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Sprawl: A Compact History [Hardcover]

Robert Bruegmann
2.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (34 customer reviews)

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Book Description

November 1, 2005 0226076903 978-0226076904 annotated edition
As anyone who has flown into Los Angeles at dusk or Houston at midday knows, urban areas today defy traditional notions of what a city is. Our old definitions of urban, suburban, and rural fail to capture the complexity of these vast regions with their superhighways, subdivisions, industrial areas, office parks, and resort areas pushing far out into the countryside. Detractors call it sprawl and assert that it is economically inefficient, socially inequitable, environmentally irresponsible, and aesthetically ugly. Robert Bruegmann calls it a logical consequence of economic growth and the democratization of society, with benefits that urban planners have failed to recognize.

In his incisive history of the expanded city, Bruegmann overturns every assumption we have about sprawl. Taking a long view of urban development, he demonstrates that sprawl is neither recent nor particularly American but as old as cities themselves, just as characteristic of ancient Rome and eighteenth-century Paris as it is of Atlanta or Los Angeles. Nor is sprawl the disaster claimed by many contemporary observers. Although sprawl, like any settlement pattern, has undoubtedly produced problems that must be addressed, it has also provided millions of people with the kinds of mobility, privacy, and choice that were once the exclusive prerogatives of the rich and powerful.

The first major book to strip urban sprawl of its pejorative connotations, Sprawl offers a completely new vision of the city and its growth. Bruegmann leads readers to the powerful conclusion that "in its immense complexity and constant change, the city-whether dense and concentrated at its core, looser and more sprawling in suburbia, or in the vast tracts of exurban penumbra that extend dozens, even hundreds, of miles-is the grandest and most marvelous work of mankind."

“Largely missing from this debate [over sprawl] has been a sound and reasoned history of this pattern of living. With Robert Bruegmann’s Sprawl: A Compact History, we now have one. What a pleasure it is: well-written, accessible and eager to challenge the current cant about sprawl.”—Joel Kotkin, The Wall Street Journal
 
“There are scores of books offering ‘solutions’ to sprawl. Their authors would do well to read this book.”—Witold Rybczynski, Slate

Frequently Bought Together

Sprawl: A Compact History + Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream + The Death and Life of Great American Cities
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

After 70 years of suffering the slings and arrows of academic criticism, suburban life finally finds a compelling defender in Bruegmann. A professor of art history and urban planning at the University of Illinois–Chicago, Bruegmann demonstrates that urban sprawl is a natural process as old as the world's oldest cities, wherein large metropolises reach a point of maturity and those with financial means escape the congestion and high prices of city life. What has changed over the past century, the author says, is that an increasing number of citizens have achieved the financial means to participate in what was once an exclusive luxury of the wealthy. Bruegmann acknowledges that the effects on cities are not always positive, but he also demonstrates that many of the criticisms of suburban sprawl—e.g., that it is culturally deficient and environmentally noxious—are greatly exaggerated and ignore the very real benefits sprawl offers in terms of privacy, mobility and choice. With his disdain for doomsday predictions and his disregard for the academic consensus, Bruegmann's thorough analysis is sure to be controversial, but a shot of controversy ought to do the field, and public dialogue about it, some good. 25 b&w illus., 5 maps.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Review

"After 70 years of suffering the slings and arrows of academic criticism, suburban life finally finds a compelling defender in Bruegmann. A professor of art history and urban planning at the University of Illinois–Chicago, Bruegmann demonstrates that urban sprawl is a natural process as old as the world's oldest cities, wherein large metropolises reach a point of maturity and those with financial means escape the congestion and high prices of city life. What has changed over the past century, the author says, is that an increasing number of citizens have achieved the financial means to participate in what was once an exclusive luxury of the wealthy. Bruegmann acknowledges that the effects on cities are not always positive, but he also demonstrates that many of the criticisms of suburban sprawl—e.g., that it is culturally deficient and environmentally noxious—are greatly exaggerated and ignore the very real benefits sprawl offers in terms of privacy, mobility and choice. With his disdain for doomsday predictions and his disregard for the academic consensus, Bruegmann's thorough analysis is sure to be controversial, but a shot of controversy ought to do the field, and public dialogue about it, some good."--Publishers Weekly


(Publishers Weekly)

"Almost compulsively contrarian."
(Alan Ehrenhalt Governing Magazine)

"There are scores of books offering 'solutions' to sprawl. Their authors would do well to read this book. To find solutions--or, rather, better ways to manage sprawl, which is not the same thing--it helps to get the problem right."--Witold Rybczynski, Slate
(Witold Rybczynski Slate 2005-11-07)

"Urban elites and the left have for decades savaged the suburb, arguing that the suburb is environmentally unsustainable, an aesthetic blight on the landscape, homogeneously white bread and morally defective. A backlash is now well underway, with a slew of pro-suburb writers and policy wonks . . . attacking these politically correct views and defending the homes of what has become the majority of Americans. The latest defence--an engaging and non-ideological book entitled Sprawl . . . promises to become the most influential of the lot."--Lawrence Solomon, National Post
(Lawrence Solomon National Post 2005-11-12)

