Shaping the transformation of the past few decades has been a collection of planning ideas loosely called “new urbanism.” It’s hard to remember that terms such as mixed-use development and adaptive reuse and transit-oriented development and infill construction were once heterodox ideas promoted by a handful of maverick planners. Now they have suffered the fate of all successful ideas and become buzzwords.
Underneath the variety of new-urbanist planning techniques lies one core principle: density. By increasing density, the thinking goes, you foster all the things that make cities work. Proximity translates into creativity; busy sidewalks are safer sidewalks; more people living close to the office or the market means fewer people driving cars, reducing the damage they do to the physical environment. And these promises have been fulfilled to a remarkable extent in cities from Washington, D.C., to Seattle. One measure of their success is that many suburban municipalities have now begun to adopt density as a central planning goal.
In this moment, however, density looks like the enemy. Cities have been hit hard by the pandemic: New York first and foremost, but Detroit, San Francisco, Seattle, and New Orleans as well. So too have nursing homes and prisons and meatpacking plants. What these places have in common is a lot of people in close proximity.
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In the early months of 2020, density became a public-health risk. That inescapable fact is what cities will have to reckon with once the pandemic has subsided. How cities recover will depend a great deal on the help they receive—or don’t—from the federal government.
Throughout much of the 20th century, political leaders yearned to decentralize urban areas, and they shaped four sets of overlapping policies that encouraged jobs and people to leave cities.
First, the government made the postwar suburban boom possible through an enormous expansion of federally subsidized mortgage money. Thanks to redlining practices, pioneered during the New Deal, comparatively few of those mortgages were available to residents of cities. Second, with the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, it created the transportation infrastructure necessary to live in the new auto-centric suburbs. And those roads didn’t just provide the means for people to leave the city for the crabgrass frontier. Highway construction bulldozed through countless neighborhoods, tearing apart the city’s communities and paving them over. (By 1971, one estimate concluded, highway construction had displaced 50,000 people each year, almost all of them urban residents.)
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Third, and probably less well known, the federal government facilitated the shift of jobs and people out of the Northeast and Midwest and into the South and Southwest. The funding for this didn’t come in the form of mortgages so much as defense contracts. In 1952, nearly 60 percent of Pentagon contracts went to the industrial cities of the Midwest. In 1984, that figure had dropped to just more than 20 percent, by which time the terms Rust Belt and Sun Belt were firmly fixed in the national imagination. Finally, there was “urban renewal” itself, which at its worst—and it was often at its worst—fostered “we have to destroy the city in order to save it” projects. In 1958, even before some of the worst damage had been done, the journalist Walter Whyte wrote angrily, “Most of the rebuilding under way … is being designed by people who don’t like cities.”