When you woke up this morning, were you in a house, an apartment, or a condo? Look around you. What kinds of buildings do you see? Skyscrapers, mid-rise office parks, strip malls, tracts of suburban homes, fields or water? When you went to work, did you drive, bike, take a train, or walk? When you go to buy food, how far do you go, and how do you get there? Where do you go to get a drink?
All of these things are bound up in settlement patterns, or how we arrange ourselves into communities. Settlements encompass everything from the largest global megacity all the way down to a single hermit living in a cave by herself and everything in between. These patterns vary drastically from region to region and country to country. But they don’t come into being by accident: They’re the product of economy, culture, social patterns, and last but certainly not least, politics.
In the United States right now, shifts in our settlement patterns are at the heart of both our changing economy and our politics. Dense urban areas hooked into the global economy, places like New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Atlanta, and Dallas, are growing by leaps and bounds. They’re also leaning more and more toward voting for Democrats.
By contrast, once-thriving smaller cities, places like Youngstown, Ohio; Decatur, Ill.; Johnstown, Penn.; or Binghamton, NY; have suffered mightily as manufacturing jobs have fled, union labor has been marginalized, and no new economic drivers have appeared to replace them. Not coincidentally, these were the places that helped hand Donald Trump the presidency.
This divergence is wide and growing. Clinton won just 472 counties nationwide, but they account for 64 percent of the country’s GDP. Trump won 2584 counties, but they account for just 36 percent of GDP. By contrast, Al Gore’s 659 counties had 54 percent of GDP in 2000, compared to the 46 percent of Bush’s 2397 counties. Economically, politically, and culturally, America is moving in vastly different directions.
This is nothing less than a crisis of a whole type of settlement, particularly in the Rust Belt. Small cities, places with between 25,000 and 250,000 people, are struggling to figure out where they fit into a global economy that prioritizes knowledge industries and requires skills that are in short supply. “Make America Great Again” is, at heart, a nostalgic message to communities where the economic circumstances that made possible an entire way of life are either gone or at best precarious.
After the election, the takes flew fast and furious about what it was that had gotten Trump elected. Was it economic instability? Maybe, the replies went, but Trump voters were actually doing fairly well on average. Was it racial animus? In some measure, though many of them had voted once or twice for Obama. Was it culture? Potentially.
Place brings all these different strands together. Cities and towns grew up around mills and factories but the economic logic underpinning these sites became strained with deindustrialization, leading to serious shocks to local and regional economies, population loss, drug epidemics, the ongoing crisis of mortality, and political disenchantment. Highways and mass car ownership enabled the growth of suburbs, allowing residents to separate themselves and their tax dollars from the schools and other public services where they worked. Redlining, housing covenants, and physical intimidation barred non-white Americans from some areas. Segregated schools helped build segregated neighborhoods in cities. Suburban and exurban areas enabled de facto segregation even after Brown v. Board of Ed. and Civil Rights legislation eliminated many discriminatory laws.
Thinking about places allows us to see the intersections of race, class, economics, politics, and culture in U.S. politics, to look beyond four-year electoral cycles to deeper changes in the fabric of the American landscape.
In this episode of “History Matters,” historians Keith Pluymers and Patrick Wyman explore how settlement patterns—the kinds of places we live—both shape and reflect political and economic forces.
Keith focuses on the attempt to create new towns in Ireland during the “Plantations,” English colonial programs in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. English authorities saw towns as essential to military control and public order, an antidote to the allegedly roving ways of the “wild Irish.” They argued that colonizing Ireland required dramatic changes in human geography, not just new laws or new people in charge.
Patrick looks to the shifting patterns of settlement in Roman and post-Roman Britain. The presence of the Roman military and the administrators who ran Roman government enabled the rise of markets and a cash economy. People increasingly gathered in cities. Market towns brought faraway goods to previously rural areas. Villas brought Roman cultural ideas about leisure and nobility, as well as a new form of rural economic life, to the British countryside. When the Romans pulled out of Britain, the places they had helped create began to fade. Villas fell into disrepair and cities crumbled.
Landscapes change. Places once filled with people where each building, tree, field, or corner could attest to stories of joy and sorrow can sink beneath the soil, their mysteries hidden until unearthed by an archaeologist’s trowel. People in the U.S. have long lamented the loss of place. Nostalgia for the vanishing of cowboy frontiers, small farms, rural towns, and, more recently, industrial cities shows up in films, songs, and novels. It has also animated our politics.
Right now, settlement patterns across the U.S. are changing. Places built to fit one economic system have been left unmoored. The structures of the U.S. political system, however, mean that power doesn’t follow the country’s population and GDP.
The places we live are changing. Types of places that once seemed secure and inevitable face new challenges and some may not survive. Figuring out what comes next for places around the U.S. is going to require imagination. Otherwise we’ll continue to see conflicts as the movements of population and wealth continue to grind against the geography of political power.
If this sounds interesting to you, give the podcast a listen, and if you have any questions, critiques, or concerns, sound off in the comments.