To Plan Future Cities, Look First to the Past

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What comes to mind when you hear the phrase “racial inequality in America?” For many, images of the South during the Civil Rights movement will come to mind. Fewer high school social studies courses focus on the history of racial inequality in the North, or on the current racial wealth gap (in 2011, black households had a median net worth equal to 7% of their white counterparts). If we are to understand these less well-reported facets of the contemporary racial divide, we must understand the history of one profession essential to its development: urban planning.

In their new teaching resource, Planning Future Cities, Walter Greason (Monmouth University) and Anthony Pratcher II (Brown University) provide students of urban studies with primary and secondary sources which allow them to understand the social harms that planning wreaked in the twentieth century.

Planning, the editors contend, grew out of business elites’ compulsion to harness municipal politics for private gain. Of course, poor and socially-marginalized communities were not consulted in the process. Rather, land-use restrictions and growth policies advanced the economic preservation of the (largely) white middle class. The profession of planning, which grew in tandem with the profession of real estate in the 1910s, has since saddled “marginalized communities with the noxious byproducts of metropolitan expansion,” including systematized pollution and poverty.

planning future cities

Planning Future Cities’ first section is addressed to prospective teachers of planning history. Traditional planning pedagogy, Greg Hise and Angel David Nieves argue, doesn’t sufficiently consider the social implications of the profession. Planning history highlights how planners’ idealistic visions affected the social realities of the average citizen: often, there was a large gap between intentions and consequences. These lessons of the “usable past” must be learned by our planners-in-training, lest they fall victim to the kind of grandiosity that afflicted planners past. Planners must also take seriously the history of the places they intend to alter, and what places mean to the people who live there.

Greason and Pratcher devote the remaining five sections to key concepts in planning theory, and how they affected twentieth-century society. “Neighborhood Triage” took hold in the 1970s. Planners advocated systematic disinvestment in poor neighborhoods in favor of investing increasingly scarce government resources in “stable” sections of the city. The already marginalized black and poor of Detroit and St. Louis paid the socioeconomic costs of this policy. “Smart growth” planners heaped on additional costs by zoning industry out of the city, further diminishing the job prospects of the lower-middle class and the coffers of city governments.

The articles in the next section, “Zoning Exclusion,” detail the long history of planners’ collusion with private interest to create spatial relations that secured profit and economic security for the middle and upper classes. Business elites in Phoenix advocated a city plan to increase the profitability of municipal growth in the 1920s. New Jersey planners’ efforts to build affordable housing in the suburbs ended up serving not Camden’s impoverished but less affluent suburbanites and developers.

The chapter on “Community Control” comprises three articles which show how planning has been deployed in the service of managing marginalized urbanites. Julian Chambliss argues that Chicago’s beautification in the early twentieth century was born of an assimilationist impulse to instill traditional middle-class values in immigrant others via city planning. Mark Gottdiener shows that even those “rational planners” from “progressive” societies in Northern Europe are easily seduced by the profit motive, co-opting grassroots economic development to serve global capital. Andrew Whittemore writes that middle-class activism for neighborhood preservation and environmental regulation in 1970s Southern California actually hurt the poor: there, zoning regulations lessened the affordable housing stock and increased rents throughout the Los Angeles metropolitan area.

The articles curated by Greason and Pratcher are drawn largely from the Journal of Planning History. Along the way, students are encouraged to analyze archival images that planners of the 1920s and 1970s might have consulted in dreaming up their grand designs for the urban future. Greason and Pratcher, after all, seek to educate future planners on how contingency can complicate intention.

The editors of Planning Future Cities include two final sections aim to give students of the profession a more accurate historical understanding of the suburbs and federal urban policy since the 1960s.

First, the section titled “Freeways” complicates the conventional image of the suburbs as culturally vapid, majority-white “nowheres.” The articles in this section show that the suburban ideal is rooted in a longstanding national culture, one that champions decentralized and meticulously-ordered living patterns. Greason reminds readers that many African Americans also participated in suburbanization.

Second, the articles in “Federal Sanction” counter two well-established narratives of twentieth century urban history: the “federal retrenchment” and “urban crisis” theses. Stephanie Ryberg-Webster shows that even as austerity politics took hold in the late 1970s, some federal initiatives like the Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credit attempted urban revitalization by means other than direct investment. An essay by the late Michael Katz contends that historians have focused too much attention on the failures of urban policy. While he does not advocate substituting “Pollyanna for Cassandra,” Katz insists that some federally-sponsored planning initiatives were successful, including many aspects of planning for public housing.

While certain articles in the volume show that planning can be used to promote social equity, my major critique of Planning Future Cities is that it does not offer enough concrete examples of good planning. For example, there is scant mention of the equity planning movement that emerged in the 1960s. Responding to the urban crisis, many regional planners in places like Cleveland, Dayton, Berkeley, and New Jersey adopted a “conscious attempt to devise redistributive policies in favor of the least powerful.” Equity planners tried to move their focus “away from the business elites that frequently benefit from public policy and toward the needs of low-income” citizens. Examples of successful equity plans might offer proof that planning can be used to promote the social good and not solely private profit. By critiquing bad planning and holding up examples of good planning, urban studies educators can better navigate what Ananya Roy has called “the impossible space between the hubris of benevolence and the paralysis of cynicism.”

Notwithstanding this critique, Planning Future Cities does critical work. Unfortunately, the profession of planning at large still prioritizes the production of market values over social ones. Greason writes that the goal of his volume is to help future planners “create sustainable towns that protect human dignity.” They cannot do so without learning how their forebears alienated the most marginalized, oversimplified complex problems, overestimated their abilities, and created the divided metropolis. All of these lessons are on offer, and waiting to be discussed, in Planning Future Cities.

Eric Michael Rhodes is a graduate student of urban and planning history at Miami University of Ohio. Eric studies how U.S. subsidized housing policy played out in the rusting Steel Belt of the 1970s, with a particular eye to racial and economic stratification. He is an associate editor of Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective (a joint publication of Miami and Ohio State universities) and is co-host of the podcast History Talk. Follow him on Twitter at @EricMichaRhodes.

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