Influences Past and Future

by Carolyn Chase


The Fannie Mae Foundation has released a survey ranking the top 10 influences on American cities over the past half century and the future 50 years titled "The American Metropolis at Century's End: Past and Future Influences."

Robert Fishman, Rutgers University and principal author of the study said the single most important message of the survey is the overwhelming impact the federal government has had on the American metropolis with policies that "intentionally or unintentionally promoted suburbanization and sprawl."

The survey is part of a research project that looks at housing and metropolitan issues since the passage of the 1949 Federal Housing Act.

"We launched this research to better understand the influences of the policies, actions and events that have most powerfully shaped America's post-war cities and suburbs," said James H. Carr, senior vice president for Innovation, Research and Technology at the Fannie Mae Foundation. "By better understanding both the intended and unintended consequences of our policies and actions, we can make better decisions on issues that will shape the metropolis of tomorrow."

"The American metropolis at the brink of century's end is vastly different than what many experts expected just 50 years ago," said Fishman. "Early planners envisioned a clean, rationally planned city of the future, free of long-standing problems such as traffic and poverty. The reality is much more complex. We built a new metropolis that addressed some major problems while simultaneously creating a host of new ones. The next 50 years will undoubtedly contain similar surprises."

The following are the top influences in rank order made by members of Society for American City and Regional Planning History. The membership is composed of urban historians, social scientists, planning faculty, and working planners and architects.

The Past 50 Years

  1. The 1956 Interstate Highway Act and the dominance of the automobile.
  2. Federal Housing Administration mortgage financing and subdivision
  3. De-industrialization of central cities.
  4. Urban renewal: downtown redevelopment and public housing projects
    (e.g., 1949 Housing Act).
  5. Levittown (the mass-produced suburban tract house.
  6. Racial segregation and job discrimination in cities and suburbs.
  7. Enclosed shopping malls.
  8. Sunbelt-style sprawl.
  9. Air conditioning.
  10. Urban riots of the 1960s.

The Next 50 Years

  1. Growing disparities of wealth.
  2. Suburban political majority.
  3. Aging of the baby boomers.
  4. Perpetual "underclass" in central cities and inner-ring suburbs.
  5. "Smart Growth:" environmental and planning initiatives to limit sprawl.
  6. Internet.
  7. Deterioration of the "first-ring" post-1945 suburbs.
  8. Shrinking household size.
  9. Expanded superhighway system of "outer beltways" to serve new-edge cities.
  10. Racial integration as part of the increasing diversity in cities and suburbs.

As might be expected, Fishman noted the surveyed respondents were in disagreement more about the future than the past. "Most foresaw the continuation and even intensification of the 'urban crisis' that has characterized the past 50 years. New technology in the form of the Internet made number six on the list but it would have ranked higher if the likely impact of this technology on the metropolis were clearer." he suggested.

English urbanist Sir Peter Hall has observed that the difficulty in predicting the impact of the Internet on our metropolitan areas can be compared with the difficulty observers faced 80 years ago in predicting the impact of the automobile. Intelligent observers then could see that the automobile would change the structure of American cities, but they could not actually imagine Los Angeles or the other automobile cities that would eventually emerge.

In the next 50 years, as the exchange of information increasingly replaces the physical production and movement of goods as the primary function of cities, the Internet will inevitably change the structure of our built environment. The survey conclusions note that perhaps the most that can be said at present is that, "compared with previous means of (physical) communication such as canals, railroads, or highways, the 'information superhighway' is radically flexible. While railroads tended to favor the big cities and highways favored the suburbs, the Internet can potentially spur economic development on the most remote mountainside, in the densest downtown, and anywhere in between. Some observers assert that the Internet will doom cities to obsolescence as cyberspace communication replaces the face-to-face contacts that cities used to provide. Others see big cities reborn as hip environments where the art world and other urban-based centers of creativity meet the new technology of communications."

Almost all the "Most Likely Influences in the Future" touch on the challenges of managing growth including the number once concern: the increasingly hourglass or dumbbell-shaped society with the rich getting richer and the poor working harder and staying poor.

The report notes, "Other likely trends include a home-building industry increasingly focused on high-end 'trophy houses' or 'tract mansions;' a similar concentration in retailing on the 'upscale' mall; office parks located near the enclaves where the top executives live - locations that often leave the bulk of the employees with long, difficult commutes; and increasing disparities between the quality of the school systems and other services in elite suburbs versus less-favored suburbs and inner cities. We are also likely to see new building focused not just on the outer edge of a region but in certain 'quadrants' favored by the affluent."

As a possible antidote to urban problems the survey cites six key elements of "smart growth" as emerging: (1) an urban growth boundary to stop sprawl; (2) efforts to focus growth around transit lines and their stops; (3) redevelopment of the downtown to give the region a coherent focus; (4) a new emphasis on 'infilling' within already-developed areas rather than "greenfield" development at the edge; (5) design guidelines that emphasize walking-scale communities instead of automobile-based sprawl, and (6) an elected regional government to administer these programs and maintain popular support and debate.

"Smart growth means essentially planned growth, especially planning initiatives to limit sprawl at the edge of a region and preserve open space. But smart growth proponents realize that for such measures to be effective at the edge they require action throughout the region. Smart growth must be backed by a wide-ranging regional coalition, including good working relationships between the central city and its suburbs, and between urban and rural interests. It also requires good working relationships among the different levels of government: municipal, county, state, and federal."

These conditions have rarely been met in American cities and regions and few would even suggest that they are being met in San Diego today. While many San Diego politicians and leaders have genuflected with smart growth rhetoric, recent proposals by State Senator Steve Peace to get serious about moving in the direction of a real regional government are being lambasted and ridiculed by many local elected officials.

Nevertheless, the grass-roots desire to contain sprawl and the loss of open space - combined with the economic imperative that regions with a high quality of life succeed best in the global economy - have made smart growth a movement that politicians and developers must reckon with.