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The built environment deteriorates with the passage of time and the stresses of use and neglect. Unemployment, poverty, shortages of affordable housing, health epidemics, and transportation problems often accompany physical decay in modern cities. Attempts to relieve these social problems through the maintenance, rehabilitation, and rebuilding of the physical environment are known as urban redevelopment.
European governments implemented the first large-scale urban redevelopment projects in the nineteenth century. Louis Napoleon Bonaparte of France led the way with his massive renovation of Paris that began in 1853. Thousands of residents were displaced by the creation of a system of wide boulevards that ”pierced” diagonally through dense, older neighborhoods of the city. Another wave of urban redevelopment began after World War II. In Europe, government acquisition and demolition of properties played a major role in the rebuilding of cities destroyed by war. Cities in North America meanwhile embarked on their first major effort at demolition and rehabilitation of the built environment. Title II of the 1949 Federal Housing Act, known as ”urban renewal,” responded to a very different problem: the long-term trend of suburbanization that threatened the stability of the central city.
Understood as a process, redevelopment involves the mobilization of substantial resources controlled by state as well as non-governmental actors. Community development corporations, tax increment financing (TIF), eminent domain, tax exempt bonds, human capital, and social trust are some of the many resources commonly involved in attempts to improve distressed neighborhoods. Valued resources may be controlled by real estate owners, financial institutions, developers, neighborhood residents, historic preservationists, or environmental groups. Sociological studies of redevelopment tend to revolve around questions relating to how the composition and dynamics of urban governing coalitions influence strategies of redevelopment.
In the last section of his classic book Urban Villagers (1962), Herbert Gans described how destruction of the built environment caused by urban renewal disrupted relationships among neighbors and extended families in Boston’s Italian West End. Gans introduced the important distinction, overlooked by local planners, between a slum and a low-rent district. The West End definitely fell into the latter category, according to Gans, which benefited greatly the working-class families residing there. Gans’s work influenced a generation of urban planners to be skeptical towards the view that older neighborhoods must be demolished in order to be saved.
By the 1970s a growing body of research validated earlier criticisms of urban renewal. Most of this work was done by scholars versed in neo-Marxist and political economy literature. They used case methods to develop theories of how class interests – especially those of corporate business and real estate – influence government intervention in the physical redevelopment of cities. But the sacrifices of some would repay in the prosperity of the city as a whole.
Over the past century the physical decline of cities has corresponded more and more with patterns of socioeconomic distress. In the name of relieving distress, officials have facilitated redevelopment of the built environment. At times, government action has contributed to greater decline and distress, such as occurred with federal urban renewal. More often, redevelopment projects have mixed results. Understanding the institutions and coalition forms most conducive to more sustainable growth that meets the needs of all urban residents remains a high-priority agenda for future research.
- Gotham, K. F. (ed.) (2001) Critical Perspectives on Urban Redevelopment, Research in Urban Sociology, vol. 6. Jai Press, New York.
- Molotch, H. L. (1976) The city as a growth machine. American Journal of Sociology 82 (2): 309-30.
- Peterson, P. (1981) City Limits. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL.
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