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Climate Change and the American City  

Andrew Hurley

American cities developed under relatively quiescent climatic conditions. A gradual rise in average global temperatures during the 19th and 20th centuries had a negligible impact on how urban Americans experienced the weather. Much more significant were the dramatic changes in urban form and social organization that meditated the relationship between routine weather fluctuations and the lives of city dwellers. Overcoming weather-related impediments to profit, comfort, and good health contributed to many aspects of urbanization, including population migration to Sunbelt locations, increased reliance on fossil fuels, and comprehensive re-engineering of urban hydrological systems. Other structural shifts such as sprawling development, intensification of the built environment, socioeconomic segregation, and the tight coupling of infrastructural networks were less directly responsive to weather conditions but nonetheless profoundly affected the magnitude and social distribution of weather-related risks. Although fatalities resulting from extreme meteorological events declined in the 20th century, the scale of urban disruption and property damage increased. In addition, social impacts became more concentrated among poorer Americans, including many people of color, as Hurricane Katrina tragically demonstrated in 2005. Through the 20th century, cities responded to weather hazards through improved forecasting and systematic planning for relief and recovery rather than alterations in metropolitan design. In recent decades, however, growing awareness and concern about climate change impacts have made volatile weather more central to urban planning.

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Phoenix  

Elizabeth Tandy Shermer

Phoenix, the capital of the state of Arizona, exemplifies the ways Sun Belt cities dramatically grew after World War II. Phoenix was best described as a small trading town in 1912, when Arizona became the last territory to achieve statehood in the continental United States. Although Phoenix was a capital city located in an area with little rainfall and high summer temperatures, its economy depended heavily on the sale of cotton and copper as well as tourists attracted to the Salt River valley’s warm winters. But members of the local Chamber of Commerce, like many small-town boosters across the US South and West, wanted to attract manufacturers by the 1930s, when the Great Depression upended the agricultural, mining, and tourism markets. The Chamber’s White male leaders (including future Senator Barry Goldwater) succeeded during World War II. They lobbied for wartime investment that transformed Phoenix into one of the many boom towns that dotted the South and West. That success fueled postwar efforts to attract industry by building a favorable “business climate.” Local leaders, business executives, and industry experts used that seemingly benign phrase to describe cities that guaranteed investors low taxes, weak unions, few government regulations, and other policies that maximized profits and undermined 1930s reforms. Phoenix stood out in what reporters called the “Second War between the States” for industry. General Electric, Motorola, and Sperry Rand had all opened branch plants by 1960, when Phoenix was already one of the largest US cities. It also stood out in 1969, when Republican strategist Kevin Phillips drew attention to the “Sun Belt phenomenon” that seemed to be the metropolitan core of a new conservative politics dedicated to free enterprise and poised to spread across the rapidly deindustrializing Northeast and Midwest. But growth undermined the Chamber’s power. By the 1970s, citizens questioned putting business first, and investors began shifting manufacturing overseas, which left residents to deal with the environmental, fiscal, and political damage the business climate ideal had wrought.