The Formation of Sprawl

Until the mid-1800s, in most cities workplace and residence were not divided. Merchants and craftsmen had their homes in the same buildings as their shops or workshops. Their families played roles in their businesses, and apprentices were housed and fed along with family members. Because of the importance of propinquity to one's customers and business associates, the place of living and working was located as close as possible to the center of the city, usually the best place for conducting business. (Fishman, p. 7)

At this stage, the "suburb" had a very different meaning than it does today. Outside the walls of the traditional city, the "suburbanites" were criminals or those in industries such as tanning hides or slaughtering animals for meat, whose smell made them poor neighbors. (Fishman, pp. 6-7) In the mid-1700s, however, well-to-do merchants began first to build "villas" (near but outside the city) in which to spend weekends or summers, and eventually to make the villa their primary residence. From these first suburbs in the modern sense, merchants commuted by stage or private carriage to workplaces in the city itself. The noxious pollution of the 19th century city encouraged this retreat from the urban center. (Fishman, pp. 39-51) Another pull toward the suburb was the ideal of the nuclear family we would now call "Victorian" but which actually originated in the "Evangelical" religious movement in the late 1700s. This movement promoted the "companionate marriage" (marriage for love) and the family as a closed, protected incubator for the raising of children. The Evangelicals saw most urban pastimes as enemies of the family, and encouraged families to leave in order not to undergo the temptations of balls, concerts, theaters, and other social events associated with the city. Also, the mixture of social classes in the cities was viewed as a dangerous influence on the family. (Fishman, pp. 51-62) Today one of the appeals of the suburbs is still that they are said to be better places to raise children.

With only the expensive transport of the private carriage or the stagecoach, the suburbs would have remained the privileged province of the elite merchant class. Although in some cities water transport and in many others the omnibus, the horsecar and the commuter railroad made suburban life possible for a growing segment of the more well-to-do, (Jackson, pp. 25-43) it was the cable car and the electric streetcar that opened up the suburbs to the middle classes. Many cities spread out considerably from their earlier compact size during this period. "Streetcar suburbs" expanded out from central cities, forming narrow corridors of residential development around the transportation lines, while the rest of the countryside remained rural. (Jackson, pp. 103-115; Fishman, p. 163)

It was the automobile, once it became common in the early 1900s, which made suburbia accessible to the masses. By 1980, 40% of the population of the United States lived in the suburbs -- more than the percentage either in central cities or rural areas. (Jackson, p. 4) From the 1920s and especially after World War II, the rural areas around America's cities were abruptly transformed into wide swaths of suburban housing tracts. First surface arterial roads, then limited-access freeways were built to carry the automobile commuter from home to workplace. (Jackson, pp. 174, 249)

The impact of the automobile was more than simply a change from public to private transportation. There were a number of other effects. The automobile, by providing "door-to-door" transportation, removed any necessity in the suburbs for pedestrian amenities. In the older streetcar suburbs, the suburbanite walked a few blocks from his home to the streetcar stop. With the automobile, the commuter entered the car immediately.

The automobile also had an influence on non-residential buildings. Earlier suburbs had left the suburbanite to do business in the traditional city. However, automobiles require parking areas. New stores and other services were forced to take new forms: the strip shopping center and shopping mall were created to provide services with enough parking space to accommodate the new automobile suburbanites. (Jackson, pp. 257-260) New industrial and office parks arose in suburban locations, partially because it was less expensive to provide ample parking there. (Fishman, pp. 195-198) Streetcar suburbs tended to form in corridors along the streetcar lines, with undeveloped or agricultural uses where the streetcar stop was more than a few blocks away. The automobile allowed this land to be used for homes and other buildings. (Fishman, p. 163)

