Urbanizing the Sunbelt

From “Dallas” to “Designing Women,” from “Baywatch” to “Miami Vice” to “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” images of sunbelt cities have been prominent on prime time television for the past generation. With their depictions of a cities full of fast-paced, colorful, sophisticated and sometimes dangerous city people, they offer powerful correction to that other television Sunbelt inhabited by Andy Griffith and the folks of Mayberry, by the “Dukes of Hazzard,” and by “Walker: Texas Ranger.”

No matter which measure you choose, sunbelt cities now dominate urban growth in the United States. If we look at simple size, five of the twelve largest metropolitan regions in 2000 were located in the Sunbelt states of California, Texas, Georgia, and Florida.[2]

Deeper economic changes lie behind the regional rebalancing: the defense economy, globalization, the leisure economy, and industrial innovation. These are points that I develop for western cities in The Metropolitan Frontier, but they apply as well to the Southeast.

During World War II and after, the Sunbelt became the most military-dependent part of the United States. Military planners concentrated bases and training facilities in places with warm climates. Between 1940 and 1990 it contained three of the nation’s premier military cities with Honolulu, San Diego, and San Antonio.[3] Military bases and employment were a powerful presence in many smaller cities such as Corpus Christi, Texas, Pensacola, Florida, or Fayetteville, North Carolina. War production brought new workers to Los Angeles, Dallas, Atlanta, New Orleans and confirmed the importance of sunbelt cities in airframe production. Nuclear weapons production fueled the growth of Albuquerque, Las Vegas,and Denver.

A second factor has been the internationalization of the United States. Sunbelt cities have been leaders in reintroducing the United States to the world. Caribbean, Mexican, and Asian immigration soared after the Immigration Reform Act of 1965 effectively ended the national quota system that had favored immigrants from Europe. In the last two decades of the twentieth century, approximately 40 percent of documented immigrants have come from Asia and another 40 percent from Latin America. For both groups, southern and western cities have been the major points of arrival. Mexicans constitute the largest immigrant group in the cities of Texas, Arizona, Colorado, and California. Temporary workers, shoppers, visitors, legal migrants, and illegal migrants fill neighborhood after neighborhood in El Paso, San Antonio, San Diego, and Los Angeles, creating bi-lingual labor markets and downtowns.

The same cities have been in the forefront of changing patterns of foreign trade and investment. The value of American trade across the Pacific passed that of trans-Atlantic trade in the early 1980s, with impacts felt especially by the vast port complex of Los Angeles-Long Beach. Maquiladora manufacturing in northern Mexico since the 1970s has created “twin” cities divided by the U.S.-Mexico border, such as El Paso-Juarez and San Diego-Tijuana, a pattern that has been accentuated by the North American Free Trade Act of 1993. Sunbelt cities have also engaged the world economy as the sources for industrial expertise (Houston and the petroleum industry) or locations for foreign investment in production for the American market (Spartanburg, South Carolina).

Third, the impact of the American leisure economy is obvious in many sunbelt cities. Family tourism, business and fraternal conventions, and retirement all contribute. Disneyland helped to transform Orange County, California into a vast urbanized region; Walt Disney World has had a similar effect on Orlando. Good introductions to the creation of the two Disney complexes are John Findlay, Magic Lands, and Richard Foglesong, Married to the Mouse: Walt Disney World and Orlando. No developer would build a “Blizzard City” retirement town outside Buffalo and expect to compete with places such as Sun City outside Phoenix. Meanwhile, the sometime forgotten sunbelt city of Honolulu looked to Asia as well as the continental United States for business and tourism

Finally, the sunbelt has benefited from the expansion of manufacturing in two ways.[4] On the one hand, American corporations began to shift the routine production of standardized products from the expensive northeast core to alternative locations: smaller sunbelt cities, northern Mexico, and overseas. On the other hand, sunbelt cities were innovation centers for new high technology aerospace and electronics industries. The U.S. space program has been a sunbelt program centered in Melbourne-Titusville, Florida, Huntsville, Alabama, and Houston, Texas. Efforts to devise weapons control systems triggered the takeoff of the postwar electronics industry in the “Silicon Valley” between San Francisco and San Jose in the 1950s. As the industry moved on to civilian applications, advanced semiconductor and computer production diffused to new industrial complexes around Austin, Phoenix, Dallas, and Albuquerque. Because the Pentagon has been the single best customer for the aerospace, nuclear, and electronics industries since the 1940s, this final point brings us full circle to the importance of the defense budget for sunbelt cities.

