Rural Elderly

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Description of the life circumstances of older people living in remote or rural areas is complicated by different definitions of rural residence and by the lack of variability within residential categories. The U.S. Bureau of the Census, for example, classifies residence based solely on the size of the population living in a predetermined geographical area. An urbanized area refers to one or more places plus the surrounding territory or fringe that include at least fifty thousand people. Urban residents are people living in either an urbanized area or outside an urbanized area in a place (e.g., township) with at least twenty-five hundred total residents. All other residents are considered rural. Rural residents are subdivided further into farm and nonfarm designations. According to the Census Bureau, about 24 percent of people aged sixty-five and over lived in rural areas in 1990, approximately the same proportion as the general population living in rural areas. About 16 percent of people aged sixty-five and over were rural farm residents in 1990, compared to only 1.5 percent of the total population (McLaughlin and Jensen).

Because the definition of rural residence used by the U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB) includes other criteria, such as commuting patterns and business activity, the Census and OMB sometimes classify residence differently. Different definitions and simplistic dichotomous categories frustrate efforts to learn more about the lives of rural elderly persons because researchers often rely upon data gathered by government agencies. Indeed, the terms rural and nonmetropolitan will be used here inter-changeably, depending upon the data source cited. Rural elderly residents include those living in a remote county on a Wyoming ranch forty-five miles from the nearest small town, as well as those living on the outskirts of a large city. Similarly, the nonmetropolitan category includes remote counties as well as those with populations over 100,000 people. These definitions also matter because they influence national and state funding allocations. Further, the tax base contained within the geographic boundaries of these areas affects local millage rates and the potential to provide needed health and human services. Whether counties are nonmetropolitan or communities have fewer than 2,500 people would also make little difference if these counties or communities were alike. It is known, however, that counties differ according to indicators such as premature mortality (Mansfield, Wilson, Kobrinski, and Mitchell) and small communities differ according to poverty (Weinberg) and health services delivery and availability. Such differences affect the lives of elders with regard to availability and access to needed health and other services, opportunities for paid employment, or involvement in volunteer or leisure activities.

The changing rural older adult population

With the exception of the Northeast, nonmetropolitan residents are older than their metropolitan counterparts. Although there are signs that this distinction is beginning to reverse (e.g., Beale), the Census Bureau estimates that the nonmetropolitan population over age sixty-five grew by over 7 percent and the population aged eighty-five and older increased by about 21 percent from 1990 to 1996 (Ricketts et al.) Change in the percentage of older persons who live in rural areas is influenced by both immigration and a phenomenon called aging in place, accompanied by the outmigration of younger people. Comparing census data from 1970 to 1990 (McLaughlin and Jensen), states associated with retirement immigration, including Florida and Arizona, and states with elderly populations that are small to begin with, such as Alaska, have the fastest growing elderly populations. In primarily southern and western states impacted by retirement migration out of northern states, however, growth in the number of elders is not uniform across rural areas. Elderly people who are generally more affluent tend to move to areas within states or from one state to another with features such as bodies of water and a strong tourism base (Johnson). The short- to medium-term impact of this movement on receiving rural communities is generally economically positive (Glasgow and Reeder, 1990; Serow, 1990). Elderly migrants purchase property, increasing the tax base, and they create service sector employment (Reeder and Glasgow). Over the long run, however, Longino and Smith speculate that the demand for social and medical supportive services will gradually increase as elderly migrants age in place and experience associated illness and disability.

States with large numbers of older adults who are aging in place (e.g., Kansas and Iowa) are also experiencing outmigration of younger people from rural areas in search of employment. When this happens, the proportion of the population that is older becomes relatively large and stable. The situation of rural older adults who are aging in place is better understood by considering their lifelong work and economic histories. Census data from 1990 show that rural workers hold lower paying and lower occupational status jobs. This explains why younger people are moving to areas with better jobs, leaving older family members behind to age in place. Compared to urban elders, rural elders have likely held jobs throughout their working lives in seasonal farming, forestry, fishing, or in lower paying occupations. This explains why older persons in rural regions characterized by aging in place are economically vulnerable. They have lower incomes and are more likely to be poor, and they are less educated then their urban counterparts (Coward, McLaughlin, Duncan, and Bull). Thus, increases in the proportion of rural older persons can have negative or positive economic precursors. In either case, however, the long-term effect will likely be increasing demand for services and assistance.

Characteristics of rural older adults

As stated previously, nonmetropolitan older adults are more likely than their metropolitan counterparts to have low incomes (below 200 percent of poverty) and lower lifetime earnings that negatively impact social security benefits (Krout, 1994). At the same time, they derive a higher proportion of their incomes from social security (Coburn and Bolda). The rural elderly are more likely than older urban residents to rely on Medicaid, because of lower lifetime earnings, or Medicare as their sole health insurance provider. Although rural older persons are more likely than urban older adults to own their homes outright, their homes tend to be of lower value and in need of repair compared to the homes of urban elderly people (Coburn and Bolda). Coburn and Bolda also describe rural or nonmetropolitan elderly people as significantly more likely than their urban or metropolitan counterparts to rate their health as fair or poor and to have problems doing activities of daily living, increasing their risk of premature mortality and diminished life satisfaction.

In contrast to popular notions about rural life, there is little evidence that older adults living in rural areas have more extensive kin networks from which to draw informal support than their urban counterparts (Coward and Cutler). Although rural elders are more likely than urban residents to be married, providing a source of assistance when needed, Stoller points out that the rural-urban difference in marital rates disappears by age eighty-five, when older people are more likely to need assistance. Stoller also points out that about one-third of rural elders are widowed. By age eighty-five, over 80 percent of rural women are widows, compared to 40 percent of men. Given more traditional views of marital roles among older rural couples, particularly among husbands who often assume responsibility for transportation and finances, older rural widows are at high risk for financial vulnerability due to a lifetime of unpaid work and isolation. Remote locations and small community sizes that limit sources of assistance, combined with the outmigration of younger family members, places rural older adults in a vulnerable position concerning access to formal services and the availability of informal assistance from outside the home when needed.

On the positive side, older people living in rural areas are more likely than their urban counterparts to be married and less likely to be divorced until age eighty-five, when this rural advantage disappears (Stoller). Rural farm, but not necessarily nonfarm, elders are more likely than urban residents to live with or near at least one of their children. According to Lee et al., this child is often also engaged in the farm enterprise. Aside from the results of statistical comparisons, an obvious conclusion is that the majority of older persons living in rural areas are there because they prefer this environment: they have chosen to live in locations that are quieter and less populated, so their lives are less impacted than those of urban residents by the press of humanity. Fewer amenities and complex supportive services are not a problem as long as functional independence can be maintained.

Health and home- and community-based service use among rural older adults

National Health Interview Survey data point to a tendency for nonmetropolitan elders aged sixty-five to sixty-nine, adjacent to a metropolitan area, to visit physicians less frequently than same-aged people living in other locations. Rural elderly residents aged seventy-five and over, however, were as likely or more likely to visit a physician as their urban counterparts (Coburn and Bolda). It seems that rural elders who are financially able manage to get to physicians when there is a need, regardless of distance. In their study of health and community-based service use among rural southeastern community-dwelling older adults, Mitchell, Mathews, and Griffin (1997) found that rural and small town (under twenty-five hundred) residence had no effect on visits to primary care or specialty physicians when poverty status, transportation needs, and the availability of informal care were considered. This suggests that the poverty status, transportation problems, and lack of informal assistance coinciding with rural residence may be more important predictors of visits to primary care and specialty physicians than residence.

Services that help older persons stay in their homes as long as possible include those available through the Older Americans Act (OAA), the Social Services Block Grant (SSBG) program, Medicaid waivers, and largely for-profit in-home care. Initially assisting all older persons, OAA services now target socially impaired and economically disadvantaged people age sixty-five and over. OAA services include senior centers, transportation, in-home services, legal assistance, congregate meals, home delivered meals, and in-home services for the frail. Allocated to states through Title XX of the Social Security Act based upon the size of the needy population, SSBG assistance includes homemaker, chore service, home health care, protective services, and nutrition for older people. Medicaid funds home- and community-based long-term, skilled nursing care for eligible older adults as an alternative to institutional care. With Medicare restrictions in hospital care reimbursement in the 1980s, the private sector began to offer home health care following hospital discharge. Many agencies have expanded their services to include other types of in-home assistance, including chore service. This array of services is so complex that some have tried to categorize them in a more meaningful way. For example, Cox (1993) groups them as preventive for those less impaired, supportive for the moderately impaired, and protective for the severely impaired.

Assessment of the extent to which rural residence compromises access to home- and community-based services among older adults has been frustrated by inconsistent definitions of rural residence and because of different service designations across studies. Federal service delivery requirement (e.g., only volunteers can deliver meals), transportation costs, and the lack of larger numbers of service personnel found in urban areas, certainly limits innovation and the penetration of specialized services into rural communities (e.g., Salmon, Nelson, and Rouse). Consequently, Rowles concludes that relocation away from the rural community becomes the only option when rural elderly people lose capacity to accommodate declining physical capability, and when the support from kin, neighbors, or aging peers is no longer viable. Since the supply of nursing homes and nursing home beds is nearly 43 percent greater in nonmetropolitan than metropolitan areas (Coburn and Bolda) and complex in-home services that replace or delay institutionalization are generally less available in rural compared to urban areas (Nelson), this rural relocation is more likely to be to a skilled nursing facility than would be an urban relocation.

Regional studies with samples sufficiently large to uncover variability among older rural residents are needed to unmask findings of little if any residential variability resulting from simplistic dichotomous residential definitions. For example, virtually all of the contributors to Coward and Krouts (1998) edited volume called for research to better understand the implications of the variety of rural locations across America. The culture of rural Kansas is certainly different than the culture of rural Vermont, and such cultural difference impacts all aspects of rural aging, from the propensity towards self-care to the availability of residential alternatives.

Jim Mitchell

See also Living Arrangements; Migration, Geographic Mobility, and Distribution.


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Coward, R. T., and Cutler, S. J. Informal and Formal Health Care Systems for the Rural Elderly. Health Services Research 23 (1989): 785806.

Coward, R. T., and Krout, J. A. Aging in Rural Settings: Life Circumstances and Distinctive Features. New York: Springer, 1998.

