An excerpt from


A Compact History

Robert Bruegmann

Early Sprawl

One of the most important facts about cities from the beginning of recorded history until the fairly recent past was the sharp distinction between urban and rural ways of life. Within the city wall of most early cities, a visitor would see a dense mass of buildings, congested streets, and a rich and highly dynamic urban life offering many choices, at least for those able to afford them. A few miles outside the walls, however, the same visitor might see nothing but croplands and rural villages. The pace of daily activities would be slower, the environment less quick to change, and social and political life completely different.

In almost every era in urban history, however, there was a transitional zone between the two, a region just outside the city that housed activities and individuals that were still intimately connected with the social and economic life of the city but that couldn’t be accommodated easily within the walls. This zone provided space for burial grounds, pottery works, or other industries that were either too space consuming or too noxious to be tolerated within the city itself. It also housed marginal social or political groups and families too poor to afford dwellings inside the walls. In a great many cities, however, this zone also supported activities of a very different sort. Here were the houses of affluent or powerful families who had the means to build and maintain working farms or villas or second houses where they could escape the congestion, noise, contagion, and social unrest that have characterized the center of large cities from the beginning of time until our own day. Sometimes these settlements were permanent, sometimes for seasonal or occasional use. Sometimes they were fairly compact, composed, for example, of small villas surrounded by gardens in a pattern we would today call suburban. In other cases they were very dispersed with imposing houses set on a large acreage, often with a conscious attempt to maintain a rural appearance. These we would call today exurban.

Although this pattern apparently characterized Babylon and Ur and many of the earliest large cities known to us, the best evidence we have comes from ancient Rome. At the beginning of the Christian era, this great city had an estimated population of about 1 million people piled up within city walls that enclosed a little more than six square miles. In other words it had a population of a city like Dallas today but in less than one-fiftieth of the space. This created densities of something like 150,000 per square mile. This kind of density, which would translate to more than two hundred people per acre, seems to have characterized most large, thriving cities up until the beginning of the twentieth century. It is hard for us today even to imagine the consequences of crowding of this order in cities that had, by today’s standards, primitive water delivery, waste removal, and transportation services.

In Rome, as in most other cities until quite recently, this crowding was even worse than the figures suggest because social and economic inequalities were much greater than they are today. A small group of wealthy Romans lived in splendor in spacious palaces that, together with nonresidential facilities, took up most of the space within the walls. This left relatively little acreage for the neighborhoods that housed the vast majority of families. In these neighborhoods apartment blocks were built so densely that they allowed little direct sunlight or ventilation into living quarters. Human wastes disgorged from the apartments into the streets contaminated the soil and water; a vast number of fires used for heating and industrial uses polluted the air. It is not surprising that periodic epidemics wiped out large segments of the urban population. These urban plagues continued in the Western world until well into the twentieth century, and they continue to this day in some large cities in the developing world.

Despite the obvious problems, several factors made high densities in cities a necessary evil. One was the fact that most cities owed their existence to some specific geographical feature: a site along a trade route, a safe harbor, a good location for a bridge, a piece of ground that could be easily defended, a rapids that could be harnessed to provide water power. The cities that developed around these strategic points could not spread very far because of the limits of accessibility. For the wealthy, accessibility was usually not a problem because they had horses and carriages; for the poor there was only walking. This meant that until the widespread availability of inexpensive public transportation, which was a development of the late nineteenth century, most urban functions had to be located in close proximity to one another. Residential, commercial, and industrial facilities often mingled indiscriminately along the crowded streets with little consideration for the health or safety of the inhabitants. Crowding was reinforced by military considerations as well. Most large cities, at least until the nineteenth century, were walled for security reasons, and the crushing expense of building and maintaining the wall guaranteed that cities remained as compact as possible. They expanded only when the lack of space for essential urban activities became truly intolerable.

Outside the walls of Rome was what citizens called suburbium, meaning what was literally below or outside the walls. Here were land uses that couldn’t be accommodated in the city. Along the roads that led out of town grew up settlements that clustered around industrial facilities, cemeteries, and businesses catering to travelers entering and leaving the city. For many suburbanites, the reason for living in the suburbs was a matter of cost. They could not afford to live in the city and so had to forgo urban services and the protection of the walls. These residents often lived in poorly built dwellings that could be even worse than those within the walls because of the lack of municipal services and the pollution generated by brick kilns, slaughterhouses, and other industries. At the opposite end of the spectrum were some of the wealthiest Romans, who could afford to maintain, in addition to their city residences, elegant villas near the sea or in the cool hills east of Rome near places like Tivoli and Frascati.

Sometimes these suburban or exurban dwellings served only as weekend houses, but for those who could afford to do so, these weekend houses often became much more than that. Ancient, medieval and early modern literature is filled with stories of the elegant life of a privileged aristocracy living for large parts of the year in villas and hunting lodges at the periphery of large cities. Nor was the preference for living quarters outside the center restricted to the Western world. Exactly the same sentiments in favor of low-density living outside the city were voiced by the gentry in China at least as early as the Ming dynasty. High density, from the time of Babylon until recently, was the great urban evil, and many of the wealthiest or most powerful citizens found ways to escape it at least temporarily.

It appears that the forces that work toward increased concentration and those fueling a drive toward decentralization are, like so many other aspects of urban life, related to economic cycles. Although little is known about these cycles, it appears that throughout history, at least until recently, as most cities went through their most intense phase of early economic growth, the process of concentration tended to dominate over that of decentralization as residents from outlying areas were drawn into the city center. Then, as the economy matured, the balance shifted as the number of residents who were able to move outward to the suburbs and exurbs exceeded the number coming from the agricultural hinterland to the center.

We can use modern London as a good exemplar of these processes. Because London was the largest and economically most dynamic city in the Western world in the early modern period, it was here that these trends were most apparent. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, for example, there was a vast influx of new residents both because changes in agricultural production forced thousands of families off the land and because an expanding urban job market based on new modes of industrial production lured others in. The piling up of population and commercial activities at constantly higher densities in the center, however, tended to produce a countervailing move of people out to the urban periphery.

During this period an entire new class of Londoners, flush with the profits earned in an expanding economy, was able to build or lease houses well beyond the walls of the city of London. The most important direction for affluent suburban growth was to the west, stretching in the direction of the leafy gardens of the royal palaces at Westminster and Whitehall. In this area, in what is now London’s Central West End, several of the great aristocratic families developed their land as private, sometimes gated, communities with townhouses laid out around landscaped squares. Life here would have been remarkably calm, quiet, and orderly compared to that along the teeming streets of the walled city of London a mile and a half to the east. For many residents it involved what was then a long-distance commute back into the city by private carriage.

There was also suburban development to the east of the London walls but of a vastly different kind. This area accommodated large-scale warehouses and industrial facilities near the great London docklands. These industrial activities drew working-class families attached to them. The densities of these districts sometimes rivaled those within the walls. As a consequence they, like the least affluent quarters of the city of London itself, were congested, unpleasant, and unhealthy. Observers increasingly spoke of two entirely different Londons, the affluent, airy one to the west and the dark and congested one to the east. Clearly, from the beginning of modern urban history, and contrary to much accepted wisdom, suburban development was very diverse and catered to all kinds of people and activities.

Beyond suburbia there was also a significant development in what we would now call exurbia, in thinly settled areas beyond the regularly built-up city and suburbs. Although much of this exurban territory often looked purely rural and agricultural, this appearance, often maintained at great expense, belied the fact that the primary economic, social, and cultural ties of the inhabitants were back to the city. Daniel Defoe, in his descriptions of Surrey in the early eighteenth century, was struck by the number of houses of “gentlemen of quality” in the villages around the city. These men were neither farmers nor members of the landed gentry. Instead their houses were “citizen’s country houses whither they retire from the hurries of business and getting money, to draw their breath in a clear air, and to divert themselves and their families in the hot weather.”

This world, familiar to us from the works of authors like Jane Austen, represented a vast change in urban society. The amount of wealth required to build, staff, and maintain a country house in the Renaissance would have been beyond the reach of any but the wealthiest families in any society. These houses often required entire villages to house all of the workers needed to provide the necessities of everyday life. Already by the eighteenth century, in affluent countries like Britain, a highly developed transportation and communications system made it possible for a much larger group of citizens to enjoy the pleasures of living at different times in both city and country.