Automobiles did not merely change the outskirts of America's cities. Suburban dwellers use their cars to travel to the central city (the Central Business District, or "CBD," in planning parlance). This has become less universal as offices and industries have sprung up in the suburbs themselves. Nonetheless, the central city has remained a major hub of incoming traffic from the suburbs. The need to accommodate this inrush of automobile traffic has changed the cities themselves. The establishment of one-way traffic and the destruction of buildings to make way for parking lots, parking garages, expressways and their feeder ramps have substantially altered America's downtowns. (Whyte, p. 314-316) Many of these expensive facilities, especially parking facilities, were subsidized by the cities. The cities paid -- and paved -- the way for the suburban dweller. (Gratz 1998, pp. 130-131)

Concomitant with the changes brought by the automobile have been other impacts on the central cities. Modernist architects such as Le Corbusier and those of the Bauhaus School designed buildings and created utopian visions that did not fit into the existing fabric of the city streets. They wished to replace the city with artistic creations of their own: tall skyscrapers and glass-box slabs, in the "International Style," without relation to the pedestrian city at their bases. Le Corbusier, the most influential of these architects, designed a utopia called La Ville Radieuse, the Radiant City, of skyscrapers surrounded by parkland. (Kunstler 1993, pp. 67-74) Many Corbusier-inspired projects were built, although often with parking lots instead of parks. (Kunstler 1993, p. 79)

In the United States, urban renewal programs institutionalized the assemblage of city parcels to be torn down and replaced by these sorts of projects, usually tremendous in scope. Whole sections of cities would be taken in eminent domain proceedings and leveled. Often, the land would lay empty for years, but in most cases eventually the land would be reused: for housing projects; civic, convention, or cultural centers; or occasionally large, publicly subsidized businesses. These renewal projects, once built, were set off from the rest of the city in the Modernist manner. (Gratz 1994, pp. 99-100; )

Modernism also affected the buildings of the suburbs. The tendency toward abstraction of forms validated the desire on the part of builders and land developers to reduce costs. Suburban commercial and institutional buildings became plain and undifferentiated throughout the country and even the world, ignoring the earlier vernacular architectural traditions that varied from place to place, depending on local conditions.1 (Kunstler 1993, pp. 80-81) Single-family homes were still built in a variety of styles, but these were not regionally distinctive, and they were mass-produced in large quantity, with at most three or four models of homes making up a single neighborhood. (Jackson, pp. 236-244)

Zoning regulations also changed the city. Zoning regulations were first implemented to separate housing from smelly, noisy industry (Kunstler 1996, p. 123), and especially in New York, to preserve sunlight when tall buildings blocked the sun (Whyte, p. 230). Soon the scope of zoning expanded dramatically. In many places it required the complete separation of different uses of land. Residential uses, commercial uses, and industrial uses were made separate from each other, making it impossible (for example) to build a residential apartment over a store. Subcategories within these broad land-use categories made it illegal to build even small apartment buildings near homes or to take a single-family home and build an ancillary housing unit ("granny flat") as part of it. (Kunstler 1996, p. 131) A major part of the reason for this separation was the increasing noise and pollution burden of automobiles (Kunstler 1996, p. 123). Eventually, zoning began to encourage "pods" -- units of development strung along an arterial roadway like pea-pods, consisting of a single form of use: a shopping center, an apartment complex with a single type of apartment aimed at a particular economic class, or an office park (Langdon, p. 65). These pods not only segregated land uses but all but mandated the use of the automobile for transportation. They increased the amount of travel time necessary to go from place to place, making walks much longer. In addition, they concentrated travel on the arterial road, creating traffic congestion. (Urban Ecology, p. 85)

In summary, in the late 20th century, with a few exceptions, metropolitan areas in the United States have been altered from compact, dense cities to spread-out megalopolises, accessible primarily by the automobile rather than by foot or public transportation.

1. Often these were merely architectural fashions, but often the traditional building methods existed for practical reasons. For example, the ventilated basements and fir floors in Bonaparte, Iowa helped preserve buildings from floods when newer buildings were destroyed. Moe and Wilkie, p. 155.

The Formation of Sprawl
Urban Husbandry
New Urbanism
Similarities and Differences

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