Urban Renewal’s Record Shows It Wasn’t All Bad - Miller-McCune
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.