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History of Sprawl

Two views of the history of sprawl are presented in this section. The first is an economic history, primarily drawn from Sprawl: A Compact History by Robert Bruegmann. The theme is that prosperity and affluence allowing consumer choice are the salient drivers of sprawl throughout the past several hundred years when the phenomenon emerged. The second view is civic and governmental, drawn from Stephanie Pincetl's Transforming California: A Political History of Land Use and Development. This history traces local government's development since the late 1800s in California which shows both an inherent support of growth and development at the local level, and a lack of mechanisms to restrain the proliferation of suburban and exurban sprawl.

The Economic View

Bruegmann traces the roots of sprawl to the Renaissance and to the model of the English garden; while it was predominantly the wealthy who could "carriage" to their country estates, as soon as any class could afford ownership outside the gates of the castle, the urban periphery was the most desirable place to live. Increasingly in the 19th century, successful middle-class merchants sought to emulate the aristocracy with country houses, located outside small villages with good transportation back to the city. At the end of the 19th century trains allowed greater distances to be traveled, and in the early 20th century the automobile replacing the carriage significantly expanded the urban periphery (contrary to some growth historians who pinpoint the auto as the cause of sprawl, Bruegmann points out that it was just another technology enabling travel and expanding the periphery, and that the principal drivers were prosperity and choice).

By the end of the 1920s, the rush to the urban periphery included the working class. Additional factors were job availability, as by 1900 a third of all manufacturing jobs were located outside the central city (50% by 1950). Lower land prices and building costs encouraged substantial exurbanization even in the 1920s, by which time the majority in Los Angeles lived in single-family homes. Economic maturity of cities provided citizens with the means to choose to live on the periphery; technological advances continually reduced limiting factors with autos, roads, traffic control, and the capability of expanding the limits of city services.

City planning viewed development in a very simple way in the 1920s. The city was seen to have a core, with concentric circles spreading from that core, as shown in Figure 1. This view was oversimplified from the start.

Early 1920s paradigm of city center, with concentric circle development spreading from core. Likely not good capture of reality from start. (Bruegmann cites Park & Burgess 1925)

Figure 1

By World War II, a more sophisticated concept of urban development is found in the literature, as shown in Figure 2 from 1942.

By the 1940s, urban concept showed expansion happening in sectors, in untidy ways and at different rates. (Bruemann cites Hoyt 1942)

Figure 2

The post-war concept of urban growth was even more diffuse and chaotic, more closely representing the reality of the marketplace, as shown in the post war graphic, Figure 3.

Post-war multinucleated city models began to capture the complexity of urban expansion. Note, however, that the exurban rural residential development that affects the most land in the Sacramento Watershed is not mentioned. (Bruemann cites Harris-Ullman)

Figure 3

Figure 4 (Bruegmann) shows over 150 years (until 1951) the expanding urban periphery and ever increasing density of suburban and exurban lands.

Figure 4

Figure 5 (Bruegmann) continues to track the historical march of suburban and exurban growth from 1960 to 1980 nationwide in terms of acres developed. Note that by far the most acreage is in the exurban category. It can be observed that most of Southern California is suburban growth because of the limiting factor of water; growth in that region is dependent on imported water supplies that only planned unit developments can provide. The Sacramento Watershed, unlike any other area of the state, does not have the limiting factor of water supply due to its abundant groundwater basin, thus it might be expected to see greater exurban rural residential development than other areas of the state.

Figure 5

There are ironies in the story of sprawl. Most exurban residents don't consider themselves contributing to sprawl. Affluent exurbans are among the most zealous guardians of environmental quality and rural feel of the landscape. They want the look of 19th century New England but with today's conveniences. The second irony is that among exurban rural residents are some of the nation's most ardent environmentalists: Henry David Thoreau (Walden Pond, MA), John Muir (Berkeley hills and Suisun, CA), Aldo Leopold (Baraboo, WI). All were individuals loving rural life but with access and cultural ties to city, and whose livelihood depended on the urban culture, not on agriculture.

