Above: The New Deal experimental town of Greendale, Wisconsin
Steven Conn’s smart, witty, and even funny book is an excellent overview of how a deep mistrust of cities and strong anti-urbanism among urban planners themselves shaped American urban policy through the twentieth century. This is an important addition to the literature on urban history. It’s also worth a read from a general audience interested in urban issues in the present.
Conn argues the purpose of book is to describe the relationship between the physical and political landscape as they develop in the 20th century. The former is the suburbanized landscape of much of metropolitan America; the latter is the deep suspicion of government and the role it should play in our lives that shapes our political discourse. The two are connected by the anti-urbanism at the core of American life and infrastructure. City planning has largely assumed that density is a dangerous problem that needs a solution of low-density sprawling housing that recreates country living or small towns where they believe democracy originates. With density classified as a problem, both urban theorists and government policy promoted fixing said problem, with long-term results that shape our urban problems today.
Nineteenth-century America was full of anti-urban fears, going back to Jefferson and before. But the explosive growth of the city after the Civil War forced a rethinking of American urbanism. During the Progressive Era, early planners and intellectuals had an urban moment. Conn looks at Chicago, that prototype of American urbanism, where Jane Addams and her colleagues were studying urban conditions to improve the lives of residents, looking at the city from the sidewalks. On the other hand, Daniel Burnham was designing a futuristic city in his Plan for Chicago from 30,000 feet that was largely devoid of real people. But Conn argues both Addams and Burnham saw the city as a site where moral exhortation could no longer handle the urban crisis. Rather, public policy and an activist government would be necessary. Reorganizing space rather than moral reform was necessary. The city became a public rather than a private issue.
But almost immediately, the plans to solve urban problems revolved around reducing their density by decentralizing the city. Lewis Mumford is the most famous decentralist, a child of the city who first tried to establish low-density model housing in Queens through his Sunnyside Gardens project (surprisingly not mentioned by Conn) and who ended up moving to the Hudson Valley. Conn discusses other key figures in this movement such as Ralph Borsodi and his experiments moving people out of Dayton, where he hoped a small village with no government interference would provide a model for the future. Frank Lloyd Wright loathed cities. Like Borsodi, Mumford, Catherine Bauer, and others, he hoped to restore democratic community to a nation dominated by dangerous cities. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was influenced by such thinkers. An anti-urbanist himself, the Tennessee Valley Authority may have provided the power for the growth of southern urbanism, but his New Deal planners hoped to create their own small villages through the greenbelt town project and the TVA model towns like Norris, Tennessee. Conn quotes liberally from commenters of the time about what these towns provided. What provided the good life to Americans was air and grass and sunlight in the open country, the opposite of the dirty, grungy, dense, polyglot city. Longing for a reversal of industrial capitalism into a romanticized vision of agrarian life was more palatable to these planners than reconfiguring the cities to make them work better for the residents. Of course, none of these experiments actually created some new sort of democratic anti-urban paradise. Mostly, they all ended up failing entirely or just became suburbs not too different than other suburbs.
At the heart of most of these plans was a romanticized idea of the values of the small town and countryside that often belied their reality. At the same time that rural New England was deeply impoverished in the first half of the twentieth century, urban theorists dreamed of the area’s villages and their supposedly democratic politics as an antidote to the big, filthy, impoverished, crime-ridden city. This would influence post-war urban planing as well.
We often think of postwar suburbanization as a story fundamentally about white flight and race. It is, but that racism just amplified and built upon the already existing anti-urban bias to create the postwar suburban landscape. Of course, the creation of the suburbs did not just take tax dollars and jobs away from the inner cities, leaving African-Americans in deep poverty, but the interstates that shuttled white people to and from the cities ran straight through black neighborhoods, usually more for reasons of the path of least resistance that overt targeting of black people. But as they tore up black housing, these planners added to the urban housing problems that fed the need for urban renewal instead of seeking to help the problem. Conn calls urban renewal “a conceptual failure, a failure of ideas and imagination,” which started with demolition of housing and at its core was run by people who found density a problem. Of course, dilapidated housing was also a major problem in American cities and that needed attention. But while urban renewal created public housing projects, when those became all-black because of white flight, they were nearly doomed to failure because of the lack of a funding mechanism for upkeep. As urban renewal developed in the 1950s, the cities became spaces where the public good was set at odds with private interests and the latter won. By the 1970s, these plans had sent the cities into the greatest crisis they had ever faced. Seventy-five years of urban planning had not fixed the cities. It had destroyed them. Ultimately that’s because those planning them never liked cities.
Of course, not every city declined in those years. The Sunbelt exploded. So did a few northern cities that already lacked a strong urban core based around heavy industry, like Indianapolis and Columbus. Those cities became geographically huge with very low density. Houston’s zoning-free urbanism and hatred of government interference led to a huge traffic nightmare, deep racial segregation, major pollution problems, and a emphasis on private property rights over any competing ideology. For Columbus, where Conn lives and teaches, this model seemed appealing. Columbus began annexing huge tracts of land in the 1950s, creating one of the most auto-reliant cities in the nation. In addition, Columbus is a city without any identity, or as Conn says, “After the Second World War, Columbus transformed itself from a small, compact nineteenth-century midwestern city into a sprawling Sunbelt-style metropolis, but along the way it lost track of its soul.” (226) By the 1970s, real concern over urban sprawl began to influence urban planners to some extent, but for those who took it seriously, ideas like New Urbanism that came into vogue in the 1990s did not solve the problem of anti-density.
Today, the United States is witnessing arguably the first overtly pro-urban period in its history. It is happening upon an urban landscape that has suffered from a century of anti-urban policies. That has led to housing shortages, gentrification, and escalating rental prices. The few downtown neighborhoods that escaped urban renewal have become incredibly costly. Public transportation lags. The anti-urban impulse is baked into the Republican Party’s DNA, with opposition to public transportation and other programs that would encourage density. Building an urbanism that is inclusive, affordable, and sustainable needs to be a national priority. It is not, even as the demand for this style of living has exploded. Conn believes that the community so many urban planners have sought in the small town and the suburb actually is found in the city. That’s true, but only if we can reshape urban policy to facilitate the infrastructure necessary for dense urbanism to thrive. That’s our challenge. Understanding the roots of the present problem is key to reshaping our cities. Conn’s interesting work can help us on that journey.