Twentieth-Century Sprawl

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Owen D. Gutfreund. 20th Century Sprawl: Highways and the Reshaping of the American Landscape. New York: Oxford University Press. 2004. pp.283 $17.95 ISBN: 0195189078


20th Century Sprawl is a case study history of the funding of the highway system and its impact on local communities. Using a case study approach, Gutfreund looks at Denver, Middlebury, VT and Smyrna, TN and examines the way that government policies reshaped the landscape. Thus, the subtitle refers to both a physical and planning reorientation of the American landscape. Gutfreund tips his hand when he notes in the Introduction that this reshaping, “created a crisis in the nation’s metropolitan areas.” (p.1) In fact, these were crises of traffic, safety, construction, spending and mostly planning. Caught between the Federal agencies and the local and state governments, towns and cities were forced to tie their destinies to new legislation and programs that would help build or rebuild America’s infrastructure. Perhaps less well known and fascinating are the early road lobbies that help pressure the government to plan, fund and place our highway system. Reminiscent of the railroads, the story of the highways had a profound effect on cities and towns, large and small and 20th Century Sprawl meant that the line between the traditionally urban and the typically suburban was blurred.

In his case studies, Denver’s story began in the nineteenth century with a failed mass transit system and a battle between car owners and the general public. Ultimately and especially after World War II, manufacturing sough new places to expand and the beltways and highways around Denver launched the new suburban office parks and with them came new shopping malls and bedroom communities. A decentralized Denver was one legacy of the new highway system. The story was similar in small town New England, where the town fathers were unsure in their footing as they tried to react to the new automobile and its impact. Stereotypically wary of big government, Middlebury never the less saw state funds go to highways in favor of local roads and when the local roads were improved, the result was traffic and congestion. This also had a deleterious impact on downtown which was only revived in the recent past by re-purposing and restoring old buildings. Lastly, Smyrna, TN was an old whistle stop town that had a large military installation and heavy infrastructure built to sustain the base system. While this had benefits for the military it did not help the town. In the end, the confluence of rail and more importantly major highways and one days drive to almost all major cities helped saved the town. Nissan Motors saw opportunity and the town eagerly embraced and jointly incentivized the company to attract a large plant and related suppliers.

This book is nominally about highways and change, rather it is a work about second order effects and reminds the reader of the story of railroad history, the promise of improved travel, more goods and services and new land and growth opportunities. The railroads collapsed under pressure from the car and the new federal highway system, the American psyche had demanded an individual solution to a community problem. 20th Century Sprawl looks at that problem and its impact on the community to pinpoint the relationship between highway planning and local issues.

Commentary Alan S. Brody, Fall, 2011

20th Century Sprawl is an interesting and useful work for an urban historian, tracing the story of lobbying and legislation in the effort to improve America’s highways and like so much of urbanity, the future was not certain. Early attempts at road improvement were contested by citizens and the power struggle between road growth and mass transit had the streetcar as an early victor. Arguably, the growth of the automobile was not tied to individuals as it was to commerce, and as cars began to replace horses and an entire new infrastructure grew up around the auto. In addition, lobbying groups of consumers, building off of the bicycle model, used their local and eventually state and federal groups and associations to influence legislation. These early chapters and auto history have been well documented by others, however, Gutfruend’s unique take makes this deserving of more attention, leaving the reader wanting more about how these groups worked and grew in the early years.

The Federal highway program was an economic story and one that according that, “perpetuated a skewed American system of highway finance.” (p. 58) This is one of the major themes in this work that the highway system was a financial program with both intended and unintended consequences and impact on cities. The good resulted in the growth of places like Smyrna, TN and the bad in congestion in small towns like Middlebury, VT. Major cities like Denver experienced some payback and some costs as they tried to navigate the complex system of highway funding. In the New Deal and in modern times, highway and infrastructure work has continued as a source of job creation and economic revitalization. 20th Century Sprawl sees highways as a major force in urban development and decline and mere geography is not the only factor. This text raises several questions about the public versus private good, are roads used by everyone or only by auto owners? Where does the local economy stop and start and how might the urban environment by improved or exploited by infrastructure changes? Lastly, as Gutfreund argues, the physical boundaries of the exurbs were dramatically and radically changed not by happenstance, rather by very deliberate changes in funding formulas and by succeeding generations of profession highway planners. It is quite an accomplishment to tell this story in an engaging and redable manner.

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