The North American pattern of development is an unprecedented experiment. For thousands of years, humans around the world built their habitat in similar ways, at similar scales, in patterns still familiar.
In the wake of the Great Depression and World War II, settlement patterns across the North American continent were completely reimagined. From the top-down, we transformed everything about how we live, discarding centuries of accumulated wisdom in the metaphorical blink of an eye.
It is difficult for us to think about the modern American city as a massive experiment because, for most of us, this collection of frontage roads, big box stores, strip malls, cul-de-sacs, franchise restaurants, and single-family homes are all we have ever experienced.
Yet, take an ancient Roman and drop them into an American city of 1920 and they would likely be impressed with the grand, yet familiar, setting. Set them loose in a typical American city of 2020 and they would be completely disoriented.
Many would point to the automobile as the reason for transformation, yet other cultures around the world widely use automobiles without such a dramatic shift in arrangement. Instead, the real inspiration of the experimental American approach was financial. We responded to the economic hardships of the 1930s and 40s by radically shifting our development pattern in order to generate growth, create jobs, and quickly build a middle class.
The automobile was one instrument of…