The Sunbelt Catches Up

From the 1950s into the 1970s, scholars understood the growth of sunbelt cities in terms of the “catch up” thesis. That is, the West and South were viewed as regions whose development had retraced that of the Northeast, but with a time lag of a generation or more. Their rapid growth beginning with the 1940s suggested that they were finally closing the gap and catching up to the rest of the nation.

For the West and Southwest, the lag was described in economic terms. In the 1930s, writer Bernard DeVoto had called the West a “plundered province” that was little more than a colony of New York and Chicago, shipping out raw materials from mines, farms, and forests and buying them back from eastern factories. Since the 1940s, however, western cities, and especially those of California, enjoyed a steady shift of economic power. By developing local production of manufactured goods and accumulated their own sources of capital, they catching up with the industrial core.

For the South, the catching up was seen more broadly as a process of modernization. The South in 1930s had been poor and culturally different, but rapid urban growth would help the region become richer, more middle class, less isolated, more ‘American.” This interpretation stressed the ways that World War II had reduced regional differences by mixing people from all regions in the military and in war production work. The civil rights era of 1950s and 1960s, during which South dismantled racial segregation by law and thus became more “northern,” also supported the idea of convergence. So did the moderating voice of the business community in many southern cities (for example, Atlanta’s reputation as a “city too busy to hate). The interpretation helped to shape much scholarship on southern politics and society and framed some early efforts to look systematically at the history of regional urbanization (see volumes from the later 1970s and early 1980s by Jacoway and Colburn, Goldfield and Brownell, Abbott, and Bernard and Rice).

Continuity as Well as Change

In more recent years, scholars have emphasized continuity as well as transformation in the development of sunbelt cities. World War II and the postwar boom may have accelerated economic changes, for example, but the changes built on foundation from previous decades. In the South, postwar economic development efforts extended work already underway in many states and cities, as examined in James Cobb, The Selling of the South. For the Southwest, Roger Lotchin in Fortress California demonstrates that city leaders had long courted military bases, and that the militarization of a city like San Diego crowned efforts begun in the 1910s Los Angeles had similarly emerged as a major manufacturing city early in the twentieth century, creating deep roots for its postwar boom.

David Goldfield’s important summary of southern urbanization, Cottonfields and Skyscrapers, notes the continuities of southern culture and values that keep southern cities distinct from northern counterparts. He finds that southern cities have been marked by continuities of a rural life style, by the prominent role of religion, and by racial division. He shows how urban social institutions were adapted to preserve a biracial system and argues that the neglect of public services in many southern cities has reflected the influence of evangelical religion and rural values.

Students of racial and ethnic relations in cities across the Sunbelt increasingly emphasize continuities from before to after the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Ron Bayor, Howard Gillette, and Chris Silver and John Moeser have all shown the ways in which decisions about black-white relations made in the early twentieth century continued to shape the politics and society of southern cities until its end. Similarly, political and economic gains of Mexican Americans in Texas and California cities in recent decades have built on long years of institution-building at the community level, political organizing, For Los Angeles, for example, see George Sanchez, Becoming Mexican American and Edward Escobar, Race, Police, and the Making of an Ethnic Identity: Mexican Americans the Los Angeles Police Department.

In short, the Sunbelt did catch up, but in their own ways. Its cities have converged economically and demographically. But they remain culturally distinct. Los Angeles is not Boston, New Orleans is not Chicago, San Antonio is not Cleveland, Tampa is not Baltimore.

Special Places/Leading Edges

Several sunbelt cities stand out as representing important trends in contemporary urban growth.

Atlanta shows the classic themes of American city-building with a sunbelt twist. The power of business leadership in U.S. cities is a well-told story, but Atlanta adds the twist of a delicate balancing act between growth politics and racial politics. Its patterns of development are a model of urban sprawl–indeed, one of the most extreme in the nation. And its economy demonstrates the continuing power of transportation. If nineteenth century Atlanta was a city make by railroads (one reason it was such a prize during the Civil War), the city of the later twentieth century has prospered because it is the hub for Interstate Highways in the Southeast and because it has become a national and international air travel center. It has thus consolidated its role as the center of a fast-growing region (a sort of new Chicago) and used direct European air routes to become a headquarters center for international businesses and organizations (an alternative to New York).[5]

Across the continent, the Los Angeles city region elicits strong loyalties and excites deep antipathies. It is variously viewed as emblematic and exceptional, as the pattern for twentieth century urbanization and the model for the urban future. As featured player in scores of movies and backdrop in hundreds of others, Los Angeles takes much of its imagery from the film writers and directors who call it home. Critics who don’t like what they see in Los Angeles “prove” their point with references to the dark dystopia of Bladerunner, the violent alienation of Falling Down or Pulp Fiction, and old and new noir of The Big Sleep and Chinatown and L.A. Confidential. Those of who are taken by the metropolis find the choice a bit more strained: Speed as a parable of social cooperation, Clueless as a more appealing vision of everyday life.

