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Learning to Love Sprawl

Sprawl began in Rome hundreds of years ago.


At a recent panel discussion at the prestigious Chicago Architecture Foundation, the distinguished Doug Kelbaugh, dean of the University of Michigan's School of Architecture, described the book Sprawl: A Compact History as the most dangerous book he has read. The book was written by the also very distinguished Robert Bruegmann, professor of architecture at the University of Illinois at Chicago. The word "dangerous" suggests that something is very wrong with this book. In fact, the book, which is short and easily consumed, turns conventional wisdom on its head suggesting that "low-density scattered, urban development without systematic large-scale or regional public land-use planning," in other words sprawl, is not all that bad.

Sprawl the book and sprawl the urban effect begins in Rome, where Latin roots of urban and suburban development derived their names. Within the walls of Rome, densities approached 150,000 people per square mile (the Chicago region is roughly 4,000 p/sm). Outside the city walls, in suburbium, there was much diversity -- factories with extremely noxious by-products, very poor people and the tremendously wealthy. Sprawl finds the origin of sprawl in the movement of wealthy Romans from Rome to a suburban villa. This choice was reserved for the extremely affluent who could afford a fortified compound and the numerous servants (slaves) needed to simulate the services available in the city.

With increasing affluence, more people continued to choose the suburban lifestyle. Bruegmann's book identifies sprawl in 18th century Paris, 19th century London, 20th century American cities and surprisingly in late 20th century European cities. So sprawl is neither an American invention, nor a fact of modern life that Europe has avoided. Urban regions on both continents witnessed declining densities in the last century, with Europe lagging roughly 20 years behind the United States. Density is now, however, increasing in the most unlikely of places. Due to complex reasons that Sprawl explores, Los Angeles is now the densest region in the country, more dense than many European cities.

In 1950, Chicago was viewed as dense, congested, unhealthy, dangerous and a poor place to do business. Thousands left, including my parents, for a remarkably diverse number of suburban destinations -- some wealthy, some poor and some commercial or industrial. Our suburbs, like Rome's, were not homogenous. People and businesses moved by choice, powered by affluence and economic success.

Over the next three decades Chicago emptied out. In some places, Hispanic immigration and the growing black population replaced the older immigrant groups. Left behind were empty commercial buildings, houses with depressed value, thousands of vacant lots and acres of vacant land. Also left behind was the commercial core that the business community never abandoned (the reason why Chicago is not Detroit), some of the world's most renowned cultural institutions and an urban infrastructure that, although decaying, was intended to support a far larger population. Courtesy of a declining crime rate (see Steven Levitt and Freakonomics), the city was also becoming a safer place.

Sprawl eloquently points out that all those things that drove people to leave the city have now been successfully exported to Chicago's diverse ring of suburbs. Based on most measures, except density, today's suburbs have all the problems of the old central city. What are the alternatives? You can move even farther from Chicago.

There is a recent phenomenon called "New Urbanism." The principal is to pack residential, commercial and retail development on smaller parcels, leaving large common green space between denser settlements. Unfortunately, these developments are for the most part picturesque attempts to make suburbs more palatable to those informed about global warming and other urban issues. They have little effect on trip generation, travel time and other measures of the suburban experience.

Or you can move back to the city. By 1980, Chicago was a vast empty place with depressed building and land values. Some people chose to live in apartments, driving the construction of thousands of condominium units in what is called the Central Area (from Roosevelt to North Avenue, bordered by Halsted and the lake).

There's another phenomenon that's never been fully recognized. Depressed land values and vacant commercial real estate has meant that a single family house is an affordable alternative in the city. In the ultimate paradox, people are choosing to buy or build private houses, with front lawns and rear gardens, in the city. I grew up on Oakley Boulevard in Rogers Park, moved to a house in Wilmette and then built a new house on Oakley Boulevard in Ukranian Village in 1989. There's no end to this trend in sight. It will take a century to repopulate the city. o

Published: June 01, 2006
Issue: Summer 2006