U.S. Urban Infrastructure: Eras and Development

  • by

Infrastructure makes up critical physical and technological systems in the built environment, or the “sinews” of the city (Tarr 1984). With industrialization in Europe and North America, cities developed infrastructure that utilized new energy sources to facilitate commerce and exploit natural resources. Over several centuries, municipalities increasingly undertook central roles in financing, planning, constructing, and promoting infrastructure systems. The competition between cities for economic prowess and innovative infrastructure was often fierce. In eras of rapid expansion, new infrastructure supported population growth and addressed stark challenges from increased population density and disease. Private service delivery was sometimes profitable at limited scales, but as capital needs grew, cities were better able to mobilize financing for larger projects (Melosi 2011).

In recent centuries, urban infrastructure development can be understood according to patterns in planning, population density, capital investment, and mobility. Table 2 classifies eras of major urban infrastructure growth, describes the dates and characteristics of each era, and indicates major associated developments in water infrastructure. The sections below integrate the classification of urban development eras with corresponding periods of urban design and planning, focusing on North America and Europe. Section 4 below describes eras of development in infrastructure generally and Section 5 identifies related eras of urban water infrastructure.

Walking cities: Establishing patterns (1800-1860)

Cities first developed foundational infrastructure and layouts when walking was the predominant mode of transportation, and growth was the preeminent goal. Infrastructure growth was driven by economic development (Warner 1978; Schott 2004), public health concerns (Blake 1956; Moehring 1981), safety (Blake 1956), and political responses to vocal interest groups (Gluck 1979). For centuries, the layout of cities in Europe, Asia, and the Americas facilitated walking. In a few cases, however, water facilitated travel and commerce. Venice, for example, used waterways to move people and goods quickly in a crowded urban area. From the Middle Ages onward, the city’s leaders appreciated the value of lagoons and worked to maintain drainage and harbors on the island. In 17th-century Amsterdam, canals were used to support the thriving Dutch capital (Radkau 2008). These examples of extensive internal water transit were the exception, since water transportation was primarily for external commerce.

In the newly established cities of the U.S., walking dominated transportation until the mid-1880’s. Cities often located in areas of compact terrain with access to raw materials and inexpensive transit, primarily near water. Through this period, municipal responsibilities expanded from regulation of commerce and modest works projects such as unpaved streets to broader professionalization of services including fire, police, and construction. Cities also expanded municipal oversight of infrastructure development, first through council committees and later departments. This led to the professionalization of utility services.

Even still, many efforts were piecemeal and focused on a block or street.   Most financing for public works projects came from state and local sources, with the federal government financing a few sectors such as river and harbor improvements or railroads (Aldrich 1980). States were particularly involved in large projects such as canals, with many agreements forged as public-private partnerships where the government was an investment catalyst (Lively 1955; Blake 1956). Municipal debt increased rapidly and investments were subject to volatile economic cycles. In established cities such as New York, Cincinnati, and Boston, governments took responsibility for water delivery by consolidating public ownership of many local water sources and funding new projects (Blake 1956). The latter half of the period (1840’s) also saw cities investing in railroad infrastructure in a competitive race for economic development (Tarr 1984). This subsided by the 1850’s, however, and even as mechanized transport grew, street life dominated urban patterns and walking remained the primary mode of transit.

Industrial growth and core infrastructure (1860-1910)

Industrial growth, mechanization, and the settlement of western North America defined a new era of urban growth that created the “core infrastructure” of central cities between 1855 and 1910 (Tarr 1984). The era can be further subdivided into two parts. During early decades (1850-1890), many cities began to establish core water supply and distribution systems, resolve competing sewer designs, and construct large bridges.

During later decades (1890-1910), a more “sustained thrust” (Tarr 1984) across the nation, developed through both public and private means, significantly increased access to centrally-supplied water and sewer services, as well as transportation systems with bridges, highways, and paved roads. Municipal governments deployed a host of new technologies for transportation (steam and electric-powered streetcars), energy (incandescent bulbs, centralized electricity production, distribution systems and transformers), water distribution (pumps and waterworks, filtration and chlorine treatment, reservoir and storage facilities), wastewater (central sewer systems), and communications (telephone and telegraph) (Warner 1978; Tarr 1984).

