The Rise and Fall of Urbanism: Douglas W. Rae’s City

Settled by Puritans in 1638, New Haven, Connecticut was the first planned city in America. A few weeks ago in New Haven, a group of citizens met in the basement of a middle school to discuss the well-being of their town. Issues like “food deserts,” street crime, and health problems came to the forefront as dozens of people discussed the results of a health survey targeting specific neighborhoods, while suggesting possible solutions.

With a storied history, New Haven is the site of both the affluent Yale University as well as significant poverty. This city makes a fascinating case study for examining urban development and decline. In City: Urbanism and Its EndDouglas W. Rae, Richard Ely Professor of Management and professor political science at Yale, explores New Haven’s urban life and in doing so illuminates urban vitality and decline more generally.

City: Urbanism and Its EndParticularly in the 19th century, unexpected and unplanned events such as immigration patterns, transportation development, and shifts in industry and energy came together to form the character of city-life in the United States. Rae notes, “there was nothing inevitable or even predictable about this temporary historical alignment: if God, or nature, should elect to run the same history a thousand times, there is no particularly good reason to expect that the same alignment would recur very often, or at all.” Rae describes how economic, political and social factors came together in America’s newly industrialized cities to form “urbanism.” City describes how these elements slowly and unevenly eroded within that concentrated city space, which he understands as the end of urbanism.

Within this decline, city officials were faced with the task of managing and revitalizing New Haven. Rae gives a fascinating account for these efforts and the personalities of those involved, like Mayor Richard Lee and his administration in the 1950s and ‘60s whom Rae calls “the smartest and most arrogant people who had ever served in the management of so modest an American city.”

Rae brings out the way cities live or die based on incremental shifts over time. “Downward-sloping change in a city typically unfolds without a big bang, without an eruption that makes headlines,” he explains, “but instead by the rapid accumulation of small changes.” These changes are hard to undo as well. Rae explains, “Cities are among the least agile creatures in America’s system of capitalist democracy – they most slowly, reactively, and awkwardly in response to change initiated by more athletic organizations.”

As suburbs grew, expectations and experiences of the city changed too. Commuters on their way to work approached its limits at certain times of day, which Rae describes in appealing prose: “Morning was for the city — its noise, its traffic, its strangers, its cash.”

Any city develops its character from disparate and complicated pressures. Rae paints a picture that is rich in detail and expertise from factors as varied as the inner-workings of municipal government, to the influence of the burgeoning railroad, to the development of capitalist enterprise. In doing this he illustrates not only the history of one city, but both the small and sweeping ways any urban centre is shaped.

In his final chapter, while laying out the factors the city could not control, the author suggests opportunities for action. Rae quotes Bart Giamatti, former president of Yale University:

Human beings made and make cities, and only human beings kill cities, or let them die. And human beings do both – make cities and unmake them – by the same means: by acts of choice.

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