Friday, April 3, 2009

Learning from Our Mistakes

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Last Sunday, the New York Times ran an article by its architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff called “Reinventing America’s Cities: The Time Is Now.” The article argues that half a century of policies favoring suburban sprawl have left our cities struggling. It is time for a “bold urban vision” for America's future.

The article’s focus is right. We cannot afford our suburban growth pattern, and our cities represent the most livable, efficient, and sustainable places we have in the U.S. But there is also something disturbing about Ouroussoff’s article and the solutions he promotes. He argues: “The problem in America is not a lack of ideas. It is a tendency to equate any large-scale government construction project, no matter how thoughtful, with the most brutal urban renewal tactics of the 1950s.”

It is true that big planning today must be vastly different from the efforts of 1950s urban renewal that led to whole swaths of our cities being wiped away. However, in Ouroussoff’s article, he seems to promote another failed aspect of the 1950s – a focus on physical solutions to solve a range of social and economic urban problems. This notion that better communities and housing would solve a whole range of social problems proved to be misguided. Have we truly gotten away from that view? In his article, Ouroussoff profiles four cities’ approaches to address urban issues, but in all cases the solutions are physical interventions. Yet, clearly places like the Bronx, New Orleans, Los Angeles, and Buffalo have more than physical problems.

In the 1960s, with President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, federal programs for urban America began taking on social issues in a markedly different way. However, those programs were short-lived and implemented at a time of unprecedented racial tension, when the nation was focused on Vietnam, making it difficult to gauge whether they were truly effective. Since then we’ve shied away from big planning, and taken a hands-off approach, investing in suburban infrastructure and highways, letting our cities decline and fend for themselves. At the same time, we swung from using physical development to solve urban social issues, to totally separating planning and development from the fields that deal with social issues today (e.g., education, public health, safety, economic development).

Our contemporary approach is just as misguided as the one taken in the 1950s. Many urban issues are related in complex ways. The solution is not to invest in physical planning and separately invest in fields like public health, education, crime prevention, and job creation. That is short-sighted. We need approaches that acknowledge the strong link between these issues. For generations now, we have treated urban issues separately, and the folks developing policy to deal with them have been isolated in their silos. It’s time for that to change, and the federal government has the ability to use its funding programs to incentivize or compel local policymakers in different policy areas to start working together.

As Ouroussoff argues, we can plan and build in a way that avoids the physical mistakes of urban renewal. However, we need to avoid the other mistake of the 1950s as well, that physical planning and development cannot be done in isolation of other policy areas. We need to develop federal and local programs that promote interdisciplinary policies to link connected problems with equally connected solutions. This is the course we must take if we truly want to learn from the mistakes of the 1950s and chart a 21st century solution.

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