Origins of Sprawl

By Allison Ude

Westhaven is a unique new place. Yet eighty years ago it may not have been so unique. At the beginning of the twentieth century, most places were built according to traditional, common sense town planning principles. But at the end of World War II, a new pattern of building emerged that has come to be know as suburban sprawl. The effects of sprawl can be seen all over America: social, economic and environmental unsustainability. Sprawl is made up of the same components as authentic neighborhoods—homes, shops, restaurants, parks, civic places and workplaces—but it’s not designed and assembled in a way that is sustainable and that most people would even consider enjoyable. The sprawl development in most communities today is not like the older places many of us love, like Charleston, Nantucket, and Boston’s Beacon Hill. Yes, there are a few great new places like Westhaven—but suburban sprawl has been the norm for decades.

Why is it that most of the places we build today are so inferior to what was built 100 years ago?

How was sprawl created?

The popular myth is that sprawl represents free market choice, but the truth is that it stems primarily from government policies. Much of our sprawling development is either mandated or subsidized by codes and policies while smart alternatives are restricted or even outlawed.

Single Use Zoning

Housing, commercial shops, restaurants, offices, parks—all those things are useful by themselves, but authentic neighborhoods only happen when you mix them together. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Unfortunately, zoning—and in particular, single-use zoning—has prevented the crucial mixing.

The idea of zoning based upon segregation, or the outlawing of mixed use, was initially a technological innovation designed to solve three threats to the viability of cities at the turn of the 20th century: fire, pollution and disease.  Due to the enormity of these problems and the absence of other technologies to solve these problems at that point in history, the U.S. Supreme Court authorized zoning in 1926.  Zoning was later expanded to the point where mixed-use buildings, such as shops with living quarters above—a mainstay of human civilization for thousands of years—were outlawed.  Technology has solved many of these problems, with the exception of our most toxic uses.  Yet in most places it is still illegal to build a building with first-floor shops and upper floor apartments like those built 100 years ago in downtown Franklin.


Roads, Mass Transportation, and Utilities are all part of our infrastructure, and they’ve all been managed in such a way as to promote sprawl.

When a municipality widens a road, we put up with the construction hassle because we think the extra lanes will reduce traffic. But instead, these extra lanes actually invite more traffic so we end up with congestion all over again. These road widening projects—paid for with our tax dollars—are actually subsidizing sprawl.

Our communities began to sprawl in earnest when our federal government began heavily subsidizing highway construction in the 1950’s.  Prior to the 1950’s local governments were required to pay the majority of the costs.  After the adoption of the Interstate Highway and Defense Act of 1956, the federal government began paying 90% of the costs of new highway construction.

These subsidies continue to this day, although the federal government has reduced its percentage of funding.

This has made it easy for Americans to build inefficient communities that sprawl out from every major city in the nation.

Another part of our infrastructure is mass transit. But most of our country’s mass transportation infrastructure has been replaced by cars and roads. The government has transferred its investment from all modes of transportation to primarily roads. The decrease in funding for mass transit means fewer people have the option of using mass transit. That means there are more cars on the roads, there’s more traffic, there are more parking lots, and there’s more sprawl.

Utilities are part of our infrastructure, too. Sewer, water, electricity, gas, cable, and telephone service cost a whole lot more to install and maintain when development is spread out so much.

All these utilities have standard rates. Everyone pays the same rate, even though it costs more to provide service to some than to others.

When developers and homeowners in the sprawling suburbs don’t have to pay the real cost for their more expensive services, that’s an incentive to be inefficient with our infrastructure and a sprawl subsidy.

Transportation Design

Transportation design practices, which have become regulations, ensure that roads are not only congested but are often dangerous!

Streets used to be designed on grid or modified grid layouts. This design allowed many connections between different places. A typical prescribed road layout now consists of subdivision roads which lead to collector roads, which lead to large arterial roads, and the only connection between many places is the large arterial road. Think of Mallory Lane or Cool Springs Boulevard – everyone has to get on those roads to go anywhere within Cool Springs. And often there is only one route in and out of a conventional subdivision. All residents must use this route to reach the local highway. Everyone uses the same system to get to work at the same time everybody else is going to work. This road carries any and everybody who needs anything—from getting to school to buying milk.

This rigid street system is designed like a sewer where the only factors considered in the design are speed and capacity.  The very nature of this configuration leads to horrible episodes of congestion.  In the meantime, character and context are ignored to the point where the only type of street where a pedestrian can begin to feel comfortable is a cul-de-sac.

Minimum Parking Standards

According to most municipal codes, shared parking spaces are not allowed. Each building has to have its own parking spaces. And it has to have enough parking spaces for the busiest day of the year.

A church next to a retail shop or next to a bank has to have enough parking spaces to serve its Sunday morning services, even though the bank is closed on Sunday mornings and won’t need any of its spaces.

That’s why you see so many empty spaces so much of the time.

Loans and Financing

After WWII, the Federal Housing Administration and the Veterans Administration encouraged people to buy new homes rather than existing homes, and new homes were usually in the suburbs. The FHA created specific requirements for houses that could be mortgaged. These requirements covered things like lot size, width of the house, setback, and distance from nearby buildings. The FHA would also not guarantee loans for buildings that might also be used as stores or offices. This system of loans and financing created two very predictable results: financing would be available only for single family dwellings in the suburbs, and the suburbs would be completely dominated by single use zoning.