For many scholars, Los Angeles has been the representative city for the twentieth century. Historian Sam Warner used it as such in The Urban Wilderness and geographer James Lemon in Liberal Dreams and Nature’s Limits. A readable but highly opinionated introduction to Los Angeles politics is Mike Davis, City of Quartz, which frames the city’s history as the work of an economic elite. Davis’s polemic can be balanced with the case studies of land development in William Fulton, The Reluctant Metropolis.

For other scholars, the city is the prototype for the twenty-first century. A “Los Angeles School” of urban analysis argues, essentially, that the vast southern California metropolis a new urban form and dynamic that is post-modern. Its cityscape, economy, and society all described as fragmented, flexible, and fluid. There is the political fragmentation, industrial flexibility, and racial variety that makes Los Angeles a laboratory for examining the complex interactions of Anglos, African Americans, Mexicans, Central Americans, Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, southeast Asians, and many others. Good introductions to these ways of thinking are the essays in Rob Kling, Spencer Olin, and Mark Poster, eds., Postsuburban California, and Allen J. Scott and Edward Soja, eds., The City.

Miami is another city that has been testing new international connections and patterns of ethnic relations since the 1960s.[6] The arrival of more than 800,000 refugees from Cuba (as well as large number of refugees from Haiti) fundamentally altered traditional patterns of black-white relations. In the three-sided tension of white, black, and Cuban, the latter group have achieved political dominance and substantial economic power, as explored in Alex Stepick and Alejandro Portes, City on the Edge. As transnational politics intrudes into daily life, Miami has become the major economic contact point between the U.S. and the Caribbean. Many Cuban Americans now argue that their presence and entrepreneurship have made Miami a global city that handles $6 billion of trade with nations to the south.

And then there is Las Vegas, fast emerging as the nation’s next supercity. Hal Rothman, Neon Metropolis: How Las Vegas Started the Twenty-First Century and Hal Rothman and Mike Davis, eds., The Grit Beneath the Glitter, trace the evolution of Las Vegas from sin city to diversified metropolis. Entertainment and real estate development for retirees and second homes have replaced gambling as the economic drive wheel; while major banks and pension funds rather than mob money finance the new fantasyland casinos. Far from a deviant sideshow, Las Vegas is increasingly a mainstream city wrestling with labor-management conflict, sprawl, and ethnic conflict. At the same time, it may be a precursor of a new pattern of urban growth in which isolated centers function together as a single dispersed metropolis (Las Vegas being in many ways a detached piece of greater Los Angeles).


[1] The figure is seven of twelve if we include San Francisco-Oakland-San Jose and Washington-Baltimore, both of which lie north of the commonly accept sunbelt boundary but which share many characteristics with other sunbelt cities. All of the statistics in this section are based on that same boundary that starts along the North Carolina-Virginia border and extends along the same latitude to Monterey Bay. A number of cities that lie north of the line share many economic and demographic patterns with sunbelt cities. Examples include Norfolk-Virginia Beach and Richmond in Virginia, Colorado Springs and Denver in Colorado, and Reno in Nevada.

[2] The total was fifteen for the two leagues, accounting for shared markets. MLB played in nine sunbelt cities.

[3] The fourth major military metropolis, Norfolk-Virginia Beach-Newport News, is contiguous to the commonly understood sunbelt boundary.

[4] Economists talk about the product cycle. A cluster of innovations creates a new set of products that stimulate a complex of new companies in a particular region, such as Detroit’s automobile complex or aircraft in Los Angeles. As new products gradually become standardized, their manufacture can be shifted to other locations for cheaper land and labor or better access to customers. In the last half century, sunbelt cities have benefitted both from the decentralization of older product manufacturing (such as automobile assembly) and the fortuitous location of new, fast-growing industries like electronics. In Texas, for example, El Paso has grown for the first reason and Austin for the second.

[5] A good source on Atlanta for classroom use is a set of eight half-hour videos made by historians Dana White and Tim Crimmins on “The Making of Modern Atlanta,” available from the Georgia Humanities Council.

[6] Comparisons between Miami and Los Angeles are pursued in a special “Orange Empires” issue of the Pacific Historical Review, 68 (May 1999), edited by William Deverell, Greg Hise, and David Sloane.


