Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Urban Renewal’s Record Shows It Wasn’t All Bad

• January 21, 2012 • 4:00 AM

Large-scale federal investment in American cities between 1950 and 1974 had some lasting benefits in economic growth, researchers say, despite the bad rap it currently has.

Tossed into the dustbin of history more than a generation ago, the concept of urban renewal, long derided as “Negro removal,” is getting a second look.

The program began in 1950 and was scrapped in 1974, by then thoroughly discredited as unfair and unworkable. In the national war on blight, the poor were disproportionately targeted for eviction from dilapidated downtowns to make way for parks, office buildings, sports arenas, and high-rise apartments. But a new study for the National Bureau of Economic Research finds that urban renewal, or slum clearance, had some lasting positive effects on economic growth.

William J. Collins, an economist and historian at Vanderbilt University, and Katharine L. Shester, an economist at Washington and Lee University, looked at family incomes, property values and population growth in about 460 American cities for 1950 and 1980. The cities they chose encompassed the vast majority of urban renewal projects. Overall, the economists found, the longer cities participated in the program and the more federal funding they received, the bigger and better off they became, with no net loss of black residents.

“The results suggest a far less dismal legacy for the U.S. urban renewal program than is commonly portrayed,” they wrote.

“We were really surprised,” Collins said. “Everything I’d heard about the program was really negative. On the other hand, these were pretty big investments made in central cities, many of them funded by the federal government. It shouldn’t be too surprising that they had a positive influence.”

Urban renewal was no panacea. It did not stop the exodus to the suburbs amid the waves of riots and racial strife of the 1960s and ’70s. But things would have been worse without large-scale investment in cities, Collins said. He offered the example of Baltimore, whose population declined between 1950 and 1980. And yet the data showed that Baltimore would have had a 5 percent lower median property value, a 2 percent lower median family income, and a 6 percent smaller population in 1980 had it not been allowed to participate in urban renewal from the start and had it not received 35 percent more funding than the average city.

After World War II, urban poverty was a top priority on the U.S. domestic agenda, and slum clearance was promoted as a way to halt the contagion of blight. Congress authorized major funding for cities to buy land through eminent domain, effectively forcing owners to sell downtown properties for public use. By the time the program ended, 2,100 projects across the country — including Lincoln Center in New York City, Government Center in Boston, and Charles Center in Baltimore — had received the equivalent of $53 billion in 2009 dollars.

As of June 1996, according to Collins and Shester, the approved projects had either cleared or intended to clear 90 square miles of land and 400,000 housing units, forcing the relocation of more than 300,000 families, half of whom were people of color.

A recent study by Michael Carriere, a historian at the Milwaukee School of Engineering, recalls some of the turmoil that ensued. In early 1968, Carriere recounts, protesters sat in front of the bulldozers when Columbia University began clearing Morningside Park to build a gymnasium with separate entrances for college students and Harlem residents. The gym project became a powerful symbol in the student uprising against the Vietnam War at Columbia that spring, as activists linked the university’s expansion plans at home to its support for the military invasion abroad. The gym was never built.

Looking through records at the National Archives, Collins discovered his own university’s expansion plans had encountered opposition from Nashville residents in 1967.

“Much of the property from which home owners would be displaced would go to a privately owned tax-free Institution, Vanderbilt University, for projected use in an expanded program that lies far into the future,” one resident wrote to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Collins and Shester’s study is one of only a few that examine the economics of urban renewal. More often, the program has been analyzed from a sociological or historical point of view, with a focus on how it affected specific communities.

Based on data from the U.S. Census and the federal Urban Renewal Directory, the pair discovered that an extra $100 per capita in grant funding for urban renewal saw a 2.6 percent increase in a city’s median family income, a 7.7 percent increase in median property value and a 9 percent increase in population by 1980. The average per-capita funding under the program was $122.

The economists found it mattered whether a state dragged its feet or quickly passed legislation enabling local agencies to carry out urban renewal projects. The data showed that five extra years of eligibility led to a 4 percent increase in a city’s median property value and 1 percent increase in median family income.

Collins and Shester acknowledge that the program placed a heavy burden on the poor, but they conclude that it had sizable economic impacts at the city level. At a time when the federal government is much less involved in funding large-scale urban projects, Collins said, “it is remarkable to look back to an era when slums were a national policy priority.”

“I don’t think we’ll ever do urban renewal as it was done in the ’50s and ’60s,” he said. “The politics of it are not feasible anymore. But the data support the basic idea that the federal government can provide funds to cities, and cities can use those funds to facilitate private development and economic growth. It seems like that mechanism worked.”

Sign up for the free Miller-McCune.com e-newsletter.

“Like” Miller-McCune on Facebook.

Follow Miller-McCune on Twitter.

Add Miller-McCune.com news to your site.