The exodus of families from central London to suburbia and exurbia was offset by the continued arrival of poor newcomers from the countryside. The result was a great churning of population as both centralization and decentralization exerted their influence. Already by the seventeenth century, however, the processes of decentralization were clearly the more important. As a result, London’s density curve started to drop and flatten significantly as the center started to lose population and the periphery started to fill up (fig. 1). London had a long head start in this development over rivals like Paris or Naples not only because of its size and booming economy but because of the fact that England was an island and relatively peaceful. This had allowed it to dispense with the defensive walls that constrained outward development much earlier than most continental cities. As a result the London area soon boasted one of the lowest densities of any large cities in the world, a distinction it maintains to this day.

As cities throughout the Western world experienced the full impact of the industrial revolution in the nineteenth century they followed the lead of London both in the process of piling up of density at the center and in the move of people and activities away from it (fig. 2). The two phenomena were, in fact, closely linked. The same factories that helped create wealth for a rapidly expanding middle class also created pollution and overcrowding. The same railroads that brought goods and people to the great factories also provided the means for the affluent to escape these industrial districts every evening.

Speculative row houses in Camberwell, South London
Figure 2. Nineteenth-century sprawl: speculative row houses in Camberwell, South London. In the nineteenth century, London exploded outward as developers threw up mile upon miles of brick terrace houses such as these. The resulting cityscape horrified highbrow British critics of the time, who considered the new districts to be vulgar, cheap, and monotonous. Nevertheless, the houses continued to be built because so many middle-class inhabitants of central London saw them as a vast step upward for their families. In the second half of the twentieth century, highbrow opinion finally came around, and today they are widely considered to be the very model of compact urban life. Ironically enough, they are today often considered the antithesis of sprawl. (Photograph by Robert Bruegmann, 1992.)

Because of new building technologies and infrastructure in the nineteenth century, it was possible for real estate speculators to develop the industrial quarters of some large cities more densely than anything seen before. The central arrondissements of the city of Paris topped 200,000 people per square mile in the mid-nineteenth century. Cities in North America, because they reached the peak of industrial activity even later than their counterparts in Europe, attained even higher densities and did so somewhat later. New York City, for example, saw its apogee of density only in the early years of the twentieth century when parts of the Lower East Side of Manhattan peaked at more than 400,000 people per square mile or more than six hundred people per acre. These were probably the highest densities recorded to that date and rival those of some of the densest districts in cities today, notably certain neighborhoods with vast numbers of new immigrants in Hong Kong, Manila, Cairo, or Mumbai (Bombay).

In the case of the affluent cities of the Western world, this crowding was short-lived. By the late nineteenth century, almost all affluent northern European cities were decanting rapidly. A map of virtually any northern European city in the late nineteenth century would have shown a tightly knit pattern of streets in the historic core surrounded by broad boulevards where the outer walls had been removed, usually earlier in the century, then widely spaced villa districts to one side of the city and industrial suburbs to the other. Beyond were the small commuter suburbs and finally the exurban villages with their surrounding estates.

The process was even more rapid in American cities. The Lower East Side of New York, for example, began emptying out rapidly after 1900 as soon as immigrants accumulated enough money to allow them to get better housing in less dense neighborhoods farther afield. At first they walked over the East River bridges to nearby communities like Williamsburg and Greenpoint in Brooklyn. Eventually, inexpensive public transportation allowed them to live much farther from their place of employment, for example, in northern Manhattan and the outlying boroughs. After several decades of outward movement, there were not enough tenants left to fill the oldest and least sanitary tenements on the Lower East Side. In response to the outward migration, together with new, tighter building laws, many building owners boarded up their properties above the first floor or abandoned them altogether. Densities plummeted. Manufacturing firms dispersed along with the residents, sometimes in advance and sometimes trailing, as they required larger and more up-to-date facilities. Along with the factories, many retail establishments dispersed as well. Both the residential and the employment density curves in the New York area flattened rapidly.

In American cities, as well as in European cities after their walls came down, there were two kinds of suburban development. The first involved outward expansion all along the urban periphery, creating a pattern of yearly growth like the annual rings on a tree. Despite the fairly small numbers of inhabitants, the suburban districts for the affluent took up a great deal of this space. Usually located on the other side of town and occupying much less space per capita were modest apartment blocks for the working classes and factories for industrial production. The other kind of suburban development appeared along railroad lines radiating outward from the city, creating small commuter suburban settlements that appeared on maps like the beads on a necklace.

