A Brief History of Urbanism in North America: 1940-1949

After a longer than expected hiatus, my series on the history of urbanism is back!  I can’t promise a return to a weekly posting schedule, but I hope to post at least on installment a month until the series is complete.

The 1940s

The 1940’s saw rise of the first American planned communities. It also saw the passing of a wave of federal legislation in the United States. Combined, these events initiated what became known as suburban sprawl. The decade was bookended by the publication of an influential book and the created of an important organization.

The Planning Function in Urban Government. 1941

"The Planning Function in Urban Government" by Robert A. Walker, 1941A controversial but influential book by Robert A.Walker that argued that planning needed to move away from association with independent commissions. Instead, Walker argued that planning should be closely connected with the local legislative body, the chief executive, and related administrative agencies. In other words, Walker was the full integration of planning agencies within local government.

The book was named one of the 100 Essential Books of Planning by the American Planning Association in 2009

Serviceman’s Readjustment Act and Federal-Aid Highway Act 1944

Photograph of President Roosevelt signing the GI Bill

Source: VA.gov

In 1944, the Serviceman’s Readjustment Act, commonly known as the GI Bill, guaranteed home loans to veterans. The GI Bill provides returning veterans with college education and loans to buy homes and start businesses. The result was the rapid development of suburbs.

Passed in the same year, the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1944 designated a 65,000 kilometer national system of interstate highways. These highways were to be selected by the state highway departments. While this act authorized the highway system, it did not give any funding.

Park Forest, IL and Levittown, NY 1947

A view of Levittown, N.Y., in 1948, shortly after the mass-produced suburb was completed on Long Island farmland.

Source: New York Times

Park Forest was the first privately financed, completely planned community ever built in the US. It was designed by Elbert Peets in the tradition of planned communities around the nation to offer housing for veterans returning from World War II.

Located on Long Island, Levittown gets its name from its builder, the firm of Levitt & Sons, Inc. founded by William Levitt. The town was built as a planned community between 1947 and 1951. Levittown was the first truly mass-produced suburb and is widely regarded as the archetype for postwar suburbs throughout the country. As a result,William Levitt was named the father of modern suburbia.

National Housing Act 1949

Photograph of North Halsted Street Canal Bridge, Spanning North Branch Canal at North Halsted Street, Chicago, Cook County, IL.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

This was the first comprehensive American housing bill. It initiated the concept of urban renewal, focusing on slum clearance and new housing construction. The act authorized construction of 810,000 public housing units and renewal of urban areas by eliminating slum neighborhoods and redeveloping central cities.

The legislation’s legacy is mixed, particularly with regard to the success of the urban renewal and public housing elements. The government fell far short of its goal to build 810,000 units of new public housing by 1955. In fact, the Act’s urban redevelopment programs actually destroyed more housing units than they built. At the same time, the massive urban redevelopment efforts prompted by the Act came under fire for poor planning; failings with regard to social equity and fairness; and—sometimes—corruption.

National Trust for Historic Preservation 1949

National Trust for Historic Preservation LogoIn 1947, a meeting convened by David E. Finley, Jr. culminated in the creation of the National Council for Historic Sites and Buildings. This group was able to get the congressional charter for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which President Harry S. Truman signed on October 26, 1949. The Trust supports the preservation of historic buildings and neighborhoods through a range of programs and activities. Today, twenty-nine sites are designated as National Trust Historic Sites.

Yuri Artibise

Yuri Artibise is an experienced policy analyst, community engagement practitioner and social media specialist. I have a Master of Public Administration degree with over 10 years of public policy research, analysis, and advocacy experience.

Comments are closed