The city, the future, and you – futurama

August 30th, 2012 | By Glen Hiemstra | Posted in Millennial City | Comments Off

This year Canadian futurist and writer Dennis Walsh and I began a conversation about a book on the future of cities. As the conversation continued the concept moved toward a discussion of cities but more so of the personal choices we face if we are to make cities and by extension the planet a sustainable place to live. These choices loom large for young people as they shape their own lives, and, we hope, save the future. Now we are writing, and have decided to release the first draft of the book as a blog serial. This is part 1 of Chapter 2. Our plan is to publish a new book blog nearly every day for the next couple of months. We will publish them both here on futurist.com and on dothefuture.com. Later we will compile the blogs into an e-book.

We are debating the eventual title. We started with two choices: “Downtown” and “Shine…The Rebirth of American Cities.” Which do you like? We hope you will find the subject of interest and follow this book in serial form. A reader has suggested, “City Transformation.” So far, “Downtown” with a subtitle is leading. What do you think?

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CHAPTER TWO – Part 1
by Dennis Walsh and Glen Hiemstra

In the America of our memories we think of ourselves as a rural people, a pioneer people, a country of courageous loners heading off into the wilderness to carve out a new place. We dream this dream of the past although even the early immigrant settlers gathered in villages and towns as much as they lived on lonely homesteads.

The anti-urban bias in our history is very old. Thomas Jefferson derided cities as “sores.” Tracing mistrust of cities all the way back to George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, the historian Thomas Bender has written: “Are cities American? Yes and no. Cities and their populations have never been completely excluded from the promise of American life, but neither have they yet been wholly accepted.”

Perhaps they have never been wholly accepted, but cities have always been growing larger. By 1900, while 60% of Americans lived in rural areas, New York housed over 1.4 million people, Chicago 1.7 million, Philadelphia 1.3 million. As the 20th Century dawned the first urban explosion was just beginning. The final industrial revolution was drawing people like a magnet from the country to the city. By 1920 New York had ballooned to 5.6 million, Chicago to 2.7 million, Philadelphia to 1.8 million. There were over 20 cites in the U.S with populations over 300,000 by the end of that second decade of the 20th Century.

The future – if we are to have one worth living – belongs to you, the younger generation. It is time to get ready; time to make critical choices like, “how are you going to spend the rest of your life”, “where will you live”, “what work will you chose”.

It has been said that you can’t know where you’re going until you know where you’ve been. The past is not a map to where you are going, it’s a record of where you have been. A map of the past can serve you by reminding you of lessons learned so you can avoid them in the future. Where better to look than to the auto industry?

With the Roaring ‘20′s, the automobile era was underway, changing the nature of cities dramatically. By 1940 Detroit and Los Angeles, each a creature of the auto age and each with more than 1.5 million residents, had replaced Cleveland and St. Louis among the five largest of U.S. cities and 56% of Americans had settled in urban areas. The nation had become a collection of cities.

It is this later history of American cities and culture that we want to explore next, the period of 1940 up to more recent days. It was the cultural dynamics of these years, more than any other period that shaped the cities that you have inherited.

The ultimate suburban dream began, arguably, at the New York World’s Fair of 1939 and ’40. “Highways and Horizons,” better known as “Futurama,” was overwhelmingly the fair’s most popular exhibit; perhaps 10 percent of the American population saw it. At the heart of the exhibit was a scale model, covering an area about the size of a football field, that showed what American cities and towns might look like in 1960.

Visitors watched matchbox-sized cars zip down wide highways. Gone were the crowded tenements of the time; 1960s Americans would live in stand-alone houses with spacious yards and attached garages. By todays standards, the exhibit would not impress us, but at the time, it inspired wonder. E. B. White wrote in Harper’s, “A ride on the Futurama … induces approximately the same emotional response as a trip through the Cathedral of St. John the Divine … I didn’t want to wake up.”

