Saturday, November 12, 2005

What a Muddle!

Cascadia Scorecard Weblog (‘Northwest Environments Watch’s take on the news that really matters’) carries, 11 November, a review (“Don’t Steal This Book") of a review by Witold Rybczynski, “Suburban Despair Is urban sprawl really an American menace?” of a book by Robert Brugman, “Sprawl: a compact history”. Yes, it is a complicated trail! (

"But the book (or perhaps just the review -- I don't know who's at fault) draws the opposite conclusions:

What this iconoclastic little book demonstrates is that sprawl is not the anomalous result of American zoning laws, or mortgage interest tax deduction, or cheap gas, or subsidized highway construction, or cultural antipathy toward cities. Nor is it an aberration... Sprawl is and always has been inherent to urbanization. It is driven less by the regulations of legislators, the actions of developers, and the theories of city planners, than by the decisions of millions of individuals—Adam Smith's "invisible hand."

How's that again? It's one thing to claim that the impulse to spread out is both common and understandable. It's quite another to say that policies that quite clearly encourage and subsidize sprawl are irrelevant to how cities grow. The former is defensible; the latter is laughable; and how you move from one to the other is beyond me.”


It is not clear to me either how Adam Smith’s lonely metaphor creeps into the causes of urban sprawl. If we are looking to the actions of ‘millions of individuals’ as the cause of something like sprawl then that is no explanation at all. The people concerned do not all pull in the same direction – some add to sprawl, others help to contain it. In which direction is the so-called invisible hand pulling? If in both directions, it is not an explanation; if in one or the other directions we need to know which to make an assessment of its value as an explanatory cause.

Read the review of the review at:



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