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Public efforts to remake downtowns long predated their decline. By the turn of the twentieth century, high-rise central business districts surrounded by low-rise residential neighborhoods were a distinctive feature of American cities, unlike European cities that typically intermingled commerce and housing.

Reform: 1900–1930

Functionally and visually distinguished, downtown became the iconic heart of the city: the engine of economic growth, the embodiment of civic pride, the “100-percent district” of peak real estate values, the showcase of cultural sophistication, and the meeting ground of diverse populations. Business and civic leaders worried, however, that downtowns were confronting the physical limits of growth. This was represented most vividly by inharmonious downtown traffic, a chaotic and hazardous mix of pedestrians, bicyclists, streetcars, carriages, and a small number of cars.

Two broad approaches ...

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