New book claims sprawl is good

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Urban sprawl, we've learned in Atlanta, is one of the great evils of modern life. But a new book argues that sprawl is neither evil nor even modern.

"Sprawl: A Compact History" says that cities have sprawled for thousands of years: Indeed, outside the walls of ancient Rome was a place the Romans called suburbium, literally "below the walls" --- a place for businesses that couldn't operate within the city and for people who couldn't afford to live there.

Author Robert Bruegmann, an architecture historian and urban planner at the University of Illinois at Chicago, reports that suburbium has been with us for thousands of years, and that it must be a desirable place because we keep creating it again and again, all over the globe.

"Atlanta got the label of poster child of sprawl in the late 1990s, about 1995," Bruegmann said. "It really moved into undisputed first place as the world exemplar of sprawl." But he maintains that Atlanta is simply going through the same growing pains that seized London in the early 1800s, Chicago in the late 1800s and Los Angeles in the 1900s.

"If you look at that list of places what you realize is that, without exception, these are places that were growing the fastest, that were changing the fastest, that were creating wealth for the largest number of people," says Bruegmann.

He spoke by phone last week with the Journal-Constitution's Richard Halicks. Here is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Q. You chair the art history department and are a professor of architecture and urban planning. How much did the art history side of your training inform your analysis in this book?

A. Actually, a lot. One of the biggest surprises I had was that these debates about sprawl are usually couched in terms of objective, quantifiable matters like efficiency or agricultural production or pollution, things like that. But in fact, if you look at the anti-sprawl literature over time, you see that the thing that really gets people annoyed and angry, and has for centuries now, is aesthetics. That is really the emotional linchpin of a tremendous amount of anti-sprawl agitation.

[He refers to the book "Sprawl City: Race, Politics & Planning in Atlanta," published in 2000.] "Sprawl City" --- I was just looking at it a few minutes ago. It's heavily about race, because that's what the authors were preoccupied with. But if you look on almost any page, you see these words like "formless," "amorphous," "unplanned," all these things that are really about the aesthetic qualities of the place.

Q. You offer a startling thesis --- that sprawl happens. It certainly has negative aspects, but you describe it as a natural process?

A. Certainly there are major problems, as there were in London in the 19th century, Chicago in the late 19th century, Los Angeles in the 20th century, Atlanta at the turn of the 21st century --- sure those places had problems. But two things about that: One is, these are the kinds of problems that every city in the world wants to have --- that is, enormous growth and growth in wealth. And the other thing about them is that they always, in retrospect, look like golden eras. I've absolutely no doubt that, at the end of the 21st century, when people look back 50 years or a hundred years, Atlanta will be seen as one of the great lands of opportunity in urban history.

Q. Really? What makes you say so?

A. The reason these problems occur is that these cities are so attractive. These are places that tens of thousands of people come to every year, because they offer what people really want more than anything else. That is, they offer privacy, mobility and choice. By privacy I mean the ability to control your own environment, and one of the ways you can do that relatively easily is if you have your own plot of land and your own house. By mobility, I mean physical mobility and also social and economic mobility. And choice --- that means you can do a lot of different things. I think there's absolutely no doubt that these places we're talking about, these growth machines, Atlanta being one of them, fulfilled those needs, and people poured in from all over the world.

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