Monday, February 20, 2006

Sprawl, Robert Bruegmann, and the Great Brawl that Wasn't

"I've come here for an argument."
"No you haven't."
"Yes, I have."
--Monty Python

More than 200 people packed the Chicago Architectural Foundation's lecture room last Wednesday night itchin' for a fight.

Robert Bruegmann, author of Sprawl: A Compact History, invited four critics to debate his book's premise: Sprawl is an inevitable and historic phenomenon, and, therefore, benign.

The four panelists were:

Douglas Kelbaugh, Dean, Taubman College of Architecture and Planning, University of Michigan

John Norquist, President of the Congress for New Urbanism and former Mayor of Milwaukee

Brent Ryan, Assistant Professor, Urban Planning Program, University of Illinois, Chicago

Emily Talen, Associate Professor of Planning, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and author of New Urbanism and American Planning: the Conflict of Cultures

The panel was moderated by Daniel Friedman, FAIA, Director, School of Architecture, UIC.

First, Bruegmann got up and gave a 15-minute overview of the book. He was sober, polite, and steeped in research. I gave him high marks for wanting to investigate sprawl after he saw an article in an airline magazine and realized no one disagreed with the notion that sprawl stinks. He thought that made it ripe for investigation.

But, his argumentwas faint, at least in the lecture. He showed how sprawl was a poor analytical term. He made some good observations about how sprawl is not necessarily an American phenomenon. Then, he got into a discussion of relative urban densities and pointed out some trends that suggested sprawl's natural, inevitable rise and fall in different parts of the world.

After Bruegmann's overview, each professor got up and said nice things about him. Then they argued against his book with words like "beauty" and "walkability" and the in-the-trenches "experience" of sprawl. They talked "gross densities" versus "net densities."

Ryan said he thought Bruegmann was fighting a "paper tiger" because no one in the new urbanist movement makes much headway against sprawl anyway. Then, Bruegmann got up and said "I agree with you on that." A lot.

By this point it was clear even to those of us in the cheap seats that no one was going to bust another's eye open. Professor Ryan (who got my vote for the evening's most cogent) probably said it best, when he said to Professor Bruegmann late in the evening, "I wish your book had been more of a polemic." Then, Ryan said, he'd have something to argue against. He'd have something to respond to within the way he goes about his urban planning.

For my money the comment of the night went to the old guy sitting in the back of the room who stood up and said, "So, tell me, who held a gun to all those people's heads and told them they had to buy those houses."

So, the academics tried to explain why beauty matters, and they dug themselves a bit of a hole. They got into real choices versus perceived choices. They floundered a bit.

Talen cited her her research that suggests people don't like living in sprawled areas, but by then she had so venomously and repeatedly shared her personal distaste for sprawl that she undermined the perception of objectivity in her research.

Kelbaugh helped her out a bit when he said, "Most people are happy where they live. You let people out of prisons, and they want to go back." But, I'm not sure that's the kind of response the old guy was searching for.

In other words, it's hard to critique people's hometowns and ways of life even if your Jiffy Lube looks just like mine.

And, that's pretty much how the anti-climatic evening unfolded. I will say, I'm glad I attended. I learned a lot by hearing the weaknesses in both sides of the argument. . . er, discussion.

Technorati Tags: sprawl, , Chicago


Michael Allen said...

I am more than a little bit weary of books like Sprawl, that take the phony posture of arguing in favor of the status quo by posing such a defense as "outsider." Sprawl doesn't need a defense -- it needs to be stopped!

I wonder if the decades of post-structural philosophy's popular bastardization isn't to blame for this wave of cultural argumentation that poses longstanding and harmful social facts (sprawl, sexism, elitism) as rebellious and marginal, and thus worthy of protection.

Steven Vance said...

This is exactly what happened.

It seemed like Bruegmann wasn't taking sides on Sprawl, but everyone was expecting him to.

Jennifer said...

I wish I knew enough about post-structural philosophy to continue your thread, Michael, but I'm afraid I don't. I'm psyched you stopped by to ponder it here, though.

Steve, thanks for the back up. It did seem as if Bruegmann regretted the premise by which he invited the panel, didn't it?

Kuz said...

My favorite part was when Professor Talen tried to argue that Bruegmann's research was inadequate because "statistics don't tell the whole story."

Her counter-argument?
"When I lived in sprawl, I hated it."
Nice one!

As a first semester planning student, I can't say I have great knowledge of what sprawl means from a planning perspective, but my economics background teaches me that getting people to change their behavior is hard, especially when it comes to such expensive decisions as buying or building a home. "Stopping" sprawl, at the margin, means restriciting a family from building a new house, and in our country, it's a pretty big deal for a government to do that.

Michael Allen said...

I just read this review of Bruegmann's book:

Tim Abbott said...

I come at sprawl from the perspective of a career conservationist, working at both local and regional levels with national land trusts, and a background in international development.

Conservation - and this is arguably true of any field of human endeavor- is at its heart about values. It is about human values and attitudes about our relationships with our neighbors and our environment, and making deliberate choices to change the ecological and societal status quo.

Such efforts cannot succeed without first understanding the root causes of these behaviors, and then designing and implementing strategies to transform those institutionalized, repetative patterns of human behavior sustaining the default patterns of land use underlying sprawl and environmental degradation.

Most land trusts and conservation groups lack the social science tools, partnerships and strategic focus to make much headway on these value-based human behaviors. From what I understand, this is a similar situation to what practitioners of new urbanism face in their own efforts.

Community-based conservation theory holds that strategies designed without the participation of those whose decision-making behaviors one hopes to transform are unlikley to be implemented by them. Strategies need to take into account the values and attitudes, the constraints and resources of those whose behaviors need to change as part of a solution.

Thus, a presentation on sprawl by experts before a municipal planning board may not be as effective as working with planning boards to address their needs, offering new tools for organizing and analyzing local information presented in a regional context.

This is very hard work, and time consuming, but the outcomes tend to be more effective and sustainable.

Jennifer said...

All this thoughtful discussion (thank you) and the panel event sent me digging for my notes from an interview I conducted last year with w/ Jeff Speck.

He is one of the co-authors of the influential book Suburban Nation along w/ Andres Duany & Elizabeth Plater-Zybeck. He's now the Director of Design at the National Endowment of the Arts.

At the time, we were discussing a design program called "Your Town" that the NEA funds to help small towns understand how good design and planning can lead to economic prosperity.

Close to the end of my interview w/ Speck, he said, "Let's not call it sprawl, let's call it bad planning."

He added, "We're surrounded by (our built environment) all day, every day, whether we like it or not, so we (meaning the NEA) want the quality of design to be as good as it can be."

I like thinking about sprawl in terms of design and planning specifics.

Interestingly, the Your Town program begins by showing people historic photos of their towns juxtaposed with more recent ones.

Then they ask, "What's changed?" and "How do you feel about it?" That's usually enough to jump-start people into defenders of preservation, good design, and sensible planning.

But, I do think it takes that grassroots, person-to-person approach that Tim mentions above.

Thanks again all. Happy Monday.

Pete said...

I still can't get over the Tribune article on Bruegmann, which photographed him in his Lincoln Park condo. Makes me wonder how many times he's driven, say, Golf Road in Schaumburg, LaGrange Road in Orland Park or Route 59 in Plainfield at rush hour. Let it take him 45 minutes to go 2 miles, seeing nothing but the brake light of the car ahead of him, every day for a couple of months, and then we'll see if he still thinks sprawl isn't a major problem.