Coward, R. T.; McLaughlin, D. K.; Duncan, R. P.; and Bull, C. N. An Overview of Health and Aging in Rural America. In Health Services for Rural Elders. Edited by R. T. Coward, C. N. Bull, G. Kukulka, and J. M. Galliher.New York: Springer Publishing Company, 1994. Pages 132.

Cox, C. The Frail Elderly: Needs and Community Responses. Westport, Conn.: Auburn House, 1993.

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Mansfield, C. J.; Wilson, J. L.; Kobrinski, E. J.; and Mitchell, J. Premature Mortality in the United States: The Roles of Geographic Areas, Socioeconomic Status, Household Type, and Availability of Medical Care. American Journal of Public Health 89 (1999): 893898.

Mitchell, J.; Mathews, H. F.; and Griffin, L. W. Health and Community-Based Service Use: Differences between Elderly African-Americans and Whites. Research on Aging 19 (1997): 199222.

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Reeder, R. J., and Glasgow, N. L. Nonmetro Retirement Counties: Strengths and Weaknesses. Rural Development Perspectives 6 (1990): 1217.

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Stoller, E. P. Families of Elderly Rural Americans. In Aging in Rural Settings. Edited by R. T. Coward and J. A. Krout. New York: Springer Publishing Company, 1998. Pages 127146.

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URBANIZATION. Cities have been the pioneers of American growth. From the beginnings of European exploration and conquest, towns and cities were the staging points for the settlement of successive resource frontiers. Boston and Santa Fe in the seventeenth century, Philadelphia and San Antonio in the eighteenth century, Cincinnati and Denver in the nineteenth century, and Anchorage and Miami in the twentieth century all played similar roles in organizing and supporting the production of raw materials for national and world markets. It has been city-based bankers, merchants, and journalists who have linked individual resource hinterlands into a single national economy.

The reality of the "urban frontier" clashes with the ingrained American frontier myth. In his famous essay, "The Significance of the Frontier in American History" (1893), Frederick Jackson Turner asked his readers to take an imaginative stance over the Cumberland Gap to watch the "procession of civilization … the Indian, the fur trader and hunter, the cattle raiser, the pioneer farmer." City makers, by implication, trailed far to the rear. From James Fenimore Cooper's novels and Theodore Roosevelt's Winning of the West (4 vols., 1889–1896) to Paul Bunyan stories and John Wayne movies, there is little place for the bustling levees of New Orleans, the surging crowds of Broadway, or the smoky cacophony of Pittsburgh steel mills.

A comparison of urbanization in the United States to the rest of the world contradicts the national self-image. Americans have prided themselves on their youth as a nation, which consequently was late to urbanize. In sober fact, however, the United States was a pioneer among urbanizing nations. Along with Britain, France, Belgium, and the Netherlands, it was among the very first to feel the effects of the urban-industrial revolution. The history of American cities is substantially a story of the invention of new institutions and technologies to cope with two centuries of massive urbanization.

Stages of Urbanization

American urbanization has followed the same demographic pattern found in every urbanizing society for the last two centuries. The word "urbanization" itself refers to an increase in the proportion of national or regional population living in cities. For the first six thousand years of urban life, no society was long able to maintain an urban percentage greater than from 5 to 10 percent. Starting in late eighteenth-century England, however, one nation after another experienced an accelerating shift from rural to urban population. After several generations of rapid urbanization, the process leveled off toward a new equilibrium in which about three-quarters of the population lived in cities and many of the rest pursued city-related activities in smaller towns. The result, when the urban proportion of a population is graphed against time is an s-shaped curve that turns up sharply for perhaps a century and then tapers off.

Urban growth in the United States has clearly followed these three stages of gradual growth, explosive take off, and maturity. First, the era of colonial or pre-modern cities stretched from the seventeenth century to the 1810s. Second, the rise of the industrial city dominated a century of rapid urbanization from 1820 to 1920. Finally, the third era of the modern city has run from 1920 onward. At each stage, the available technologies of communication and transportation shaped the internal patterns of cities and their distribution across the continent.

The first century of British and Dutch colonization along the Atlantic seaboard depended directly on the founding of new cities, from New Amsterdam (1625) and Boston (1630) to Providence (1638), Charleston (1672), Norfolk (1680), Philadelphia (1682), and Savannah (1733). These colonial towns resembled the provincial market centers in the British Isles. Compact in size and small in population, they linked the farms, fisheries, and forests of the Atlantic colonies to markets in Europe and the Caribbean. With populations that ranged from 15,000 to 30,000 at the time of the American Revolution, the four largest cities dominated the commerce of regional hinterlands. Portsmouth, Salem, Springfield, and Providence looked to Boston; Albany traded via New York; Philadelphia took its profits from the rich farms of the Delaware and Susquehanna Valleys; Charleston centralized the trade of Savannah, Wilmington, and New Bern.

Colonial capitals looked to the sea. William Penn's Philadelphia was designed to march inland from the Delaware River, but the economic life of the port drew settlement north and south along the river. Charleston faced the Cooper River and the Atlantic beyond its barrier islands. New York City similarly faced its harbor on the East River. Taverns and warehouses lined the wharves. Merchants crowded the coffeehouses to share the latest shipping news and arrange for their next cargoes. The elite built near the governor's residence on lower Broadway to enjoy the fresh air off the Hudson River and a relaxing view of the green New Jersey shore.

Taken together, the twenty-four recognized cities with 2,500 people or more at the first census of 1790 accounted for only 5 percent of the national population. A generation later, after the disruptions of the War of 1812, with its British attacks on Washington, Baltimore, and New Orleans, and the panic of 1819, the 1820 census still counted only 700,000 urban Americans—a scant 7 percent of the national total. A century later, the 1920 census found a nation that was 51 percent urban, giving 1920 as much symbolic meaning for American history as the supposed closing of the frontier in 1890.

Nineteenth-century urbanization meant more cities and bigger cities. From 1820 to 1920, the New York metropolitan area expanded from 124,000 people on the lower end of Manhattan Island to 7,910,000 spread across fourteen counties. Philadelphia's metropolitan region grew from 64,000 to 2,407,000. Over the same period, the number of cities from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean increased from a handful of settlements to 864 cities, topped by San Francisco and Los Angeles.

New city people came from farms and small towns on both sides of the Atlantic. Whether it involved a transatlantic voyage from Liverpool or Hamburg or a fifty-mile train ride into Indianapolis, migration from farm to city was the other great population movement in nineteenth-century America. It simultaneously balanced and was part of the westward movement across the continent. The physical construction of cities—houses, bridges, sewers, streets, offices, factories—was a complementary process of capital formation that, likewise, balanced the development of farms and their supporting railroads.

By the end of the nineteenth century, American cities fell into two categories. The nation's industrial core stretched from Boston and Baltimore westward to St. Louis and St. Paul, accounting for the overwhelming majority of manufacturing production and wealth. Many of these cities were specialized as textile towns, steel towns, shoemaking towns, pottery towns, and the like. Their industrial labor force drew from the millions of European immigrants and their children who made up more than two-thirds of the population of cities like Detroit, Chicago, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, and New York City. Cities in the South, the Great Plains, and the Far West were the suppliers and customers. They funneled raw materials to the industrial belt: cotton from Mobile, lumber from Norfolk, metals from Denver, cattle from Kansas City. In

return, they distributed the manufactured goods of the Northeast.

Chicago was the great exemplar of the growing industrial city. Between 1880 and 1920, 605,000 immigrants and 790,000 Americans moved into the city. Chicagoans lifted their entire city ten feet to improve its drainage. They built the world's first skyscrapers and some of its first grain elevators. They remade American taste with the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893. They competed with Odessa as a grain port, Pittsburgh as a steel city, Cincinnati as a meatpacker, and London and Paris as a national railroad center. Looking at Chicago and other mid-continent cities, Charles Francis Adams commented that "the young city of the West has instinctively … flung herself, heart, soul, and body, into the movement of her time. She has realized the great fact that steam has revolutionized the world, and she has bound her whole existence up in the great power of modern times" (North American Review, pp. 6–14).

Urban growth after 1900 revolved around the adaptation of American cities to twentieth-century technologies of personalized transportation and rapid communication. The 1910s and 1920s brought full electric wiring and self-starting automobiles to middle-class homes. George F. Babbitt, the eponymous hero of Sinclair Lewis's 1922 novel, lived in a thoroughly modern Dutch colonial house in the bright new subdivision of Floral Heights in the up-to-date city of Zenith. He awakened each morning to "the best of nationally advertised and quantitatively produced alarm-clocks, with all modern attachments." His bathroom was glazed tile and silvered metal. His business was real estate and his god was Modern Appliances.

The metropolis that Babbitt and millions of real automobile owners began to shape in the 1920s broke the physical bounds of the nineteenth century industrial city. In 1910 the Census Bureau devised the "metropolitan district" to capture information about the suburban communities that had begun to ring the central city. The definition has been repeatedly modified to match the realities of urban-regional geography. In 2000, the federal government recognized 280 metropolitan regions with a total population of 276 million. The metro areas of middle-sized cities like Atlanta, Phoenix, Minneapolis–St. Paul, and Houston stretched for from seventy-five to one hundred miles from one suburban margin to the other.

The cities of post–World War II America have had the greatest ethnic variety in national history. They have been destinations for a massive northward movement. Rural southerners, both black and white, moved north (and west) to cities and jobs. Starting with the Great Migration of 1917 and 1918, the African American experience became an urban experience, creating centers of black culture like Harlem in the 1920s and feeling the bitter effects of ghettoization by the 1930s and 1940s. During the Great Depression and World War II, Appalachian whites joined black workers in middle western cities like Cincinnati and Detroit. Okies and Arkies left their depressed cotton farms in Oklahoma and Arkansas for new lives in Bakersfield and Los Angeles.

The northward movement also crossed oceans and borders. Puerto Rican immigrants after World War II remade the social fabric of New York City and adjacent cities. Half a million Cubans made an obvious impact on Miami after the Cuban Revolution of 1959. The Puerto Ricans and Cubans were followed to eastern cities by Haitians, Jamaicans, Colombians, Hondurans, and others from the countries surrounding the Caribbean. Mexicans constitute the largest immigrant group in cities in Texas, Arizona, Colorado, and California. Temporary workers, shoppers, visitors, legal migrants, and illegal migrants fill neighborhood after neighborhood in El Paso, San Antonio, San Diego, and Los Angeles, creating bilingual labor markets and downtowns.

