The Causes of Sprawl
Before leaving this short survey of the history of sprawl, we might ask what seems at first like a simple question: What causes sprawl? The answers to this question have been remarkably varied and contradictory. Let's consider briefly several of these, starting first with those that assume that sprawl is peculiarly American and attempt to explain why the United States is different from other places and then moving to more general explanations.
A number of observers, usually highbrow Europeans or Americans who live and work in the central city, account for the massive amount of sprawl in the United States by claiming that it is the result of national character traits. American cities are so different from European cities, they say, because Americans are at heart anti-urban, attached to unfettered individualism, low-density living, and automobile usage.1 But, as I hope I have shown, the history of urban decentralization seems to suggest that many of the supposed differences in American and European cities and suburbs are less the result of inherent differences in these societies than a matter of timing. Cities on both continents are, if anything, converging when it comes to space used per capita, automobile ownership, or other similar measures. All of this casts considerable doubt on theory that Americans are uniquely anti-urban.
In fact, it is probably only possible to call Americans anti-urban if one accepts a specific set of assumptions about urbanity made by members of a