Networks of infrastructure grew (Tarr 1984; Hughes 1993) and cities sought to clean and beautify neighborhoods, exemplified by the City Beautiful movement (Hall 1988; Duffy 1990). Cities expanded as wealthier residents moved to new peripheral neighborhoods opened up by the construction of streetcar, trolley, and regional rail systems. The profession of consulting engineers expanded rapidly. In sanitary and water engineering, for example, well-known founders of the field such as Allen Hazen, George Whipple, and George Waring were widely employed by many cities (Armstrong et al. 1976). Key organizations such as the American Water Works Association, which was established in 1881, spread expertise and knowledge of urban water distribution and treatment technologies. Urban development was also uneven within cities, where wealthier residents often had much greater access to services, as well as across cities in different geographic areas, with the Northern and Midwestern cities building much faster than those in the South.

The rise of North America and its cities (1910-1950)

The rapid growth of the Ford automobile company, founded in 1903, symbolized a coming era (1910-1950) in American urbanization: the rise of personal transit through the automobile (Tarr 1984). The increasing affordability of automobiles gave urban residents freedom of mobility and encouraged sprawl. It also forced cities to develop roads and highways for transportation into and out of cities. The structure of roads in cities changed to multi-lane, single-direction streets (Tarr 1978). The result was a rise in suburban and ring communities, especially after World War II. Cities used taxation and debt-financing from local, state, and national sources to build bridges, pave streets, and later create secondary arteries to bring residents in and out of central business districts (Aldrich 1980). In the later part of the era, growth became increasingly uneven, with urban development “leapfrogging” areas of rural land as new areas were shaped by property rights, geography, and politics (Whyte 1958).

The first half of this era saw a large transition in political views of efficient management. While many cities were still run by political machines, reformers called for new forms of government that could improve efficiency and reduce the patronage system that dominated public works and sanitation. As early as 1887, Woodrow Wilson advocated for a professional civil service, trained in bureaucracy and more insulated against corruption. With his election to the presidency in 1913, the expertly-trained civil servant became engrained. Cities professionalized service delivery and adopted new forms of organization and administration (Tarr 1984).

During the Great Depression of the 1930’s, federal governmental involvement in infrastructure development expanded rapidly in water, transportation, and electricity through public employment programs. The Public Works Administration (PWA) and the Works Progress Administration (WPA) were both key funders of municipal sewer construction. The population served by municipal sewers increased from 21.5 million in 1932 to 39 million in 1939 (Tarr 1978). This Progressive Era of investment was followed by a massive increase in national spending for the Second World War. While Europe and Japan were decimated, the U.S. vaulted to global leadership through its industrial might, vast capital resources, and technological prowess.

This leadership position quickly led to new infrastructure developments that would shape the nation for decades. By the 1950’s, the federal government, buoyed by national security concerns and a large collection of vocal constituencies, funded and developed a national system of interstate highways for rapid automobile and truck transit through the Interstate Highway Act. To date, the interstate highway program and its funding mechanisms are one of the strongest examples of the expansion of federal involvement in infrastructure. During this era, too, early water quality legislation increased research and facility construction for urban water treatment.

Suburbs, central planning, and environmentalism (1950-1987)

With individualized automobile transportation infrastructure in place, cities grew outward. For several decades (1956-1990), middle- and upper-class families flooded to expanding outer ring suburbs, driven by the opportunity to have more land within easy commuting distance of central business districts. Additionally, many formerly urban-dwelling, affluent, middle-class families fled inner-city residences out of fear of racial tensions. Inner city neighborhoods degraded as tax bases collapsed and crime rose. Planning and management agencies responded in many cases with urban renewal projects that demolished existing neighborhoods to build government-sponsored low-income housing. Such designs were inspired by architecture and urban planning trends of the Garden City Movement, which sought to separate urban buildings through upward expansion and surrounding green spaces that let the city “breathe.” Additionally, transportation planners constructed highways through urban centers, especially in traditionally minority-dominated neighborhoods (Hall 1988). In New York City, for example, administrative planner Robert Moses used uniquely powerful political influence to undertake massive highway construction projects that connected dense urban cores with peripheral areas in Long Island and upstate (Caro 1974). These approaches emphasized centralized management and design of infrastructure. Through programs and funding, the federal government claimed an increasingly important role in financing transit. Yet, many projects targeted low-income and minority neighborhoods. The automobile facilitated such changes, but planning processes drove sprawl and redevelopment (Jacobs 1961).

