Urban Renewal and Redevelopment

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.

The sociology of redevelopment in the US grew out of attempts to explain population dispersal and corresponding urban distress. Urban ecology, a leading perspective, explains population shifts in terms of ‘‘succession.’’ Competition for scarce resources causes some subspecies to replace, or ‘‘succeed,’’ others in a habitat. According to the logic of succession, middle class whites and blacks moved from central cities in the twentieth century simply because technological changes in transportation allowed them to adopt the higher standard of living promised by suburban areas.

Other scholars have criticized urban ecology for overlooking how social inequalities and power relations are structured in the form of the built environment. Neo Marxist theory emphasizes that capitalist firms change location not only to accommodate upgraded physical plant, but also to control labor conflict. Gordon (1978) used US Census data to show that manufacturing employment in the ‘‘rings’’ increased at more than twice the rate of centers of industrial cities beginning in the 1890s. The change occurred amid a steady increase in labor strife and well before the technological innovations that would later transform the organization of work and domestic life. According to Gordon, executives at the turn of the century moved their plants to the suburbs mainly to avoid labor union activity, which was concentrated in central cities.

A third approach is urban political economy, which is critical of both ecology and neo Marxism for discounting the social and political context in which demographic changes occur. Political economy views territorial shifts in population as a result of urban governing coalitions that shape zoning, transportation, taxation, housing, and other policies affecting patterns of land use and migration within a territory. From the political economy perspective, metropolitan ‘‘sprawl’’ is caused by more than just a demand for high quality housing on the urban periphery. Urban governing coalitions promoting uncontrolled growth are certainly influential in many cities, but in others ‘‘smart growth’’ advocates attempt to direct new development into existing neighborhoods. Among the policy tools they use are loan programs, tax credits for historic preservation, growth controls, and transportation planning.

Understood as a process, redevelopment involves the mobilization of substantial resources controlled by state as well as nongovernmental 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 1950s and 1960s community power researchers visited cities across North America in search of data revealing who influences redevelopment and other local policies. In his pioneering study of decision makers in 1950s Atlanta, Floyd Hunter (1953) answered these questions by documenting who in the community held the greatest reputation for political influence. He identified some 13 leaders, mainly corporate executives, reputed to control important decisions in the city’s urban renewal program. Many of Hunter’s followers found in other cities the same pattern of corporate business dominance in physical rebuilding projects. Other scholars found ‘‘coalitional’’ power structures such that business elites who initiated urban renewal were less influential in formalizing and implementing specific projects. Still others found multiple competing factions in the community, which caused redevelopment to be neglected for a lack of leadership and common purpose.

Critics of Hunter’s ‘‘reputational’’ method charged that it is impossible to determine who actually exercises influence over specific decisions by asking people who they believe has power. Just because business elites have reputations for power does not mean they will be united on all redevelopment issues or even have the time to examine them in sufficient depth to take a position. An alternative is the decision making approach, developed by Edward Banfield (1961) and Robert Dahl (1961) in their case studies of community power in Chicago and New Haven, Connecticut, respectively. Actual rather than potential control over specific public issues is the topic of decision making analysis.

When combined with reputational analysis, decision making has tended to produce more complete explanations of community power by showing the limitations imposed on elites by underlying community divisions. According to Banfield, a small group of corporate executives advocated federal urban renewal in Chicago, but they had to expend considerable political capital persuading other elites, who stood little to gain by the demolition of downtown, to go along with their 100 acre Fort Dearborn clearance and renewal project. The implementation of redevelopment, Banfield concluded, is often compromised by limitations in the stocks of political capital of elites who promote them. Similarly, Dahl attributed the success of urban renewal in New Haven as a result of the quality of New Haven’s leadership. Mayor Lee and his urban renewal staff were distinguished in their ability to shape their proposals according to what they believed interest groups and voters in New Haven could be expected to support or reject.

Community power researchers were for the most part unconcerned with the impact of redevelopment on the lives of residents in project areas or on the cultural and economic vitality of the city as a whole. They examined land use decisions mainly to demonstrate methods for measuring the distribution of community power. Other critically minded scholars attacked national urban renewal after a decade of post war slum clearance had demolished thousands of affordable housing units without replacement. The most celebrated among these critics was Jane Jacobs. In her Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) Jacobs outlined a theory of urban planning that illustrated how physical features of older, mixed use neighborhoods – the sidewalks, parks, and corner stores – configure informal social contacts that ensure the safety and vitality of cities. Older, ‘‘blighted’’ neighborhoods in city after city were demolished for the purpose of upgrading them to accommodate high rise luxury apartments, offices, and large government buildings such as Government Center in the West End of Boston.

