Mississippi Rebuilding

Emily Talen, Associate Professor of Urban and Regional Planning, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, moderated the panel

Robert Bruegmann (left) and Anthony Flint continued the debate with meeting participants
Emily Talen, moderator of the session, acknowledged it was a provocative title: "Sprawl Brawl."

"We just called it that to get you into the room."

It worked. Friday's faceoff between Anthony Flint, author of the new book, "This Land: The Battle Over Sprawl and the Future of America," and Robert Bruegmann, author of "Sprawl: A Compact History," was standing room only.

Bruegmann, professor of art history, architecture, and urban planning at the University of Illinois at Chicago, maintained that complaints about "sprawl" under various names, go back at least to the ancient Romans, who complained about suburbs springing up around them. The brick row houses of 19th century London drew complaints, too, that they were put up by developers just out to make money quickly, and that the houses themselves would be slums within a generation.

He also rebutted claims that sprawl necessarily leads to congestion by putting up on the screen two images of rush hour one from a webcam showing no particular congestion at rush hour in sprawling Kansas City, the other showing traffic jammed on its way into a major city in Japan. Japan's big cities, like New York densely packed, and provided with extensive public transit, still produce some of the longest commutes and the most severe congestion, he argued.

"The core of the anti-sprawl animus has been the same from the beginning," he said. But "sprawl," in whatever form, has been able to provide the middle classes with the privacy, mobility, and choice that the very wealthy have always taken for granted.

He suggested that New Urbanists back off: "New Urbanism has done so much good. You could lose the anti-sprawl campaign. "

Flint, a former Boston Globe reporter, countered that sprawl offers a false economy when transportation costs and quality of life constraints are factored in, the price of a house at one end of a 90-minute commute is seen to be much higher.

Asked about the oil issue in sprawl, he responded, "I've come to the conclusion it will take care of itself." High energy prices will get the attention of consumers, he said, who will then demand changes. "The 800-pound gorilla in the room is the physical environment," he added, referring to the built environment that so often forces people to get around by private car.

"Even conventional builders are seeing the writing on the wall."

At this point Bruegmann, who expressed deep skepticism that increasing public transit would limit energy consumption and ultimately minimize climate change, took issue. "I don't think just rearranging our cities is going to make a difference."

Some in the audience took issue in turn with that. One of the themes from floor comments was that even if Americans' own direct actions can minimize environmental impact only marginally, if at all, those actions are important as role models for the millions of Chinese, Indians, and Indonesians who are discovering American-style gated communities and SUVs.

As Robert Cowherd of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology put it in a comment from the floor, "Everyone sees the future in terms of southern California coming to Asia."