Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index

Urban renewal

Urban renewal (also called 'urban regeneration' in British English) is a movement in urban planning that reached its peak in the United States that from the late 1940s through the early 1970s. It has had a massive impact on the urban landscape and continues to the present day. It has also played an important roles in cities outside the United States, such as Saint John, New Brunswick, Darlinghurst, New South Wales, and Bilbao, Spain.

While envisioned as a way to redevelop residential slums and blighted commercial areas in cities, large and small, it often resulted in vast areas being demolished and replaced by freeways and expressways, housing projects, and vacant lots -- some of which remained vacant at the beginning of the 21st century. While it did revitalize many cities, it was often at a high cost to existing communities, and in many cases simply resulted in the destruction of vibrant --if run-down-- neighborhoods. Urban renewal in its original form has been deemed a failure by many urban planners and civic leaders in the United States, and has been reformulated with a focus on redevelopment of existing communities. However, many cities can trace the revitalization of the central business district and gentrification of residential neighborhoods to earlier urban renewal programs. Over time, urban renewal evolved into a policy based less on destruction and more on renovation and investment, and today is an integral part of many local governments.

Table of contents
1 Background
2 Redlining and Segregation
3 Postwar problems and suburban growth
4 Housing Act of 1949
5 Urban destruction
6 Community control, historic preservation, and other reactions against urban renewal
7 The Renewal of Urban Renewal: from urban renewal to community development
8 Conclusions
9 See also
10 External links


Although urban renewal goes back at least to the rebuilding of Rome by Augustus, modern attempts can be said to have started with late-19th century Paris and Baron Haussmann. By the end of the Second Empire, Paris was the cultural center of Europe and one of the world's most developed cities. Nevertheless, the physical infrastructure of the city was failing in the face of increasingly rapid growth -- as the effects of the Industrial Revolution took hold and combined with the economic impacts of war and social upheaval.

From the 1850s into the 1870s, Haussmann supervised a program which demolished large areas of slums and narrow, crooked medieval streets, replacing them with new neighborhoods, plazas and traffic circles, and the broad, tree-lined boulevards that are still the hallmark of Paris. His program also rebuilt other infrastructure and services in the city: railroad lines and stations, sewerage, street lighting, regular collection of garbage, and large parks. It also led to large numbers of the working class and the poor being forced to move to the suburban areas of Paris, effectively reserving large areas of the city for the middle and upper classes.

Another major chapter in the history of urban renewal was the work of Robert Moses in the redevelopment of New York City and New York State from the 1930s into the 1970s. Moses directed the construction of new bridges, highways, housing projects, and public parks. Moses was a controversial figure, both for his single-minded zeal in pursuit of his projects and for his masterful political maneuvering to secure the power necessary to carry them out. Although his work was not a sweeping in its impact on New York City as Haussmann's was on Paris, Moses is responsible for the major traffic arteries of the city and for its largest parks, other than Central Park and Prospect Park.

Redlining and Segregation

Redlining began with the Housing Act of 1934 which established the Federal Housing Authority (FHA) to improve housing conditions and standards, and later led to the formation of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). While it was designed to develop housing for poor residents of urban areas, that act also required cities to target specific areas and neighborhoods for different racial groups, and certain areas of cities were not eligible to receive loans at all. This meant that ethnic minorities could only secure mortgages in certain areas, and resulted in a large increase in the residential racial segregation on the United States.

This was followed by the Housing Act of 1937, which created the U.S. Housing Agency and the nation's first public housing program -- the Low Rent Public Housing Program. This was the beginning of the large public housing projects that later became one of the hallmarks of urban renewal in the United States: it provided funding to local governments to build new public housing, but required that slum housing be demolished prior to any construction.

Postwar problems and suburban growth

In 1944, the GI bill (officially the Serviceman’s Readjustment Act) guaranteed Veterans Administration (VA) mortgages to veterans under favorable terms, which fueled suburbanization after the end of World War II, as places like Levittown, New York, Warren, Michigan, Greenbelt, Maryland, and the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles were transformed from farmland into cities occupied by tens of thousands of families in a few short years.

Housing Act of 1949

The Housing Act of 1949 marked a major move towards the wholesale demolition of urban slums. It provided a large amount of funding for slum clearance. Entire neighborhoods were town down, and were replaced by highways and new industrial zones. It extended the provisions of previous housing acts by underwriting additional loans, but further restricted the types of loans that the government would guarantee. Loans for new housing would be made only for a single owner, effectively pricing those of more moderate means who could only afford to live in multifamily buildings out of the market, and most banks now practiced redlining. Appraisal manuals from the FHA instructed loan originators to avoid neighborhoods with "inharmonious racial groups" -- recommending that cities and towns enact zoning ordinances that restricted area to Whites, and to enact covenants prohibiting African-American owners. Homes (and neighborhoods and entire cities) were now legally restricted to "individuals of the Caucasian race." Discrimination in the housing was now the norm in all parts of the country -- and housing values declined rapidly in minority neighborhoods.