Finally, at the edge of the urban galaxy could often be found large exurban regions. At first, in Europe, the largest amount of this land was occupied by the large estates of the landed aristocracy. Increasingly in the nineteenth century, in both North America and Europe, successful middle-class merchants sought to emulate the aristocracy by buying property and building country houses. These properties were often located outside small villages where there were urban services and good railroad connections back to the city center.

Even those who recognize that the general trend of decentralization has been essentially similar in Europe and North American sometimes say that American cities have followed a different social pattern. For example, it is often said that the wealthy have always lived in city centers in Europe with the poor at the periphery while in North America the reverse has been true. This formulation is quite misleading. In both cases there was a vast exodus of families of all kinds from the center. The difference was how quickly each left the center and how far each went. In Paris, for example, over the course of several centuries, the wealthiest families did exactly what their counterparts did in London or in New York or Boston. They kept moving from more congested districts at the center toward less dense districts in the periphery. In the case of European cities, this was often beyond existing city walls. Many place names in what is now central Paris record this exodus. The faubourg Saint Honoré or the faubourg Saint Germain, for example, were originally places outside the walls as the presence of the word “faubourg,” meaning “suburb,” reflects. As the city expanded and these walls came down, these settlements were eventually engulfed within the continuous fabric of the city.

The most affluent Parisians finally stopped their outward push in the early twentieth century at the far western edge of the city, in the elegant sixteenth arrondissement and the adjacent suburbs like Neuilly. The result was a large affluent enclave that still houses a great many of the wealthiest citizens of France. In a great many cities throughout continental Europe the most desirable quarter today is in a similar location, on the more affluent side of the city just within or outside the last city wall. The poor in Paris and elsewhere in Europe tended to congregate in the oldest and densest quarters near the center on the “wrong” side of town where they stayed until they were displaced by various renewal projects or by more affluent citizens attracted by the central location.

Although most American cities never had a wall, many of them, particularly the older ones of the northeastern United States, show the same kind of pattern. The wealthy, on one side of town, moved quickly outward. As in Europe, a great many of the wealthiest urban citizens in the older cities in North America still live in areas where the wealthy found themselves at the end of the past century. Sometimes this is within the city, for example, on the Upper East Side of New York or the Back Bay in Boston. Sometimes it is in the near suburbs, for example, in Brookline, located west of Boston, or in Evanston, Wilmette, or Kenilworth, north of Chicago. The poor and the immigrants, who usually lived near the center, on the other side of town, stayed longer because they had less choice. Eventually, however, they moved outward, too, either because they became more affluent and could afford greener, less congested quarters or because their neighborhoods came to be desirable to more affluent families and they were forced outward by rising housing costs.

In the matter of the dispersal of the population outward from the core, the single most important variable was not whether the cities were European or whether they were American but rather when these cities reached economic maturity. The newer and more heavily industrialized cities of the nineteenth century, Manchester or Liverpool in England, for example, behaved in ways substantially similar to Chicago or Baltimore in the United States. Friedrich Engels described the unbroken girdle of working-class neighborhoods in central Manchester that extended out from the commercial district for a mile and a half in every direction and beyond as the quarters of the upper and middle bourgeoisie. He could just as easily have been describing an American industrial city in the late nineteenth century. It is true that American suburbs for the very wealthy in the twentieth century were often located at long distances from the central city, for example, in Lake Forest outside Chicago or Sewickley outside Pittsburgh. This did not tend to happen to the same extent in Europe but perhaps only because American developments typically took place somewhat later than those in Europe and at lower densities.

Finally, in both American and European cities, beyond the suburbs, which had a very strong connection with the city, was a loose exurban band containing widely spaced villas and country estates of the wealthiest residents of the city as well as resort towns and, occasionally, industrial districts in the countryside. This outermost band has always been an integral and significant part of the urban system. The area that is now the western suburbs of Paris, for example, accommodated, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a large group of chateaus and smaller estates clustered around the grandest estate of them all, at Versailles (fig. 3). Together they formed a vast aristocratic landscape carefully preserved to maintain its “rural” appearance. On maps of the era, this territory is often quite visible. Typically, the chateau would be located just outside a village. Around the chateau would be a formal garden and then a large hunting park with long, straight allées and ronds points carved through the forest for the easy passage of hunting horses and hounds. Starting about 1830, during the prosperity ushered in by the relatively peaceful years of the mid-nineteenth century, middle-class inhabitants were increasingly able to follow in the path of the landed aristocracy and the wealthiest members of the grande bourgeoisie. Eventually many of the hunting parks were turned into middle-class suburbia.

