Sprawl: A Compact History

By Robert Bruegmann | Go to book overview

11
Early Remedies: From Anti-blight to Anti-sprawl

In parts 1 and 2 of this book as I traced the history of what we would now call sprawl and the changing nature of the complaints made against it, I noted in passing various attempts to control unplanned decentralization. These appear to go back in history as far as cities themselves, as kings and queens and municipal authorities tried, usually in vain, to halt the outward dispersal of people and activities from their cities. We know, for example, that already in the sixteenth century, Queen Elizabeth attempted to try to halt growth around London by issuing an edict prohibiting building at the edges of the city. In the seventeenth century, French kings likewise attempted to stop all further growth outside the walls around Paris. Like virtually every subsequent effort to halt sprawl, these attempts were largely a failure, and London and Paris continued to expand outward.1

It has only been in the twentieth century, in fact during the second half of the twentieth century, that any really sustained efforts have been mounted to stop sprawl. In this part of the book, I will consider some of these efforts. This history has been filled with curious twists and paradoxes. One of the most curious is the fact that many of the remedies to combat low-density sprawl in recent years are very similar to the remedies devised over a hundred years ago to combat high-density “blight.” The word “blight” had its origins in horticulture, referring to a small, nearly microscopic insect that attacked plants. In the seventeenth century, the word had entered common speech as a more general term that meant a “baleful influence of mysterious or invisible origin.”2 By the end of the nineteenth century, it was commonly used to describe the way

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