistics, in the end Bruegmann's arguments come down to a similar, albeit opposing series of homilies to what he describes as the ‘conventional wisdom' on sprawl. The underlying rationale is nothing more sophisticated than choice and personal freedom (which happens to support conventional, car-based sprawl).

We do need to understand sprawl. Not only do we need to look at how are our cities developing, we need to respond to the problems of sprawl. Even more important is the question ‘what should be done?' Urban planners, and other city building professionals including developers have to commit time, skills and resources to implementing the answer to this vital question. People need homes, hospitals, parks, workplaces. Concrete will be poured, rooves raised, trees planted. Practitioners struggle every day with the essential questions of what to build where and how to integrate transport and land use planning. By sitting on the sidelines, Bruegmann is in effect promoting the status quo and staying the hand of planners not only to intervene to prevent more sprawl, but also to do something about the social problems sprawl is creating. We are left in doubt as to how to proceed, other than for planners to act as ‘facilitators rather than activists', and, presumably, for low density suburban development to continue.

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