Building Rehabilitation Standards

Many municipalities do not allow owners and developers to restore buildings to their original glory. They must bring buildings up to current standards. That may mean adding elevators, redoing plumbing, and any number of other very expensive things. Those things can be so expensive that building owners can’t afford to restore buildings. So frequently they don’t do anything to rehabilitate their old buildings. Instead of being restored as functional buildings without elevators, these old buildings tend to remain dilapidated and unused


It’s cheaper and easier to build something new and on the edge of town.

Environmental Regulations

Environmental regulations also make reusing previously developed land a lot more expensive than starting over on pristine land. Brownfields are areas that were used for industry or have in some way been contaminated and now lay unused and available for redevelopment. It makes sense to reuse those brownfields instead of going out to the greenfields of the sprawling suburban fringe. But according to environmental regulations, brownfields must be cleaned up to pristine condition before they can be redeveloped. Some developers would be willing to accept those costs, but

the problem is that they don’t really know how bad the contamination is until they start cleaning it up.

With so much uncertainty, developers are often driven to develop greenfields—pristine lands such as farms.

Other well-meaning laws governing our environment also encourage sprawl.  For example, our air quality laws are based upon the attainment of certain air quality standards within a particular geographic area.  If a central city has difficulty meeting those standards, as is the case with almost every metropolitan center, then new industry and new development, such as a new region-wide sports stadium, is forced to locate on the outskirts of the region.  While this might limit the pollution in the central city, the overall pollution in the region is increased.

Tax Policy

Tax policy influences where development occurs. Throughout the United States, property is appraised at its fair market value, and this is usually determined by identifying the “highest and best use” of the property.  The “highest and best use” standard becomes a problem when residential property abuts farmland.  In most states, the farm is not appraised as a farm, but as a potential residential subdivision. Three houses per acre are more valuable than corn or soybeans. Thus, the farm is taxed as a subdivision not the farm that it is, thus putting an extra financial burden on farmers.


People in the city have two options for good education: they can move to the suburbs, where public schools typically provide a better education, or they can forego public schools and home school or send the kids to private schools. A few people are wealthy enough to choose between these options and many of them stay in the cities, close to work and services and civic life. Many other people move to the suburbs, if they are able, in order to get their kids into good public schools.

Furthermore, the schools, themselves, are required to sprawl. Policies require one-size-fits-all giant school sites that won’t fit in traditional neighborhoods.

Real Estate Investment

Most pension funds and other large investors such as insurance companies are required to invest in a wide variety of investments in order to minimize risk.  This mandate results in billions of dollars being invested into real estate every year. 

Due to this huge influx of investment dollars, the real estate investment market has matured into an efficient commodity market where real estate investments are bought and sold like stocks.  Therefore, real estate investments must be categorized into assets that adhere to strict rules. To accommodate this need, 19 different real estate investment categories have emerged.  While this system makes for an efficient market, it contributes to sprawl because complex, mixed-use, real estate developments cannot be easily categorized. Thus, very few investment dollars reach mixed-use developments because: (1) analysts are specialists in one of the categories, and do not look beyond their given category for opportunities; and (2) lenders refrain from lending money to a mixed-use project because it is more complex and risky for them to resell the loan.

The effect of this market is that real estate investment dollars flow freely toward single-use, cookie-cutter projects such as apartment complexes, office parks and strip malls while well-designed mixed use projects struggle to receive funding.

Abandonment of Town Planning Education

At the close of WWII, the profession that was deemed responsible for our built environment was a fairly new profession called planning. Planning got its official start at the turn of the century with the stated goal of becoming the coordinator of the three principal professions involved in the development of our built environment: architects, landscape architects, and engineers. Unfortunately, following WWII, the initial leaders of the profession had passed away and left the profession largely in the hands of professors who were not practitioners. These professional academics were more interested in planning theory, economics and, later, sociology, as opposed to the nuts and bolts of the physical design of towns. To make matters worse, the Modernist movement within the architectural profession was in full swing by that time, with leaders who were actively hostile toward the art of traditional town planning.

With the architects turning their back on the proven techniques of traditional town planning and the planners not focused on the details of physical design, it left much of the actual design of our built environment in the hands of engineers who had never received any training in traditional town planning, and who, starting in the 50s, were extremely well funded due to our gigantic increase in road building.


The effect of these subsidies and practices is that our choices of where and how we live have been substantially limited by sprawl.

Winston Churchill said “You can count on the Americans to do the right thing, but only after they have tried every conceivable alternative.” We have tried every conceivable alternative—from blindly segregating uses to subsidizing inefficient sprawl. Now, with the rediscovery of traditional town planning techniques, Americans are beginning to do the right thing, and Westhaven is a step in the right direction.

This website is the property of Diane Balciar who is a contracted agent of Kerr & Co Realty and is in no way affiliated with Westhaven Realty or Southern Land Company. Westhaven is the registered trademark owned by Southern Land Company, LLC.