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In this episode of Vox Almanac, Vox’s Phil Edwards investigates the system behind the shape of the suburbs.
If you’ve visited a suburb, you’ve probably noticed a similar look: same curving streets; same cul de sacs. It’s not an accident. In fact, this appearance of the suburbs is part of the Federal Housing Administration’s plan.
In the 1930s, the Federal Housing Administration, or FHA, was the financial engine behind most home development. To ensure their investments were safe ones, they strongly recommended that builders and developers comply with the ideals they set. Those regulations aligned closely with the values of the time, including segregation and a burgeoning car culture.
These rules encouraged suburbs with winding streets and cul de sacs — aesthetically pleasing designs that led to sprawl and made a car a necessity. Even though the enforcement mechanisms have changed over time, we still live in a culture shaped by the FHA’s ideal suburban design.
If you want to learn more, there are a couple of resources:
Streets and the Shaping of Towns and Cities by Michael Southworth and Eran Ben-Joseph
Eran Ben-Joseph spoke to me about his book, which provides a great overview of suburban planning. It also has more crucial detail about street widths, which influenced car culture.
FHA Underwriting Manual
If you’re curious to wade into some primary documents, this underwriting manual from 1938 is a good place to start.
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