American sprawl consequential because of its scale

An environmental activist in New Jersey describes suburban sprawl in his state in ways that hint at its vast scale:

Photo by Seva Kruhlov on

The origins of this devil-may-care approach to development stretches back decades. “One of the things we’re going to look at is all that development in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, where we just sprawled out along the highways, built office complexes in the middle of nowhere, and built these five acre McMansions on farm fields. With all those policies, we’re going to have to reverse them at some point where we need to develop in a smarter, better way: places that are more walkable, fewer cars, more green space, less pavement. It’s not going to be easy because we, in some ways, have to fix the mistakes of the past, like on stormwater, where so many of our cities and towns are already paved, how do you go back and retrofit them? How do you break up these heat island effects in places like North Jersey? With planting trees, putting in more green space, green roofs, and stuff like that. That’ll take some money and it takes political will in New Jersey. I’ll just say that we have a flood of problems and a drought of action on some of these issues. We need to have the political will to make some of the tough choices and then make those kinds of investments. So far, we just keep kicking the can down the road.”

By the 1960s, Americans had a history of suburban homes stretching along railroad lines, streetcars lines, and roads. The ideal of the single-family home was well established. Plenty of people had fled cities. New transportation options provided speed and opened up new land for development.

But, the sprawl of the postwar era happened on a scale beyond these earlier efforts. Completely free of railroads and streetcars, potential homeowners could reach any property with a car. Large-scale builders could construct new subdivisions or communities in a relatively short amount of time. Metropolitan regions expanded out and small communities outside the city could grow very quickly. A whole lifestyle around homes, driving, and suburban day-to-day life for millions emerged.

Reversing these significant changes will require significant shifts in different directions plus time. Forget New Jersey; would Americans as a whole, particularly the majority of residents who live in suburbs, want to reverse these patterns or do they enjoy suburban life (or dislike the alternatives) so much that they would resist major changes? Either way, the consequences of sprawl will continue to affect society for decades to come.

One thought on “American sprawl consequential because of its scale

  1. Pingback: Average sales price of houses up over 500% since 1983 | Legally Sociable

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