How Sprawl Was Caused by the Nuclear Arms Race, and Why This Matters More Than Ever Today

credit: Wisconsin Historical society

It is important to remember why cities were building highways through the fifties and sixties; why the federal government was promoting low-density suburban development and why companies were moving their corporate head offices to campuses in the country: Civil defense. One of the best defenses against nuclear bombs is sprawl; the devastation of a bomb can only cover so much area. Shawn Lawrence Otto wrote in Fool Me Twice:

In 1945, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists began advocating for "dispersal," or "defense through decentralization" as the only realistic defense against nuclear weapons, and the federal government realized this was an important strategic move. Most city planners agreed, and America adopted a completely new way of life, one that was different from anything that had come before, by directing all new construction "away from congested central areas to their outer fringes and suburbs in low-density continuous development," and "the prevention of the metropolitan core's further spread by directing new construction into small, widely spaced satellite towns."

But the strategy had to change after the development of the more powerful hydrogen bomb, and with it, the realization that having people living in the suburbs but working downtown was a problem. “President Dwight D. Eisenhower instead promoted a program of rapid evacuation to rural regions. As a civil defense official who served from 1953 to 1957 explained, the focus changed "from 'Duck and Cover' to 'Run Like Hell.’”


US Department of Transportation

To service that sprawl and to move people quickly in time of war, you need highways; that is why the bill that created the American interstate highway system was actually called The National Interstate and Defense Highways Act of 1956- they are exactly that, defense highways, designed to get people outta town in a hurry.

It’s clear that the suburban way of life didn’t develop because suddenly people could afford cars; it happened because the government wanted it. In The Reduction of Urban Vulnerability: Revisiting 1950s American Suburbanization as Civil Defence, Kathleen Tobin quotes political scientist Barry Checkoway:

"It is wrong to believe that postwar American suburbanization prevailed because the public chose it and will continue to prevail until the public changes its preferences. ... Suburbanization prevailed because of the decisions of large operators and powerful economic institutions supported by federal government programmes, and ordinary consumers had little real choice in the basic pattern that resulted."
IBM research

© Eero Saarinen, IBM Manufacturing and Training Facility (1958)

After getting the people out, the next step was to actually move the industries and offices out of the dense urban cores, where so many corporations could be taken out with a single bomb, and establish them in suburban corporate campuses where just about every one of them would be a separate target. There was actually a National Industrial Dispersion Policy, designed to decentralize industry and commerce. Tobin lists 5 measures that would reduce urban vulnerability, written in 1952, measures that effectively killed cities:

  1. Further development of industry (including normal peacetime as well as defense activities) should be slowed down in central city areas of highest population density and industrial areas of target attractiveness.
  2. A beginning should be made in reducing population and building densities in residential areas of greatest vulnerability by adoption of program of urban redevelopment and slum clearance.
  3. New buildings constructed in or near target areas should be built according to standards that make them resistant to A- bomb blast and fire and which provide for adequate shelter areas.
  4. No urban areas should be developed so intensively as to create new (or extensions of existing) population or industrial prime target areas.
  5. New defense industrial plants should be located at a reasonably safe distance from existing target areas.

To the guys with bombs, those things that we love about our cities, that we urbanists fight so hard to protect, they are not desirable, they are problematic. Benjamin W. Cidlaw, Commander in Chief of the Continental Air Defense Command, told a conference of Mayors in 1954:

"Your city means everything to you, everything to the people who live in it, and everything to me. To our possible enemies, however, who sit down at their planning tables to compute a schedule of take-off times for their existing bombing fleets, the hundred biggest cities represented here by you do not mean historic streets and beautiful parks, school systems in which you have pride, or the churches which are your fountains of faith. They may mean to them only those aerial forces and weapons required to produce the 100 pinpointed minutes of atomic hell on earth necessary for their destruction."

Shawn Lawrence Otto concludes his chapter:

"These accommodations for defense brought about an immense change in the fabric of America, altering everything from transportation to land development to race relations to modern energy use and the extraordinary public sums that are spent on building and maintaining roads— creating challenges and burdens that are with us today, all because of science and the bomb."

Let it be an arms race … we will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all. -Donald Trump

It is important to remember why sprawl was promoted in the first place: as a defence against nuclear attack. It’s why corporations and industries moved out of cities. The purpose of the highway system was not to meet demand, it was specifically designed to induce demand, to get people into cars and out into low density suburbs. It was a strategy designed to help outlast them all.

Arms races, and civil defense plans in a nuclear age are not good for cities, because the same nuclear math applies now as it did in the fifties and sixties: low density means improved survivability. Big highways mean quicker escapes.

So it is likely that any new arms race will hinder the current revitalization of our cities, the return of corporations to downtowns, the reinvestment in transit and anything that encourages densification. Because the people who like bombs generally don't like cities.

4 wheels to survival

Federal Civil Defense Administration/Public Domain