Category Archives: History

Accelerated Depreciation = Accelerated Suburbia

The following is an excerpt from the article “Talking Shopping Center” by Tom Hanchett.

The thing that struck me as I started my research was how long it took for that idea to catch on. Despite wide publicity for that first one [Country Club Plaza in Kansas City], shopping centers remained a rarity for thirty years. The problem was cost. Erecting a big new shopping center made economic sense only in very well-to-do neighborhoods. If you’re a real estate developer, it makes much more sense just to sell house lots because you get your money back immediately. You have to operate a shopping center for many years before you make a profit. In Kansas City, the developer was already making a bundle of bucks from his lot sales and he figured he could sell even more houselots by building that shopping center — as an attraction, a loss leader.

Not until the mid 1950s did shopping centers appear in any numbers. The first enclosed shopping mall is generally considered to be Southdale Mall, built in 1956 outside of Minneapolis. Then suddenly shopping centers take off, and they’re EVERYWHERE. Why then? Why so suddenly?

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The Density of Traditional Urbanism

Terry Holzheimer, economic development director for Arlington, VA, had a clever idea. Usually the density of neighborhoods is measured in residents per acre. But historic neighborhoods and transit oriented development are mixed use, so there may be all sorts of activities that don’t get counted by the usual methods. Why not add residents and jobs together to get a measure of “overall intensity”?

That’s exactly what Holzheimer did in his short paper, Urban Development Intensities in the Washington, DC Metropolitan Area. He looked at overall intensity for historic neighborhoods and for new, transit oriented, mixed use centers. For good measure, he also looked at suburban employment centers, including the so-called edge cities like Tysons Corner.

The unexpected conclusion: Historic neighborhoods are more intense than edge cities.

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Photo Gallery: Québec City

Québec City in the province of Québec: 399 years old and going strong. A few existing sections remain from the 17th century, and most of the Old Town was built during the 18th and early 19th centuries.

Climbing the cliff from Lower Town to Upper Town on Côte de la Montagne.

At the foot of the funicular (an easier way to travel up the cliff) on the Quartier Petit Champlain commercial street.

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Connectivity Part 3: Latter Half of the 20th Century

This is part 3 of a series. See also IntroductionHistorical BackgroundNeighborhood WalkingNeighborhood CrimeVehicle Miles and TrafficCrash Safety

Disconnected street networks were the default, entrenched pattern of development in post-WWII America. However, by the early 1960s a backlash had arisen in opposition to the conventional planning wisdom. This countermovement snowballed through the 60s and 70s, and by the 1980s the issue had filtered into the architectural profession and scholarly research.

Part II of this series described how disconnected street patterns became ubiquitous in U.S., with the mandate in particular coming from the Federal Housing Administration. By 1941, over 200 cities had instituted subdivision regulations that encouraged disconnected street patterns.

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Colonial-Era Zoning

Whether or not one calls it zoning, the U.S. has had geographic restrictions on polluters since colonial times. The article ‘Knowing’ Industrial Pollution: Nuisance Law and the Power of Tradition in a Time of Rapid Economic Change, 1840-1864 by Christine Meisner Rosen provides a revealing history:

… colonial governments passed ordinances requiring the owners of slaughterhouses and other nuisance business to clean their premises and forbidding them to toss their wastes into adjacent streets, street drains, and streams. They also used their police powers to separate the traditional nuisance industries from people living in densely settled parts of towns, villages, and cities by relegating those industries to peripheral locations. To institutionalize the principle of separation, several colonial governments enacted laws that authorized municipal governments to regulate the location of nuisance industries. Elsewhere, colonial and early national town and state governments protected communities against egregious industrial stenches through public nuisance actions, using their police powers to force businesses that violated the norm of separation to shut down and relocate to less densely populated areas.

That was the regulatory response to traditional nuisances like slaughterhouses and tanneries. But when industrial pollution began impacting the quality of urban life, the law could not adapt to rapid change. Judges and juries were blind to the harms caused by new technologies, a blindness that seems to have been rooted in cognitive psychology. Industrial pollution was too new and unfamiliar; judges could not conceive that the impacts were equal to — or worse than — traditional nuisances.

