Posted by: mixed terrain. | February 12, 2008

Not to the best of our knowledge: Sprawl is good for us.

On February 3rd the nationally syndicated, Wisconsin Public Radio program “To the Best of our Knowledge” devoted the second hour of their program to the question of sprawl.Sun City, AZ.  Sold!

Listen here, or download the free podcast via iTunes.

While at first I was intrigued by the show’s blurb (‘Sprawl is bad’–Right?), by the end of the interviews and discussions I was thoroughly disappointed at the way in which the pro-sprawl guest (Robert Bruegmann) was allowed to make unsupportable and questionable claims about the minimal impact of contemporary suburban development, in part by vapid historical generalizations that eschew the particularity of the problem with expanding the growth of suburbs today.  To read an excellent, critical review of a previous Bruegmann public appearence in October 2006, see this post at Streetsblog.

Below is a copy of the email I sent to Jim Fleming, director of the show:

Dear Mr. Fleming,

A friend recently forwarded me a link to your show on sprawl. I was
excited by the idea of a show that considered some arguments contrary
to the typical polemics against the suburbs. I tuned in hoping for a
debate about and a nuanced look at the environmental, health,
aesthetic, and social impacts of the suburbs on American life. Joel
Hirschhorn raises a number of important, often subtle critiques of the
suburbs, though he is clearly not the best spokesperson for new
urbanism and higher-density living–at times on your show, and I
imagine in his book, he speaks as if here were a conspiracy theorist.

Surprisingly though, it is Robert Bruegmann, a highly-trained academic
historian and theorist whose statements on your show were the most
obfuscatory and specious. I was embarrassed while listening to the
show that Professor Bruegmann was able to make statements about how
people simply prefer to live in the suburbs, that commutes are no
longer than they were before, that living in the suburbs is cheaper,
and other such claims without having to answer to any basic and simple
challenges to these ideas–for instance, what of Hirschhorn’s idea
that supply more than demand drives the housing market in America?
What of the environmental and personal health detriments of even just
a 30 minute commute by freeway to work each day?

The most embarrassing thing about this particular show was the highly
self-indulgent and uncritical discussion with Tom Perotta that ended

Your show seemed to be finely tuned to gratify a suburban audience
familiar with the social and environmental drawbacks of suburban
living yet thirsting for affirmation of their choice; only those
hungry for such an affirmation could possibly have been convinced by
overarching and flimsy moral of this particular show: ‘The suburbs
are not really all that bad; it is just said that they are because a
certain, elite minority finds the aesthetics of living in such places
uninspiring and ugly–they are proselytizers and a bit fascist.’ This
is the same form of argument anti-environmental conservatives use
against the advocates and scientists attempting to stem the tide of
global warming.



  1. I followed you link to the Streetblog for the “take-down” of Bruegmann. The writer there seems ignorant of the basic facts of urban history, and this no-nothing and righteously indignant attitude informs his entire “critique” of B’s analysis. Let’s just look at one example, his “gotcha” with the image of Leicester square.

    He claims this is not sprawl because it is compact – relatively – and within a 20 minute horse or carriage ride of downtown London. Of course, when it was built, it was decried as sprawl by the people of the day, it was less compact than central London, and MOST important, the vast majority of inhabitants of the city WALKED everywhere. To ride a horse in the city was to be affluent, and to ride a carriage, a luxury!! Thus, this area was a “distant” suburb for the well to do. Suburban “sprawl”. Does the writer think that they had cars and paved roads then?

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