Shaping the City from Below: Urban Planning and Citizens' Battle for Control in Roanoke, Virginia, 1907-1928

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Virginia Tech


In 2017, urban planners in Roanoke, Virginia, created a plan to construct a new public space that will honor the city's first professional city planner, John Nolen. Nolen is now considered a founder of the urban planning profession in the United States. Roanoke officials hope to celebrate the city's connection with Nolen and emphasize his influence over Roanoke's development. Similarly, historical narratives about urban planning focus on male city planners while ignoring citizens' contributions. Urban histories, on the other hand, concentrate on large metropolitan areas in the urban North. By combining urban history, women's history, and southern history, this thesis seeks to understand how diverse citizens in a small city of Southwest Virginia shaped the city.

Beneath the surface of John Nolen and professional city planning, upper-class white women, African Americans, and male city leaders and businessmen, engaged in a dynamic power play over Roanoke's built environment.  As they engaged in this battle for control, citizens shaped Roanoke from below. Wealthy Roanokers partnered with John Nolen to assert power over other citizens and to shape the city in their own interests. By uncovering the story of a southern city's development in the early twentieth century, this thesis exposes the ways in which southern citizens shaped urban spaces to exert power over other citizens and engage in a battle for control over the urban environment.



Roanoke, John Nolen, City Planning, Public Sanitation, Women, Gender, African Americans, Segregation, Civic Boosterism, New South