Twentieth Century Sprawl: Highways and the Reshaping of the American Landscape

Twentieth Century Sprawl: Highways and the Reshaping of the American Landscape

Twentieth Century Sprawl: Highways and the Reshaping of the American Landscape

Twentieth Century Sprawl: Highways and the Reshaping of the American Landscape

Synopsis

Owen Gutfreund's Twentieth-Century Sprawl explains important--and largely unexamined--changes in the American landscape. He offers an illuminating look at how highways have dramatically transformed American communities, aiding growth and development in unsettled areas and undermining existing urban centers. Gutfreund takes a "follow the money" approach to show how government policies--from as early as the 1890s--subsidized the spread of cities and fueled a chronic nationwide dependence on cars and roadbuilding, with little regard for expense, efficiency, ecological damage, or social equity. As federal, state, and local governments invested in toll-free highways, Americans moved in unprecedented numbers to newly accessible open land on the urban periphery. The consequence was the collapse of center cities, ballooning municipal debt, and rapidly increasing air pollution, not to mention profound changes in American society and culture. Gutfreund tells the story via case studies of three communities--Denver, Colorado; Middlebury, Vermont; and Smyrna, Tennessee. Different as these places are, they all show the ways that government-sponsored highway development radically transformed America's cities and towns. Indeed, though seeming quite dissimilar, both Denver and Middlebury have crippling traffic problems; housing and commercial activity has sprawled outward, leaving downtown areas in danger of decay, while residents have longer commutes, fewer transportation options, and increasing concerns about air quality and environmental problems. Smyrna, once a dusty backwater, is now booming, thanks to its location near three interstate highways, which attracted a huge Nissan factory (the largest auto assembly plant in North America, the size of 92 football fields). Based on original research and vividly written, Twentieth-Century Sprawl makes a major contribution to our understanding of issues that still plague our cities and suburbs today.

Excerpt

In 1896, two bicycle mechanics from Springfield, Massachusetts, built the first automobile in the United States. In the century that followed, Americans spent enormous sums of money expanding and overhauling the nation's transportation network to accommodate the motorcar. This reconstruction, propelled by a multilayered set of private initiatives and government programs, had profound consequences on the landscape, on residential and commercial choices, on occupational patterns, and, most important, on the way that ordinary families went about their daily lives. As the states and the federal government invested in streets, roads, highways, and bridges, the citizenry simultaneously flocked to the open land on the urban periphery. These two related trends—the suburbanization of the nation and the overhaul of the transportation infrastructure—combined to define and shape late twentiethcentury America, laying the groundwork for the twenty-first century legacy of ballooning municipal debt burdens, deteriorating center cities, incessant demands for capital improvements, and unstable municipal tax bases.

These changes were not simply driven by technological innovation and cultural preferences—they were also impelled by an overlapping array of unheralded government subsidies and policies. Collectively, these policies reshaped the American landscape and created a crisis in the nation's metropolitan areas. They funded and facilitated fundamental changes in the spatial arrange-

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