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Urban Renewal


Urban Renewal is a program of redevelopment in areas of cities that tend to be in a state of disrepair and depopulation, often referred to as being in the form of urban decay. Modern urban renewal began in the late 1800’s,and experienced a concentrated phase in the 1940’s. Urban Renewal has had a significant role in history, and has affected a variety of demographics around the world. Popularized in the U.S. in the 1950’s,  the term ‘urban renewal’ gained attention and use with the Housing Act of 1954.


Urban renewal is a process during which redevelopment authorities buy privately owned properties, tear them down, and then reconveyed to developers selected to devote them to other uses through building. The intentions of the developers is to raise land value, taxes, and increase the wealth and quality of life in those areas for the city and its residents.

While the intention is to rebuild cities in order to restore or increase socio-economic standards, urban renewal may have adverse effects on some of the previous inhabitants of the purchased properties due to displacement. Until 1970, any displaced tenants and owners received compensation, mandated by the fifth amendment of the US constitution. However, this compensation only covered losses like the market value of the lost property, but not incidental costs like mover’s fees, business losses, loss of financing, etc. After 1970, both state and federal government enacted the Uniform Relocation Assistance Act which currently provides coverage of some of these losses. The act, however, denies the displaced the right to sue to enforce it, so it’s seen more as a legislative grace rather than a right.

Urban renewal has been controversial because of practices like buying private property for ‘public use’ and then gifting it to developers for less than the price at acquisition or even free of charge.

In some cases urban renewal can cause urban sprawl, which is a process of decentralization from city centers wherein the population moves into ‘suburban’ areas. Urban sprawl has been highly politicized in that it is said to encourage segregation, that it undermines the vitality of urban areas, and contributes to environmental deterioration. Urban sprawl has become a large part of the political drive for urban growth.

Sometimes urban renewal is associated with gentrification and revitalization of business districts. Over time the process has become about renovation and investment rather than destruction. Property investors seek to restore and improve land value, quality of life, profitability, and wealth for both the city and the people who live there.

History of Urban Renewal

The concept of urban renewal first emerged in England as a reaction to the unsanitary and cramped conditions of lower class populations in urban environments. The idea was that improving conditions would improve the morality and economic state of the residents of those areas. The movement was funded by philanthropists like the George Peabody and the Peabody Trust. The earliest new buildings were built during this time to provide social housing and were privately funded. The Public Health Act of 1975 was passed in parliament and thus brought state intervention. The purpose of the Act was to prevent outbreaks of disease caused by filthy living conditions. It mandated that all new residential projects were to include an internal drainage system and water. It also maintained building standards with contractors.

Urban renewal has become an international practice that can be seen in cities around the world.

In the 1900’s the idea of culture-led revitalization because popular, with cities like Bilbao building a Guggenheim art museum, and the Temple Bar in Dublin becoming successful by creating a culture quarter. In London, the construction of the Tate Modern in Southwark may have been the cause of the revitalization of the surrounding neighborhoods.

In the US, the process began in earnest in the 1940s, although the first modern urban-renewal program began in Pittsburgh in May of 1950. A large part of downtown was demolished as were other areas. Some areas improved, while others declined due to overambitious projects that change infrastructure by blocking streets and isolating neighborhoods. These neighborhoods often had minority occupants. Because of the way in which it targeted African-American, James Baldwin was quoted to have called urban renewal “Negro Removal’ in the 1960s.

Neighborhoods in Kingston were flat out destroyed in the 1960s, with more than 400 historical buildings demolished. Similarly poorly executed plans were being undertaken around the country. By the 70’s, opposition had developed to urban renewal. In some cases residents would leave cities with renewal site altogether, like Atlanta, which lost some 60,000 residents between 1960 and 1970 due to freeway construction.

Effectiveness and Politics

In some cases, urban renewal has lived up to its purpose. It has been assessed by residents, civic leaders, urban planners and politicians. In the United States, it has had varied results. In some cases it revitalizes a part of a city, but not the entire city as a whole, which means low income residents of the area may get displaced and have their homes taken from them. In America it also can act as a catalyst for the building of shopping malls, chain department stores, car dealerships, etc, thus destroying historical buildings and communities to introduce consumerism.

Today, the need for balance, good planning, renovation, selective demolition and commercial incentives is recognized and urban renewal includes these considerations. Revitalization is also often encouraged with tax breaks. Gentrification is still a controversial topic, and development often implies that relocation for current residents may be necessary because of price increases. In some cases there are educational programs available to these residence to increase their financial literacy as well as favorable loan options so that the residents can afford to stay in their neighborhoods.