From the 1970s, Asia matched Latin America, with each accounting for 40 percent of documented immigrants. Asians have concentrated in the cities of the Pacific Coast and in New York City. Los Angeles counts new ethnic neighborhoods for Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, and Samoans. Honolulu looks to Asia as well as the continental United States for business and tourism. A new generation of migrants has revitalized fading Chinatowns in New York City, Chicago, Seattle, and Los Angeles.

The rise of Latin American and Asian immigration is part of a rebalancing of the American urban system. What journalists in the 1970s identified as the rise of the Sun Belt is part of a long-term shift of urban growth from the industrial Northeast toward the regional centers of the South and West—from Detroit, Buffalo, and Chicago to Los Angeles, Dallas, and Atlanta. The causes include the concentration of defense spending and the aerospace industry between 1940 and 1990, the growth of a leisure economy, the expansion of domestic energy production, and the dominance of information technology industries. The result has been booming cities along the South Atlantic coast from Washington to Miami, through the greater Southwest from Houston to Denver, and along the Pacific Coast from San Diego to Seattle.

At the start of the twenty-first century, nine metropolitan areas had populations of five million or more: New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington Baltimore, San Francisco–Oakland–San Jose, Philadelphia, Boston, Detroit, and Dallas–Fort Worth. Their eighty-four-million residents accounted for 30 percent of all Americans. The fastest-growing metropolitan areas from 1990 to 2000 were all found in the South or West. In total, metropolitan areas contained 80 percent of the American population.

Cities and American Values

Urbanization has been a cultural as well as demographic process. The United States lagged behind Great Britain and a handful of nations in northwestern Europe in urbanization, but led the rest of the world. One result has been ambivalent Americans who have praised cities with one voice and shunned them with another. Public opinion polls repeatedly show that most Americans would prefer to live in a small town. A few extra questions have revealed that they also want easy access to the medical specialists, cultural facilities, and business opportunities that are found only in cities. Indeed, there was scarcely any place in late-twentieth-century America not thoroughly penetrated by urban values and tied into urban networks.

Thomas Jefferson set the tone for American anti-urbanism with the strident warning that cities were dangerous to democracy. At the time of Philadelphia's deadly yellow fever epidemic of 1800, Jefferson wrote to Benjamin Rush that "when great evils happen, I am in the habit of looking out for what good may arise from them as consolations. … The yellow fever will discourage the growth of great cities in our nation, and I view great cities as pestilential to the morals, the health, and the liberties of man." Jefferson feared that American cities would become facsimiles of eighteenth-century London and Paris as areas of poverty and breeders of riotous mobs. He also feared that because city dwellers were dependent on others for their livelihoods, their votes were at the disposal of the rich. Should Americans become "piled upon one another in large cities, as in Europe," he wrote to James Madison, they would become "corrupt as in Europe."

If Jefferson feared foremost for the health of the republic, many of the antiurban writers who followed feared instead for the morals of the individual. George Foster drew stark contrasts between rich and poor in New York in Slices, by an Experienced Carver (1849) and New York by Gaslight (1850). Others indicted city life as a corrupter of both rich and poor. For example, in The Dangerous Classes of New York (1872), Charles Loring Brace warned of the threat posed by the abjectly poor and the homeless. With no stake in society, they were a riot waiting to happen and a responsibility for more comfortable citizens. Jacob Riis used words and photographs to tell the middle class about the poor of New York City in How the Other Half Lives (1890). A few years later, W. T. Stead wrote If Christ Came to Chicago! (1894) to show the big city as un-Christian because it destroyed the lives of its inhabitants.

The first generation of urban sociologists wrote in the same vein during the 1910s, 1920s, and 1930s. Robert E. Park worked out a theory of urban life that blamed cities for substituting impersonal connections for close personal ties. As summarized by Louis Wirth in "Urbanism as a Way of Life" (1938), the indictment dressed up Thomas Jefferson in the language of social science. Wirth's city is the scene of transitory and superficial relationships, frantic status seeking, impersonal laws, and cultural institutions pandering to the lowest common denominator of a heterogeneous society.

The attack on city living was counterbalanced by sheer excitement about the pace of growth. By the 1830s large numbers of Americans had come to look on cities as tokens of American progress. The pages of booster pamphlets and histories of instant cities were drenched in statistics of growth. Pittsburgh as It Is (1857) offered statistics on coal mining, railroads, real estate values, population, employment, boat building, banks and a "progressional ratio" comparing the growth of Pittsburgh to the rest of the nation. Boosters counted churches, schools, newspapers, charities, and fraternal organizations as further evidence of economic and social progress. Before the Civil War, one Chicago editor wrote that "facts and figures …if carefully pondered, become more interesting and astonishing than the wildest vision of the most vagrant imagination." His words echoed seventy years later as George Babbitt sang the praises of "the famous Zenith spirit … that has made the little old Zip City celebrated in every land and clime, wherever condensed milk and pasteboard cartons are known." Urban advocates in the twentieth century extended the economic argument to point out the value of concentrating a variety of businesses in one location. The key is external economies: the ability of individual firms to buy and sell to each other and to share the services of bankers, insurance specialists, accountants, advertising agencies, mass media, and other specialists.

American writers and critics as disparate as Walt Whitman and Ralph Waldo Emerson have also acknowledged cities as sources of creativity. "We can ill spare the commanding social benefits of cities," Emerson wrote in his essay "The Young American" in 1844. Nathaniel Hawthorne allowed his protagonist in The Blithedale Romance (1852) to take time off from the rigors of a country commune for the intellectual refreshment of Boston. George Tucker, professor of moral philosophy and political economy at Jefferson's University of Virginia, analyzed urban trends in 1843. He stated: "The growth of cities commonly marks the progress of intelligence and the arts, measures the sum of social enjoyment, and always implies increased mental activity. … Whatever may be the good or evil tendencies of populous cities, they are the result to which all countries, that are at once fertile, free, and intelligent tend" (Progress of the United States in Population and Wealth, p. 127).

Livable Cities

Americans had to learn not only to plan their cities but also to live comfortably in the fast-growing communities that they erected. They needed to adapt their lives to the urban pace and to develop institutions to bring order out of the seeming chaos. In a city like Philadelphia, rates of accidental deaths and homicides began to drop after 1870 as city dwellers learned to control reckless behavior and pay attention on the streets. The end of the century also brought a decline of spontaneous mobs and endemic drunkenness at the same time that the saloon developed as a stable social institution in immigrant neighborhoods.

Cities developed community institutions that linked people in new ways. Apartment buildings offered a new environment for the middle class. Novelist William Dean Howells reflected contemporary concerns by devoting the first hundred pages of A Hazard of New Fortunes (1890) to Basil March's search for an apartment appropriate for a newly appointed New York City magazine editor. Department stores, penny newspapers, vaudeville theaters, and baseball provided common meeting grounds and interests for heterogeneous populations. Department stores such as A. T. Stewart's, John Wanamaker's, Marshall Field's, and others of the 1860s, 1870s, and 1880s made emerging central business districts acceptable places for women as consumers and helped to introduce women into the clerical labor force. Ballparks and theaters were shared spaces where allegiances and jokes crossed ethnic lines. Ethnic banks, newspapers, and mutual insurance societies offered training in American ways at the same time that they preserved group identity.

The openness of the American city to continued growth brought the need for professionalism in public services. At the start of the nineteenth century, private companies or amateurs provided everything from drinking water to police protection. In the flammable wooden cities of colonial times, householders were expected to keep buckets and respond to calls for help. By the 1820s and 1830s, more cities had added groups of citizens who drilled together as volunteer fire companies, answered alarms, and fought fires as teams. Problems of timely response and the development of expensive steam-powered pumpers, however, required a switch to paid fire companies in the 1850s and 1860s. Firemen who were city employees could justify expensive training and be held accountable for effective performance. By 1900 most observers agreed that fire protection in the United States matched that anywhere in Europe.

Effective fire protection required a pressurized water supply. Residents of colonial cities had taken their water directly from streams and wells or bought it from entrepreneurs who carted barrels through the streets. Philadelphia installed the first large-scale water system in 1801. Boston reached twenty miles into the countryside with an aqueduct in the 1840s. From 1837 to 1842, New York City built the Croton Reservoir and an aqueduct that brought fresh water forty miles from Westchester County to a receiving reservoir in what is now Central Park. Changing theories of disease and the availability of abundant water for municipal cleaning helped to cut New York City's death toll in the 1866 cholera epidemic by 90 percent from the 1849 epidemic.

The public responsibilities of nineteenth-century cities generally fell into the three categories of public health and safety (police, sewers, parks), economic development

(street drainage and pavement), and public education. Such expanding responsibilities fueled the municipal progressivism of the early twentieth century. Led by local business interests, cities implemented civil service employment systems that based hiring and promotion on supposedly objective measures. The city manager system placed the daily operations of government under a professional administrator. As the system spread after the 1910s, city government became more and more the realm of engineers, planners, budget analysts, and other trained professionals.

Public intervention came later in other areas like low-income housing. Cities long preferred to regulate the private market rather than to intervene directly. New York City pioneered efforts to legislate minimum housing standards with tenement house codes in 1867, 1882, and 1901. However, providing the housing remained a private responsibility until the federal government began to finance public housing during the 1930s. Even the massive investments in public housing spurred by federal legislation in 1937 and 1949, however, failed to meet the need for affordable living places.

A full social agenda for local government awaited the 1960s. Assistance to the poor was the realm of private philanthropy in the nineteenth century, often coordinated through private charity organization societies. The crisis of the 1930s legitimized federal assistance for economically distressed individuals, but city government remained oriented to public safety and economic development. By the start of the 1960s, however, criticisms that the urban renewal programs of the 1950s had benefited real estate developers at the expense of citizens added to an increasing sense that America's multiracial cities were in a state of crisis. In 1964 President Lyndon Johnson declared a nationwide "war on poverty." On the front lines was the Office of Economic Opportunity with its Neighborhood Youth Corps for unemployed teenagers, its Head Start and Upward Bound programs to bolster public schools, and its Community Action Agencies to mobilize the poor to work for their own interests. Two years later the Model Cities program sought to demonstrate that problems of education, child care, health care, housing, and employment could be attacked most effectively by coordinated efforts.

