Uniformly Sprawling Atrocity?

Abstract: Sprawl has a long, multi century history in the USA. It’s at the core of inequality, inequity, and much worse.


It’s always astounding to see 16 year old children of the USA driving themselves 50 kilometers to a private school costing about the median family income of the USA. Seems like the road to hell. Not just for them, mindless cogs, but for the whole planet. Yet this folly is viewed as completely normal and reasonable for those unfortunate children’s parents in the professional class of the USA (the upper middle class of lawyers, doctors, etc.).

I have known (very well, over decades) American children who spent, everyday, three hours commuting inside cars. Three hours at the very least. More when traffic was bad. Their parents were offended when told that was wrong. (Could not Clinton/Bush/Obama just bomb more oil out of where it came from? I have to guess?)

To my eyes, this rabid commuting speaks of racism. As does the finally “balanced” California budget (balanced by cutting services viewed in the past as fundamental, such as schooling for preschool and kindergarten; turns out the children who can’t go to school anymore are of the wrong color. Mostly. Oops. Never mind. Change conversation, what about sport scores?).

I was happy to discover that a New York Times article has discovered sprawl and Paul Krugman now shares my long held opinion: “A quarter-century ago Mr. Wilson, a distinguished sociologist, famously argued that the postwar movement of employment out of city centers to the suburbs dealt African-American families, concentrated in those city centers, a heavy blow, removing economic opportunity just as the civil rights movement was finally ending explicit discrimination…

These days…traditional families have become much weaker among working-class whites, too. Why? Well, rising inequality and the general hollowing out of the job market are probably the main culprits. But the new research on social mobility suggests that sprawl — not just the movement of jobs out of the city, but their movement out of reach of many less-affluent residents of the suburbs, too — is also playing a role.

As I said, this observation clearly reinforces the case for policies that help families function without multiple cars. But you should also see it in the larger context of a nation that has lost its way, that preaches equality of opportunity while offering less and less opportunity to those who need it most.”

I sent the following to the NYT which published right away:

The recovery of the USA experienced now, the real one, not the fake one from financial engineering (zero interest rates, QE, Goldman Sacks and its ilk) rests mostly on fracking (and a low $/Euro ratio). Break the ground, get gas and oil. Plenty of it. In some places, the reserves have jumped by a factor of ten.

This plentiful of cheap carbon energy is doubly fraught; it allows the USA to keep on going the wrong way, wasting energy, and encourages urban sprawl, a segregation that does not need to say its name to be efficient.

Urban sprawl exposes the USA in case the fracking gets itself fracked. That could well happen from a combination of ecological reasons and bad Return On Investment: wells tend to leak as the concrete ages, and the cost of fracking itself is not clear. Or in case the CO2 crisis becomes so bad, that even the deluded government of the USA submits to the evidence, and cracks (fracks?) down on it.

In Europe, it’s different. Europeans have known for at least 700 years, that urban sprawl was worse than bad: it encroached on arable land, and precious forests, it increased the cost of transportation, it prevented the synergy of cities.

Not so in North America. It was just the opposite. Why? Because, modulo exterminating the natives, there was always a lot of land to misuse. Sprawling encouraged, and enabled, the extermination of the pesky natives, it was synonymous with it. When general Jackson attacked Cherokee land, in spite of contrary orders from Congress, he was imposing the superiority of sprawling over civilized behavior (the Cherokees had settled into european-like farms, to Jackson’s alarm).

How to do something about sprawl? First raise tax base of cities, and punish sprawling by putting a significant carbon tax/gas tax, while making public transportation irresistible in city centers (what Europeans have been doing). Otherwise? Strategic danger, long-term: one cannot de-sprawl overnight…

Ilene Bilenky of Littleton, MA, directly dared to contradict me. She said: “People lionize Europe for supposedly knowing better to live in towns/cities with trains, etc., while ignoring the fact that Europe developed centuries before cars existed, and the U.S. grew along with the coming of the car (and the space for them). I am not saying I like sprawl or favor the U.S. mess that we all live in- I am saying that Europe is different for historical reasons and circumstance, not superior assessment.”

And I answered in turn:

Ilene: With all due respect, you are wrong, it’s not about who is smart, and who is not. Laws against sprawl were passed in Europe 700 years ago, because sprawl caused very severe problems. So cracking down on sprawl was from superior assessment in full consideration of the facts.

