Is Franklin Roosevelt Responsible for Suburban Sprawl?

Jeremy Rosenberg continues his fascinating series on the laws that shaped Los Angeles with a look at the local, and national, impact of the 1934 National Housing Act on residential development patterns.

In a prior article, Rosenberg examined whether Thomas Jefferson was to blame for L.A.'s sprawl. In this piece, he focuses his attention on the 32nd President. 

The Federal Housing Administration (FHA) was created in 1934 by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his administration to help the country climb out of the Great Depression by stabilizing the mortgage market. "But, as H. Pike Oliver [senior lecturer and director of undergraduate studies at Cornell University's College of Architecture, Art & Planning] explains, purposefully or not, that's not all the FHA accomplished."

In addition to increasing home ownership nationwide, the FHA also impacted the physical form of residential development through design guidelines that were used to qualify subdivisions for financing, explains Oliver.

"Since states began following the FHA's design guidelines when crafting their own mortgage-support programs, and since commercial lenders tended to keep the same guidelines once private dollars started flowing again, post Great Depression, what began as voluntary aims became the defacto nationwide design standard," notes Rosenberg.

"And that standard, that shaping, resulted in nothing less than the nationwide rise of suburbs, subdivisions, single-family homes, cul-de-sacs, curvilinear streets, homes set far back from streets, grass lawns in lieu of other planting, the decline of pedestrianism and just about every other archetypical suburban hallmark."

Returning to the local impact of the law, Oliver contends that, "[t]he effect in Los Angeles was simply due to the massive amount of development that occurred in the greater Los Angeles area following World War II. The pace of activity was simply unparalleled in the history of the nation to that point."

Full Story: The Birth of Sprawl: How Ending the Great Depression Meant Inventing the Suburbs

Comments

Comments

Wrong link

Here is the right one.

A bit of a stretch

This article is a bit of a stretch. The 1934 Housing Act was enacted to jump-start housing construction in the midst of the depression, when the housing market was dead and banks were failing all over the place. The 1937 Housing Act was the legislation that got public housing federal support and it was written to bypass constitutional problems with the federal government actually building housing in the greenbelt towns through the Department of Agriculture's Resettlement Administration, which had been declared unconstitutional in a case involving Green Brook, a proposed greenbelt town in New Jersey.

It is true that the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) promulgated design guidelines for homes, but the ideas that underlay those guidelines, namely Clarence Perry's neighborhood unit plan concept from the 1929 Regional Plan for New York and its Environs, had been around for some time.

Remember, after World War II, we had millions of GIs returning to the U.S. and a big housing shortage. Central cities couldn't provide all the needed housing and so private developers turned to the suburbs and the greenfields that they had. They produced housing stock rapidly, in standard housing models that had the amenities young families were looking for (e.g., the three Levittowns in New York, New Jersey, and Park Forest, in Illinois). It was also a lot easier to develop then (in the suburbs you didn't have to deal with central city building departments) and so housing production soared to meet demand. If anything, the federal Highway Act of 1956, which established the Interstate highway system, had more impact than the policies of the FHA.

I think this tendency to "look for blame" is misplaced, and you find it a lot in articles posted on the Internet.

Stuart Meck, FAICP/PP
Associate Research Professor, and Director
Center for Planning Practice
Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy
Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey
New Brunswick, NJ

A Stretch and an Excuse

Of course, it is a bit of a stretch to blame sprawl entirely on the New Deal, and the article is doing this to be provocative. There were plenty of other causes, from Clarence Perry, to the typical local zoning laws of the post-war period, to the Interstate Highway System.

But I also think it is a bit of an excuse for sprawl when you say:

"Remember, after World War II, we had millions of GIs returning to the U.S. and a big housing shortage. Central cities couldn't provide all the needed housing and so private developers turned to the suburbs and the greenfields that they had. They produced housing stock rapidly, in standard housing models that had the amenities young families were looking for."

It would have been just as easy to build all that suburban housing so it looked like the streetcar suburbs that had been built on greenfields earlier in the century. The post-war suburbs could have had continuous street systems, main-street shopping, sidewalks and somewhat smaller lots, rather than cul-de-sacs, strip malls, and unnecessarily large lots.

This older style of suburban development could have been produced rapidly with standardized housing on suburban greenfields, it could have had the amenities that young families were looking for - and, at the same time, it could have been much less environmentally destructive than the post-war sprawl that we are now stuck with.