The last quarter of the century left American cities with comprehensive social commitments but limited resources. Presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan redirected federal resources to meet the development needs of politically powerful suburbs. Cities and city people absorbed roughly two-thirds of the budget cuts in the first Reagan budget, leaving them without the resources to fund many needed social programs.

Cities and American Society

"I am an American, Chicago born—Chicago, that somber city—and go as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent." These opening lines from The Adventures of Augie March (1953) capture one of the essential features of the American city. The hero of Saul Bellow's novel about growing up during the 1920s and 1930s knew that cities are the place where things happen. They are centers of opportunity that bring people together to exchange goods, services, ideas, and human company.

At their best, American cities are among the most livable environments in the world. Americans have solved—or know how to solve—many of the physical problems of traffic, pollution, and deteriorated housing. Failures have come from lack of commitment and political will, not from the inherent nature of cities. The poor are often expected to tax themselves for public services that they cannot afford as private citizens. As in the nineteenth century, the centers of our cities display the polarization of society between the very rich and the very poor.

What cities will continue to do best is to protect diversity. The key to urban vitality is variety in economic activities, people, and neighborhoods. This understanding implies that the multicentered metropolitan area built around automobiles and freeways is a logical expression of American urbanism. In the words of historian Sam Bass Warner Jr., the contemporary city offers "the potential of a range of personal choices and social freedoms for city dwellers if we would only extend the paths of freedom that our urban system has been creating" (The Urban Wilderness, p. 113).

The political expression of the urban mosaic is metropolitan pluralism, facilitated by the civil rights movement, the Voting Rights Act, and the war on poverty. Diverse groups defined by ethnicity, social class, or residential location have developed the capacity to pursue their goals through neighborhood organizations, suburban governments, and interest groups. Pluralistic politics has given previously ignored groups and communities entry to public and private decisions about metropolitan growth and services, particularly Hispanics and African Americans. However, cities still need strong area-wide institutions to facilitate the equitable sharing of problems and resources as well as opportunities. Most promising are regional agencies like the Twin Cities Metropolitan Council in Minnesota and Metro in Portland, Oregon, that have assumed responsibility for planning and delivering specific regional services such as parks or public transportation.

Toward the close of the New Deal, a number of the nation's leading specialists on urban growth summed up the promise of urban America in a report called Our Cities: Their Role in the National Economy (1937). "The city has seemed at times the despair of America," it said, "but at others to be the Nation's hope, the battleground of democracy. … The faults of our cities are not those of decadence and impending decline, but of exuberant vitality crowding its way forward under tremendous pressure—the flood rather than the drought."


Abbott, Carl. The Metropolitan Frontier: Cities in the Modern American West. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1993.

Adams, Charles Francis. "Boston." North American Review (Jan. 1868): 6–14.

Bender, Thomas. New York Intellect: A History of Intellectual Life in New York City, from 1750 to the Beginnings of Our Own Time. New York: Knopf, 1987.

Borchert, John R. "American Metropolitan Evolution." Geographical Review 57 (1967): 301–332.

Cronon, William. Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West. New York: Norton, 1991.

Gillette, Howard, Jr., and Zane L. Miller. American Urbanization: A Historiographic Review. New York: Greenwood, 1987.

Goldfield, David R. Cotton Fields and Skyscrapers: Southern City and Region, 1607–1980. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1982.

Jackson, Kenneth T. Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Lemon, James T. Liberal Dreams and Nature's Limits: Great Cities of North America since 1600. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Monkkonen, Eric H. America Becomes Urban: The Development of U.S. Cities and Towns, 1780–1980. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.

Monti, Daniel J., Jr. The American City: A Social and Cultural History. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 1999.

Nash, Gary. The Urban Crucible: Social Change, Political Consciousness, and the Origins of the American Revolution. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1979.

Tucker, George. Progress of the United States in Population and Wealth in Fifty Years, As Exhibited by the Decennial Census. New York: Press of Hunt's Merchants' Magazine, 1843.

Wade, Richard C. The Urban Frontier: The Rise of Western Cities, 1790–1830. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1959.

Warner, Sam Bass, Jr. The Urban Wilderness: A History of the American City. New York: Harper and Row, 1972.

Weber, Adna F. The Growth of Cities in the Nineteenth Century: A Study in Statistics. New York: Macmillan, 1899.

White, Morton, and Lucia White. The Intellectual versus the City: From Thomas Jefferson to Frank Lloyd Wright. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1962.


See alsoCity Planning ; Housing ; Immigration ; a Migration, Internal ; Poverty ; Suburbanization ; Tenements ; Urban Redevelopment .


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Urbanizationthe transformation of social life from rural to urban settingsis the seminal process in defining the course of civilization. Urban life evolved approximately ten thousand years ago as a result of sophisticated agricultural innovations that led to a food supply of sufficient magnitude to support both the cultivators and a new class of urban residents. These agricultural innovations, mainly irrigation-based public works, required a more complex social order than that of an agrarian village. Urbanization at its base is thus distinguished from the settled agrarian life that preceded it in two important respects: it embodies a multifaceted social hierarchy and relies on sophisticated technologies to support the activities of daily living (Childe 1936). These uniquely urban characteristics consistently define both urbanization and civilization from the past to the present.

Just as civilization emerged from urbanization in the past, so too does the future course of civilization hinge on our ability to incorporate the reality of contemporary urbanization into our responses to twenty-first-century challenges that include climate change, the elimination of severe poverty, ecological balance, the conquest of communicable diseases, and other pressing social and environmental problems. This is the case because since 2007 more than half of the worlds population resides in urban settingsa historic first.

Urban life can be defined, following Louis Wirth (1938), as life in permanent dense settlements with socially diverse populations. According to Lewis Mumford (1937), the city plays a critical role in the creation and maintenance of culture and civilization. Finally, following Henri Pirenne (1925), the crucial role of trade and production should be stressed. Thus urbanization involves an ongoing threefold process: (1) urbanization geographically and spatially spreads the number and density of permanent settlements; (2) settlements become comprised of populations that are socially and ethnically differentiated; and (3) these urban populations thrive through the production and exchange of a diverse array of manufactured and cultural products.


Although city life extends back at least ten millennia, the shape and size of modern urban settlements have roots that extend back only about 250 years to the Industrial Revolution, which marked a significant transformation in the role of cities as loci of critical productive activity and not just as cultural and political centers for a surrounding agrarian countryside. The present characterization of the world as predominantly urban is the cumulative result of this urbanization-industrialization trend. Industrial urbanization emerged first in the countries of the West, then in the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean, and is now strongly evident in Asia and Africa (Garau et al. 2005).

According to United Nations projections, by 2030 the increase of 2.06 billion in net global population will occur in urban areas. Over 94 percent of that urban total (1.96 billion) will be in the worlds less-developed regions (UN Population Division 2004). This means that virtually all of the additional needs of the worlds future population will have to be addressed in the urban areas of the poorest countries.

UN-Habitat, the United Nations agency responsible for promoting sustainable urban development, estimates that roughly one-third of the current urban population of about three billion live in places that can be characterized as slums. The UN classification schema for slums is a fivefold measure: lack of access to safe drinking water, lack of access to sanitation, inadequate shelter, overcrowding, and lack of security of tenure. If a place of residence meets any one of these measures, it is classified as a slum. By the year 2030, if nothing is done, the proportion of the urban population living in slums will rise to 43 percent (1.7 billion in an urban population of 3.93 billion). All of these people will be living in the urban slums of countries in the developing world, mainly in sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia (UN-HABITAT and Global Urban Observatory 2003).


Urbanization is most powerfully observed through physical density (comparatively large numbers of people living in comparatively small areas). The ratio of population size to land area is the standard metric for evaluating density. It is a precise measurement that is not easily interpreted because neither the numerator (population size) nor the denominator (land area) is static. Political boundaries are only marginally helpful in defining the effective size of an urban settlement because at any moment changes in communications and transport technology alter the size of the relevant space over which urban residents live and work. Until the end of the eighteenth century, cities were spatially compact places with a radius of about one to two milesthe distance an individual could comfortably walk in carrying out daily activities. With the arrival of industrialization, effective urban size spread rapidly through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Contemporary urban or, more properly, metropolitan settlements easily encompass radii of 50 miles or more. This is a result of the continual improvement in rapid overland and even air travel modes and digital and wireless communications technology. The exact spatial configuration of any metropolitan settlement is a compromise between activities that must remain within walking distance and those for which residents are willing to travel (Schaeffer and Sclar 1980).

These spatially widening metropolises are not uniform in terms of their residential population densities. Hence density measurements alone tell us little about the quality of urban life. This quality can vary widely within the comparatively small confines of any metropolitan area. It is especially important to understand that high density per se is not an indicator of compromised living conditions. Metropolitan New York, which includes both the central city and the surrounding suburbs, has an average population density of over 5,300 people per square mile (ppm2), but the wealthiest part of the region, Manhattan Island, has a density that exceeds 66,000 ppm2. By way of comparison Nairobi, Kenya, has a city-wide density of over 1,400 ppm2, but its centrally located slum, Kibera, considered the largest in Africa, has an estimated population density of at least 100,000 ppm2. While Kiberas density significantly exceeds Manhattans, the major determinant of the differences in quality of life relate to the quality of shelter and the ancillary urban services, such as water, sanitation, public safety, and most importantly transportation. Very poor urban residents must exchange life in high-density, poorly serviced places for the ability to walk to the places in the urban center where they earn a livelihood.

The major urban challenge of the twenty-first century concerns the ability of governments to effectively provide adequate shelter and to plan and deliver services for metropolitan-wide areas in developing countries. The difficulty in meeting the challenge is rooted in part in the fact that the historical political boundaries of the central city and suburban (i.e., satellite city) subunits of government typically derive from an earlier century, before contemporary transport and communications technology redefined effective spatial relationships. The urban economies of modern metropolises now run beyond the legal jurisdictions of the subunits of government responsible for infrastructure and public services. The insistence of international financial agencies and donors on governmental decentralization in developing countries has only served to exacerbate this problem because it has left these governmental subunits with the responsibility but without either the technical ability or revenue sources. The result is that necessary regional planning and infrastructure investment to address the challenges of urbanization are often stymied.

