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Urbanisation in the United States 1970-1990

Wissenschaftlicher Aufsatz 2012 23 Seiten

Amerikanistik - Kultur und Landeskunde


Table of Contents



Research Questions

Research Methods

Brief Historical Background (Early America)

Urban America-I (1900-1970): Suburbanisation

Post World War II

Move to Suburbania: A new level of urbanisation

Urban America -II (1970-1990): New Urban Revival

Economic crisis of the 1970s

Social and Consumer Movements

Dimensions of the New Urban Revival


Urban and Suburban Growth

Demographic Change

Rural-Urban Disparity

Explanations of Urbanisation (1970-90)

Post-counter urbanization: 1980s Re-urbanisation and Viscious Circle of Urban America

Demographic Change (1980-90)

Socio-economic Costs of the Urbanisation of 1970s and 1980s: A Brief Analysis




The United States went through a brief transition to peacetime after the bloodshed of the most expensive and catastrophic war in human history, the Second World War. Since 1950 America experienced a robust growth till the early 1970s which started with President Truman's domestic agenda, Fair Deal, in 1949. With this, the historical background of urban America was founded, a full swing urban growth which coincided with the period of baby boom (1946-mid 60s).1 Seventy-six million children were born, which contributed to the expanding postwar economy and also created an enormous demand for housing. Along with the GI Bill, the government supported suburban growth by making money available for homes through the Bill and authorizing the Federal Housing Administration to insure loans for up to 95 percent of the value of a home.

Urban America accompanied by various programmes (in housing, employment benefits, desegregation efforts and civil rights, etc.) meant for social upliftment of minorities and end of discrimination against many blacks and Hispanics, that was rampant during the period following the victorious war, experienced Watts riots that came just after four days of signing of the historic Voting Rights Act on August 10, 1965 by President Lyndon B. Johnson.2

The Voting Rights Act was a significant achievement of the Civil Rights movement that cost the lives of greats like Martin Luther King Jr. and others. There were plenty of signs of trouble brewing in urban conglomerates, and the Great Society was partly in response to those problems. However, the urban riots and the way urban America was adapting to changes of the 1960s made it clear that a new period for urban America was beginning.3

Indeed, a new urban revival with more urban scholarship and unique way of urbanisation offered the era of 1970s and 1980s to a new level of urban revival that marked the coming of urban crisis that began in the late 1960s and lasted until approximately 1990. The crisis has many dimensions and is vast to study. The paper primarily looks into the urbanisation process of 1970s and 80s with a brief historical background of the post Second World War American urbanisation.

Finally, it focuses in the direction of the new urbanisation movement and the new urban revival of the decades. The paper will look into following main areas of the whole urbanisation process from 1970 to 1990.

They are:

I.) the economic and social crises confronting America in 1970s and 1980s.
II.) the urban growth pattern (counter-urbanisation) and changing demography across the State during the period particularly in the developed and industrialised regions of Northeast & Mid- west United States and Sunbelt regions of Southern and South-West United States.
III.) theoretical explanations for the new urban revival (1970-90).
IV.) socio-economic and environmental costs of urbanisation.
V.) conclusion.


Urbanisation is closely linked to modernisation, industrialisation and sociological rationalisation process that started unfolded with the advent of the 20th century AD. The word urban (derived from from Latin word "urbane") relates to or constituting a city. It also means polished and smooth. When we discuss about the urbanisation in the United States post- 1945 or 50s, it connotes the massive transformation of American social roots and land from a predominantly less developed urban culture to a more developed (higher state of) urban culture.4

The urbanisation of America is rooted in the massive government development drive that started with the end of the Second World War and emergence of the bitter Cold War rivalry between the East and the West, the epicentre of the latter was the United States. However, the philosophical foundation of urban America and consequent variational growth pattern in every aspects of Americans in the second half of the century lies with national ethos of “American Dream”, coined by historian James Truslow Adams in his book Epic of America (1931).5

The rationale behind American Dream was the massive urge among the Americans to free themselves from poverty, inherent class and ethnic divisions among citizens and embraced a new kind of urban dream that began to identify with material prosperity - like home ownership - which had to do with status symbol and upward social mobility after the glorious Progressive era till 1920s (Joan Hoff Wilson 1975).

