An alternate view of sprawlI sorta had an insight this week I thought I'd share with my readers and see what you think. Sprawl is pretty universally characterized as a bad thing - that we used to have these tight, dense urban cities that then exploded with car-oriented suburban sprawl. But I think that perspective needs to be re-framed.
Nothing is universal, but traditionally Americans have preferred small, even rural, communities. Small town America has always appealed to our psyche. In the 19th-century agricultural age, our economy needed those small towns spread pretty evenly across the country. Then in the early to mid 20th-century industrial age, the population coalesced into more medium-sized towns oriented around factories. Factories were still pretty widely spread, and their economics work best when they have a loyal workforce with modest wages and low turnover - thus a preference for small to mid-sized towns where they could be the employer-of-choice (vs. bigger cities where their employees might always be quitting to earn another couple bucks an hour at another employer down the road).
Next came the information age, and the economic shift from manufacturing to services. All of a sudden, clustering together with others was very important. With the economy concentrating, it made a lot more sense to live in a small community with easy access to a big one (i.e. a suburb), rather than an isolated small community. People get the best of both worlds: they live in a small community, but then get access to the big city amenities when they need them, like airports, museums, sports teams, commercial and retail services, and, most importantly, employers and customers.
What I'm saying here is that it's not so much that cities sprawled out, but more that rural/small town population was drawn in towards cities as we moved from the agricultural to the industrial to the information age. Rather than cities growing out, the national population of small communities coalesced around major metros - the population clustered together from being more decentralized to more centralized as the economics of that became more important. It's not so much that people rejected living in urban cities to live in the suburbs, but that they rejected living in isolated small towns to live in the suburbs around big cities. And, btw, those small towns have pretty much always been car-oriented, no matter where they were located.
If you could animate a population map of the country over the last century, what you'd see is the population slowly coming together and concentrating around the big metros (while the total population also dramatically increased, of course). This is the opposite of the traditional sprawl story, which says that we've been decentralizing. Yes, many people wish that those suburbanites would make the full move to the urban city (and many are, especially the youngest generation), but in any case we're better off having them in the suburbs than in isolated small and medium sized cities, like they used to live. Sprawl is an improvement over traditional population distributions, not a regression.
Thoughts appreciated in the comments.