PLACE MAKING – A REDESIGN OF THE NEW DEAL NEW COMMUNITY PROGRAM FOR THE 21ST CENTURY

As a planner educated in a HUD funded New Town where the University was to anchor the city center, government involvement in new community development and “Place Making” holds special interest.

We can trace the origin of federal government new community development to the Hoover/FDR era, where government policy focused on the relocation of over populated urban tenants to rural farm locations via the “back to the land” homestead subsistence program.

FDR’s subsistence and new community social engineering effort was designed to reduce unemployment and population density within urban centers by providing a garden plot for agricultural self-sufficiency ultimately reducing reliance upon governmental financial support.

Some 34 subsistence homestead experiments were begun in 1933 as a precursor of the WPA federal supported new community experiments.

However, after eight years of experimentation the efforts were terminated by congressional action.

This period of history provides an excellent example of governmental social engineering by the use of regulatory and incentive action.

Study of the 99 subsistence homestead and new community program experiments undertaken between 1933 and 1939 offer an understanding of the basics of today’s “Place Making” strategy being popularized by current planning and community economic developers.

“Place Making” today is the federal government’s modern-day social engineering experiment to create vibrant urban oases that will attract young creative class residents for which new businesses will be attracted seeking employees.

Government planners seek to replicate the strategy of regulating and incenting human behavior to create concentrations of selected population to behave in a certain manner – young well educated – especially skilled population in central city locations that would otherwise remain economically stagnant and wither.

The pundits claim higher density urban living will solve environment and social ills.  Compact higher density urban living will reduce auto emissions, reduce oil consumption, create a lower carbon footprint, create less crime ridden safer neighborhoods, offer higher-wage job opportunities, reduce poverty and more.  “Place Based” community development will offer opportunities for improvement in “open space green infrastructure”, creation of walkable communities less dependent on auto transport and create small business economic viability due to higher concentrations of household shoppers to patronize locally owned businesses.

But will social engineering of where and how people live actually work?

For community planners this is a question that needs to be asked and answered?

Using the FDR experiment as an example, one can question whether this form of social engineering will achieve its desired and expected outcome.

Reading the Paul Keith Conkin book Tomorrow A New World: The New Deal Community Program will provide some background and stimulate thinking about the need for, and role of, government in shaping where and how people choose to live.

He chronicles the beginnings of the “back to the land movement” and its rise to suburban and rural new community planning.  He focuses on the rise of the professional city planner in advocating the” need for government [sponsored] whole new towns or communities in spacious rural environments” to house a growing population and to remedy social and economic ills.  The need for government involvement was based on the fear of private sector “inefficiencies and waste that would occur by non-government involvement in effort to provide housing and jobs to the mass of unemployed suffering the effect of economic depression”.

Conkin begins by summarizing early efforts of the federal government to provide housing for veterans returning from the Civil and World War I where federal government policy was formed establishing the role of government to provide housing opportunities, a policy that grew in stature through the great depression and end of WWII.

Documented is government’s experiment applying Garden Cities and City Beautiful city planning principles to what we today might call “Place Making”.

As the new communities movement grew over the years, the Department of Agriculture’s Rexford Tugwell (an original FDR Brains Truster) responsible for the program sought to intuitionalize within government a “long-term solution [for the provision of housing and geographic population distribution] through economic planning for agriculture with social control over the individual and his use of the land”.

His main goals were to “point to a new way of life …to promote industrial decentralization and to show what social and economic planning might accomplish if given a chance” using example governmental planned communities scattered throughout the US.

Sixty suburban new communities were planned as this social experiment.

The success of the FDR new communities program is a matter of serious debate.  Tugwell’s  legacy of federal government involvement in the provision of housing,  although scattered, remains encased principally in the Department of Agriculture, Department of Housing and Urban Development but remnants are found in other departments.

Today’s Place Based planning strategy is just more of the same, the current edition of principles discovered during the FDR era  repackaged to meet modern concerns similar to those of the great depression era, lack of individual employment opportunities, insufficient affordable housing opportunities and lack of individual economic opportunity all giving way to national economic turbulence and US economic instability. 

My study of history raises question of the ability of government via social engineering to regulate and incent human behavior for successful implementation of a federal land use policy directing where people live and work.

For government sponsored “place making” to be successful – individual choice, not governmental regulation and incentives will need to prevail.

Reading Conkin’s book will give the reader much to think about – the government’s role to influence individual choice in determining where and how we live.

For the most part, I’m a skeptic.  While I fully support urban revitalization much which, by necessity, must be completed by government action,  I have serious questions about social engineering policies to regulate and incent behavior that reduces individual choice.

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