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The Social Issues

The two professions from which modern urban planning sprang are architecture and landscape architecture, both of which are concerned largely with physical design. In earlier years planners often tended to emphasize design and physical issues over social issues, as the discussion of the Plan for Chicago indicated. But planners have long recognized that what at first glance appear to be simply matters of design can have powerful social implications.

In the 1960s and 1970s, dissatisfaction within the profession reached major proportions over what many saw as an underemphasis on social issues, and many planners began to define themselves as "social planners" and to speak of a subfield of "social planning." This change within the profession had a number of roots.

The Civil Rights movement of the late 1950s and early 1960s focused attention on issues of justice and fairness. Many planners felt that they could not simply be neutral civil servants doing the bidding of "the establishment" if they did not approve of its goals and policies. The wave of riots and arson that hit U.S. cities from Newark to Watts in Los Angeles in the mid-1960s revealed a deep well of dissatisfaction and distress among minority populations and added to the perception that we as a society must be doing something wrong. Shortly thereafter, the Vietnam War split a generation of Americans. Those who felt that the war was wrong tended to carry that perception over into many domestic issues. If the establishment was wrong in Vietnam, they felt, it was wrong also at home.

Another reason for the change in focus was that many projects which appeared to be well planned in physical terms did not work out well when considered in a broader view. Urban Renewal, discussed in Chapter 11, was one such case. So, too, was public housing. The Pruitt-Igoe public housing project in St. Louis was a large project built according to what were then considered good design practices. The project won a design award from the American Institute of Architects (AIA). Socially, however, it was a failure, with high rates of crime, vandalism, illegitimacy, and so on. Ultimately, the city, unable to deal with the multiple social problems of Pruitt-Igoe, demolished the buildings and cleared the site.1 Clearly, physical design does not solve people's psychological, family, economic, legal, drug, alcohol, and other problems. A project, however well done from an architectural and site design perspective, but which isolated large numbers of people with serious problems in a small area simply set the stage for disaster. In general, high-rise construction has worked out very badly in public housing, and a number of other projects like Cabrini Green in Chicago have been torn down since Pruitt-Igoe. On the other hand, many high-rise condominiums and cooperative apartments have worked out very well, as indicated by the premium prices that they command.

 
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