A Brief History of U.S. City Planning


This video is brought to you by Skillshare. Visit the link in the description for two months off a Premium subscription. This is a brief history of city planning in the United States, but our story begins before the US existed. Prior to European settlement, cities existed in the territory now known as the U.S. The Pueblo culture built impressive cities, as did the Mississippian culture. Cahokia is considered one of the largest pre-European cities north of Mexico. The Spanish were the first European power to set up shop in what is now the U.S.. St. Augustine, Florida was founded in 1565. As the Spanish were founding other cities in the U.S. Southwest , they also codified one of the first examples of European planning in the New World, the Law of the Indies. The Law laid out the requirements for locating a new city as well as its design and layout. Cities had to have a central square. Santa Fe is a great example. The 1600s saw the French and English join the Spanish in founding new cities, particularly along the Atlantic seaboard. New York, Boston], Charleston, and Philadelphia were all founded in this period. By the time the U.S. declared its independence, cities had popped up all over the east coast and southwest. Some of the larger cities, like Boston were starting to look quite urban, while others closer to the Appalachian frontier were little more than forts to keep out the understandably unwelcoming native tribes. The founding of the United States didn’t do much to create an urban nation. The Land Ordinance of 1785, which begins the gridding of the American west, was designed to create a nation of farmers. Its author, Thomas Jefferson, hated cities. To be fair, at this point the U.S. population was 95 percent rural. This rural emphasis was unfortunate, because shortly after the founding fathers signed the Constitution, which doesn’t even mention cities, something big started happening. In the beginning of the 19th century, technological innovations such as the steam engine and power loom started transforming the economy. Work that had been done by artisans in villages was now done in factories by unskilled labor. New firms and factories would locate in cities to find enough workers, and workers moved to cities to expand their options for work. Cities started to grow, fast. People were moving to cities faster than housing could be built, and many of the migrants couldn’t afford good housing anyway. Workers also had to live within walking distance to work, as no practical mass transit existed yet. Overcrowding became a serious problem. Sanitation was terrible. Human waste was typically disposed of in an on-site septic tank or cesspools. Cities smelled terrible. Disease was a constant threat. The smoke coming from the factories added to the noxious environment. It’s really important to understand that the city of the mid 1800s was not a nice place to be. For many people it was their first experience with urban living, and it was profoundly negative.Industrial revolution cities needed reform. Disease was literally a life and death situation, so that came first. New gravity-based, self-cleansing sewer systems came on to the scene in the 1840s. The implementation of a comprehensive sewer system, designed to clear away waste, required a citywide “sanitary survey” to understand the topography of the city as well as a mapping of the cesspools, outhouses, and sources of waste. These surveys are one of the earliest acts of planning in U.S. cities and by 1907 every major US city had a sewer system. Sewers provided fresh air, and so too did some of the first comprehensive urban park systems. Some of the most notable designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, including Central Park. Housing reform followed sanitation reform. The problem was brought to the fore by reformers and journalists like Jacob Riis, whose photos published in the book, “How the Other Half Lived” exposed the terrible conditions people lived in during the 1880s. Tenements were claustrophobic and exceedingly overcrowded, filled with the many immigrants from Europe coming to New York by the day. The Lower East Side was almost certainly the most crowded neighborhood in the world at the time, with over 1,000 people per acre. New York’s Tenement House Act passed in 1901 and required a separate bathroom in each unit, courtyards, and improved fire safety measures. Many other cities passed similar laws in the coming years. These early initiatives to fix the
industrial city focused on practical social matters like health and housing. There were less-than-practical reformers too. Some wanted to improve the city through monuments, slum clearance, and neo-classical architecture. Let’s move the timeline to 1893, he World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago. The White City, chiefly designed by architect Daniel Burnham. The White City became the template for he City Beautiful movement, a not-so-good method of improving cities, but a pretty good name for a city planning YouTube channel. Most of Burnham’s plans, like the one for San Francisco, never panned out, but his plans for Chicago and the Washington Mal were mostly completed as intended. At the beginning of the 20th century, city planning coalesced into a distinct profession. Its roots were in the drafting of new cities from the colonial era through the railroad towns of the west, the social reformers of major cities, and the grand visions of City Beautiful designers. These differing visions of city planning were debated at the first city planning conference in 1909, with battle lines drawn between he social reformers and the technical/aesthetic planners. Planners, no matter their perspective, had begun to feel optimistic about urban living. Electric streetcars were zipping through streets, and their speed and low fares made it possible to build new housing on the periphery for the middle class, easing overcrowding. Another transportation technology changed everything. The Model T started rolling off of Ford’s assembly line in 1908. Millions of the cars, and millions of other cars would be sold in the next decade or two. Cars allowed people to commute further out into homes in the suburbs and this radically altered cities. It’s a change similar to the urbanization of the last century.
