Tag Archives: Robert Moses

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.

Au Revior, le Cul de Sac

Virginia has decided to say goodbye to the cul-de-sac. New subdivisions will be required to have through streets. Why? Improved safety and efficiency for the government, like easier access for emergency vehicles.

There an unsettling degree of government indignation in this move. As the Washington Post reports, “the regulations attack what the cul-de-sac has come to represent: quasi-private standalone developments around the country.”

Is that a bad thing? Families chose to live on cul-de-sacs because they are quieter and (thought to be) safer. The likely outcome from Virginia’s regulation? Houses on cul-de sacs will rise in value.

Governor Kaine says the regulations will help the state save on transportation spending. Under the new plan, Virginia will only maintain through roads.

Instead of imposing a top-down plan on all future suburban development,if cul-de-sacs are costly to government, then why not instead pass the cost on to those who choose to live on those streets, for instance through a cul-de-sac maintenance fee, or let  communities privately organize and hire companies to plow and fix the roads.

The end of cul-de-sacs is Robert Moses-esque, whose vision for New York City’s older neighborhoods was to pave them over with superhighways, because “cities are for traffic.”

Virginia has now decided so are suburbs.

More on the rise and fall of Virginia’s cul-de-sacs here and here.