A recent survey asked city planners, urban historians and other urban experts to list the most important influences on urban America over the past 50 years. Not surprisingly, the interstate highway system and the impact of the automobile dominated their responses.
The survey was funded by the Fannie Mae Foundation and conducted by Robert Fishman, professor of history at Rutgers University and is titled “The American Metropolis at Century’s End: Past and Future Influences.”
Here are the top 10 influences of the past 50 years, according to the 149 respondents to the survey:
1. 1956 Interstate Highway Act/dominance of automobile;
2. FHA mortgage financing/ subdivision regulation;
3. De-industrialization of central cities;
4. Urban renewal;
5. Levittown (mass-produced suburban tract house);
6. Racial segregation/job discrimination in cities, suburbs;
7. Enclosed shopping mall;
8. Sunbelt-style sprawl;
9. Air conditioning;
10. Urban riots of the 1960s.
Had I been taking the survey, my responses would be only slightly different and would have reflected my experience growing up in a Southern city. I would have listed interstates and the dominance of the automobile as the single greatest influence on cities during the past 50 years. I would have been tempted to say that the invention of the elevator had more influence on American cities than just about anything else. However, the elevator was invented more than 50 years ago and was already allowing skyscrapers to be built in the 1920s and 1930s.
Suburbanization would be number two on my list. FHA mortgage financing was a component of this, in my view. Had there not been FHA financing, there would have been some other type financing. For example, FHA financing began in 1934. The VA loans in the 1950s played a significant role in allowing people to moved to a suburban home, and accelerated the process thereby enabling returning service people to establish a household almost immediately.
Many people moved to subdivisions because there was no housing available in the city. The demand for housing in the 1950s and early 1960s was strong. Suburban housing was not only available, it was affordable. Once the wave started, it was unstoppable.
Retail follows residential. This led to the development of shopping centers in areas where people lived, which in turn led to the decline of downtown as a place to shop, which led to urban renewal projects, which led to destruction of the integrity of many downtowns.
Downtown Jackson is a good case study. In the 1950s and 1960s it was a vibrant retail and commercial center. As people moved farther away from the central city, shopping centers such as Westland Plaza, Meadowbrook Mart, Delta Mart and Bright’s Center popped up. In order to revitalize the central city, entire blocks of downtown Jackson were bulldozed in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s to make way for parking garages, new office buildings and federal buildings. Streets were changed to one-way so that cars could get to and from the new interstate highway much more quickly. One of the reasons that the Farish Street Historic District is having such a difficult time is that a vibrant commercial part of the district was bulldozed in the name of urban renewal. This is not a criticism of those projects, only an observation.
Can you imagine what 70,000 vehicles per day on State Street would be like?
The point is simply that cities are dynamic things that change over time. The best cities are able to modernize while retaining their history.
Meanwhile, back to the list. In the South, air conditioning changed our cities. We are not front porch communities anymore. We drive our cars into our garages, turn on the A/C and live our lives in less contact with our neighbors.
So, what will the top influences be on the city of the future? Well, the study did not let us down. Here’s what the respondents said about the influences on the future:
1. Growing disparities of wealth;
2. Suburban political majority;
3. Aging of the baby boomers;
4. Perpetual underclass in central cities, inner ring suburbs;
5. Smart growth;
7. Deterioration of the “first-ring” post-1945 suburbs;
8. Shrinking household size;
9. Expanded superhighway system;
10. Racial integration as part of increasing diversity in cities, suburbs.
That’s what the experts said. What do you think will be the major influences on the cities of the future?
For more details on the study, check out www.fanniemaefoundation.org on the Internet.
Phil Hardwick’s column appears regularly in the Mississippi Business Journal. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.