For most of human history, population implosion involved concentration within small geographical areas. Urban agglomerations generally had only, at most, a few thousand residents (Davis 1955; Winsborough 1963). In addition, transportation, communication, and building construction were relatively primitive by standards of recent decades. Most movement was by foot, and most communication occurred by face-to-face contact. Given the primitive development of transportation and communication, most interrelated activities such as workplace and home had to be located in proximity. The problem of accommodating populations was complicated by the fact that primitive methods of building construction facilitated only small structures that were rarely more than two to four stories in height. The result was a cluttered and spatially delimited community at points of population concentration.
This situation changed greatly after about 1880 in societies such as the United States, resulting in an expansion of the population boundaries of many territories. One fundamental development was the electric streetcar/railway in the very late 1800s, which generally emanated from the center of cities on fixed radial lines (Ward 1971; Warner 1972). Given its relatively rapid speed, this development permitted the outward dispersal of activities, both workplaces and residences, but especially residences, since many individuals wanted to reside outside the congestion of the center. In addition, activities within the metropolis began to separate spatially into various subdistricts because they no longer required physical proximity. Clearly delineated areas of the rich and poor, of residences and workplaces, began to appear. The electric streetcar, with its orientation to transportation points at the center of the urban core, also had what might be considered the paradoxical effect of increasing the concentration of activities there that especially depended on proximity to the whole region (such as government offices and retail department stores).
Perhaps a more important transportation development was the mass production of the motor vehicle, which spread throughout the population, particularly the economically stable working and middle social classes, in the period after 1920, that is, roughly the years after World War I (Hawley 1978). Individuals and families could now live at some distance from various activities but be within reasonable commuting distance. While the streetcar oriented many activities to the downtown, the motor vehicle with its more flexible routes encouraged the development of numerous subcenters outside the traditional downtown.
Historically, much of the outward physical movement of Americans from traditional urban concentrations occurred via the political annexation of territories by the central cities, leading to a situation in which the social, physical, and political cities were largely coterminous. However, in the period after 1920, populations in many of the newer outer areas rejected the political dominance of the central cores and began forming numerous legally recognized communities. In general, political jurisdictions that were the traditional growth nodes of urban agglomerations became known as central cities, and the more peripheral communities were known as suburbs. This division and specialization of parts between the politically defined central city and the suburban ring became known as the metropolitan community (Schnore 1959).
The most dramatic outward expansion of urban concentrations occurred after World War II ended (Guest 1975; Hawley 1978; Tobin 1976). Furthermore, growth was sprawling, creating extensive geographical regions where much of the population lived at low densities. Even in comparison to the 1920s and 1930s, automobile ownership increased greatly in importance, influenced partly by the merchandising of auto manufacturers and by the development of high-speed, limited-access highways. In addition, affluence grew greatly in American society, especially in comparison to the economically depressed years of the 1930s. As a result, families sought larger and lower-density living units. The federal government also played an important role by encouraging and offering low-interest loans for persons buying homes on the periphery.
A primary historical factor in the clustering of population within small areas was the need for direct face-to-face interaction. This changed some in the post-1920 period with the development of community telephone systems (Fischer 1992), but the electronic revolution of the past few decades has undoubtedly had an even greater impact. In the past two decades, computer technology has permitted electronic workplaces in which individuals communicate actively with each other but at some physical distance. Individuals can work and live well beyond the conventional spatial limits of metropolitan areas, and many workplaces such as banks can spin off auxiliary operations like record keeping to remote locations where they are linked electronically with central offices.
Without doubt, the outward spread of population in American urban concentrations during the early post-World War II period had many ill effects on the older central core areas. Downtowns suffered precipitous declines in many types of employment, especially in retailing, as peripheral auto-oriented shopping malls developed for the first time in American history (Sternlieb 1971). A number of central neighborhoods experienced significant population declines (Price-Spratlen and Guest 2002), and, unlike the early part of the 20th century, few population groups were available to serve as replacements. Immigration from abroad had declined to a trickle, and the major inmigration group to urban cores was comprised of African Americans (Taeuber and Taeuber 1965). As the demand for centrally located housing became low, the surviving residents lacked the resources and the social incentive to maintain the quality of many areas. Central city governments, while aggressively confronting their social ills, developed many financial problems as they tried to deal with an eroding tax base, due to factors such as population loss.
The tremendous redistribution of population within the United States is indicated in recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Counties have been divided by the Census Bureau into those that are considered part of metropolitan areas and those that are not. The metropolitan counties themselves have been divided into their central cities, or historic centers, and the remaining parts of the metropolitan areas, i.e., the suburbs. The Census Bureau reports (Hobbs and Stoops 2002: 33) that in 2000, for the first time in American history, at least half of the U.S. population lived in suburbs. This represents an incredible change since 1950, the midpoint of the 20th century, when for the first time at least half (56.1%) the U.S. population lived in metropolitan areas, whether central cities or suburbs. In 1950, only about one-quarter of the American population lived in what were considered suburbs, and the number of central city residents outnumbered suburbanites by almost 10 million. Yet even the 1950 pattern represented a dramatic change from 1910, in which only 7% of the U.S. total population lived in suburban areas.
Since 1970, in several time periods, nonmetropolitan areas have grown at faster rates than metropolitan areas, and, overall, metropolitan and nonmetropolitan growth rates have not differed strikingly (Fuguitt and Brown 1990; Wardwell 1980). It turns out that much of the nonmetropolitan growth in these periods has occurred in territories that are physically close to the suburbs of conventional metropolitan areas. Apparently, the borderline between territories of heavy population concentration and those of low population concentration is becoming blurred, so that the ''real'' boundaries of metropolitan agglomerations are increasingly difficult to define.
The influence of the metropolis now extends to long distances from the traditional centers. On the metropolitan periphery, previously independent communities such as agricultural service centers are increasingly housing residents who work elsewhere in the metropolis. In addition, new communities, sometimes called exurbs, are being created from scratch by developers. These communities are often detached physically from the expanding crest of suburban development.
Was this article helpful?