Old Cities Can Profit from New Sprawl

The author of a new book defending sprawl says millions of people are able to live more comfortably in places that are cleaner, greener and safer than where their grandparents lived. Some cities benefit, too. Aurora, Illi., is a case in point: The city was losing population and businesses in the 1970s and '80s, but it is booming now, mostly by annexing new subdivisions.

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Suburban sprawl gets a good deal of criticism. People say it wastes open space, hurts the environment and creates more traffic. But millions of Americans keep moving farther and farther away from urban centers. And one academic says that's not such a bad thing.

Here's NPR's David Schaper.

DAVID SCHAPER reporting:

Here in Aurora, Illinois, about 40 miles west of Chicago, it's a cool, damp, raw afternoon and just a handful of young players bothered to show up this field for soccer practice.

Mr. JEFF LANG (Soccer Coach): Dave, where you at, Max? Max, wrong side, Max!

(Soundbite of kids yelling)

SCHAPER: The team's coach, Jeff Lang, says conditions for soccer on this day may not be ideal, but what is ideal is this park and this neighborhood, in an area of subdivision after subdivision where he and his wife Laura settled to raise their family 10 years ago.

Mr. LANG: We chose the Aurora area because it was a little more open. You know, we go downtown, close to Chicago, everything is so close, the yards or the houses. There's so many lines in each of the stores, it just, it was too claustrophobic for us. So we tried to move out a little farther away, you know, so there was a little more open fields to run around in and bigger yards at not so expensive prices up here.

SCHAPER: Affordability, open space, quality schools, that's exactly why suburban areas like Aurora and the exurbs beyond them keep growing and sprawling farther out from urban centers. And according to a new book by University of Illinois, Chicago, Professor Robert Bruegmann, that's not necessarily a bad thing.

Dr. ROBERT BRUEGMANN (University of Illinois, Chicago): For millions of people, what it represents is having the kinds of privilege, the mobility, the choice, the privacy, that were once available only to a very few.

SCHAPER: In his book, Sprawl: A Compact History, Bruegmann argues that, historically, it was only the wealthy who could afford to move away from city centers and their urban blight. He considers sprawl, or decentralization as he calls it, a democratic form of living that gives the working class a chance to live in a safer, cleaner and greener environment.

Dr. BRUEGMANN: People, I think, want to live in close contact with land. They want to have plants around them, trees. They want to be able to look up and see the sky.

SCHAPER: Bruegmann says the outward migration of people and their jobs has rescued some communities from economic oblivion. Aurora, for example, was a small, satellite industrial city far west of Chicago that was losing factories, jobs and residents.

Dr. BRUEGMANN: It looked like it was on the verge of becoming a ghost town. There was very little activity there during the middle of the daytime. It was very dull, very gray and I think that it would have scared most people away. But as the metropolis has come out to meet it, it's brought now a whole new set of people, new ideas, new possibilities for economic growth.

SCHAPER: Over the last 30 years, Aurora has annexed much of the farmland that surrounded its decaying urban core. Cookie-cutter style homes and town homes sprouted up in subdivisions where corn and soybeans used to grow and with them, a huge shopping mall, strip malls and other new businesses and industry, even Fortune 500 corporate campuses.

The booming tax base helped improved schools and fund a revitalization of the old downtown. And thousands of new families like the Langs moved in, helping Aurora swell its population from about 80,000 in 1980 to more than 166,000 today.

Still Jeff Lang admits initially feeling a bit guilty about being part of that trend.

Mr. LANG: The guy that actually sparsed out his farmland so we could have our house on it, we apologized to him and said that, you know, a brand new house was cheaper than buying an existing house up here and it was just killing us.

SCHAPER: But now, even with a 40 mile commute, Lang says he chose the right place to live.

Mr. LANG: We're very lucky. We're very fortunate with what we have. We have a very nice house. We got four good kids. We go to good schools, you know, it's a brand new school now. You know, we, my wife and I sit down on the weekends, we're watching the kids play, we feel very good, you know, for what we have.

SCHAPER: And Robert Bruegmann says the point of his book is not that sprawl is good. He and others simply argue that maybe it's not necessarily as bad as it's usually portrayed.

David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.

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