For the greater part of the nineteenth century, many large cities experienced a natural decrease in the number of citizens. The reason for this, as explained by John Levy in “Contemporary Urban Planning” is due to problems associated with congestion. Today, when we think of congestion, we think of the bumper-to-bumper traffic on the Garden State Parkway on a holiday weekend in the summer, or a Chipotle line wrapping around the building during the twelve o’clock lunch rush. Congestion, in the nineteenth century, took on a different meaning, one that was literally the difference between life and death.
Tenement buildings were a way of life for residents of New York City in the early 1900’s. In these cramped, one-room apartment buildings, that lacked both running water and sanitary facilities, citizens would gather for the sole reason of not having any other options. Levy states that, “A population of well over 100 people might be housed on a plot not much more than one-twentieth of an acre in size,” alluding to the fact that diseases and illnesses were able to spread like wildfire (Levy 12). It wasn’t a surprise that a lifestyle like this was not sustainable, and that serious change would have to sweep over the city in order for humanity to survive.
The solution was simple: Spread out!
The production of the electric streetcar in the 1880s gave citizens the option to move further away from their places of work (Levy 14). Overtime, this allowed individuals to move to the suburbs, on cheaper parcels of land with much more room to themselves. Problems caused by overcrowding such as constantly contaminated water and constant noise slowly faded away. Now, individuals were beginning to utilize rail-based transportation, and could live further away from where they worked. Benefits of this decentralization, according to Levy, included lower taxes, lower land costs, and more safe working conditions (Levy 15).
Fast forward to today. Suburbs, especially in New Jersey, make up a large proportion of the country. American citizens have traded in the dense living conditions for more privacy and more space to themselves. The American dream, at one time meant coming to America to work in a factory and live in an apartment within walking distance, has evolved into so much more. Now, thanks to incredible advances in technology, people can commute seamlessly up to 50 miles (depending on what city they are commuting to) and be at work in less than an hour and a half. This has opened up so many opportunities for better schooling and better family life. American’s jumped on the idea of decentralization as soon as they got the chance, and very often, aside from their morning commute, they didn’t have to look back.
Levy, John M. Contemporary Urban Planning. 11th ed., New York, NY, Routledge, 2017.