Just six years later World War II came to an end and millions of the displaced were more or less resettled. European and Asian cities began to be rebuilt from ashes and piles of rubble. Ironically, the most destructive war in history brought about the emergence of the strongest and biggest economy in the world. Some feared that the end of the War would lead the United States back to depression. Today, others argue that the country’s participation in World War II finally saved it from the Great Depression. It makes better sense that way. After all, the entire economy was propelled by war. By 1950, the United States economy was growing rapidly.

While most major economies were slow to recover, war placed the United States at an advantage over both its allies and its enemies. World War II accelerated the pace of change, in weaponry, transportation, communications, electronics, medicine, and technology. The War provided opportunities that would later be manifested. America’s products went overseas. That in-itself was an introduction to new markets and a taste of what would later become known as globalization.

War recruited millions of Americans to the “front”. Factories were built to produce guns and ammunitions, military transport, tanks, fighter planes and bombers. Investments were made in defense of the country. Fuelled by billions in government spending, industry hired hundreds of thousands of workers in major factories. Jobs gave life to industries. And for the first time, women were given the opportunity to work outside the home to participate in nation building.

Americans hoped for much and achieved much. We put our faith in institutions, social and political. That both strengthened and shook us, often at the same time and sometimes by the same events. The war changed everything. Victory brought confidence, in the government and the economy. And consumer demand spurred growth. The newspaper business, the agriculture industry, transport, automobile, aviation, electronics, housing and even Hollywood prospered. New homes meant furniture and appliances as well as new cars.

An acute post-war housing shortage had developed when millions of veterans came home, got married, and started families. The primary solution to this problem was to make futurama real. When you explore an historic city you can find suburbs that existed even centuries ago – often houses on the hill from which people commuted to the town center by foot, cart or horse. But nothing matched the scale of the new suburbs. Invented by William J. Levitt, who applied Henry Ford’s mass production techniques for cars to building homes, the new Levittowns broke the mold on city building. He divided home construction into 27 separate steps, each one being handled by a separate team specializing in that step. The modern suburb was born.

Post-war prosperity in the economy further encouraged suburban growth. With higher wages and lower interest rates, Americans could afford to live in newer residential developments farther away from urban areas. In 1940, over half of the U.S. population resided in rural or densely populated areas, whereas only 15% lived in suburban areas.

Americans were sold, and quit eagerly bought notions of workers escaping the noise, crime and pollution of city life to the perceived calm of the suburbs. Zoning ordinances separated residential development from commercial and industrial. A type of segregation removed people from where they worked, shopped and recreated, making the automobile indispensable. As Americans were lured to the suburbs, the construction of better highways made the transition possible.

The Federal Housing Administration and Veterans Administration loan programs in the years following the Second World War provided mortgages for over eleven million new homes. These mortgages, which typically cost less per month than paying rent, were directed at new single-family suburban construction. Intentionally or not, the FHA and VA programs discouraged the renovation of existing housing stock, while turning their back on the construction of row houses, mixed-use buildings, and other urban housing types.

With the post-WWII boom in home construction under way, in 1953 President Eisenhower appointed the then-president of General Motors, Charles Wilson, as Secretary of Defense and DuPont’s chief, Secretary of Transportation (DuPont was GM’s biggest investor). These two set out to pave over America for the auto. DuPont got Eisenhower to set up the Highway Trust Fund that funneled gasoline tax money into highway construction. Two thirds of these funds went to build inner-city freeways. Meanwhile, GM, recognizing the limits of bus sales as contrasted with automobiles, changed its tactics, and convinced the House of Representatives to deny all funding for public transportation, hoping to reduce bus service. The money was diverted to freeways. By the 1950′s buses were disappearing and everyone was opting for a car. While post-war Europe and Japan were rebuilding their rail transit, America was destroying hers.
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[Glen Hiemstra is the Founder of Futurist.com, and curator of Dothefuture.com. Dennis Walsh is a sustainability futurist from Canada best known for his work as the first publisher of green@work. Contact us through futurist.com]