"Largely missing from this debate [over sprawl] has been a sound and reasoned history of this pattern of living. With Robert Bruegmann's Sprawl: A Compact History, we now have one. What a pleasure it is: well-written, accessible and eager to challenge the current cant about sprawl."
(Joel Kotkin Wall Street Journal 2005-12-10)

"Controversial and gleefully contrarian."
(Kevin Nance Chicago Sun-Times 2005-12-27)

"Sure to become a flash point in the debate over sprawl and is therefore well worth reading--even if the book tempts you to toss it out the window."
(Blair Kamin Chicago Tribune 2005-12-16)

“[Sprawl] is a good and timely book, and I recommend it to anyone interested in cities or general patterns of human settlement. The book is meticulously researched, ambitious in scope, well reasoned, and enjoyable to read. It offers a carefully balanced, non-polemical overview of a subject much polemicized in recent times.”—Alex Krieger, Commonwealth

(Alex Krieger Commonwealth)

“To judge whether sprawl is a symptom of global capitalism at its most rampant and wasteful . . . technical arguments must be addressed. Bruegmann takes us through them lucidly and economically, neither flinching from nor getting mired in detail, and steering deftly between neo-con smugness and liberal anguish. These qualities make Sprawl a textbook for our times.”
(Andrew Saint London Review of Books 2006-04-06)

"If you have not read Sprawl: A Compact History, drop everything, obtain a copy and read it. It is the most important book on the American landscape since Jane Jacobs' The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Do not be deceived. Sprawl is as much about cities as it is about suburbs; as much about England, France, Germany, and Russia as it is about the United States; and as much about the early 21st century exurb as it is about 19th century slums or ancient Rome. It succeeds as a deeply illuminating work because of Robert Bruegmann's unique position among urbanists: He combines an insistence on looking at what is actually on the landscape with an encyclopedic knowledge with the literature on cities. The result is a keen observer able to identify striking relationships. . . . . You may think you know this material. Be assured--once you read this book you will be amazed how little you truly understood about the subject."
(Alexander Garvin Urban Design Review)

"This is a book that a geographer should have written. Scholarly, yet accessible to a wide audience, it treats an important subject that is both controversial and inherently spatial. . . . Subtle and well-informed, [Sprawl] mounts a sustained critique of a set of assumptions and arguments that dominate public and academic debate. For anyone with an interest in, or a practical engagement with, urban development issues, Sprawl is indispensable reading."
(Richard Harris Annals of the Association of American Geographers)

"By asking tough questions, postulating rational responses, and trying to separate fact from fiction, Sprawl may be the most intelligent critique of antisprawl reform in print. It is unquestionably a book to be read and debated."
(Martin Zimmerman Preservation)

"[Sprawl] is a very good and timely book, and I recommend it to anyone interested in cities or general patterns of human settlement. The book is meticulously researched, ambitious in historic scope, well reasoned, and enjoyable to read. It offers a carefully balanced, non-polemical overview of a subject much polemicized in recent times."
(Alex Krieger Harvard Design Magazine)

"The clarity of writing . . . makes the book a pleasure to read. [Bruegmann] is tough on ecologists, public trnsportation supporters, planners . . . critics of capitalism, and anyone who cannot accept that suburbs are where most people want to live."
(David Dunster Architectual Review)

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 306 pages
  • Publisher: University Of Chicago Press; annotated edition edition (November 1, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0226076903
  • ISBN-13: 978-0226076904
  • Product Dimensions: 9.4 x 6.3 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 2.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (34 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #886,766 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Robert Bruegmann is an historian of architecture, landscape and the built environment. He received his BA from Principia College in 1970 and his PhD from the University of Pennsylvania in 1976. In 1977 he joined the faculty at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he is currently University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Art History, Architecture and Urban Planning. He has also taught at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia College of the Arts, MIT and Columbia University.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
41 of 50 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars This book changed the way I look at "sprawl." March 1, 2006
Format:Hardcover
I suppose I am one of those "elites" that Robert Bruegmann writes about in "Sprawl: A Compact History." I was born and raised in New York City. I grew up riding public transit and shopping at local mom n' pop stores. I watched many of my relatives leave the big city for greener pastures, and I noticed what a pain it was to go visit them on holidays because of the traffic. My parents refused to buy into the suburban lifestyle and stayed in the city. Even though my life and career path took me away from my beloved city, I have always tried to reside in the more urban parts of whatever area I happened to live. The suburbs never appealed to me, so naturally I was drawn to all of the anti-sprawl rhetoric and it all seemed perfectly reasonable to me. Bruegmann's book has changed that.

"Sprawl: A Compact History" might appear to be "pro-sprawl," but to dismiss the book out of hand because of this is to miss much of the point. Bruegmann does a great job explaining some things that probably should be obvious: sprawl is not new, there are lots of appealing aspects of sprawl (even for city dwellers) and it's not going away. He discusses the history of what most people would consider sprawl in places as far flung as Chicago, Paris and Tokyo and demonstrates that it was going on for a long time before anybody called it "sprawl" and decided it was bad. He notes that the existence of sprawl does not necessarily mean the death of great cities. He tackles many of the prevailing anti-sprawl arguments including the idea that sprawl causes congestion and ruins the environment.
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84 of 115 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars not tremendously persuasive June 12, 2006
Format:Hardcover
The most seemingly innovative part of Bruegmann's book is his attempt to create a history of sprawl. His basic argument runs as follows: something vaguely resembling sprawl happened in ancient Rome and 18th-century Europe, therefore sprawl will forever be with us, therefore sprawl is unstoppable.

