The Market and Metropolitanism

Most contributors to this Review symposium have identified the key role of public policies in shaping our metropolitan areas. Certainly, public policies enacted immediately after World War II, which provided government-backed mortgage insurance for new suburban houses and created the Interstate Highway System, encouraged the low-density pattern of metropolitan development that has come to be known a suburban sprawl.

Yet these early government policies only reflected fundamental changes in consumer desires. The public sector adopted these new policies because most people wanted the conditions they created. At the same time, those same consumer desires were shaping what developers were producing in private real estate markets. In reaction to the dirty, crowded, and noisy prewar city, returning veterans and their families embraced a then-new, now wholly familiar, version of the American dream. Its irreducible and unchallenged elements were privacy for the immediate family, space to buffer intrusive neighbors, the flexibility of personal transportation, and control over local government and schools. For four decades, these goals dominated the development of new territory at the periphery of every American metropolitan area. Only now is the market starting to understand the unintended consequences of the realization of this dream. Only now, since parts of the market are becoming disenchanted, can we begin to question long-dominant conventional development practices.