|Levittown, PA, 1953. Source: Wikipedia.
You can find Part 1 of the Big Theory on American Urban Development right here.
I left off Part 1 of this series by describing what I view as the three American development eras since the formation of our nation in the 18th Century. The Early Era, from about 1795-1860, is essentially initial settlement and growth, whether along the East Coast or other parts east of the Mississippi River. The Industrial Era, from about 1870-1935, covers the nation’s expansion as an industrial and manufacturing power, and how it created a development pattern suited to its growth. The Auto Era, from about 1945-2010, covers the period most observers would call the “suburban” era – suburban in quotes because, even though it may be characterized that way, the word has as many connotations as there are people. Today, very few actual structures exist from the Early Era, but the early platting that led to their structures still informs the development patterns there to this day. Here, I’m going to focus on the Industrial and Auto Eras.
Many people think of the suburb as a development phenomenon as being a recent thing. The truth is, the suburb as development pattern – a distinct and more controlled residential and commercial environment that allowed property owners greater control over decisions – came about during the Industrial Era and has been tweaked ever since. Prior to the Industrial Era, there was little difference in development patterns between cities – except that of scale. The entire four blocks of a small Ohio town in 1850 looked quite the same as any four blocks in New York City at the same time; New York, of course, was just far bigger. The Industrial Era saw the emergence of the railroad as a tool for creating separation for those willing to pay for it.
The four periods of the Industrial Era all built on this theme, and I can use some examples from the Chicago area to show how it worked. Places developed in the Railroad Period, like Riverside, IL, allowed wealthy landowners to use the new railroad to escape the congestion of the urban environment. Planned communities like Pullman on Chicago’s South Side characterized the Industrial Period, whereby industrialists could develop self-contained communities that served their interests. As the industrial economy matured and the middle class grew, places like Oak Park, IL developed during the Streetcar Period that provided residents with streetcar access to spots around a rapidly growing region. And this era also saw the growth of the Recreational Period, where towns like Fox Lake, IL emerged to offer recreational opportunities to a growing class of people with the means to get away.
The Great Depression and World War II meant the collapse of the Industrial Era and its replacement with the Auto Era after the war. But the Auto Era simply supersized the same “get away from it all” themes that were developed in the Industrial Era, and began to link the suburban development pattern with the suburban political entity. There are only a handful of actual Levittowns, but the name perfectly characterizes the type of development – and communities – that emerged immediately after World War II. Single family homes and a growing emphasis on affordability, all supported by a GI Bill (1944), a Federal Housing Act (1949), and an Interstate Highway Act (1956), all characterized the period. The Split Level Period was the first attempt to bring some exclusivity to the suburban development pattern, and was the first development pattern to be (on the whole) beyond the boundaries of most of the nation’s largest cities. The Edge City Period saw the maturation of the suburban development pattern as the location for malls, office parks and big box retailers. The McMansion Period saw the emergence of even more exclusivity built on the Edge City model, similar to what happened in the Split Level Period, but now with greater private control of the public realm (hello, gated communities).
I think most communities could be characterized as being the “child” of a certain development period, by using a simple data point in the U.S. Census – the median age of housing stock. If you take that figure and subtract about ten years or so, allowing for the lag between development subdivision and platting and actual construction, you get a pretty good sense of what period a community fits into. Let’s use Berwyn, IL, an inner ring suburb adjacent to Chicago, as an example. The median age of Berwyn’s housing stock in 2010 was 71 years, meaning the median year was 1939. If you subtract ten years from that, to 1929, and then match that year with the development period associated with it, you’d find Berwyn would be placed in the Recreational Period (1915-1935). However, since Berwyn is not a recreational community but a fully-built out community next to the core city of the metro area, it has more in common with the Streetcar Period (1900-1920). Anyone who knows anything about Berwyn would know that its modest bungalows served by commuter rail and the Chicago Transit Authority’s “L” lines would agree. This typology is not exact, but it is a good gauge of where communities lie.
As I said last week,
Rust Belt metro areas are quite likely the only area in the nation where the suburban development pattern aligns with the suburban political entity, or the expanse of municipalities that emerged after World War II with cheap housing for growing families:
“On the East Coast typical urban development extends far beyond core city boundaries, giving urban views greater sway than they have in other metro areas. In the New York area, for example, Jersey City, Newark and Yonkers are every bit as “urban” as NYC is, in terms of development pattern. They are nearly as dense, have a mix of uses, and are as developmentally complex as anything in the five boroughs. Conversely, in the Sun Belt South and West, the core cities are very nearly typically suburban in development pattern as their outlying suburbs. I think this has given Sun Belt city advocates a false view of them: Sun Belt cities have made their suburban-type growth in a core city look like a Sun Belt city preference. Furthermore, their growth over the last 60 years or so makes them feel they are more “urban” than they really are.
Meanwhile, Rust Belt cities are left with perhaps the deepest social divide of any region’s cities in the nation. History fated the Rust Belt as being the only region where the city/suburb divide is as stark as it is, politically, economically and socially, and has a role in the way things played out there.”
I contend that the 2008 housing crisis, which we’re slowly climbing out of, signaled the end of the Auto Era and the development periods associated with it. There are signs that things are changing, from the housing preferences of the Millennial generation, to the stabilization of housing values in cities compared to those of suburban homes, and the relative uptick of population growth in our nation’s urban cores. What, exactly, are we replacing the Auto Era with? I’ll talk about that in the next entry of this series.