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PLANNING AND THE GREAT DEPRESSION

The 1930s was a peculiar time in the history of planning. It awakened great optimism about planning, and indeed, several new areas of planning were opened up. Yet on balance, for those who had great hopes for planning, this time was something of a disappointment. To those planners who would wish to see the scope of planning greatly enlarged—and this does not include all planners—the Depression years still have the bittersweet taste of a tantalizing opportunity nearly grasped. What happened?

The country began to slide into depression with the stock market crash of 1929, and economic conditions gradually worsened for the next several years. By the time President Franklin D. Roosevelt was inaugurated in March 1933, the unemployment rate was in the 25 percent range, and the cash value of goods and services produced had fallen by almost half since 1929. The fact that the free enterprise system was clearly malfunctioning and was unable to connect idle workers with idle machinery created an intellectual climate that favored planning in a way that the prosperous 1920s had not.

Planning is an ambiguous term. It may include everything from the most minor control over land use in a small town to Soviet-style centralized economic planning. But political moods and movements can be intellectually fuzzy. In general, the economic distress and disillusion of the Great Depression tended to favor more planning, whatever that word may mean.

Relatively little consensus existed about what ought to be planned or by what principles. Within the Roosevelt administration there was a wide ideological spectrum. Roosevelt himself was not a radical. He was a pragmatist who would adjust and tune the system as required but who had no agenda for large-scale restructuring. Some in his administration, such as the secretary of the interior, Harold Ickes, were relatively conservative. Others, like Rexford Tugwell and Henry Wallace, who were well to Roosevelt's left, favored major change and a major shift of economic power from private to public hands.

Apart from the administration there was a Congress that, although much more willing to experiment than it had been in better times, was hardly radical. Finally, there was the Supreme Court, then a relatively conservative body that in modern terms might be described as "strict constructionist."1 The Court turned out to be a major limitation on the amount of social and economic experimentation in which the national government might engage.

A number of planning initiatives began during the Great Depression.2 Some persist to the present, whereas others have sunk without leaving much trace.3 One initiative that lasted was the federal funding of local and state planning efforts. Federal funding was provided for planning staffs, both as a job-creation measure and as a commitment to planning. Numerous communities used federal funds to build and staff planning departments, to develop maps and databases, and to formulate plans, including many community master plans. In the slow-growing, fiscally strained environment of the 1930s, many plans simply sat on the shelf. But the federal funding did help build the size and technical competence of the profession.

Federal funding and increased state interest in planning accelerated a trend that had begun in the late 1920s, namely the creation of state planning agencies. By 1936 every state except one had a state planning board. The focus of these boards varied greatly. In many, particularly those in which agriculture was a dominant part of the economy, the focus was on conservation and farmland preservation. In others, the primary focus was on urban issues, including housing quality, sewage treatment, water pollution, the provision of adequate recreational facilities, public finance, and urban governance. Much of the work of state planning agencies focused simply on finding the facts, whether that meant mapping areas of soil erosion in a rural area or studying public finance and the structure of government in a metropolitan area.

The federal government moved into the provision of low-cost housing, an area in which it has remained in one way or another ever since. The motivation was twofold. First was the obvious goal of improving the housing of the poor. The second goal was expansion of construction as a way of stimulating the economy. At first the federal government built public housing directly. Then a Supreme Court decision forced a change in the program, and the federal government switched to providing financial support, both capital and operating, for local public housing authorities. There are today somewhat over 1 million units of public housing in the United States and several million units of privately owned but publicly subsidized units. That public presence in the housing market had its origins in the Great Depression.

In the mid-1930s, the Resettlement Administration embarked on a program of new town-building. The program lost favor with Congress after a time and was discontinued in 1938. However, three new communities—Greenbelt, Maryland; Green Hills, Ohio; and Greendale, Wisconsin—were constructed.

The housing initiative of the federal government that had the most far- reaching effects was not one that fell into the realm of planning but rather into the realm of finance. That was the provision of mortgage insurance by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) noted briefly in Chapter 2 and discussed in more detail in Chapter 17. Few, if any, acts of the federal government have had more effect on the pattern of settlement than FHA mortgage insurance.

The conceptual basis for Urban Renewal was also a Depression- era development. Economists and others within the federal government foresaw the difficulty central cities would have in competing with suburban areas for development capital, largely because of differences in site-acquisition costs (see Chapter 11). The solution proposed was the City Realty Corporation, an organization that would use federal subsidy monies plus the power of eminent domain to produce marketable development sites at below cost.4 World War II swept the City Realty Corporation off the national agenda, but the idea, under a different name, became one of the bases of the Housing Act of 1949, which established Urban Renewal.

Still another Depression-era initiative was the first planning for what was to become the Interstate Highway System. World War II shelved the idea for a time, but it reappeared as the National Defense Highway Act of 1956. This initiated the building of the Interstate Highway System, the largest single construction project in U.S. history.

The Depression also saw the creation of the National Resources Planning Board (NRPB) under the leadership of Rexford Tugwell, a member of FDR's so-called brain trust. Although the board never fulfilled the dreams of those who favored the major move to the left, it did do a certain amount of useful work. One contribution was the support of local and state planning efforts. Another was the making of an inventory of natural resources on a national scale. In the conflicting political currents of the time, noted earlier, the board did not make much of a mark on the nation and in 1943 was dissolved by Congress. The war and national preoccupation with war-related matters was one cause of its demise. Another cause was that any organization that seeks to plan on a broad canvas will naturally step on toes and make enemies.

Whether the NRPB's dissolution is a cause for sorrow or rejoicing is largely a matter of ideology. From the left its dissolution looks like a major missed opportunity. From the right its dissolution looks like a slaying of the socialist monster in its crib before it could grow to maturity and do any damage.

Finally, the Depression era saw the start of a number of regional planning efforts, the best known of which was the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). Established in 1933 to provide a combined approach to flood control, power generation, and natural resource conservation, the TVA was planned on a major scale. Dams that served for flood control also produced power, which facilitated rural electrification and brought industry into the valley. The creation of lakes behind dams naturally led the agency into recreation planning. Among those who favored a much larger role for government, the TVA occasioned much enthusiasm as a prototype for what large-scale regional planning could accomplish.

Other regional initiatives included the New England Regional Commission, the Colorado River Compact, and the Pacific Northwest Regional Planning Commission. The latter two ultimately resulted in the construction of the Boulder, Bonneville, and Grand Coulee dams.

 
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