clock menu more-arrow no yes

Why so many suburbs look the same

It was all part of the plan.

It was all part of the plan.

If you’ve visited a suburb, you’ve probably noticed a similar look: same curving streets, same culs-de-sac. It’s not an accident. In fact, this appearance of the suburbs was part of the Federal Housing Administration’s plan. The above video tells the full story.

In the 1930s, the Federal Housing Administration (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 culs-de-sac — 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.

Watch the video above to see how it happened.

You can find this video and all of Vox’s Almanac series on YouTube. And if you’re interested in supporting our video journalism, you can become a member of the Vox Video Lab on YouTube.

Further reading

If you want to learn more, here 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 enough to wade into some primary documents, this underwriting manual from 1938 is a good place to start.

Help us explore what’s working

Part of explaining the news is critically examining potential solutions to big problems. Will you support this work with a gift to Vox?