The nature of urban revitalization and housing has changed a great deal over the course of the past century. Several plans to achieve a balance between the urban middle class and the poor have been instituted, but most of these have failed and the final result has been the creation of a slum rather than a vital center of urban life. While this study will focus on the middle class migration to the suburbs as a symptom of the failure of housing and urban revitalization, the majority of the emphasis will remain upon the poor in housing projects within urban areas. Unfortunately, most of these projects are not the grand structures planners initially hoped to create and instead they have becoming breeding grounds for social ills and poverty. “The term ‘distressed public housing’ refers to public housing developments characterized by disproportionately high rates of compartmentalized unemployment and poverty, violent crime and drug problems, high vacancy rates and other management problems, and physical deterioration” (Van Ryzin 57). This distressed public housing has been at the center of many debates during urban planning and revitalization debates and although there have been a number of suggestions, there are still no concrete answers about how to successfully have a program of urban renewal when public housing is present. In this effort to explore the course of housing and urban revitalization, it will be necessary to take a look back at the previous century in order to gain better insight about where to go in the future. Furthermore, it should be stated that there are a number of suggestions worth looking at more closely and all of them seem to center on making equality in housing a concern that is equivalent with equal resources so those living in such areas can begin to move toward a greater sense of self-sufficiency. No matter what location new housing and urban development projects decide upon, this seems secondary to the importance of offering those in such areas the chance to move out of the distressed areas and offer themselves and their children the opportunities enjoyed by those of the middle class who long ago migrated away from what they saw as the growing urban “blight” of poverty and public housing.
In order to gain a more complete understanding of the nature of housing and urban revitalization, it is necessary to look back at previous attempts made, particularly after the Housing Act of 1949 became law. By first briefly tracing the developments of the past century it will be possible to determine a more viable route for the next one hundred years of urban development. It is clear that there were mistakes made in the past as the middle class migrated to the suburbs, leaving the poor in ill-designed public housing projects that became quickly associated with crime. One scholar succinctly reviews the post-Housing Act of 1949 efforts as well meaning but ultimately not the correct solution. “In the 1930s, idealistic reformers attempted to create a vast public housing program using modern architectural design. Instead they created a distinctive look that would later stigmatize its occupants. After the passage of the Housing Act of 1949, visionaries attempted to rebuilt American cities by placing the urban poor in America in high-rise buildings, an experiment that was soon deemed a disaster” (Hoffman 423). All of this occurred in the inner city while the middle class flocked to the suburbs. With this new paradigm in housing and urban revitalization, a schism was created and the poor were far more alienated than before. It seemed clear to the designers and architects of this grand plan of urban revitalization that if they created modern high-rise buildings, this would centralize the poor within the community, even though the end result isolated them even more. The buildings themselves were cramped, the hallways loud, and the open courtyards, once thought by architects to provide a pleasant communal area, became the centers of crime and other illegal activity. Although they were situated in an urban area, not necessarily too far from the urban wealthy, these projects became cloisters for crime and other negative elements.
In response to this failure, there was a new thought that perhaps if housing officials were able to move these projects outside of these urban areas then these problems might be countered. This was not the case, as “officials attempting to integrate existing public housing or locate new projects on outlying neighborhoods encountered stiff, sometimes violent, resistance. In response, housing authorities chose to situate most family projects in the slums. Public housing became associated with the inner city, poverty, and dependency as well as crime” (Hoffman 427). Even though these projects were already quickly becoming centers of crime and poverty, the refusal of the outlying areas to accept these people further solidified the situation. Instead of cities becoming more homogenous, there is a striking pattern of migration to the suburbs, thus the money, opportunities, and other resources disappear with them leaving those in urban housing with very little. In order to chart this suburban migration, the following figures are helpful in understanding the massive movement away from urban areas. One must assume that at least some of this migration was the result of deteriorating cities and the continued presence of the poor in otherwise “elite” downtown or urban areas.
The changes in land use caused by scattered development are readily apparent in the U.S. Census figures. In 1920, the average density of all urbanized areas, including cities, suburbs, and towns (but not farms) was 6,160 people per square mile. By 1990, that figure was down to 2,589 persons per square mile. The average density of developments built since 1960 is just 1,469 persons per square mile, compared to the urban-core densities in the range of 4,000 to 5,000 persons per square mile. These dramatic decreases in population density define the shift of people from cities to suburbs (Hirshhorn 3).With such a great migration away from the urban areas, it was clear that something has to be done in order to avoid having slums in certain areas and to keep some of those with middle incomes within the urban area. In any program of urban revitalization, especially when dealing with the class divide, there must be a way to get around the uneven development. When one scholar remarked, “today, some believe that placing the poor in environments inhabited by wealthier groups will help to address the problems of poverty”(Hoffman 423) it was clear that he was addressing the problem of this uneven development and knew that in order to maintain equal services in both inner city and middle class (suburban) communities, there would be have to be a combination of the classes in any given area. This would mean, for example, that children of the compartmentalized urban poor in the housing developments would attend the same school as their middle class counterparts. This would take, of course, a massive overhaul in the way school districts, not to mention local governments, would operate, but the root of the problem is this inequity in resources because of location. While there may be the same outcry as occurred in the late 1960s when urban planners tried to move the projects outside of the city and into the “territory” of the middle class, perhaps there a better ways to manage such a shift again through the use of public relations campaigns, for example.
