The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

The Big Theory on American Urban Development

A Google Earth screenshot of Joliet, Illinois, a medium-sized city whose development in microcosm illustrates the entirety of the Industrial and Auto development eras.

Uncertainty about the future of the preferred American development pattern is at a point seen only twice before in our nation’s history.  If a theory I’ve been playing around with is right, our nation is in the midst of a transformation that won’t fully work itself out until the start of the next decade.  And, once the transformation is complete, we may witness a change that many urbanists would be pleased to behold.
Conventional explanations of any preferences of city or suburban development patterns completely miss the mark.  My belief is that each place is “born” into a particular development era, and the pattern that takes hold is the dominant one of that period, set by the economic characteristics and circumstances of the time.  It sets the standard for future development, once locked in.  Only in the last century did we in America start thinking of suburbs as a distinct development type.  Prior to that, there were, of course, large cities and small towns, and neighborhoods close to downtowns and villages at the edge of development.  But there was often very little difference in the development pattern in either location; many small towns established in the 19th Century exhibit a development complexity (I really hesitate to use the word “density”) similar to that of large cities, just on a much smaller scale.  With that in mind, I started to put development patterns into a larger context and see if any kind of patterns emerged.  I think they do, and it can give us some insight on what might happen next in the American landscape.
Since the founding of this nation, there have been three development eras that have held sway on development patterns throughout our land.  Each development era lasts about 65 years (give or take; this is not meant to be as precise as the charts below would suggest), or about three generations.  Each development era ends with an economic, political or social disruption that alters the previous patterns and causes a reset to occur.  America’s founding through the Revolutionary War was the reset that started this pattern. 
Within each development era are four development periods.  Each development period emerges from the specific economic characteristics of the time.  The plantation economy, for example, helped establish the dominant development pattern of much of the South prior to the Civil War, just as cars have created the pattern we have today. 
I should note here that the organization of the thinking behind this theory borrows heavily from William Strauss and Neil Howe’s book The Fourth Turning, published in 1997.  Strauss and Howe’s generational theory suggests that the movement of social generations through history exert great influence on world events.  Here’s how they explain the foundations of their theory:
At the start of each era—or “turning” as the authors call them—people change how they feel about themselves, the culture, the nation, and the future. Each turning tends to last about twenty years: roughly the span of a generation, and the amount of time it takes to pass through one entire phase of life. Four turnings comprise a full cycle of about 80 to 90 years, or the length of one long human life. The Romans named this length of time the saeculum, meaning both “a long human life” and “a natural century.” In Generations, Strauss and Howe trace seven Saecula in Anglo-American history going back to the late 15th century.
The generational turnings ultimately lead to world events and changes in perceptions that change the world:
Each of the four turnings comes with its own identifiable mood, recurring over the centuries, from one saeculum to the next. We can think of these turnings as the seasons of history: At one extreme is the winter or “Crisis,” a period marked by major secular upheaval, when society focuses on reorganizing the outer world of institutions and public behavior. At the other extreme is the summer or “Awakening,” a period marked by cultural or religious renewal, when society focuses on changing the inner world of values and private behavior. Both of these are defining eras in which people observe that historic events are radically altering their social environment. During Crises, great peril provokes a societal consensus, an ethic of personal sacrifice, and strong institutional order. During Awakenings, an ethic of individualism emerges, and the institutional order is attacked by new social ideas and spiritual agendas. Between the Crisis and Awakening are transitional seasons, similar to Spring and Fall.
Whether this book has withstood academic rigor, I do not know.  But I have found this book highly informative.  As Mark Twain once said, “history does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”  Without a doubt I think that generations, with their moods and predilections, have huge impacts on the cycle of events, and that theory can be applied to development patterns in our nation. 
Below are three charts that outline the development eras and subsequent development periods over the last 200+ years:
The Early Era
Revolutionary Period
Growth of American colonial cities into full-fledged independent places, centered on port trade and early roads
Plantation Period
Small agricultural centers (north and south) that sell or process the resources of the ag hinterlands
Mercantile Period
Emergence of cities  based on non-ag resources; improving infrastructure
Frontier Period
Establishment of towns in the Midwest, Plains, Far West
The Industrial Era
Railroad Period
Takes advantage of expanded rail network; emphasis on cleanliness, “getting away from it all”
Industrial Period
Planned industrial communities designed to house workers near employment
Streetcar Period
Neighborhoods built on grid patterns served by expanding streetcar network
Recreational Period
More customized version of railroad period; greater emphasis on exclusivity (golf courses, beautiful natural environments)
The Auto Era
Levittown Period
Development as commodity; emphasis on affordability and homogeneity
Split-Level Period
First serious attempt to attract upper-middle class buyers; emphasis on exclusivity
Edge City Period
Takes advantage of expanded Interstate network; emphasis on access; more mature as communities (more amenities like malls)
McMansion Period
More customized homes; greater emphasis on exclusivity combined with security (gated communities, golf courses)
A few things of note with these charts.  First, I’ve included a little overlap between development periods.  Development takes on all types of forms during all types of eras, and no development pattern is totally exclusive to any given period.  Indeed, new development patterns emerge while others still predominate; they compete until one wins out and emerges as the latest dominant development pattern.
Early Era Development Pattern Overlaps
Industrial Era Development Pattern Overlaps
Auto Era Development Pattern Overlaps
It’s fair to say that many of the overlap periods roughly corresponds to business cycle plateaus or declines that eventually became recessions, or the emergence from a recession.
Second, there are large ten-year gaps (1860-1870, and 1935-1945) that aren’t part of any development era at all.  Most people would recognize those periods as the time of the Civil War and Reconstruction, and the Great Depression and World War II, respectively.  It’s fair to say that during these particularly difficult periods in our nation’s history that there wasn’t any appreciable addition to America’s built environment, in terms of housing and commercial development.  There was, however, a lot of infrastructure development (railroads in the 1860’s and New Deal public works projects in the 1930’s) that enabled future development patterns to sprout.
Lastly, keen observers will note that I show the last period ending in 2010 with what I call the McMansion Period, with no overlapping period that we’ve transitioned into.  Yes, that means that I put the 2008 financial crisis in the same vein as the Great Depression in terms of its impact on American development patterns, and that the consensus hasn’t fully developed on the next American development era.

This is a theory in process, warts and all.  I’ll add to this at a later date to provide more details and context.

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