Monday, February 22, 2010

Problem with Bruegmann

Professor and author Robert Bruegmann visited Dallas over the weekend, perhaps to some fanfare, or not. Either way, while I missed the panel at UTD, I did listen to the KERA interview with Krys Boyd (podcast here) and managed to follow the highpoints as tweeted realtime by a local Dallasite attendee.

Frankly, like many in academia, I find his usefulness to be rather narrow. And that is the suggestion that sprawl has no meaning. This is an issue that has arisen before on this very blog, as commenters pointed out I was using "suburb" to liberally as a shorthand, for what I really mean, which is the overbuilt living arrangement that has passed its usefulness and will slowly whither away as the land is repurposed into something more useful for a changing society.

To further define "sprawl," it is a depreciating asset: the poorly built and auto-oriented tract homes comprising the majority of the housing stock provided for middle and lower classes, but masquerading as well-to-do with urban level of infrastructure and amenity. We're slowly but surely finding out that we can't afford it and went into extreme levels of debt to perpetuate it. We're learning that only a certain amount of either a) wealth or b) commonwealth through conglommeration of population density and conservation and/or efficiency of resources via said density can afford luxury and amenity. Suburbs tried to do it with neither, but a promise of wealth.

It is really tragic that so many retirements are put into some of these homes that will be worth nary more than what vegetables can be wrought from the Earth it sits upon in twenty or so years.

By never really defining it himself, he ends up defending it by pitching an umbrella over all living arrangements deemed "not the city" and calling it a book. He suggests that this version of "sprawl" like all other forms is an eventual inevitability as if we're all actors in a noir-ish tragicomic reality show. This is utter BS within a system of self-government.

If you want to say that there is a natural effort by people toward their own preference of housing/living becoming an array of living arrangements of which less dense versions are one legitimate and practicable, that is fine. But don't use that as a Koolhaasian defense of the American slumburb the way Rem suggests Lagos is an ideal urban situation for the 21st century.

Through tax structure, infrastructural investments, land use policies, and regulations, the overbuilt version of worthlessness was nothing more than an overzealous Dad, with aversion to asking directions, stubbornly deciding on the way to go, only to find the family station wagon in the wrong part of town on the way to Imaginationland. It was top-down decision making walking a path and preventing the testing of that model against others to find its usefulness. Or maybe, the last sixty years was that test of time, and we just get to be the unfortunate lab rats that get to deal with the failed study sample.

If nothing else, at least if there is a purpose to life, it is to learn from mistakes in order to perpetuate the species and this was one of those learning experiences on the level of the reformation. James Howard Kunstler elaborates in his review of Bruegmann's book Sprawl: A Compact History:
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 everything ever built in America – will drastically lose its usefulness and its relative “market” value.
In the interview he goes on to perpetuate a few fallacies while allowing himself unwittingly to be made a fool of by some of the laypersons who called in. He subtly makes two jabs at the Congress of New Urbanism, both of which are false. The first is that it is all about quaint cottages, Mayberry, picket fences, and faux-nostalgicism. The other is that it and any attempts at whatever he thinks "planning" is, is an attempt to force people to live certain way.

As a member of CNU, I'm fully aware of its weaknesses or flaws, neither of which apply to the traits he mentioned, but are continually propagated by this cast of characters as if they are the white knights of freedom for the common red-blooded American man. In reality, they are really only delaying the inevitable realization and neither Bruegmann nor Kotkin will be the ones to suffer when perceived value meets real value.

While it is somewhat concerning that he basis his entire course of study and authorship on these issues, what is more comical? terrifying? useless perhaps are his efforts at arriving at ideas for problems.

In response to the concern raised during the KERA interview that the poorest and perhaps hardest working are relegated to the furthest reaches of the city and shackled to the ownership and operational expenses of cars, Bruegmann responded that "perhaps the cheapest solution is to give cars to all the poor." That ought to be cheap, particularly as nearly every city in America grapples with its budgetary deficits and ability to maintain its overstretched infrastructure.

This is the level of stupid that gets you a professorship at the university-level these days. It is probably not coincidentally the same level of stupid that tried to suggest Katrina-like disasters would be averted if we give everyone in NOLA a new car. If you can't arrive at a suggestion that neither the right nor left would support, perhaps you should no longer have a microphone in your face, proverbially, metaphorically, or fo realz.

Alas, maybe the smartest person during the interview was a woman driven by necessity, your average DFW citizen (this caller happened to be from Frisco) that stated she "can't afford to live in a nice area of Downtown Dallas." But, wondered why she couldn't walk to convenience stores or shopping. Now, I don't need to excuriate her for mistaking "Downtown Dallas" for a super fancy area (HOLLA!), but rather accentuate her want, nay need, for walkability.

Cars will always find their appropriate place in our lives, but designing through walkability allows for cities to function efficiently, to think, to adapt. The more we create, the more affordable it will become as supply reaches demand for both housing and for small business space as the cost disparity by location is no longer as hindering of a barrier to local entreprenuership.

Walkability is a tax cut. It allows for more efficient use of city infrastructure and the ability to provide, maintain, and police. Furthermore, it cuts the unnoticed tax that is the inefficiency of every single transaction you make whereas propinquity through walkability greases the wheels of economic activity, innovation, and adaptibility of the complex systems that are cities.

Every single trip to each store, all over the metroplex, the gas, the car maintenance, the road construction and maintenance, the parking, as well as all of the affected real estate depreciation to support such a world, is a tax that goes directly from your pocket to those that want to perpetuate a system that most people no longer find useful or ideal.

In fact, maybe Bruegmann's assertion that he doesn't want to control people's lives and the way they live is really an act of transference, because he's doing a pretty good job perpetuating the status quo as a worthwhile endeavor. The reality is that we need to tell Dad we're at a dead end and it is time to turn around.

Walkability can come in all densities. The level of amenity is an issue of design and economic practicality/realities. The sprawl he defends has none of the above. Bruegmann bumbled and stumbled through a non-answer because walkable convenience and amenity afforded through density runs antithetical to his entire reason for being (and perhaps those who underwrite his research). This question rendered him virtually speechless. If you have no ideas, perhaps you should be audience-less too.

[edit: for confusing University of Illinois-Chicago with University of Chicago. Holy big difference batman.]