Urban Development In The 1900s
At the dawn of the 20th century, suburbia was a dream
inspired by revulsion to the poverty and crowding of the cities. In the visions
of architects such as Frederick Law Olmsted, there would be neighborhood parks,
tree-lined streets and low-density housing free from the pollution and social
problems of the cities. As the top map of the New York City metropolitan area
shows, commuter suburbs had sprung up near the railway lines on Long Island
and Westchester County by 1930, but further expansion was fueled in large part
by the automobile. Eventually it was apparent that much of suburbia--Levittown
was the popular example--was not delivering on the early promise, although for
many, even Levittown must have seemed like heaven compared with the tenements
of their childhood.
The extraordinary growth of car ownership in 20th-century America was made possible by abundant domestic oil, the world's largest highway system, and low taxes on vehicles and gasoline. But suburban growth would not have been nearly as great were it not for government policies that penalized cities and rewarded suburbs. For instance, federal mortgage insurance programs tended to promote new housing on outlying land rather than repair of existing city housing and, furthermore, excluded racially mixed neighborhoods that were deemed unstable. American communities have far fewer impediments to expansion than European ones: London, for instance, restricted sprawl by establishing greenbelts on its periphery.
Tax deductions for mortgage interest in the U.S. have been larger than those of most other countries. Furthermore, suburban jurisdictions in the U.S. have far greater zoning powers than their foreign counterparts and use this power to reinforce low-density housing by requiring large lots, thus increasing the number of affluent taxpayers and reducing the need to supply services to needy families. Arguably, the most important stimulus to white flight out of the city was fear of crime, particularly crime by blacks--a fear reinforced by the social pathologies of public housing, where blacks and other minorities predominate. Such apprehension helps to explain why revitalization projects and improved mass-transit systems have failed to lure the middle class back to the city in large numbers.
Suburban expansion may conjure up images of aesthetic degradation and cultural sterility, but it has provided better housing for millions. In the process of suburbanization, low-income city families have also benefited because of the housing stock that became available as the middle class fled. By spreading out, U.S. cities avoided the sometimes oppressive densities of Japanese and European cities. Indeed, so great is the compaction in Tokyo that Japanese officials see deconcentration as a high priority.
Overall, however, the suburban push financially hurt cities, which saw their tax bases shrink. They were disproportionately affected by unfunded federal mandates and thus hindered in efforts to provide quality schools and reliable municipal services. Indeed, New York City's fiscal problems in the 1970s followed, and were exacerbated by, the previous decades' massive middle-class exodus into the suburbs. The exodus, rather than population growth, drove suburban proliferation: from 1970 to 1990 regional population grew by only 8 percent, but urban land increased by 65 percent. Unlike other cities, such as Detroit, New York has maintained a vibrant economy, partly because millions of immigrants, many well educated and interested in starting new businesses, have replaced the old middle class. Certain other cities as disparate as Los Angeles, Miami, San Francisco and Omaha have also benefited substantially from international migration.