Cities of North America: Influences of the Past

By: Sam Watt

Edited by: Constanza Leautaud Grajales

Do you live in an urban area in America or Canada? Have you ever wanted to be able to bike, walk, or take city transit wherever you please? Ever wish that your community was covered by green spaces, communal squares, and shopping areas instead of being bisected by multi-lane roads? Are YOU frustrated when car infrastructure takes up HALF of all land in North American cities, providing an estimated eight parking spots for every car that exists here? Do not fear! Socio-political change is here!

But, do not get too excited–we first must look backwards at why this came to be before we wish to change the future. How did we manage to develop the very hubs of our uber-modern society in a direction that is not made for the enjoyment and benefit of people? 

Around the turn of the 20th century, planners, engineers, and developers were actually drawing up ideas for road management in cities that mirrored what would now be considered ‘newer’ trends. These planners valued a “holistic vision of transportation planning that recognized its symbiotic interaction with land use”. They would work by weaving together facilities for private vehicles, streetcars, and pedestrians into a system that would provide access to healthier living and recreational facilities. This can also be seen in a drawing for a proposed freeway in Detroit that is, by today’s standards, extremely progressive and sustainable. 

However, as is often the case with history, money got in the way. The typical funds for transportation development (property taxes, bonds, and special assessment districts) began to fail during the Great Depression. This left only the newly-imposed motor fuel taxes levied at the state, and eventually federal, level to support the creation of new transportation infrastructure . These state officials had different concerns from the urban planners. At the time, the primary objective was to increase access from rural towns to urban areas, this was done in a way that focused on“maximizing vehicle throughput and largely ignored other urban concerns.” The result is one where most of North American cities are twisted up in what appear to be human pipelines in both form and function.

As these dynamics were developing within boards, organizations, and governments, the auto industry managed to get an iron grip on the populace and economy. The Great Depression, a period in which unemployment rates reached 30%-45% in North America, is not an era that is usually defined by extensive economic growth. This however, is not the case for the auto industry which saw the number of registered cars in the United States go from 26.7 million in 1930 to 32.5 million by 1940.

By 1945, the post-war auto industry employed large numbers of people, which contributed to a sizable chunk of the economy. This became synonymous with the ‘American Dream’, a symbol of youth, freedom and power–something that people at this time needed seriously. In other words, as Ford developed mass production and spaces for other forms of transportation dwindled, only the car remained. 

Such is the state that we found ourselves in until very recently. Among the din of clamouring industry, shouting politics, and whispering money, people have begun to question what it is we really want from our cities. This questioning has become  a scientifically-backed, widely supported movement towards creating ‘walkable cities’. Such cities would hold the environment, community, and individuals as their most important charges, then economy and industry would come after. 

Next month, I will be writing about what all of these influences actually created; our cities today, the fruits of our labour.


Frazer, J. (2019, August 6). The reshaping of city cores that were designed for cars. Forbes. 

Brown, J. R., Morris, E. A., & Taylor, B. D. (2009). Planning for cars in cities: Planners, engineers, and freeways in the 20th century. Journal of the American Planning Association, 75(2), 161–177. 

Davis, M. (2021, September 17). How The U.S. Automobile Industry Has Changed. Investopedia. 

Hess, D. B., & Rehler, J. (2021, June 15). America has eight parking spaces for every car. Here’s how cities are rethinking that land. Fast Company. 

Image Citation

Roque, Patrick. “EDSA traffic (Cubao, Quezon City)”. Wikimedia Commons. 31/1/2024.,_Quezon_City)(2017-12-30)_2.jpg