Research Questions

Was there any correlation between the economic crises of 1970s and early 80s and the urbanisation pattern in the US in the same period?

Why the need for a new suburbanization culture arose in industrialised areas and how the change in demography and its growth pattern in the late 1970s and throughout 1980s produced a different socio-economic landscape across regions of urban America?

What are the social costs of the new urbanisation and how would be the future trend of the new urban revival (its future)?

Research Methods

The paper employs deductive-analytical method to examine, analyse and explain the 1970s and 1980s urbanisation pattern, developmental growth and population growth dynamics in the United States amidst many socio-economic challenges. It also uses quantitative and qualitative methods to support the explanation and achieve the purpose of the paper. It adopts descriptive methodology to maintain coherence in explaining the urbanisation process during the mentioned period using historical datas and facts.

Brief Historical Background (Early America)

Before we start discussing on the urbanisation post-1945 and the decades of 1970-90, it will be easier to proceed if we look at the brief background of what America was at its nascent stage with the help of available data.

The early United States was predominantly rural. Ninety-five percent of the population lived in countryside and remaining 5 percent was residing in urban areas (places with more than 2,500 persons). Only Philadelphia, New York and Boston had more than 15,000 inhabitants. The South was almost completely rural.6 By 1830, industrialisation had produced substantial growth in cities, and thirty-five percent in America lived in urban areas, mostly in the northern half of the United States. The South didn't change much except for New Orleans and the Americans living in cities and urban conglomerates didn't pass the number in rural areas until 1920 and since the World War II the southern half has become increasingly urbanised particularly in Texas, Arizona, Florida and states along the eastern seaboard.7

Urban America-I (1900-1970): Suburbanisation

By the end of the 19th century, the United States had already eclipsed Britain as the wealthiest nation in the world in a very peaceful and gradual manner.8 The Progressive movement had a strong impact on the culture and administrative efficiency of the United States. It helped to reduce corruption, establishing housing codes, muckrakers9 encouraged readers to demand more regulation of business and heavy government regulations through a series of laws on trade broke monopoly on trade and business.

The core ideas of American Dream that sailed the majority of the population with progressive transformations in women rights, voting rights, good governance, optimistic approach to social problems, etc. somehow became the causes of urbanisation movement that started with the entry of roaring 1920s.10 Regulatory approaches to the cities' problems expanded during the FDR's New Deal of 1930s. However, the rise in organised crimes in the Prohibition Era (1920-33) was successfully curbed gradually through federal prosecutions and strict laws and by 1950s and 60s crime rate came down.

Post World War II

Since the World War II to the early 1970s was the golden era of American capitalism. $200 billion in war bonds matured, and the G.I. Bill financed a well-educated work force.11 The middle class swelled, GDP and productivity went a record high. The U.S. underwent a kind of golden age of economic growth that could more or less evenly distribute across the economic classes. Much of the growth came from the movement of low income farm workers into better paying jobs in the towns and cities—a process largely completed by 1960.

The Keynesian12 model of economic growth was regarded as a standard for the economy following the Great Depression and the war. Massive beautification drives, electrification, libraries, parks, roads and infrastructural development was seen mostly under public sector entities with heavy government engagement in developmental works. In fact, 1956 Federal Highway Acts facilitated the federal control, organization, and funding of nation-wide road development. Prior to these acts many roads were impassable, or very poorly maintained.

Move to Suburbania: A new level of urbanisation

A surge in prosperity ignited demand for suburban single-family homes (as opposed to inner city apartments) and new optimism about the future. 1950s postwar prosperity and policies of the Federal government in the post-World War II era, such as the building of an efficient network of roads, highways and superhighways propelled the creation of suburbs and the popularization of the automobile, which in turn caused the decline of cities as wealthy whites left urban areas for suburban ones.13

The returning GIs needed houses and the G.I. Bill enabled a flood of home purchases. Levittown, New York developed as a major prototype of mass-produced housing caters to their needs and soon this style of low-cost, newer, cleaner, far from congested city-dwellings with better-funded schools, more privacy, crimeless and scenic beauty housings called suburbs expanded rapidly in the 1950s and 1960s. In the U.S., 1950 was the first year that more people lived in suburbs than elsewhere. Moreover, the development of skyscrapers and the sharp inflation of downtown real estate prices also led to downtowns being more fully dedicated to businesses, thus pushing residents outside the city centre.14 Shopping malls began to appear since the mid-1950s near the suburbs. Entertainment and film centres also mushroomed.

