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Salmagundi (Fall 2006, No. 152), the quarterly journal of humanities and social sciences of Skidmore ... - page 5 / 6





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The issue at the heart of Bruegmann’s book is whether this is, after all, a good thing. He writes:

“. . . sprawl has been beneficial for many people. . . . Even where sprawl has created negative consequences, moreover, there seems to be very little evidence that for most people sprawl itself has precipitated any kind of crisis. The vast majority of Americans have responded to a whole battery of polls year after year saying that they are quite happy with where they live. . . .I would argue that worries about sprawl have become so important not because conditions are really bad, as critics suggest, but precisely because conditions are so good.”

What Bruegmann leaves out of the picture is the same thing that the mandarins of American municipal planning have left out for half a century: any consideration of quality and character of place, and the means for achieving it. This is evinced most dramatically in the issue of the public realm, the part of our everyday world that belongs to everybody and that everyone ought to have access to most of the time. In postwar America, the public realm was trashed, relegated purely to the needs of the automobile until America became a nearly uniform automobile slum from sea to shining sea. It didn’t even matter whether you were in a rich place or a poor place anymore – the parking lots of Beverly Hills weren’t any more rewarding to the human spirit than the parking lots of Hackensack. More to the point perhaps, the very methods of the municipal planners, which produced the ghastly sprawl environments of our time, are based on exactly the same kind of statistical methods employed by Bruegmann, instead of the one thing that might have mitigated or constrained the mess, namely artistry in design.

The public realm has two crucial roles in our collective existence. First, it is the physical manifestation of the common good. Second, is literally the dwelling place of civic life. And so if you fail to design the public realm with deliberate artistry, and by so doing degrade and dishonor the public realm by turning it into a uniform automobile slum simply to accommodate x-number of cars, you will automatically degrade the quality of civic life and the public’s collective ability to conceive of a common good beyond incessant motoring. These are issues which do not yield to strict empiricism and cannot be comprehended by it. The result in American suburbia today is a set of places where private luxury is exalted and public space is grievously dishonored, damaged, and diminished, places where there are more bathrooms per inhabitant than any other society on earth, but where public space is so debased that the only place children can find to play beyond their back yards is the berm between the WalMart and the Winn Dixie.

We flatter ourselves to think that the shopping malls are an adequate substitute for real main streets. We saw an interesting case locally here a couple of years ago, in Albany, New York’s Crossgates Mall, where a man bought a T-shirt in one of the mall’s shops with an anti-war slogan printed on it, and was then arrested for wearing it in the mall corridor when security guards hassled him and called the police.

Because Bruegmann’s analysis omits entirely the issues of physical form and its quality, it cannot comprehend the additional problem with suburbia today: that it is a development pattern with no future because of the looming global energy crisis. All matters pertaining to physical form Bruegmann wrongly identifies (and denigrates) as “aesthetic” issues. This allows him to argue that physical form (including development

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