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Reclaiming American Cities

The Struggle for People, Place, and Nature since 1900

Rutherford H. Platt

Publication Year: 2014

For most of the past century, urban America was dominated by top-down policies serving the white business and cultural elite, the suburbs, and the automobile. At times these approaches were fiercely challenged by reformers such as Jane Addams and Jane Jacobs. Yet by the 1980s, mainstream policies had resulted in a nation of ravaged central cities, sprawling suburbs, social and economic polarization, and incalculable environmental damage. In the 1990s, this entrenched model finally yielded to change as local citizens, neighborhood groups, and other stakeholders, empowered by a spate of new laws and policies, began asserting their own needs and priorities. Though hampered by fiscal crises and internal disagreements, these popular initiatives launched what the author terms a new era of “humane urbanism” marked by a determination to make cities and suburbs greener, healthier, safer, more equitable, more efficient, and generally more people-friendly. In the process, the mayors, architects, engineers, and bureaucrats who had previously dominated urban policy found themselves relegated to supporting roles. As Rutherford H. Platt points out, humane urbanism can take many forms, from affordable housing and networks of bike paths to refurbished waterfronts and urban farms. Often spontaneous, low-tech, and self-sustaining programs, their shared goal is to connect people to one another and to bring nature back into the city. Reclaiming American Cities examines both sides of this historic transformation: the long struggle against patricians and technocrats of earlier decades and the recent sprouting of grassroots efforts to make metropolitan America more humane and sustainable.

Published by: University of Massachusetts Press

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. ix-xiv

This book grows out of the earlier book and series of conferences based on it titled The Humane Metropolis: People and Nature in the 21st Century City. The twenty-seven contributors to that volume collectively introduced a new way of looking at cities, through the prism of people, place, and nature as the elements of more “humane” urban communities and regions. This perspective, which will...

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Introduction: A Train Journey into the Past and Future

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pp. 1-10

Six a.m. is an ungodly hour to begin a train journey (or a book). My ride to New York City one fine summer morning begins at Springfield, Massachusetts, the northern terminus of Amtrak’s Connecticut River valley line. Springfield in its heyday was a major rail hub with some two hundred trains daily and hundreds of passengers thronging the waiting hall and platforms.1 Today, Springfield’s station is a...

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Part I: The Patrician Decades, 1900-1940

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pp. 11-14

The first third of the twentieth century—bracketed by the inaugurations of President Theodore Roosevelt in 1901 and his distant cousin Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933—was the golden age of the American city. It was the heyday of tall slender “skyscrapers,” Model A Fords and Stutz-Bearcats, high-speed and luxurious inter-city railroads, convenient and affordable commuter rail service, the spread...

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1. American Cities in 1900: A Patchwork of Silk and Rags

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pp. 15-31

The dawn of the twentieth century was the sunset for America as a nation of farmers, villages, and mill towns. As reflected in the populist revolt of the mid-1890s, the people of the nation’s heartland felt threatened by forces beyond their control: Big Capital, Big Industry, and Big Cities. (Big Government would be the bête noire of the latter-day populism known as the Tea Party.) Although the nation’s population...

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2. Competing Visions in the Progressive Era

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pp. 32-60

The assassination of President William McKinley followed by the inauguration of Theodore Roosevelt in Buffalo in 1901 would mark an ideological watershed in the evolution of American cities, along with the nation’s economy and political system. In contrast to McKinley—a Civil War veteran and traditional pro-business Republican from Canton, Ohio—the young Roosevelt would be the archetypal...

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Part II: The Technocrat Decades, 1945-1990

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pp. 61-66

The year 1945—with both V-E Day (May 8) and V-J Day (September 2)—brought to an end the fifteen-year nightmare of the Great Depression and World War II. The spirit of the moment was captured in Alfred Eisenstaedt’s iconic photograph of a sailor kissing a girl in the middle of Times Square. Who realized or cared that Europe had been carved up yet again, this time dividing “West” and “East” by a...

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3. The Central City Renewal Engine

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pp. 67-96

“Urban renewal” is a toxic phrase. Broadly speaking, urban renewal encompassed an array of federal, state, and local programs that collectively sought to eliminate slum districts; construct new housing and commercial development under private and public auspices; shore up urban tax bases; and stimulate private investment in the vicinity of project areas. More narrowly, the term refers to the program...