Abbott, Carl. The Metropolitan Frontier: Cities in the Modern American West. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1993

_________. The New Urban America: Growth and Politics in Sunbelt Cities. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1981.

Bayor, Ronald. Race and the Shaping of Twentieth Century Atlanta. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.

Bernard, Richard, and Rice, Bradley. Sunbelt Cities; Politics and Growth since World War II. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1983.

Cobb, James. The Selling of the South: The Southern Crusade form Industrial Development, 1936-1980. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1982.

Davis, Mike. City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles. New York: Verso, 1990.

Escobar, Edward. Race, Politics and the Making of a Political Identity: Mexican Americans and the Los Angeles Police Department, 1900-45. Berkeley: University of California Press. 1999.

Findlay, John. Magic Lands: Western Cityscapes and American Culture after 1940. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.

Foglesong, Richard. Married to the Mouse: Walt Disney World and Orlando. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001.

Fulton, William. The Reluctant Metropolis: The Politics of Urban Growth in Los Angeles. Point Arena, CA: Solano Press Books, 1997.

Gillette, Howard, Jr. Between Justice and Beauty: Race, Planning, and the Failure of Urban Policy in Washington, D.C. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995.

Goldfield, David. Cottonfields and Skyscrapers: Southern City and Region, 1607-1980. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1982.

Goldfield, David, and Brownell, Blaine, eds. The City in Southern History. Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press, 1977.

Jacoway, Elizabeth and Colburn, David, eds. Southern Businessmen and Desegregation. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1982.

Kling, Rob, Olin, Spencer, and Poster, Mark. Postsuburban California: The Transformation of Orange County since World War II. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.

Lemon, James. Liberal Dreams and Nature’s Limits: Great Cities of North America since 1600. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Lotchin, Roger. Fortress California, 1910-1961: From Welfare to Warfare. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Lotchin, Roger, ed. The Way We Really Were: The Golden State in the Second Great War. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000.

Rothman, Hal. Neon Metropolis: How Las Vegas Started the Twenty-First Century. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Rothman, Hal and Davis, Mike, eds. The Grit Beneath the Glitter. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.

Sanchez, George. Becoming Mexican American: Ethnicity, Culture and Identity in Chicano Los Angeles, 1900-45. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Scott, Allen, and Soja, Edward. The City: Los Angeles and Urban Theory at the End of the Twentieth Century. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.

Silver, Christopher, and Moeser, John. The Separate City: Black Communities in the Urban South, 1940-68. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1995.

Stepick, Alex, and Portes, Alejandro. City on the Edge: The Transformation of Miami. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.

Warner, Sam Bass, Jr. The Urban Wilderness. New York: Harper and Row, 1972.

Understanding the Kelo Case

At the turn of the twenty-first century, New London, Connecticut, was a city in trouble. Hammered by deindustrialization and the closure of military facilities, it suffered from high unemployment. Locked into its boundaries by surrounding towns, it had a high proportion of tax-exempt land despite its reliance on property taxes.

In 1998, the pharmaceutical company Pfizer began to construct its Global Research Facility adjacent to the Fort Trumbull neighborhood, a waterfront district of 90 acres with 115 residential and commercial parcels including a sewage treatment plant and junkyard. The city directed the New London Development Corporation, a development agency under city control, to develop redevelopment plans for Fort Trumbull that could capitalize on Pfizer’s investment and presence. The plans included a resort hotel and conference center, office and retail space, a new state park, and residences. The Development Corporation purchased 100 of the parcels from willing sellers, but needed to use the power of eminent domain to acquire the other 15 parcels. New London’s effort depended on $70 million in state money, and it was the state that suggested the city should acquire Fort Trumbull under legislation authorizing economic development efforts, rather than a different statute relating to removal of blight.

Homeowner Susette Kelo and several other reluctant property owners challenged the acquisition with the argument that the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments prohibited the city and its agents from forcibly acquiring property from one private owner simply to transfer it to another private owner or entity (the New London Development Corporation and any future owners who might purchase from it). The argument hinged on the proper definition of “public use” (as possibly distinct from “public purpose”). The case made its way through the Connecticut Supreme Court to the Supreme Court of the United States, which heard arguments on February 22, 2005, and issued a five-to-four decision upholding the city on June 23, 2005.

The decision unleashed a wave of criticism, since the majority sided with large impersonal institutions rather than individual property owners. The decision became an organizing point for property rights advocates. President George W. Bush in 2006 issued an executive order prohibiting federal agencies from using eminent domain “merely for the purpose of advancing the economic interests of private parties to be given ownership or use of the property taken.” Several states–including New Hampshire, Florida, and Oregon–moved quickly to prohibit such takings within state law, whether or not there was a record of abuse.

