Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Revolting Developments

Are you prepared to have your comfortable little world blasted into its constituent atoms? If so, go forth and read Witold Rybczynski's review of Robert Bruegmann's new book Sprawl, and wrestle with paradigm-shifting pronouncements like this one:

[Bruegmann] finds that urban sprawl is not a recent phenomenon: It has been a feature of city life since the earliest times. The urban rich have always sought the pleasures of living in low-density residential neighborhoods on the outskirts of cities.
I'm not sure what Rybczynski is trying to explain or imply here; his remarks are pretty much useless, except as an example of the bargain-basement pseudo-epiphany to which cultural criticism is increasingly prone.

Modern sprawl - like many other modern problems - is an amalgam of the old and the new: Age-old patterns of behavior persist while population increases, and technology enables more intensive exploitation of limited resources. What's at issue in arguments over sprawl isn't the natural human desire for gardens or home ownership; that's a given. What's at issue are the costs and benefits of specific types of growth. Planning for the intelligent use of resources, and finding a sustainable balance between public and private good, requires exquisitely careful attention to current regional realities. The relevance of the ancient Roman villa rusticana to contemporary American land-use policy is obscure at best.

For his next trick, Rybczynski confounds a gogglin' world with the noncounterintuitive fact that sprawl currently exists in other countries.
Central urban densities are dropping because household sizes are smaller and affluent people occupy more space. Like Americans, Europeans have opted for decentralization. To a great extent, this dispersal is driven by a desire for home-ownership.
Fierce stuff, eh? One can easily imagine Rybczynski pouring cauldrons of molten lead onto the ragged anti-sprawl hordes howling at the gates of his Beaux Arts aerie. Unfortunately, though, in his eagerness to "challenge the assumptions that underpin most people's strongly held convictions about sprawl," Rybczynski fails to demonstrate that these assumptions are either common or significant enough to justify his efforts.

Again, the important question about American sprawl is the extent to which it's sustainable, given local infrastructure and resources. Sprawl in the desert West is the most obvious example of development that's based on blissfully short-sighted miscalculation. In those regions, there's a serious shortage of water, and no public transportation to speak of; a change in water or gasoline availability may well turn these developments into ghost towns. Sprawl in France or Japan is likely to be very different - in terms both of quality of life and long-term viability - from sprawl along I-10 in the Mojave Desert.

Now, I realize that in saying this, I'm just as guilty of belaboring the obvious as Rybczynski. But at least my invocation of the obvious includes some recognition of factors that make American sprawl unique, if not exemplary. Like a lot of commentators on sprawl, Rybczynski seems to view it as a cultural phenomenon to be assessed in terms of aesthetics. Since I view it as an issue of resource management, it's not surprising that I don't find this approach congenial.

Having tempted your palate with gnats, Rybczynski serves forth the camel:
Bruegmann shows that asking whether sprawl is "good" or "bad" is the wrong question. Sprawl is and always has been inherent to urbanization. It is driven less by the regulations of legislators, the actions of developers, and the theories of city planners, than by the decisions of millions of individuals — Adam Smith's "invisible hand."
This is a daft thing to say. Sprawl can perhaps be said to be inevitable - especially if it's irrationally considered to be synonymous with growth - but this doesn't mean that a specific type of sprawl is inevitable, or even possible, in a specific place. Local governments have a tremendous amount of power over how, and where, and whether sprawl occurs. There's no "free market" in land development, nor is there any compelling argument for one; water and waste issues alone make patterns of development a matter of public interest and public health.

The decision to build a planned community on an abandoned proving ground, in an area with little or no water, has nothing to do with the invisible hand, and a great deal to do with blind greed (to say nothing of the collusion and secrecy that are supposed to be anathema in a truly free market). Sure, a developer who's gotten some disastrous project rubberstamped by corrupt local politicians can usually corral a few hundred or thousand suckers into its buildings. But what of it? These are also boom times for child prostitition in Thailand and three-card monte dealers in Washington Square, neither of which is considered to be a respectable form of commerce.

