Sowing the Seeds of Sprawl

In response to my recent post about 20th century urbanism here in Rochester, fellow Rochester urbanist Tim Raymond suggested that I find a report from the 20s authored by planner Harland Bartholomew. With the help of the Rochester Regional Community Design Center (RRCDC), I found it, and have it in hand. Entitled “A Major Street Plan for Rochester, New York,” and created by Bartholomew & Associates, (they call themselves City Plan and Landscape Engineers), it was published in 1929.

The “Street Plan” is the bad seed of 20th century urbanism here. From this document we can easily get a glimpse of the first nasty tendrils of what was to become the poisonous Inner Loop. Not originally planned to be a moat, certainly – that madness comes later. But in this document, the automobile gains right-of-way over reasonable civic and urban principles, and the future course of regional sprawl is assured.

Here’s what was troubling the Rochester City Planning Board when they retained Bartholomew for the study:

Love the graphics, but…. In the 6 years between 1922 and 1928, vehicle registrations in the city had doubled, to about 91,000 cars.

And of course with more cars comes more traffic, and more congestion. In 1929, professionals were beginning to understand how to analyze and engineer for the ‘motor age.’ Traffic counts, average daily trips per roadway, turning radius requirements, lane widths – all of this was becoming an identifiable discipline.

So with 91,000 cars, and an engineer’s perspective (if it’s scientific, it must be inarguable), here’s what you get:

10,500 cars in the peak hour, probably evening rush since the chart says “leaving business district.” Congestion, traffic, horrors!

Of course if we had 10,500 cars leaving downtown at rush hour today, we would think the place had been abandoned. But in the 20s, the roads that the motor age was heir to were not designed for speed, convenience or volume. Most of the city streets were designed for horses and carts, and some redesigned for streetcars. But not motor cars.

Roads for the motor age had to carry lots of cars, and more importantly they had to go places at speed – distant places. And so Bartholomew recommended redoing old streets, and creating new streets, sufficient to meet these new criteria. Like this:

And for the minor streets:

And once the basic rules were established for street widths – we call them cartways today – the routing and connecting and constructing could begin. And so here we go, down the path that resulted 20 years later in the Inner Loop as we now know it.

First, a look at the downtown roadway and circulation system before the study:

And then a look at the report’s recommendations for downtown:

Now the strategy becomes clear. Create a loop of streets around downtown, and through streets within downtown, that are straight, continuous, wide enough for higher volume, and speedy. We’re gettin’ out of town….

And of course we need to see the downtown loop in the context of the roadways of the region. This next image is scary, startling. The city is doomed.

So there it is – the Inner Loop at the core, and the beginnings of the outer loops of the other expressways. The stage is set for the predicted city population of 1,000,000  “within the next 50 years” – they got that right – to spread out all over the place with the new network of roads for cars.

To make the point of all this with a bit more force, take a look at this:

Remarkable. Ideas have consequences.

Bartholomew was aware, in some tiny way, of the dangers that lay ahead. In the report he says, “The automobile has invited an excessive spread of population and it is important that the consequent development beyond the present municipal boundaries be carefully controlled to prevent chaotic and uneconomic tendencies.” Which, of course,  it wasn’t.

Perhaps more interestingly, and pathetically, Bartholomew shows us, in a brief two sentences early in the report, what really lies behind all this roadway business: “It is of utmost importance that the population of the city be uniformly distributed. An over-concentration of population is usually accompanied by poor housing conditions and other social problems.”

As I said, doomed. By 1929, this city’s fate was sealed. Now what? Onward.

15 thoughts on “Sowing the Seeds of Sprawl

  1. To learn about the genetic mutation that led to sprawl I suggest people find and read: “The Reduction of Urban Vulnerability: Revisiting 1950s American Suburbanization as Civil Defence” by Kathleen A Tobin, Purdue University, Cold War History, Vol.2, No.2, January, 2002.

    This is an unrecognized if not forgotten history of the roots of sprawl in the U.S. as a defensive measure. The outcome of the defense was similar to that of the attack it was meant to survive – a cratering of the cities.

    The auto need not have flattened the built environment. In cities large and small up through the 1950’s one could get to work, shop and recreate without owning an automobile. That was optional. Walking and biking were normal modes of transportation. Today they are exercise.