The majority decision (John Paul Stevens, Anthony Kennedy, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer) was judicially conservative. It relied on precedent, particularly the landmark case Berman v. Parker from 1954. In that case, a small business owner in the southwest quadrant of Washington, D.C., challenged the use of eminent domain to acquire his property as part of a massive urban renewal project that turned a mixed neighborhood into middle-class housing, L’Enfant Plaza, and new federal office buildings (ironically for HUD and DOT), and made Washington a national example of the possibilities and pitfalls of large scale clearance and redevelopment projects. As Clarence Thomas noted in dissent on Kelo, the overwhelming majority of residents affected by the Berman decision were African Americans.[1]

In Berman the Court unanimously accepted an expansive view of public use. “It is within the power of the legislature,” wrote William O. Douglas, “to determine that the community should be beautiful as well as healthy, spacious as well as clean, well-balanced as well as carefully patrolled.” Fifty-one years later, a very different Supreme Court membership declined to break from the precedent and articulated the view that a carefully prepared and comprehensive redevelopment plan was strong evidence that a local jurisdiction, such as New London, had adequately defined a public purpose justifying the application of eminent domain.

Although property rights advocates attacked the majority decision as “judicial activism,” it was anything but. It was judicially conservative not only in deferring to frequently reiterated precedents, but also in its deference to the states. The Court declined to second guess the local and state policy-making process in its particulars. At the same time, the majority showed some unease with the substantive results of the New London policy by inviting states to put their own houses in order: “Nothing in our opinion precludes any State from placing further restrictions on its exercise of the takings power. Indeed, many States already impose ‘public use’ requirements that are stricter than the federal baseline.”

The minority (Sandra Day O’Connor, William Rehnquist, Antonin Scalia, and Clarence Thomas) were in this case the judicial activists. It is likely that the Court took Kelo, its first major eminent domain case since Hawaii Housing Authority v. Midkiff (1984), because some members hoped that it would an opportunity to probe behind the surface of plans and precedents to scrutinize the content of New London’s actions. In effect, they were hoping to do for property rights what Brown did for school integration by looking at the real world effects behind legal formulations.

Although they failed to shake loose a fifth vote, the minority were vigorous in mobilizing the examples of urban history. They made the argument–in a nutshell–that the use of eminent domain to promote private land development almost inevitably favors big government and big business, and victimizes poor people and minorities. Jane Jacobs offered an “amicus” brief that reiterated her belief in the problems of large-scale planning schemes. John Norquist, former mayor of Milwaukee and now executive director for the Congress for the New Urbanism, argued that subsidies to attract corporate investment into distressed cities were nearly always flawed interventions in the market. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference argued that urban renewal had a long record of burdening the poor and disrupting their lives, and that current neo-renewal efforts have the same very strong tendency. The policy debates of the 1960s lived again with citations to Martin Anderson and Herbert Gans.

The most frequently cited comparison was to Poletown, the low-income neighborhood that the city of Detroit leveled in order to create an in-city site for a new Cadillac plant for General Motors. The goal of the city, of course, was to bring living-wage jobs back to the city and to increase its tax base. The project cleared 1500 homes, sixteen churches, and 144 businesses. The long, failed resistance by the neighborhood has been well-documented in books and documentary film and has long been a staple topic in urban studies classes.[3] Dissents in the Michigan Supreme Court case upholding the action, Poletown Neighborhood Council v. City of Detroit, have been a fertile source for property rights analysis, now expanded by its use as an example by Justices O’Connor and Thomas in an additional dissenting opinion.

New London, of course, is a victim of its context. The effort to redevelop Fort Trumbull is one more example of the distorting effects of tax-base competition. Where cities rely on property taxes, they seek to replace low-value and high-cost uses (i.e., rundown neighborhoods with lots of children) with high-value, low-cost uses (i.e., offices, and condos for empty nesters). Where they depend on sales taxes, every city wants a new shopping center just inside its boundaries, where tax revenue flows to city hall but traffic crowds streets in the adjacent town.[4] In the New London case, city officials were trying to rebalance a regional development pattern that has put the growth of tax base outside the city but burdens the inside (for the education of children of low-wage service workers.)

