THE BLOG

Listen Up Candidates, Planning Matters: Two New Books on the History of Planning

08/26/2013 03:37 pm ET | Updated Oct 26, 2013
  • Heath Brown Assistant Professor, City University of New York, John Jay College

As we approach state and local elections in New York City, New Jersey, and Virginia, many policy issues dominate the debates: quality schools, new job development, and implementation of health care reforms. Despite its importance, rarely will you hear those on the campaign trail talk about housing and local planning. Planning policy of course does not drive voters, but this omission may be because candidates don't know the history. Two new books draw attention to the role planners and planning have played in the development of cities and suburbs in the U.S.

The first is from Gregory Heller who is the author of Ed Bacon: Planning, Politics, and the Building of Modern Philadelphia (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013). Bacon's vision and leadership on urban renewal helped to create the physical landscape of what Philadelphia is today. He was central to many of the public and private projects that recreated this modern city.

But, as the book title suggests, Bacon's legacy is more than just as a planner. Heller dubs Bacon 'the planner as policy entrepreneur'. In doing so, Heller's biography of Bacon can be read as an extended case-study in the policy process and urban politics. Bacon's deep belief in public participation resulted in a vision for planning that was profoundly democratic and a great departure from many of his contemporaries who were often dismissive or indifferent of public input.

Bacon's focus on urban renewal occurred at the same time many Americans moved to the suburbs. By 2000, half of the country was living in the suburbs, an enormous shift from a primarily rural and city-based population. Suburbanization has been studied before, but Cindy I-Fen Cheng (Associate Professor of History, University of Wisconsin, Madison) sheds new light on a particular ethnic dimension of this issue in Citizens of Asian America: Democracy and Race during the Cold War (NYU Press 2013).

Cheng's book addresses the often unrecognized civil rights struggle of Asian Americans during the 1950s and 60s. Despite the myth of the model minority, Asian Americans have long borne the brunt of federal policy, including the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882) which limited immigration from China, and the persecution of Japanese Americans in World War II internment camps.

But prejudice against Asian Americans extended to state and local planning. Cheng unravels the way racially restrictive covenants prevented Asian Americans, as well as African Americans and other non-whites, from enjoying housing freedom and the promise of the American Dream. Carefully written local housing regulations across the country, including in some of the most famous new suburbs such as Levittown, NY, prevented nearly all non-Whites from purchasing land in certain suburban communities.

Overtime the courts have repeatedly struck-down these racially restrictive covenants, but residential segregation has persisted for Asian Americans. A 2011 report from US2010 Project showed that as immigration from Asia increased over the last two decades Asian Americans (but also African Americans and Hispanic Americans) have become more and more isolated from whites. As problematic, with a few exceptions at higher incomes, Asian Americans live in comparably poorer neighborhoods than whites. As the report concludes, separate still does not mean equal.

Fifty years after Whitney Young called for the nation to address the persistently poor quality of housing faced by African Americans, the importance of local planning for insuring equitable, fair, and prosperous communities persists. Heller and Cheng's new books draw attention to the complex legacy of planning and offer clues for how current policy makers and those seeking office can address the problems of today.