    The distances between home, school, work and play are unwalkable because we stopped using the vertical dimension because cities would be targets of a potential nuclear attack. The Soviets hardened their cities and that fact was taken as revealing their intention. Our strategy was more subtle.

    Now we have terrible logistics that only work with the automobile. This will be a liability going forward. We need historic city-building.

  2. First, I believe your work is great, simple, clean and honest. I have one addition to suggest for “next city” categories: energy, food, infrastructure, introduction, mobility, urbanism, water, urban design and vernacular urbanism, that I would like you to consider.

    Your sense of the failure of the urban world is well countered by your self-renewing interest in it. I would therefore like to see one more “next city” category: density.

    I have been gathering information on the subject from the “up not out” people and and “out not up” folks for a while. From tranist oriented TODs to counties in the nation that successfully maintain one lot per 100 acres and mini-service exchange cores for the delivery of “external goods”, aka: this is the crowd that says, “I’ve got mine, now get lost.” Of cource, the missing element being a brief stroll through Washington Square Park to hear a flutist stop people dead in their tracks for the sheer beauty of it at that moment in that time — aka the crowd that says, “Thanks, but you can have it, thanks for the stewardship, I’ll just visit on occassion.” It links the that flute with the song birds of wilderness in a strange way, but they could never be the same, but they might be able to co-existent. Like the saying goes — as is above, as is below.

    If you decide to do “Density”, please let me know. You have my e-mail address.
    Thanks for that article Tom. A very well researched piece.

  3. Rex, thanks for the kind words. I appreciate your thoughts.

    You should know that I have written at great length about density here in A Town Square – I invite you to go back through the site and take a look. Even some of the comments on recent posts deal at length with issues of density. Take a look.

    And now I am about to tackle the subject of density here in Rochester. Stay tuned for the next series of posts.


  4. “Bartholomew was aware, in some tiny way, of the dangers that lay ahead. In the report he says, ‘The automobile has invited an excessive spread of population and it is important that the consequent development beyond the present municipal boundaries be carefully controlled to prevent chaotic and uneconomic tendencies.’ Which, of course, it wasn’t.”

    Fascinating, fascinating stuff! Bartholomew, unfortunately, was not paid to address the “consequences of development beyond the present municipal boundaries.” I’m impressed that he recognized it as a problem at all. What he did not recognize, or perhaps was beyond the scope of his work, was that the fragmented governmental structure of New York State would strongly work against controlling development in other municipalities. Every municipality was in a race for property tax revenue.

  5. Thanks, Jason, for joining in the conversation, as ever.

    And every municpality is still in a race for tax revenue. Almost every medium to large city-state in the U.S. now faces this dilemma, made especially difficult by the recession and shrinking state dollars (NY is not the only state facing fiscal mortality). As the newspaper (or whatever your source for current events) tells us every day, we are fighting over dollars for schools, roads, bridges, fire and police service, libraries – you name it. We even read of towns going out of business (witness Brockport).

    This is the price of sprawl. Without coming to terms with the urgent need for some form of trans-regional cooperation, we are going to rapidly discover that we can no longer pay for much of the physical and social infrastructure we have come to know as contemporary life.

    You can look at this from many different perspectives, but what we are doing now is absolutely not sustainable. Economically, we are discovering that in the near future, we will simply no longer be able to afford all that we have deployed across five counties. And questions about how Rochester can compete, and survive, in the context of other city-states, becomes an increasingly palpable issue. The jig is definitely up.

    Chaotic and uneconomic tendencies indeed, Mr. Bartholomew.

  6. Would an urban growth boundary enforced by strong state level agencies, or county government land use controls, like Oregon, have done anything to arrest the sprawl? Personally, I suspect if stronger regional control was implemented in the 70s this current situation would have been mitigated but not avoided. If anything, your nifty post here visualizes how the provision (or denial) of infrastructure is at the root of sprawl. At least its clear that there is plenty of urban space to infill and develop when Rochester makes a glorious 2nd stride towards that 1,000,000 mark.

  7. Urbis, yes that would have helped, as I have written here previously. But achieving regional political and municipal cooperation, and passing legislation for a Growth Boundary, seems extremely unlikely here, and was even more unlikely in the 70s, during the expressway orgy.