Through the 1960’s and beyond, two trends dominated urban infrastructure. First, the U.S. environmental movement gained momentum, rooted in growing concerns over pollution from urban, industrial, and agricultural sources. The seminal Clean Water Act of 1972 laid the foundation for several decades of legislation, which sought to prohibit point- and non-point- sources of water pollution. Cities and industrial “dischargers” of wastes were now required to obtain permits and provide evidence of compliance with federal regulations.   Second, as many formerly vibrant central cities degraded, outer ring suburbs expanded and strained highway and transit systems. Shrinking urban cores were left with oversized, aging infrastructure and declining tax revenues. Road and highway construction continued, but commutes and congestion in major urban areas grew (Tarr 1984). At the same time, local movements began opposing plans to expand urban highway and transit infrastructure at the expense of core, inner-city neighborhoods. The battles between urban sociologist Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses in the early 1960’s embodied the vocal objections of urban citizens to highway-focused planning in cities throughout the country. Jacobs (1961) also captured a nascent trend that emphasized street life, critiqued central planning, and foresaw the relevance of emergence and self-organization in complex social networks. Her work is a theoretical and practical foundation for subsequent eras of urban planning that emphasize mixed-use design and multi-scalar development.

The doctrine of central planning: 

Nevertheless, the more decentralized era of planning envisioned by Jacobs was yet to come. Operations research and modeling techniques developed in the 1960’s informed systems approaches to solving urban problems. Urban planning by central authorities was intimately linked with expert-driven, rational planning. For instance, writing in the 1970 publication Treatise on Urban Water Systems, Paulsen described the concern of increasing fragmentation of urban and regional bureaucratic structures. Management authorities were created haphazardly to respond to the problems of water supply, garbage collection, public health, congestion, zoning, and more. Paulsen argued that the remedy was a systems approach that bridged local, state, and national agencies to ensure that “plans are laid from the very beginning with the intent to implement” (emphasis original) (p. 15). The phases of problem solving included:

– Formulation of concepts

– Design of proposed systems

– Development of equipment and procedures

– Demonstration of prototypes

– Engineering evaluation and acceptance

– Construction and installation

– Sustaining of operational capabilities.

Paulsen noted that, “[i]f the program envisions these phases as successive steps from the very beginning, the deadly sin of planners will have been avoided. The sin is this: to plan with no provision for closure, no intent to implement” (p. 16). While work in water and transportation recognized the opportunity for systems analysis and modeling approaches to solve connected urban challenges, public involvement is not specifically noted, instead emphasizing the role of the expert planner in charting the future city. Notably, similar critiques of dispersed urban management duties across agencies appear today in urban water (Hering et al. 2013; Kiparsky et al. 2013).

Revitalized neighborhoods and sustainability (1987-present)

During the 1980’s, city administrators in the U.S. faced shrinking budgets eroded by a loss in population, while federal government deficits increased sharply from military spending and tax policies. As budgets shrank, costs for operating and maintaining the nation’s aging municipal and transit infrastructure rose. Additionally, governments now had to address increasingly apparent externalities of air and water pollution created by sewage and stormwater disposal, rapid automobile growth, fossil fuel combustion, and industrial processes. Retrofit and remediation efforts were costly. New environmental movements appeared, embodied by the seminal report of the U.N. World Commission on Environment and Development (Brundtland Commission) in 1987 entitled Our Common Future. It outlined a vision and definition for growth, which was to be central for sustainability initiatives in later decades.

Even as many cities outside of the U.S. prospered through the 1980’s and 1990’s, U.S. urban regions were still dominated by central business districts with daytime activities and suburban and satellite neighborhoods where middle- and high-income residents lived. Slowly, however, historic neighborhoods in San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Boston, and New York began to grow again, fueled by younger professionals with different lifestyle attitudes. Block-by-block, public and private entities refurbished existing building stock, replaced old water, sewer, and electricity lines, and expanded cellular and wireless telecommunications networks.

