Post-Industrial Growth of U.S. Cities Research Paper Starter

Post-Industrial Growth of U.S. Cities

(Research Starters)

The first wave of US urbanization came as part of the industrial revolution in the late nineteenth century. This article provides an overview of how urban areas in the United States have changed in the post-industrial era. It discusses urban growth, suburbanization, return migration to cities, and the role of immigrants in populating new urban areas. In addition, it documents the situation in urban ghettos and the effects of white flight in creating and maintaining segregated and resource-poor urban areas. Finally, it considers the practices of gentrification and urban renewal in transforming urban neighborhoods.

Keywords Eminent Domain; Gentrification; Ghetto; Great Migration; Industrialization; Marginalization; Metropolitan Statistical Area; Post-Industrial; Segregation; Suburb; Sprawl; Takings; Urbanization; Urban Renewal

Population, Urbanization


Throughout most of human history, a very small proportion of humans lived in cities. This was true for much of United States history as well. Those cities that did exist played an important role in regional markets and other economic activity, but remained small. For instance, the largest city in the United States in 1840 was New York City, with a population of just over 300,000 (Gibson, 1998). By the year 2005, New York City was still the largest city in the United States but had over eight million residents (US Census Bureau, 2007). In fact, in 1840, only 10% of the United States population lived in places with more than 2,500 residents. By 1960, however, things had changed. In that year, the Census Bureau recorded that over 60% of the United States population lived in places with over 2,500 residents (US Census Bureau, 1993). By 2000, almost 80% of Americans lived in urban areas, or areas of dense settlement; 68% lived in cities of more than 50,000 people (US Census Bureau, 2000).

The first wave of urbanization — the one that occurred as the urban population grew from just a small fraction of the United States to around half of it — came as part of the industrial revolution. The growth of factories and industrial employment created new economic opportunities in cities that had not previously existed and that drew immigrants from Europe as well as migrants from rural areas in search of better economic futures. At the same time, the industrial revolution brought with it innovations in agricultural and transportation technology that resulted in the need for fewer farm laborers and allowed food to be shipped to growing population centers. However, industrialization had run its course by the middle of the twentieth century. Yet, urban populations continued to grow.

The growth of cities in the post-industrial period has been different from the growth of cities that occurred during industrializations. The growth of industrial cities led to urban centers that were crowded, densely populated, and occupied by many poor and working-class individuals. During the economic expansion that occurred in the middle of the twentieth century, many urban residents were able to afford to move out of urban centers and purchase homes for the first time in the suburbs. In some cases, suburbs are part of the same city as the urban core — for instance, the city of Los Angeles includes neighborhoods like Watts, a densely populated and poor area, as well as Bel Air, a rich area with a suburban feel and large plots of land for homeowners. In other cases, suburbs are outside of the city limits but still within the same Metropolitan Statistical Area, and suburban residents commute into the city for employment and sometimes entertainment opportunities. For instance, the city of Boston is ringed by many suburbs, such as Wellesley and Newton.

As suburbs grew, they changed the nature of cities. Previously populated and vibrant inner city areas were deserted by their residents as they moved to suburban homes. Metropolitan areas became spread over a much wider geographical area with people commuting long distances by car to reach their jobs from areas not served by public transportation, necessitating the construction of highways that disrupted settled working-class communities. More and more people have chosen to live in suburbs, leading to suburbs that are further and further away from cities; residents of the suburbs surrounding cities like New York and Washington, DC face average commute times of well over thirty minutes (Buckner, 2004). Long commutes and the sprawl created by suburban development have had negative consequences for the environment, including reduction of habitat for wildlife as well as increased greenhouse gas production from the high gas usage of long or traffic-filled commutes. Additionally, those who have been unable to move out of urban centers have found themselves increasingly unable to access economic opportunities and other resources that have relocated to suburbs to follow population movements.

In fact, the central urban areas of some cities have lost so much population that they are often called "Shrinking Cities." This has been most notable in the cities of the Rust Belt — northern and Midwestern cities that developed as centers for heavy manufacturing industries like steel and automotive that have moved on. Residents of such cities have left not only for the suburbs but also for southern cities that offer new economic opportunities in the service sector. Some shrinking cities have become deeply mired in poverty; others have tried to develop new models for existing at a smaller scale (Lanks, 2006). For instance, shrinking cities that are looking to revitalize themselves on a smaller scale might demolish vacant buildings and replace them with urban parklands.

Other urban areas have continued to grow. This growth has occurred in different patterns than in the past. First, contemporary immigrants are attracted to different cities than in the past. While European immigrants in the early part of the twentieth century were predominantly attracted to northeastern port cities like New York and Philadelphia and to other cities in the northeast and Midwest that were easily reachable by railroad, new immigrants from Asia and Latin America seek residence in cities in the South and West that are closer to their own points of origin (Min, 2002).

The industries that attract workers to cities are different as well. Cities in the United States are no longer centers of manufacturing and production. Instead, knowledge work in industries like advertising, finance, and education tend to be concentrated there. Finally, cities have begun to attract return migrants — older adults who left cities to raise their children in suburban areas but want to come back for their retirement years. These individuals are attracted to the possibility of car-free lifestyles in urban areas that make it possible for them to visit doctors, go shopping, socialize with friends, and engage in recreation opportunities without depending on others for transportation as they age. In addition, some return migrants are beginning to be attracted to city life as fuel costs rise. For them, increased access to public transportation or even just shorter commute times makes city living cheaper than the suburban alternative.


The Urban Ghetto

As noted above, the departure of middle and then working class people from many central cities has left behind impoverished areas. These areas are often referred to as "ghettos." There are three key components that make a neighborhood a ghetto.

  • First, it must be a specific area of a city — suburbs or rural areas, even if impoverished, are not considered ghettos.
  • Second, it must be populated primarily by members of a minority group or a group that is otherwise socially or politically marginalized.
  • Finally, some sort of legal, social, or economic pressure must be responsible for the observed population concentration.

For the most part, people do not choose to live in ghettos. While ghettos have been present all over the world and for many centuries (the roots of the term come from describing neighborhoods in which Jews were concentrated in European cities), in the United States, the term generally refers to neighborhoods in which Blacks or Latino/as are concentrated. There were some Black ghettos prior to the middle of the twentieth century, but most ghettos formed after the Great Migration in which large numbers of Southern, rural blacks moved to Northern cities. Latino/a ghettos also came later after mass migration from Latin America to the United States began.

Ghettos suffer from a number of persistent problems. Because they are often located in older sections of cities, the housing stock tends to be dilapidated. The low incomes of ghetto residents contribute to the deterioration of housing, as residents often cannot afford more than basic home maintenance, and in any cases a large portion of housing is rental housing managed by absentee landlords or by public housing authorities (Bickford & Massey, 1991). Residents of ghettos face significant economic difficulties. William Julius Wilson refers to ghetto residents as the "underclass," a group mired in poverty and suffering from...

(The entire section is 4050 words.)