    The tension here between “The City” and the surrounding region and enveloping county is very high, and pretty spells doom for all three. None play well with others.

  8. Forgive my ignorance for not checking first in case you’ve already written about this, but what are your feelings about the downtown bus station proposals for Rochester? I have lukewarm feelings towards Sofdie’s previous designs myself. I also think the principals of linking walkable centers like UR or Park Ave to other walkable neighborhoods more directly through mass transit (sort of flicking the ‘all roads out of town’ switch in reverse) while providing some centralized draw in the downtown, I still got the sinking sense when I left that it was going to end like the high speed ferry project in that it might fail in the details/execution phases. It seemed a bit overly ambitious with its plans to provide even more live performance space with a community college and some mall space, rather than building incrementally on the few lively spots already taking root and streamlining the bus routes. I’d be interested on your take.

  9. This whole development remains a rapidly moving target. No one can get financing for anything, so not much seems to be happening. Lots of gabbing, but not much action.

    Anyway, I am a bit leery of the whole thing. There’s a kind of messianic feeling in the air – that this development, (like the talk about Midtown in the first place) will save downtown. Which of course is rubbish.

    Anyway the bus thing is a real puzzlement to me. I can’t even get a bus system map. Route maps, yes, but not one of the whole system. Which of course is nuts.

    What’s more interesting to me is what the local streetcar advocates are doing, which is more consistent with your thinking: take a look at where people are, and use the streetcar to connect the dots. Of course at first this could be a rearrangement of the bus system.

    We are new to town. Well I am – Amy grew up here. Anyway, we tried the other day to figure out how to catch the bus downtown to the library. So we used the system’s “route-finder” thingy on the web. The route we were recommended was so ridiculous it was laughable – a classic case of “you-can’t-get-there-from-here.” So we drove to the library instead. Ugh!

  10. excellent work. I’m a former Rochester resident who got out of town — way out of town — because of this seemingly incoluble problem of poor politics, job outlook and tax situation, to say nothing of the weather. I’m thinking that sprawl was more the result of available cheap land than fear of nuclear attack. If not, then why is New York such a tall targer? And right on the coast.

  11. The city is an efficient economic engine that enables specialization and high value addition. In a community of specialists, the community grows when everyone does their job. Being close is efficient. It requires civility – manners – and leads to great accomplishments. Look at the levels of skill in Rome at the time of the Empire. Cities built empires. The nation state is a relatively new idea. [William Pfaff]

    Fear of nuclear attack led, in the U.S. to dispersion. It was convenient for many industries – home building, road construction, automobiles – but these are not basic industry. No mass population, no mass transit – because the market is too fragmented. The marked for demand transportation (the taxi) disappears when every one has a car because everyone needs a car.

    In the 1950’s, Polly’s cab in Winchester, Virginia – City – County population 31,378 – had 50 cabs. In 1988, three cabs. City-County population 67,670 as of 1990.

    Sprawl appeared to work, but now it has higher maintenance costs – which have yet to be documented. It led to a misallocation of household capital and public investment which can not be maintained. The emphasis on home owenrship has led to burdens as well.

    The urban redevelopment projects which put people into low-amenity highrises, when highrise living requires higher level of service – to maintain civility – has caused American’s to associate density with poverty.

    So, Americans have come to fear density without understanding that the initial motivating fear was attack. The high density NYC handled its 9/11 attack better than low density Washington, D.C. High density was high resource and highly resilient.

    NYC did get help from the hinterlands. A vibrant city region/cities-region (multi-hub) does relate. Thanks to modern communications, you do not have to be in a city to have “civilization.” The hinterlands were once deprived. Texting, cell phones, email, blogs – all reflect the great human need to communicate with peers that is unfulfilled by our physical separation.

    The policies that supported suburbanization as a means to survive nuclear attack created unanticipated consequences. The Soviets hardened their cities – built their buildings with shelters below. This was taken as a sign that they were preparing for a first strike.

    That infrastructure – compactness and transit, helped them survive the collapse of the system. Dmity Orlov did a comparison – called it the Collapse gap –

    The weaknesses in the American system are due to suburbnization – mimicing small towns without the economic base of a small town. If you consider secuity a purpose of community, in my view the primary purpose, then it is a comparison of “safety in numbers” versus “safety in space.” We had space – went for that, but overdid it because lifecycle costs were not covered. We abandoned city infrastructure and built new.

