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What Is Urban Renewal?

4 minute read

Ostensibly intended to improve "blighted" neighborhoods and provide better housing conditions, urban renewal often involved displacement and the wholesale destruction of urban communities.

Chicago Public Housing

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The federal policy known as urban renewal was formally established by the Housing Act of 1949 and reinforced by the Housing Act of 1954, which created new requirements for cities to develop actionable revitalization plans. The program provided federal funding to cities for "slum clearance," creating a new tool for seizing property and forcing redevelopment in areas deemed "blighted." Sometimes conflated with public housing and federal highway programs, those separate but related programs contributed to the complex series of impacts that mid-century planning had on urban neighborhoods. Urban renewal policies focused on improving the attractiveness and property values of specific geographic areas rather than improving the lives of their residents, resulting in widespread displacement and the dispersal of historic communities with deep social ties.

An American Planning Association report from 1957 calls urban renewal "a means of channeling the growth and the social, economic, and political forces that are the flesh, bone, and nervous system of the city's structure." The report goes on:

"Seen from this vantage point, urban renewal is not a process of completing forms to get federal aid; of telephone calls and meetings; of schedules for relocation, acquisition, demolition. It does not become a program for saving a certain house, of statistics on how much land is in streets and alleys. Rather, it becomes a matter of schools, parks, land uses, and the economic and social place of an area within the city. And these are problems for an urban growth expert, not a technician caught in a morass of clerical detail. Urban renewal is a city planner's business and profession."

"The urban renewal projects that resulted in displacements were typically aimed at 'slum clearance': using eminent domain to acquire private homes that were usually deemed sub-standard, razing those houses, and redeveloping the land for new, sometimes public housing, more often private, or for other purposes like the development of department stores or office buildings." Despite the promise that displaced households would be compensated for their property and assisted with relocation, many families never saw any assistance at all. "In many cases, the program’s local administrators also turned homeowners into renters without delivering fair market value for seized properties."

Communities of color and low-income households were disproportionately affected as their "blighted" neighborhoods were slated for redevelopment. "[T]hose who benefited were often wealthier suburbanites, and homeownership grew more concentrated in the hands of white, affluent families. Cities were remade to their liking, leaving us with the car-centric urban areas we have today." Because the policy required cities to have zoning codes and comprehensive redevelopment plans to apply for federal funding, "[t]he federal government was responsible for creating homogenization and bureaucratization around planning at a local level." But although federal policies guided the shape of urban renewal programs, many of the initiatives were the direct result of local decision-making, made largely by property owners and business interests in central cities who increasingly saw "slums" and "blight" as threats to their livelihoods.

While urban renewal brings to mind projects in big cities and famous cases like Los Angeles's Chavez Ravine (razed to build today's Dodger Stadium) and Chicago's failed Cabrini-Green development, most urban renewal projects happened in cities of under 50,000. In some cases, urban renewal programs backfired, sending cities into deeper crisis. Poughkeepsie, New York, which received more federal funding for urban renewal than any other American city, saw its fortunes decline as federal dollars were "spent building highways through the city, which made it easier for businesses to move further away from the city and for shoppers to go elsewhere." For Poughkeepsie, "urban renewal led to isolated neighborhoods, land devaluation, and loss of businesses—conditions that exacerbate poverty."

Community groups quickly began fighting back against the top-down policies of eminent domain and "slum clearance," calling for support and compensation for the homes and properties lost to urban renewal, as well as for more community involvement in decision making. Residents who lost their housing were often forced to disperse to outlying areas, putting them farther away from jobs, transportation, and social spaces. Cities have largely scaled back wholesale redevelopment of neighborhoods, shifting instead to providing incentives for private developers.

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