Guest Post: Planning to Sprawl


800px-East_LA_Basin_from_MulhollandI’ve been teaching undergraduates for a while now, various takes on the general theme of the environment and society.  Here are some things I’ve noticed. The students often believe that they have discovered the environment and all the bad things we are doing in it.  Up to now, they suppose, we have been unaware, self-centered and lazy, so we drive everywhere, recklessly leave the lights on and never give a thought to our carbon footprint. They also seem to believe that if they just go out and tell everyone, we will stop misbehaving.

Don’t get me wrong.  I think it’s great that they are on a mission to save the earth.  We should all be on such a mission.  I want them to understand what they are really up against, though, so they can be more effective.

My students – and a lot of environmentalists – focus on our individual behaviors: if we would all just bike to work and eat local organic food, things would get better.  This isn’t wrong.  Our choices matter and Americans, plainly, could consume far less than they do without suffering.  But there’s a hitch – or, rather, three hitches.  One is that while Americans may be, on the whole, overstuffed, much of the rest of the world needs more, not less: more industry, more energy, more food, more clean water.  A second is that a capitalist economic system needs to grow to survive.  This isn’t a policy option.  If you think capitalism is going to be around for a while, which I do, we have to figure out another way of being sane in nature.  Lastly, we don’t have unlimited degrees of freedom in our choices whatever our intentions.  We get to choose, sure, but our choices are structured by larger social realities.  Try living without a car in Los Angeles.

Aha!  Isn’t LA the perfect example of how we chose suburban sprawl, trapping ourselves in our cars?  All of the familiar post-war phenomena – the GI Bill, Levittown, white flight, the interstate highway system – allowed us to maroon ourselves in ways that we may now regret but couldn’t have foreseen. 

unnamedNot exactly.  Sprawl was built into the city well before World War II.  Ironically, the excellent trolley system was partly to blame.  Here’s a funny thing.  In Europe, transit systems were built in order to provide transportation.  In the US, tram lines were all about real estate development.  The money was made in selling property, not commuter tickets.  Lines would be thrown out into the wilderness and people would follow.  This created population densities too low to support public transit, so the trolleys went away.  Above is the map of the Pacific Electric interurban line in Los Angeles in 1912.  It is the skeleton on which suburban sprawl was draped.

Capture1This is a pair of photographs that show how early and how astonishingly rapidly LA sprawled.  They are aerial photos taken from the same vantage point in 1922 and 1932.   The Los Angeles real estate market began to slump in 1925 and didn’t recover until the war, so this fantastic building spree probably happened in something like five years.

Los Angeles sprawl didn’t happen because no one was paying attention.  The city fathers were early and enthusiastic planners.  In 1923, they hired Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. and Harlan Bartholomew to develop a major traffic street plan.  Their plan noted that traffic congestion in LA was already the worst in the nation and specifically (#5 out of 6) recommended investment in mass transit.  The rapid transit plan was published in 1925.

More plans.  The LA Chamber of Commerce, worried that the chaotic growth of the city would deter investment, sponsored another Olmsted/Bartholomew plan for open space, parks, and nature conservation.   Published in 1930 to wide acclaim, it then disappeared completely from sight.  The Chamber, it turned out, was backing another horse – the aqueduct from the Colorado River – and started to worry that the expense of its parks plan would eat into the money available for water.  In the 1930s, a plan was drawn up for the San Fernando Valley that would have produced clusters of residential development surrounded by protected farmland.   Postwar revisions of that plan drastically reduced the amount of farmland and promoted ultra-low density development.  The valley became one great suburban blob.

So there was no shortage of plans.  But the plans that promoted higher densities, public transit and protected green space died, while the plans that promoted low densities, automobiles and strip malls were realized.  How and why is a longer story, but it’s not a crazy exaggeration to say that sprawl was vastly more profitable than not-sprawl and the people who stood to gain the most from sprawl had the most influence on how the city would grow.  People chose to live in the suburbs, sure.  It’s not clear that they chose sprawl and it’s not clear that they chose to spend their lives trapped in their cars.

But I digress.  Here’s what I’m trying to help the kids understand.  We’ve been making messes for a very long while and we have known pretty much all along that we were doing so.  The histories of our mess-making really matter.  Getting at the details lets you see how a trajectory was constructed piece by piece, opening up some possibilities and forclosing others.  Further: We may have very good intentions as individuals, but the options we have available to choose among are structured by larger, impersonal forces.  Huge collective investments have supported and promoted all those unfortunate individual decisions and have made it hard for people to make good choices.  To me, this suggests that huge collective investments in support of good decisions are needed.  If a capitalist system must grow to survive, let’s grow toward, not away from, the world we want.   

Can I mention that it’s aggravating that I keep getting older and my students are always twenty?




Erica Schoenberger teaches in the Dept of Geography and Environmental Engineering at the Johns Hopkins University.  Her new book, Nature, Choice and Social Power, is a journey through these issues and more in different historical and geographical contexts.