For urban policy specialists, the Kelo case illustrates the concept of an urban regime, or alliance of elected and appointed officials with a specific set of private economic interests.[5] As Justice O’Connor recognized, in most comparable property takings, “the beneficiaries are likely to be those citizens with disproportionate influence and power in the political process, including large corporations and development firms.” The redevelopment plan clearly met Pfizer’s needs for a hotel and condos to house visitors and employees, for removing eyesores, and for “doing something” about the low-income neighborhood. In the regime context, big projects such as large new mixed-use developments or convention centers not only benefit large private interests, but also make the reputations of public professionals and give elected officials something to point to in re-election campaigns. They are like playing Earl Weaver baseball, always waiting to be saved by a home run rather than playing for singles, steals, and bunts.

Susette Kelo’s case grounded the abstractions of property rights in the everyday community life. Public officials may have expertise and information on their side, but they remain talking heads behind office desks or in front of law books. In contrast, Kelo was able to tell her story with the help of emotionally powerful language and imagery. She grew up in the neighborhood and returned to her roots in mid-life. In interviews she was able to speak from the comfortable interior of her home, which she bought and fixed up, and describe herself as a “working class person.” She has expressed a special animosity toward the president of Connecticut College, who stated a desire to make New London a hip city (meaning a place for high-income people, in Kelo’s version). Kelo had repainted her house pink as she fixed it up, bringing to mind John Mellencamp’s populist lyrics in his 1983 song “Pink Houses”:

Oh but ain’t that America for you and me
Ain’t that America somethin’ to see baby
Ain’t that American home of the free
Little pink houses for you and me.

There is much to ponder in the way that both the majority and minority on the Supreme Court understood and mobilized urban history. The majority used legal precedent, deferred to local judgment, and presumably saw a range of quality in the actual projects: they were conservative and non-activist. The minority were more fully steeped in the troubled history of urban renewal and revitalization efforts, and less willing to cut slack for one more big redevelopment project with ambitious goals to “reinvent” part of a city.[6]


[1]. Howard Gillette Jr., Between Justice and Beauty: Race, Planning, and the Failure of Urban Policy in Washington, D.C. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995).

[2]. Martin Anderson, The Federal Bulldozer: A Critical Analysis of Urban Renewal, 1949-1963 (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1964); Herbert Gans, The Urban Villagers: Groups and Class in the Life of Italian Americans (New York: Free Press, 1962); and James Q. Wilson, ed., Urban Renewal: The Record and the Controversy (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1966).

[3]. Armand Cohen, Poletown, Detroit: A Case Study in “Public Use” and Reindustrialization (Cambridge, MA: Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, 1982); Poletown Lives (Detroit: Information Factory, Inc., 1992); and Jeanne Wylie, Poletown: Community Destroyed (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990). Poletown even makes an appearance in Elmore Leonard’s crime novel Split Image (New York: Harper Torch, 2002).

[4]. William Fulton, The Reluctant Metropolis: The Politics of Growth in Los Angeles (Point Arena, CA: Solano Press Books, 1997).

[5]. Clarence Stone, Regime Politics: Governing Atlanta, 1946-1968 (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1989).

[6]. For more on Kelo from legal perspectives, see Dwight H. Merriam and Mary Massaron Ross, eds., Eminent Domain Use and Abuse: “Kelo” in Context (Chicago: American Bar Association Section of State and Government Law, 2006).

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Sarah Palin in Context: The Real West is an Urban West

Sarah Palin knows how to hunt wolves. She can skin a moose. She lives way up there on America’s last frontier. So, we might think, here’s a national candidate who represents the “real” American West, not its Hollywood imitation.

That’s a tempting image, but it’s flat out wrong. Nancy Pelosi, fast-talking, hard-edged urbanite from San Francisco, is a much better stand-in for the real American West. So is the sister team of Loretta Sanchez and Linda Sanchez, who represent parts of Los Angeles County and Orange County in the U.S. Congress. Add to the list Washington State governor Christine Gregoire from the busy urban corridor along Puget Sound. And then there’s Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano, a New Yorker happily transplanted to Phoenix.

Many Americans like to imagine the West as a vast land of sagebrush and deserts, mountains and forests, cougars and caribou. Sure, it has plenty of landscapes to match the western movie image, but almost nobody lives in the empty West. For more than a century, the West has been the most urbanized part of the country. City people shaped its development in the nineteenth century, tilted the nation’s center of power westward in the twentieth century, and control the future of the region–and in large part the nation–in the twenty-first century.

That’s right: The West is the American region with the largest share of its population living in metropolitan areas (cities of 50,000 and the adjacent counties with close economic ties). The metropolitan percentage is higher from the Rockies westward than in the crowded Northeast or the Middle West with its constellation of aging industrial cities.

