Europeans founded the first settlements in North America in the early seventeenth century, at the time when industrialization was transforming the medieval cities in Europe. The lack of regular street patterns and stone houses in early Boston, Montreal, New York, and Quebec City gave these settlements the look of medieval cities. The New World cities began specifically as trade and wealth-generating centers to fuel the growth of European cities. The underlying concept of all these cities was that they would serve as export centers for raw materials going to Europe. By the late 1760’s, the 13 colonies had at least 12 major cities and a total population of 2 million English, half a million people of other European backgrounds, and nearly 400,000 slaves, almost all of whom were in the South. The first census in 1790 identified only 5 percent residing in urban places. Only 24 major cities were established before the Revolutionary War.
The struggle for U.S Independence didn’t take place entirely in cities, it was in many ways a war instigated by the cities, where most colonial economic trade occurred. Merchants and colonist wanted the freedom to pursue their life’s interests as they saw fit, and economic interests were typically uppermost in their minds.
The culture of the United States has always contained a streak of anti-urbanism. As long as the early North American settlements remained small and kept their relatively homogeneous character, few tensions existed between urban and rural sections. The debate on the pros and cons of city life soon took on a new and powerful dimension on the regional level. The small cities incorporated in North America during the 50 year period that ended in 1870 had not been yet acquired many of the now familiar urban characteristics: towering buildings, populations in the millions, and blazing lights downtown. The two historical events would provide the impetus for this transformation: the technological advance of industrialization and the migration of millions of people to urban North America.
During the earliest twentieth century, across North America wherever urban subway and elevated systems extended ever farther, there did suburbs appear. Technology thus spawned the suburban dream, enabling the middle class to move out of the city, separating their place of work from their place of residence. Nothing did more to encourage people to move outward than the automobile. With the paving of more and more roads, the percentage of people living in suburbs moved upwards. From 1900 to 1940, growth was moderate. “Suburban Fever” did not manifest itself until the 1950’s.
Between1870 and 1920, the U.S population increased from less than 10 million to more than 54 million, while Canada’s urban population grew from 3.9 to 8.8 million. By 1920, both countries were predominantly urban nations, with more than 50 percent of their populations living in urban areas. Changing involving reshaping cities caused problems. Only the city government was empowered to provide these incoming millions with water, electricity, jobs, and protection against unscrupulous exploitation. The Cooperation Agreement Act of 1977 made it possible for the federal government to begin to provide funding to cities.
Today’s cities continue to experience three major changes. First, people and businesses are still abandoning many older central cities, continuing the suburbanization trend that began about 100 years ago, a process called decentralization. Second, major population growth is occurring in areas with considerable environmental stresses, whether in U.S cities in the South and West ( the sunbelt expansion). Third, the work typically performed in the central city is mostly oriented toward white-collar jobs, high technology, and services, as Canadian and U.S cities adjust to the postindustrial era of globalization. With decentralization rising, urbanization expanded as workers, unable to find adequate housing in the central city. Noticing this trend, the U.S Census Bureau realized the need to measure more accurately the way cities were growing. They decided to count in its surveys both the central population and the population of surrounding towns and cities interdependent with that central city. Thus was born the idea of the metropolitan area. From 1959 until 1983, the Census Bureau used the term standard metropolitan statistical area.
French geographer Jean Gottmann was one of the first urbanists to note the linkages between many independent urban municipalities in sprawling urban regions. The first such area, which he called a megalopolis, was the unbroken urban region along the Eastern Seaboard if the United States.
By the 1960’s, many industries and manufacturing businesses were moving away from urban industrial districts. High rents and inadequate older buildings unsuitable for expansion had reduced the attraction of a city location. The two labor market trends currently in cities. First is gentrification and second are the city is a major center for finance, insurance, real estate, media, and the arts. The problem lies in an overabundance of low skilled workers and a shortage of workers to fill middle-skilled jobs, ones requiring less than a college education but more than high schools, such as a technical two-year degree or certificate. Companies no longer required many blue-collar workers or as many buildings geared to heavy industrial production.