Center of Excellence for Sustainable Development

The Historical Roots of Sprawl

Joseph Smyth

Excerpted from "The Economic Power of Sustainable Development: Building the New American Dream", a chapter in Sustainable Cities: Concepts and Strategies for Eco-City Development, Eco-Home Media, 4344 Russell Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90027, (213) 662-5207.

Before World War II, many Americans lived in small towns and villages, and dreamed of owning their own farm or homestead. After the war ended, more and more Americans moved to the larger industrial cities, bringing with them these visions of home ownership. The factories that had been expanded to supply the war effort were being reconverted to peacetime production, and jobs were plentiful. Americans were proud of winning the war, and there was an optimistic mood in the country. The economy was booming, and everybody wanted a piece of the good life.

In 1947, east coast developer William Levitt had a dream of his own: to build affordable homes away from the congested cities. Brooklyn-born Levitt bought acres and acres of potato fields on New York’s Long Island. For no money down and $65 a month, a $6,900 Cape Cod home could be bought, and bought they were! Levitt’s dream was so successful that he built and sold thousands, completing as many as 36 a day. Levittown and the suburban tract home and lifestyle were born, and the new form of The American Dream took hold.

At first, this form of land planning and building worked. Large numbers of people found themselves homeowners, with a yard where they could plant a garden reminiscent of the farms and country villages from which many came. Land was plentiful, and with cheap oil and labor, it appeared the answer had been found: one could work in the city and "live in the country." Cars were also cheap, allowing workers to drive to town and be home by sundown.


In 1992, some 44 years later, tract housing, suburbia and automobile-centered transportation are no longer seen as a solution. Rather, they are seen as part of a complex problem which affects all aspects of our lives from environmental to economic and social conditions.

An example of one of the many environmental problems has been identified by the American Farmland Trust, a national organization representing the interests of farmers. The Trust found that since 1980, 11 million acres of farmland nationwide have been lost to suburban sprawl. That is one million acres consumed each year. In addition to the loss of farmland, entire ecosystems are being disrupted and lost to this expansive land use pattern.

Examples of some of the many economic problems relating to suburban sprawl were the subject of a cover story in the Nations Business (Sept., 1991). Author James Drummond states: "Americans lose more than 2 billion hours a year to traffic delays [not counting commuting time, just delays in commuting], according to Federal Highway Administration. It says that figure could increase to almost 7 billion hours by 2005. One estimate pegs the current yearly cost of those delays at $34 billion. Truck delays alone add $7.6 billion a year to the cost of goods that Americans buy, according to the American Association of State Highway and Transportation officials."

The local transportation commission in Ventura County, California (a semi-rural county with a population of approximately 600,000 located just north and west of Los Angeles County) found that the County will need to spend $1.35 billion over the next 8 years to widen roads and build interchanges just to maintain and slightly improve the current level of service. That equals over $168 million per year starting this year and going for another seven years. where will the money come from to pay for the needed maintenance and improvements, and what happens after that? Imagine the advantages of putting that kind of money into sustainable transit development in the County. Examples of some of the many social problems relating to current development patterns have been noted by Marcia D. Lowe, researcher at the Worldwatch Institute, an independent think-tank that analyzes global problems. Ms. Lowe notes that low-density, single-use land planning has contributed to a series of social problems, all stemming from an increasing breakdown of community. She says this breakdown of community is brought on, in large part, by the physical separation and dispersion inherent in suburban sprawl planning. She also explains that geographic isolation reinforces and encourages exclusionary land-use controls and social attitudes, dividing entire communities along economic and social lines. In addition to a breakdown in community, exclusionary land-use controls tend to create a limited range of housing types, resulting in among other things, a jobs/housing imbalance.

In summary, low-density single-use suburban tract housing builds in massive losses of farmland and open space, increased automobile dependency, growing operation and maintenance costs resulting in unsustainable economics, pollution, and a spreading sense of physical and social isolation. All of these factors contributed to the breakdown of the environment, economy, community and our overall quality of life.

Joseph Smyth, President of the Joseph Smyth company, is a visionary and imaginative planner who, since 1971, has designed and developed ecological communities on both East and West Coasts. Currently planning pedestrian-oriented urban and rural villages, Smyth has pioneered a participatory planning process to create a financially and environmentally sound master plan for Ventura County. Joseph Smyth Company, 509 Marin Street, #134, Thousand Oaks, CA 91360 (805) 373-3712.