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The Beginnings of Decentralization

Late in the nineteenth century, the first forces for decentralization appeared on the urban scene. These forces have grown in strength to the present time. By the 1880s electric motor and power transmission technology had advanced far enough to make possible the electric streetcar. Faster and cheaper than the horse-drawn trolleys it supplanted, the electric streetcar was a powerful decentralizing force. In a few years the effective radius of the city was doubled. Three miles, a distance the average person can comfortably walk in an hour, had been something of a limit for the population that worked in the urban core. With the streetcar, tendrils of urban growth extended from the city, and the process of suburbanization was begun. In an aptly titled book, Streetcar Suburbs, Warner describes how in a few years the streetcar effectively doubled the radius of Boston and converted the old "walking city" into a modern metropolis.7 The decentralizing power of rail-based transportation was not lost on the more prophetic writers of the times. In 1902 H.G. Wells wrote,

Many of our railway-begotten giants are destined to such a process of dissection and diffusion as to amount almost to obliteration. . The social history of the middle and later thirds of the nineteenth century . has been the history of a gigantic rush of population into the magic radius—for most people—of four miles, to suffer there physical and moral disaster . far more appalling than any pestilence that ever swept the world. ... But new forces ... may finally be equal to the complete reduction of all our present congestions. . What will be the forces acting upon the prosperous household? The passion for nature. ... and that craving for a little private imperium are the chief centrifugal inducements. The city will diffuse itself until it has taken many of the characteristics of what is now country. ... We may call ... these coming town provinces "urban regions."8

Wells was writing about England, but the same forces of national population growth, the growth of manufacturing, and urbanization were operative in the United States.

In common with most nineteenth- and early twentieth-century reformers, Wells viewed the congestion of the city as a profound evil and the coming decentralization as an obviously desirable event. To the nineteenth- century reformer, what we now contemptuously refer to as "urban sprawl" or, sometimes, "suburban sprawl" would have looked like an improvement almost too good to be imagined.

 
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