Sprawl: A Compact History

By Robert Bruegmann | Go to book overview

7
Early Anti-sprawl Arguments

As I noted at the beginning of this book, the term “sprawl” has never had a coherent or precise definition. This has been one of the reasons it has been such a powerful polemical tool. Thinking of it as a blank screen on which a great many people project their own feelings of discontent with contemporary urban conditions is a good way to approach the history of the anti-sprawl movement. Because of the lack of a precise agreement about what sprawl is, individuals have been free to rally around certain broad but quite abstract concepts as a way to explain what is wrong with developments they see around them without necessarily agreeing on any specific diagnosis of the problems or any concrete set of prescriptions. It has allowed people with radically different assumptions to find common cause. A review of the history of the anti-sprawl movement and its diagnoses provides compelling evidence for the complexity and changing character of these assumptions over time.

Although the current use of the word “sprawl” originated only in the twentieth century, the arguments that cluster around low-density unplanned settlements have had a much longer history. As we have seen in part 1, cities have sprawled from time immemorial and for a wide variety of reasons. As long as only a small number of the wealthiest and most powerful families occupied the most land in the most attractive locations, there was very little sustained or organized protest. Whenever a newly affluent or empowered part of the population started to enjoy this privilege, there was a backlash.

By the eighteenth century, the suburban and exurban exodus had grown

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