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Urban Renewal

Urban Renewal

The economics of city rebuilding do not rest soundly on reasoned investment of public tax subsidies, as urban renewal theory proclaims, but also on vast, involuntary subsidies wrung out of helpless site victims (Jane Jacobs)1

Jane Jacobs was a witness to urban renewal projects in New York in the 1940s and 50s. Most of the projects were planned and executed by Robert Moses, one of the most powerful and controversial urban planners in US history. In her book, she details the experiences of people losing their homes in some of the most culturally-mixed and diverse areas of the city without adequate consulting, replacement, or reasoning.

She argued urban renewal stood against the natural growth of cities, believing that cities needed "gradual, complex and gentler change."1 Citizens largely didn't have a say in urban renewal projects and many local protests broke out against them. So what is urban renewal and why do governments invest in them? We'll explore that in the next sections.

Urban Renewal Definition in Geography

Urban renewal in geography is the process of redeveloping areas with low property values in order to create new infrastructure and increase tax revenue. Urban renewal takes place in areas urban planners and local governments considered "slums" which may have lower-quality infrastructure or are experiencing urban decay. Development can take the form of new businesses, residences, or amenities.

Urban renewal programs are highly controversial. Targeted areas for urban renewal programs have displaced low-income and minority populations. New construction that should have provided affordable homes were instead luxury commercial buildings and highways. Additionally, these areas may have been redlined in previous years, preventing people from investing and building within their own neighborhoods.

The method, processes, and targeted areas vary from country to country. Some governments and developers target areas that are uninhabited and simply add new buildings and infrastructure on site. In most cases in the US, urban renewal programs may have improved areas within cities but did not improve the city as a whole (which was the intended goal).

Urban decay: the falling of a part of a city into disrepair. This is caused by factors such as depopulation, poverty, and government neglect.

Redlining: a practice loan and insurance companies used to refuse financial services and products to areas considered "poor financial risks." Low-income and minority areas were largely targeted for redlining.

Nowadays, urban renewal projects are done in previously abandoned or underdeveloped areas in cities. Urban renewal projects were brought on by several causes, including the neglect and underfunding of cities in the 20th century.

Causes of Urban Renewal

The causes of urban renewal projects are declining tax revenue, visually unappealing conditions, or poor urban living conditions. The main goals of urban renewal are economic, social, and environmental revival.

Causes in the US

The decline of inner cities began in the 1950s and 1960s in conjunction with suburban sprawl and the expansion of automobiles. This was made possible by the GI Bill in 1944 which provided WWII veterans home loans, healthcare, and other benefits. The Housing Act of 1949 spurred single-family housing development outside cities largely only accessible to white families.

Urban Renewal Redlining Map of Chicago Urban Renewal Causes StudySmarter

Fig. 1 - Redlining map of Chicago (1939). Areas in red were limited in access to insurance and bank loans. Most residents of these areas were low-income and minority groups

Alongside new housing development outside cities, redlining practices carried out by banks, insurance companies, and even local governments prevented certain neighborhoods from accessing loans and insurance.2 This limited community development to only certain parts of the city deemed "less risky," favoring all-white communities over low-income and minority communities.

Urban decline in these areas was apparent. With less investment, less tax revenue, and declining populations in these areas, the federal government stepped in to solve these issues.

Title I of the Housing Act 1949, titled "Slum Clearance and Community Development and Redevelopment" provided federal financing for urban renewal projects in cities. The expectation was that the federal government would assist in building housing for low- and middle-income residents. However, most of the projects that took place built up universities, schools, hospitals, shopping areas, luxury housing, and highways.

Causes Outside the US

There are similar causes for urban renewal in other parts of the world. Population decline inside cities coincided with population increases in surrounding suburban areas.3 With increasing incomes, residents left inner cities, taking tax revenue and businesses with them.

For some countries, reconstruction was a necessity after World War II. Germany went through a major period of reconstruction after the war. In an effort to accelerate West Germany's economy, the government created "guest worker" programs in the 1950s and 60s to attract migrants (primarily from Turkey and Italy) to work in new industrial plants and factories that were opening across the country. The influx of migrants led to a rapid reconstruction of inner cities and suburbanization, demanding more housing in and around cities.4

In the case of some cities, lower-income housing developments are not targeted, but instead, previously unused or abandoned land is built on. There are many areas like this in cities due to deindustrialization, which witnessed a loss of manufacturing jobs and facilities within cities. The dereliction of these sites left scars of this process throughout cities.

