The History of Urban Sprawl

Urban Sprawl


Washington paves the Way

Congress and the courts encourage suburban growth.

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries cities were crowded and often unhealthy places, especially when compared with early suburbs like New Jersey's Llewellyn Park (1853) and New York's Forest Hills Gardens (1901).  By the 1950s the stream toward the suburbs had become a surge, thanks in part to changes in laws, finance, technology, and culture. 

The U.S. Supreme Court in Village of Euclid, Ohio v. Ambler Realty Company provides legal protection for local governments that pass zoning laws in order to separate different land uses, such as the exclusion of multifamily housing from single-family neighborhoods.
The newly created Federal Housing Administration (FHA) insures long-term mortgages, enabling ordinary citizens to buy homes.
The Serviceman's Readjustment Act - the GI Bill - creates a mortgage program that helps retuning World War II veterans buy homes.
The Federal-Aid Highway Act authorizes construction of a 41,000-mile interstate highway system, with the federal government paying 90 percent of the cost.  

Cultural Current
Following World War II, the nation's supply of housing cannot satisfy demand fueled by economic prosperity, the baby boom, the availability of affordable automobiles, and roads to run them on.  


The number of people in the U.S. for every car:  13.
First drive-in restaurant in U.S. - the Pig Stand - opens near Dallas.
Levittown, New York, provides mass-produced, inexpensive homes for returning GIs and ushers in the age of the post-World War II car-dependent suburb.

The number of people in the U.S. for every car:  4

The low glass buildings of the General Motors Technical Center in Warren, Michigan, are completed, heralding the age of the modern suburban office park.

1950s and '60s
Air-conditioning and television become standard amenities of new middle-class homes, providing comfortable entertainment at home rather than in public places.

More Americans live in suburbs that in cities.  Those who both live and work in the suburbs outnumber by two to one suburbanites who commute to jobs in cities.

The Arab oil embargo drastically (though temporarily) raised the economic costs of the car culture.

U.S. office space in suburbs surpasses that in downtowns.  By 2001 suburbs will have almost two times more office space than city centers, much of it located in "edge cities" - residential and commercial centers along highway corridors outside older cities.

The number of people in the U.S. for every car:  2  

Race, Riots, and Renewal
After African Americans migrate from the rural South to the urban North, they find themselves trapped in decayed urban housing and face racial discrimination.
The Home Owners Loan Corporation standardized methods for apprising homes.  The new rules favor houses in white neighborhoods outside city cores.
Congress authorizes federal loans for cities to redevelop blighted urban areas.  "Urban renewal" razes not only slums but also stable low-income ethnic and African-American neighborhoods.  The net effect is a loss of affordable housing.
The Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka is the first in a series of judicial and legislative acts that outlaws racial segregation in schools, housing, and public transportation.
1950s and '60s
Exploiting whites' fears of racial integration and urban unrest, land speculators engage in "blockbusting" - buying homes in the city on the cheap, then selling them to black families at inflated prices.

Media coverage of race riots in Newark, Detroit, Los Angeles, and elsewhere frighten many white Americans, convincing them that cities are unstable and dangerous.

The Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination in housing and lending.

The federal Hope VI program funds redevelopment of old public housing projects - such as Chicago's Cabrini-Green - into mixed-income, mixed-income communities.

African Americans are moving to the suburbs too.  From 1970 to 2000 the black population in Maryland's Prince George's County, outside Washington, D.C., jumped from 14 to 63 percent.  

Seeds of a Turnaround
Americans begin to reclaim cities even as suburbs swell.
San Francisco residents pressure city officials into halting several planned highways.  News of the "freeway revolt" mobilizes activists elsewhere.
The Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act force cities to clean up their own backyards.
Oregon enacts legislation that requires its 240 cities to establish urban-growth boundaries to control suburban sprawl.
Congress grants localities more flexibility in using federal highway dollars for mass transit and other non-highway transportation.
Nationwide, voters approve 400 of 553 growth-related ballot measures.  Most promote "smart growth," which encourages pedestrian-friendly communities, a mix of housing types, and less dependence on the car.  
Urban Sprawl, John G. Mitchell, National Geographic, July, 2001