Sprawl: A Compact History

By Robert Bruegmann | Go to book overview

1
Defining Sprawl

Most American anti-sprawl reformers today believe that sprawl is a recent and peculiarly American phenomenon caused by specific technological innovations like the automobile and by government policies like single-use zoning or the mortgage interest deduction on the federal income tax. It is important for them to believe this because if sprawl turned out to be a long-standing feature of urban development worldwide, it would suggest that stopping it involves something much more fundamental than correcting some poor American land-use policies. In the following chapters I will argue that the characteristics we associate today with sprawl have actually been visible in most prosperous cities throughout history. Sprawl has been as evident in Europe as in America and can now be said to be the preferred settlement pattern everywhere in the world where there is a certain measure of affluence and where citizens have some choice in how they live.

In some ways, the most difficult obstacle facing anyone trying to discuss the history of sprawl is defining it.1 From the beginning, sprawl has been one of those words more useful in suggesting an attitude than in indicating any actual conditions. The attitude has almost always been negative. Even the look and sound of the word suggest something unpleasant. Asymmetrical, with the p thrusting below the baseline on one end and the l sticking up above the rest of the letters on the other and with that long, yawning diphthong in the middle, it is ungainly and unrefined.

As in the case of many negative terms, there is often a good deal of disagreement on the actual target of disapproval. As one person's noise can be another

-17-

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