Friday, February 24, 2006

Urban Sprawl Myths?

My colleague Bob Poole sent this my way and it was too good not to share:

The conventional wisdom is that “urban sprawl” (a.k.a. low-density, suburban development) is a quintessentially American phenomenon, so different from the way our sophisticated European cousins live and work. But would you believe that “Britain pioneered both producing sprawl and trying to stop it”? That’s one of the many revelations in a fascinating piece that appeared in The Guardian on January 28, 2006.

Author Robert Bruegmann, a professor of architecture and urban planning, debunks misconception after misconception about suburbanization. To begin with, it’s a well-nigh universal phenomenon, wherever people begin to acquire the means to escape from overcrowded, noisy, polluted cities. London was one of the first large cities to experience this, beginning in the 18th century and “exploding outward” in the 19th. The term “sprawl,” says Bruegmann, originated in Britain after World War I, as many started to decry the spread of semi-detached houses to the outskirts of the metro area. By the end of the second World War, sufficient anti-sprawl sentiment existed for the imposition of serious land-use planning, including the creation of a green belt around London. But, ironically, “the greenbelt was saved only at the price of forcing more of the population out beyond the greenbelt altogether, in effect urbanizing the entire southeast of England . . . and leading to the highest commuting times in Europe.”

Speaking of which, Bruegmann reminds us that, contrary to the predictions of anti-sprawl folks, commuting times are not shortest in the most dense cities and greatest in the most sprawling ones. “In fact, the reverse is closer to the truth. Commuting times in American cities are substantially lower than those in European cities.” Because, “As cities have spread out, jobs as well as houses have moved from the center.”

As you may know, The Guardian is considered a left-wing paper. So I give its editors a lot of credit for publishing such a politically incorrect article.


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