Understanding Sprawl: Lessons from Architecture for Legal Scholars

What is suburban “sprawl”? Why is it undesirable? Why do many Americans nevertheless choose to live in sprawl? Do local zoning laws contribute to sprawl? Can democratic institutions discourage it? Legal scholars are beginning to study these urgent and complex questions. This Essay reviews Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream, by Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck, leading architects of the influential New Urbanism or traditional town planning movement. This review makes five points about the legal study of sprawl. First, Suburban Nation provides a definition of “sprawl” that the law can use to distinguish between sprawl and better forms of new development. Second, the book describes how the form of the modern suburb has antidemocratic effects on public life. Third, Suburban Nation provides an account of why so many Americans buy houses in sprawl – motivations that any antisprawl measures must accommodate. Fourth, the book’s authors demonstrates that the current suburban zoning codes contribute to sprawl. In view of the authors’ extensive experience in planning and building new suburbs, legal scholars of sprawl would benefit from attending to the authors’ definition of sprawl, their account of its allure and drawbacks, and their explanation of its cause. Suburban Nation is also relevant to a fifth – and perhaps the most difficult – question for legal scholars of sprawl: What is the proper form of a democratic institution capable of discouraging it? The authors of Suburban Nation join the current academic consensus in favor of a unified regional government that, among many other tasks, would be responsible for reducing sprawl. A unified regional government, however, is unwise and unnecessary. As Suburban Nation inadvertantly demonstrates, a carefully designed regional transportation board is probably the best form of local government for guiding a metropolitan area’s new suburban development.