SPRAWL IS AN ECONOMIC PHASE
December 13, 2005
Opponents of urban sprawl argue that it is a recent phenomenon limited to America, the result of destructive public policies. A new book by Robert Bruegemann, however, argues that urban sprawl is a natural part of a city's growth.
Bruegemann claims that cities throughout the world and throughout time have had sprawl:
- During the Ming dynasty in the 1400s, the Chinese gentry sang the praises of the exurban life.
- Ancient Romans lived in the rustic "villa suburbana."
- Modern sprawl happened in Europe first -- London's population density peaked in the early 19th century; in Paris it happened in the 1850s; and in New York City in the early 1900s.
Bruegemann argues that urban sprawl occurs when cities reach a level of economic maturity. As citizens become wealthier, they desire more space and to own their own homes. With more money, they can purchase better transportation, which includes the automobile.
Today, this trend is not isolated to America, notes Bruegemann:
- Despite some of the most stringent anti-sprawl regulations in the world and high gas prices, the population of Paris has declined by almost a third since 1921, while its suburbs have grown.
- Over the last 15 years, Milan has lost about 600,000 people to its metropolitan fringes.
- Barcelona, considered by many a model compact city, has developed extensive suburbs and has experienced the largest population loss of any European city in the last 25 years.
- Greater London, too, continues to sprawl, resulting in a population density of 12,000 persons per square mile, about half that of New York City.
Bruegemann concludes that sprawl is the result of individual choices, not specific government policies. Consequently, fighting sprawl with government regulations is unlikely to achieve long-lasting success, he says.
Source: Witold Rybczynski, "Suburban Despair," Slate.com, November 7, 2005; based upon: Robert Bruegmann, "Sprawl: A Compact History" (University of Chicago Press: November 2005).
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