Urban destruction

Under the powerful influence of multimillionaire R.K. Mellon, Pittsburgh became the first major city to undertake a modern urban-renewal program in May 1950. Pittsburgh was famous around the world as one of the dirtiest and economically depressed cities, and seemed ripe for urban renewal. A large section of downtown at the heart of the city was demolished, converted to parks, office buildings, and a sports arena and renamed the Golden Triangle in what was universally recognized as a major success. Other neighborhoods were also subjected to urban renewal, but with mixed results. Some areas did improves, while other areas, such as Liberty Hill and Lower Hill declined following ambitious projects that shifted traffic patterns, blocked streets to vehicular traffic, isolated or divided neighborhoods with highways, and removed large numbers of ethnic and minority residents.

In 1956, the Interstate Highway Act gave state and federal government complete control over new highways, and often they were routed directly through vibrant urban neighborhoods – isolating or destroying many -- since the focus of the program was to bring traffic in and out of the central cores of cities as expeditiously as possible and nine out of every ten dollars spent came from the federal government. This resulted in a serious degradation of the tax bases of many cities, isolated entire neighborhoods, and meant that existing commercial districts were bypassed by the majority of commuters.

These developments lead many to say that, "Urban renewal is Negro removal" – and indeed, segregation continued to increase as communities were displaced and many African Americans and Latinos were left with no other option than moving into public housing while Whites moved to the suburbs in ever-greater numbers.

In Boston, one of the country's oldest cities, almost a third of the old city was demolished -- including the historic West End -- to make way for a new highway, low- and moderate-income high-rises (which eventually became luxury housing), and new government and commercial buildings. Later, this would be seen a tragedy by many residents and urban planners, and one of the centerpieces of the redevelopment -- Boston City Hall -- is still considered an example of the excesses of urban renewal.

Community control, historic preservation, and other reactions against urban renewal

In 1961, Jane Jacobs published The Death and Life of Great American Cities, one of the first -- and strongest -- critiques of contemporary large-scale urban renewal. However, it would still be a few years before organized movements began to oppose urban renewal.

In 1964, the Civil Rights Act removed racial deed restrictions on housing. This led to the beginnings of desegregation of residential neighborhoods, but redlining continued to mean that real estate agents continued to steer ethnic minorities to certain areas. The riots that swept cities across the county from 1965 to 1967 damaged or destroyed additional areas of major cities -- most drastically in Detroit during the 12th Street Riot.

By the 1970s many major cities developed opposition to the sweeping urban-renewal plans for their cities. In Boston, community activists halted construction of the proposed Southwest Expressway -- but only after a three-mile long stretch of land had been cleared. In San Francisco, Joseph Alioto was the first mayor to publicly repudiate the policy of urban renewal, and with the backing of community groups, forced the state to end construction of highways through the heart of the city. Between 1956 and 1966 more than 12% of the people in Atlanta lost their homes to urban renewal, expressways, and a downtown building boom turned the city into the showcase of the New South in the 1970s and 1980s.

The Renewal of Urban Renewal: from urban renewal to community development

Some of the policies around urban renewal began to change under President Lyndon Johnson and the War on Poverty, and in 1968, the Housing and Urban Development Act and The New Communities Act of 1968 guaranteed private financing for private entrepreneurs to plan and develop new communities. Subsequently, the Housing and Community Development Act of 1974 established the Community Development Block Grant program (CDBG) which began in earnest the focus on redevelopment of existing neighborhoods and properties, rather than demolition of substandard housing and economically depressed areas.

Currently, a mix of renovation, selective demolition, commercial development, and tax incentives is most often used to revitalize urban neighborhoods. Though not without its critics -- gentrification is still controversial, and often results in familiar patterns of poorer residents being prices out of urban areas into suburbs or more depressed areas of cities -- urban renewal in its present form is generally regarded as a great improvement over the policies of the middle part of the 20th century.


While urban renewal never lived up to the hopes of its original proponents, it has played an undeniably important role is cities throughout the United States, England, and many other nations. It has been hotly debated by politicians, urban planners, civic leaders, and current and former residents of the areas where urban renewal took place in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. It has brought economic and cultural development to many cities, but often at a great cost to low-income and minority communities living in them. It has also played a role in the economic devastation that many of the United States major industrial cities faced in the last half of the last century. Urban renewal continues to evolve as successes and failures are examined and new models of development and redevelopment are tested and implemented.

See also

External links