Civics and Political History

Pincetl's Transforming California offers a meticulous overview of the history of land use in the state. Drawn from her book, a short overview of several eras in the history of land use provides understanding of the causes and momentum of trends we see today.

The political mechanisms for land use decisions were instituted almost a hundred years ago. After the turn of the previous century, there was national reaction to the abuses and corruption of monopoly capitalism of the late 1800s. Teddy Roosevelt and the Progressives came to power in 1904. In California where reaction was focused on the railroad barons, Hiram Johnson was elected governor and the progressives reformers ascended to power in 1910.

While most remembered for instituting the election reforms of initiative, referendum, and recall, perhaps the more influential reforms relative to land use were the introduction of the professional civil service and policy-setting appointed boards and commissions. The progressive reformers were also pre-occupied with land use, both urban and rural. While progressives were reacting to the excesses of corporate monopoly capitalism, they were inspired by the successful models of efficient corporations that used scientific expertise and modern management techniques, so sought to organize government in those ways. Decentralization was a main theme, and decisions were to be made by local governments that ran like business organizations. Local decision-making included the proliferation of special districts, like water districts. The professional civil service staff would be guided by appointed boards and commissions, informed by their direct experience in the field. Pincetl states:

Progressives pushed the creation of the civil service so that a professional core of technically trained, non-partisan managers would be in charge of administering the city [and county]. Progressives also further institutionalized the use of the appointed policymaking board or commission, made up of volunteer professionals, often drawn from the business world. … the appointed zoning board or the appointed planning commission would determine what land uses were appropriate and what building types should be should not be allowed in order to achieve a better physical environment…. The local planning commission would be made up of local real estate agents, bankers, and real estate insurance representatives. Progressives believed that those who were financially involved in a particular sector would have greater knowledge about how that sector should be regulated and would serve in an objective way…. The political implementation of this vision was to take place through nonpartisan local elections [overseeing] the civil service and appointing the commissions. Citizens would keep the system in check and accountable through the power of initiative, referendum and recall.

In practice, Pincetl notes the new system:

  • Distanced voters from the decision-making process [appointment did not oblige accessibility]
  • Disempowered voters from the decision-makers [recall was thought to be the balancing mechanism, but did not apply to appointees]
  • Allowed those with economic interests to dominate the appointed commissions [conflicts of interest]
  • "Shattered judicial discipline in the exercise of regulatory power"
  • Encouraged the proliferation of local jurisdictions making for fragmented governance

By the 1920s, the local governance system was in place to have business influences from the growth and development sector setting the policies and making the plans for development. At the state level, special interests forming trade associations that hired professional lobbyists filled the power vacuum created by the weakening of the party system.

The years between World War I and World War II ushered in an era called "business associationalism." It was a form of relationship between business and government, nurtured and encouraged by Congress and President Herbert Hoover, based on a philosophy of a free market and a government whose role was to foster a "good business climate." Economic interests on appointed policymaking boards became more entrenched. Local political mechanisms provided support for the enormous post-WWII building boom, which accelerated the conversion of agricultural lands to sprawling suburban/exurban development.

Inheriting the Legacy of Sprawl

Over the next fifty years until today, with the exception of California's coastal protection acts, there are few examples of local government strongly resisting sprawl and defining firm urban growth boundaries, e.g., Santa Cruz, Marin County, etc. The proliferation of special districts spawned by the Progressives continue to make integrated planning a challenge. Even today, efforts to integrate water supply availability and growth are minimal, requiring only a notification to the land use authority for developments over 500 units (SB610 and SB221 requirements). The legacy of the Progressive era of nearly 100 years ago is still strong today.

Conditions in the Sacramento Watershed are present for continued conversion of agricultural lands to suburban/exurban rural residential development:

  • Agricultural lands are largely already zoned for exurban rural development, noted in Current Watershed General Plans.
  • A predominantly conservative political population favoring libertarian policies make any local resistance to the market forces of growth unlikely.
  • The primary limiting factor of water availability is not present in the Sacramento groundwater basin area, which includes all of the valley and low elevation foothills.
  • Economic conditions are favorable, as the region continues to show a strong economy even in downturns, relative to other regions in the state.