Cities on the Plains

The Evolution of Urban Kansas

James R. Shortridge

Winner: AAG Globe Book Award

From Abilene to Wichita and beyond, a constellation of cities glitters across the fertile plains of Kansas. Their history is entwined with that of the state as a whole, and their size and status are rarely questioned. Yet as James Shortridge reveals, the evolution of urban Kansas remains a largely untold story of competition, rivalry, and metropolitan dreams.

“The story of urbanization in Kansas offers an important case study of how cities develop, prosper, and decline beyond the traditional framework of Rust and Sun Belt cities and biographies of the ‘great cities.’ . . . The book is extremely thorough in examining the interconnections of geography, transportation, and human agency. It goes beyond an examination of major individual cities and offers a new view of how urban areas interact, expand, and decline.

—H-Net Reviews

“A significant contribution to the fields of historical and urban geography. It is a tour de force in its successful attempt to discuss the complete evolution of one state’s urban development over more than 150 years. . . . Not just a valuable book for those interested in the Middle West and in urban development, but also a good story that is theoretically insightful.

—The Professional Geographer
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Cities on the Plains relates the history of Kansas's larger communities from the 1850s to the present. The first book to provide a comprehensive, comparative account of an entire state's urban development, it shows how Kansas's current hierarchy of cities and urban development emerged from a complex and ongoing series of promotional strategies. Railroads, the mining industry, the cattle trade-all exercised their influence over where and when these settlements were originally established.

Drawing on rich historical research filtered through cultural geography, Shortridge looks at the 118 communities that ever achieved a population of 2,500, and unravels the many factors that influenced the growth of urban Kansas. He tells how mercantilism dominated urban thinking in territorial days until after statehood, when cities competed for the capital, prisons, universities, and other institutions. He also shows how geography and size were employed by entrepreneurs and government officials to prepare strategies for economic development. And he describes how the railroads especially promoted the founding of cities in the nineteenth century—and how this system has fared since 1950 in the face of globalization and the growth of interstate highways.

Throughout the book, Shortridge demonstrates how cities competed for dominance within their regions, and he solves mysteries of growth and stagnation by evaluating them according to their abilities to respond to change. Sharing anecdotes along with insights, he tells why Wichita is "the unexpected metropolis," why the citizens of Leavenworth thought a prison was a better urban asset than a college, and how Garden City grew despite the plans of the Santa Fe Railroad.

Cities on the Plains provides an incisive new look not only at Kansas history but also at how American cities in general have evolved over the last century and a half.