Monday, November 7, 2005

Rybczynski on Bruegmann on Sprawl

Over at Slate, Witold Rybczynski has a post on Robert Bruegmann's new book Sprawl: A Compact History.  Here's a taste:

What this iconoclastic little book demonstrates is that sprawl is not the anomalous result of American zoning laws, or mortgage interest tax deduction, or cheap gas, or subsidized highway construction, or cultural antipathy toward cities. Nor is it an aberration. 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."

Ben Barros

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And there I thought it was the evil automobile companies.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz | Nov 7, 2005 10:27:05 PM

First of all, the notion that there is anything "icoclastic" about defending the status quo is silly. This is the classic scam of any reigning Establishment- run the world while pretending to be an embattled minority.

Second, the substance of Rybcynzki's argument is silly. His syllogism appears to be as follows:

Premise 1: Europe has experienced decentralization and increased driving, thus
Premise 2: Europe has sprawl just like America.
Conclusion: Therefore, sprawl is inevitable.

The conclusion is rubbish because Premise 2 doesn't follow from Premise 1. Europe's modest trend towards sprawl is not analogous to America's extreme sprawl. I doubt that any European large cities are as poor and deserted as Detroit, and transit ridership in most of urban Europe is far higher than in most of urban America.

The fact that there is a modest trend the other way does not mean that this trend will culminate in Europe looking just like America, anymore than the modest upsurge in transit ridership in recent years will make America look like Europe.

Posted by: Michael Lewyn | Nov 8, 2005 10:29:00 AM

I was very surprised to read this from Rybcynzki, a noted urbanist. However, his fundamental argument is nothing new to students of urban economics. What Rybcynzki (and Bruegmann) have in mind is the analytical core of urban economics: the monocentric model (also called the Alonso-Mills-Muth model). The "density gradient" in Rybcynzki's paper comes from this monocentric model. The model posits: for a single-centered (monocentric) city with employment concentrated in the central business district (CBD), land rents -- and therefore development intensity -- decline with distance from the CBD. The rate at which development intensity declines from distance to the CBD is called the "density gradient." The model holds that, as incomes increase and/or net commuting costs decrease, one would expect this "density gradient" to flatten out. Thus, declining populations in the city center and increased expansion of metropolitan areas at lower densities on the urban fringe are what we would expect everywhere with income changes and transportation technology changes.

Thus, it is not all that surpising -- nor all that interesting -- to point out that this is what is occuring in almost all cities of the world. The real question is not whether suburbanization is happening everywhere (it is) but the EXTENT and DEGREE of the suburbanization and its attendent quality and consequences (environmental, social, fiscal, etc.) The fact that there is suburban expansion in London or Paris and suburban expansion in Atlanta does not mean that Altanta is like London or Paris.

Rybcynzki's argument, however, is a helpful corrective to planners who think that policies to constrain the outward expansion of metropolitan areas are both easy and unambiguously correct. Suburbanization in and of itself is neither necessarily good nor necessarily bad.

I would recommend to people interested in this topic that they read an excellent paper by Stephen Malpezzi and Alain Betraud, "The Spatial Distribution of Population in 35 World Cities: The Role of Markets, Planning and Topography."

The paper can be accessed through:

Posted by: Kurt Paulsen | Nov 9, 2005 7:26:58 AM

But of course, populations don't always decline in the city center anymore. Numerous American cities (including NYC and Atlanta, for example) have started to gain population after losing population in the mid-to-late 20th century.

And within the United States, the areas where the center has declined more precipitously are not necessarily the most prosperous areas- often they are the hubs of stagnant regions like Buffalo, Detroit, St. Louis, etc.

Posted by: Michael Lewyn | Nov 9, 2005 2:50:10 PM

I reviewed Bruegmann's book for U. Chicago Press, and we struck up a correspondence. One point we did not resolve was how to distinguish between sprawl as a pejorative term and sprawl as just a synonym for suburbanization. I think there is a distinction, but the point I want to make here is that Bruegmann's more inclusive usage (suburbanization = sprawl) is what drives almost all anti-sprawl policy. Sprawl is simply equated with suburbanization in most local controversies. Almost any proposal to build something on greenfield space (i.e., farmland, forest land, deserts and wetlands) will, if it opposed by anyone, will be condemned as sprawl. Anti-sprawl policy is thus as likely to contribute to sprawl as contain it, since the density that is excluded in one suburb will head out to territory where, at least for a while, the locals actually like development. A book that works along this theme and is a nice complement to Bruegmann's is Zoned Out by Jonathan Levine.

Posted by: Bill Fischel | Nov 10, 2005 2:14:07 PM

And of course, one would also want to include on the reading list Bill Fischel's own classic in this field, "Does the American Way of Zoning Cause the Suburbs of Metropolitan Areas to be Too Spread Out?" in Governance and Opportunity in Metropolitan America, National Academies Press (1999). Available here:

Posted by: Kurt Paulsen | Nov 10, 2005 6:42:38 PM

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