Identical houses and streets are the two common features of such suburb houses that gives space to many across the country staying and sharing together a same urban conglomerate and give a heterogenous outlook of the American society that was absent in the central cities. Many suburbs are based on a heterogeneous society of working-class and minority residents, many of whom share the American Dream regarding home ownership as defined by developers and the power of advertising. (Sies 2001: 27).

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Fig.:- A suburban development in San Jose, California.


These suburbs targeted narrow segments of broad middle class particularly, blue collar jobs with middle incomes. Air-conditioning, an invention of the rapid growth and advancement of science and technology of the time, helped overcome environmental conditions in the South-East and South-west that were perceived drawbacks of year-round living in these regions (Tampa, Phoenix, Las Vegas, etc.).

Increasingly, as the suburbanisation picks up its pace, the ethnicity and class divisions that exist in and around the metropolitan city centres began to crumble down. Indeed, the rise of suburbs or suburbanisation in the US not only sucked out the people of different ethnicity and class from their collectives in the city-centres to the suburbs but also broke the existing barriers and making them more indivisualised and create nuclear-families (John F. McDonald 2008).

This kind of suburbanisation was happening at the background of bitter Cold War rivalry between the United States and the erstwhile Soviet Union that spurred the development of technology aimed at keeping the United States ahead of its perceived adversaries. "Kitchen Debate" between the then Vice-President Richard Nixon and Premier Nikita Khruschev in July 1959 was significant event that showcase the importance of a suburban way of life- an indication of American standard of living not only popular but also a universal model.15 This type of urbanisation continues until new socio-economic challenges paused the growth of urbanisation and its pattern and modifies into a new form of urbanisation in the United States that began with the onset of 1970s till 1990.

Urban America -II (1970-1990): New Urban Revival

Economic crisis of the 1970s

The post war boom ended with the worst economic crisis since the "Great Depression" and led to the collapse of Bretton Woods system in 1971-72. A series of economic downturns hit American economy which includes the 1973 oil crisis, the 1973-74 stock market crash following long stagflation under the then President Richard Nixon accompanied by growing influx of imported manufacturing goods, such as automobiles and electronics. The industrial growth and GDP growth was at its lowest level and the unemployment rate particularly in the northern was rising which prompted Nixon to close the gold window at the Federal Reserve, taking the United States entirely off the gold standard. This sealed the fate of Keynesian model of economics and replaced by alternative represented by the free-market Chicago School of Economics.16

Social and Consumer Movements

This period also saw the increasing rise of the environmental and consumer movements, and the government established new regulations and regulatory agencies such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and others.

Environmental groups successfully made the plans for the SST (Supersonic Transport) planes scrapped because of noise pollution and danger to ozone layer and the Trans-Alaskan Pipeline Project was withhold in 1973 due to their efforts. Earth day was celebrated on April 22, 1970. Besides, women movements for political and economic equality (Equal Rights Amendment) Minority rights movements (Desegregation efforts affirmative action programs) were increasingly popular. The 1970s also saw the Mexican-American and Asian groups especially achieved significant advances.

Dimensions of the New Urban Revival


After 1976, both new home and construction and sale of older houses dropped sharply due to high interest rates.17 Energy crisis prompted extensive extractive industry development in non- metropolitan South-West, West and Appalachia.18 There was reduction in employment in the north. Population density was shifting from the industrial northern "Rust Belt"to the Southern and South-west, "Sun Belt",due to easing of immigration laws and many legal immigrants from Latin America and Asia.19 Despite the difficulties housing sector boomed and urbanisation went on throughout 1970s.


