In some industrial cities, the Great Migration propelled municipalities to expand through the annexation of neighboring towns, creating more space for housing. In other industrial cities, there were fewer options for geographic expansion, which rapidly resulted in overcrowding and the deterioration of infrastructure. As production technologies advanced, the regions around these overcrowded cities expanded to keep up with the pace of industrial innovation and growth.

But as we now know, in many cases this regional urbanization ultimately came at the expense of the city. In 1955, Detroit held over 55 percent of its regional population, while today it retains only 15 percent. Simultaneously, issues of race and class became more spatialized as greater mobility in housing choice also meant furthering the preference for racial separation, a dynamic that remains very present in today’s regional geography. These trends were in part facilitated by a series of urban programs and practices implemented between 1933 and 1956 that offered the first opportunities for class ascension and a better quality of life outside of the congested city.

Two such programs are of particular note. The first, the Housing Act of 1949, allowed returning war veterans, among others, to purchase homes in the less-congested suburbs, while the lending practice of redlining between 1934 and 1968 and the restrictive convenants of the 1960s had the effect of keeping people of color rooted in increasingly under-resourced neighborhoods. In more recent times, the aftermath of the subprime lending crisis of 2004–2007 (the lending tactics of which were often especially predatory towards low-income households) has created a new portfolio of undervalued neighborhoods by adding unprecedented numbers of foreclosed properties to the housing market.

Similar to the correlation between housing access and abandonment, the growth of the suburbs had led to the creation of suburban shopping centers and malls which, in turn, precipitated the decline of the historic retail spaces of downtown main streets and neighborhood centers.

The second program, the Federal Highways Act of 1956, facilitated even greater mobility of people and goods, meaning that people could live outside of the city and commute to jobs anywhere in the region. This lessened the dependence on the city for concentrated dwelling, production, and jobs. Henry Ford was either prescient—or, some might argue, an instigator—by arguing, as early as 1925, that industrial production did not require spatial concentration. (See notes at end of article, #1.)

It is important to note that running parallel to these place-based interventions were significant social movements involving education (Brown v. Board of Education, 1954) and civil liberties (the Civil Rights Act of 1964) that were aimed at dismantling the 1876 Jim Crow laws that enforced “separate but equal.” However, despite the best intentions and positive outcomes of these important public policy reforms, many citizens of color in legacy cities remain in segregated isolation today.

Can Designers and Spontaneous Interventions Help to Reinvent the American City?
Try though they may, legacy cities have not found solutions able to lift up city and citizen alike. Population loss, economic decline, and property abandonment all contribute to a growing supply of vacant urban spaces that are becoming canvases for spontaneous interventions. The depreciation of public sector resources and the urgency of maintaining neighborhood health and safety compels community organizations, designers, and local residents to step in as the new agents of change, introducing innovative practices that require fewer resources and permissions from “top-down” authorities.

These trends suggest an opportunity for integrating new design innovations into public policy that are aimed at remediating longstanding structural inequalities and progressing toward a more just and inclusive city. Harvard professor Susan Fainstein suggests that the principle components of urban justice are equity, diversity, and democracy. (See notes at end of article, #2.) The concept of a just city has been at the forefront of national debate as various ad hoc communities are rising up to “occupy” public space in protest against the uneven allocation of wealth and power, reward and respect. University of Washington professor Sharon E. Sutton observes, “[In] the last half century, we have witnessed a dramatic increase in personal freedom, mobility, individual rights, and the reorienting of culture around individual needs. While this loosening of restraints on individuals has had many positive outcomes, it has simultaneously led privileged Americans to lose sight of struggling together in a hard country.” (See notes at end of article, #3.)