Deerfield, Illinois, is little different in appearance from most postwar American suburbs. If a resident of Troy, Michigan, or Alpharetta, Georgia, were to find herself in Deerfield today, the place would feel familiar. A community of mostly single-family detached houses on large, well-landscaped lots along curvilinear streets, Deerfield was a small village on Chicago’s periphery in 1950. Its strongest selling point–then and now–is that it was not the city. Like most of Chicago’s satellites, it is overwhelmingly white. It is a prosperous community with relatively low taxes and excellent public schools and services. Its location offers economic advantages to area residents. It is convenient to the suburban office parks and malls where the lion’s share of metropolitan Chicago’s new jobs have been created. Deerfield is part of an increasingly self-contained galaxy of suburbs and exurbs that extends largely unbroken for nearly fifty miles north and west of the city. What remains of the prairie and farmland that once began in Deerfield’s backyard is now cordoned off in scattered parks and the occasional undeveloped lot. Most Deerfielders don’t even commute to Chicago; they are more likely to be day-trippers than workers in the Windy City.
Almost from the day the first kidney-shaped cul-de-sac was cut into the prairie soil, these metropolitan landscapes have been the subject of intense political debate. In 1961, looking out onto the Deerfields and Levittowns and Park Forests and Lakewoods that had sprung up virtually overnight on the periphery of nearly every major American city, the great urbanist Lewis Mumford lamented the “multitude of uniform, unidentifiable houses, lined up inflexibly, at uniform distances, on uniform roads, in a treeless communal waste, inhabited by people of the same class, the same income, the same age group, witnessing the same television performances, eating the same tasteless prefabricated foods, from the same freezers, conforming in every outward and inward respect to a common mold.” Our debate about suburbanization has largely been about mass culture and taste, isolation and conformity. Latter-day suburban critics like the acerbic James Howard Kunstler (The Geography of Nowhere) paint a dark picture of a pathological culture of hyper-consumerism that has crushed the small-town Gemeinschaft that once supposedly characterized the United States. In contrast, defenders of suburbia and exurbia, like David Brooks, seek to rescue suburbanites, their SUVs and their mega-grills from the condescension of urban, latte-sipping, blue-staters.
Kunstler and Brooks would be interesting footnotes to the culture wars of the past two decades were it not for a large, well-funded, disciplined movement that has risen up to challenge suburban sprawl. Over the past decade a growing chorus of activists–a motley crew of wealthy suburbanites, urban community development activists, horse farmers, environmentalists, architects and critics–have denounced the mega shopping malls and big-box retailers that drain business from city centers; “McMansions” and vast seas of asphalt that have gobbled up wetlands and family farms; and the gas-addicted soccer moms and office-park dads who clog the roads. While many of these critics have a hard time concealing their disdain for bent-grass lawns and two-story foyers and three-car garages, their argument with suburbia is not primarily cultural. Instead, they contend that sprawl fragments government, maldistributes economic resources and ravages the environment. Armed with studies from the Brookings Institution, the Wharton School and even the US Geological Survey, they advocate “smart growth”–public policies that encourage public transportation, preserve environmentally fragile land and channel investment to older, denser urban centers.
A few dissident activists and intellectuals, mostly libertarian think-tankers and developer-sponsored lobbyists, have tried to defend unregulated, low-density suburban growth. Joining them is architectural historian Robert Bruegmann, whose Sprawl: A Compact History provides the most coherent and well-informed defense of sprawl to date. Bruegmann weaves an encyclopedic knowledge of urban planning history into a scathing polemic, lending his book an authority that is lacking in the pro-suburban tracts of writers like David Brooks, and an incisive political edge atypical of academic studies.