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.
October 4, 2012, 9am PDT | Jonathan Nettler | @nettsj
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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."

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Published on Monday, October 1, 2012 in KCET Departures
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