The Emergence of Urban Planning in the South, 1880-1930


Atlanta’s modern skyline

From Tropics of Meta by Alex Sayf Cummings author Democracy of Sound: Music Piracy and the Remaking of American Copyright in the Twentieth Century:

To take a bibliography of southern history on its face, one could conclude that urban planning never touched the American South.  No historian has yet made a comprehensive study of planning in southern cities.  Southern urban planning has enjoyed the full attention of scholars only in the occasional dissertation or journal article, and these have taken the form of case studies looking at planning in a few cities or a single state.[1]  Otherwise, scholarly treatment of southern planning has played a supporting – and distinctly minor – role in more general studies of southern urban development, wherein a historian discusses planning for a few pages before moving on to topics like commercial architecture, railroad development, or the ideology of boosterism. Taken together, the direct and indirect studies provide a rough outline of how southerners responded to city environments between 1880 and 1930: urban planning emerged in the South in the early twentieth century in answer to the disorder created by rapid urbanization and industrialization after Reconstruction, first manifesting as private efforts to beautify the urban landscape and later as official government programs to make more efficient and stable cities.  Given the lack of direct attention paid to the subject, this picture necessarily lacks the completeness that a comprehensive study could bring; in particular, historians’ overriding focus on the role of business elites in shaping the landscape has kept scholars from fully understanding the complexity of planning the southern city.

The historical study of southern cities, and planning in particular, long received little attention.  Surveying the field in 1953, the editors of The Journal of Southern History noted that considerable territory lay open for southern historians to explore in the cities:  “Much has been written about the rural South, but there is to date too little tangible evidence that the southern scholar has thought much about the urban South.”[2]   The authors went on to identify “city planning and lack of planning” as one of the topics as yet neglected by historians.  More than ten years later, Norman Johnston observed in a study of urban planner Harland Bartholomew, “The present state of an historical record of twentieth century planning processes in the United States is marked primarily by its paucity.”[3]  By the 1960s few scholars had tackled the subject of southern cities directly or of American planning in general.

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