Public Housing – New Urbanism

Since its implementation after the Great Depression in the 1920s, public housing in the USA has been meant to be a temporary supply of affordable housing for needy families. Misleading public policies, enormous financial cutbacks, and a socio-economic isolation of the working poor within the middle of North American cities (a result of both social and physical dynamics of urban development) led to the failure of American public housing.

With the signing of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act in 1996, former president Bill Clinton wanted to “end welfare as we know it”.[1] Now, people had to work to draw welfare services in return.

In 1993, as a consequence of the report of the National Commission on Severely Distressed Public Housing (commissioned by the U.S. Congress), the HOPE VI program was created to redevelop severely distressed public housing communities through public-private funding. After a meeting of members of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) in 1996, new design guidelines based on the concept of the New Urbanism supplemented the HOPE VI program.

New Urbanism as an alternative design concept to urban sprawl favors traditionally designed neighborhoods with clearly marked boundaries and a center within a five-to-ten-minute walk. A social as well as functional mix was to foster a ‘sense of community’ as opposed to the ‘sense of nowhere’ within suburban (sprawl) housing subdivisions.

Understanding these as ‘place-based goals’, HOPE VI offers more than a redevelopment of public housing communities: Additionally ‘people-based goals’ such as self-sufficiency (getting people off of welfare) should be fostered through educational programs, and intense social work and guidance. ‘Social role modeling’ and ‘social control’ seem to be socio‑ structural consequences of mixing different income classes in a newly developed neighborhood.

“The vision is bigger than popcorn.” [2] that summarizes (in a metaphorical way) the set of problems which occur when redeveloping a community, fostering interaction, and mixing different social milieus via an urban design concept. To do so, it seems to require more than a different design and intense social work. For years, social scientists have criticized the theoretical basis (mostly the social aspects) of New Urbanism. A clear definition of ‘sense of community’ with all its structural aspects as well as long-term studies to monitor upward mobility among residents, economic stabilization of the neighborhood, and overall improvement of the area can be of help to substantiate the integrative urban planning concept of the New Urbanism.

Questions / comments? mail to: Claudia

[1] Source: Article “Clinton-Getting People off Welfare” in New York Times, Sept. 10 1992. IN: Political Science Quarterly, Academy of Political Science, 2001, Vol. 4:525
[2] Reverent Davis was interviewed during a research stay as one of the involved actors of the redeveloping process in Mechanicsville (Knoxville, TN). For more information see: Christen, Claudia: Mixed-Income Housing in the United States of America, Berlin 2008

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