History of the Built Environment and Housing in the United States

The Built Environment is not a new concept. In fact, William Penn, in 1682, when he established the City of Philadelphia, laid plans that satisfied the needs of the then Built Environment. They provided for frequent open areas or green spaces called parks, appropriate size streets for major industry and commerce, commercial activities and residential activities, and space for the long-term growth of the community. A grid was used with the major highways and areas of major industry on the outer perimeter. These became sources of major transportation. Then wide roads were laid out followed by the smaller streets where lots were cut out that could be purchased for homes or small business activities. He specified that the city should be on the river so there would be an immediate water source as well as a major means of transportation. The rectangular grid pattern using letters for streets going East and West and numbered streets going North and South made it easier to find a given location.

From the inception of this country, there have been many problems with the housing of its citizens. In the 1600s, 1700s and 1800s, the greatest concern was fire. A prime example was the great Chicago fire of 1871 that burned from Sunday, October 8, to early Tuesday, October 10. About 300 people died, 100,000 were made homeless, and 3.3 square miles of Chicago, Illinois, were destroyed.

In the 1800s, especially after 1840, most immigrants came from Great Britain, Ireland, Germany, Scandinavia, and to a lesser extent from China, primarily because of economic reasons. With the beginning of the industrial expansion after the Civil War, there was a huge influx of people, primarily from Eastern Europe, into the United States and into the big cities. The immigrants came from Southern and Eastern Europe due to a combination of poor economic conditions, war, and religious persecution. These people were Greek, Italian, Jewish, Polish, Russian, Serbian, and Turkish. The biggest part of the immigration started in 1880 and continued in waves through 1920, with the largest number of these individuals moving into the poorest, most overcrowded, and structurally deteriorating areas of the big cities, such as New York. Increasing the pressure for housing in these cities in the last quarter of the 19th century was the movement of individuals from farms and small towns into areas where there were greater opportunities for employment.

In addition to the problems of potential fires, there were constant concerns about serious overcrowding, lack of cleanliness, poorly constructed and maintained structures, and inadequate or totally lacking groundwater protection because of the small housing lots used and contamination of wells from adjoining septic systems. Poor ventilation, inadequate or totally lacking proper lighting, lack of toilet and bathing facilities, bad odors, insects, rodents, trash and garbage, sewage, inadequate and contaminated water helped contribute to the spread of disease and very serious problems in housing units. The individuals were very poor, lacked adequate food, and suffered from many diseases, including substantial amounts of tuberculosis and other infectious diseases which could easily be spread to others in the compact living areas. This was the beginning of high-rise apartments on tiny pieces of land, with huge concentrations of people.

The Public Works Administration helped improve the infrastructure of the country during the Great Depression of the 1930s by building airports, electricity generating dams, railroads, and many other projects. The Wagner Steagall Housing Act encouraged governmental agencies to build high- rise buildings for public housing for poor people living in overcrowded urban slum areas. By the 1960s, many of these buildings in the major cities were already deteriorating. The structures were populated by large concentrations of individuals, especially large numbers of children, in small areas, which led to excessive vandalism and property destruction. Elevators in these buildings were a disaster because they frequently were broken and, where working, were a place where crime could be committed. It was difficult to move the children from their homes to the outside safely. Budget crises in the Housing Authorities contributed to very poor maintenance of the structures and equipment. Further, people were untrained in the use and maintenance of these high-rise buildings, leading to increased levels of vandalism, crime, disease, and injury, as well as very poor living conditions.

At the end of World War II, there was a growing need for housing for those returning from serving their country and their future families. There was literally an explosion of housing subdivisions in rural areas, outside of big cities, where the land had been utilized for farming. Whereas a single house sat on 40 acres and could easily utilize a well and on-site sewage disposal system, these 40 acres were now divided into quarter acre, half-acre or acre plots which were sold for home construction. Little or no attention was given to natural contours, creeks, ponds, etc. Now instead of one home with one well and one on-site sewage disposal system, the land was supposed to take care of 40-160 homes with separate wells and separate on-site sewage disposal systems. This led to many cases of overflowing sewage and contaminated wells.

Although the spread of infectious diseases in poor housing is less than it ever has been, an additional problem is the increase in chronic diseases, which may be attributed to inactive lifestyles, improper nutrition and exposure to many pollutants both within structures and outside of the structures. Injuries are a continuing problem. Land-use problems are of considerable concern, as well as the proximity of major polluting industries and high levels of traffic. Noise is a never-ending concern.

Sewage systems, water systems, and gas pipe systems may be extremely old and may cause

serious health problems because of poor maintenance and simply because of age.

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