Urban renewal is the name given to a period of particularly misguided – and often outright racist – urban planning in the 1950s and 1960s. The federal program provided funds to acquire and demolish entire neighborhoods on the pretext that they were 'slums.' However, the historic neighborhoods that planners then regarded as slums have since – if residents successfully fought the urban renewal – become some of the most valuable and beloved neighborhoods of their respective cities.
In Boston, one of the country’s oldest cities, almost a third of the historic city was demolished-including the West End (which was an elegant address before Beacon Hill was even built) and Government Center. The latter, intended to be a centerpiece for what was possible with redevelopment, was quickly seen as an example of the excesses of urban renewal, a disregard for the city's rich heritage, and the failure of the new buildings to recapture the charm of the lost historic ones. These were catalysts for the residents of other neighborhoods to resist urban renewal, and to push for protective legislation.
Resident activism saved many neighborhoods. Neighborhood activism spared much of Charlestown and South Boston from the urban renewal bulldozers. Jamaica Plain, Roxbury, and South End won a partial victory – thousands of buildings were destroyed to accommodate a highway, but the residents stopped the I-95 highway project from being run through the city. Today, part of that are has become the Southwest Corridor Park. And the iconic urbanist Jane Jacobs visited Boston and fought on behalf of the North End, as she had also done in Manhattan for Greenwich Village. Indeed, the North End makes a number of appearances in her seminal work, Death and Life of Great American Cities.
Indeed, we strongly believe that the misguided and outright racist 1960s housing policies of urban renewal and redlining contributed to the real estate bargains that still could be found into the 1990s, and the subsequent price rise is perhaps a result of the cities regaining their intrinsic value as they repair the damage to their livability caused by the demolition. We've explored this idea here and here.
Urban renewal was driven by the Housing Act of 1954 and the Federal Highway Act of 1956. The former demolished historic – and usually ethnically diverse – neighborhoods. The latter looked to drive highways through cities as efficiently as possible. This isolated many neighborhoods and often separated commuters from historic commercial districts. Indeed, this is one of the reasons that American cities feel lifeless and have no charm compared to European counterparts which never embraced urban renewal. As Nautlius magazine described:
"The mall is not a communal space, it’s a commercial enterprise. City halls are office buildings, not meeting places. The absence of genuine public space drives an absence of genuine community. The city’s aesthetics first tells us that we are socially alone, then its physical structure makes sure that we stay alone. [The post WW-2 city design conditions residents to] seek instant gratification in lieu of healthy social nourishment. This is one of the reasons why despite their high per-capita gross economic product, American cities continuously fail to rank high in global livability indices. In 2017, the top-ranked American city in the Mercer Quality of Living city ranking was San Francisco at 29th."