The societal and human wreckage caused by sprawl is a common topic of discussion these days, but it seems the growth of sprawl peaked two decades ago.
An analysis of the USDA’s 2010 National Resources Inventory—which you've probably never heard of, but is quite comprehensive at tracking land use change using satellite images—recently found that the growth of sprawl has dropped by about ⅔ since the mid-1990s. That's great, but the two sad sides of that are: 1) growth of sprawl has declined by ⅔, but that still means that sprawl has continued to grow; 2) the mid-90s was two decades ago?!
Still, peak sprawl being long passed is certainly a good thing. And the decline in growth even occurred throughout a major housing boom.
Payton Chung, a LEED AP ND and CNUa, also notes that this means "peak sprawl" occurred about 10 to 15 years before "peak car" seems to have occurred. It's a logical sequence—remove the enabling (or necessitating) infrastructure, and the car follows.
So, why would peak sprawl be in the mid-1990s? A couple of ideas come to mind. Chung puts forth one of them much more eloquently and succinctly than I would, so I'll let him cover that one:
[T]he 1980s cessation of massive freeway construction may have pushed many metro areas into some version of Marchetti's Wall: the theory that people don't want to travel more than one hour a day, and thus that metropolitan growth has geometric limits tied to how far the predominant mode of travel goes.
That is essentially a market-driven explanation for the shift. A similar idea—but one on the other side of the development coin—is that planners and policymakers realized that they were ruining cities and the environment (and thus the lives of hundreds of millions of people), so they decided to curb the sprawling trend that had been growing over the course of several decades. As an indication of that, an article about "the birth of smart growth" notes that, in 1993—following the 1992 signing of Agenda 21 at the Rio de Janeiro United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) Earth Summit—"President Bill Clinton issued Executive Order No. 12852 and created the President’s Council on Sustainable Development." From that article, here's a lot more regarding this federal move to eventually stop (or at least slow) sprawl:
In addition to working with ‘Captains of Industry’, he contracted with the American Planning Association (APA,) an independent, non-profit educational organization that “provides leadership in the development of vital communities”, to create a blueprint for sustainable development and implementation strategies. The subsequent manual was called: Growing Smart and incorporated President Clinton’s request to develop “bold, new approaches to achieve our economic, environmental, and equity goals.” The blueprint which took seven years to complete became the legislative guidebook for local governments and was named: Sustainable America: The New Consensus. By 1999, President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore had the framework they needed to address the “increasing public interest in “sprawl” and other land policy challenges.” With the support of the Clinton Administration, Al Gore spearheaded the Livability Agenda and the Lands Legacy Initiative. These new U.S. initiatives promoted the concept of Smart Growth. “The aim of the agenda [was] to help communities across America grow in ways that ensure[d] a high quality of life and strong, sustainable growth.”
Yep, my guess is that had an impact. However, I'm curious to read more thoughts on this finding.