Friday, December 31, 2010


by Keith Aoki 


Gentrification in United States urban housing markets of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s continues to be a controversial and complex phenomenon. [FN1] During the past twenty years, gentrification's effects on the core cities of the U.S. have been analyzed and evaluated many times over. [FN2] Descriptions of gentrification have spanned the ideological *700 spectrum, from laudatory embraces of gentrification as the solution to urban decline to denunciatory critiques of gentrification as another symptom of the widening gulf between the haves and the havenots in America. [FN3] This Article critiques gentrification, adding an additional explanatory element to the ongoing account of the dynamics of American cities in the 1990s. The additional element is the relevance of a major aesthetic realignment in architecture and urban planning from a modernist to a post-modernist ideology in the 1970s and 1980s. This shift involved an aesthetic and economic revaluation of historical elements in older central city buildings, which accelerated the rate of gentrification, displacement, and abandonment. This Article describes how certain shifts in the aesthetic ideology [FN4] of urban planners and architects affected suburban and urban spatial distribution in the United States during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. These ideological shifts arose from deeply embedded American attitudes toward city and rural life that had emerged in American town planning and architectural theory and practice by the mid-nineteenth century. Part I of this Article examines the emergence of an anti-urban Arcadian strand in nineteenth century American town planning rhetoric. [FN5] This anti-urban Arcadian strand was one of many factors behind the late nineteenth to the early twentieth century expansion of the suburbs beyond the urban core. Part II traces the parallel rise of a utilitarian efficiency-based 701 strand [FN6] in urban planning, examining the impact of new early twentieth century technological and engineering developments, such as automobiles, highways, electricity, and skyscrapers, on U.S. urban and suburban spatial distribution. Ironically, these new developments combined with the anti-urban Arcadian strand of American town planning to begin producing spatial distributions which were strictly segregated along economic, social, cultural, and racial lines. Part III examines the role of the massive and continuous twentieth century northward migration of displaced southern black agricultural workers as yet another factor with major consequences on spatial arrangements in U.S. urban and suburban areas. The pervasive rise of various land use controls, zoning, and urban renewal programs exemplifies the response of both suburban and urban planners to this steady northward migration. Zoning and urban renewal became vehicles for maintaining homogeneity in the face of strong countervailing social pressures for change. Both were premised on deep-rooted, value-laden nineteenth century assumptions, which favored the Arcadian ideal, as embodied by the single family suburban house, over urban pathology. Part IV discusses the paradoxical synthesis of the Arcadian and utilitarian strands in the theory and practice of twentieth century architectural modernism. The widespread effects of the adoption of modernism as the "official style" of the midcentury bureaucratic/corporate state is also discussed in this Section. [FN7] Part IV also discusses the concomitant rise of the post-World War II suburban tracts, insofar as their rise represented a synthesis of the Arcadian and the utilitarian approaches. Additionally, the effects of massive government interventions in post war housing markets are discussed. These interventions were partially based on implicit, but powerful, assumptions by planners and bureaucrats, [FN8] which privileged the semi-pastoral ideology of the middle-class suburban tract house over what had come to be perceived as the dangerous urban pathology of the core cities. These simultaneous and sometimes contradictory trends produced pervasive homogeneity and segregation on virtually all levels of the urban and suburban environment.

Urban sprawl, image by millicent_bystander

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Howard Park and Howard Garden, Letchworth Garden City, Herts: Archaeological Desk Based Assessment

Top 20 Urban Planning Successes of All Time


1 comment:

  1. Being keenly interested in race, space, and place, I read this entire paper. While it is a nice synthesis of design trends and governmental policy regarding housing, I'm left wondering, with the author, about where we go from here.

    Not only in housing but also in a multitude of other public policies, especially those relating to cities, we can't even agree on desirable outcomes and the respective roles of the public or private sector.

    My suggestion is that those of us who are planners continue to discuss how race and class continue to interact with urban form and urban sprawl to push people into extreme positions on the matter of what constitutes the public interest.

    Let's not be a tool of either the right or the left. Let's not be so anxious to adapt to the mood of the moment (e.g., "sustainable communities") that we fail to use our planning educations to anticipate outcomes and to engage the public in a serious debate about which of those are desirable.

    In a democracy those values questions ultimately belong to the people, and our job is to point out unintended consequences as they make judgments. Our job isn't to hop on the bandwagon, as we did in the 1980s when Reagan was president and all we could talk about was economic development (code word for helping the private sector at that time).