(By the way, in case you ask, the government of Edward III, grandson of Philippe IV le Bel of France, passed laws against coal burning in London, around 1335 CE, because it made the air hard to breathe: another correct European assessment!)

By contrast, sprawl was intrinsic to the birth of the USA. No, I will not insist on a silly joke such as Uniformly Sprawling Atrocity (although it’s close to what happened!… So maybe I should…).

Seriously, (European!) settlers wanted to sprawl beyond the frontiers set by the French and British, into Indian lands, to dispossess, and generally murder and exterminate the Natives. It’s because of this precise point, more than about the cost of tea, that some colonists in the USA revolted.  

Those colonists made the (entirely correct, logically speaking) assessment that there was a continent to steal, “from sea to shining sea”, as long as the USA sprawled. The program was mostly implemented by Washington, Jefferson and Jackson who stole lands of the order of Western Europe itself.  

Please try to not underestimate the assessment of some enterprising citizens of the USA when it comes to fracking, fracturing and fricasseeing a continent. Sprawling is a mood that served them, and their descendants, well. Hence sprawling is perceived to be a victory, a success, just like the 5,000 square feet mansion that for the landscape of the suburban USA, at the cost of roughly everything else.

Sprawling is the fruit of a long, dark evolution. American sprawl struck the Nazis as eminently just, and they translated it into “Lebensraum”. The rest, as they say, is history.


Patrice Ayme


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18 Responses to “Uniformly Sprawling Atrocity?”

  1. Dominique Deux Says:

    Fascinating thought venue, as usual.

    Sprawling seems to come naturally to human societies; constraining it is a rarity, possibly unique to Europe.

    In Africa, our common mother land, sprawling was the one and only way of ascribing land to newcomers (sons and sometimes daughters) while their parents were still alive. Specialized dignitaries (“chefs de terres”) would grant so-and-so the right to stake out new fields for cultivation from the bush and forest around the community (range land being another, contentious, issue). Much of the recent surge in inter-African fighting can be linked directly to the collapse of that system when the sprawl reaches natural boundaries (rivers, desert) or competing sprawls, such collapses becoming more and more frequent as demographic growth and constant arable area collide.

    Land, like oil, is finite. Fellow colonists may prove harder to exterminate than easy-going indigenous occupants. America beware.


    • Patrice Ayme Says:

      Thanks Dominique for associating me with “fascinating’ and “thought”. Very interesting what you said about Africa. Although I grew up there, as a child, I was not too aware. Anyway, I mostly lived in Dakar which is more closely tied to some other modern cities than to traditional Africa…

      Europe, in the Middle-Ages, had a similar system. Land around villages was not perennial property, but assigned by the local authorities, according to capabilities. The switch to inheritable personal property owned by peasants happened later, and was efective by 1600 CE (differently from England, where Lords owned the land; that explains greatly the different evolution of France and England after 1600..)

      Indeed a problem of the USA has been the lack of capacity of perceiving that all wars engaged by the USA have been easy (except two divisions in the Battle de la Marnes II; the Korean war, but that was no victory). Although some bits of WWII were very hard (Guadalcanal, useless Iwo Jima, Bastogne), overall, others did the heavy lift.
      War against the Neolithic was easy (except where they had bred with the French, as in Colorado…) Against anybody else, war will be hard.


  2. EugenR Says:

    Dear Patrice, i am surprised you did not mention in your article the ultimate conspiracy of the “plutocrats”, the General Motors streetcar conspiracy orchestrated by Alfred P. Sloan. You don’t have to look deep in the history to find out why Europe successfully preserved its city centers (by the way they did not) and US not.


    This egoistic act of car, tire and fuel producers as GM, Firestone, Chevron Corporation and all the rest had done it. The short sighted egoistic act resulted the traffic jams in the cities, an their abandonment in favor of suburb. Now to make a reverse is almost impossible. The bankruptcy of GM is a very small consolation as to their crime they committed, as proved in the US courts, against the US citizens and citizens of all the other countries, that tried to cope the “American way of life”. The result is this:


    If this is the American dream i wonder what is the American nightmare.


