The Non-Pennsylvania Town: Diffusion of Urban Plan Forms in the American West

By Conzen, Michael P. | The Geographical Review, April 2006 | Go to article overview

The Non-Pennsylvania Town: Diffusion of Urban Plan Forms in the American West


Conzen, Michael P., The Geographical Review


This study is a delayed response to Wilbur Zelinsky's celebrated article on the Pennsylvania town, a groundbreaking attempt to typify, statistically and otherwise, and map a strong regional urban type that has yet to be replicated with similar specificity for any other cultural region of comparable size in the United States. According to the model, the essence of the Pennsylvania town lies in its "dense aggregation of spatially mixed functions in regionally distinctive structures, closely spaced and often built of brick, set along a generally rectilinear lattice of arboreal streets and well-kept alleys frequently focused on a diamond-shaped central square" (1977, 138). Geographers and other scholars have long understood U.S. cities and towns to be the loci of progressive economic and social development and modernity within the nation. Consequently, the analytical emphasis has been much more on seeing them as components of a growing functional system--displaying a unitary, hierarchical, and homogeneous character--than as an array of regionally distinct urban place types. Yet, for all the obvious functional similarities between cities large and small across the land, regional urban traditions have long existed and continue to play a role in national and local life, whether in such aspects as political culture, ethnoreligious expression, building preferences, or environmental accommodations. Zelinsky's portrait of the Pennsylvania town is an inspiring attempt to measure and characterize an observable regional urban type, but the need for similarly rigorous typifications in other American cultural contexts remains poorly met. This study aims to define some equally essential characteristics of a regional complex of towns in the Pacific Northwest as a contribution to enlarging the basis for comparison. Though distant, the Pacific Northwest is intimately related to the rich array of cultural forces that shaped towns and cities in the eastern United States, as so ably examined in Pennsylvania.

Zelinsky's synopsis relied heavily on urban morphology as a reflexive and accessible key to the cultural personality of communities, and it showed how systematic townscape features can define and delimit regional urban complexes distinct from those found elsewhere. He argued persuasively that the Pennsylvania town was--and still is--qualitatively and measurably different from its colonial-origin counterparts in New England, the Hudson Valley, Virginia, and points south. But if the Pennsylvania town developed so characteristic an identity, did it serve as a compelling design template for urban replication on the successive frontiers of the American West? James Lemon (1972) argued long ago that the Pennsylvanian worldview--economically liberal, tolerant, commercial, and energetic--helped develop the national character as much as, if not more than, that of the Yankee-Yorkers or of southern culture, and at least rural features of the Pennsylvania culture region without question spread to key parts of the Midwest (Rose 1988; Ensminger 1992, 147-180). The latitudinal migration streams that carried eastern seaboard settlement traditions westward have been well documented (Hudson 1984, 1988; Meyer 2000), and one might expect the Pennsylvania town to have found physical footing in the West in ways similar to that of the New England town, featuring the meeting house or church facing a generous central common (Larson 1975; Wood 1997). But Zelinsky concluded that the Pennsylvania town was an artifact of its time and place and that other forces rose up to redefine towns to the west with different characteristics, most notably a greater looseness in overall density and texture associated with more generous physical dimensions. (1)

It is often argued that urban places by their nature have always been more cosmopolitan than their rural hinterlands, well connected as they are by interregional trade and communication with other centers, where innovations, if not necessarily originating in towns, are quickly adopted and diffused through the network. …

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