Can America be America without sprawl?

Spreading out into the suburbs allowed Americans to continue a number of long-standing cultural threads taught to them about their nation’s past.  Many Americans may therefore not easily change and relocate to communities of higher density living.

Europeans came to the United States in the 17th through 19th centuries for several reasons.  These included wanting to escape government (state) persecution of their beliefs as well as having a chance to own land and be more independent.

The new US constitution written in 1789 assumed that Americans would be small independent farmers.  The idea of the rugged, self-reliant individual as citizen emerged.  The first amendment guaranteed citizens right to keep arms, to prevent the state (the government) from removing their liberties (keeping in mind citizens were only white men who owned property at this time).

Living in a prosperous city — then as now — requires a different mindset.   The agents of the state — police, laws, bylaws, — uphold property rights and social safety, in return for being paid in the form of taxes.  Being a city resident requires trusting others to look after aspects of your life.  Taking the law into your own hands theoretically results in becoming an outlaw yourself, and criminal prosecution. Being in a more densely populated area also means getting along with people who are not necessarily like you — America’s mythical founders, the pilgrims,  went to the new world to establish a community that included only themselves.  Others since moved West with the same goal.

As the United States spread west, conquering nature it also forged the notion that everyone (well everyone who was white and male, anyway) should have the option to have a farm.  And as new states were created, they were all roughly the same size.  This idea of equality in land size emerged.

In modern times, automobiles allowed for people who no longer worked on farms — instead in city factories or office buildings or other edifices — to all have the dream of the same house with a yard.  The suburbs sprawled out from cities just as America sprawled out from the East Coast decades and centuries before.

One reason for the push west — and the push to the suburbs — has been a desire to be different from Europeans.  Immigrants often deliberately left behind the constraints of the old world.  America was founded on not being Europe.

More recently, Europeans have been portrayed as those who live in cities, speak multiple languages, spend their time philosophizing, and don’t believe in guns or SUVs.    Americans are frequently taught to think of themselves as the opposite.

With this historical foundation, it could take a while for many to believe that it is as American to live in a condo by the river in Portland as to have a suburban home in Plano Texas or to ride a bike to work in 20 minutes rather than drive the SUV for 45.

If a Great Reset is to happen, the hope is probably in younger and future generations rejecting some of the historical narrative of what it is to be American.  The more Hispanic, black, Asian and other immigrant (or children of immigrant) voices that can be heard, the more the traditional myth can be challenged and be exposed for what it is — a narrow, exclusionary view of America that doesn’t account for the experience of the majority of it’s citizens in the 21st century.

Only then might being an educated, creative, tolerant urban dweller be an image more connected with the narrative of America’s history.   Until it ceases to fit with how many Americans view themselves and their country, suburbia will remain a dominant force in the American economy — to its detriment, most likely.


  1. Daniel says:

    Fascinating post! I think you’re probably right that the tendency to spread out has always been with us. In the colonial times, this was limited by technology and political structures. New England at least may have had many farms, but they were also known for tight communities (hardly pluralistic, as you mention) organized around towns. Yet, for sure, on the Western frontier we were very independent. You’ve certainly given me something to think about.

  2. Andrea Coutu says:

    Great post! In Dickensian times, poor people lived in what we’d now call suburbs. Since poor people rarely had voices heard by the social elite, those suburbs were not often recognized. Still, it wasn’t till the development of streetcar suburbs in the 1860s that middle class people started living far from work. That was about the same time that the US and Canadian West really started to open up. Still, the development of the Model T in 1909 and the post-war mortgage programs for returning GIs, combined with civil rights advances, really changed things up.

  3. MinchinWeb says:

    Wendy, I think you’ve latched on to the key struggle for those who dream of changing cities (at least in my opinion) – cities won’t change physically until our ideas (and preconceptions) about them change.

  4. Wendy Waters says:

    Minchin — well said. Who we feel we are is tied up in where we choose to live. If millions of Americans shift toward higher-density urban living, it will mean a massive change in self-perception.

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