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The term “urban sprawl” commonly denotes a condition of unplanned, uncoordinated, and generally low density development spreading outward from the city center.
Sprawl is not just a modern phenomenon. In a sense, American sprawl began with the horse drawn omnibus of the 1830s, which permitted the more well-to-do to escape the center city for more country-like surroundings, where they could reside in detached homes bounded by small grass plots and gardens. This outward dispersion accelerated with the widespread arrival of the steam railroad in the 1850s. Suburban villages sprang up along the rail lines. The introduction of the electric trolley car in the 1880s permitted an even larger segment of the population to leave the center city behind, as trolley car lines followed major streets to the edges of the city.
The suburban expansions of the late 19th century, however, did not totally encircle the city. Being rail-based, the overall pattern was one of a few routes radiating out from the city center (where commerce and industry was still located), with residential development focused within a few blocks of either side of the transit line. This left huge swaths of open space between the rail lines.
The nature of American sprawl changed radically with coming of the inexpensive automobile in the 1920s. No longer limited to close proximity to major streets and trolley lines, low density development expanded to previously inaccessible areas, often “leapfrogging” over undeveloped areas to more distant locations. Independent suburban villages, with their own land subdivision, planning, and zoning authorities, grew rapidly.
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