Deindustrialization: the process of reduction in industrial companies and production in regions or countries. Most Western countries have deindustrialized.

Effects of Urban Renewal

Although new government buildings and cultural facilities were built, much of the cost of urban renewal was social and environmental.

Negative Effects

The effects of urban renewal plans in the US included the destruction of low-income and minority neighborhoods, displacement of vulnerable residents, reduction of low-cost housing in inner-city areas, and increased economic inequality. Over a million US residents were displaced between 1949 and 1973.

Although the expectation was for new, affordable housing, most of the projects focused on commercial development.5 In many cases, demolished areas in the form of vacant lots were left undeveloped for years due to poor planning practices, conflicting interests, and local corruption.3The social, environmental, and economic damage of this kind of displacement has been widely discussed for cases in the US and UK for decades.

The Digital Scholarship Lab at the University of Richmond created a website with data and maps on the impact of urban renewal projects. The website, Renewing Inequality, showcases where families were displaced between 1955 and 1966. Over 300,000 people lost their homes during this period, primarily in New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia.

Positive Effects

Despite the negatives, some urban renewal projects did succeed. The projects that instead used abandoned and unused areas within cities to build, fared better than projects that didn't displace local residents.

Some renewal projects re-used abandoned grounds for new apartments, government buildings, and parks, or even to repair already existing structures. It should be noted that even projects that benefited minorities were heavily criticized. Construction projects did not promote racial, ethnic, or income mixing in neighborhoods and instead perpetuated existing patterns of "residential apartheid" or segregation.5

Robert Moses, an urban planner and New York official between the 1930s and 1960s, had considerable power. In exchange for political influence, he gave out building permits to wealthy elites around the city. Moses was a popular but highly controversial figure for his urban renewal projects.

Moses learned how to secure urban renewal funds by designating areas across New York as "slums" for clearing. One of these "slums," Lincoln Square and San Juan Hill community, housed an array of diverse low-income groups, including African-Americans, newly-arrived Europeans, and Puerto Ricans. Wielding eminent domain, Moses used the support of local organizations to destroy and clear out these communities. As a result, 7,000 families and 800 businesses were displaced. Now, the area is home to the Lincoln Center, where performing arts and cultural events take place.

Urban Renewal Lincoln Center in New York Urban Renewal Effects StudySmarterFig. 2 - Lincoln Center in New York has a tragic history

Types of Urban Renewal

Different types of urban renewal projects have taken place depending on the site, method, and implementation.

Vacant Lot

Where vacant lots are available, infill development is possible. Infill means to repurpose the land as an alternative to empty space and urban blight. Additionally, infill developments are part of urban sustainability in that they promote greater densification and diversity in land use. Examples of vacant lots include undeveloped land and parking lots, which don't require demolition and are easy to build on.

Urban Renewal Infill Development Types of Urban Renewal StudySmarterFig. 3 - Infill development in London, UK. Construction occurs between existing buildings

Unoccupied Buildings

Unoccupied buildings such as abandoned factories, ports, stores, or other utility parks are also targets for redevelopment. Some are brownfields, developed areas that have been abandoned and are contaminated from industry pollution or neglect, requiring clean-up and remediation. Before any buildings are torn down, the structural soundness and historical importance are considered.

Occupied Buildings

Occupied buildings have also been the target for urban renewal projects. While some buildings appear uninhabitable, they may still be occupied because their residents can't afford to live elsewhere. Still-sound buildings located in areas considered dangerous or impoverished were targets for urban renewal. This is because it was believed that replacing existing infrastructure would end crime and poverty.

While US city governments demolished many neighborhoods for urban renewal, they now focus on redeveloping unused land instead. There are still cases of targeting occupied buildings and sites in other parts of the world.8

Urban Renewal Examples

There are many notable urban renewal examples around the world. We'll explore projects involving infill development and unoccupied buildings.

Charles Center in Baltimore

The Charles Center in Baltimore is one of the rare success stories where the incorporation of existing buildings was prioritized and minimal demolition took place. The goal was to keep the original character of the buildings and minimize negative impacts. Charles Center created a new, revitalized city center while adding 5,000 jobs and quadrupling real estate revenue.5

Baltimore also had high degrees of institutional segregation. Loans and financing were provided primarily for affluent and white residents, despite the majority of Black residents in the city. To this day, neighborhoods with fewer Black residents have higher property values and income levels.9

Puerto Madero, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Puerto Madero was built in 1889. After construction, the port was deemed useless due to poor engineering, and this sent the port and surrounding area into decline. While different projects were implemented to create interest in the area again, it wasn't until the 1990s that major regeneration projects were planned.8

Because the area was so highly visible (in the heart of the business district), the city wanted to create a new district people could visit, work, shop, and live. Private investment and construction took over most of the work with the implementation of tasteful mixed land use along the waterfront.