Eight of our twenty biggest metropolitan areas are located in the West. More than 80 percent of Californians, Coloradans, Arizonans, Nevadans, and even Texans live in large urban areas. In 2000, 28 percent of ALL Americans lived in the metro area of the nineteen western states.

The urban West is not new. The West was settled and developed outward from its gateway cities. In the pioneer century of the 1800s, Denver was essential to the development of Colorado. That city sent railroads, mining experts, and investment dollars into the Rockies. Its smelters and refineries processed the gold and silver ore then the railroads hauled it out of the mountains. Portland was the gateway to the great Columbia River valley of Oregon and Washington. San Francisco–remember Nancy Pelosi–guided the fate of California and Nevada. In the twentieth century, Seattle, Dallas, San Antonio, Albuquerque, and Phoenix played similar roles in their own parts of the West.

As early as 1890, the federal census recognized that “the urban element in the western division” was growing faster than rural population. That is the same census, by the way, that famously declared that there was no longer a discernable frontier line on the national map. The turning point was actually a decade earlier, when the census numbers showed that the level of urbanization of the Rocky Mountain and Pacific states had passed that of the older parts of the nation.

Even Sarah Palin’s Alaska has always been an urban frontier. Its founding city was the Russian capital at Sitka. Nome and Fairbanks served the needs of prospectors. Juneau housed territorial and state offices. By the start of the current century, almost two thirds of Alaskans lived in the metropolitan areas of Fairbanks and Anchorage, Palin’s home base as a suburban mayor. With more than 300,000 people, Anchorage is in the size range of Eugene, Oregon, Rockford, Illinois, or Tallahassee, Florida.

So don’t be fooled. Alaska is intriguing, but its center of gravity is a modern metropolis. It’s not quite as urban as California, but it’s on the way. If we want to find the real West, we need look for tree-lined streets in Austin, working class neighborhoods in Oakland, sprawling suburbs on the Colorado plains, and multi-ethnic communities in Los Angeles, perhaps ending with a latte at a Seattle Starbucks where we can power up our Windows-driven laptop to bang out an email message to an old acquaintance still living among the sagebrush and cougars.

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Daniel Burnham and Edward Bennett: New Regionalists

Daniel Burnham and Edward Bennett: New Regionalists

Link to PowerPoint slides for this presentation

Forget the pictures!

Forget those jewel-box depictions of civic temples and ceremonial boulevards and awesome public squares.

The pictures take us backward to golden cities in distant lands—to an imagined Byzantium, to a Venice redesigned at elephantine scale . . . The visual rhetoric is as practical as a Faberge egg.

The illustrations are exquisite—darn it, they depict a “city beautiful”—but they were not relevant to the basic goal of the Plan of Chicago. They show a city that is impractical in scale and aristocratic in form, designed to overshadow the doings of ordinary Chicagoans. They’re the reason that poor Daniel Burnham sometimes gets unfairly tagged as a precursor of totalitarian design in the style of East Berlin’s Stalinallee or Warsaw’s Soviet-era Place of Culture.

The renderings support the interpretation that the Plan of Chicago was “primarily about urban beautification” (to quote Donald Miller) . . . or that it “focused on the theme of beauty” (from Chicago Metropolis 2020) . . . or that it centered its attention “only on design of public spaces as a city beautiful effort” (from Ed Kaiser and Dave Godschalk).

But we know that both Daniel Burnham, the plan’s entrepreneur and public face, and Edward Bennett, who managed the project and performed much of the analysis, were eminently practical.

We know that Burnham was successful in commercial architecture, politically astute in city and nation, and capable of harnessing divergent talents to a complex task.

We know Bennett as one of the most successful planning consultants, also able to organize teams of assistants, skilled at large and small projects, able to reinvent himself from Beaux-Arts architect to zoning specialist and then to chair of the Board of Architects charged with realizing the Federal Triangle in Washington.

What is most striking about the Plan of Chicago is the practicality and prescience of its regional scope.

1) The Plan of Chicago appeared -arrived -at a time when Americans were thinking through the implications of horizontal growth and the emergence of large urbanized regions:

One reaction was municipal annexation and consolidation. There was the great consolidation of greater New York in 1898. My home town tripled in area in 1891 in order to keep its population temporarily ahead of Seattle. The city and county of Denver consolidated into one. Pittsburgh absorbed Allegheny. Los Angeles used its control over water to absorb the vast San Fernando Valley.

At the same historical moment, the Census Bureau was figuring how to measure newly sprawling urban regions. It defined thirteen “industrial districts” in 1909, using data on from the 1905 census of manufactures.