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. Susan S. Fainstein and colleagues (1986) have studied dozens of American and European cities this way. Much government intervention, they argue, is geared toward large scale real estate projects such as the building of stadia and convention centers, and the redevelopment of older warehousing and retailing districts. Prevailing forms of public support for these projects contribute little to the welfare of existing residents and businesses, even if the new development actually increases commercial activity in the city. Eminent domain authority is used to displace low income residents and small businesses from project areas, developer subsidies and tax increment financing increase the tax burden of city residents, and rezoning of neighborhoods for large scale projects can create unwanted traffic and noise, while undermining community identity.

Economic competition between cities also affects the redevelopment process. In his influential book City Limits (1981), Paul Peterson presented a theory of why some cities outperform others in the competition for mobile capital and skilled labor. The book became popular in the Reagan era of deep cuts in federal funding to cities and growing competition for private capital. Economic growth and urban redevelopment became the most important local policy arenas in which competition between cities was played out. Local officials must work to raise the value of taxable properties in order to finance public schools, transportation, parks, and other services. For declining municipalities, this means trapping mobile capital in place. As a city attracts investment from the outside, according to the argument, its government performs better and its quality of life rises in comparison to other places. Peterson overlooked the question of who gains and who loses in the struggle for urban growth. In his view, some urban dwellers would necessarily suffer from redevelopment along the lines pointed out by political economists. But the sacrifices of some would repay in the prosperity of the city as a whole.

Current sociological accounts of the distribution of benefits and costs of redevelopment owe much to urban regime theory, a perspective created by scholars familiar with neo Marxist, political economy, and city limits literature, but unsatisfied with their simplified views on coalition building and conflict management. Fundamental to regime theory is the concept of the city as a ‘‘growth machine’’ (Molotch 1976) made up of property owners, realtors, mortgage bankers, and others who profit from the intensification of land use. Landed interests are among the most active members in the local polity, and their highest political priority is to create the right conditions for outside investment, which leads to economic growth. This may include low taxes, quality municipal services, a productive and inexpensive labor force, and minimal regulations on business. In the American political economy a division of labor exists between the state, which holds legal authority to act on behalf of all citizens, and the market, where productive assets are owned and controlled. Making and carrying out important policies related to economic growth and redevelopment thus requires the blending of resources from both sectors and the effective management of ensuing conflicts from within and without. Accordingly, the form of local government intervention in land use largely reflects who is incorporated into decision making and by what formal and informal arrangements decisions are reached.

The regime perspective reflects a more complex and changing reality of urban redevelopment than earlier approaches. It states that one cannot decide in the abstract whether or not large scale or government led urban redevelopment is a good or bad thing for the community as a whole or its individual members. Much depends on the nature of governing arrangements and the kinds of ‘‘solutions sets’’ that have evolved for dealing with urban distress. When arts organizations are represented in urban regimes, they shift land use strategies toward ‘‘mixed use’’ projects and the rehabilitation of older buildings, along the lines of Jane Jacobs’s recommendations. Affordable housing advocates represented in regimes in Boston, San Francisco, and other places have created ‘‘linkage’’ policies, whereby downtown redevelopment projects are assessed a fee to help finance construction or rehabilitation of low and moderate income housing. Other policies and types of regime exist, to the good or ill of the cities they govern. To be sure, in local redevelopment there remains a strong ‘‘systematic bias,’’ as regime theorist Clarence Stone (1989) calls it, towards corporate business interests. As long as productive assets, which create wealth and employment in a commercial republic, remain in private hands, government will seek them as primary partners in urban governance.

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 urban renewal and redevelopment. 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.


  1. Banfield, E. C. (1961) Political Influence: A New Theory of Urban Politics. Free Press, New York.
  2. Dahl, R. (1961) Who Governs? Democracy and Power in an American City. Yale University Press, New Haven.
  3. Fainstein, S. S., Fainstein, N. I., Hill, R. C., Judd, D. R., & Smith, M. P. (1986) Restructuring the City: The Political Economy of Urban Redevelopment. Longman, New York.
  4. Gordon, D. (1978) Capitalist Development and the History of American Cities. In: Tabb, W. K. & Sawers, L. (Eds.), Marxism and the Metropolis. Oxford, New York, pp. 25-63.
  5. Gotham, K. F. (Ed.) (2001) Critical Perspectives on Urban Redevelopment, Research in Urban Sociology, Vol. 6. Jai Press, New York.
  6. Hunter, F. (1953) Community Power Structure: A Study of Decision Makers. University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill.
  7. Logan, J. R. & Molotch, H. L. (1987) Urban For tunes: The Political Economy of Place. University of California Press, Berkeley.
  8. Molotch, H. L. (1976) The City as a Growth Machine. American Journal of Sociology 82(2): 309-30.
  9. Peterson, P. (1981) City Limits. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
  10. Stone, C. (1989) Regime Politics: Governing Atlanta, 1946 1988. University Press of Kansas, Lawrence.

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