Urban Policy: Lessons From History

Tracing the development of urban policy in the United States is an often-vexing affair in historical wayfinding. Urban policy in the United States has been, like our metropolitan areas themselves, something of a sprawling mess.
Leif Fredrickson
By Photo: Kjetil Ree Architect: Marcel Breuer (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Department of Housing and Urban Development

Tracing the development of urban policy in the United States is an often-vexing affair in historical wayfinding. Urban policy in the United States has been, like our metropolitan areas themselves, something of a sprawling mess. Many areas—public health, housing, job creation, transportation, poverty, environment, and education—have been annexed into urban policy territory. Not surprisingly, the strongest critics of U.S. urban policy rightfully argue, “there is no there, there.” Our metaphorical metropolis of urban policy has often been a mélange of uncoordinated policies without a vibrant center.

In part, this is due to our federalist system. It also has something to do with the fact that cities can be targeted and affected by both place-based policies and as well as by policies not explicitly about cities, but ones which affect them in distinctive and disproportionate ways.

U.S. urban policy is heavily influenced by professional public policy experts and by an approach that emphasizes the market in various ways. In the language of many critics, this makes for an urban policy that is “technocratic” and “neoliberal.” Has urban policy always been this way? Yes and no. Technocratic and market-oriented approaches to urban governance extend back to the nineteenth century, but the specific goals, methods, and policies employed have changed considerably.

The Genesis of Urban Policy

The political scientist Paul Kantor has suggested that U.S. urban policy has two faces: A social face, concerned with providing social support, and a developmental face, focusing on the economic growth of cities. The social face of urban policy emerged and evolved over the twentieth century in response to crises and changes in political dominance, but the developmental face of urban policy has remained more or less constant.

Since the nineteenth century, American cities have competed vehemently in the areas of investment and industry, thus giving rise to a distinctly market-oriented urban policy. By the early 1900s, business interests contributed to an increasingly technocratic approach to city governance. Seeing city government as wasteful, corrupt, and beholden to immigrant and working-class interests, businessmen pushed municipalities, in the name of “efficiency,” to be organized like corporations and run by professional experts. This technocratic city reform resulted in policies and programs that often overlapped with the social and developmental goals of urban policy. For example, the expansion of sanitation policies aimed to improve the health of all city residents, including the poor, could be justified on both social reform and economic development grounds.

In the following decades, urban planning emerged as a technocratic influence on urban governance in its reliance on professional expertise and an engineering approach to both the physical and the social environment of cities. Through the 1950s, this technocratic approach was instantiated through static urban plans, with little attention to management and implementation, a view that reflected the belief that city dynamics would be forever unchanged.

But, as cities began losing people to the suburbs and feeling the effects of deindustrialization, urban planning and policy looked to incorporate more tools from a new systems science. This burgeoning science incorporated computers and large data collection while conceptualizing the city as complex, interconnected systems. Managers then used these models to understand potential future scenarios, such as traffic models, and how city plans and policies would respond to them.

Urban Policy and National Government

The changing relationship of cities to the national government also fueled a more technocratic approach to urban policy. In the post-war period, national policies that favored home-ownership in the suburbs and automobile transportation facilitated drastic changes in cities. In turn, national urban renewal policies attempted to deal with the decline of urban areas through a familiar combination of technocratic planning and business partnerships that bulldozed old, “blighted” neighborhoods in favor of redevelopment. These policies often hurt poor and African-American communities. The urbanist Jane Jacobs famously savaged urban renewal, among other common aspects of technocratic planning, in her 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

Perhaps the strongest technocratic approach to cities, however, came with Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society poverty policies. LBJ’s “War on Poverty” drew heavily on systems science from the military as well as relatively new public policy methods developed by economists that concentrated on program evaluation and budgeting. As in systems planning for cities, this approach to poverty involved collecting large amounts of data on individuals in order to identify the causes of poverty that would build a baseline for measuring policy effectiveness. This public policy strategy had the effect of marginalizing programs that did not have measures that could be easily evaluated.

The Great Society era was the high point of national involvement with urban policy, after which national urban policy retreated for various reasons. Republicans opposed many of the national urban policies, while many Democrats saw cities as lost causes that were becoming less valuable political assets. In the 1970s, the Nixon administration initiated the “New Federalism” that gave cities and states more control of federal funding. While national urban policy continued to decline under Reagan, funding decreased though by no means disappeared. The national government particularly rolled back the social face of urban policy, and what remained was oriented toward more market flexibility (such as Section 8 housing vouchers), public-private partnerships (such as housing corporations), and market incentives (such as Empowerment Zones that gave tax breaks to businesses locating in distressed communities).

Urban Policy Today

From the 1970s on, cities faced enormous economic stress and competition that pushed them toward market-oriented strategies and technocratic public-policy management. Suburbanization had drained a sizable tax base from cities while leaving them with expensive infrastructure and social obligations. Cities like New York neared bankruptcy and were pushed into public-policy austerity. As capital became more mobile in a global economy, cities faced greater competition to attract investment and jobs. With few funds, cities turned to instruments like Tax Increment Financing, which effectively subsidized development using future tax income.

Overall, the lack of a national urban policy has fostered a technocratic approach to urban policy. The United States toyed with the idea of a national urban policy as far back as the New Deal and the concept has reared its head several times since, although LBJ’s Great Society was the closest we ever came to implementation. Despite creating a cabinet-level agency with the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the United States, unlike most European countries, never outlined a comprehensive national urban policy.

After the Great Society, national urban policy disaggregated even more, with many areas—environmental, crime, education, among others—having a strong effect on cities even without an overarching strategy. The siloing of these policies fields has perpetuated the application of powerful technocratic systems. With narrower objectives, policy analysts can collect more and better data, build more complex models, and offer more sophisticated policy solutions. But this vigorous pursuit of narrow goals and efficiency often provides little reflection on the broader purpose that those goals are supposed to serve, or the values that these aims embody and, indeed, often obscure. Urban policy, like all policy, is power over people’s lives, and it must always be questioned for whom and what it serves.

Leif Fredrickson is a PhD candidate in history at the University of Virginia, focusing on environmental, technological, and policy history. His dissertation, “Metropolitan Mindscapes,” analyzes how the urban environment has shaped the bodies and brains of people in Baltimore in the 20th century.