Most planners of the time thought that suburban development was a good thing. Cities were better than before, but what could be better than living in larger homes in greener surroundings? Enthusiasm about suburbs, combined with the poor quality of early suburb design led to some key planning responses. First, the Federal Government developed a set of standard zoning and planning enabling acts that cities could adopt. These model acts gave cities the authority to do zoning, approve subdivision street layouts, form planning commissions, and adopt master plans. This added regulation and minimum standards to the development of the suburbs. Zoning ordinances were around in the two decades before the model enabling acts, promoted primarily by commercial interests trying to protect their land value from new development that attracted immigrants and people of color. Zoning, then, as it does now, can be useful or used as a tool of exclusion. But the Supreme Court, in Village of Euclid vs. Ambler Realty, found zoning to be constitutional, so it was here to stay. Others saw the slapdash, speculative suburban development and believed there was a better way. They were the Garden Suburb designers, notably Clarence Stein and Henry Wright. Heavily influenced by Ebenezer Howard and the English Garden City designers, they developed new concepts for the suburbs that promoted shared ownership of common greenspace and separate circulation for pedestrians that kept them away from cars. Their most famous community was Radburn, New Jersey, built in 1929. This rapid growth outward created entire metropolitan regions, and the notion of regional planning got its start in this era. Notable regional plans and planners include Patrick Geddes and his ideas about conurbations, the Regional Planning Association of America, with Stein and Wright as members, and the publishing of the Regional Plan of New York and its Environs, a landmark regional plan published in 1929. At the same time people were moving out of the city in cars, others were moving in. It was one of the most dramatic demographic shifts in US history: the Great Migration. This was the migration of over six million African Americans from the south to northern cities from about 1916 to 1970. In the years after the Civil War and emancipation, 80 percent of black Americans still lived in the rural south, but by 1970, 80 percent lived in cities, half of them in northern cities. For immigrants, cities were a tool of assimilation and advancement, but for the millions of black Americans who moved to cities to work in urban factories, they found segregation instead. Cities during the 30s and 40s were already very different than they were at the beginning of the century. Wealthy and middle class families were leaving for the suburbs for new tract housing, leaving behind poor and black families. At this time, most jobs and shopping was still done in the central city, and these new commuters needed a way to go back and forth. Cities started building freeways using state funding. To make room, they cleared immigrant and black neighborhoods, citing
slum clearance and upgrading. The destruction of the city continued through urban renewal. It’s a story told in three acts. The first is the Housing Act of 1937. The act pitted public housing activists like Catherine Bauer against commercial real estate interests who hated sharing the city with poor residents. They wanted to replace slums with flashy real estate projects. By the Housing Acts of 1949 and 1954, the real estate interests had won. The public housing that did get built was intended for middle class families, built in demolished black neighborhoods. Middle class whites didn’t move in, and they became homes for poor, black families. The Housing Acts assumed that middle class rents would pay for all maintenance and didn’t provide Federal funding for upkeep. When poorer families moved in, the buildings quickly deteriorated without Federal funding. The result was cities bereft of historic neighborhoods, with bleak modernist towers in their place. It should be pretty clear that many of the planning “solutions” to the problems of the industrial city just created more problems themselves. It was certainly clear to those who were displaced by freeways and urban mega projects. In the 1960s and 1970s, urban residents began fighting back against top-down planning that ignored the wishes of residents and disproportionately hurt poor and minority groups. One of the most prominent early battles is also one of the most famous—the battle over the Lower Manhattan Expressway between Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses. Jacobs was an activist and journalist living in Greenwich Village. Robert Moses was New York’s master builder, responsible for the construction of many bridges, freeways, and public housing projects. He was losing influence by the 1960s, however, and Jacobs, along with other activists, manage to halt the Lower Manhattan