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4. The Suburban Sprawl Engine

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pp. 97-114

“Urban sprawl”—a term as pejorative as “urban renewal”—was a direct result of the second track of America’s postwar housing and development strategy: the “suburban sprawl engine.” As the reciprocal to the central city renewal engine discussed in the last chapter, this phrase refers to the combined influence of public policies and the private sector on metropolitan growth...

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5. Battling the Bulldozer: The Indiana Dunes and Other Sacred Places

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pp. 115-130

One balmy afternoon in early September 1967, a group of new graduate students in the University of Chicago Department of Geography, including me, perched on a sand dune facing Lake Michigan to discuss humans and the Earth. Our interlocutor was Gilbert F. White, an international authority on water resources and natural hazards. “Mr. White” (University of Chicago faculty traditionally eschew...

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6. Legacies of Sprawl: A Witch's Brew

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pp. 131-152

What a strange and dysfunctional metropolitan America we have created. Five decades of efforts to “manage growth” have amounted to the equivalent of “whistling in the wind” against the suburban sprawl engine driven by government and corporate technocracy. Sprawl has continued to flourish like kudzu, paving and building over farmland, forests, desert, wetlands, prairie, mountainsides, barrier...

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Part III: The (More) Humane Decades, 1990-Present

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pp. 153-156

“How Ordinary Citizens Are Restoring Our Great American Cities”—the apt subtitle of Harry Wiland and Dale Bell’s book (and popular PBS series) Edens Lost & Found—eloquently attests that “humane urbanism” is thriving at many scales in such large cities as Chicago, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and Seattle. Proactive city mayors like Richard M. Daley (Chicago), Michael R. Bloomberg (New York), Anthony...

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7. Replanting Urbanism in the 1990s: A Garden of Acronyms

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pp. 157-188

The decade of the 1990s saw the beginning of the end for top-down urbanism described in parts I and II. The Patrician Decades with their well-meaning aesthetic pretensions had long receded into planning history textbooks by 1990, though many individual patricians continued to play key roles in devising and funding new urban agendas, such as the many urban greening projects spearheaded...

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8. New Age "Central Parks": Two Grand Slams and a Single

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pp. 189-202

Older American cities are richly endowed—even cities that themselves are no longer rich—with parks long ago established by visionary civic leaders, local philanthropists, and creative park designers. In 1634, the Boston Common was established by the earliest Puritan settlers for grazing of livestock, training militia, outdoor exercise, and burial of the dead, and the “hanging of unwelcome...

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9. Reclaiming Urban Waterways: One Stream at a Time

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pp. 203-222

Cities have long had a dysfunctional relationship with the rivers and streams that once nurtured them. Local waterways like Boston’s Charles River or Houston’s Buffalo Bayou historically linked ports with interior hinterlands, while also supplying inhabitants of their valleys with potable water, edible fish, water power, waste disposal, recreation and, in arid regions, irrigation. But by the late twentieth...

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10. Humane Urbanism at Ground Level

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pp. 223-248

In 2009, a hefty and lavishly illustrated new book—Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City1 by ecologist Eric W. Sanderson of the Wildlife Conservation Society—transfixed the chattering classes of the nation’s largest city. After feature articles about the book appeared in the New York Times, National Geographic, and elsewhere, and a summer-long Mannahatta exhibit at the Museum of the City of...

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pp. 249-250

The spectrum of humane urbanism across the country is broad and open-ended, defined as it is by local ingenuity—“ideas bubbling up in new ferment”—instead of top-down fiat. Humane urbanism eschews grand plans, textbook designs, and mega-development that breeds gentrification. Its aesthetics evolve not from established standards of architectural and planning design, but from the spontaneous...


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pp. 251-284

Further Reading

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pp. 285-286


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pp. 287-299

Back Cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9781613762851
E-ISBN-10: 1613762852
Print-ISBN-13: 9781625340498
Print-ISBN-10: 1625340494

Page Count: 328
Illustrations: 41 illus.
Publication Year: 2014

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • City planning -- United States.
  • Urban policy -- United States.
  • Urbanization -- United States.
  • Urban ecology (Sociology) -- United States.
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