Urban population growth is largely migration driven. On one side there is the push of rural poverty and on the other the pull of urban opportunity. This migration-driven growth is further exacerbated by natural rates of urban population increase (birth rates that exceed death rates). Social life in urban settlements is thus more complex than its village counterpart. The transactions of daily living in villages are governed by a social economy where goods and services are exchanged on the basis of social roles and rules of reciprocity rooted in longstanding customs and religious observances. The transactions of urbanization that confront the new arrivals are, in whole or in part, defined by the impersonal exchange relationships typical of a market economy. This transition is never a simple one-for-one exchange.

Because urban populations are continually in flux and often simultaneously expanding, they are often characterized by a multiplicity of informal and formal social relationships and institutions in a similar state of flux. The variations among an informal social economy and a formal market economy in any city at any moment in time are highly reflective of the larger external forces, such as globalization and migration, that are continually redefining the roles of different cities in a world of complex trading and production relationships. In the slum of Kibera, many of the activities of daily life, including the provision of vital public services such as water, sanitation, and public safety, are governed by an informal local, but powerful, social economy (Lowenthal 1975). In contrast, life in the working-class neighborhoods of cities in developed countries is typically an amalgam of informal social institutions imbedded in formal mechanisms of municipal public-service delivery. For the wealthiest residents of these same cities, virtually all the services they consume are provided via the formal institutions of government or market exchanges.


Many of the patterns of contemporary urban development are extensions of those set in place in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. These patterns were based on three assumptions: (1) energy was relatively inexpensive; (2) safe drinking water was abundant; and (3) the environment could absorb all the waste products of urbanization. None of these assumptions is any longer valid. Consequently, urbanization in the twenty-first century will have to be reconceived in both social and environmental terms. The world cannot afford the political instability and social costs of massive pockets of urban slum dwellers, nor can it accommodate urban growth through a further spatial spread that relies on urban transport powered by carbon-based energy sources and the discharge of waste products into both the local and global atmosphere. A healthy and vibrant environment is now a scarce but vital good.

Environmental problems are principally generated by the disorderly sprawl of urban settlements into the surrounding countryside. In the developed world, metropolitan areas organized around private automobile travel among low-density suburbs and tied to a central business district generate high volumes of automobile travel in the absence of tight land-use regulation and good public transport. This development pattern has led to increased mobile source pollution within the metropolitan areas and significant greenhouse gas emissions that endanger the whole planet. Sprawl requires an ever-increasing spread of impermeable (i.e., paved) ground surfaces. This in turn leads to the runoff of polluted waters into the groundwater supplies. The paved surfaces absorb heat from the sun and create urban heat islands that require more energy consumption and the emission of pollution and greenhouse gases to cool homes and offices. In addition, there are inadequate landfills to collect all the refuse of these high-consumption urban centers.

In the developing world, the problems are similar but more acute in their direct manifestation. The high rates of population growth lead to a pattern in which urban settlement runs ahead of infrastructure improvement. This leads to the establishment of informal settlements (i.e., slums) characterized by an absolute lack of safe drinking water and sanitation. The lack of adequate public transport and public health protection systems leads to a congestion of private cars and informal transports in the center of cities, which exacerbates the air quality problems and greenhouse gas emissions. The social costs of the lack of these services fall disproportionately on the poorest residents of these burgeoning metropolitan areas. These costs take the form of excessive mortality and morbidity rates, low rates of labor productivity, and the reinforcement of an ongoing trap of urban poverty.

Climate change generated by greenhouse gas emissions adds yet another layer of special urgency to these pressing social problems. It is the very concentrated nature of citiestheir population densities and their centrality in social functioningthat makes them and their residents so vulnerable to the hazards and stresses that climate change is inducing. Rising sea levels and warming water make serious climatic assaults on cities more frequent. Devastating storms and floods that hit once in a century now occur in far shorter cycles. The impacts are not equitably distributed. The poorest urban residents tend to live in the riskiest portions of the urban environmentsflood plains, unstable slopes, river basins, and coastal areas.

Although the challenges of urbanization are formidable, the technical knowledge for their solutions exists. The question for the twenty-first century involves the ability of the international community, nations, and local governments to create institutions of urban planning and democratic governance that can effectively apply these solutions at a sufficiently broad scale that they can make a measurable difference.



Childe, V. Gordon. 1936. Man Makes Himself. London: Watts.

Garau, Pietro, Elliott Sclar, and Gabriella Carolini (lead authors). 2005. A Home in the City. UN Millennium Project: Task Force on Improving the Lives of Slum Dwellers. London and Sterling, VA: Earthscan.

Lowenthal, Martin. 1975. The Social Economy of the Urban Working Class. In The Social Economy of Cities, eds. Gary Gappert and Harold M. Rose, 447469. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

Mumford, Lewis. 1937. What Is a City? Architectural Record 82: 5862.

Pirenne, Henri. [1925] 1948. Medieval Cities: Their Origins and the Revival of Trade. Trans. Frank D. Halsey. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Schaeffer, K. H., and Elliott Sclar. 1980. Access for All: Transportation and Urban Growth. New York: Columbia University Press.

UN-HABITAT and Global Urban Observatory. 2003. Guide to Monitoring Target 11: Improving the Lives of 100 Million Slum Dwellers. Nairobi, Kenya: Author.

United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs: Population Division. 2004. World Urbanization Prospects: The 2003 Revision. New York: Author.

Wirth, Louis. 1938. Urbanism as a Way of Life. American Journal of Sociology 44: 124.

Elliott D. Sclar


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Urbanization, in conventional terms, refers to the process through which society is transformed from one that is predominantly rural, in economy, culture and life style, to one that is predominantly urban. It is also a process of territorial reorganization in that it shifts the locations, as well as the characteristics, of population and production activities. Typically, urbanization is defined by the simple proportion of a nation's population residing in areas that are classified, by national census authorities, as urban places. Since definitions of what is or is not urban differ from one country to another, however, so do interpretations of what the designation urban implies (United Nations 1996).

Urbanization, however defined, is much more than a simple matter of population or production accounting (Knox 1994). It reflects, for a start, a complex set of processes involving a series of linked transformations, not only in where people live and what they produce, but in how they live; in terms of economic well-being, political organization and the distribution of power, demographic structure (e.g. fertility), and social (and family) relations.

The Urbanization Process

It can be argued that urbanization represents the single most fundamental transformation of the twentieth century. Almost all other societal changes, for example, in levels of economic development, industrialization, the character of the family and fertility rates—indeed civilization itself—are contingent on the urban factor (Hall 1998). Although urban settlements—defined here as dense clusters of nonagricultural populations—have existed for perhaps 7,000 years, they seldom exceeded a few thousand people and only accommodated a very small proportion of the population of the territories they controlled.

In fact, it was not until after 1900 that any nation could be said to have a majority of its citizens living in urban areas. The industrial revolution in Britain, driven by the demands for a skilled and geographically concentrated labor force, and attracted by the economic benefits of agglomerating production facilities in dense settlements, produced the first truly urban nation in 1910 when more than 50 percent of its population was resident in urban areas. Other European nations followed soon after. The United States became predominantly urban, by this same measure, in 1920, whereas most Asian countries did not reach this stage until after 1945.

Prior to World War II less than 25 percent of the world's population was living in urban areas. Since then the process of concentration has accelerated, especially in the developing countries. By the end of the twentieth century roughly 48 percent of the world's six billion people lived in urban areas (United Nations 1996). Thus, the opening of the twenty-first century signals the beginning of another crucial global watershed: over 50 percent of the world's population will become urban dwellers.

Generally, the proportion of a country's population that is urban (i.e. the level of urbanization) is closely associated with the level of economic development—particularly the degree of industrialization—and the standard of living. In the advanced industrial economies today the urban proportion varies between 75 and 90 percent, in middle-income countries from 50 to 75 percent, and in the developing world from 10 to 50 percent. Recently, however, the long-standing association between levels of economic development and income per capita on the one hand and increases in the level of urbanization on the other has been broken. In many developing countries, unlike the industrialized world in the nineteenth century, the rate of urbanization has tended to out-pace the rate of economic growth. This has lead to a situation of over-urbanization, and the appearance of large mega-cities, often with insufficient employment opportunities, inadequate services, and intense poverty (Gilbert and Gugler 1994; Lo and Yeung 1998).

The Social Impacts of Urbanization

It is now widely accepted that urbanization is as much a social process as it is an economic and territorial process. It transforms societal organizations, the role of the family, demographic structures, the nature of work, and the way we choose to live and with whom. It also modifies domestic roles and relations within the family, and redefines concepts of individual and social responsibility.

Fertility rates. Initially, the societal shift from rural to urban alters rates of natural population increase. There are no recorded examples of where this has not been true. Contrary to public perception, however, it first reduces the death rate, despite the often appalling living conditions in many cities, as in, for example, nineteenth-century Europe and North America and in present-day cities in the developing world (Smith 1996). Only later does urbanization reduce the birth rate (i.e. the fertility rate). The time lag between declining death and birth rates initially means rapid urban population growth; subsequently, fertility rates drop sharply and the rate of growth of urban populations declines.

As a result, families become smaller relatively quickly, not only because parents have fewer children on average, but also because the extended family typical of rural settings is much less common in urban areas. Children are clearly less useful in urban settlements, as units of labor and producers, than in rural settings, and are more expensive to house and feed. In fact, fertility levels in developed countries have dropped so low that cities are seldom capable of reproducing their own populations. They grow, if at all, largely through in-migration from other cities or from rural areas—the latter is now a largely depleted source of population in Western countries—and increasingly through immigration.

Ironically, overpopulation in the Third World and historically low fertility levels in developed countries have combined to produce a massive immigration into those cities in the latter countries that serve as contemporary immigrant gateways or world cities (Sassen 2001; Castles and Miller 1998). Those cities, in turn, have been transformed, in social and ethno-cultural terms, as a result of this immigration (Polese and Stren 2000).

Families and living arrangements. The evolution to an urban society is also frequently equated with a decline in the status of the family, and with a proliferation of nontraditional family forms and new types of households. By nontraditional we mean those families without two parents and/or without children. This trend is in part a reflection of an increasing diversity in "choices of living arrangements." This concept is used in the scholarly literature to refer to the myriad of ways in which individuals in an urban society combine to form collective units (i.e., households). Those combinations may follow from marriage, the traditional arrangement, or from any other association of individuals within the housing system whether those individuals are related by marriage or blood, or are unrelated.

