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Urban Planning Today: Digging Ourselves Out of A Hole of Our Own Making

Much of the work that urban planners do today involves digging ourselves out of a hole that past planners and urban policies created. This is an enormous challenge because the systems that created the problems we have today are foundational to how the American environment operates. Our transportation and development systems were created through sweeping governmental policies, but planners today must address their flaws on a city by city basis, since the current federal government lacks the motivation and innovation to enact large scale urban change. Perhaps this is for the better, as top-down decisions got us into this hole to begin with.

A short history of federal urban planning policies in the United States.

Here’s a short refresher for those who went to planning school and crash course for those who didn’t:

The modern era of urban planning started around 1930 with federal interventions designed to stabilize and grow the American economy after the Great Depression. After the failure of so many small banks during the Depression, in 1934 the Roosevelt administration created the National Housing Act, which established the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) to underwrite private lenders making mortgages. The FHA was designed to regulate mortgages, which included suggesting that lenders not invest in areas “infiltrated by inharmonious racial or nationality groups.” Banks created color-coded maps to delineate which areas were most desirable to lend in; red outlines, signifying that an area was most risky for mortgage support, were often made around older districts in center cities – areas most often occupied by African American communities. This “redlining” effectively cut African Americans off from the mortgage system. Between 1945 and 1959, African Americans received only 2 percent of all federally insured home loans.

Twenty years later with cities losing population to the suburbs, and the disinvested center cities falling into disrepair, the Truman administration enacted the Fair Deal program. This legislation included the Housing Act of 1949, which set aside financing for more than 800,000 public housing units, and a framework for clearing so-called slums to develop “urban renewal” projects. Under this legislation, federal loans were provided to cities to acquire and clear slum areas that would then be sold to private developers to redevelop in accordance with a plan prepared by the city. Additionally, the legislation expanded the mortgage system through the FHA, thus making it easier to purchase a single family home.

Unfortunately, the public housing components of these plans often fell by the wayside in favor of more major projects. For example, in Pittsburgh this legislation facilitated the building of the Civic Arena, which displaced 8000 residents and 400 businesses from the Lower Hill District, one of the most vibrant areas of African American commerce in America at the time. Not surprisingly, many of the areas targeted for “urban renewal” had previously been redlined.

The result of these two policies, as well as the simultaneous rise of the automobile and the baby boom after World War II, lead to increased suburbanization and a decline in inner city neighborhoods. With less tax money, cities cut funding for public transportation, schools and other municipal services which lead to middle class residents driving their cars out of the city and into new areas on the fringe of town. Retail and industries followed this trend, or moved overseas, and economic decline took hold in previously strong cities.

Subsequent federal programs, like the Community Reinvestment Act and even this administration’s Opportunity Zones have addressed some of the disparity caused by early urban policies, but the systems that enable and preserve suburban development patterns remain.

Planning Today

Today planners understand the adverse economic, social, and environmental aspects of suburbanization. Changing market forces, including the economy pivoting to knowledge based jobs and a rise in single person households have shifted housing demand away from detached single family units. It is possible to leverage this change in societal preferences into better planning decisions, if communities can be bold enough to change the systems that have created many of the problems they are facing today.

Digging Ourselves Out of the Hole

Suburbanization gave rise to an increase in automobile infrastructure. Existing streetcar and passenger rail infrastructure began to lose money and close lines as major arterials were constructed from the city to the suburbs to facilitate easy transportation to downtown jobs. Traffic congestion, long commutes, and increased pollution and rising economic disparity have increased demand for public transportation, but rebuilding these systems is not easy.

For example, as we have been working on Vision 2030, the comprehensive plan for Allentown, Pennsylvania, survey results from community members indicated a strong interest in rail transportation between Allentown and nearby Philadelphia and New York. In the past, the locally operated Lehigh Valley Transit Company and Lehigh Valley Railroad maintained trolley and interurban rail through out the region and into Philadelphia and New York, but according to a 2008 study, reviving rail service to New York would cost approximately $648 million.

A regional project with a multi-million dollar price tag is beyond the scope of a comprehensive plan, but recognizing the need for more varied regional transportation options we recommended the build out of “Mobility Hubs” throughout Allentown to leverage the planned Enhanced Bus Service stops and connect them with bicycle trails, walking infrastructure, van pool stops, and last-mile solutions like scooters. These links will strengthen the transportation network in the city and region, and set the stage for larger transportation projects in the future.

In a country lacking a cohesive urban planning agenda, planners must attempt to co-opt the systems that were drastically altered in the 1930s and 40s resulting in rise of suburbanization and the automobile. Changing local planning will set the stage for larger planning investments, and eventually, national scale change.


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