Throughout North America, the migration of young professionals and “empty-nesters” (older adults whose children have moved out) to denser urban neighborhoods drove a fundamental shift in urban land development. Cities emphasized revitalization goals that shifted from auto-centric transportation and planning toward renewed street life, mixed-use neighborhoods, and community development. Many new urban residents that rapidly gentrified U.S. cities through the early 2000’s were more likely to abandon automobiles as a primary mode of transit.

The lifestyles and amenities sought by new urban residents also coordinated with goals of urban planners to support more “sustainable” forms of urban development, while promoting an expanding commercial tax base. Yet, cities still face high costs to maintain or redevelop existing infrastructure and address persistent problems of air, water, and soil contamination. In past eras, the federal government provided significant funding to communities for building such infrastructure. Today, cities bear more of these costs. They are receptive to new approaches to address long-term energy and environmental problems in a cost-effective manner.

Ecology, design, and sustainability in cities

While urban sustainability has rapidly penetrated public discussions in the past decade, a long history of urban research explores the interaction of cities with their environments (Howard 1902; Geddes 1914; Mumford 1961; McHarg 1969; Alexander 1979; Hall 1988; Cronon 1992; Calthorpe 1993; Wheeler 1998). Definitions of sustainability typically relate social, environmental, and economic tradeoffs for current and future generations (Brundtland Commission 1987; Common 1995; Wheeler 2004). Putting this concept into practice has proved challenging (Solow 1993; Arrow et al. 1996; Dasgupta 2007).

The science of urban ecology is enlightening our understanding of ecosystem processes in cities (Pickett et al. 2001, 2011; Alberti 2008). Renewed interest in urban development, brought on by significant growth in urban populations worldwide, is driving new goals and approaches for urban systems. Urban management of the late nineteenth- and twentieth-century sought to provide residents of industrializing cities with centralized services to ensure clean and healthy environments through highly-managed interventions and regulated ecologic functions (Melosi 2000).

The new era of sustainable cities considers energy use, urban ecological processes, landscape design, and green infrastructure to develop urban forms that promote conservation, reuse, and environmental quality (Pincetl 2007; Novotny et al. 2010). While these laudable goals are being taken up by many cities, urban residents of industrializing cities, as well as residents in some neighborhoods of affluent cities, still struggle to achieve safety and health. New urban designs that emphasize greening and technology may maintain or even exacerbate inequality.



Alberti, M. (2008). Advances in urban ecology integrating humans and ecological processes in urban ecosystems. Springer, New York.

Aldrich, M. (1980). “A history of public works in the United States, 1790–1970.” CONSAD, A Study of Public Works Investment in the United States, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C.

Alexander, C. (1979). A pattern language : towns, buildings, construction. Oxford Univ. Press, New York.

Armstrong, E., Robinson, M., and Hoy, S. (1976). History of Public Works in the United States 1776–1976. American Public Works Association, Chicago, IL.

Arrow, K., Bolin, B., Costanza, R., Dasgupta, P., Folke, C., Holling, C. S., Jasson, B.-O., Levin, S., Maier, K.-G., Perrings, C., and Pimentel, D. (1996). “Economic Growth, Carrying Capacity, and the Environment.” Ecological Applications, 6(1), 13–15.

Blake, N. M. (1956). Water for the Cities: A History of the Urban Water Supply Problem in the United States. Syracuse University Press, Syracuse, NY.

Brundtland Commission. (1987). Our common future. World Commission on Environment and Development., Oxford; New York.

Calthorpe, P. (1993). The next American metropolis : ecology, community, and the American dream. Princeton Architectural Press, New York.

Caro, R. A. (1974). The power broker: Robert Moses and the fall of New York. Knopf, New York.

Common, M. (1995). Sustainability and policy : limits to economics. Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge [u.a.].

Cronon, W. (1992). Nature’s metropolis: Chicago and the Great West. W.W. Norton, New York.

Dasgupta, P. (2007). “Nature and the economy.” Journal of Applied Ecology, 44(3), 475–487.

Duffy, J. (1990). The sanitarians: a history of American public health. University of Illinois Press, Urbana.

Geddes, P. (1914). Cities in evolution. Williams and Norgate, London.

