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Melbourne Docklands urban renewal project, a transformation of a large disused docks into a new residential and commercial precinct for 25,000 people
1999 photograph looking northeast on Chicago's Cabrini-Green housing project, one of many urban renewal efforts.

Urban renewal (similar to urban regeneration in British English) is a program of land redevelopment in areas of moderate to high density urban land use. Its modern incarnation began in the late 19th century in developed nations and experienced an intense phase in the late 1940s – under the rubric of reconstruction. The process has had a major impact on many urban landscapes, and has played an important role in the history and demographics of cities around the world.

Urban renewal can be extremely controversial, and has often involved the destruction of businesses, the demolition of priceless historic structures, the relocation of people, and the use of eminent domain (known as compulsory purchase in the UK) as a legal instrument to take private property for city-initiated development projects.

Renewal has often added to urban sprawl and vast areas of cities have been demolished and replaced by freeways and expressways, housing projects, and vacant lots as the outcome of incomplete projects.[1]

Urban renewal's effect on actual revitalization is a subject of intense debate. It has been seen by proponents as an economic engine and a reform mechanism, and by opponents as a regressive mechanism for enriching the wealthy at the expense of taxpayers and the poor. It carries a high cost to existing communities, and in many cases resulted in the destruction of vibrant neighborhoods.

Urban renewal in its original form has been called a failure by many urban planners and civic leaders, and has since been reformulated with a focus on redevelopment of existing communities. However, many cities link the revitalization of the central business district and gentrification of residential neighborhoods to earlier urban renewal programs. Over time, urban renewal evolved into a policy based less on destruction and more on renovation and investment, and today is an integral part of many local governments, often combined with small and big business incentives. But even in this adapted form, Urban Renewal projects are widely accused of abuse and corruption.



Urban renewal can be traced conceptually back to the earliest days of urban development, and often stems from a paternalistic style of governance, albeit one which often uses utilitarian rhetoric. Its potential value as a process was noted by those who witnessed the inhumane and overcrowded conditions of 19th century London, New York, Paris and other major cities of the developed world affected by the industrial revolution. From this a slum reform agenda grew by which advocates and reformers, using a doctrine of environmental determinism, argued that reforming a degraded built environment would reform its residents. Such reform could be argued on religious, national security, compassionate, economic and many other grounds. Another style of reform – for reasons of aesthetics and efficiency – could be said to have begun in 1853, with the recruitment of Baron Haussmann by Louis Napoleon for the redevelopment of Paris. Both strands of slum abolition valued the destruction of degraded housing and other structures above the welfare of slum-dwellers who, then as now, are often dispersed and might well discover themselves to be less well-off than before a slum clearance program[2]. The development of Federation Square began in the 1990’s. In 1997, Peter Davidson and Donald Bates from Lab Architecture Studio in London won the contract to build and design Federation Square in Melbourne.

History of urban renewal in North America

Projects such as the design and construction of Central Park, New York and the 1909 Plan for Chicago by Daniel Burnham might be considered early urban renewal projects. Similar, the efforts of Jacob Riis in advocating for the demolition of degraded areas of New York in the late 19th century might also be seen as formative urban renewal programs.

Robert Moses

The redevelopment of large sections of New York City and New York State by Robert Moses between the 1930s and the 1970s was a notable and prominent example of urban redevelopment. Moses directed the construction of new bridges, highways, housing projects, and public parks. Moses was a controversial figure, both for his single-minded zeal and for its impact on New York City.

Other cities across the USA began to create redevelopment programs in the late 1930s and 1940s. These early projects were generally focused on slum clearance and were implemented by local public housing authorities, which were responsible both for clearing slums and for building new affordable housing.

Postwar problems and suburban growth

In 1944, the GI Bill (officially the Serviceman's Readjustment Act) guaranteed Veterans Administration (VA) mortgages to veterans under favorable terms, which fueled suburbanization after the end of World War II, as places like Levittown, New York, Warren, Michigan and the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles were transformed from farmland into cities occupied by tens of thousands of families in a few short years.

Title One of the Housing Act of 1949 kickstarted the "urban renewal" program that would reshape American cities. The Act provided federal funding to cities to cover the cost of acquiring areas of cities perceived to be "slums." (The Federal government paid 2/3 of the cost of acquiring the site, called the "write down," while local governments paid the remaining 1/3.) Those sites were then given to private developers to construct new housing. The phrase used at the time was "urban redevelopment." "Urban renewal" was a phrase popularized with the passage of the 1954 Housing Act, which made these projects more enticing to developers, by among other things, providing FHA-backed mortgages.

