Published In

Public Historian

Document Type


Publication Date

Spring 1989


Economic development -- History -- Washington (D.C.) -- 19th century, Economic development -- History -- Washington (D.C.) -- 20th century, Urban policy -- Washington (D.C.)


There is little doubt that the United States has been undergoing a sweeping and multi-faceted economic transformation since the early 1970s. The industrial mix and spatial distribution of activities within the national economy are being altered by basic changes, including (1) the simultaneous growth of certain manufacturing industries and the decline of others, (2) the broad decentralization of manufacturing production to overseas locations and the rising importance of international trade, (3) the shift of employment from manufacturing and transportation into information processing activities, and (4) the emergence of historically peripheral regions in the South and West as centers of innovation and economic change. In varying combinations, these changes are altering the economic circumstances of American cities and forcing reconsideration of appropriate economic roles. With the effective withdrawal of the federal government as an initiator of local economic development in the 1980s, responsibility has fallen on states and municipalities as the traditional promoters of urban growth. State economic development agencies, blue-ribbon panels, futures task forces, and special economic planning committees in a variety of versions have all aimed to consider what their various cities should do next. In some cases, the result may be the abandonment of economic strategies that sufficed for a century or more. Civic leaders across the country chase high-tech industry. Manufacturing cities seek positions in the transactional economy. Other communities try to devise new roles as international retail cities, travel destinations, amateur sports centers, or health care centers. Debates about the future of American cities draw heavily on academic expertise in economics, planning, regional science, and related fields. Book catalogs in these applied fields are filled with city and regional case studies whose titles or subtitles proclaim their interest in "deindustrialization," "reindustrialization," "economic prospects," "structural change," and "prospects for change." However, few studies are available to allow comparison of current economic planning concerns with past experiences. As a contribution toward a historically informed discussion of decision-making in economic restructuring, I have begun to explore the case of Washington, D.C., a city that has never found it easy to achieve a "natural" economic role. It has experienced an ambiguous regional orientation, uncertain opportunities, and entrenched preconceptions about appropriate activities. In particular, the generation of Washington leaders following the upheavals of Civil War and Reconstruction faced a need for economic redirection with parallels to the deindustrializing factory towns of the 1970s and 1980s. The focus of this examination is the evolving character of ideas on Washington's potentials as an economic entity. Washingtonians have engaged in an ongoing "conversation" or discussion about the possibilities of economic development. My interest lies in the articulation and evolution of public ideas, not in the separate questions of the implementation process or the equitable division of the benefits of growth. Ideas about economic development may have their final test as they affect the production and distribution of wealth, but they also have careers as intellectual constructs that express a social context of power and values.


This is the publisher's final PDF. Published as Abbott, C., Perspectives on Urban Economic Planning: The Case of Washington, D.C., Since 1880. The Public Historian, Vol. 11, No. 2 (Spring, 1989), pp. 5-21. © 1989 by [the Regents of the University of California/Sponsoring Society or Association]. Copying and permissions notice: Authorization to copy this content beyond fair use (as specified in Sections 107 and 108 of the U. S. Copyright Law) for internal or personal use, or the internal or personal use of specific clients, is granted by [the Regents of the University of California] for libraries and other users, provided that they are registered with and pay the specified fee via Rightslink® on [JSTOR (] or directly with the Copyright Clearance Center,

Persistent Identifier