Bruegmann's argument fails because is that it totally ignores differences of degree. There is an enormous difference between

(1) a region where sprawl is just one lifestyle option among many and you can live an auto-free life in a city or a streetcar suburb (e.g. most of the United States in the 1920s, the NYC region today, and much of the rest of the world today)

and

(2) a place where buses stop running at rush hour and you need a car to be a functional member of society (e.g. some Sun Belt cities and most small towns).

It seems to me that situation (1) is indeed normal in an affluent society; situation (2) requires decades of bad public policies.

Moreover, Bruegmann makes concessions that eviscerate his argument. On the one hand, he implies that sprawl is inevitable in an affluent society. On the other, he admits that many metro areas have grown more compact in recent decades, and that cities are beginning to gentrify. (I suspect that he was not quite sure whether he wanted to be balanced or to write a pro-sprawl polemic; sometimes he leans in one direction, other times not).

His attempt to deny government's involvement in sprawl is sometimes a bit silly.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Contrarian without an apparent point of his own November 30, 2010
Format:Hardcover
I was initially interested in the very different take on sprawl presented in this book. I don't like sprawl, but I am often turned off by the passionately subjective arguments typically utilized by anti-sprawl activists, so a more dispassionate look at it was welcome, and certainly the book offers a new perspective that at times seems more realistic than those he criticizes. As I continued to read the book I began to see that Bruegmann offered no thoughts of his own on sprawl- merely criticisms of anti-sprawl arguments (often belittling those with what most people would call legitimate concerns about sprawl). The only positive thing he could say about sprawl was that it offers a way out of the Dickensian urban environments of the past, completely ignoring the fact that urban environments could and did change in the last 100 years, and could and do offer nice places to live. He also ignores the fact that suburbs could and are be planned in different ways than sprawling, endless seas of cookie-cutter houses (and the fact that lots of people, not just "elites" don't like their house to look like thousands of others in a subdivision). Of course, this makes sense as he apparently despises planners. How many people would seriously argue that the mass building that occurred over the last 100 years should have been done without government planning? Bruegmann does.

Ultimately the book was depressing to me, as it was basically a litany with the point that we should simply be resigned to sprawl, in any form, as it is merely natural human behavior and nothing can or should be done about it. Luckily for my sanity, the signs of a shift towards more thoughtful living arrangements are to be seen all around us, and I simply don't believe Bruegmann, for all his dry and dispassionate counterpoints.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
3.0 out of 5 stars Useful contribution to the discussion, but with little substance below...
Every anti-sprawl "true believer" should read this book for a healthy dose of moderation and self-reflection. Read more
Published 4 months ago by LukeJ
2.0 out of 5 stars Completely Misses the Point
Bruegmann seems to be obsessed with "density." He brings up a few interesting historical points about the ebb and flow of the density of suburban areas, while failing to address... Read more
Published 12 months ago by K. Paddock
3.0 out of 5 stars College
This book was used for an English class focusing on sprawl. It did the job I suppose. I probably wouldn't read it for leisure
Published 22 months ago by Madison
1.0 out of 5 stars A thinly veiled overtly partisan rant
I appreciate disssenting opinion, however, I do not appreciate when someone tries to present themselves as objective when in fact they are far from it. Read more
Published on March 13, 2011 by Angela M. Garner
5.0 out of 5 stars Extremely helpful in pointing out the lack of clear definitions when...
This book is neither pro-sprawl nor anti-sprawl, but instead spends much of it's time pointing out that sprawl can mean many things to many people, which makes most discussions on... Read more
Published on March 8, 2011 by J. Davis
1.0 out of 5 stars A historian without a sense of history
I picked up this book because I am studying urbanization and am very interested in historical perspectives on sprawl. Read more
Published on February 11, 2011 by pigletpuu
1.0 out of 5 stars Misleading
This book is just plain bad. The illustrations and bibliography appear well thought out, but that's where my compliments end. Read more
Published on April 5, 2009 by M. Benton
2.0 out of 5 stars Misleading
Bruegmann tries to compare ancient Roman "sprawl" and post-WWII developments as the same things simply for their development outside of the city limits. Read more
Published on February 24, 2009 by W. Shoger
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent resource for analytic thought, irritating for "true...
This book is neither an attempt to defend "sprawl" or argue against it. It's a scattershot of facts and analysis directed at examining, first off, what "sprawl" means and the... Read more
Published on January 23, 2009 by Raoul Picante
1.0 out of 5 stars Full of gaping holes
Here are some obvious points that kept rolling around my head as I read this, and which the author seems oblivious to:

Government policy in the U.S. Read more
Published on January 10, 2009 by RobRuffo
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