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Opinion: How Urban Renewal Ruined Everything
Opinion
By Opinion
Published 1 month ago on
May 17, 2024

America's infrastructure woes stem from policies like poorly executed urban renewal, excessive public process, and overly restrictive environmental laws. This trifecta of failure has blocked progress and made housing shortages worse, opines Darrell Owens. (Shutterstock)

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“America can’t build anything,” my co-worker, a talented data scientist from China, remarked as we rode a BART train through a suburb of Oakland. She was humored by the contrast of ultra-modern subways and dense apartments in Chengdu with the 1960s stucco houses and the Apollo 11-era BART metro system of the Bay Area.

The mayor of San Francisco had a similar thought on her recent trip to China, marveling at the infrastructure built within a few years. We hear it a million times in American media: our infrastructure sucks. It takes too long to build a single home in most cities and $1.7 million to build a bathroom in San Francisco. Four stations on a mere six-mile VTA-led BART extension through mostly suburban San Jose will cost as much as $12 billion, more than double the annual war budget of Iran.

Darrell Owens

The Discourse Lounge

Opinion

The culprit is many factors, but much of them originate with urban renewal — the aggressive bulldozing and re-development programs that peaked in the 1950s and 1960s. Ramped up by the Eisenhower Administration, aggressive public policy used infrastructure like freeways and property development to bulldoze low-income areas. The impacts persist to this day: the destruction of Black middle-class urban neighborhoods, vacant lots in once-thriving districts, the erasure of historic districts, the masses of jumbled freeways, and the mass migration of people out of cities.

Most stated urban renewal goals were total failures. Intending to revitalize business in the city core, most redevelopment projects were failures at attracting and sustaining private investment in cities, with a few exceptions. Intending to remove their Black population, urban renewal depressed property values and kept these neighborhoods majority Black, though depopulated and poorer.

Urban renewal did convince most Americans that the government was incapable of delivering public projects. It had successfully frightened minorities that the government would usurp their lands and target them. It had convinced the white middle class that government programs were mostly tax-wasting, destructive projects and fueled the tax revolt of the 1970s.

Urban Renewal Backlash

The backlash to how urban renewal was conducted primarily blamed its top-down approach to urban planning. Federal and state bureaucrats from neighborhoods far away from areas they lived made radical decisions about people’s neighborhoods without their input. Post-urban renewal, major planning and consulting decisions were given to private, tax-exempt companies a.k.a. not-for-profits. By the 1980s and 1990s, a cottage industry of inner-city nonprofits acting as community middlemen emerged to do that job. Private companies had already been contracted as consultants and contractors for public development during urban renewal. Now, major planning aspects of public development are directly influenced by private organizations, which aren’t inherently democratic. Rather than building up cost-effective public capacity, public funds go to private companies to manage decisions and outreach.

Accompanying this change was the ballooning of public process and veto points, often in the name of “bottom-up” planning. In my opinion, the accurate takeaway from urban renewal was not that the government lacked checks and balances in public development, as is often told. Many affluent and middle-class neighborhoods were spared from bulldozers with very little resistance. Ugly freeways sprawled throughout Oakland yet ceased at the Berkeley border because Berkeley’s local government listened to its wealthier homeowners and vetoed the city’s freeway project. Oakland City Council did not care about its mostly poorer populace and invited freeways in with comparatively less fuss.

Federal and state bureaucrats from neighborhoods far away from areas they lived made radical decisions about people’s neighborhoods without their input.

Urban renewal wasn’t as top-down as people say. The routing of freeways and public project placements were often determined by municipalities and states, not federal officials, and they chose targets like minority neighborhoods. Rather than recognizing that representation in government gave way to the destruction of neighborhoods, a myth has emerged that there weren’t enough meetings. These urban renewal projects were deliberated on for years or enshrined in local master plans decades prior— always without the explicit participation or solicitation of poor communities.

Today, publicly funded projects have an excessive number of meetings where very little if anything is accomplished in defense of the project, yet every meeting presents an opportunity to veto the project. Nor have equitable outcomes been achieved. Though not called “urban renewal” anymore, freeway construction and widening projects continue to ravage disproportionately ethnic minority and lower-income neighborhoods in 2024.

More Meetings Doesn’t Increase Equitable Outcomes

The public outreach process tends to heavily benefit older, retired, wealthier and home-owning residents that can go to city hall regularly. Holding more meetings doesn’t increase equitable outcomes, rather it gives that constituency more chances to veto a project. Working people and parents with under-aged kids often can’t spend time at city hall, waiting for hours before commenting on projects that may benefit or harm them. Excessive hearings significantly increase the cost of all projects because salaries must be paid to officials and consultants for every minor adjustment, both in the government and private sector.

Another reform was environmental law. Environmental law, especially in the mid-20th century, did a lot of things right, such as conservation, habitat protection and pollution control. But the biggest mistake that early environmental advocacy made in the 1970s was suggesting that simply being opposed to development, no matter where and what, was environmentally friendly. Modern climate science understands now that infill and green energy projects actually reduce emissions, but our laws treat carbon-reduction projects as equivalent to any net-carbon increase project. Bus lanes that would take cars off the road go through extremely costly and years-long environmental review. Same for infill housing or green energy projects, which can cost hundreds of thousands in review and permitting alone.

But the biggest mistake that early environmental advocacy made in the 1970s was suggesting that simply being opposed to development, no matter where and what, was environmentally friendly.

A big problem with environmental law is that it favors status-quoism — carbon-intensive freeways or oil fields built before their passage — over projects that demonstrably reduce emissions. The most glaring example would be California High-Speed Rail, which would provide tremendous carbon-reduction benefits on a crowded highway and air corridor. Yet because of the California Environmental Quality Act and the federal National Environmental Policy Act, high-speed rail has been delayed by decades of litigation, obstruction and study. Yet the existing West Coast crowded airline corridor, suburban sprawl, and highways built before these laws came into effect cannot be litigated and clawed back for their harm. Harm which has wildly exceeded what their initial projections were when they were built in emissions, pollution and congestion.

Our entire approach to land-use is both insanely slow and produces carbon-intensive outcomes through status quoism, all thanks to urban renewal’s trauma. In Vienna, Austria their public housing developments are influenced and customized by local community boards, but they can not prohibit housing. Unlike the U.S. where zoning dictates what you can do with your property, zoning in Japan dictates what you can’t do with property. Infrastructure can be delivered quicker there, as land use focuses on regulating against harm rather than micro-managing all possible uses. The latter leads to cities like Half Moon Bay, California, dictating and downsize housing for low income farm workers who recently suffered a mass shooting, because the concerns of neighbors supersede the welfare of the public at large.

As frustrating as it is to wait 30 years for California High-Speed rail to finish, it’s the punishment we pay for never truly atoning for the harm urban renewal did, and precisely how it did it. We live in a fantasy world where all government projects and development done efficiently come at the material cost of communities, rather than the truth which is that urban renewal was meant to destroy, not improve neighborhoods. It’s hard to envision a future where we’ll have good infrastructure in the United States.

The United States has grown by 52 million people since 2000 alone, yet our cities have barely changed since the onslaught of urban renewal. Within 14 years we went from a housing bubble to a housing shortage where rent and home costs are the primary cause of national inflation. U.S. cities barely plan for the future anymore and don’t have any extravagant ideas about how they’ll need to grow.

About the Author

Darrell Owens is a housing activist, transit know-it-all, and data analyst. He writes about urban planning, displacement, mobility and society for 13,000 subscribers at The Discourse Lounge on Substack.com. GV Wire is publishing this piece with the permission of the author.

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