In 1910 the term was “metropolitan district,” using virtually identical criteria as the year before. There were 29 of them—cities with 200,000 people or more plus jurisdictions within ten miles of the city that had densities of 150 people per square mile. Chicago, of course, was No. 2, with 2,456,000 metropolitan residents putting it comfortably ahead of third place Philadelphia.

2) The Plan of Chicago offered a dynamic spatial counterpart to the time-bound measurement of the metropolitan district.

It was regional in scope.

Its focus was circulation and the effective specialization of land uses. It put the metropolitan area concept into motion.

The city had already taken important steps toward a metropolitan vision. Annexations in 1889 tripled Chicago’s land area and extended the city from the damp backwaters of Lake Calumet to the border of legally dry Evanston. The new Sanitary District of Chicago covered 185 square miles and would soon turn the Chicago River around. Discussion about a regional park system—the future Cook County Forest Preserves—was already underway.

The Plan of Chicago at its heart is about movement – Places to assemble people and materials . . . ways to move goods and people . . . nodes and corridors . . . hearts and arteries. It tried to frame the real estate market and the work of private city builders within a regional infrastructure of rationalized railroads and new highways. It knit downtown and neighborhoods, city and suburbs and surroundings, to a distance of sixty miles. It took the regional booster vision of the nineteenth century and transformed it into a concrete form and format for shaping a vast but functional cityscape.

Economically comprehensive as well as spatially unifying, the plan envisioned a Chicago that located management functions, production, and transportation in their most efficient places. It assumed that Chicago would continue to be a fountainhead of industrial employment (despite a growing history of labor-management violence).

Every critic and historian has their own view of the legacy of the Plan of Chicago. What I’ve chosen to emphasize is not Wacker Drive or the transformed lakefront but the regional/functional changes: The Forest Preserve system, improvement of freight terminals and circulation, movement of harbor facilities to Lake Calumet, arterial street widening, and regional highways as would be coordinated in the 1920s by the semipublic Chicago Regional Planning Association.

3) When we trace the heritage of the Plan of Chicago beyond northern Illinois, Edward Bennett comes first as the author during the 1910s of city-region plans for Detroit, Minneapolis, Portland, and Ottawa. These were comprehensive in topical coverage, advanced in technique, and spacious in their regional coverage.

An example is Bennett’s plan for Ottawa in 1915. He defined the underlying issue as coping with economic growth:

Growth, expansion, is the most potent factor in this study. Wherever there is growth there are powerful forces at work, needing only to be directed to produce fine results, the linking together and relating of various sections of a city plan . . . Commerce and economy must underlie this study.

The Ottawa plan dealt with railroads, traffic, streets, zoning, and regional parks. It too came with beautiful, distracting watercolor renderings, but as planning historian David Gordon points out, the report contained the components of a comprehensive plan as would be suggested by John Nolen in City Planning (1916) and Thomas Adams in Outline of Town and City Planning (1935) . . . transportation, regional parks, street extension and regional highways, railroads and freight movement, and central business district..

The consultants of the 1920s and 1930s may have marketed themselves as advocates of the City Efficient and City Scientific, but their work tended to elaborate on the “City Beautiful” model of Burnham and Bennett. In Bob Fishman’s typology, they were “metropolitan regionalists” (as opposed to Mumfordian ecological regionalists).

4) To conclude, let’s leap ahead to “New Regionalist” and “New Urbanist” planners as the true heir of the Plan of Chicago.

The challenge for metropolitan-regional planning around the most recent turn of a century has been the same as faced by Burnham and Bennett—to find ways to “control” and channel fast-growing population and expanding economic activities in ways that increase efficiency and maintain metro areas as integrated, functional wholes.

In 1909, the metropolitan frontier was fast-growing industrial cities like Pittsburgh and Chicago. In recent time it has been new economy cities like Seattle and Phoenix, Atlanta and Miami. These are places that have been hotbeds for regional growth plans that have reenacted the fundamental goals of the Plan of Chicago. There’s the Puget Sound Regional Council’s plan for a multi-centered Tacoma-Seattle-Everett region and, across the border, the Livable Region plan from the Greater Vancouver Regional District. There’s Peter Calthorpe and John Fregonese’s work for Envision Utah and for Portland’s “2040 Growth Concept.” All of these efforts look at metropolitan regions on a Burnham/Bennett scale. They emphasize the integration of centers and suburbs through a system of nodes and arteries, they look for ways to build in open space (that’s what we now call parks), and they recognize the need to allocate space for the production segments of the economy.

Daniel Burnham and Edward Bennett gave us an agenda that we’re still working on.