Revisiting the "Big Theory" on American Urban Development


I like to think I've come a long way since the start of this blog nearly six years ago. There are some early things I've written that have become the focal point of my work today, things I tried to tackle but were better left alone, and things I initiated and warrant a deeper look. This post certainly fits in that third category.

A little more than four years ago, in an attempt to carve out some pseudo-academic territory of my own, I threw out an idea I called the Big Theory of American Urban Development. My premise was that there have been distinct development periods in American history, producing distinct styles of development shaped by the economics of the time, and with transitional periods that separate larger eras where no development type dominates -- until one does. The premise borrows quite a bit from the generational theory presented in The Fourth Turning, a book published in 1997 by William Strauss and Neil Howe. Their book discusses the cyclical nature of our society, as generations that share certain traits exert their impact on the world as they enter various life stages -- as children, as young adults, in middle age and as the elderly.

You can click the link above to see how I initially organized the different development eras in American history, as I saw it. However, here's a quick summation:

The Early Era (1795-1860)

Revolutionary Period (1795-1815)
Plantation Period (1810-1830)
Mercantile Period (1825-1845)
Frontier Period (1840-1860)

The Industrial Era (1870-1935)

Railroad Period (1870-1890)
Industrial Period (1885-1905)
Streetcar Period (1900-1920)
Recreational/Garden City Period (1915-1935)

The Auto Era (1945-2010)

Levittown Period (1945-1965)
Split-Level Period (1960-1980)
Edge City Period (1975-1995)
McMansion Period (1990-2010)

Each era produced development types that supported the economic foundation of the time. Early Era American development was based on settlement and agriculture; Industrial Era development was supported by the rise of manufacturing and the expansion of the nation's rail network; Auto Era development, obviously, was built on the growth of car use and our road infrastructure. Each era also produced development types that became less dense over time, as transportation improvements expanded our world.

Implied in my earlier piece is that the development patterns of our cities are wedded to the development era from which they emerged, and build on that initial foundation. East Coast cities, for example, clearly emerged as cities in the Early Era and maintain development vestiges from that period (mix of building types, pedestrian-oriented street networks, etc.). Much of the Rust Belt exploded in the Industrial Era and has a built environment that reflects that -- an orientation to rail, strong grid networks, large areas devoted to industrial use, and large areas devoted to residents seeking to avoid industrial area impacts. Much of the Sun Belt, particularly in the Gulf South and the Southwest, developed in the Auto Era and has the characteristic horizontal development pattern and extensive highway network.

You'll also note the interregnum periods, from 1860-1870 and from 1935-1945. Those are the periods when larger economic and social events occur that effectively end one era and kick off another. The Civil War and Reconstruction put an end to agricultural America and ushered in the industrial future; the Great Depression and World War II led to American global economic dominance and policy reforms that supported auto-dominant expansion.

Enter the present day. You've probably realized that I put our current time into another interregnum period, starting in 2010 and presumably lasting a few more years, until 2020. There are those who firmly believe we're in the midst of an urban revival, fueled by globalization and technology, that is vaulting global cities far past their non-global counterparts. That is true. But I'd suggest that the urban revival we celebrate isn't necessarily widespread; it's concentrated among a handful of cities that tend to dominate our thinking on cities. We've certainly witnessed the impact of globalization in our coastal cities, but we're beginning to understand that such expansion hasn't filtered to all American cities, and there are legitimate questions as to whether it can and what the future direction might be. And there are metro areas in America that are still quite dependent on the late-period Auto Era model.

Furthermore, more broadly I'd say that that Great Recession put an end to the dominance of the Auto Era that emerged after World War II -- putting urban revival on roughly equal footing with suburban expansion for the first time since the early 20th century. There is no dominant American development pattern at this time. I'm guessing that by the middle of this century people will view this period as one nearly as tumultuous and transitional as the other two I've noted.

So what's next?