Urban destruction

Under the powerful influence of multimillionaire R.K. Mellon, Pittsburgh became the first major city to undertake a modern urban-renewal program in May 1950. Pittsburgh was infamous around the world as one of the dirtiest and most economically depressed cities, and seemed ripe for urban renewal. A large section of downtown at the heart of the city was demolished, converted to parks, office buildings, and a sports arena and renamed the Golden Triangle in what was universally recognized as a major success. Other neighborhoods were also subjected to urban renewal, but with mixed results. Some areas did improve, while other areas, such as East Liberty and Lower Hill declined following ambitious projects that shifted traffic patterns, blocked streets to vehicular traffic, isolated or divided neighborhoods with highways, and removed large numbers of ethnic and minority residents.[3][4] Because of the ways in which it targeted the most disadvantaged sector of the American population, novelist James Baldwin famously dubbed Urban Renewal "Negro Removal" in the 1960s.[5][6][7].

The term "urban renewal" was not introduced in the USA until the Housing Act was again amended in 1954. That was also the year in which the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the general validity of urban redevelopment statutes in the landmark case, Berman v. Parker.[8]

In 1956, the Federal-Aid Highway Act gave state and federal government complete control over new highways, and often they were routed directly through vibrant urban neighborhoods—isolating or destroying many—since the focus of the program was to bring traffic in and out of the central cores of cities as expeditiously as possible and nine out of every ten dollars spent came from the federal government. This resulted in a serious degradation of the tax bases of many cities, isolated entire neighborhoods[9], and meant that existing commercial districts were bypassed by the majority of commuters.[10] Segregation continued to increase as communities were displaced and many African Americans and Latinos were left with no other option than moving into public housing while whites moved to the suburbs in ever-greater numbers.[11]

In Boston, one of the country's oldest cities, almost a third of the old city was demolished—including the historic West End—to make way for a new highway, low- and moderate-income high-rises (which eventually became luxury housing), and new government and commercial buildings. This came to be seen as a tragedy by many residents and urban planners, and one of the centerpieces of the redevelopment—Government Center—is still considered an example of the excesses of urban renewal.

Urban Renewal and Nuclear Fallout Shelters

In the early 1960's, The Kennedy Administration worked with developer Louis Lesser to develop Barrington Plaza in Los Angeles, at the time the largest urban renewal project in the western United States, which also served as a nuclear fallout shelter during the peak of the Kennedy Administration's nuclear crisis.[12][13 ]

Redlining and segregation

Redlining began with the National Housing Act of 1934 which established the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) to improve housing conditions and standards, and later led to the formation of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). While it was designed to develop housing for poor residents of urban areas, that act also required cities to target specific areas and neighborhoods for different racial groups, and certain areas of cities were not eligible to receive loans at all. This meant that ethnic minorities could only secure mortgages in certain areas, and resulted in a large increase in the residential racial segregation in the United States.

This was followed by the Housing Act of 1937, which created the U.S. Housing Agency and the nation's first public housing program—the Low Rent Public Housing Program. This program began the large public housing projects that later became one of the hallmarks of urban renewal in the United States: it provided funding to local governments to build new public housing, but required that slum housing be demolished prior to any construction.

Reactions against urban renewal

In 1961, Jane Jacobs published The Death and Life of Great American Cities, one of the first—and strongest—critiques of contemporary large-scale urban renewal. However, it would still be a few years before organized movements began to oppose urban renewal.

In 1964, the Civil Rights Act removed racial deed restrictions on housing. This began desegregation of residential neighborhoods, but redlining continued to mean that real estate agents continued to steer ethnic minorities to certain areas. The riots that swept cities across the country from 1965 to 1967 damaged or destroyed additional areas of major cities—most drastically in Detroit during the 12th Street Riot.

By the 1970s many major cities developed opposition to the sweeping urban-renewal plans for their cities. In Boston, community activists halted construction of the proposed Southwest Expressway—but only after a three-mile long stretch of land had been cleared. In San Francisco, Joseph Alioto was the first mayor to publicly repudiate the policy of urban renewal, and with the backing of community groups, forced the state to end construction of highways through the heart of the city. Atlanta lost over 60,000 people between 1960 and 1970 because of urban renewal and expressway construction[14] , but a downtown building boom turned the city into the showcase of the New South in the 1970s and 1980s. In the early 1970s in Toronto Jacobs was heavily involved in a group which halted the construction of the Spadina Expressway and altered transport policy in that city.

From "urban renewal" to "community development"

Some of the policies around urban renewal began to change under President Lyndon Johnson and the War on Poverty, and in 1968, the Housing and Urban Development Act and The New Communities Act of 1968 guaranteed private financing for private entrepreneurs to plan and develop new communities. Subsequently, the Housing and Community Development Act of 1974 established the Community Development Block Grant program (CDBG) which began in earnest the focus on redevelopment of existing neighborhoods and properties, rather than demolition of substandard housing and economically depressed areas.