Photos:  East LA Basin by Lan56 via Wikimedia Commons;The Pacific Electric Railway System, 1912, in the Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection; in Mel Scott, 1942, Cities are for People.  Los Angeles: The Pacific Southwest Academy


Share Button

29 thoughts on “Guest Post: Planning to Sprawl

  1. I see what you mean. But this is the center of the city, if one can speak of the center of LA…not downtown exactly, as there were some multi-story buildings at the time, but looking eastward roughly from The LA County Museum of Art in this screenshot which I hope I can include….but now can’t figure out. I’ve uploaded it to the LWON media gallery. Oh! And, sorry, the trolleys went away after WWII.

  2. EXCUSE ME?!…. the trolleys “went away”? No they didn’t just “go away”. They were forcibly removed by the automotive interests and the oil companies; General Motors and Standard Oil being the main offenders in this situation. These two organizations formed false companies which ostensibly provided public transport, but their purpose was to “automobiliate” the nation (especially its cities) with consumer products with transport capabilities.
    Does anyone remember Adolf Hitler? We mainly associate him with mass murder; however, Hitler ordered the Autobahn constructed not for transportation purposes, but for large-scale social control. It must be understood that in order to receive the full benefit from the highway transport mode, one must own and use a car. In order to use that car, one must obtain a licence, which must be obtained from a governmental agency that is very intimately connected with law enforcement at any level.
    This means the automobile/roadway system of transport is inherently fascist, and demands police surveillance at a rather extreme level.
    The purchase of a transit pass, on the other hand, requires absolutely NO POLICE INTRUSIONS into our lives at all, and if the transit network serves the people well(24/7 service, basically rail-based), we’ll all have a more relaxed society without all of these automobiliated troubles we’re now contending with today.
    Some of you reading this post may say, “take the bus”, but, it must be understood that a bus, just like ANY CAR OR TRUCK, is an AUTOMOBILE; and doesn’t really help solve our present mobility crisis. Only the missing link–rail–can help us at this time.
    If it weren’t for the love of Hitler, Los Angeles would be a real city, instead of the extermination camp with traffic lights that it is today.

  3. I know what you’re talking about with the car/oil/tire company conspiracy, and I was sorry to learn that it’s not the reason for the demise of the trolleys. For those unfamiliar with the story, in the 1930s, GM, Standard Oil and Firestone Tires created a company called National City Lines that bought up trolley lines in 45 US cities and dismantled them, replacing them with buses. They literally tore up the tracks in Baltimore, Philadelphia, Salt Lake City, St. Louis, LA and others. The companies were convicted of conspiracy and fined $5000 each while executives were fined $1. The film “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” is based on this story. Sadly, on the business model favored by US transit lines, they were doomed anyways. They were badly hit by the Depression, there was no money for maintenance or much-needed investment. Many transit companies themselves proposed replacing trolleys with buses. One big incentive: trolleys had a driver and a conductor and in many cities these guys were unionized. Buses only have a driver. Half the labor. What can be said is that the National City Lines scam hastened the inevitable. A more poignant sin was tearing up the tracks and giving up the rights of way, which meant that anyone wanting to return to rail transit in the cities would have big, expensive hurdles to get over.

    I don’t know what to say about Hitler. The autobahn was built for many reasons. A driver’s license is only one of many ways the state has of keeping tabs on you and enforcing discipline. Stop and frisk in New York City didn’t require anyone to have a document allowing them to walk on the sidewalk. You don’t need a license to have a phone and we all know how that’s working out. And, as I wrote in the piece, LA was sprawling well before Hitler reared his ugly head.

  4. Aggravating, but also immensely stimulating – not many have the privilege of engaging the minds of the young. After all, this is precisely why you wrote this interesting post!
    Would a reasonable conclusion be that we have the knowledge and the ability to change direction, but we are unable to do so until we hit a massive crisis, by which time it is too late to make an ordered and reasonably painless transition?

  5. Interesting read, but thanks especially for explaining the roots of the car/oil/tyre conspiracy theory. I’ve heard it many times and always wondered about it (since I’ve learned to be suspicious of conspiracy theories in general).

    As for Hitler – the car ownership theory does seems a bit far-fetched. Surely a more benign explanation – public works to get the economy going – and a more practical one (a transport system to move trade and troops) are more plausible explanations for the autobahn.

  6. “a capitalist economic system needs to grow to survive. This isn’t a policy option.”

    Correct! Capitalism is a rapacious, insatiable beast.

    “If you think capitalism is going to be around for a while, which I do, we have to figure out another way of being sane in nature.”

    Perhaps you’re correct that capitalism will be around for a while, but to try to figure out a way “of being sane in nature” within that exploitative system is a fool’s errand. Capitalism is not compatible with fixing our impending environmental catastrophe. The entrepreneurs will not save us. At least some young people seem to be coming to this conclusion. I just hope more of them come around before it’s too late for all of us.