Rybczynski certainly understands this on some level, since he ends his piece with a plea for better management of sprawl.
To find solutions — or, rather, better ways to manage sprawl, which is not the same thing — it helps to get the problem right.
This, of course, is a job that's supposed to be done by the very regulators, city planners, and developers whose power and responsibility he's just rhetorically downplayed in order to indulge in fuzzy-headed free-market mysticism.

It may be unfair to conclude from this seeming contradiction that Rybczynski's chasing his tail. Still, I fail to see how gratuitously blurring the distinctions between different types and degrees of sprawl, while ignoring the role of developers and lawmakers in ramming ill-advised developments down the public's throat, will help us to improve our thinking about land use.

8 comments:

Steven Lagavulin said...

Man, remind me not to send you my insightful study on how increased mobile phone usage leads to a shortage in number availability. (Hint: it seems many families choose to have a separate number for each individual...).

What interests me is why American city planners (an oxymoron admittedly) don't recognize the value in creating modest "bullet train" lines to link ex-urban communities to the cities. Not slow passenger light-rails, but fast limited-stop lines.

It's undoubtedly a blessing that they don't, but it seems perfectly clear to me that most people would like to live in a small town and work in the city. A fast rail line would turn a 3-hour congested auto-commute into a 45 minute passenger ride. I can't imagine the cost is that prohibitive.

And I would think that would distribute the impact of sprawl considerably, since you'd be leap-frogging the progressive need ffor ever more peripheral suburb-communities.

Phila said...

What interests me is why American city planners (an oxymoron admittedly) don't recognize the value in creating modest "bullet train" lines to link ex-urban communities to the cities. Not slow passenger light-rails, but fast limited-stop lines.

Beats me. My off-the-cuff, cynical guess would be that a large amount of sprawl is fueled not by public needs, but by the whims of developers.

But really, who knows? Rail does seem to be amazingly unpopular these days, though it's generally a terrific form of transportation for commuters.

Speechless said...

Sprawl: perfect word to describe the shopping areas and housing developments that spread and crawl all over the previously intimate landscape. Like the person stretched out in the Lazy Boy recliner, all American: informal, familiar, not attractive, but easy and cheap.

WHT said...

Like a lot of commentators on sprawl, Rybczynski seems to view it as a cultural phenomenon to be assessed in terms of aesthetics. Since I view it as an issue of resource management, it's not surprising that I don't find this approach congenial.

I have read his stuff for many years since he publishes in Atlantic/Harpers regularly. You nailed it with why I can only take so much of his analyses. Aesthetics is only a small part of the equation in my mind.

Phila said...

WHT,

I've certainly seen his books around, but I've never actually read him 'til now. As you can probably tell, I'm kind of disappointed.

I think aesthetics is incredibly important, but not compared to siting, materials, and so forth. Not at this late date.

isabelita said...

Hmm, ya think it MIGHT be owing to the whims of developers?! Here's what Quadrant Homes President Peter Orser says: His company is on track to reach the ultimate goal of building 9 houses a day and also to expand into metropolitan building markets outside the Puget Sound area.
This is from the Puget Sound Business News, a rah-rah fatcat rag here in Seattle.
9 FUCKING HOUSES A DAY??? Where, and why? I'llt ell you where, all over any green space that might be left to plunder, and why? because Orsere and his greedy Republican cohorts wanna make $$$$$! And MORE $$$$!
Skip the so-called "nuances," folks. Grab Our Pile - the GOP - is on the move.

Phila said...

isabelita said...
Hmm, ya think it MIGHT be owing to the whims of developers?!


Just maybe!

Every once in a while, I try to avoid coming across as a perpetually angry hysteric, so I decided not to accuse them directly, or - heaven forbid! - suggest that they be boiled alive in vats of scalding pine sap. But that's certainly the subtext of my remarks.

isabelita said...

You don't have to accuse them, they cheerfully trumpet, all by themselves, their intent to cover the earth with tract housing!