American Suburbia, the Endless Company Town

Ironically, perhaps, significant numbers of Americans first began to question the meaning of growth by questioning how and where they built their homes.

Sometime around the early-1970s, the terms blight and sprawl entered the American vernacular, as the abandonment and dereliction of land and buildings in central cities were matched by the construction of disconnected residential subdivisions and commercial strips in the suburbs. The visible links between the two poles of regional growth were roads which became more and more congested.

Empirical studies suggested a causal relationship between America’s prevalent development patterns and increased air and water pollution, higher infrastructure and energy costs, endangered agricultural and natural lands, and entrenched social division and economic inequities. Concern over the built environment joined the environmental movement’s traditional concern with the natural environment to spawn the sustainability movement.

Sprawl and blight, of course, are worldwide phenomena, consequences of increasing automobile ownership and global market forces. Tumultuous rural to urban migration in developing countries of people seeking jobs and opportunities has created megacities of populations and proportions unprecedented in human history.

But nowhere in the world has sprawl been more planned and premeditated than in the United States. Unlike the unplanned development in the third world, sprawl in America is clearly a conscious effort with a formal legal and regulatory foundation.

Several years ago, a series of exhibitions at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. reviewed the major federal legislation that enabled the expansion of suburban America: