Why Our Cities Look and Work the Way They Do

A conversation with Sam Bass Warner and Andrew Whittemore about their new book, American Urban Form.

Why do our cities look, work and function as they do? How did they evolve into their current form? How have they changed over the centuries since America was formed?

These are the questions that motivate the new book American Urban Form, which traces the historical growth and development of the American city and metropolis since the birth of the republic.

The book is a collaborative effort of Sam Bass Warner and Andrew Whittemore. Warner is one of America's finest urban historians, author of several classic books on the evolution of the modern American city. His Streetcar Suburbs, which traces the growth of Boston in the period 1870 to 1900 along its main street car lines, and The Private City, which explores the growth and development of Philadelphia, had huge impact on my own thinking about American urban development. Whittemore is a professor of urban planning and urban history at University of Texas at Arlington's School of Urban and Public Affairs who also produced the book's wonderful illustrations. Their book uses a hypothetical city to explore the history and growth of the typical American city, tracing the history from the nation's earliest days through industrialization to the rise of the current post-industrial knowledge city.

They took some time to answer a few questions via email.

Let's start out simple: tell us what you mean by the term "urban form?"

Urban form is a planner's term that tries to capture what people experience as they move about in a city or suburb. Think about how you see streets and walls of buildings, or lawns and houses, or parking lots at the mall and airport.

The book is based on a hypothetical city. Why did you choose this approach? Tell us about the cities that inform your hypothetical city. How does it help us better understand the evolution and development of our cities?

A hypothetical city, while obviously fiction, entails a particular approach to drawing out historical truth. It is a method in common use in science and social science where its usual name is an artificial construct or model. Historians do not typically employ this "what if" method, but they do expect their readers to connect one past event to another, or a past event to a present one by thinking of analogies. In our hypothetical city, we employ stories from the past of three actual cities — Boston, New York, and Philadelphia — in order to generalize the trends of the time. Thus, each specific story — like William Penn's planning of Philadelphia, or the appearance of socialist Henry George as a viable mayoral candidate for New York City — happened but once and in one place, but their actions, in our minds, were typical of their era.

Let's broaden the picture. What role do you think cities have played across the broad sweep of American history? How important have cities been to the growth and development of our nation?

Can you imagine our continent without cities? Where would a farmer find capital to buy a bit of prairie or a country merchant obtain capital to run his business? London and Amsterdam organized the colonies through agents in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. The rural South had few cities and its cotton crop was managed by New York. Chicago and St. Louis organized the Midwest, and San Francisco served as the beachhead for California. Today, we are a nation of cities.

Your book traces the evolution of American cities and their urban form over several centuries. I'd like to know — and I'm sure our readers would like to know — more about periodization. What are the main eras in the historical development of American cities? What are the main types of cities that have developed at various junctures of our history?

A simultaneous arrival of new populations and new technologies has always marked the outstanding eras in the development of the American city. A city powered only by wind, horses, and human labor must be a dense place of narrow streets, small buildings, and crowded rooms. Our colonial city took that form. A shortage of labor power, and a 17th-century outlook, gave rise to the importation of African slaves and the exploitation of white women, children, and contract workers. The flood of impoverished Irish and German peasants during the 1840s and 1850s made many American cities pools of cheap labor at the very moment of the invention of simple machines. Thus, the first phases of industrialization began with multi-story buildings, small factories scattered through the neighborhoods, and poor city dwellers stuffed into cellars and make-shift tenements.

Because both American fiction and motion pictures have concentrated on "The Big City," your readers are likely to be familiar with the late 19th and early 20th century city. The Big City's center of railroad stations, offices, department stores, and theaters served as the heart of the industrial metropolis of large factories and warehouses and the beginning residential suburbs. A flood of Eastern Europeans provided the basic labor force. Fear of strangers closed off the flow of immigration in the 1920s just when the automobile opened up acres of new residential suburbs. New factory-made consumer products including refrigerators and electric irons, and means of communication such as radio, telephone, and motion pictures, remade lifestyles.

The Great Depression and World War II stalled these trends, but after the war, with the additions of cheap federally-insured mortgages and federal highways, the city and region we know today unfolded. Again, new peoples flooded into the cities of the nation. Several million African Americans from the rural South lead the parade. Immigrants from the Caribbean, Central America, Asia, and Mexico followed. As in centuries past, new technologies continue to form our urban ways.

Left: A road in the book's hypothetical city during the mid-18th century; Right: The same road in 1860.

You write not only about the physical form of the city, but about their socio-economic divides as well. Tell us about how those divides have evolved and changed from our early compact cities to today's sprawling metropolis with a center city and far-flung suburbs.

The American city is both an ever-changing physical presence and a social and political experiment. The first towns began with Englishmen and Hollanders and slaves from Africa, a beginning our nation is still trying to overcome. We know our urbanized nation today as compositions of highways, suburbs, scattered centers of all kinds. Compared to denser earlier eras it is a confusing physical brew where Americans are trying to live out a social and political goal of cities composed of citizen equals, regardless of color, sex, or class. Our book chronicles the conditions of the past and the progress made along the way. Today it is difficult to estimate what the new global corporate economy will do to our cities because the unexpected has always characterized urban history.

As historians, you typically look backwards at the historical record, but this book provides a detailed look at the city of our current day. What are the key characteristics of our current, modern-day city? What has informed and shaped its form and character? What can we expect for American cities in the foreseeable future?

This being a book about patterns, and your question being one pertaining to the modern-day city, you should consider the last chapter as telling about Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, but also, because it tells about global immigration patterns and re-corporatized downtowns, Toronto, Los Angeles, and Singapore. Certainly immigration and downtown rejuvenation are two characteristics. Another characteristic is the out-migration of the domestically born population, itself a product of de-industrialization, the high cost in terms of education of achieving any financially rewarding employment, and an elevated cost of living, the result of local land and housing policies, national economic policies and fortunes, and global competition for resources. Thus today's city is one of heightened specialization, creativity, inequality, and segregation.

We had discussed writing and illustrating a chapter on our city in the future but that would involve setting a wider agenda. Would we tell a fairy-tale or a nightmare story of where neo-liberalism leads us? Will the city reduce its high level of consumption, and if it does is this because of new technology, better planning, changing tastes, growing poverty or all of the above? Has the so-called "return to the city" resulted in a solution to the jobs-housing imbalance, or a reversed pattern of urban-suburban segregation? Has Greenland melted or has there been another environmental catastrophe? Is our city even there? This is where our creative energies met their end.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

All images from book.

About the Author

  • Richard Florida is Co-founder and Editor at Large of CityLab.com and Senior Editor at The Atlantic. He is director of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto and Global Research Professor at NYU. More
    Florida is author of The Rise of the Creative ClassWho's Your City?, and The Great Reset. He's also the founder of the Creative Class Group, and a list of his current clients can be found here