Suburban Commuters, Urban Polluters

Downtown Parking Lot August 1973, U.S. National Archives’ Local Identifier: 412-DA-10844, Flicker Commons

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Editor’s NoteThis post is the ninth in the “Seeds: New Research in Environmental History” series cosponsored by NiCHE and Edge Effects, highlighting the work of members of the American Society for Environmental History (ASEH) Graduate Student Caucus. This series serves to highlight new work being done in the field of environmental history and connect this research to other fields and contemporary issues. Graduate caucus members were asked to respond to the following questions: ““How does your work push at the boundaries of current literature and add to existing discussions of the environment/environmental history? What forces drive your research?” 

All environmental history graduate students are encouraged to join the caucus by contacting current student liaison, Zachary Nowak, at Follow ASEH Grad Caucus on Twitter: @ASEHGradCaucus.

By Leif Fredrickson

One of the most profound stories of environmental injustice in the twentieth century emerged out of the interactions of two great migrations—the migration of rural African Americans to cities and the movement to the suburbs—and one transformative technology: the automobile.

In 1937,  M.E. Coyle, the general manager for General Motor’s Chevrolet Division, noted the national trend for “city people” to buy some acreage and a home in the country “while continuing to work in the nearby large town or city.” Coyle characterized this trend as one of the “most significant national tendencies,” and then claimed a little credit: “It has been made possible by the automobile.”

If the automobile made suburban commuting possible, what made it desirable? Coyle said commuters “found happiness in the more open spaces [of the suburbs]—away from city congestion.” There, the suburbanite’s growing children had “the benefits of healthful surroundings safe from city traffic.”

Coyle correctly characterized much of the dynamic of suburbanization, not just in the 1930s but well before and well after that decade. While trains and streetcars allowed for suburban expansion in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century, automobiles accelerated the pace and the sprawl of the suburbs, especially from the 1920s on…

Read the rest of this articles at Edge Effects here



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Leif Fredrickson is the Ambrose Monell Fellow in Technology and Democracy at the Miller Center of Public Affairs and a PhD candidate in history at the University of Virginia. He is completing a dissertation titled "The Age of Lead: Metropolitan Change, Environmental Health and Inner City Underdevelopment in Baltimore."

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