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By the 1920s, it seemed that the American city was finally gaining the ability to solve its many' problems.


By about 1918, half of the United States population lived in cities and metropolitan areas; by 1990, almost 80 percent lived in such places. Strong economic and social currents encourage the continued concentration of the urban population which otherwise might disperse into more sparsely settled areas. The creation of large metropolitan markets for goods, services and jobs acts as a magnet for further growth. In addition, as farming has become more mechanized over the last half century, increasing numbers of unneeded farm workers have followed those who earlier sought better lives in urban areas. There are many activities which can only thrive in central locations with large populations. These include manufacturing, business and government administration, large-scale cultural and retail activities, and a whole host of service occupations.

Despite this, many central city areas have experienced a decrease in population since the mid-1960s, as suburbs grew. This loss is not the result of people's returning to live on farms or in villages. It is a product of Americans' increasing prosperity and of their desire to own a piece of land.

The growth of American cities between 1860 and 1960 has always been viewed in the United States with feelings of both pride and dismay. The city is a product of the machine age; it is a creation of the industrialization which produced much of the country's wealth and strength. Much that is best and most innovative in education, culture, and political and social thought results from the intellectual exchange and excitement which city life makes possible. On the other hand, poverty, overcrowding, social conflict and criminal violence are also much more common in cities than in rural areas. Demands for social services which go beyond the ability of the cities to provide have, over time, created problems which make living in the cities less attractive.

The response of many city dwellers has been to relocate from the city center to less heavily populated areas at the edge of the city. These areas, known as "suburbs," have combined elements of both urban and rural living, and have blurred the dividing line between city and countryside. Many business and manufacturing firms have moved to these suburbs, attracted by lower taxes, low land prices, and the growing labor pool and retail markets there.

Older distinctions between city and suburb, central business district and suburban shopping area, and even city slum and single home residential district are not very useful today. This is because these places are no longer relatively independent. The suburban rings around all central cities must be regarded as part of the urban structure. Central cities and their suburbs together form metropolitan regions and must be considered economic and social wholes. Highways have been constructed to make travel from city to suburb easier, and the provision of social services has been extended, so that living in a suburb is nearly as convenient as living in a city, and yet the problems of overcrowding and crime are much less serious.

Meeting the needs of these expanding outer rings of metropolitan areas requires more complex systems of urban government. A variety of urban governmental forms, often distinguished by whether they are headed by an elected individual (mayor), a hired manager or a council of elected officials, is being tried to determine which is most effective at meeting modern urban/suburban needs.

Also as a result of the expansion of these suburban rings, many metropolitan areas have grown so large in recent decades that they have overlapped, and have begun to merge. This new urban network has been called "megalopolis" by French geographer Jean Gottman. He identified the largest of these as occupying an area on the Atlantic seaboard from north of Boston, through New York, south to Washington, D.C.—"Bosnywash." This megalopolis contains more than one-sixth of the entire United States population. It is bound together by many economic and social relationships. It is estimated that by the year 2000, 80 percent of Americans will live in 28 or so of these megalopolises.

As many of America's urban dwellers have moved to the suburban rings in search of greater privacy, cleaner air and less social conflict, a pattern of urban living has emerged which is in sharp contrast to that in cities in other industrialized countries. Elsewhere in the world because of the advantages which city life can offer, city centers—or inner cities—are regarded as the most desirable living space and are occupied by the most affluent groups. In the United States, many in the wealthy and the middle class have moved to the periphery. As a result, cities have lost tax money that these groups paid to provide needed services. The lessening of services further encourages those who can afford to move outside the city limits to do so, and the city centers are perceived as among the least desirable areas to live.

This does not mean that those areas are unoccupied. It means that, because of the low rents, newly arrived groups, the members of which are the least educated, least skilled, poorest and least adapted to urban life, move first into the most undesirable living space near the center of the city. Who are these groups?

An important source of urban population growth, especially since 1945, has been the migration to cities of black Americans and Hispanics. Many of these newcomers had been farm workers whose livelihood was lost through the mechanization of farms. They followed the trail of earlier migrants to the city, expecting to find semiskilled factory and service jobs.

Unfortunately, their migration occurred when economic changes were causing a loss of such jobs, many to other countries. The consequence is that all the larger American cities have experienced an increase of relatively unskilled, poor people for whom jobs are not readily available. However, as these people gain skills, get jobs and become more affluent, they, in turn, move outward and their places are taken by a less affluent and more rootless population.

These are only general tendencies and there are many exceptions. For example, during the past two decades cities such as New York, Boston, Baltimore, Washington, D.C. and San Francisco have accomplished major "urban renewal" projects, rebuilding and renovating huge tracts of the central city area, and thus once again attracting businesses and more affluent groups to settle there. In many cities young middle class business and professional families have returned to deteriorating neighborhoods and restored the economic and cultural vitality of the areas. Though it probably represents only a minority trend, this is a hopeful sign for the American cities.

It is only to be expected that the enormous century-long growth of cities should have left many unsolved problems. Most of these problems were not foreseen. Probably they could not have been. Many are the consequences of successes of one sort or another. The noise and congestion of automobile traffic, for example, is a result of almost universal car ownership. Cars fill many city streets which were intended for horse and foot traffic.

The federal government has been deeply involved in the fate of the cities since the economic depression of the 1930s. Before that, the role of Washington had simply been to coordinate local efforts. In recent years, the federal government has assisted city governments in coping with the increased costs of services, the loss of tax revenues and the poverty of many residents. In general, ups and downs of the national economy can have a profound effect on city life, and the cities need help to lessen the impact of those ups and downs. In 1965, a Department of Housing and Urban Development was created in the federal government to manage programs concerned with community development and housing needs.

City administrators have tried in recent years to strengthen their abilities to organize the delivery of services. Mayors in many cities have been given wider powers to cope with the magnitude of the problems with which they are faced. One reform effort is the attempt to create metropolitan-wide governments.

Mass production and distribution of necessary goods are best accomplished when many people live together in a community. In this sense, the city is a product of industrialization and trade—the foundations of the modern American economy. Americans live in cities from economic necessity and a desire to enjoy the social and cultural advantages cities offer. At the same time they yearn to own a separate piece of land, to be closer to nature and to be free of the limitations imposed by living too close to others. This dichotomy has been made more difficult by America's extremely rapid change from a rural to an urban society and by the multinational nature of the American society, in which members of many different ethnic groups find themselves living very close to one another—and trying to tolerate and accept one another's different ways of living—in the huge cities of the United States.

The social problems that are products of the rapid growth of urban populations will be alleviated as more and more creative approaches to urban living are found. Urban planning and renewal with a central consideration for human well-being—an unaffordable luxury in the early stages of industrialization—have become the standard in America's post-industrial phase. The outlook for America's cities and for the quality of life for the nearly 80 percent of the American people who live in urban settings is hopeful.



Date: 2015-02-28; view: 1208

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