Bruegmann Whopper Watch

Way back in the day when I was a distance running coach and aficionado who paid attention to such things, running journalist Scott Douglas started a project called the Galloway Whopper Watch which documented the excessive claims of marathon success made by former elite runner and now walk-run advocate Jeff Galloway. It sadly seems to have gone by the wayside but it was a useful exercise in collecting these extravagant and rather easily falsifiable assertions.

In my mind, the time has come to apply such an effort to the claims of Robert Bruegmann, professor of Art History, Architecture, and Urban Planning at the University of Illinois-Chicago. I have written about Bruegmann’s work before, specifically his work on sprawl. His work of more traditional architectural history, such as a book on Holabird and Roche, is far less objectionable (even useful) and less subject to comment on this blog.

The catalyst for this was his appearance on the Chicago Public Radio local affairs program Eight Forty-Eight yesterday. In it, Bruegmann responded to the typically boosteristic claims of Richard Florida that the economic crisis will aid cities and harm suburbs. However, he launched into his stump speech on suburbs from his work on Sprawl and asserted the following in the course of the interview (my transcription).

The idea of the creative class and this whole notion that somehow dense central cities are the place that creativity happens. I think there’s actually very little support for that. If you look at where a lot of creativity happens it’s always been out in the suburbs. Silicon Valley is a suburb. A lot of the major universities are in suburbs so I think as a sort of anecdotal interesting idea there was something to it but if you try pushing it as far as he is doing now, it just falls down.
[…]
[Florida’s argument] assumes that there is something inherently better about central cities – that they’re more creative, or that they use less energy, and I don’t think there’s any real evidence on either of those.
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Undoubtedly the economy is undergoing a major upheaval and it will change a great deal but I think that the notion, anything, as simple as central cities will thrive and suburbs will decline just doesn’t make sense. It assumes for example that if you live in the central city you are going to use less energy; you are going to have less greenhouse gases. But take my example: I live in a high-rise building. I don’t drive very much but if you look at the other things that I do—I have a house in Wisconsin, I fly in airplanes all around the world—I’m almost certain that I use more energy on average per capita than a lot of families out in the suburbs. And in fact, a lot of the notions that lie behind what Richard Florida is saying, for example that automobiles are inherently going to use more energy than transit, there is just no evidence of that – automobiles have become very efficient; transit is not. As it is now, an average automobile with 1.25 people in it uses no more energy per vehicle mile traveled than a bus, which is the major means of transit. So I think that all of the statistical bases of his argument fall apart if you look at them very much.
[…]
Cities across the United States are gentrifying which means that they are going up in socioeconomic status. Clearly you can see that in Chicago. There are a tremendous number of people who want to live in the Loop many of them very high income people but that doesn’t mean that we’re going to have a gigantic surge of population in Chicago. And it doesn’t mean that those people because they happen to be in certain job categories are necessarily more creative. I just reject the idea that creativity only comes from cool people who work in advertising and certain industries. I think that you can be creative if you own a factory; you can be creative anywhere—out in the suburbs. I think that this idea that somehow one kind of living is the right kind of living; the best kind of living; the most efficient kind of living; is simply wishful thinking on the part of people who want to live that particular way.
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It is true that people live further away and our roads are jammed. The problem there is that we haven’t built a lot of new roads. So if you look at the worst congestion in the country it is in places like Los Angeles which are the densest urbanized areas in America. So I think the remedy for this is actually neither saying we’re going to get rid of the automobile and get trains or the other way around. I think what we need is just a much much better system of transporting ourselves generally. There’s no reason in the world technologically why we can’t have little capsules that we keep in our closets and that we take out on the road, we go 50 yards and we hook with twenty others and we go 300 miles an hour. All of this can happen so I think the idea that we’re going to shift people back in the city simply to make these old fashion systems of trains and buses work is the craziest kind of upside down logic.

There’s a great deal to parse in this, but the foremost issue is the assertion that “[Florida’s argument] assumes that there is something inherently better about central cities – that they’re more creative, or that they use less energy, and I don’t think there’s any real evidence on either of those,” and “[I]n fact, a lot of the notions that lie behind what Richard Florida is saying, for example that automobiles are inherently going to use more energy than transit, there is just no evidence of that – automobiles have become very efficient; transit is not.

Each of these are easily falsified by work done by Edward Glaeser, whose research Bruegmann knows and cites. In fact, Glaeser had a post at the NYTimes blog Economix the very same day (and links to a paper):

In almost every metropolitan area, we found the central city residents emitted less carbon than the suburban counterparts. In New York and San Francisco, the average urban family emits more than two tons less carbon annually because it drives less. In Nashville, the city-suburb carbon gap due to driving is more than three tons. After all, density is the defining characteristic of cities. All that closeness means that people need to travel shorter distances, and that shows up clearly in the data.

While public transportation certainly uses much less energy, per rider, than driving, large carbon reductions are possible without any switch to buses or rails. Higher-density suburban areas, which are still entirely car-dependent, still involve a lot less travel than the really sprawling places. This fact offers some hope for greens eager to reduce carbon emissions, since it is a lot easier to imagine Americans driving shorter distances than giving up their cars.

But cars represent only one-third of the gap in carbon emissions between New Yorkers and their suburbanites. The gap in electricity usage between New York City and its suburbs is also about two tons. The gap in emissions from home heating is almost three tons. All told, we estimate a seven-ton difference in carbon emissions between the residents of Manhattan’s urban aeries and the good burghers of Westchester County. Living surrounded by concrete is actually pretty green. Living surrounded by trees is not.

So much for the “no evidence” assertion. I emailed Eight Forty-Eight and requested a correction. I’ll update if I get a response.

In addition, I should note that Bruegmann distorts Florida’s conception of the Creative Class and who is creative. When he says “I just reject the idea that creativity only comes from cool people who work in advertising and certain industries. I think that you can be creative if you own a factory; you can be creative anywhere—out in the suburbs,” he misrepresents Florida’s words, which actually go something like this:

Still, we have not even begun to tap our creative potential. Human creativity is virtually a limitless resource. Every human being is creative in some way. Each of us has creative potential that we love to exercise and that can be turned to valuable ends…Yet our society continues to encourage the creative talents of a minority while it neglects the creative capacities of many more.

This is from the edition on Google Books. I recall an even clearer statement in a different edition (maybe it was Cities and the Creative Class) in which Florida clearly asserts he thinks that everyone has creative capacity and he is just talking about a sector of the economy that he defines as “knowledge-based.” Whatever you think of Florida’s work — and there are many legitimate criticisms to be made — he does not make the moral judgment on creativity that Bruegmann attributes to him.

Stay tuned for the next installment of the Bruegmann Whopper Watch.