Cities of Knowledge

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Margaret Pugh O’Mara. Cities of Knowledge: Cold War Science and the Search for the Next Silicon Valley. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005. Pp. xiii, 298. $28.92 (Hardcover): ISBN 978-0691117164.


The post-war city of knowledge emerged within the context of the Cold War and heightened suburbanization. As Margaret Pugh O’Mara noted, cities of knowledge represented “engines of scientific production, filled with high-tech industries, homes for scientific workers and their families, with research universities at their heart” (1). The definition highlighted the important, but overlooked, interaction between Cold War policy and suburbanization. As the Cold War emerged, American spending policies and defense initiatives transformed universities into research institutions while simultaneously establishing new scientific industries. Suburbanization, moreover, offered an ideal location that distanced universities from decentralized urban settings, facilitating an environment that allowed science to prosper. Focusing on Stanford University, the University of Pennsylvania, and the Georgia Institute of Technology, O’Mara argued that cities of knowledge emerged not only from the conscious relationship between state and civic society, but also through the socio-economic and political characteristics that defined each campus community (1, 2, 5-7, 9-11).

O’Mara showed that universities worked as important political actors within the context of the Cold War research complex and local economic development. Yet, of all the universities, Stanford stood “at the center of this economic growth, not only because it was extraordinarily successful in attracting major federal scientific R&D monies, but also because it was an important and influential land developer” (97). The Cold War, as O’Mara showed, provided Stanford with an opportunity to use its vast landholdings to not only spur economic activity, but also local technological activity. By 1969, the school’s industrial park housed sixty firms that ranged from General Electric to Lockeed and housed 18,000 employees, while simultaneously generating over $13 million in revenue (121, 122, 127). Stanford thus represented the prototypical city of knowledge. While the Cold War helped dictate suburban use, university leaders like Fred Terman capitalized on the university’s resources to lure businesses like Hewlett Packard into the region, “creating a desirable high-income, highly educated community of scientific men and women and serving as a catalyst for the most important concentration of advanced scientific industry in the world” (139-41).

Yet, whereas Stanford represented the prototypical city of knowledge, the University of Pennsylvania did not have the same good fortune, despite having greater financial, industrial, and technological resources. As O’Mara noted, “[t]he Philadelphia region did not experience the benefits of massive federal military spending enjoyed by California during the Cold War, nor was its industrial infrastructure well adapted to the decentralization and downsizing trends of the post-industrial economy” (142). Philadelphia experienced economic and demographic shifts that characterized post-war urban decline. Even though Philadelphia had a diversified industrial base, the loss of industry thus had been less visible, preventing municipal leaders from acting in a timely fashion. Demographic shifts compounded matters. While Philadelphia reached a high-water mark of two million people in 1950, the city’s population would subsequently decline even as African Americans continued to migrate into the city. Pennsylvania’s West Philadelphia campus highlighted the city’s growing black population, which grew from twenty-four percent in 1940 to ninety-one percent in 1960. As a result, West Philadelphia illustrated a dangerous, heterogeneous community that gave Pennsylvania’s faculty pause, a characteristic that did not exist at Stanford. Other obstacles also hurt Pennsylvania’s ability to lure high-tech companies, namely a municipal tax unfriendly to individual entrepreneurs and new firms (151-2, 156, 180). Consequently, while Pennsylvania maintained a base in health care and pharmaceutical industries, the school did not enjoy Stanford’s success in luring high-tech companies to their campus (143, 146-9, 181).

The Georgia Institute of Technology did not reach the status enjoyed by Stanford and Pennsylvania as a city of knowledge. However, the Georgia Institute of Technology further highlighted the complexities involved in reproducing Stanford’s success, illustrating the political aspect of creating a highly successful city of knowledge. Atlanta during the post-war period illustrated, like Philadelphia, the characteristics of an aging urban center. However, unlike Philadelphia, municipal authorities established barriers that separated the Georgia Institute of Technology from Atlanta’s black and working-class populations. Atlanta also had municipal leaders who viewed the Cold War as a valuable impetus for spurring economic growth, while also having national politicians in positions of legislative authority to steer funds and industries to the city. As a result, Atlanta enjoyed some success in obtaining federal research grants while also persuading Lockeed to build an aircraft facility in the northwestern part of the city (182-3, 186, 191-2, 210). Yet, Lockeed’s aircraft facility highlighted the limited success the Georgia Institute of Technology had in becoming a city of knowledge, especially when compared to Stanford, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina’s Research Triangle. O’Mara showed that Atlanta’s inability to match Stanford’s success stemmed from the failure of municipal politicians, arguing that “[t]he leaders of Cold War-era Atlanta made little effort to recruit scientific firms to the city itself, but instead steered industries and workers to the affluent and all-white areas of the region’s northern suburbs” (184).

O’Mara concluded that cities of knowledge consciously developed as a result of economic initiatives that encouraged powerful universities to develop corporate partnerships and use their political clout in order to develop their research capacities in homogeneous suburban locations. According to O’Mara, the Cold War prompted massive federal investments that allowed research universities to expand its physical size and academic scope. Yet, the influx of funds did not necessarily equal success. Stanford administrators like Terman understood the importance of corporate partnerships and political influence, which helped result in the university’s success as a high-tech industry. Moreover, as O’Mara showed, Stanford also benefitted from owning large tracts of land in an affluent, rapidly-expanding area of the country. The university’s advantages enabled researchers to focus solely on technology by establishing “a community of science” (226-30). Ultimately, Stanford’s success showed that “both public and private institutions have the power to determine where the economy grows” (234).


Richard Hardesty, Fall 2011

O’Mara’s analysis lacked significant attention to the anti-war protests during the 1960s. With the United States deeply engaged in Vietnam, universities became one of the focal points of the anti-war movement, with demonstrators consisting of both students and professors. The anti-war movement presented an intriguing disconnect, especially as demonstrators targeted the cities of knowledge for their connection to the military industrial complex. Yet, by overlooking the anti-war movement, O’Mara missed an opportunity to explore how it changed the objectives of the cities of knowledge. The omission seemed equally puzzling as O’Mara spent time outlining the protests people had towards Stanford’s university park and Pennsylvania’s Unit #3 (139, 174). At 298 pages, O’Mara’s work could have contained a more detailed accounting of the anti-war movement without having to omit material from an otherwise outstanding and valuable study.

O’Mara thrived by presenting historiographical themes of planning and development into the post-war period. Like Cathy D. Knepper’s Greenbelt, Maryland, O’Mara’s cities of knowledge represented consciously planned communities that fused government planning with local enterprise. O’Mara thrived as she detailed how World War II placed a premium on research, thereby facilitating the Truman Administration’s policy to disperse industry from the urban center during the early years of the Cold War. As a result, dispersion provided “a governmental stamp of approval on the idea that suburban places were logical homes for science” (28-9). Yet, industrial dispersion also worked in conjunction with America’s universities, whose geographical isolation sparked intellectual innovation. Each university was not created equal, but, as O’Mara deftly showed, success rested on local interests using government incentives and initiatives the right way (92-4). In the process, O’Mara successfully connected Cold War policy to post-war suburbanization, using two seemingly unrelated events to further advance the discussion on suburban growth.

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