Expressway project. Jacob’s book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, is a critique of modernist planning and urban renewal and became one of the most influential books on planning. Jacobs was not the only one fighting against urban freeways and urban renewal. Residents of cities across the US had had enough. Freeway construction was halted in San Francisco and Portland. New metro systems in San Francisco, Atlanta, and Washington, DC were built. These impressive victories could not stop urban renewal and freeway construction entirely. The federal government still provided enormous sums of money to cities to build more freeways as fast as possible, thanks to the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956. This continued exodus was called white flight because, for the most part, black families could not rent or own in the suburbs. Restrictive covenants, racism in the real estate profession, and redlining by banks meant that black families could not get mortgages, and even if they could, they would not be told of listings in white neighborhoods. This proved especially bad for black families, as jobs were now migrating to the suburbs, in some cases in what are known as edge cities. Many of these cities are only accessible by car, and located far from urban centers where black families lived. The one-two punch of neighborhood-destroying urban renewal and suburb-generating freeway construction began to slow down in the 1970s. Urban renewal ended in 1973. Much of the interstate freeway network had been built by the end of the 1970s, and new regulations made it much harder to build them through urban areas. The revolts against top-down planning at the beginning of the 1960s had become popular opinion by the 1970s, particularly with people hostile toward government generally in the Vietnam and Watergate eras. So-called “experts” were no longer trusted to know what was best for cities and people. People decided that planners didn’t deserve the power they had, and there would be no more Robert Moseses. At the same time, planning academics agreed with the people and rebuked top-down planning. Marxist theorists began to explain urban growth and change as movements of capital. Planning was a tool of capitalists. Planning became a lonely profession without a direction. The era of the master builder was over. What would become of planners? The evolved and specialized, thanks in part to many new laws that gave planners something to do. The Environmental Protection Agency was founded in 1970 and the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Superfund Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act all made city planning much more complicated, as environmental concerns had to be considered with permitting new land uses. City planners became local experts on an increasing number of federal and state programs meant to minimize the negative impacts of new development. The Federal Community Development Act of 1974 replaced urban renewal and provided grants to communities to build and maintain a wide variety of projects, including housing, public utilities, parks, and transportation. Planners had to develop plans to apply for the community development block grants. Transportation planning changed, too. The changes were slow, but transportation planners began to think about all modes of transportation, not just the car. The first bike lanes appeared in the 1970s. Cities began to invest in new light rail lines in the 1980s. The federal government began to require better regional transportation plans, as well. Planners became experts in all of the technical aspects of the job, but they also became educators, facilitators, and advocates. They lacked some of the raw
power they had before, but still pioneered new approaches to undoing some of the harm of the previous 60 years. Some cities implemented new smart growth measures, including urban growth boundaries. The practice of Euclidean zoning began to receive push back, criticized for its use as a tool of exclusion and its promotion of car only development. Cities encouraged transit-oriented development in the suburbs to give residents an alternative to ever-increasing freeway traffic. Urban challenges remain today. Gentrification and high housing prices are pushing residents out of cities. Car usage is still incredibly high, even given what we now know about their negative impacts. Cities are still segregated by race and income. Self-driving cars could have far-reaching impacts, some we still can’t predict. There will be lots for planners to do in the future, and they now have a rich history to reflect on and learn from. Planners, as well as anyone else, can also learn a lot from the more than 25,000 courses over at Skillshare. Skillshare is an online learning community for creators, with more than 25,000 classes in design, business, and more. I’m not sure if people know, but I don’t make YouTube videos full time. I’m also a full-time PhD student, husband, and parent. I have a lot going on, and I’m always looking for ways to be productive with my busy life. I really enjoyed this Skillshare class on productivity by fellow YouTuber Thomas Frank. With his help, I hope to keep myself organized and producing videos, even as we expect the birth of my third kid! If you want to fuel your creativity, curiosity, or career, give Skillshare Premium a try. The first 500 viewers who use the link in the description will get a two month free trial of Skillshare Premium. And if you decide you love it, an annual subscription is super affordable, at less than 10 dollars per month. Go check it out now! Thanks for watching, CC folks!