1 According to the U.S. Census Bureau (Jan., 3, 2001), making up for lost time, millions of returning veterans soon married and started families. Indeed, twice as many Americans were married in 1946 as in 1932. The birth rate soared between 1946 and 1964, reaching its highest level in 1952. This created enormous demand for housing and rise of a new kind of urbanisation and urban culture called sururbania started with a bang.

2 A civil disturbance in the Watts neighbourhood of Los Angeles from August 11 to 17, 1965. The six-day riot resulted in 34 deaths and many injured. There is still arguments to the exact cause of the bloody riots but commonly accepted reason holds that it arose because of segregation, white racism against blacks and minorities and excessive political and police brutalities against black minorities in the Watts under police chief William H. Parker. See the novel, The New Centurions, by Joseph Wambaugh.

3 Ibid

4 As defined by Lewis Mumford in his “The Natural History of Urbanisation.”

5 Truslow coined and described ‘American Dream’ as “life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement" regardless of social class or circumstances of birth.” See Harold Bloom and Blake Hobby (2009), eds. “The American Dream”

6 1790 Census Data, US Census Bureau.

7 Ibid

8 The United States eclipsed Britain as the world’s wealthiest major nation in about 1903. For more information, see "The U.S. Economy at the Beginning and End of the 20th Century", Joint Economic Committee Office of the Chairman, U.S. Senator Connie Mack.

9 The term muckraker refers to reform-minded journalists who wrote largely for popular magazines, continued a tradition of investigative journalism, reporting, and emerged in the United States after 1900 and continued to be influential until World War I, associated with the Progressive Era of the 19220s. URL:

10 The Roaring Twenties represents a period of tax cuts, blooming of tourism and automobile industries at its highest level since the nation's birth. The period of prosperity along with the culture of the time was given the needed boost by Republican President Warren G. Harding and his Secretary of Treasury, Andrew Mellon, who used the large surplus from raising tariff and tax-cuts to bridge the federal debt by a third from 1920 to 1930.

11 G.I. Bill, G.I. abbreviated as General Issue, was a law that provided a range of benefits for returning World War II veterans (commonly referred to as G.I.s). Benefits included low-cost mortgages, loans to start a business or farm, cash payments of tuition and living expenses to attend college, high school or vocational education, as well as one year of unemployment compensation. This period saw many war veterans and young soldiers filling up the American campuses and getting jobs and housing quite easily.

12 Keynesian economics (after British economist John Maynard Keynes) advocates a mixed economy – predominantly private sector, but with a role for government intervention during recessions – and in the US served as the standard economic model during the later part of the Great Depression and World War II.

13 13Suburban refers to smaller cities located on the edges of the larger city which often include residential neighbourhoods for those working in the area. See, Beauregard, Robert A. (2006), When America Became Suburban.,Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

14 The suburbs in the US grew dramatically after World War II when the superhighways and freeways combined with the somewhat modest cost of automobiles, the movement out of the inner city and into the suburbs was on. Moving along with the population, many companies also located their offices and other facilities in the outer areas of the cities. This has resulted in increased density in older suburbs and, often, the growth of lower density suburbs even further from city centres. Ibid.

15 See,, 176.

16 See Michael French (1997), US Economic History since 1945, Manchester: Manchester University Press.

17 Under former President Carter, the economic growth continued to be low with lower industrial output. Interest rates remained high, with the prime reaching 20% in January 1981; Art Buchwaldquipped that 1980 would go down in history as the year when it was cheaper to borrow money from the Mafia than the local bank. In March 1980, Carter introduced his own policies for reducing inflation, and the Federal Reserve brought down interest rates to cooperate with the initiatives. Also see, "Carter vs. Inflation" (1980) Time.

18 Appalachia is a cultural region in the eastern United States that stretches from the Southern Tier of New York state to northern Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia. URL:

19 President Johnson's Great Society and his legislations on Voting Rights and Civil Rights in the mid- 1960s helped many immigrants particularly from Latin American and Asia to settle in the Sun belt region. The new urbanisation in the southern and south-west cities attracts many corporates and big firms that could employ these new immigrants at cheaper prices. For more information see,


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Titel: Urbanisation in the United States 1970-1990