Currently, a mix of renovation, selective demolition, commercial development, and tax incentives is most often used to revitalize urban neighborhoods. An example of an entire eradication of a community is Africville in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Though not without its critics—gentrification is still controversial, and often results in familiar patterns of poorer residents being priced out of urban areas into suburbs or more depressed areas of cities—urban renewal in its present form is generally regarded as a great improvement over the policies of the middle part of the 20th century. Some programs, such as that administered by Fresh Ministries and Operation New Hope in Jacksonville, Florida attempt to develop communities, while at the same time combining highly favorable loan programs with financial literacy education so that poorer residents may still be able to afford their restored neighborhoods.

Urban renewal around the world

The Josefov neighborhood, or Old Jewish Quarter, in Prague was leveled and rebuilt in an effort at urban renewal between 1890 and 1913.

Other programs, such as that in Castleford in the UK and known as The Castleford Project [1] seek to establish a process of urban renewal which enables local citizens to have greater control and ownership of the direction of their community and the way in which it overcomes market failure. This supports important themes in urban renewal today, such as participation, sustainability and trust – and government acting as advocate and 'enabler', rather than an instrument of command and control.

During the 1990s the concept of culture-led regeneration gained ground. Examples most often cited as successes include Temple Bar in Dublin where tourism was attracted to a bohemian 'cultural quarter', Barcelona where the 1992 Olympics provided a catalyst for infrastructure improvements and the redevelopment of the water front area, and Bilbao where the building of a new art museum was the focus for a new business district around the city's derelict dock area. The approach has become very popular in the UK due to the availability of lottery funding for capital projects and the vibrancy of the cultural and creative sectors. However, while the arrival of Tate Modern in the London borough of Southwark may be heralded as a catalyst to economic revival in its surrounding neighborhood, some civic authorities in the UK – for instance Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Gateshead have been accused of investing in cultural facilities at the cost of other programs and projects.

In post-apartheid South Africa major grassroots social movements such as the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign and Abahlali baseMjondolo emerged to contest 'urban renewal' programs that forcibly relocated the poor out of the cities.

Long-term implications

While urban renewal has rarely lived up to the hopes of its original proponents – and has been hotly debated by politicians, urban planners, civic leaders, and residents of areas marked for renewal – it has played an undeniably important role.

Additionally, urban renewal can have many positive effects. Replenished housing stock might be an improvement in quality; it may increase density and reduce sprawl; it might have economic benefits and improve the global economic competitiveness of a city's centre. It may, in some instances, improve cultural and social amenity, and it may also improve opportunities for safety and surveillance. Developments such as London Docklands increased tax revenues for government. In late 1964 the British commentator Neil Wates expressed the opinion that urban renewal in the USA had 'demonstrated the tremendous advantages which flow from an urban renewal programme,' such as remedying the 'personal problems' of the poor, creation or renovation of housing stock, educational and cultural 'opportunities'.[15]

As many examples listed above show, urban renewal has also been responsible for the destruction of existing communities; lead to social exclusion; loss of amenity; pollution; and displacement. Replacement housing – particularly in the form of housing towers – might be difficult to police, leading to an increase in crime, and such structures might in themselves be dehumanising. Urban renewal is usually non-consultative.

Urban renewal continues to evolve as successes and failures are examined and new models of development and redevelopment are tested and implemented.

Notable Urban Renewal Developers

See also

Examples of urban renewal



  1. ^ Lobbia, J.A., "Bowery Bummer: Downtown Plan Will Make and Break History", The Village Voice, March 17, 1999
  2. ^ Mike Davis Planet of Slums pp. 95–120 ISBN 978-1-84467-160-1
  3. ^ "The Story of Urban Renewal," Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, May 21, 2000.
  4. ^ Urban Louisville Courier-Journal, "With Urban Renewal a Community Vanishes" December 31, 1999.
  5. ^ The story of urban renewal: In East Liberty and elsewhere, Pittsburgh's dominant public policy tool didn't work out as planned Sunday, May 21, 2000, By Dan Fitzpatrick, Post-Gazette Staff Writer
  6. ^ Urban Renewal: How Corruption Operates locally
  7. ^ Harsh urban renewal in New Orleans: Poor, black residents cannot afford to return, worry city will exclude them
  8. ^ 348 U.S. 26 (1954)
  9. ^ "Race, Place, and Opportunity," The American Prospect, September 22, 2008.
  10. ^ "Interstate Highways," The Economist, June 22, 2006.
  11. ^ Bullard, Robert. The Black Metropolis in the Twenty-First Century: Race, Power, and Politics of Place. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc, 2007. p. 52
  12. ^ New York Times, March 16, 1963, “Personality Boom is Loud for Louis Lesser”
  13. ^ Los Angeles Times, Oct 15, 1961
  14. ^ "Lewyn, Michael. How City Hall Causes Sprawl," p. 3, ECOLOGY LAW QUARTERLY, VOL. 30, NO. 189, 2003.
  15. ^ Neil Wates, 'Urban renewal: US and UK' New Society 31 December 1964, p. 15

Further reading

External links

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