Historically, of course, living arrangements in the past or in rural areas were never as homogeneous or traditional as the literature would have us believe. Nevertheless, the last half-century, notably in the Western countries, has witnessed an explosion in rates of household formation and a sharp increase in the diversity of household and family types. For most of the period since World War II, rates of household formation—that is, the propensity to establish a separate household—has been much higher (indeed 50% higher) than the rate of population growth, and the rate of nonfamily household formation (whose members are not related by blood or marriage) has been higher still. This proliferation has many causes, including rising incomes, higher divorce rates, lower marriage rates, and alternative life styles.

The highest propensities to form separate households, however, have been within two principal groups: the young and the elderly. The former includes single parents, the most rapidly growing household type in Western cities; the growth of the latter has been facilitated by increased longevity and improved health and social benefits. In previous generations, and in most rural societies, many of these individuals would have shared accommodation, often as part of extended family groupings. The result, again with respect to Western countries, is that average family size is now fewer than four persons, while average household size is fewer than three. In many older central cities, in fact, average household size is below two persons. This is in part a sign of success, reflecting improvements in housing and in our ability to afford to live alone, but it also reflects dramatic changes in how we choose to live and in our attitudes to marriage, family life, and social responsibility.

Links to labor markets. This diversity in living arrangements and family composition in urban societies is also closely linked to shifts in the world of work—in the urban economy and in occupations. Not only does urbanization involve obvious changes in employment and working life, it alters the relationships between households (the collective units of consumption) and labor markets (the production sector). Individuals work and earn wages, but it is households (and families) that spend those earnings. Thus, the composition of families and households influences the changing well-being of the individuals in those households as much as the occupational status of its members.

Two countervailing processes are at work here in reshaping the linkages between living arrangement and work. One is that over the last half century the proportion of the population in the labor force—that is, the participation rate—has increased, especially among married women. Historically, of course, women always had full-time jobs in pre-urban societies, but through the process of urbanization much of that work became marginalized as "domestic" (and unpaid) work. Second, the decline in average household size has tended to fragment the incomes of consuming units, usually meaning fewer wage earners per household. One rather obvious result of this intersection of changes in family composition and the labor market has been a deeper polarization in economic well-being among urban populations, which is especially marked between households with two or more workers and those with none.

Domestic relations. Such labor market changes are also interrelated, as cause and effect, with shifts in domestic relations inside the household and family. The impact of these changes have been most obvious for married women. Not only has their involvement in the formal (paid) labor market increased, but so too has their economic position within the family. This gives women more autonomy in decision making, but it has not been without drawbacks. For many women the challenge of balancing work, domestic responsibilities, and the imperatives of everyday urban life, have increased, not decreased. Smaller families, and the dispersion of extended families in contemporary urbanized societies, have in combination also reduced the level of kinship support systems available to these women.

The Urban Future

The level of urbanization, as measured by the proportion of the population living in urban areas, has largely stabilized in the highly developed countries. This does not mean, however, that the urbanization process writ large has ceased. Almost everyone now lives in or near a metropolitan region, and thus shares many of the same values, living arrangements, and life styles. Population growth rates are also declining; in many western countries there is little or no natural growth. At the same time, within the urban size hierarchy, urban populations have continued to concentrate in the larger metropolitan areas; indeed, more than half of all Americans now live in areas with populations over one million. The concept urban now means metropolitan, and it implies a way of life, as well as a place.

Moreover, the social transformations that flow from that process are continuing. Families will likely become even smaller as fertility rates decline still further and the pressures of urban living become more intense. The proportion of smaller, nontraditional households will also grow. Cities, as a consequence, will depend for their future growth even more on attracting in-migrants.

Cities in developing countries face a far more daunting challenge a result of the continuing urbanization process in an era of rapid global economic restructuring. Although fertility rates are expected to decline, death rates are likely to decline even faster. Thus, urban populations will continue to grow rapidly. The magnitude of anticipated social changes in families, households, and living arrangements is immense. Indeed, the twenty-first century will be defined by the ability of countries to cope with massive urban growth and the parallel transformations in urban economies and social conditions. Most, but not all, countries will follow the urban path defined earlier by countries in the developed world.

Approximately 38 percent of the developing world population is currently classified as urban, at least according to their place of residence. If U.N. estimates (2000) are correct, this will rise to 60 percent within twenty years. Even with recent declines in fertility levels and thus reductions in family sizes in those countries, this projection means that a total of over two billion people will be added to the urban population of Third World countries. How well they will live, in economic terms, and in what types of social settings and family relationships, remains to be seen.

See also:Immigration; Industrialization; Migration; Neighborhood; Poverty; Rural Families; Work and Family


castles, s., and miller, m. (1998). the age of migration: international population movements in the modern world. new york: guilford press.

gilbert, a., and gugler, j. (1994). cities, poverty anddevelopment: urbanization and the third world. new york: oxford university press.

hall, p. (1998). cities in civilization. london: weidenfeld and nicolson.

lo, fu-chen, and yeung, yue-man, eds. (1998). globalurbanization and the world of large cities. tokyo: united nations university press.

knox, p. (1994). urbanization. upper saddle river, nj:prentice hall.

polese, m., and stren, r., eds. (2000). the socialsustainability of cities. toronto: university of toronto press.

sassen, s. (2001). the global city: new york, london and tokyo. princeton, nj: princeton university press.

smith, d.a. (1996). third world cities in globalperspective. boulder, co: westview press.

united nations. (1996). an urbanizing world: globalreport on human settlements. new york: oxford university press.

united nations. (2000). world development report. newyork: oxford university press.


National Urban League

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National Urban League

Founded in New York City in 1911 through the consolidation of the Committee for Improving the Industrial Condition of Negroes in New York (1906), the National League for the Protection of Colored Women (1906), and the Committee on Urban Conditions Among Negroes (1910), the National Urban League quickly established itself as the principal organization then dealing with the economic and social problems of blacks in American cities.

The league divided with its contemporary, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the work of the emerging struggle for racial advancement. Securing the legal rights of black Americans was the principal business of the NAACP; promoting economic opportunity and social welfare was the responsibility of the Urban League.

Committed to improving employment opportunities for blacks, the Urban League placed workers in the private sector, attacked the color line in organized labor, and sponsored programs of vocational guidance and job training. While it first concentrated on changing discriminatory employment practices in the private sector, it became involved increasingly over time in trying to influence the development of public policy. During the Great Depression, it lobbied for the inclusion of blacks in federal relief and recovery programs; in the 1940s, it pressed for an end to discrimination in defense industries and for the desegregation of the armed forces.

In the 1950s the league still measured its accomplishments in terms of pilot placements of blacks in jobs previously closed to them because of race. In the 1960s, with the passage of civil rights legislation and the pressures of urban violence, the climate changed. Now the league reported tens of thousands of placements annually in new or upgraded jobs. It sponsored an array of new projects to improve employment opportunities: a national skills bank, for example, which matched blacks who had marketable skills with positions that utilized their talents, and an on-the-job-training program that placed unskilled workers in training slots in private industry. In the 1970s and 1980s, the league pioneered a range of other employment programs providing skills training, apprenticeships, and job placements.

The league grounded its work in social welfare in scientific investigations of conditions among urban blacks that provided the basis for practical reform. Its studiessome published independently, some reported in the league's magazine, Opportunity: Journal of Negro Life (19231949)contributed importantly to the development of a body of reliable literature on aspects of black urban life and helped to shape public and private policy with respect to race.

The Urban League pioneered professional social service training for blacks. The agency encouraged black colleges to incorporate instruction in economics, sociology, and urban problems in their curricula, and it cooperated in establishing the first training center for black social workers. An Urban League fellowship program enabled promising blacks to pursue advanced studies at designated schools of social work while gaining some practical experience at the Urban League or similar agencies. The result was a corps of professional black social workers, whom the league placed in a wide range of social service agencies.

The Urban League adapted for blacks the welfare services already offered to whites by settlement houses, charitable agencies, and immigrant aid societies. Working principally through a network of local affiliates, the league counseled blacks new to the cities on behavior, dress, sanitation, health, and homemaking, and sponsored community centers, clinics, kindergartens and day nurseries, and summer camps. League staff members engaged in casework to deal with individual problems, including juvenile delinquency, truancy, and marital adjustment.

In the 1960s the Urban League supplemented its traditional social service approach with a more activist commitment to civil rights. It embraced direct action and community organization, sponsored leadership development and voter education and registration projects, helped organize the March on Washington of 1963 and the Poor People's Washington Campaign of 1968, called for a domestic Marshall Plan, and began to concentrate on building economic and political power in inner cities. The agency's services reflected a combination of new activism and the traditional Urban League concerns: assistance to black veterans, campaigns for open housing, consumer protection, efforts to find adoptive families for hard-to-place black children, as well as tutoring programs for ghetto youngsters, and street academies to prepare high school dropouts to go to college.

In the 1970s the league became a major subcontractor for government employment and social welfare programs and worked increasingly closely with Congress, the executive departments, and the regulatory agencies as an advocate of the interests of black Americans. It significantly expanded its research capacity, with a range of new monographs and special studies, a policy research journal, The Urban League Review (1975), and a widely publicized annual report, The State of Black America (1976). In the 1980s, as federal social programs were cut back, the organization looked increasingly to black self-help, seeking to mobilize the institutions of the black community to address some of the most persistent problems of the ghettothe crisis in the public schools and the high incidence of teenage pregnancy, single female-headed households, and crime.

Guided in its earliest years by George Edmund Haynes, a sociologist who was the first black to earn a Ph.D. from Columbia University, in 1917 the National Urban League came under the direction of his assistant, Eugene Kinckle Jones, a former high school teacher who also held an advanced degree in sociology. Jones was succeeded as executive secretary in 1941 by Lester B. Granger, a social worker who had been secretary of the league's Workers' Bureau. Granger stepped down in 1961, turning the league's leadership over to Whitney M. Young Jr., dean of the Atlanta School of Social Work, who served until his death in 1971. Vernon E. Jordan, a lawyer then serving as executive director of the United Negro College Fund, was named president of the National Urban League in 1972. Jordan was succeeded in 1982 by John E. Jacob, also a social worker, who had spent his professional career in a number of Urban League posts, including that of executive vice president of the national organization.

