Urban Development 1945-1974

While Title One of the Housing Act of 1949 (PDF) launched the "urban renewal" program that would reshape cities across the United States, the year 1945 was chosen due to implementation of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania's Urban Redevelopment Law (Act of May 14, 1945) and its impact on Pennsylvania's environment. The ending year of 1974 was selected due to the ending of the federal program at that time.

Varying Perspectives on Urban Development - Past and Present

The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs, first published in 1961 was a critique of modernist planning policies that Jacobs claimed had ruined many existing inner-city communities. While some of her statements and/or methodology may have been maligned by critics, some still felt that her book "raised some urgent and difficult questions." Lewis Mumford wrote to her on May 3, 1958 stating that "your analysis of the function of the city is sociologically of the first order. And none of the millions being squandered by the Ford Foundation or 'urban research' will produce anything that has minute fraction of your insight and common sense." Interestingly though, years later in the 1965 New York Review of Books he wrote "Jane Jacobs preposterous mass of historic misinformation and contemporary misinterpretation in her The Life and Death of Great American Cities exposed her ignorance of the whole planning movement." Read Jim Kunstler's interview with Jacobs from Metropolis Magazine.

Jon C. Teaford's article "Urban Renewal and Its Aftermath" stated that "Congress launched the federal urban redevelopment program in Title I of the Housing Act of 1949, and during the next two decades, planners, mayors, journalists, and the public dreamed of grand schemes to revitalize the nation’s cities. Artists’ renderings of slick glass and steel skyscrapers set in sunny plazas appeared in metropolitan newspapers and city planning reports, and nurtured hopes of a golden future. With the aid of Uncle Sam, cities were supposedly to be cleansed of their ugly past and reclothed in the latest modern attire. By the early 1960s, however, skeptics were questioning the merits of federally subsidized urban renewal, and 10 years later the program generally evoked images of destruction and delay rather than renaissance and reconstruction. By the time it died in 1974, the federal urban renewal program was much maligned and could claim at best mixed results. While Title I and succeeding amendments to the program fell short of expectations, it was a valuable experiment that taught certain lessons necessary to later urban revitalization initiatives. It exposed the social and political costs of big bulldozer schemes and revealed the limitations inherent in federal policy. Ultimately, however, its lessons might well have been more negative than positive. It taught what not to do as much as what to do. Though the physical monuments to federal urban renewal during the 1950s and 1960s might be relatively uninspiring, the program itself, through trial and error, informed later efforts to revitalize older central cities." Read more of "Urban Renewal and Its Aftermath." (PDF)

Richard Longstreth's "The Difficult Legacy of Urban Renewal" (PDF) reminds historians and historic preservationists that it is time for "a fresh, more detached perspective. Urban renewal bestowed upon communities some places of lasting value that can be appreciated if we consider them apart from the baggage they have acquired. However regrettable, neither the destruction of building fabric nor of communities should detract from the historical significance of what was developed anew. Taking sound stock of the historical significance of urban renewal is urgently needed because the resources in question are fragile. As has long been the case, the heritage of the recent past seems dated, even antiquated, certainly unfashionable, different from and even counter to the ways in which we prefer to design places today."


These films and others are available from the online Prelinger collection at the Internet Archive.

Man of Action

Still frame from: Man of Action Man of Action, produced by Transfilm Production in 1955 and sponsored by the Continental Can Company, is an animated plea for urban renewal as connected with 1950s efforts to "redevelop" American city centers.


No Time for Ugliness

Still frame from: No Time for Ugliness No Time for Ugliness (Part I and II) produced by the American Institutes of Architects in 1965, shows that cities' approaches are marred by billboards and neon signs and that a demanding citizenry can have those unsightly signs removed.


Longines Chronoscope with Robert Moses

Still frame from: Longines Chronoscope with Robert Moses Longines Chronoscope with Robert Moses was filmed on February 11, 1953 and produced by the National Archives and Records Administration. This television interview is with Robert Moses, city planner, on urban renewal and problems in public planning of traffic, housing and parkways.


Cities How They Grow

Still frame from: Cities How They Grow Cities How They Grow, was produced by Encyclopedia Britannica Films, Inc. in 1953 and gives an overview of the growth of American cities, city planning and urban issues.


The Dynamic American City

Still frame from: The Dynamic American City The Dynamic American City, produced by the Chamber of Commerce of the United States, gives us an interesting view into the 1950s urban renewal mindset, and unfortunately how it destroyed historic neighborhoods.


Freedom of the Road

Still frame from: Freedom of the American RoadFreedom of the American Road produced by MPO Productions, Inc. and sponsored by the Ford Motor Company in 1955, was part of the lobbying campaign that culminated in legislation authorizing the Interstate Highway system.



City - an incorporated municipality in the United States with definite boundaries and legal powers set forth in a charter granted by the state.

Eminent domain - the right of a government to appropriate private property for public use, usually with compensation to the owner.

Gentrification - the restoration and upgrading of deteriorated urban property by middle class or affluent people, often resulting in displacement of lower-income people.

Public Housing - housing that is built, operated, and owned by a government and that is typically provided at nominal rent to those in need.

Urban - of, relating to, or located in a city.

Urban renewal - rehabilitation of impoverished urban neighborhoods by large-scale renovation or reconstruction of housing and public works.

Urban sprawl - the unplanned, uncontrolled spreading of urban development into areas adjoining the edge of a city. [1]


[1] Definitions are from http://education.yahoo.com/reference/dictionary

Expressway pillar (1973). Photo Courtesy of the U.S. National Archives Bastions of Historic Fort Pitt are marked by a plaque in the Gateway Center Area of Downtown Pittsburgh (1974). Photo Courtesy of the U.S. National Archives