Gluck, P. R. (1979). Cities in transition: social changes and institutional responses in urban development. New Viewpoints, New York.

Hall, P. (1988). Cities of tomorrow: an intellectual history of urban planning and design in the twentieth century. Basil Blackwell, Oxford.

Hering, J. G., Waite, T. D., Luthy, R. G., Drewes, J. E., and Sedlak, D. L. (2013). “A Changing Framework for Urban Water Systems.” Environmental Science & Technology, 47(19), 10721–10726.

Howard, E. (1902). Garden cities of tomorrow. Swan Sonnenschein Press. Reprinted (1965) Cambridge, MA, USA; MIT Press., London.

Hughes, T. (1993). Networks of power : electrification in Western society, 1880-1930. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore ;;London.

Jacobs, J. (1961). The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Random House.

Kiparsky, M., Sedlak, D. L., Thompson, B. H., and Truffer, B. (2013). “The Innovation Deficit in Urban Water: The Need for an Integrated Perspective on Institutions, Organizations, and Technology.” Environmental Engineering Science, 30(8), 395–408.

Lively, R. (1955). “The American system: a review article.” Business History Review, 24(Summer), 81–95.

McHarg, I. L. (1969). Design with nature. J. Wiley, New York.

Melosi, M. (2000). The sanitary city: urban infrastructure in America from colonial times to the present. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.

Melosi, M. (2011). Precious commodity: providing water for America’s cities. University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, Pa.

Moehring, E. P. (1981). Public works and the patterns of urban real estate growth in Manhattan, 1835-1894. Arno Press, New York.

Mumford, L. (1961). The city in history : its origins, its transformations, and its prospects. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York.

Novotny, V., Ahern, J., and Brown, P. (2010). Water centric sustainable communities : planning, retrofitting, and building the next urban environment. Wiley, Hoboken, N.J.

Pickett, S. T. A., Cadenasso, M. L., Grove, J. M., Boone, C. G., Groffman, P. M., Irwin, E., Kaushal, S. S., Marshall, V., McGrath, B. P., Nilon, C. H., Pouyat, R. V., Szlavecz, K., Troy, A., and Warren, P. (2011). “Urban ecological systems: Scientific foundations and a decade of progress.” Journal of Environmental Management, 92(3), 331–362.

Pickett, S. T. A., Cadenasso, M. L., Grove, J. M., Nilon, C. H., Pouyat, R. V., Zipperer, W. C., and Costanza, R. (2001). “Urban Ecological Systems: Linking Terrestrial Ecological, Physical, and Socioeconomic Components of Metropolitan Areas1.” Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics, 32(1), 127–157.

Pincetl, S. (2007). “Section 3: Contested Landscapes–The Ecological Structure of City Regions – From the Sanitary City of the Twentieth Century to the Sustainable City of the Twenty-First.” Places, 19(1), 59–61.

Radkau, J. (2008). Nature and power: a global history of the environment. Publications of the German Historical Institute, German Historical Institute ; Cambridge University Press, Washington, D.C. : Cambridge ; New York.

Schott, D. (2004). “Urban environmental history: What lessons are there to be learnt.” Boreal environment research, 9, 519–528.

Solow, R. M. (1993). “Sustainability: An Economist’s Perspective.” Economics of the Environment, Norton, New York.

Tarr, J. (1978). Retrospective Assessment of Wastewater Technology in the U.S., 1850–1972. Report to the National Science Foundation, National Science Foundation, Washington, D.C.

Tarr, J. (1984). “The Evolution of the Urban Infrastructure in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries.” Perspectives on Urban Infrastructure, Committee on National Urban Policy, National Research Council, National Academies Press, Washington, D.C.

Warner, S. B. (1978). Streetcar suburbs: the process of growth in Boston, 1870-1900. Harvard University Press, Cambridge.

Wheeler, S. M. (1998). “Planning Sustinable and Liveable Cities.” The city reader, R. T. LeGates and F. Stout, eds., Routledge, London; New York.

Wheeler, S. M. (2004). Planning for sustainability: creating livable, equitable, and ecological communities. Routledge, London; New York.

Whyte, W. H. (1958). The Exploding metropolis. Classics in urban history, Doubleday, Garden Citym NY.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.