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US Cities

US Cities

Author: Zach Lamb

Identify the processes and impacts of colonial settlement, urban expansion, and urban decentralization.

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Source: Intro Music by Mark Hannan; Public Domain

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[MUSIC PLAYING] Hello. Welcome to Sociological Studies. Hope you're having a great day. In this lesson, we're going to discuss the evolution of US cities from a sociological perspective. In the US, cities really got going with colonial settlement. Colonial settlement was a place where colonial powers establish a community with the land that they have taken. So colonialism began urbanization in the United States. Native Americans did not, on their own, cluster into cities the way that colonists did. Colonists brought the European urban model with them and set up colonies.

During the first wave then of urban expansion we had colonialism. And urban expansion is the growth of urban areas to cover more geographical space. So secondly, a second wave of urban expansion, we saw New York, Chicago, Buffalo, Cleveland, Detroit, these cities all emerged as strategic and efficient places to locate cities with respect to trade, to the geography of the United States. They were all located along waterways and could be easily accessed with ships. So they facilitated trade. It was a natural, convenient place to set up human populations given the technology of the day.

This was in our earliest beginnings as a country. What we call the metropolitan era in US history, so the metropolitan era, lasted from 1860 to 1950. The metropolitan era was a short century, 10 years short. In this period, America really emerged as a global power and solidified itself as a nation. We went through the Civil War. United the country. We fought World War I. We fought World War II. We emerged from World War II victorious and strong and that ushered in then America's supremacy on the global stage.

Also in this period, industrialization was really gaining a foothold in American society. And industrialization caused cities to solidify and become specialized producers of some industrial commodity. So for instance, Chicago was known, among other things, as a meat packing city and it was the home of industrial meat production. Detroit, on the other hand, was home to automobiles and automobile production. So US cities specialize like this in industrial production. And an industry being housed in cities brought tons of people to cities, brought all kinds of immigrants over from Europe to come live in these cities. So this was the crowning metropolitan moment in American history, the metropolitan era.

The first boom of cities in the metropolitan era peaked in 1950. After 1950, we begin to see urban decentralization with the move to suburbanization. Urban decentralization is the social movement of people away from cities to the suburbs. The suburbs exploded after about 1950. Wealthy people living in urban centers wanted to get away from them. They wanted to get away from the crime-ridden, dirty inner-city streets where they didn't feel safe. They wanted to live in comfort and quarantine themselves away from the urban grit. So they moved to more exclusive suburbs.

Cities got worse in the 1970s and '80s as manufacturing jobs started to leave the cities, only fueling more people who could afford it to leave the cities. Because as the jobs left, they got worse. There was more poverty. There was more crime. There were more problems. So more of an impetus just to get out. As there were fewer manufacturing plants, people left.

Now with the spread of suburbs and exurbs even farther out suburbs, we have a megalopolis. Megalopolis or megalopolises are extensive, sprawled urban areas containing a city and numerous suburbs. Inner cities, in the information age, have seen something of a rebirth as entertainment districts. People have cashed in big on the economic transitions in the information age. They need entertainment and inner cities have provided this entertainment space.

This has been an introduction to evolution of US cities. Have a great rest of your day.

Terms to Know
Colonial Settlement

Occurs when colonial powers establish a community in a territory they have occupied.


An extensive metropolitan area containing numerous cities and suburbs.

Metropolitan Era

Refers to the time period from 1860-1950 when urbanization expanded in the United States due to historical circumstances and industrialization.

Urban Decentralization

Social movement of people away from city centers to the suburbs.

Urban Expansion

The growth of urban areas to cover more geographical area.