One major oversight in much of the literature devoted to exploring the complexities of urban revitalization and housing is this lack of similar resources. “While researchers have investigated the failure of urban renewal and redevelopment programs to revitalize cities and urban neighborhoods, they have yet to examine the poor in the central city while allowing the middle class to escape to the suburbs” (Gotham 288). There is an enormous amount of scholarly work dedicated to exploring even seemingly minor issues related to housing and urban revitalization as it relates especially to public housing. Scores of articles discuss the very architecture of the places and how it might have failed its purpose but strikingly few articles are committed to exploring the roots of the problem. Since the middle class has abandoned the inner city, the poor, even though they might be located in an urban area that is neighboring middle-income communities, still do not have adequate resources to keep out of these projects. They are often crowded in with other equally destitute families and it seems, at least from a cursory glance, that this merely continues the cycle. In order to have a successful urban revitalization program in terms of housing for the poor, there must be deeper infrastructure put into place. Without the infrastructure, it would seem that planners might just be continuing to promote public housing as an easy option rather than offering an alternative by building these structures closer to public resources including jobs and better schools. One cannot help but get the feeling there is institutionalized discrimination against the poor since planners, especially in the past, sought options that would be very inexpensive in terms of location (which would mean that these building sites would already be in some state of disrepair or otherwise undesirable). Instead of focusing on assisting the poor, aside from providing housing that sought the upper-class approval before that of the residents, these past projects failed miserably and became the hovels we now associate the word “projects” with.
One of the first elements in housing within the sphere of urban revitalization and development is certainly making sure there is adequate infrastructure. If urban planners would simply make certain that the areas in which new developments are going to be built are within a reasonable distance from community resources, then perhaps many of the problems plaguing earlier efforts will be solved. “At the beginning of the twenty-first century there is an increasing interest among planners, policy makers, and government officials for developing new methods to revitalize cities and search for new frameworks to guide economic growth and remedy the problems of uneven development” (Gotham 308). These kinds of new economic frameworks must include; nearby schools that are of a decent quality and mixed in terms of socio-economic factors, access to community resources such as hospitals, day care services, and potential outlets to help increase employment. Without such services within a close (at best, even walking distance) from these urban communities, they are doomed to fail and the cycle of persons living off the state and within state housing will continue rather than cease. One of the most noticeable elements of many urban renewal plans when it comes to housing is that, first of all, the buildings themselves are not conducive to learning or betterment. Aside from the issues of crime within these urban areas, they are often noisy and cluttered, thus making it even more difficult to escape. Consider, for example, the ability for a child to succeed in school when he or she is surrounded by a great deal of noise in the cramped projects. Obviously, her ability would be greatly reduced. While this is simply one minor example of the kinds of problems, it is these smaller issues that urban planners must think about when they decide to create urban public housing.
In this debate, there are a host of problems to consider, none independent of the other. While there are always more and more people migrating to the suburbs to avoid the urban blight, this leaves those urban communities such as those discussed here even more isolated. This isolation is not simply a matter of social isolation, but economic as well. It would seem like the wisest decision to plan urban revitalization projects carefully when it comes to housing. While it is true that some of the older structures must be torn down to make way for new and better public housing, before it comes time to build again there must be consideration given not only to the more official concerns such as land prices, but other more abstract ideas. For example, instead of isolating the poor in low-income housing projects in an area of the city that segregates them from the rest of the middle-income population, there must be a hard effort to push to integrate them into middle class communities. While the land prices may be higher and there will likely a great deal of local resistance, this seems to be the only way to stop the cycle of poverty. In sum, there have already been mistakes made in terms of building structures for the poor. In order to remedy the mistakes of past generations, there needs to be sound effort at aiming decisions at how these projects will impact the people living in them rather than those surrounding them. It should be the implicit long-term goal to eventually no longer need low-income housing developments and this would be the most appropriate effort towards that goal.
Other essays and articles in the Main Archives related to this topic include : Race, Class, and Structural Inequality in Post-Katrina New Orleans • Problems and Weaknesses in the American Educational System • Compare / Contrast On Rural Versus Urban Living • Analysis and Summary of “The Classic Slum” by Robert Roberts • Eminent Domain: Institutionalized Robbery
Sources / References
Gotham. “A City without Slums.” American Journal of Economics and Sociology 60.1 (2001): 285
Hirschhorn. “Environment, Quality of Life, and Urban Growth in the New Economy.” Environmental Quality Management 10.3 (2001): 1
Hoffman, Alexander. “High Ambitions: The Past and Future of American Low-Income Housing Policy.” Housing Policy Debate. 7.3. (1996): 42.
Van Ryzin. “Factors Related to Self-Sufficiency in a Distressed Public Housing Community.” Journal of Urban Affairs 23.1 (2001): 57.