'The culture of good place-making, like the culture of farming, or agriculture, is a body of knowledge and acquired skills. It is not bred in the bone, and if it is not transmitted from one generation to the next, it is lost.' (James H Kunstler, The Geography of Nowhere)

Urban sprawl, which is notable in places like the US, is a post-World War 2 phenomenon associated with dirty air and water; mutilated drainage patterns and agricultural land; actual cities' falling into disrepair after residents are seduced by the suburbs; and obviously roads, pavement, utility lines and buildings that span excessive distances.

Suppose we were to tweak history to cut US urban sprawl drastically. How small a societal change could we make and still succeed?

  • The suggested change or changes should occur no later than the first half of the 20th century.
  • The suggested change or changes aren't allowed to kill urbanisation. Keep forms of urbanisation that are still profitable but frugal (in land, energy, water etc) and human-centred.
  • A sufficiently small change is indistinguishable from the effect of chance (things 'could have gone either way'), or at least that's what's preferred.
  • Other than the improvement in urbanism, the US should remain as similar as possible to the real US, except where your suggested change(s) necessarily has/have higher-order effects.
  • No need for certain prevention of urban sprawl; just make it as likely as possible for urban sprawl by any reasonable definition to remain negligible by the present date.

Bonus: cut urban sprawl worldwide, also according to the specifications above.

  • $\begingroup$ I recommend you read some Jane Jacobs. Start with 'Death and Life of Great American Cities', which addresses questions of urban sprawl, but by no means stop there. 'The Economy of Cities' might also be useful in getting a different perspective on the place population centers have in regards to human development. $\endgroup$
    – Jedediah
    Commented Apr 22, 2020 at 19:20

3 Answers 3


Disclaimer before my answer: I'm not American, nor have I lived in the United States. But I have formally studied suburbanisation as part of my work. Therefore, my answer is derived from my second-hand readings of United States history rather than first-hand experience.

The one "small" change I would advocate would be to substitute the automobile boom of the 1920s and highway construction during the New Deal with a railway boom instead (carrying on the older railway boom of the 19th century).

It's not really small, but it's one change with a significant impact and I've explained why I think so below.

From what I know, a significant factor that drove suburbanisation in the US was the cheap availability of capital left over from the second world war which could be put to other uses, thus starting a manufacturing boom in the 1950s. Cars, concrete, household appliances, hardware - all effectively became cheaper to manufacture, distribute, sell, purchase, and replace. This was combined with a sudden boom in consumption, as young soldiers returned from the war, obtained jobs manufacturing and marketing this newly cheap stuff and used their wages to buy the same stuff in the market. Low prices meant a single household could buy a lot - a car, a washing machine, an oven, a refrigerator, furniture and so on. However, land prices in cities were too high to own enough space for such a lifestyle. This is ultimately what drove young households to suburbs - Cheap land and housing that allowed for an expanded lifestyle driven by the manufacturing boom.

However, a crucial factor was the automobile and its associated infrastructure such as freeways and highways, whose development had started taking place in the 20s and 30s, but whose effect took off in the 1950s. The combination of highway+car promised that a household in the suburbs could never be too far away from work or entertainment in the city. The overall effect of this combination had a huge impact on how households lived - not only did it promise freedom to move between suburb and city as and when the household pleased, but it also promised that a household need not bind itself to any particular location for any reason at all. You didn't need to live within walking distance of shops if you could just drive down. You didn't need to live close to a doctor or a hospital if you wanted care. If all these things could be located within a 10-15 minute drive down a motorway (as opposed to a 10-15 minute walk or bus ride), you just needed access to the motorway. What this meant was that households could spread out, more and more. Their homes could get bigger and their neighbourhoods could cut deeper into rural areas with their only limit being the capacities of their cars and their access to the highway.

Therefore, if there is one "small" change I would suggest to cut down on urban sprawl, I would suggest extending the 19th Century Rail Boom to the 1920s and have rail lines replace road laying during the New Deal. Rail creates very different effects from the automobile. Households will still need to cluster and locate themselves closer to railway stations in order to access services. Factories, shops and key centres like hospitals can be located near stations to better access manufactured goods. Suburbanisation will still take place, but it will be of a very different form, consisting of denser, tighter railway towns and the sprawl is more likely to be linear, taking place around major arteries connecting primary cities, as opposed to sprawls that go in every direction. This also allows for more centralised infrastructure in towns, reducing resource wastage and hopefully, more connected communities that participate more actively in town planning processes.

