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The Dawn of Suburbia

California’s housing problems are largely a legacy of an outdated land use planning model dating back to the post World War II economic boom. At that time, after the defeat of Germany and Japan, the United States controlled the majority of the world’s industrial production. Never in history has a country experienced such a time of prosperity as that which followed from 1945 to approximately 1960 in the United States. Soldiers returning from service in WWII were supported by the G.I. Bill, which provided them with subsidized education, low cost mortgages to buy houses, and loans to start businesses. Affordable mortgages spurred a boom in new home construction, which also provided jobs. These homes were mostly built in planned communities, or subdivisions, located in outlying areas of cities where land was cheap and plentiful. Meanwhile, the U.S. government passed the Federal Highway Aid Act of 1956 to build the interstate highway network to connect these suburbs to the cities, and to connect the country as whole. Not surprisingly, as a result of this indirect subsidy, the automobile industry also boomed, with everyone now needing a car to get around sprawling suburbs, to the cities, and between cities.


Like boom planning anywhere, it proceeded at a rapid rate and without consideration for its possible negative effects. As a result, the built environment was made for the car, not people. Land uses were separated, creating monocultures of housing and commerce (subdivisions and strip malls), and Americans grew accustomed to the sterile affluence of American suburban life typified by large lot single family homes with two car garages, ubiquitous highways, and cheap energy in the form of fossil fuel. But the unprecedented prosperity of the postwar boom proved to be an historical aberration. With the advent of 1970s energy crisis, the country experienced a period of petroleum shortages and elevated prices, which provoked a recession characterized by stagflation, laying bare how dependent the entire U.S. economy and way of life was on cheap fossil fuel. While the founding of Earth Day and the EPA in 1970 indicated people’s growing concern with the environment, nothing was done to change the wasteful post WWII urban planning model.


To this day, zoning code still insists on the separation of land uses that creates sprawl and prioritizes the car. And in spite of the well-documented negative environmental and social impacts of sprawl development, most Americans still favor car culture, and continue to embrace and vigorously defend low-density, environmentally wasteful, socially alienating, suburban life.

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