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Salmagundi (Fall 2006, No. 152), the quarterly journal of humanities and social sciences of Skidmore College

Sprawl: a compact history

By Robert Bruegmann University of Chicago Press , 2005 301 Pages

Reviewed by James Howard Kunstler

There is a species of fatuous thinking these days in America which states, in so many words, that suburbia is fine and dandy because so many people like it. Variations on this theme range from the idea that suburbia is the highest expression of free markets, to the notion that it is the natural outcome of our democracy, to the belief that God has ordained it. This has been the reasoning of some public intellectuals such as New York Times columnist David Brooks, Joel Kotkin, of the New America Foundation, and the preposterous Peter Huber of Forbes Magazine and the Manhattan Institute. Now Robert Bruegmann, professor of art history, architecture, and urban planning at the University of Illinois, Chicago, weighs in from academia with essentially the same argument floated on barges of statistical analysis.

That so many editors, foundation board members, and deans of faculty allow this obvious casuistry to pass as thinking at all says a lot about what a nation of morons we have become, and how deep the intellectual rot runs. The various above-named characters may differ somewhat in style, but they all employ the same specious logic in support of the status quo. Brooks functions as a cheerleader for successful yuppies like himself wishing to justify the blandishments they enjoy in going along with the suburban program. Kotkin is a highly-paid consultant to municipal governments who use him to rationalize the pernicious effects of their engrained practices. Huber gives aid and comfort to those who regard the public interest in any form as an affront to private gain. And now along comes Bob Bruegmann seeking to lend the imprimatur of empiricism to these arguments, so as to valiantly prove wrong for once and for all the peevish critics of suburbia (including yours truly) by driving the wooden stake of science through our superstitious and sentimental hearts.

Despite his boatloads of statistics, Bruegmann is just flat-out wrong in many of his positions and virtually all of his conclusions. At the center of his thesis is the unquestioned assumption that the suburban project can continue indefinitely, that it is a good thing, that we will get more of it, and we ought to stop carping and enjoy it. His book fails entirely to acknowledge the fact that we are entering a permanent global energy crisis that will put an end to the drive-in utopia whether people like it or not. This singular harsh fact obviates all the rationalizations brought to the quixotic defense of suburbia. What Bruegmann and his homies overlook is that American-style suburbia, aka sprawl, was an emergent, self-organizing system made possible only by lavish and exorbitant supplies of cheap fossil fuels, and once those conditions no longer obtain, not only will there be no further elaboration of this development pattern, but all the existing stuff built according to that pattern – which comprises more than eighty percent of

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