Research on urban patterns over time

I have long believed that we can best understand urban areas by looking at how they have changed and evolved over time. This is especially critical when we seek to use this understanding to consider and plan for the future of those urban areas.

This idea provided the basis for my PhD dissertation, which studied population and employment patterns in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, from the 1920s through the 1960s (The Changing Spatial Structure of American Cities, Lexington Books, 1975). This is the type of research I had always hoped to return to for more areas, but the magnitude of the task of assembling the data for even a single city had held me back.

New sources of data, geographic information systems for managing that data, and retirement have provided the opportunity to continue this work. I have assembled a dataset for 59 of the largest urban areas in the United States that allows me to look at patterns of urban settlement from 1950 to 2010.

I have a long list of topics I am planning on studying. I am starting by addressing basic questions about overall densities, patterns of densities within the urban areas, and decentralization. Exurban patterns will also be considered. A major focus will be the growth of the areas at the urban fringe. Too often we take the oversimplified view of such growth that an area at the edge of urban settlement is rural at one census, the area is developed, and the area becomes urban at the next census. In reality, development in such areas occurs over multiple decades, both before and after the decade in which the area formally transitions from rural to urban.

This research will be a continuing topic on this blog, with reports of progress and findings. In addition, papers and notes developed during this research will be described on and may be downloaded from the Research page. Some of the work is already there.

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