  7. My hope is that we can figure out a way to a market economy that isn’t only about profit and a democratic system that doesn’t run on money. Put those two things together and we might just make it through. First, though, we have to see that the system matters, not just the individual choices. Also, we have to see that it’s the system as a whole that matters, not just the parts that touch on nature. That’s my goal here.

  8. the extermination camp with traffic lights that it is today.

    Hyperbole much? Come on out and visit. I’ll take you on the Gold Line, Expo Line, Red Line and show you the sights, show you what you’ve missed.

  9. “My hope is that we can figure out a way to a market economy that isn’t only about profit and a democratic system that doesn’t run on money.”

    Market Socialism is the answer you seek!

    “First, though, we have to see that the system matters, not just the individual choices. Also, we have to see that it’s the system as a whole that matters, not just the parts that touch on nature. That’s my goal here.”

    Agreed. And I did thoroughly enjoy the post. Just quibbling with the idea that we can or will fix these existential problems without a complete overhaul of our economic system (i.e. ditching capitalism). But that’s what makes me a leftist and not a liberal! 😉

  10. You calling me a liberal?! Them’s fightin’ words, mister. The question is, how to get from here to there, and I’m thinking these days that we have to work at a more radical democratic engagement to move forward. Favorite Louis Brandeis quote: “We must make a choice. We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.”

  11. “You calling me a liberal?! Them’s fightin’ words, mister.”

    Hah. My apologies, comrade!

    “The question is, how to get from here to there, and I’m thinking these days that we have to work at a more radical democratic engagement to move forward.”

    I’m a fan of pitchforks and guillotines myself, but I guess those might fall under the category of radical democratic engagement, depending on one’s definition 😉

  12. Thank you for your article.
    There was, indeed, an auto/petro conspiracy. My father was a safety engineer for CALTRANS and took me to the, several decades ago, downtown trolley switching station shuttered, but still there, by the “agreement”.

    Also, the trolleys were mainly to transport people from downtown areas, as well as the hill communities, to the beaches, many of the present day trolleys run on those same tracks.

    I think a lot of the confusion about “capitalism” is implicit in our definition of and application of capitalism.

    Our present economic situation in the US is hardly pure capitalism. Not even close. Socialistic subsidies are part and parcel of our economic environment, from the largest of companies to the individual. That can be good and that can be bad.

  13. Oh, the wonderful idealism of the young, thinking that they can change the world is some fundamental way (sometimes they actually do).

    In any case, for several centuries of industrial growth the net energy available to society has continuously increased as we exploited the ‘low hanging fruit’ (easy to extract fossil fuels). Now that we’re scrapping the bottom of the petroleum barrel, e.g. processing the bitumen from tar sands into something resembling crude oil, the available net energy is starting to decline. How can capitalistic growth continue under the condition of declining net energy?

  14. LA mappers — you’re totally right.

    Energy buffs: The proved reserves of oil – oil that can be economically exploited with current technology depending on price – have increased from 642 billion barrels in 1980 to 1,525 billion barrels in 2012, despite all that we have consumed in the meantime. Seems crazy, I know, but we have lots of oil — it’s incredibly environmentally damaging to get it out of the ground (Deepwater Horizon, North Slope of Alaska, the whole darn Arctic) but unless people demand otherwise, it will be mined.

  15. @Erica

    Your comment does not address the problem of declining net energy. Reserves refer to resources that are technologically and economically extractable; as energy prices rise, reserves also rise because we can bring on line technologies previously not economical to deploy. Not crazy at all, in fact expected. Fracking is not a new tech, just not previously used because price levels wouldn’t support using it.

    However, there is a big difference in the net energy available when extracting West Texas conventional oil in the early 20th century with an Energy Return on Energy Invested of 100:1 compared with fracking or deep wells in the 21st century with an Energy Return on Energy Invested of 10:1 or less. It’s not the gross amount of oil available (“lots of oil”) that’s important, but what’s left over for the rest of society once the energy cost of extracting it is paid (net energy).

    You didn’t answer my question. How can capitalistic growth continue under the condition of declining net energy?

  16. Capitalism as we know it will devour the earth. So it can’t go on as it has. On this I believe we are unanimous. But then what? All of the solutions offered are unrealistic in different ways. Steady state economy, an international environmental regulatory body, deep ecology…. My own unrealistic solution involves what I call deep democracy and a market economy that is entwined with democracy rather than separated from it. That way, we could, I think, manage to grow toward a socially and environmentally desirable place rather than continuing to grow away from it. As I say, unrealistic, but unrealistic in a good way, I hope.

  17. Amendment: I should have said that the term “deep democracy” was coined by Iris Marion Young.

  18. I don’t know about other European transit, but London definitely had transit inspired suburbs. North West London is still called Metroland as much of it was built among the Metropolitan line route, and the same is true of other suburbs there.

  19. That’s okay. Suburbanization is not the problem. Sprawl is the problem. European transit suburbs were built to provide transportation, not to underwrite real estate speculation, and are dense enough to support public transit.

Comments are closed.

Categorized in: Commentary, Eco, Guest Post, Political

Tags: ,