President's Viewpoint -

Sprawl and my Summer Vacation

Originally published in the 2006 newsletter of the American Institute of Architects, Westchester Mid-Hudson Chapter.

by Michael Shilale, AIA, LEED - September 2006

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Every year toward the end of August our family, like many other families in our chapter area, visits the Jersey Shore. My wife and children prefer to spend time at the boardwalk in Wildwood. My preference is always the architectural richness of Cape May. My wife tells me we compromise by staying in south Wildwood in a place called Wildwood Crest. While quieter and visually more interesting to me than Wildwood, I still believe I lost that argument. My vacation does allow me to read things other than AIA emails and the voluminous documents I need to read every day to manage an architectural practice.

This vacation I picked up a book called Sprawl by Robert Bruegmann. The book is fascinating in its critically insightful approach to many common beliefs about sprawl. Bruegmann begins by attempting to define sprawl. He finds it an unusually difficult task and suggests its elusive definition is part of its popularity. It can mean many things to many people. Bruegmann believes so many claim to be against sprawl and even inaccurately deny living in sprawl. He states ironically that yesterday’s sprawl becomes today’s quaint neighborhoods. From his analysis most of our chapter area can be defined at one time or another as sprawl. He moves on to explain how sprawl has been around for thousands of years and dissects the perceived causes, effects and consequences of sprawl in addition to the many attempts to contain it. Bruegmann informs us that the area just outside the walls of Imperial Rome was called suburbium, meaning what was literally below or outside the walls.

He analyzes density, urban and suburban development and sprawl in cities throughout the world. He breaks down sprawl, more recently, into four categories; early sprawl, sprawl in the interwar years, post-war sprawl and sprawl since the l970s. Bruegmann claims the first organized anti-sprawl campaign occurred in Britain in the l920s, an outgrowth of Ebenezer Howard ‘s Garden City movement from that time.

One of the more interesting parts of the book is where the author addresses many presumed causes of sprawl and convincingly refutes them one by one. He believes capitalism, racism, government (zoning), technology, the automobile while all related to sprawl are really not the causes of sprawl.

His conclusions are even more fascinating than his analysis. The belief that the automobile has contributed greatly to sprawl, he tells us, is undermined by the fact that automobile ownership and use is as high, if not higher, in some of the densest cities as it is in the suburbs. In fact, Bruegmann suggests that attempts to curtail sprawl, such as restrictions on development cause property values to skyrocket and actually exacerbate sprawl.

Bruegmann suggests that human nature as well as mobility, privacy and choice dictate the formations of cities and suburbs more than anything else. A pervading theme of Bruegmann’s work is the concept of an incumbents’ club where groups who have a comfortable level of mobility, privacy and choice attempt to protect that quality of lifestyle, denying the opportunity of many people to share in that lifestyle. He suggests public policy should “attempt to draw up a balance sheet showing which kinds of environment achieve the most benefits for the most people without unduly harming any group.” He quickly concedes the difficulty with creating such a balance sheet but encourages us to continue to try.

His thoughtful analysis and conclusions will certainly add to the debate about sprawl and community planning. I hope this will help architects and planners build stronger, safer, sustainable, more beautiful and more livable communities. This is the mission of AIA and if it is of interest to you, get more involved. AIA, at all levels, is coordinating efforts to improve our communities and architects’ role therein.

See you in September.