Urban Renewal Puerto Madero Buenos Aires Urban Renewal Examples StudySmarterFig. 4 - Puerto Madero, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Urban Renewal - Key takeaways

  • Urban renewal is the process of redeveloping an area within a city, with the goal of creating new infrastructure and increasing tax revenue.
  • Urban renewal programs are highly controversial for their historical displacement of low-income and minority groups in cases around the world for most of the 20th century.
  • The causes of urban renewal are decline in inner cities from migration into suburbs and decreasing tax revenue and businesses.
  • Urban renewal programs that didn't displace residents or cause social and economic harm to people were less controversial and were seen to have positive effects.
  • Different types of urban renewal projects include construction on areas that are vacant, have unoccupied or occupied buildings, and either demolish or reuse structures.

References

  1. Jacobs, J. The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Random House. 1961.
  2. Squires, G. D., Dewolfe, R., and Dewolfe A. D. Urban Decline or Disinvestment: Uneven Development, Redlining and the Role of the Insurance Industry. Social Problems. 1979. 27(1). DOI: 10.2307/800018.
  3. Carmon, N. Three generations of urban renewal policies: analysis and policy implications. Geoforum. 1999. 30. 145-158. DOI: 10.1016/S0016-7185(99)00012-3.
  4. Bundesamt für Bauwesen und Raumordnung (BBR). Urban Development and Urban Policy in Germany: An Overview. 2000.
  5. Teaford, J. C. Urban Renewal and Its Aftermath. Housing Policy Debate. 2000. 11(2). DOI: 10.1080/10511482.2000.9521373.
  6. Fig. 2, Lincoln Center in New York (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lincoln_Center_Angle_(48047495037).jpg), by Ajay Suresh (https://www.flickr.com/people/83136374@N05), licensed by CC-BY-2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/deed.en)
  7. Fig. 3, Infill development (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Infill_development_-_geograph.org.uk_-_3893300.jpg), by Stephen Craven (https://www.geograph.org.uk/profile/6597), licensed by CC-BY-SA-2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/deed.en)
  8. The World Bank. Urban Regeneration. https://urban-regeneration.worldbank.org/
  9. Urban Institute. "The Black Butterfly": Racial Segregation and Investment Patterns in Baltimore. Urban.org. Feb. 5, 2019.
  10. Fig. 4, Puerto Madero (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Puerto_Madero,_Buenos_Aires,_Argentina3.jpg), by Diego Delso (https://www.wikidata.org/wiki/Q28147777), licensed by CC-BY-SA-3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en)

Frequently Asked Questions about Urban Renewal

Urban renewal is the process of redeveloping an area within a city, with the goal of creating new infrastructure and increasing tax revenue. 

Depending on how urban renewal projects are carried out, urban renewal can bring new businesses and residents into a city. 

The difference between urban renewal and gentrification is that urban renewal are major projects carried out by governments and developers whereas gentrification is a series of slow steps that change a neighborhood. In both cases, people have been displaced. 

Urban renewal is not necessarily linked to improved quality of life. It can provide the opportunity to use areas in the city in a new way.

The elements of urban renewal include government-backed projects, targetted areas by local planners, and private development.

Final Urban Renewal Quiz

Question

What is urban renewal?

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Answer

The process of redeveloping an area within a city, with the goal of creating new infrastructure and increasing tax revenue.

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Question

What is urban decay?

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Answer

When a part of a city falls into disrepair.

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Question

What are the main goals of urban renewal?

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Answer

Economic, social, and environmental revival.

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Question

Decreased tax revenue, investment, and population in inner cities are...

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Answer

Causes of urban renewal.

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Question

Cities around the world have similar causes for urban renewal projects.

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Answer

True.

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Question

What is a negative effect of urban renewal?

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Answer

Possible displacement of low-income and minority groups.

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Question

What is a positive effect of urban renewal?

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Answer

New businesses and buildings.

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Question

What are types of urban renewal?

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Answer

Construction on vacant lots, reusing/demolishing unoccupied, or occupied buildings.

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Question

What is an example of an urban renewal project in the US?

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Answer

Charles Center, Baltimore.

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Question

What is an example of an urban renewal project outside of the US?

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Answer

Puerto Madero, Buenos Aires, Argentina.

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