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    $\begingroup$ There's a change which would be necessary which, unfortunately, is not easy to find a solution to: white flight. A significant driving force to urban/suburban sprawl in the 1950s and 1960s wasn't just the material factors you've indicated, but was driven by racial factors. More trains isn't going to deal with that. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 22, 2020 at 15:32
  • $\begingroup$ That's a good point. I focused on the material factors mostly to explain my material-based solution of substituting one type of infrastructure with another. But your point about white flight stands. $\endgroup$
    – AA_16
    Commented Apr 22, 2020 at 16:02
  • $\begingroup$ Would any of this prevent the negative effects of urbanization in general (e.g., dirty air/water)? All that is being done is concentrating the growing population of the Baby Boom into a smaller area. So while cities wouldn't expand as far out the parts that did expand would be super urbanized. It would look like the early 20th century on a larger scale, and that period wasn't exactly known for clean air and water. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 22, 2020 at 18:00
  • $\begingroup$ @KeithMorrison, This answer would minimize the "white flight." Taking Detroit as an example, until cars became common, the richest neighborhoods were near the plants. The poor neighborhoods were further out. People paid for convenience. It wasn't until being able to afford a car meant that they could live farther out without the inconvenience of walking a long distance to work. $\endgroup$
    – ShadoCat
    Commented Apr 22, 2020 at 19:21
  • $\begingroup$ An excellent point, though two things need to be considered: First, railway construction (in the US) wouldn't even reach its peak until the 1930s;. second, in order to prevent the automobile from becoming ascendant, you need to get rid of, of all things, the BICYCLE. Yep. It was those pesky bicycle drivers in the 1880s and 1890s that pushed for paved roads in the first place. Prevent the evils of bike riding and you can, just perhaps, nip the rise of the automobile. $\endgroup$
    – elemtilas
    Commented Apr 22, 2020 at 20:27

You mention the timeframe and thus the ultimate cause of (sub)urban sprawl in the US, and therein lies also the answer.

Kill most of the soldiers.

Short and sweet and to the point. The reason why we experienced suburban sprawl was because loads of battle experienced soldiers came home with a discharge in one hand and a GI Bill in the other. They came home to a prospering economy, loads of new technology, new opportunities, a need for a place to call home, and the inevitable baby boom to follow. You know, wife, 2.4 kids, a turkey in every pot and a car in every garage.

If you reduce the population of returnees you reduce the need for living space. Traditional cities can continue to handle the reduced population growth.

  • $\begingroup$ Interesting idea, but doesn't this just delay urban sprawl rather than prevent it? At some point, the population will grow to the point it would have anyway. If you replace the post-war ~15% decade-by-decade growth rate with the ~7% growth rate seen during the war, you've kicked the can down the road a little, but you'll hit your 1970 population by 1990 anyway. Although, I suppose there might be different pressures to build infrastructure if there's not such a sudden influx of population, but that starts to get into other reasons for sprawl. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 22, 2020 at 15:23
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    $\begingroup$ @NuclearWang Part of the reason urban sprawl happened was the population grew all at once rather than over a slower period where you could plan ahead. The massive baby boom caused by the soldiers returning was associated with communities like Levittown, which were planned communities for returning soldiers and the prototype for modern suburbs. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 22, 2020 at 17:52
  • $\begingroup$ @user2352714 I'd think slow, piecemeal population growth would de-incentivize rational planning even more than a burst in growth - a sudden uptick in growth indicates that change is coming for the city, and should be planned for, while slow, steady growth results in organic additions to existing infrastructure. As you point out, Levittown was a planned community precisely because of the sudden growth - they just planned it in a way that encouraged sprawl. Levittown was planning ahead, it just wasn't a very good plan. Plus, urban sprawl has continued for decades after the baby boom. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 22, 2020 at 19:26
  • $\begingroup$ @NuclearWang - Clearly rapid population growth didn't do anything to positively incentivise rational planning. Until some change in human thinking comes along, kicking the can down the road is pretty much how most human planning gets done. Pyramids and cathedrals and universities and Moon launches don't get done with a couple blokes sitting in a pub saying "wouldn't it be grand". A culturally shocking reduction in population just gives the planners time to kick the growth can down the road whilst they come up with a workable solution. $\endgroup$
    – elemtilas
    Commented Apr 22, 2020 at 20:17
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    $\begingroup$ @elemtilas But is there any evidence that a culturally shocking reduction would cause rational planning either? Usually when humanity gets its carrying constraints relaxed and have more room for error all they do is make worse decisions. Case in point how talk of developing alternative energies has died several times every time someone finds a new source of fossil fuels. Less population means more resources and more opportunity to be wasteful. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 22, 2020 at 21:32

Simply having higher petrol prices throughout history will drastically alter the way our cities develop

If petrol was not abundant and cheap, and instead harder to extract, process and deliver, then this would drastically affect urban form.

The invention of the Automobile was in 1886, but it was not really until 1910's that it started being mass produced enabling cities to grow and transport between them to be easier - however it wasn't apparent until the post WW2 years, and subsequent 'baby boom' that the car became ubiquitous and the 'every-day' family could afford and use.

This suddenly transformed all growing cities into car orientated, hierarchal road transport networked cities as ordinary middle-class (and also lower-class) families could afford to live further from where they work.

Also this enabled the 3-tiered stratification of cities: Separating industrial from commercial from residential. By using the car, it is possible to separate them (which they did) - now considered a major contributor to urban sprawl.

Higher petrol prices however might push the car into the realm of the unfeasible for ordinary people (not necessarily for wealthy or for industry) and thus the stratification of cities and hierarchal transport network could potentially be unviable too.

This change would still enable most other cultural and scientific (and political) development to occur, on a world-wide basis, and would fulfil your criteria.


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