100 thoughts on “A Brief History of U.S. City Planning”

  1. Hmmmm…some of your cities in the 2019 map at 13:20 are off. San Antonio and San Diego are not the 10 largest metro areas in the U.S. The Washington metro area has around 6 million people, and the Miami metro area has around 5 million. San Jose is not a stand-alone metro area–it's combined with the San Francisco-Oakland complex, and that has around 6 million combined. All the other cities you have in that 2019 map check off in terms of their metro area populations.

  2. a MUST read…."Behind The Green Mask: U.N. Agenda 21" by Rosa Koire …the truth about future city planning and development

  3. Was this video made in St Petersburg? Nice propaganda, but sorry, I like my history with facts, not opinions.

  4. As an practicing Urban and Regional Planner I think you did a bang up job on this video but I would throw one MORE topic that we are now having to 'address' – the impacts of climate change. In addition to City Planning duties regarding development proposals, I was also the floodplain manager.

  5. Awsome video, highly informative an non bias. Also the year counter in the corner makes my brain happy! Subscribed.

  6. By 1900 New York City's horse population was about 100,000. A single horse produces an average of 20-30 lbs of manure a day. That's about 2.5 million pounds a day.

  7. Jacob Reese publishing "How The Other Half Live" will be a great irony for British viewers around the time of Brexit given that there is a man of the same name that reeks of entitlement, obscene wealth and a sense of upper class privilege. He sits in Her Majestys House of Commons although he is more in line with Lords and peers of the Realm.

  8. You lose me with your over attentive social justice reading of social history and unequal access to housing as a function of race instead of what it actually was, namely a function of low educational attainment and poor work history among most rural blacks as it was for most rural whites. Also citing Marxist academics without contrasting thinkers shows your bias.

  9. 0:28 "Setting up shop = bringing diseases to the continent". Immediate down vote for gratuitous white guilt virtue signalling.

  10. I appreciate the video but I think you are missing that some modernist housing complexes were extremely successful. I live in a 1960s apartment tower in down-town Toronto and it is very comfortable and well designed. Also homelessness is now a major, major issue in 21st century urban centres.

  11. Downvoted for claiming that "setting up shop" meant bringing disease. Europeans were builders, not destroyers. Just look at all the cities they built in the Americas alone.

  12. Talk about holding the black family back smh , they couldn’t even get mortgages to have access to better housing, education and overall better living environment to raise children

  13. You should really do a video on how to build a city that is resistant to sea beast attack. I was unaware how much of an issue it really is for coastal areas.

  14. New Orleans? it was set up in a location at on unstable compromise between empires, it was the financial center of the United States? the Wood Screw pump?

  15. How come most American cities do not have a city center where people come to shop and go out, like European cities.
    The geographical middle, or the part with the highest real estate prices, is usually not the nicest part of a city to visit.

  16. Cities were literally slums and full of disease. Then cities decided to renew and make their areas beautiful = racist.

  17. Rent control made infrastructrure projects and housing projects for the rich but not for the poor nor the middle class. So government is to blame for this mess. Government should repeal the rent control laws of many cities.

  18. The 3 Pillars of modern urban systemic racism. (1) First zoning was 1860s in New York City. Zoning is inherently racist, with many controversies & battles until the Euclid case. Racist zoning double standards exists in every city, interpreted as legal. (2) Most cities switched from republic to democracy in 1920s explicitly to disenfranchise the black vote. This At-Large crime continues today where only one majority-white district exists. Black precincts were eliminated. 1965 Voting Rights Act prohibits At-Large but is rarely enforced. (3) Urban Renewal has not ended whatsoever, certainly not in 1973. Existence of public housing proves urban renewal exists. Housing Authorities & HUD still exist. In a sense, urban renewal has always existed when Eminent Domain (loophole for Due Process) is used to seize & sell real estate. So the town can vote (illegally) to publicly steal & destroy black neighborhoods & business districts by majority vote of town council or town referendum. It's Constitutional to steal your house if it is to be used by all members of the public (Public Use) and compensation to justify the stealing (Just Compensation). It's sad these systemic crimes are invisible to this video, that blames commercial interests for the many public votes that authorize the massive government crime wave.

