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Warning of Urban Sprawl...in 1959

Warning of Urban Sprawl...in 1959

As part of the celebration of its 75th anniversary, the Urban Land Institute has unearthed a great short film it produced in 1959 in partnership with the National Association of Home Builders. It warns – against the backdrop of what sounds like a swelling Hitchcock score – of the impending cataclysm of suburban sprawl.

"Once," intones the male narrator in dramatic incomplete sentences, "the land seemed inexhaustible. The whole vast sweep of the American continent, 3 million square miles of the richest land on earth, a land of quiet main streets, rolling farm lands, plains, forests and mountains. A land with elbow room, with unlimited space for our towns, our cities and our people to grow."

Well, all that changed in the '40s when the GIs returned from war, had families and bought into suburban subdivisions.

The 16-minute film, called "Community Growth, Crisis and Challenge," is both amusingly dated (the architects, builders and planners tackling this problem all happen to be white men) and years ahead of its time (in denouncing sprawl, it also advocates preserving open space and developing residential communities with variety in design, income level, family size and building density).

A couple of the judgments sound a little odd half a century later. The narrator trashes the traditional urban townhouse as a "monotonous eyesore on our city streets." And the thinkers behind the film seem rather concerned with "preserving the values of a country-like atmosphere" in America as its population booms.

Most notable, though, is not the fact that someone was sounding the alarm about sprawl 50 years ago, but that the solution then to the problem was markedly different from what planners (and advocates like the ULI) would propose today. The video makes no mention of walkability, or biking, or transit. The only real references to mixed use mention putting detached homes next to town homes next to high-rise apartments. These people weren't talking about urbanism of any kind, but about a suburbia that would do a slightly better job of preserving open land. In this world, of course, everyone would still need a car:

Emily Badger is a former staff writer at The Atlantic Cities based in Washington, D.C. She now writes for The Washington Post. All posts »

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