PBS Takes on Urban Planning, Good and Bad, with '10 Towns' Special

Beginning with the first U.S. planned urban development, St. Augustine, Fla., and ending with one of Portland's newest neighborhoods, the Pearl District, host Geoffrey Baer takes us through ten developments that left their mark, for better or worse.

2 minute read

April 27, 2016, 12:00 PM PDT

By Irvin Dawid

Portland Pearl District Streetcar

The 'Go By Streetcar' sign that is located high on the building on the corner of NW 11th and Lovejoy is one of the first things you see as you enter the Pearl District from the Broadway bridge. | 5chw4r7z / Flickr

"10 Towns that Changed America focuses on ten 'experimental' towns that did not evolve organically over time, but instead were designed (or redesigned) from the ground up by visionary architects, corporations, and citizens, who sought to change the lives of residents using architecture, design, and urban planning," states the introduction to the PBS special produced by WTTW, Chicago's NPR affiliate.

However, "visionary" does not always produce good results, as some examples show. While (#7) Levittown in Long Island (as well as those in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Puerto Rico) might have been a boon for new residents fleeing cities, African Americans were excluded, and their legacy in urban planning includes "build(ing) the foundation of suburban sprawl that we have today," writes Erin Chantry in "The Legacy of Levittown."

A better example among the ten examples of well-intentioned urban planning gone awry is (#8) Southwest Washington, DC.

The Southwest DC development approach defined a new concept in planning: "urban renewal." Urban renewal started with a bulldozer and continued with the construction of Modernist towers and "superblocks" dedicated solely to housing, versus the mixed uses of the old neighborhood. 

Fortunately, the program ends with the (#10) Pearl District in Oregon, "like Portland itself, it's one of those places that does everything right," states urban and architecture critic Paul Goldberger, who comments throughout the program.

The ten towns, which can be cities, suburbs, or districts, are presented in this order, with links to the description and video provided by WTTW beginning with Philadelphia (PBS takes care of St. Augustine, as well as providing links for a 30-second preview and the 56-minute program).

  1. St. Augustine, FL WATCH CLIP
  2. Philadelphia, PA
  3. Salt Lake City, UT
  4. Riverside, IL
  5. Pullman – Chicago, IL
  6. Greenbelt, MD
  7. Levittown, NY
  8. Southwest Washington, D.C.
  9. Seaside, FL
  10. Pearl District – Portland, OR

Produced by WTTW, Chicago, the website for "10 Towns that Changed America," that also includes 10 additional towns not shown in the PBS program on April 19.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016 in PBS

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