Bad Retro:The Federally-Planned City

An under-discussed development in the Obama Administration is the re-animation of a policy better left in faded journals:federal urban planning.

The idea behind “federal blight removal” in the 1950s and 1960s was to pave over old neighborhoods, often derided as “slums” by the planning elite, and replace them with the fad du jour, Le Courbousier inspired high-rises.The intent was social engineering by constructing “cities of the future,” made of superhighways and towering apartments. As Martin Anderson documents in his 1964 book The Federal Bulldozer,the effect was the destruction of housing stock and neighborhoods, and the displacement of people.

Jane Jacobs,a resident of Greenwich Village who successfully fought off  Robert Moses’ proposal to put a four lane highway in Washington Square Park offered a seminal critique of urban planning in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Her key contribution is that cities are organic and complex social orders that grow with the residents and the life of the city. Cities aren’t imposed via top-down plans but grow spontaneously from the ground up.

Jacobs’ analysis of life in Greenwich Village formed the basis of the New Urbanism and its push to engineer the organic through low-density, mixed-used, walkable urban villages. While the aesthetic principles changed the basic error that cities can be imposed on people from above has remained in force.

The Administration’s throwback decision to federalize local planning only compounds New Urbanism’s central error. Slamming the cities with federal grants for bike paths, transit, edifices, roads, is nothing more than the promotion of the current wisdom of what constitutes ‘”correct” city living. It will leave its own artificial mark and short-circuit the progress of the city emergent.