Is the US done building cities?

My city, Omaha, was founded in 1854. As I sat downtown, I started thinking historically. What makes people establish new towns? Why do people agree to start a new place? And when does that urge change?

omaha-tiltIn 1854, the US was in a boom cycle, fueled by steel, railroads, guns, and land to grab. Manifest Destiny was the driving force that brought people streaming from the East Coast… that and immigration pressure. Thousands of cities and towns in the Midwest can trace their start to that era.

In other parts of the world – think China – new cities are being built to deal with the rural-to-urban migration. The US is dealing with migration, too, but it seems like cities adjusted post-WWII by spreading to suburbs… geographic extensions of the core. Now, US cities are scrambling to revitalize or stabilize those cores after wealth relocated to the fringe where land was accessible and “build to suit.” Redevelopment is the movement of the day.

Are we done establishing new cities? A 2011 article reported that just nine cities formed in the US during the prior two years… to resist annexation or to contract for services like garbage collection. While not a full investigation of urban establishment, that seems to indicate that US expansion is complete.

After an expansion, expect a contraction. That might explain why so many rural areas are skeletons of a former century. The US expanded, and now it’s contracting. Is that just the natural expression of a nation? Is that something we should fight?

In a 2015 NPR interview, architect Renzo Piano discussed his efforts to bolster up suburbs to be as vibrant and robust as the city core. “And it’s crucial, Piano says, that Italians not build any more peripheries, because stretching services and public transportation further outward is unsustainable. He says peripheries must be developed not by expansion, but by implosion; by transforming what’s already available.”

Patterns of expansion and contraction are evident to anyone who studies history. Cycles of development and growth are followed by periods of stagnation and reformation. Will this city boom, followed by a suburb boom, be replicated soon? If not in the US, in China and India? Where else are cities being formed? Or redeveloped? Worse, where are communities crumbling without the leadership to bring them back to life?

Opportunities will be claimed by the people who are able to read changes in the environment, then adapt to the new circumstances. It’s not all about the boom, but also about who can shake off the dust after a bust. Are you flexible enough to do both?

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