It's hard for me to put a defining title on the next development era, but I think I see the elements of it emerging. Of course, my guess is as good as anyone's, but here's what I see. Our development future will be even more urban. It will be based more on the mobility options and opportunities --autonomous and alternatively fueled vehicles -- that will expand this century. It will be more economically unequal in America, as America's economy becomes more equal with the rest of the world. And our development patterns will be something that will adapt to the demands put on it by climate change.

Here's a possible way to organize the bulk of the 21st century, in the same way I've organized the previous 200+ years of American development history:

Urban Revival Period (2020-2040): The rebirth of cities actually does take hold nationally, as growth filters downward from our superstar coastal cities to other cities. Interior cities will tout their assets and amenities and become cheaper alternatives to the coasts.

Urban Suburbia Period (2035-2055): Suburbs will begin a period of adaptation largely based on their proximity to urban growth areas. Suburbs adjacent to strong urban areas will urbanize (incorporate more mixed use development, a variety of housing types, and more walkable) as a complement to renewed interest in urban areas. My guess is that the older forms of the Auto Era, from the Levittown and Split-Level periods, will lead the way here (after a fairly dark period that they've recently entered into).

Exurban Retrenchment (2050-2070): Not all suburbs will have the benefit of adjacency and proximity to build on. I foresee a period where many revert into a semi-rural form, since we'll discover that their current form is economically unsustainable. They'll become local agriculture producers in the way that market gardens (or truck farms) used to be. These will be the areas that developed during the Edge City and McMansion periods.

Climate Adaptation (2065-2085): Some aspects of climate change adaptation are already underway (indeed, some aspects of everything noted here are already underway), but I'm guessing that by the middle of this century climate adaptation will take center stage. Sea rise, super storms, droughts, fires and excessive heat will make places that were perfectly and enjoyably habitable in the 19th and 20th centuries into places far less habitable in the next few decades. Some cities will adapt to the changing climate. Others will have to adapt to the climate refugees -- domestic and international -- that result.

A simple projection of current development trends into the next six decades? Perhaps. A hubristic attempt to outline future development patterns, when we don't have full knowledge of what economic or technological breakthrough might alter the pattern? Almost certainly. But we should start with some base so we can prepare for whatever happens next.

This piece originally appeared on The Corner Side Yard.

Pete Saunders is a Detroit native who has worked as a public and private sector urban planner in the Chicago area for more than twenty years.  He is also the author of "The Corner Side Yard," an urban planning blog that focuses on the redevelopment and revitalization of Rust Belt cities.

Photo: Farmers, producing food on former suburban landscapes and selling them to nearby urban residents, might become more prevalent in the coming decades. Source:

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urban feudalism

It may be possible we are entering an "urban revival" period that will last some time, as this essay proposes. If you can correlate the historical periods of city-building to economic cycles, you may find an interesting result. Your "big theory" conclusions differ a bit from my own, where I really suspect that, by the late nineties, we entered period best described as urban feudalism.

At the end of the nineteenth century assets were highly concentrated among the very few. After that, City growth converted from densification to modernization, with paving roads, adding water and sewer lines, electrification.

In the late twentieth century, we ended this economic cycle with assets even more highly concentrated among the very few. City growth had plateaued by the seventies - some would argue even declined. Activities leaned instead toward modernization once again, with networking and connectivity. Mitchell wrote about this in 1999.

With this high concentration of assets in the hands of a few, our society resembles feudalism now, more than it does anything else. Growth continues out, not up. Cities are enlarging but most people aren't getting any richer. Thus: urban feudalism.

Your timelines are more fine-grained than this broad sketch of two very large economic cycles. Another resource is Cornetet, who studies how capitalism drives architectural styles, to see if your periods jive with the various design movements.

In any case, feudalism was a very long period, hundreds of years, of very stable society that spawned a few great cathedrals and a lot of very nice little towns that we all love to tour while in Europe. Let's get to creating more of these kinds of things instead of the crap that passes for growth today.

Richard T. Reep, AIA, LEED-AP
Adjunct Professor, Rollins College