During the 1990s, under the administration of Hugh Price, the league regained some of its former importance, and became a leading clearinghouse and lobbying group in the struggle to reduce racial disparities in education. Price's principal goals were to strengthen the organization's commitment to education and youth development, individual and community-wide economic empowerment, affirmative action, and inclusiveness. Before the end of his tenure in 2003, he established the league's Institute of Opportunity and Equality and the Campaign for African American Achievement. Price's successor, former New Orleans mayor Marc H. Morial, in his first year as president of the Urban League secured over ten million dollars in funding to support affiliate programs and created the Legislative Policy Conference, called "NUL on the Hill," referring to Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. Morial also created a multimillion-dollar equity fund for new minority-owned businesses through a tax-credit program.

See also Opportunity: Journal of Negro Life ; Civil Rights Movement, U.S.; National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); United Negro College Fund


Allman, Christian. "Marc Morial: Keeping Economic Empowerment for African Americans Front and Center." Black Collegian (October 1, 2003): pp. 106 ff.

Moore, Jesse Thomas, Jr. A Search for Equality: The National Urban League, 19101961. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1981.

National Urban League. Eightieth Anniversary, 19101990. New York: National Urban League, 1990.

Parris, Guichard, and Lester Brooks. Blacks in the City: A History of the National Urban League. Boston: Little, Brown, 1971.

Weiss, Nancy J. The National Urban League, 19101940. New York: Oxford University Press, 1974.

Weiss, Nancy J. Whitney M. Young, Jr., and the Struggle for Civil Rights. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1989.

nancy j. weiss (1996)
Updated by publisher 2005


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At the time of the American Revolution (17751783), communities within the capitals of the thirteen colonies were very small. Ninety-five percent of the country's population lived rurally, participating in the predominant agrarian economy. The nation's first census in 1790 found only five cities with more than 10,000 people and no city as large as 50,000. The process of urbanization soon took hold, however, and city populations grew rapidly. The close tie between economic development and urbanization became a hallmark of U.S. economic history. Where some nations evolved with a singular large urban center, the form of urbanization in the United States was far more regional. Urban networks grew with large cities supporting a network of smaller cities and the smaller cities supporting surrounding agricultural areas. Racing to develop transportation networks such as railroads and canals, competitive regions made investments into urban infrastructures, including cultural institutions such as museums, opera houses, parks, colleges, and theaters.

The nation's first cities were seaports such as Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. Harbor areas formed the hub of economic activity. Through the early nineteenth century, modes of transportation evolved slowly; a person's needs could be met within a comfortable framework of one or two miles. A diverse mixture of economic activities and social classes including warehouses, artisan shops, and homes of the wealthy merchants could be found around the harbor area. Residential and business districts were intertwined. Little differentiation between social classes and ethnicities was common.

By the mid-nineteenth century a transportation and communication revolution emerged. Railway growth and the introduction of the steam engine dramatically influenced urbanization. Commercial centers transformed into industrial cities. Factory production expanded, bringing greater numbers of people to the cities with foreign immigration serving to satisfy escalating demands for workers. Cities, however, had difficulty accommodating the increased numbers of people. Considerable crowding occurred because buildings could not extend above five stories due to insufficient elevator technologies and the inability to supply water above that height.

By 1870 almost 170 cities had populations over 10,000 and 15 cities had more than 100,000 people. Transportation by horse-drawn street railcars allowed greater mobility. Cities became less centered around their harbor areas. New commercial districts grew somewhat distant from the ports containing key financial institutions, retail shops, and entertainment facilities. The traditional apprenticeship system gave way to a wage-earning working class that sought inexpensive housing. Residential areas became more detached from businesses and fast-growing industrial areas. The continued industrial growth also lead to unprecedented crowding of laborers in congested industrial areas. The wealthy class began creating their own, more lavish residential areas.

Westward extension of the railroads spurred migration. Commercial agricultural production and trade grew away from the coastal cities. Urbanization moved westward as well. Urban markets served agricultural economies as transportation hubs and banking centers facilitated a cohesive, regional economic system.

Major technological advances spurred increased urbanization in the 1870s. Elevators significantly altered urban area economics. The rental value of upper-story office building floors became relatively equal to street level floors, greatly raising city center land values. After 1870 central business districts with clusters of tall buildings began to surface. The buildings contained offices, department stores, entertainment establishments, and government agencies. Administrative and financial centers evolved, anchoring corporate activities that were distributed among outlying smaller cities. By the late 1880s electric streetcars were introduced which greatly enhanced transportation. A classic American urban pattern appeared in cities of over 100,000 residents. The pattern included a central business district, immediately surrounded by slums and working class residential areas, with more prosperous suburbs further outward. By 1918 most Americans lived in urban settings, and the classic downtown era persisted through World War II (19391945).

In the 1890s immigration from eastern and southern Europe grew dramatically. These groups were more socially distinct than earlier immigrants from northern and western Europe. During the two world wars of the twentieth century, African American migration from the American South escalated in the cities. The various ethnic groups established distinct neighborhoods with their own commercial activities.

Urbanization led to complex socioeconomic problems following World War II. The emergence of suburbs detracted from the quality of life in city centers by relocating many jobs and desperately needed tax revenue. The population of some cities declined. The process of urbanization had largely run its course. Cities of the late twentieth century presented contrasts between complexes of office towers, convention centers, and lavish hotels, surrounded by pockets of homeless people, poorly supported schools, low income housing, and crime. A new immigration wave entered the cities, primarily from Asia, Latin America, Africa, and the Caribbean, establishing new middle class non-white neighborhoods. The combination of international corporate office buildings and multi-ethnic neighborhoods introduced a new era of American urban centers.

Topic overview

Another measure of the contrasts appearing in the nation's cities at the end of the nineteenth century was the differentiation of urban space. Since the 1850s lower Manhattan had been the province of commercial buildings, warehouses and tenements. However, by the 1880s the island had fragmented into a series of discrete neighborhoods increasingly divided by economic use, race, class, and ethnic origin. Wealthy and white-collar workers followed streetcar lines or elevated railroads uptown or to the urban periphery.

david schuyler, the new urban landscape: the redefinition of city form in nineteenth-century america, 1986

See also: Industrial Revolution, Industrialization, Slums, Suburbs (Rise of), Tenements, Urban Renewal


Andrews, Anthony P. First Cities. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Books, 1995.

Angotti, Thomas. Metropolis 2000: Planning, Poverty, and Politics. New York: Routledge, 1993.

Bookchin, Murray. From Urbanization to Cities: Toward a New Politics of Citizenship.. New York: Cassell, 1995.

Gottdiener, Mark. The Social Production of Urban Space, 2nd ed. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994.

Kasinitz, Philip, ed. Metropolis: Center and Symbol of Our Time. New York: New York University Press, 1995.

Marshall, John U. The Structure of Urban Systems. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1989.


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The growth of cities and the social and physical transformations arising from this phenomenon.

The Middle East is home to the world's first cities as well as some of its most notable ones. The first cities, which developed in southern Mesopotamia (now in Iraq) about 3500 b.c.e., had small populations by modern standardsnot exceeding about 20,000 inhabitants. By 3000 b.c.e. cities also grew along the Nile in Egypt. From these early centers, urban life spread throughout the world.

Until about 1800 most of the great cities such as Babylon, Alexandria, Ctesiphon, Constantinople (now Istanbul), Baghdad, and Cairo could grow large because they had access to water transport and income from an imperial tax base. Industry and trade were the main sources of income for smaller cities, including Tyre, Sidon, Beirut, Carthage, Tabriz, Palmyra, and Mecca. The development of some cities was heavily influenced by their religious significance; these include Jerusalem, Karbala, Mash-had, Mecca, Medina, and Qom. The proportion of the total population living in cities in what became known as the Middle East seldom exceeded 15 percent before the nineteenth century.

New factors contributed to the growth of cities after 1800, including modern transportation, new trade patterns, and European penetration. Following World War I and the fall of the Ottoman Empire, nationalist regimes were established, first in Iran and Turkey, later in Iraq, Jordan, and Syria. These focused development inward. East of Libya, the capitals of the large countries are all inland (Ankara, Cairo, Damascus, Baghdad, Riyadh, Sanʿa, Tehran) and since their development policies were statist, these cities expanded. After World War II, rail and road networks that centered on the capitals were extended, facilitating migration to them. At the same time, rapid rural population growth and the mechanization of agriculture, largely implemented after 1945, pushed farmers from the land. Millions of people in the region moved to cities in search of jobs, education, and other services.

Israel was established in 1948 after a period of conflict, and its urban growthmainly Tel Aviv and Haifawas fueled by an influx of Jewish immigrants. Palestinians left or were expelled by Israeli forces in 1948, swelling cities in neighboring countries including Lebanon (Tyre, Sidon, and Beirut), Jordan (Amman), and Kuwait, as well as the territories of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Oil boomtowns (Abadan, Abu Dhabi, Dhahran, Kuwait City) grew rapidly for short periods, but they never became as large as the major political and commercial centers. In the larger countries (Algeria, Egypt, Iran, Morocco, Turkey) close to 50 percent of the population was urban by the mid-1990s. In some of the smaller countries (Israel, Lebanon, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates) the proportion is as high as 90 percent.

see also urban planning.


Blake, G. H., and Lawless, R. I., eds. The Changing Middle Eastern City. New York: Barnes & Noble; London: Croom Helm, 1980.

Bonine, Michael, ed. Population, Poverty, and Politics in Middle East Cities. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1997.

Brown, L. Carl, ed. From Madina to Metropolis: Heritage and Change in the Near Eastern City. Princeton, NJ: Darwin Press, 1973.

Saqqaf, Abdulaziz Y., ed. The Middle East City: Ancient Traditions Confront a Modern World. New York: Paragon House, 1987.

john r. clark
updated by anthony b. toth

National Urban League

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The National Urban League, more commonly known as the Urban League, is a nonprofit, multiracial organization that is dedicated to the elimination of racial segregation and discrimination and to the enhancement of economic and educational opportunities for African Americans throughout the United States. The Urban League, which was founded in 1910 and is headquartered in New York City, has more than 100 affiliates in 34 states and the District of Columbia.

In 1896, the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in plessy v. ferguson 163 U.S. 537, 16 S.Ct. 1138, 41 L.Ed. 256 (1896), which held that "separate but equal" accommodations for blacks and whites was constitutional, led to a severe system of segregation in the South in which so-called jim crow laws barred blacks from schools, jobs, and many public places including hotels, bars, and restaurants. The early 1900s saw the beginnings of a migration of blacks from the rural South moving North to find better jobs and economic stability for their families.

