Robert Bruegmann went to Paris as a graduate student in the 1970s to study 18th-and 19th-century architecture. But when he flew in and out of Orly Airport, on the city’s southern edge, he saw something that blew his mind: a cityscape that looked like suburban Chicago or LA. European cities, he thought, were supposed to be pedestrian friendly, not like our monstrous agglomerations of auto-dependent sprawl.

He couldn’t assimilate what he saw at the time, but it stuck with him. He came to UIC in 1977 to teach architectural history, and after acquiring a car in the early 1980s, he spent a lot of time exploring the urban perimeter. On airplane trips he’d book window seats on daytime flights and take pictures as the plane landed and took off. The more he looked, the more suburban Paris began to make sense. Sprawl, he realized, is global.

“The view out the airplane window,” he writes in his new book, Sprawl: A Compact History, “can be similar whether the plane is landing in Minneapolis or Madrid, Bangkok or Buenos Aires, Sydney or Stockholm. There is usually the same vast territory of suburban development, low factories, warehouses, and shopping centers. ” Contrary to the views of Lewis Mumford, James Howard Kunstler, and many more, he argues, the suburban landscape is not a distinctly American phenomenon with distinctly American causes like interstate highways and racism. Nor is it necessarily formless, expensive, environmentally destructive, economically unfair, or fattening.

Anywhere Bruegmann pulls on the threads of conventional urban planning wisdom, it comes apart like a badly knitted sweater: Why do antisprawl activists want to protect and preserve places like Sonoma Valley and Nantucket Island but not Oak Brook? (Bruegmann notes that Oak Brook is denser and was built to a plan.) If the suburbs are impoverishing the inner city, why are many of them even poorer? (Drive U.S. 30 through Ford Heights sometime, a suburb so poor that it’s fighting the Illinois EPA to allow it to keep a massive, allegedly hazardous dump open.) There’s more. If LA is more densely populated than Chicago why is it considered a more sprawling city? If the Europeans do these things better, why do less than 10 percent of Amsterdam commuters use public transportation?

If living in the city is an alternative to suburban blandness, then why do Chicago dwellers choose to travel by car,
kick factories out of their neighborhoods, and patronize big-box stores? Bruegmann describes the gentrified Chicago neighborhoods he’s lived in as idealized versions of urban life, without the packed tenements and smoke-belching industries. Similarly, exurban ten-acre lots are idealized versions of rurality, minus the machine sheds and manure. These opposite ends of the regional continuum have a good deal in common, up to and
including (in places like New Buffalo) people who split time between the two.

From Bruegmann’s point of view Paris makes sense. Its central city was built when (almost) everybody had to walk; many of its suburbs look like those of Chicago and LA because they were built when cars were available. Paris’s population has been dropping since 1921; the central city is still denser than any in the U.S. but it too is thinning out, and at the same time its neighborhoods are gentrifying. It would appear that European and American cities are in different stages of the same process.

Sprawl, Bruegmann contends, has existed as long as cities have. Rich people liked elbow room in imperial Rome just as much as they do in 21st-century Illinois, but only in the last century or so have ordinary people been rich enough to get in on the action. Bruegmann sees sprawl critics as aesthetic snobs who use dubious arguments and statistics in order to impose upper-middle-class good taste on Mokena and Morton Grove. They deplore
automobiles, he says, for much the same reason as the Duke of Wellington deplored railroads in the 1800s: they “only encourage the common people to move about needlessly.”

Bruegmann’s “compact history” comes in three parts: a history of sprawl across the centuries, the campaigns against it—including in Britain between the world wars and the U.S. after World War II and again in the 70s—and the many proposed remedies. (I’m mentioned in the acknowledgements for having read an earlier, much different version of the manuscript.) He scrupulously documents and evaluates his sources, but his book isn’t an evenhanded summation of the evidence. He’s a contrarian who chooses to emphasize the benefits of sprawl and the costs of reform because most writers do the opposite. He goes so far as to suggest that Chicago might be better off if the long-planned crosstown expressway—abandoned amid persistent protests after Richard J. Daley’s death in 1976—had been built to take some pressure off the Ryan/Kennedy corridor.

He’s least convincing when he tries to downplay some of the uman costs of sprawl. While affluent exurbanites can choose to trade extra commuting time for distant residences, less affluent residents may be forced to make less pleasant tradeoffs. Bruegmann describes a dishwasher at Newark Airport who spends an hour and a half each way getting from a mobile home park in central New Jersey to the airport on three different buses, then adds, “However, even if her options are fewer and less attractive, the dishwasher still makes choices to create for
herself the best living conditions she can obtain.” That’s true but unhelpful: it’s abstract economist talk. Everyone makes choices in this sense, even an inmate in a supermax prison. The fact that people can and do choose among bad alternatives does nothing to mitigate the fact that it’s harder to be poor in a spread-out city than in a dense, compact city. Even if sprawl’s benefits do exceed its costs, the costs still matter.

Whether as a matter of profession, temperament, or philosophy, Bruegmann doesn’t offer an urban agenda beyond “Go see for yourself ” and “Watch out for unintended consequences.” Those two maxims might be plenty, considering how few observe them, but one might expect more imperatives from someone willing to compare unzoned Houston favorably with tightly girdled Portland. But just when he seems ready to join the libertarian parade, his fascination with the quirky particulars of how cities function gets in the way.

For instance, he explains that the Soviets rebuilt Moscow along the lines favored by progressive Western city planners and sprawl opponents: mass transit with adjoining skyscrapers, plus a greenbelt to contain the city. Having said this much, any free-market ideologue worthy of his or her corporate subsidy would use this association to take a cheap shot at all regional planning. Instead, Bruegmann calls the Soviet record on urbanism “actually quite impressive in many ways. Much of Moscow in 1935 [before rebuilding] consisted of old wooden buildings lacking central heat, running water, or adequate municipal services. … It is not a system most citizens of the Western democracies would have chosen to live under and clearly the leaders grossly abused it, but it did do many things well.”

That’s no way to cultivate powerful friends, but Bruegmann would rather understand cities than make them fit a viewpoint. His harshest criticism of anti-sprawlers is that they pontificate instead of looking around. From the Monadnock Building to the Japanese shopping center in Arlington Heights to an exurban trailer park in Indiana, he sees the subtly interconnected metropolis as “the grandest and most marvelous work of mankind.” And he’d be the first to say that it’s bigger and more complex than anybody’s ideas about it.