Andrew Wiese, Robert Bruegmann, Dolores Hayden, Kevin M. Kruse and Thomas J. Sugrue: A new wave of scholars challenges common assumptions about sprawl and urban growth

Historians in the News

Sprawl. It's an ugly word.

The term often evokes images that are even uglier: Green space lost to an asphalt desert of strip malls and highways. Citizens trapped in cars and a fast-food lifestyle that leaves them tired, stressed, and overweight. Pollution and global warming devouring habitat and community. Anonymous commuter suburbs where the people and the architecture all look the same.

That's a common view among urbanites and scholars. But over the past decade, a revisionist-minded, crossdisciplinary group of researchers has been complicating that view of sprawl and the metropolitan geography of which it is a part. They are rereading the suburban landscape in ways that unsettle much of the received wisdom about its history and its political economy.

As one of those scholars, Andrew Wiese, an associate professor of history at San Diego State University, puts it in his book Places of Their Own: African American Suburbanization in the Twentieth Century (University of Chicago Press, 2004), "With a few exceptions, historians have focused on suburbs of elite and middle-class whites, and they have defined suburbs according to the attributes of these communities." He says that "in addition to recovering black history in the suburbs," his project "challenges historians to think and write about suburbs in a different way."

Researchers like Mr. Wiese are not oblivious to the problems that can go hand in hand with suburbanization — some are highly critical of aspects of it — but they share a certain respect for its complexities. As another revisionist, Robert Bruegmann, a professor of art history, architecture, and urban planning at the University of Illinois at Chicago, says, "There's nothing simple about the suburbs."

Take sprawl. The problems that Mr. Bruegmann has with the idea begin with the term itself. "'Sprawl' is such an impossibly bad analytical tool," he says. "You can and should have a policy on species habitat or on global warming or cost of infrastructure or transportation. But sprawl itself is hopeless as a catchall for a whole lot of things people dislike."

Most attempts to define sprawl begin with a negative. In A Field Guide to Sprawl (Norton, 2004), Dolores Hayden, a professor of architecture, urbanism, and American studies at Yale University, calls it "unregulated growth expressed as careless new use of land and other resources as well as abandonment of older built areas." In a know-the-enemy gambit designed to help antisprawlers understand what they are up against, she uses aerial photographs to break sprawl into its constituent elements: big-box retail spaces, starter castles, boomburbs, etc. Ms. Hayden is also the author of a recent major study, Building Suburbia: Green Fields and Urban Growth, 1820-2000 (Pantheon, 2003), and several other books on urban history.

Mr. Bruegmann begins with the same tools — close observations made from the air and on the ground — to get a handle on sprawl. But the way that he wields those tools yields wildly different results.

Building History

In Sprawl: A Compact History (Chicago, 2005), Mr. Bruegmann describes the staggering variety of human settlement one sees from an airplane flying over New Jersey en route to New York's LaGuardia Airport. It's an exercise in what he describes as "the difficulty of pinning down a common definition or linking it to realities on the ground."

Does sprawl include exurbia, "the outmost band of development, ... the very low-density urban penumbra that lies beyond the regularly built-up suburbs and their urban services?" he writes. "Or is it the newly emerging suburban band of conventional subdivisions, golf courses, schools, and strip malls located closer in toward the city? If the latter is sprawl, is it logical to exclude older suburbs?

Certainly at one time these older communities, even many of the most densely packed inner neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Manhattan, were themselves relatively low in density and suburban in character compared to what was the core of the city. Why wouldn't they be considered historic sprawl?"

Attaching the word "historic" to sprawl underscores that the phenomenon has been with us far longer than many of us realize. In his book, Mr. Bruegmann makes the useful point that sprawl — and resistance to it — goes back decades, even centuries. Nor is it a peculiarly American affliction, even if it's widespread in this country.

Residential and industrial development in ancient Rome spilled past the city walls into suburbium, while the wealthy carved out retreats in the exurbs just as they do now. Centuries later, in 1920s Britain, one antisprawl activist howled that "we are making a screaming mess of England. ... A gimcrack civilization crawls like a gigantic slug over the country, leaving a foul trail of slime behind it."

Humans have left that "foul trail" for almost as long they have been building cities.

Postwar American critiques have focused on the crushing uniformity the suburbs were supposed to represent. In 1961 the urban historian Lewis Mumford indicted suburbia as a leveler of the worst order, infusing his definition with a moral judgment of sorts: "A multitude of uniform, unidentifiable houses, lined up inflexibly, at uniform distances, on uniform roads, in a treeless communal waste, inhabited by people of the same class, the same income, the same age group, witnessing the same television performances, eating the same tasteless prefabricated foods, from the same freezers, conforming in every outward and inward respect to a common mold."

In a forthcoming collection, The New Suburban History (Chicago), scheduled for publication in July, the historians Kevin M. Kruse and Thomas J. Sugrue point out that Mumford's critique, and others in the same vein, defined the limits of the first 25 years of suburban historiography: "Seeing postwar suburbia through the eyes of postwar critics like Mumford, many observers painted a monochrome picture of the suburban world as white, affluent, and conformist."

Mr. Kruse, an assistant professor of history at Princeton University, and Mr. Sugrue, a professor of history and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, note that "many early suburban historians chose to study only those suburbs that fit that stereotype and, in so doing, reified it."

Academic and popular attitudes have, on this subject, fed off one another. Since the 1970s and the rise of the environmental movement, a coalition of forces — not just environmentalists but also planners and preservationists and concerned citizens — has taken Mumford's image of American Beauty uniformity and linked it to the worst kind of sprawl in a powerful negative-spin campaign....

Read entire article at Jennifer Howard in the Chronicle of Higher Education

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