Upon arriving in the Northern states, however, many blacks found themselves still excluded from decent housing, jobs, and education. Mostly rural in background, many were bewildered by the customs and mores of urban living. Realizing that these newcomers desperately needed help, the Committee on Urban Conditions among Negroes was established in New York City on September 29, 1910.

In 1911, the committee merged with two other organizations to form the National League on Urban Conditions among Negroes. The organization began by counseling black migrants and training black social workers but soon expanded its activities into such areas as housing, employment, education, recreation, and health and sanitation. By the end of world war i, the organization had 81 staff members working in New York and in affiliates that had been established in 30 other cities. In 1919 the organization became known as the National Urban League.

Throughout the Great Depression the Urban League crusaded for the integration of blacks into segregated labor unions and for inclusion in President franklin d. roosevelt's new deal programs that were aimed at fostering economic recovery. During world war ii, the League continued to fight for integration of the trade unions, particularly those involved in defense work and in the armed services. After the war, the league worked with businesses to train black workers for various trades and to encourage Fortune 500 companies to participate in job fairs held on black college campuses.

In 1942 Mrs. Mollie L. Moon started the first Urban League Guild in New York City. Guild members were volunteers who helped League efforts and its programs. The guild placed particular emphasis on information, fund-raising, and leadership development. The activities of the New York Guild were so productive that many others were started by Urban League affiliates. In 1952 the National Council of Guilds was established. In 2003 the National Council oversaw the work of guilds in more than 85 cities.

In 1961 Whitney M. Young Jr. became the league's executive director. Under his leadership the organization grew from 60 chapters to 98, and numerous large American corporations and foundations made contributions that supported job and housing programs as well as other social welfare programs. Young's ten-point program calling for federal funding to help reduce poverty among blacks became the basis for President Lyndon Johnson's "War on Poverty" that was aimed at reducing poverty for all Americans.

In 1972 Vernon E. Jordan Jr. became the league's fifth executive director. Jordan oversaw a number of new initiatives in the areas of business development, housing, and education. He established the league as a major channel for passing federal funds to urban community programs and services. He also emphasized voter registration, and programs dealing with energy conservation, protection of the environment, and new job roles for women.

John Jacob, who expanded the league's mission and established the Permanent Development Fund, succeeded Jordan in 1982. Jacob advocated for programs to fight crime in black neighborhoods, to reduce teenage pregnancies, and to help single parents. In 1994 Jacob was succeeded by Hugh B. Price, an attorney who emphasized affirmative action, economic empowerment, and the importance of diversity in an increasingly multi-ethnic society.

In 2000 the league recast its Washington Operations Office as the Institute for Opportunity and Equality. The Institute conducts research, analyzes policy, and advocates for significant issues including employment, criminal justice, community development, and economic policy.

In April 2003, the Urban League named Milton Little as interim president and CEO to replace Price who resigned in November 2002. The new president will oversee the operations of the league, which in 2003 had a budget of more than $40 million and was the oldest and largest community-based U.S. organization dedicated to helping blacks achieve racial and economic parity.

further readings

Moore, Jesse Thomas. 1981. A Search for Equality: The National Urban League, 1910–1961. University Park: Pennsylvania State Univ. Press.

National Urban League. Available online at <> (accessed July 30, 2003).


Civil Rights Acts; Civil Rights Movement; Discrimination; Equal Rights; NAACP.

National Urban League

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The National Urban League was established in 1911 through the merger of three related organizations: the Committee on Urban Conditions among Negroes in New York, the National League for the Protection of Colored Women, and the Committee for Improving Industrial Conditions among Negroes. Between the time of its founding and the Great Depression, the National Urban League focused on a range of goals, which included: changing the interracial status quo by encouraging whites "to work with African Americans for their mutual advantage and advancement," establishing a social work program at Fisk University to train African-American social workers, securing financial support for local Urban League branches from local community chests such as the United Way, and the establishment of Opportunity magazine in 1925 as a publicity vehicle for presenting "factual data on African-American life to businessmen, government officials, labor leaders, and organized and unorganized white workers."

The Depression and the New Deal had an enormous impact on the National Urban League's activities, policies, and programs. By the time of the stock market crash of 1929, close to 300,000 black industrial workers were unemployed. Less than a third of these would find work through employment offices. The majority of the jobs that the National Urban League was able to secure were for African-American women in domestic work. The Depression years pushed the League to the brink of bankruptcy. That it survived was due in large part to the heroic efforts of its executive board and a few staunch contributors. The crisis prevented the National Urban League from cutting back on activities so the staff had to return a portion of their salaries. With so many white people out of work, employers could hardly be expected to listen to appeals from the Urban League. The League was forced to change its strategy from industrial relations to protecting African-American jobs from the invasion of white workers.

African Americans benefited from the New Deal, but not without a struggle in which the Urban League played a major role by assuring that African Americans received equal treatment for programs responsible for economic relief. From the beginning, the National Urban League criticized New Deal programs for neglecting to curtail widespread discrimination against African Americans.

The Depression and New Deal legislation, along with the groundswell of African-American frustration, forced the National Urban League to break with its tradition of polite interpersonal diplomacy in the worlds of business and labor. It shifted to protest and embraced the strategy and tactics of mass letter-writing campaigns, petitions, and the lobbying of members of Congress for the benefit of African Americans. As a result, the Urban League was able to maintain influence among African Americans suffering from the effects of the Depression and the racial exclusion of New Deal programs.

Part of the Urban League's new strategy was the establishment of emergency advisory councils and workers councils in key urban centers throughout the country and the building of alliances between African Americans and organized labor. In 1933 the League joined other interracial and African-American organizations to form the Joint Committee on National Recovery. Limited by lack of funds and staff, the Committee nonetheless managed to lobby in Washington, D.C., on behalf of African Americans and expose the public to the failure of New Deal programs to address the needs of African Americans.

The National Urban League contributed its share to the recovery efforts by providing crucial studies and African-American specialists to advise the Roosevelt administration. The organization believed that New Dealers needed accurate information about racial problems before they could provide solutions. This data was also used by the Urban League to buttress its case for administrative and legislative reforms.

Throughout most of the Depression the Rockefeller, Carnegie, and the Friedsam foundations funded more that half of the National Urban League's annual budget. African-American organizations did their share as well, on both local and national levels. The Delta Sigma Theta sorority worked with and financially supported the League. Robert S. Abbott, editor of the Chicago Defender, and A. Phillip Randolph, head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, worked with the National Urban League to protect the rights of black workers in New Deal programs. Locally, the Michigan People's Finance Corporation in Detroit provided the Detroit Urban League with free rent throughout the Depression.



Giddings, Paula. In Search of Sisterhood: Delta Sigma Theta and the Challenge of the Black Sorority Movement. 1988.

Strickland, Arvarh E. History of the Chicago Urban League. 1974.

Thomas, Richard W. Life for Us Is What We Make It: Building the Black Community in Detroit, 1915–1945. 1992.

Trotter, Joe William, Jr. "From A Raw Deal to a New Deal, 1929–1945." In To Make Our World Anew: A History of African Americans, edited by Robin D. G. Kelly and Earl Lewis. 2000.

Weiss, Nancy J. The National Urban League: 1910–1940. 1974.

Richard W. Thomas

National Urban League

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NATIONAL URBAN LEAGUE. Founded in New York in 1911 through the consolidation of the Committee for Improving the Industrial Condition of Negroes in New York (1906), the National League for the Protection of Colored Women (1906), and the Committee on Urban Conditions Among Negroes (1910), the National Urban League quickly established itself as the principal agency to serve as a resource for the black, urban population. An interracial organization committed to integration, it relied on tools of negotiation, persuasion, education, and investigation to accomplish its economic and social goals. The League was founded by Mrs. Ruth Standish Baldwin, the widow of a railroad magnate and philanthropist, and Dr. George Edmund Haynes, the first African American to receive a doctorate from Columbia University. The National Urban League was concerned chiefly with gaining jobs for blacks. It placed workers in the private sector, attacked the color line in organized labor, sponsored programs of vocational guidance and job training, and sought for the establishment of governmental policies of equal employment opportunity.

During the Great Depression, the National Urban League lobbied for the inclusion of African Americans in federal relief and recovery programs. It worked to improve urban conditions through boycotts against firms refusing to employ blacks, pressures on schools to expand vocational opportunities, and a drive to admit blacks into previously segregated labor unions. During the 1940s, the league pressed for an end to discrimination in defense industries and for the desegregation of the armed forces.

As much concerned with social welfare as with employment, the Urban League conducted scientific investigations of conditions among urban blacks as a basis for practical reform. It trained the first corps of professional black social workers and placed them in community service positions. It worked for decent housing, recreational facilities, and health and welfare services, and it counseled African Americans new to the cities on behavior, dress, sanitation, health, and homemaking.

In the 1960s the Urban League supplemented its traditional social service approach with a more activist commitment to civil rights. It embraced direct action and community organization and sponsored leadership training and voter-education projects. Though the League's tax-exempt status did not permit protest activities, activists such as A. Philip Randolph and Martin Luther King Jr. used the group's headquarters to help organize massive popular demonstrations in support of the enforcement of civil rights and economic justice, including the March on Washington of 1963 and the Poor People's Campaign of 1968. The League's executive director, Whitney M. Young Jr., called for a domestic Marshall Plan, a ten-point plan designed to close the economic gap between white and black Americans, which influenced the War on Poverty of the Johnson administration.

Since the 1960s the Urban League has continued working to improve urban life, expanding into community programs that provide services such as health care, housing and community development, job training and placement, and AIDS education. It remains involved in national politics and frequently reports on issues such as equal employment and welfare reform.


Hamilton, Charles V. The Struggle for Political Equality. New York: National Urban League, 1976.

Moore, Jesse Thomas, Jr. A Search for Equality: The National Urban League, 1910–1961. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1981.

Parris, Guichard, and Lester Brooks. Blacks in the City: A History of the National Urban League. Boston: Little, Brown, 1971.

Wiess, Nancy J. The National Urban League, 1910–1940. New York: Oxford University Press, 1974.

———. Whitney M. Young, Jr., and the Struggle for Civil Rights. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1989.

Nancy J.Weiss/h. s.

See alsoAfrican Americans ; Civil Rights Movement ; National Association for the Advancement of Colored People .

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