Subscribe to Miller-McCune

Melinda Burns
Former Miller-McCune staff writer Melinda Burns was previously a senior writer for the Santa Barbara News-Press, covering immigration, urban planning, science, and the environment.

More From Melinda Burns

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

December 18 • 10:00 AM

What It’s Like to Spend a Few Hours in the Church of Scientology

Wrestling with thetans, attempting to unlock a memory bank, and a personality test seemingly aimed at people with depression. This is Scientology’s “dissemination drill” for potential new members.


December 18 • 8:00 AM

Gendering #BlackLivesMatter: A Feminist Perspective

Black men are stereotyped as violent, while black women are rendered invisible. Here’s why the gendering of black lives matters.


December 18 • 7:06 AM

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.


December 18 • 6:00 AM

The Very Weak and Complicated Links Between Mental Illness and Gun Violence

Vanderbilt University’s Jonathan Metzl and Kenneth MacLeish address our anxieties and correct our assumptions.


December 18 • 4:00 AM

Should Movies Be Rated RD for Reckless Driving?

A new study finds a link between watching films featuring reckless driving and engaging in similar behavior years later.


December 17 • 4:00 PM

How to Run a Drug Dealing Network in Prison

People tend not to hear about the prison drug dealing operations that succeed. Substance.com asks a veteran of the game to explain his system.


December 17 • 2:00 PM

Gender Segregation of Toys Is on the Rise

Charting the use of “toys for boys” and “toys for girls” in American English.


December 17 • 12:41 PM

Why the College Football Playoff Is Terrible But Better Than Before

The sample size is still embarrassingly small, but at least there’s less room for the availability cascade.


December 17 • 11:06 AM

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.


December 17 • 10:37 AM

A Public Lynching in Sproul Plaza

When photographs of lynching victims showed up on a hallowed site of democracy in action, a provocation was issued—but to whom, by whom, and why?


December 17 • 8:00 AM

What Was the Job?

This was the year the job broke, the year we accepted a re-interpretation of its fundamental bargain and bought in to the push to get us to all work for ourselves rather than each other.


December 17 • 6:00 AM

White Kids Will Be Kids

Even the “good” kids—bound for college, upwardly mobile—sometimes break the law. The difference? They don’t have much to fear. A professor of race and social movements reflects on her teenage years and faces some uncomfortable realities.



December 16 • 4:00 PM

How Fear of Occupy Wall Street Undermined the Red Cross’ Sandy Relief Effort

Red Cross responders say there was a ban on working with the widely praised Occupy Sandy relief group because it was seen as politically unpalatable.


December 16 • 3:30 PM

Murder! Mayhem! And That’s Just the Cartoons!

New research suggests deaths are common features of animated features aimed at children.


December 16 • 1:43 PM

In Tragedy, Empathy Still Dependent on Proximity

In spite of an increasingly connected world, in the face of adversity, a personal touch is most effective.


December 16 • 12:00 PM

The ‘New York Times’ Is Hooked on Drug du Jour Journalism

For the paper of record, addiction is always about this drug or that drug rather than the real causes.


December 16 • 10:00 AM

What Is the Point of Academic Books?

Ultimately, they’re meant to disseminate knowledge. But their narrow appeal makes them expensive to produce and harder to sell.


December 16 • 8:00 AM

Unjust and Unwell: The Racial Issues That Could Be Affecting Your Health Care

Physicians and medical students have the same problems with implicit bias as the rest of us.


December 16 • 6:00 AM

If You Get Confused Just Listen to the Music Play

Healing the brain with the Grateful Dead.


December 16 • 4:00 AM

Another Casualty of the Great Recession: Trust

Research from Britain finds people who were laid off from their jobs expressed lower levels of generalized trust.


December 15 • 4:00 PM

When Charter Schools Are Non-Profit in Name Only

Some charters pass along nearly all their money to for-profit companies hired to manage the schools. It’s an arrangement that’s raising eyebrows.


December 15 • 2:00 PM

No More Space Race

A far cry from the fierce Cold War Space Race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, exploration in the 21st century is likely to be a much more globally collaborative project.


December 15 • 12:32 PM

The Hidden Psychology of the Home Ref

That old myth of home field bias isn’t a myth at all; it’s a statistical fact.


December 15 • 12:00 PM

Gluttony and Global Warming: We’re Eating Ourselves to a Warmer Planet

Forget your car. Our obsession with beef and dairy has a far more devastating effect on the climate.


Follow us


Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.

The Hidden Psychology of the Home Ref

That old myth of home field bias isn’t a myth at all; it’s a statistical fact.

A Word of Caution to the Holiday Deal-Makers

Repeat customers—with higher return rates and real bargain-hunting prowess—can have negative effects on a company’s net earnings.

Crowdfunding Works for Science

Scientists just need to put forth some effort.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.