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Streetcars of Eugene

Bus rapid transit service begins in Eugene, Oregon on Sunday, January 14, 2007. The service is called EmX (short for Emerald Express) and it features custom-designed hybrid-electric vehicles, and stops with raised boarding platforms and real time route information. The route will run four miles from downtown Eugene to downtown Springfield with two and a half miles in exclusive bus-only lanes.

Photo by Lane Transit District

In honor of the EmX beginning service, here is a transit history poster I made some years ago, titled Streetcars of Eugene 1907-1927. The poster shows the system in 1912, a period when streetcars were used to boost real estate development. That’s why some of the lines ran through empty fields. These days, planners recommend “land use first”: The demand for development and codes that support transit oriented development should be in place before transit lines are built.

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Connectivity Part 2: Historical Background

This is part 2 of a series. See also IntroductionLatter Half of the 20th CenturyNeighborhood WalkingNeighborhood CrimeVehicle Miles and TrafficCrash Safety

Before the automobile age, people didn’t think much about connectivity. It was taken for granted that well-connected street networks were the best way to build cities. The routes between buildings had to be as convenient as possible because everyone moved slowly, compared to today’s motorized transport. Most city folk traveled at 2-4 mph (the speed of walking) and even those with vehicles didn’t move much faster than 7-9 mph (the speed of a horse and buggy).

The invention of the automobile changed all that and gushers of oil provided the fuel. Growth of vehicle production was explosive. America went from 8,000 vehicles in 1900 to 9.2 million in 1920 and 23 million in 1930. In 1916, military trucks allowed the French to win the battle of Verdun. It was the first time motorized vehicles were decisive in a large battle. World War I was pivotal in motorizing the U.S. military.

Some architects and planners believed they could transmute the power of mass motor vehicle use into a force for good: a force to alleviate poverty, squalor and oppression of the masses. European modernists like Charles-Edouard “Le Corbusier” Jeanneret and Ludwig Hilberseimer were revolutionaries, fascinated with large-scale schemes that would wipe away the old order and comprehensively reorganize cities for personal mobility via the automobile. The selling points were speed, efficiency, cleanliness and progress, a message that played especially well in America.

Ludwig Hilberseimer, Hochhausstadt, 1924

The American regionalism movement denounced overcrowded, unhealthy cities and the growing threat posed by automobile collisions. As mass ownership of cars and trucks became a reality in the 1920s, the regionalists along with their allies in government, and eventually the real estate industry, began to rethink thoroughfare patterns. Here was something new, they reasoned: door to door service at 30 mph or better! Gradually they concluded that all the old assumptions about connectivity could be tossed aside. Drawing on the Garden City tradition, their solution was a universal pattern of low density cul de sacs set in superblocks.

These initiatives were blows to connected streets in multiple ways. Disconnected street networks became the default pattern throughout the second half of the twentieth century.

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To New Horizons

The 23-minute film To New Horizons is a documentary of the 1939 World’s Fair “Futurama” exhibit. The film and exhibit were commissioned by General Motors to promote a cultural and spatial re-organization of American society that would maximize the corporation’s sales for decades to come.

The opening sequence, filmed in black and white, is a paean to Progress (with particular attention to the field of highway engineering). Then at minute 7:50, the film switches to Technicolor and begins a tour of the Futurama exhibit — a vision of the futuristic world of 1960. Throughout the film, narration is intoned in a reverent, quasi-religious manner backed by portentous skating-rink theremin music.


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A Brief History of Grid Plans, Ancient to Renaissance

The grid plan dates from antiquity; some of the earliest planned cities were built using grids. This article describes the first historical appearances of grid plans in various parts of the world.

Ancient Grid Plans

By 2600 BC, Mohenjo-daro in the Indus Valley (present-day Pakistan) was built with blocks divided by a grid of straight streets, laid out in perfect right angles, running north-south and east-west. Each block was subdivided by small lanes. Mohenjo-Daro was the largest of many grid-plan towns and villages that existed in the region from 2600-1900 BC.

Obeserving the urban planning of the Indus Valley civilization, archeologist B. B. Lal wrote, “Well-regulated streets [were] oriented almost invariably along with the cardinal directions, thus forming a grid-iron pattern. [At Kalibangan] even the widths of these streets were in a set ratio, i.e. if the narrowest lane was one unit in width, the other streets were twice, thrice and so on.”

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