National Urban Renewal
- Christopher KlemekChristopher KlemekDepartment of History, George Washington University
Urban renewal refers to an interlocking set of national and local policies, programs, and projects, implemented in the vast majority of American cities between 1949 and 1973. These typically entailed major redevelopment of existing urban areas with a view to the modernization of housing, highway infrastructure, commercial and business districts, as well as other large-scale constructions. Reformers from the Progressive Era through the Great Society strove to ameliorate the conditions of poverty and inequality in American cities by focusing primarily on physical transformation of the urban built environment. Citing antecedents such as the reconstruction of Second Empire Paris, imported via the City Beautiful movement, and then updated with midcentury modernism, US urban planners envisioned a radical reorganization of city life. In practice, federal programs and local public authorities targeted the eradication of areas deemed slums or blighted—often as much to socially sanitize neighborhoods inhabited by racial minorities and other marginalized groups as to address deteriorating physical conditions. And while federal funding became available for public works projects in declining central cities under the auspices of improving living conditions for the poor—including providing public housing—urban renewal programs consistently destroyed more affordable housing than they created, over more than three decades. By the end of the 1960s, urban residents and policymakers across the political spectrum concluded that such programs were usually doing more harm than good, and most ended during the Nixon administration. Yet large-scale reminders of urban renewal can still be found in most large US communities, whether in the form of mid-20th-century public housing blocks, transportation projects, stadiums, convention centers, university and hospital expansions, or a variety of public-private redevelopment initiatives. But perhaps the most fundamental legacies of all were the institutionalization of the comprehensive zoning and master planning process in cities nationwide, on the one hand, and the countervailing mobilization of defensively oriented (NIMBY) neighborhood politics, on the other.