The Discreet Charm of Suburbia
The modern trend to urban sprawl began in North America after World War II, where suburban growth came to symbolize the “American way of life”.(11)The ethos of a return to rural living and of being closer to nature was an important part of this search for a better quality of life, though it actually placed greater stress on “natural” environmental amenities. Subsequent regulatory regimes and economic factors strengthened the cultural impulse to low density and single-use development.(12)
In North America, the intensive use of the automobile for daily commuting was both a cause and a consequence of urban sprawl.(13)This pattern of settlement spawned new locations for trade and services and this, in turn, further promoted automobile use and outward city growth.
The original suburban model of urban sprawl was closely associated with lifestyle preferences and the
widespread availability of the automobile in a particular cultural setting. Housing, road-building and zoning policies, also inspired by suburban ideals, combined to promote low-density housing.
Today, the suburbs of cities in North America have become more diversified. Catering to the needs of the suburban population stimulated decentralization of economic activities and the diversification of outlying areas. Nevertheless, the stereotypical suburb with its dispersion and individual housing still prevails as a sort of ideal model.
The lifestyles and values associated with American consumption patterns have apparently promoted preferences in other regions for living farther from the city centre. These value changes, and the greater availability of personal transport, especially the automobile, are spreading cities outward. In this way, the American dream is being reproduced in the most diverse social and economic contexts.(14)
Even in Europe, where cities have traditionally been compact, there are signs that sprawl and suburbanization are increasing.(15)Between 1969 and 1999, for instance, the urbanized areas in France increased by five times, while the population of these areas grew only by 50 per cent.(16)The trend is even more recent in Mediterranean Europe, but there, too, the model of dense and compact cities is being replaced by a model similar to that of the American suburbs.(17)In Barcelona, observers have noted a significant increase in the settlement of areas beyond the consolidated centre.(18)
Suburbanization appears to be more complex in developing countries. Given their pervasive poverty and inequality, the culture of the automobile and its far-reaching impact on urban civilization arrived later and continue to be restricted to a minority. At the same time, the relative precariousness of public transportation and infrastructure has prevented wealthier people from moving to the suburbs in large numbers and commuting easily from there—a pattern established in innumerable North American cities.
In Latin America, for instance, which was marked by rapid and precocious urbanization, the cities actually grew upwards rather than outwards during their period of most rapid urban growth. That is, at the height of the urbanization process in the 1970s, the upper and middle classes pre-empted space in the urban centres and expelled much of the poorer population to the periphery or other inaccessible locations.(19)Since poor urban people occupy small houses and little land, overall density remained high.
Some extension of the American pattern of settlement to outlying areas of cities has been observed recently in most low- and middle-income countries.(20)More affluent suburbs are increasingly found in most cities. In short, the globalization of markets and consumption patterns is leading to the reproduction of urban settlement patterns in the mould of the American dream.
Nevertheless, suburbanization of the affluent is insufficient to explain the growing trend to urban sprawl, especially in developing countries. We must look for additional explanations.