    Its like tobacco farming. Wear out the fields and move west. Well – it isn’t sustainable.

    As of 2000 I noted that we were about in the middle of the auto-suburban century, setting its startng point as 1950. Limitations of the model were showing, but it would take at least 50 years to change the settlment pattern to something more efficient – e.g. the individual would not need a car to function. So, by 2050 is when I thought there might be a change.

    It wasn’t until 2003 that I learned about the cause of the genetic mutation – “Urban Vulnerability.” That accelerated auto based development. The distances are unwalkable. We’ll need wheels to get around.

    Land without infrastructure is always cheap – relatively speaking. It is the infrastructure and services which create value. It has always been easy to sell cheap country land to dumb city people.

    That’s why we’ve had boom and bust throughout American history. Living off the land is subsistence living. I speak from experience as a back to the land person in the 1970’s. Read too many copies of Mother Earth News.

  12. I’m just a drive-by, but I have some interest in the topic, so here goes:

    If we don’t want cities to be too large, what about a greater number of small ciites? It follows logically after all, supposing that the population is growing. Perhaps Rochester’s outlying cities could establish their own “growth boundaries”, so as not to be shut out of the apparent benefits of expansion.

    What if a suburb did have the economic base of a small town? What do they need beyond the local mall, strip center, and/or office park to have one?

    And lastly: Does anyone (besides me) feel that the trend toward architectural traditionalism (certainly something I’m seeing here in ATL) is deflecting attention from the underlying issues?

  13. I’m a student of Harland Bartholomew’s work, and I think your article is a complete misunderstanding of the man and his plans.

    His goal in those first street diagrams above was connectivity. He did this with many city street plans. Dead end streets (like suburban cul de sacs) promote vehicle distance and bad urbanism. Bartholomew was trying to get rid of cul-de-sacs that were already in Rochester. The new lines on the map would create better flow for cars and people and streetcars and bikes and dogs. They’re not loops or highways out of town, unless you look at them with your own modern biases.

    Incidentally, the roads he drew were not remotely akin to interstates. Yes, he measured based on the needs of cars. Anyone in 1920 would be a fool not to. But look at those cross sections. There are sidewalks there in the business district. And streetcar right of way. Bartholomew was imagining Boulevards and multi-use streets. He was a crusader *against* treating cars like water to be carried in viaducts. He believed that streets should play nice inside cities.

    Bartholomew served on the 1944 commission that imagined the national highway system. He was more or less a lone crusader for the very ideas you espouse here. And yes, he thought that the national road network should AVOID putting exits too close outside the boundaries of development, because he was concerned about decentralization (what you call Sprawl). Read up on him. He is not your opponent. He’s your hero.

    For more details about Bartholomew, or me, check out my book, Interstate 69: The Unfinished History of the Last Great American Highway. You might be interested.

  14. Matt, I am flattered that you would take the time to comment here on our modest blog. Thanks for joining the conversation.

    Actually, while I am sure you have done much more research on Bartholomew than I ever will, I do know a bit about him and his work. At the national level, I know of, and am grateful for, his work on DC’s Metro system, and in Williamsburg. On the local level, his firm did plans for the town I grew up in, north of Chicago.

    So I certainly don’t think of him as an opponent. But I do not think of him as a hero.

    Rochester’s block form is an odd and unfortunate bit of urbanism. Our typical blocks are very long, and there are very few alleys in this city. So while we actually do not have cul-de-sacs, we did and do have streets that are discontinuous, or in those days that simply stopped because of the buildings comprising the local context.

    So his proposed connectivity was a good thing. But as we know from Merton’s law of unintended consequences, sometimes a good idea can have difficult or problematic outcomes. Here, Bartholomew scaled his roads from the modest to the arterial, and the major roads simply moved people in and out, not around, the city.

    I think Bartholomew knew that the car and the city were not great friends – he said as much in his report for Rochester, and was pretty clear about what could happen. For me, that makes it doubly ironic – his report really did become a template for some of the worst automobile infrastructure imaginable.

    Perhaps Bartholomew knew to be careful with gasoline and matches. Unfortunately his adherents here did not. And so we suffer.

    I’ll look for your new book. Congratulations.

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