Charles Siegel

Still a stretch, with the role of planners swept under the rug.

You can believe this if you want to, but a careful examination of city planning history during this period would suggest otherwise. In the postwar era, the examples of all of what we think of today as "good city planning" in the 1920s and into the 1940s were largely forgotten: Sunnyside Gardens, in New York; Chatham Village in Pittsburgh; and Baldwin Hills Village in Los Angeles. Even Radburn, designed by Henry Wright, Clarence Stein, and Mary Sewell Cautley in New Jersey, was built in 1928 as the "Town for the Motor Age," and consists of single-family homes, with a very, very small area for apartments (one building).

For the 1939 World's Fair in New York City, the American Institute of Planners (AIP) commissioned a pretentious film, "The City," available on YouTube, which argued that the ills of the city would be corrected by massive decentralization. The most popular exhibit at the 1939 World's Fair was Futurama, sponsored, by General Motors, in which you viewed a gigantic model of a city of 1960s, where the major means of transportation was by automobile on seven-lane highways that were exact design duplicates of the interstate system today. When you left the exhibit, you were given a lapel pin that declared, "I have seen the future. GM Futurama."

After World War II, Tracy Augur, who was president of AIP, maintained that only decentralization would protect America from the perils of nuclear attack by the Russians. See Tracy B. Augur, “The Dispersal of Cities as a Defense Measure,” Journal of the American Institute of Planners, 14(3) (1948): 29-35. Further, automobiles were a measure of status and the American auto industry marketed their vehicles in that way. Taking the bus or streetcar (which began to disappear in many cities) certainly wasn't as classy as arriving in a Lincoln or Cadillac or even a Buick or Oldsmobile. It is easy to claim from the perspective of 2012 that the post-war development was "environmentally destructive," but people really weren't worried that much about that, if at all. Families wanted their homes in the suburbs and, frankly, liked living there, as Sociologist Herbert J. Gans documented in his 1967 book, "The Levittowners," a study of Levittown (now Willingboro), NJ. As Gans wrote, "[M]ost new suburbanites are pleased with the community that develops; they enjoy the house and outdoor living and take pleasure from the large supply of compatible people, without experiencing the boredom or malaise ascribed to suburban homogeneity."

One last point: After World War II, under the Housing Acts of 1949 and 1954, the U.S. government committed itself to supporting massive clearance programs in central cities--urban renewal--with no real thought as to its devastating consequences and no thought about what was going on outside the central cities. By contrast, United Kingdom, under the New Towns Act of 1946, committed itself to a program of constructing well-planned new towns that were connected by rail systems. Eventually 26 new towns were built. One wonders what the American landscape would have looked like today had the U.S. looked to overseas and tried to emulate the British. But it didn't.

Stuart Meck, FAICP/PP
Associate Research Professor, and Director
Center for Planning Practice
Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy
Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey
New Brunswick, NJ

Streetcar Suburbs Vs. Sprawl

You miss my point. I am saying that suburbanization and decentralization could have occurred with streetcar suburbs rather than with sprawl suburbs.

You are blinded by the debate between the two extremes, high density apartments at one end, and sprawl at the other end. This is very obvious when you say Radburn "consists of single-family homes, with a very, very small area for apartments (one building)."

Reread my post above, and you will see that I am talking about a middle term between these two extremes, streetcar suburbs that are made up of single-family homes, not apartments.

I have written a book about the history of city planning. I am familiar with the history you talk about, and I am clearer than you are on what Gans said. From my book:

In fact, the data we have shows that most of the people who moved to the new postwar suburbs did not particularly want to live in this sort of neighborhood. When Herbert Gans interviewed the residents of Levittown, a name that was symbolic of the mass suburbs of the fifties, he found that 72% of them had moved there for reasons that had nothing to do with its suburban setting. Only about 28% gave reasons that had any connection with suburban living: "relaxed, peaceful, outdoor living," "working around the house and yard," and "privacy and freedom of action in owned home."61 The vast majority moved to Levittown for "house related" reasons, either because their previous homes were too cramped or because Levittown provided the best house available for the money. Judging from their responses, even the minority who gave reasons for moving that were connected with suburban living would have been just as happy with a house in a neighborhood designed like an old-fashioned streetcar suburb. But streetcar suburbs were not being built at the time because they were not allowed by zoning laws.
http://www.preservenet.com/unplanning/Unplanning.html

Charles Siegel

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