Speculative row houses in Camberwell, South London
Figure 3. Historic exurban sprawl in the Paris region. This detail of a map, created by Abbé de la Rive in 1740, of the Paris region shows the way aristocratic landowners occupied very large parts of the territory west of Paris with country houses, gardens, and hunting parks, all of them serviced by the inhabitants of small villages in the immediate vicinity. The largest of all was the royal domain at Versailles, whose enormous garden with its symmetrical allÉes and canals is plainly visible in the lower left corner of the illustration. During the twentieth century, the spread of suburban development has engulfed this entire area. Whether in ancient Rome, Ming dynasty China, or the Napa Valley of California these affluent exurban regions have occupied vast areas of landscape.

The same pattern was visible around London where members of the landed aristocracy built their country houses. By the early twentieth century the advent of the railroad, private automobile, and labor-saving domestic devices made it possible for a considerable group of citizens to emulate the wealthy and to build and maintain country and weekend houses. Large areas outside London—for example, the “Cocktail Belt” or “Stockbrokers’ Belt” in the Chiltern Hills and Surrey—were occupied by these weekend houses. Even more remarkable were the seasonal exurban territories, often located at a substantial distance from the cities that provided their population. This was the case, for example, in the English Lakes District or along the French Riviera. On the Riviera, northern Europeans, particularly the British, started constructing villas near towns like Nice, Cannes, Hyêres, and Menton as early as the late eighteenth century. By the end of the nineteenth century their villas and gardens occupied a vast acreage along the coastline, and the economy of Nice had become largely dependent on seasonal visitors and tourism.

Most American cities had similar exurban regions. In the case of a city like Chicago, wealthy industrialists built country estates to the north and northwest of the city in places like Lake Forest and Libertyville. Much more modest resort communities grew up along the shore of Lake Michigan in Indiana or southwestern Michigan. Within the exurban band were also industrial satellite cities, such as Waukegan, Aurora, Elgin, and Joliet, which had their own downtowns, industrial areas, residential neighborhoods, and suburbs.

Among the best documented inhabitants of exurbia are a number of the early American prophets of what we now know as environmentalism. Henry David Thoreau, in his shack at Walden Pond just beyond suburban Boston, John Muir, in a house across the Berkeley hills from San Francisco, and Aldo Leopold, at his weekend retreat just north of Baraboo, near Madison Wisconsin, were actually exurbanites, individuals who loved what they considered a rural life but who also wanted ready access to the city.

In short, whether residential or commercial, year-round or seasonal, contiguous with the settled area of the city or scattered across the hinterland, suburban or exurban, decentralization and sprawl were already widespread in large cities throughout the developed world by the end of the nineteenth century. In his remarkable 1902 work Anticipations, an attempt to predict future trends, British author H. G. Wells was able to prophesize with some confidence that by 2000 a citizen of London would have “a choice of nearly all of England and Wales south of Nottingham and east of Exeter as his suburb.” In the process, Wells believed, the city would diffuse itself to such a point that the old divisions between city and country would be eliminated. “There will be horticulture and agriculture going on within the urban regions and ‘urbanity’ without them,” he wrote, stating that the network of roadways, wires, and railroads would make urban amenities available almost everywhere. As strikingly prescient as this sounds today, in reality, like a great many successful predictions about the future, it was mostly an intelligent extrapolation from what Wells could see around him.

Copyright notice: Excerpt from pages 21-32 of Sprawl: A Compact History by Robert Bruegmann, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©2005 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press. (Footnotes and other references included in the book may have been removed from this online version of the text.)

Robert Bruegmann
Sprawl: A Compact History
©2005, 308 pages, 22 halftones, 3 line drawings, 5 maps, 1 table
Cloth $27.50 ISBN: 0-226-07690-3
Paper $17.00 ISBN: 0-226-07691-1

For information on purchasing the book—from bookstores or here online—please go to the webpage for Sprawl: A Compact History.

See also: