The Yale Law Journal


Save the Cities, Stop the Suburbs?

Land UseLocal GovernmentProperty

The fact that the word “sprawl” is uttered by curling the upper lip into a snarl captures some of the emotion generated by the current debate over American land use policy. Two recent books—Robert Bruegmann’s defense of sprawl and Joel Kotkin’s ambitious but short history of great cities provide an opportunity to consider sprawl’s costs and benefits, and also to examine the case for legal efforts to curtail it in order to save our cities. These are important questions because, as Bruegmann demonstrates, calls for “stopping” sprawl may proceed from serious misconceptions about its extent, causes, and consequences; they also may systematically underestimate the risks that attend growth management.

Bruegmann’s Sprawl: A Compact History, a careful and thought provoking study of suburban development at home and abroad, challenges students of the American landscape to reconsider their preconceived notions about sprawl. While his case for sprawl is not without flaws, he effectively challenges several commonly held assumptions about suburbia. Sprawl, Bruegmann argues, is not a post-war American anomaly; it is a universal fact of all urbanized societies. Not only are European and Asian cities sprawling too, but, at home, many of our “urban” neighborhoods are old “suburban” communities, absorbed by cities through annexation. Sprawl also is not out of control. On the contrary, the decentralization of American cities peaked decades ago, and many of our urbanized areas are now becoming denser.

While his descriptive account of suburbia is informative and at times surprising—for example, the densest urbanized area in the United States is Los Angeles—Bruegmann’s most important contribution is to place the current debate over the distributional consequences of suburban growth controls in historical perspective. Growth-control proponents argue that sprawl permits wealthier residents to abandon center cities and the urban poor; they assert that restricting suburban development will renew city fortunes and restore intrametropolitan fiscal equity. Opponents counter that growth controls will increase housing prices by restricting the supply of land available for housing, benefiting wealthy homeowners at the expense of the poor. Bruegmann’s history does much to shore up the skeptics’ account. A central point of his book is that sprawl is not a reflection of Americans’ selfish souls, but rather a natural result of economic progress that benefits even those of the most modest means.

Contrary to the assertions of growth-control proponents, Bruegmann argues that suburban development maximizes overall social welfare by opening up a housing safety valve by increasing the amount of affordable housing available even for the poor. Bruegmann documents how city residents have, throughout history, sought to escape the negatives of urban life as soon as it became possible for them to do so. And, because city life is most difficult for the poor, suburbia is—and has always been—particularly attractive to those of moderate means. Thus, Bruegmann argues, sprawl does not exacerbate economic inequities, it mitigates them.

Ultimately, however, Bruegmann undermines the strength of his arguments about the benefits of suburbs by expressing a total lack of concern for the fate of American cities. A “so what” tone pervades his book, leaving many readers wondering whether he might be telling only part of the story. Bruegmann’s views on the connections between cities and their suburbs are jarringly unorthodox. He tries to convince readers that it is illogical to care about cities qua cities. Cities and suburbs are simply different types of urban development; suburban increase and urban decrease both are naturally occurring economic phenomena. For example, when discussing cities’ future prospects, Bruegmann observes that the fortunes of many center cities and older suburbs improved over the past two decades (although the extent of the improvement is subject to debate). Bruegmann posits several possible explanations, all of them in keeping with his general view that cities and suburbs are simply different dots on the same urban development continuum. He notes, for example, that at the very time that city prospects looked bleakest, “nostalgia for the historical city” converged with the declining “exclusivity” of suburbia. Moreover, he argues, the very economic changes lamented by many scholars—including the decline in the urban industrial base—ultimately may save the cities. Freed from the congestion, pollution, and disease that once characterized urban life, cities have become more attractive to wealthy individuals who might previously have chosen to live in the suburbs. As a result, he suggests, “[i]t is quite possible that sprawl could recede everywhere as more citizens become affluent enough to live like the residents of the Upper East Side,” because “as individuals pass from affluent to extraordinarily affluent they are better able to enjoy the benefits of density without the negative side effects.” Perhaps, he opines, “some attractive central cities will become essentially resort areas filled with second homes.”

Bruegmann’s refusal to countenance arguments about the value of cities also is linked to his belief that most anti-sprawl sentiment is really an elite distaste for the aesthetics and culture of suburban life. “‘Sprawl,’” he asserts, “like ‘conspicuous consumption’ or ‘elitism,’ has always conveyed a not-so-subtle accusation against the way that other people choose to live their lives.” He argues that sprawl first became a political issue when commoners began to invade countryside previously enjoyed exclusively by the wealthy and asserts that modern anti-sprawl sentiment results in part from the further democratization of sprawl. Bruegmann further speculates that suburbia tends to lose its social cachet when less affluent, formerly urban residents arrive. Sprawl opponents, for example, frequently deride the polluting influence of “McMansions,” “cookie cutter houses,” and strip malls—places that provide shelter and services for the masses, yet are described as a “lethal disease” by leading anti-sprawl activists. Bruegmann may be right about the motives of some sprawl opponents, and one or more of his positive predictions about city health may come to pass. Still, his nonchalant attitude about the fate of central cities is unsettling, even for growth management skeptics. His case against restrictions on suburban growth would have been far more convincing had he proffered some realistic alternative—other than good luck—for saving our cities. It is safe to assume that many readers come to Bruegmann’s book convinced that something should be done about American cities, and they are not likely to come away from it unconvinced. Instead, his failed case against city exceptionality may leave many readers wondering whether growth management proponents are correct after all—we need to stop our suburbs if we want to save our cities.

Joel Kotkin’s short history of urban life, The City: A Global History, provides a kernel of land-use wisdom that begins to fill in this gap in Bruegmann’s book. Bruegmann’s work is the stronger of the two; Kotkin’s book is not, nor is it intended to be, an academic treatment of cities. But Kotkin does offer a critical insight worthy of serious consideration in the academic debate about American land use policy. Healthy cities, Kotkin observes, are “sacred, safe, and busy” places. They inspire awe, serve as centers of community and economic life, and protect their citizens from invaders and from one another. Most of Kotkin’s book is devoted to describing how various kinds of cities—Muslim and Christian, Eastern and Western—have fulfilled these important functions. But another purpose of his book is to ask why so many modern American cities now fulfill none of them? When social critic James Howard Kuntsler complained that American suburbs are “soulless . . . demoralizing” places that “disable[] whole classes of decent, normal citizens,” he might well have been describing Detroit, Cleveland, or St. Louis. Ultimately, Kotkin challenges city leaders to engage in serious soul searching about what they might do to make city life attractive and enlivening, both for suburbanites and for their current residents.

Growth-control proponents assert that, in order to turn our cities around, it is necessary to channel new development into the urban core by restricting it at the suburban fringe. Like Bruegmann, I am skeptical. Despite widespread political resistance to the comprehensive growth management strategies favored by academics, many cities have experienced an apparent comeback in recent years. A plausible case can be made, and is made by Kotkin, that renewed city fortunes are the result of city efforts to better compete with suburbs, especially by seeking, through a range of order-maintenance policies, to restore a basic sense of security of in urban neighborhoods.

Yet, as Kotkin observes, safety is not enough. Cities must also be busy places and must provide some modern version of sacred spaces. In this respect, land use scholars (and city-government leaders) have much to learn from the inward-looking approach of the order-maintenance agenda. Just as reforms to city policing practices make residents feel safer, so too might reforms to city land use policies restore some social and economic vitality to our urban cores. Specifically, urban lawmakers must, in my view, confront the tensions in land use law between safety and busyness and between busyness and beauty. As I have written elsewhere, many local government officials assume that the segregation of land uses mandated by ubiquitous zoning codes will suppress the physical and social disorders targeted by order-maintenance policies. This prevailing view is in keeping with one of zoning laws’ foundational assumptions—namely, the equation of economic activity with social disorder.

The Progressives who promoted zoning in the early decades of the twentieth century believed that the single-use suburban developments would nurture good citizens. The zoning regulations codified then have persisted to the present day. The relationship between land use patterns and the social and physical disorders targeted by order-maintenance policies is a complicated one, especially in urban communities. Some studies do suggest that the Progressives were right that mixed-land-use environments are home to more disorder. But the zoning laws that would prohibit a mixing of land uses may also deprive urban neighborhoods of the economic vitality that is, as Kotkin demonstrates, one of the most important prerequisites of healthy cities.

Moreover, traditional zoning rules may undermine cities’ ability to compete with their suburban neighbors. Bruegmann may be right that cities will survive (and be revived) if, and perhaps only if, some subset of would-be residents prefer the (somewhat disorderly) aesthetic of urban life. But cities are unlikely to capture that demographic by using zoning laws to become more like suburbs. Land use reforms that reject the traditional assumption that ordered land uses suppress social disorder—ranging from the ambitious (widespread adoption of mixed use zoning) to the incremental (relaxing restrictions on home occupations)—represent one promising alternative to growth controls. Instead of fostering busyness by stopping suburban growth so as to channel new development into the urban core, these inward-looking reforms could help cities become more attractive, and distinctive, alternatives to suburban life.

The question remains, of course, what kinds of regulatory reforms might prove both effective and politically realistic. Currently the dominant alternative to use-based zoning is promoted by “new urbanist” planners who advocate replacing single-use zones with mixed-land-use environments. In many ways, the new urbanism parallels the broken windows hypothesis: it runs contrary to prevailing wisdom, is intuitively attractive, and is difficult to test empirically. New urbanists assert—among other things—that the heterogeneity of city life, not the homogeneity of suburbs, is conducive to true community life. They challenge Bruegmann’s assertions that the only relevant distinction between cities and suburbs is land use density and that cities do not serve unique cultural and economic functions that suburbs cannot. Building on Jane Jacobs’s central insight, new urbanists reason that mixed-use environments foster healthy communities by providing opportunities for informal social interaction that do not exist in single-use, suburban-style development.

The new urbanists have made valuable contributions to thinking about urban development in recent decades. Nearly a century of single-use zoning has shaped our cities and suburbs—and our views about cities and suburbs—and new urbanists mount a serious challenge to these longstanding practices and assumptions. Even those who, like Bruegmann, remain unconvinced by the new urbanists’ claim that a more “urban” community design will make us better, more complete people, cannot help but be moved by Jane Jacobs’s classic description of the good urban life. And, while Bruegmann is correct to observe that the new urbanists have done more to remake the face of suburbia than to turn around the fate of major cities, he likely underestimates the extent to which new urbanism is influencing urban infill efforts in many cities—or the connections between the nostalgia for the “old neighborhood” and the market for new ones that look old.

Unfortunately, as the saying goes, the devil is in the details. And the new urbanists’ alternative to zoning is detailed indeed. The movement is dominated by architects, and new urbanist coding consequently relies heavily on detailed architectural design standards. New urbanists have specific ideas about how buildings should look: ugly, unwelcoming buildings, in their view, can be just as detrimental to community as sterile, single-use planning. Moreover, political resistance to scrapping traditional zoning usually guarantees that these standards tend to supplement, rather than supplant, traditional zoning tools when they are adopted. New urbanist coding promises to make some city projects—including infill efforts and mixed-income public housing developments—look very nice. But complying with these design standards may prove daunting and expensive, especially for those without financial means or formal education.

Thus, just as it is important to rethink how land use rules mediate the relationship between busyness and safety, city leaders must also consider the tensions and intersections between busyness and beauty before endorsing new urbanist coding as an alternative to zoning. Here, Kotkin’s conception of city “sacredness” is instructive. Kotkin describes a cultural, not an aesthetic, phenomenon. His sacredness is an expression of the kind of social capital that correlates with, and is promoted by, healthy city life. Architectural beauty may indeed help build such social capital. Architecture historically served to emphasize the sacredness of cities: the beauty of the cathedral, the mosque, or the temple reminded citizens of their common bonds and responsibilities.

Perhaps new urbanist coding will help cities capitalize on urban distinctiveness while preventing physical disorder. Yet the goal of beauty sometimes conflicts with the goal of busyness; complex architectural standards sometimes impede urban reinvestment. By seeking to dictate the details of what a busy neighborhood should look like, new urbanists’ proposals may backfire, further depressing urban development hopes, especially in the poorest communities. In those places, city leaders should not neglect the possibility that the incremental deregulation of certain land uses might prove more advisable than substituting a new kind of mandated order for the more familiar order imposed by zoning. Ultimately, permissive land use reforms in our cities, rather than prohibitory ones in our suburbs, may represent the best hope for urban regeneration.

Nicole Stelle Garnett is John Cardinal O’Hara, C.S.C. Associate Professor of Law at Notre Dame Law School. Prior to joining the Notre Dame faculty in 1999, Professor Garnett clerked for Justice Clarence Thomas and for Judge Morris S. Arnold of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. She also practiced law with the Institute for Justice, a Washington, D.C.-based public interest organization. Professor Garnett’s teaching and scholarship focus on property, land use, and local government law. She will be a Visiting Professor at the University of Chicago Law School from January to June, 2007.

Preferred Citation: Nicole Stelle Garnett, Save the Cities, Stop the Suburbs?, 116 Yale L.J. Pocket Part 192 (2006),