    • Patrice Ayme Says:

      dear Eugen: The one (and basically only!) complaint I get a lot, and rightly so, is that my essays are too long. So I am trying to write shorter ones. But thanks for mentioning GM. I had forgotten (!!!)

      GM conspired even with Hitler (very big time!) So helping sprawl in the USA was kids’ stuff for them.

      GM bought bridges, just to tear off public transportation from them. For example the San Francisco Bay Bridge, which carries around 200,000 cars each day (!) used to have a train on its lower deck. GM bought it, destroyed the tracks, made a lower road bed, and that was it. Immediately after this feat, they sold the bridge back to their accomplices in government… (Now there is a BART tube, but it’s not the capacity of a train system.)

      The USA used to be covered with ELECTRIC public transportation systems. Even LA! One could go from Chicago down the East Coast on urban electric system, or so. With the exception of SF, they have all been torn down, and the carriages melted (to look more authentic SF had to buy period Italian cars…)

      The (white) American nightmare is not to be able to babble about sport scores all day long. That seems to have replaced sex among middle age men. Although fantasmagoric jokes about an imaginary France begging her way around in their would-be depraved heads, are not far behind (I spent a weekend being submitted to those!).


  3. bowtiejack Says:

    Great article and I couldn’t agree more. Whatever the chicken-or-the-egg arguments, America is clearly a gasoline-dependent car culture.

    I’ve lived in New York in an apartment for the last 20 years and have appreciated nothing more than getting rid of my car shortly after I moved here. No more parking, fueling, lubing, insuring, car payments, etc. The associated costs of doing everything by automobile (Freedom!) are really quite astounding when added up.

    I delight in public transport (especially the NY subway) because I can read while someone else does the driving. If I need a car, which is hardly ever, I simply rent one, use it and hand it back for somebody else to fuel, lube, finance, and take care of. It’s not too much to say that I have developed an actual distaste for driving and when I have to do so am struck by the waste of time.

    My daughter and her family live in the Washington, D.C. suburbs. When I visit them I am thrown back into the whole highway car culture. There is, of course, no public transport within several miles of her house.

    I grew up in Washington and practiced law there for about 30 years, so I know the town fairly well. What strikes me when I go back now is the incredibly heavier traffic and the aggressive sense of entitlement by many many drivers who do not signal, cut off other drivers, and show minimal if any courtesy let alone following the rules of the road. Driving there has truly gotten more dangerous (and not just because I’ve become an old fogey). This coupled with the beltway culture (more roads! more traffic! longer commutes!) only makes me appreciate my situation in NY more.

    To deal with the rush hour commute there, they are planning to make some lanes on publicly-funded highways essentially toll rolls for the well-heeled willing to pay something extra for the added convenience. This is not about inequality or a class divide, however, but Freedom! Everybody with the money will have the freedom to use the premium lanes.

    Farmland 40 and 50 miles distant from Washington is now clotted with rows of oxymoronic “townhouses”. The Faustian bargain the buyers make is to trade off the 2-hour hydrocarbon-fueled commute for a house they can “afford”. A house in a residential ghetto from which they also have to drive in order to get groceries, dry cleaning, or any of the other basics of modern life. And if the price of gasoline continues to go up, fracking or no fracking, at some point the numbers in that commuter bargain are not going to work for them.

    I assume you have heard how Detroit, original home of the automobile, is going into bankruptcy, stiffing pensioners, and pricing the art in the museum for a quick sale, BUT they still can come up with a half billion dollars for a new sports stadium. I don’t think the parallel with Rome can be overstated or be more depressing.


    • Patrice Ayme Says:

      Dear Bowtiejack; Happy to see that you agree. So you are a lawyer? So is my spouse… When we were in New York, attending to the car was like attending to a large pet that lived in the street. It had to be walked several times a day…
      Then bandits stole its vital organs…
      That was in the Upper East Side, Manhattan, Rockfeller University, not exactly the dumps…

      Anyway, we live next (I mean down the stairs/elevators) the bus, within walking distance of the train. Beats commuting by car everyday. We have just one car now (although we can walk to a massive supermarket with live fish and lobsters… among other things…). Need it, be it only to get out of the metropolis…