  19. It'd be interesting to hear more about the rust belt cities. Buffalo for example was one of the largest and richest cities in America, then practically died, and now it's experiencing a massive renaissance. Cleveland and Detroit are also on the rise and is fixing their mistakes along with Buffalo. The history of the rust belt cities are amazing yet horrible and now they are being fixed. You might also like how Olmsted designed the park and parkway system in Buffalo (a city built around parks, not parks made in a city) and how they were the first to get electric street lights among other things. Buffalo is a must for people interested in cities.
    Another interesting area is Ft Lauderdale. Broward county is practically out of land (they may be out of land already) and it's causing a lot of problems. Very high cost of living, bad traffic, the list goes on. They're between the Everglades and Atlantic Ocean and they can't build anymore and I'm sure are paying for a lot of mistakes made.

  20. The sections are counted from right to left or east to west not from south to north having a total of 36 sections called township

  21. Good, concise summary. I think Olmstead founded the Garden City Movement with his plan for Buffalo, which remains in place. Moses had been thwarted also on Fire Island, where he wanted to build a multi-lane highway across the island; and Brooklyn Heights residents successfully forced him to divert the BQE (which is causing problems now with attempts to renovate it).

  22. And nowadays don't even bother majoring in city planning since the cities are closing their planning departments left and right, and you won't find a job in this field even with a Master's degree. And, if you do get a job in this field, you probably got it because you are a woman and of color. Just saying it like it is!

  23. Thank you
    At three minutes in I was eating
    When you said where human waste goes and cesspit I was thinking my food was poo

  24. Fuck the future, I wanna live in the midwestern golden age, drive an impala and work in a factory in Indianapolis in the 60's

  25. Nice rewriting of American history, millenial. Did one of your Neo-Marxist professors write this, or did you?

  26. I really wish we did have that Lower Manhattan Expressway every time I'm stuck in 2 hours of soul crushing traffic on Canal Street trying to get to the Holland Tunnel to Jersey. That damn Jane Jacobs!

  27. It appears to be a major city every 3 hr drive from each other in america. personally i like this and would like to see new york city and the other ginormous citys reduced abd spread out. Politcally we see these citys are more international and less american. today we see the biggest devide politically ,socially and moraly .

  28. Follow the money!
    ""Always"" follow the money when they say it is not about the money it's really about the money!

  29. Come on man. What's you level of education? And you are referring to settlements most not bigger than a village as a CITY?

    Why is everyone these days using the term city to mean any human habitation?

  30. Your video fails to mention that many poor do NOT want gentrification. So when we "left them behind", were we supposed to bring them by force?

  31. The blacks who came up to the north ethnically displaced the Irish Catholics, Eastern Europeans, and the Italian Catholics. Not the fault of the blacks of course but it's reality. This was by design. The various European ethnicities moved out to the suburbs and became what is now generically called "white people."
    https://www.amazon.com/Slaughter-Cities-Michael-Jones/dp/0929891236/ref=sr_1_4?crid=AVV5T736QGPR&keywords=e+michael+jones&qid=1566799446&s=books&sprefix=e+micha%2Caps%2C174&sr=1-4

  32. @City Beautiful: Simplification is great, as long as you don't twist the truth. Certainly it's critical to avoid simplification when it leads to fallacies. For example, (00:48) was't New York once called New Amsterdam and a Dutch settlement? If not all your content is correct, then possibly none of your content is correct – no offense, just be precise.

  33. After watching a couple videos at .75 speed then switching back to normal speed..

    You talk WAY TOO fast. Slow it dow my man, slow it down…..

  34. Most of today's cities should be buried as toxic wasteland. What is left could be transformed into vertical gardens, underground factories, huge parks, & neighborhoods that no one would want to leave. Yes, I'm dreaming. No, I don't believe I'll live long enough to see this materialize. In fact, I think catastrophe looms in the very near future. After all, cynicism is but aged idealism.
    Overall, this is a very good overview given the amount of time in which it unfolds (14.5'). Wish you'd comment on Kunstler's gems. And God bless your blossoming family! God be w/ you all!

  35. "most sewage infrastructure was made before 1910"
    that is how you get rid of polio real quick. polio is a disease spread by shit and piss. treat that, you get rid of the polio.

  36. I’m from the north east (like closer to Toronto). I’m always interested in US history, but this whole time I’m watching this video, I was constantly wondering what was Canada doing, especially just north of the Great Lakes lol.

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