Newswise — Sprawl, like any other settlement pattern, has created problems but also offers benefits, according to a new book by Robert Bruegmann, professor of architecture and chair of art history at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
In "Sprawl: A Compact History" (University of Chicago Press, 2005), Bruegmann writes that for many middle-class people, sprawl affords privacy, physical and social mobility, and options for living and working that once were available only to the rich.
Critics of the cultural and environmental effects of sprawl overlook its benefits and oversimplify its causes, Bruegmann says. Sprawl has been blamed on real estate markets, public policy and technology, but Bruegmann sees it as "a persistent, complex and integral part of urban history.
"According to anti-sprawl reformers, sprawl is economically inefficient, socially inequitable, environmentally damaging and aesthetically ugly," Bruegmann said. "Anti-sprawl agitation tends to rise during every major period of economic growth -- between the wars in Britain, after World War II in America, and in cities around the globe since the 1980s. Many of the objections have been based on shaky assumptions, often tinged with class bias."
New metropolitan systems, with more suburbs and exurbs, defy old notions about rural and urban places, he said. In most large 19th-centry industrial cities in Europe and the American Northeast, density has been decreasing at the core while increasing at the edge. By contrast, in many newer American cities like Los Angeles or Phoenix, both the core and the suburbs are becoming denser, so sprawl is not necessarily accelerating.
"Exurban development -- the very low-density settlement beyond the regularly developed suburbs -- is accelerating, but it's not clear how much of that can be characterized as sprawl," Bruegmann said.
Even if sprawl were the major problem that many observers believe it to be, it is unlikely that it can be stopped by "smart growth" policies in effect in cities like Portland, Ore., Bruegmann noted. Growth boundaries and other anti-sprawl measures rarely work and can cause side effects worse than the problems caused by the sprawl itself.
"The rush to condemn sprawl before understanding it has been counter-productive," Bruegmann writes. "This book is an attempt to observe, describe, and understand."
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