      I can see deliberate, massive efforts by the powers that be to favor grotesque sprawl. In Colorado they built a ring freeway around Denver, out in the fields, miles from the first houses (it’s now filling up…) For years one would have the damn thing to oneself, driving 80 mph, with not a car in sight… In California, massive housing, hundreds of thousands of houses, was built in the Central Valley, with the obvious intent to turn the latter into the world’s largest city. Never mind that jobs were 100 miles away… Without train, of course…

      Meanwhile, some of the people who built high rises were outright put in… jail (in Emeryville, central SF bay area). Rabid propaganda AGAINST high rises next to train stations flourished for decades. (Not so) Mysteriously (?) elected officials of the “Bay Area” government, systematically blocked towers next to stations, throughout the 110 cities of the SF Bay Area… I wonder how exactly they got paid…


    • Patrice Ayme Says:

      BTW, “The Economist” the rabid right wing neofascist propaganda amchine that syphons all its profits through tax havens, starting with Luxembourg, and to which I have faithfully subscribed for decades, is raving maniacally, in its latest issue, about the importance of the Detroit bankruptcy, comparing it to Greece…

      True, the fundamental cause is the same: tax optimizing, money throwing, plutocracy…

      Money is freedom! Thus the rule of wealth shall set us free! Plutocracy as liberator, sing the neofascists and they salute…


  4. D. Martin: Vero Beach, Florida Says:

    @ Ilene: American cities didn’t seriously sprawl until after World War II. To a large extent, the big northeastern and midwestern industrial cities were built about the same time as their British and German counterparts.


  5. Rima Regas, Mission Viejo, CA Says:


    The clock was reset with industrialization. What each country/continent has done since then is apples to apples.


  6. aaron greenbird Says:

    excellent!!!! and spot on ! thank you………….


  7. m2smith Says:

    In my trips to Europe I have always remarked how I enjoy the easy access in cities there versus those in the States (with the exception of Washington DC). In the States, city centers have been replaced by suburban malls surrounded by parking lots large enough to have shuttle buses servicing them. The car is king. Getting a driver’s license was a right of passage for American kids, but that is changing. My 30 y.o. son has never had a license and feels little need to feed the petro-monster that feeds off our sprawl. The costs have exceeded the benefit, but it may need the nudge of a carbon tax in the form of easily implemented higher gas taxes. Thanks for pointing out how it has exacerbated our social/racial inequality – familiarity may breed contempt, but that is far better than the fear of the unknown suburban Whites and urban Blacks have for each other.


    • bowtiejack Says:

      On the shuttle bus thing, I have a friend who is a flight attendant based out of Miami. In order to cut his commute, he recently bought a condo near the airport. Now he can get from his house to airport employee parking in less than 10 minutes. But then the shuttle bus from employee parking to the terminal takes another 20 minutes. I don’t know what this proves, but it’s not good.


    • Patrice Ayme Says:

      Dear m2smith: In the end, in a democracy, all depends upon the People being informed and acting on it. So your 30 year old son is in the right. I myself got into driving after such an age, and only because it had become absolutely necessary. One of the reasons for New York Success’ is precisely because one can go efficiently around without a car.

      Programs to discourage, or even forbid, driving in European cities are in full swing. Certainly, in a city such as Rome, the gigantic parts where cars are basically forbidden are intensely attractive (and those where they are allowed not attractive at all). It’s all the better as walking is important for health (just as fumes are adverse to it).


    • Patrice Ayme Says:

      See the article recommended by bowtiejack:


  8. bowtiejack Says:


    Well here’s a really dark view of the future of sprawl from Howard Kunstler:



    • Patrice Ayme Says:

      Excellent article from Howard Kunstler! Great fun! lots of truth in it. As m2smith’son is doing (see the comment of his parent), attitudes have to change. I often go about in the wilderness, and meet some crazed out characters flying giant American flags on top of their monstruous gas guzzling vehicles, crushing nature.
      I can’t fathom people (“friends”) who pay a fortune to go jet ski through coral reefs on the other side of the planet. All I feel, is that they have too much money to waste, destroying the planet.


    • Patrice Ayme Says:

      I am pleased to say that my indignation about the way the 2008 crisis was (momentarily) “solved” by Bush-Pelosi-Summers-Obama and company, long considered outlandish, is now becoming mainstream. Krugman is not yet there, but getting very close (he won’t quote me directly, although he uses my stuff increasingly). To my surprise, the WSJ got it! More coming in the next essay.


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