The Racist Roots Of “Urban Renewal” And How It Made Cities Less Equal

“The social and emotional cost fell on poor people and people of color,” says University of Richmond’s Robert Nelson.

The Racist Roots Of “Urban Renewal” And How It Made Cities Less Equal
[Source Image: cherezoff/iStock]

It sounded like a great idea at the time: give cities funding to clean up their impoverished areas and invest in affordable housing and urban infrastructure projects. But the federal policy of urban renewal, established by the Housing Act of 1949 that lasted through the 1950s and early 1960s, had devastating consequences–including displacing more than a million people from their homes.


A new project from the University of Richmond’s Digital Scholarship Lab uses data to investigate the number of displaced families from 1950 to 1966 in hundreds of cities and towns in the United States. The end result, an interactive data visualization called Renewing Inequality, highlights the cost of urban renewal by overlaying data about displaced families with data about race and redlining, the discriminatory practice during the 1930s that barred black people from living in certain neighborhoods.

Nationwide displacements of families through federally-funded urban renewal. The color from green to purple indicates race with green being 100% white families and purple being 100% families of color. [Image: courtesy Renewing Inequality/Digital Scholarship Lab/University of Richmond]
This interplay between two separate eras of federal policy is one of the elements that the visualization is most effective at highlighting. Take Chicago. Areas on the city’s south side that were redlined in the 1930s almost directly line up with later urban renewal projects like Hyde Park. And there are implications for urban poverty today, too. “These maps are pretty recognizable when people look at the circumstances of American cities today,” says Robert Nelson, the director of the Digital Scholarship Lab. “It’s not hard to look at these things and see the contours of poverty and wealth that exist over four or five generations.”

While the federal policy was supposed to either compensate displaced people for their property, aid in their relocation, or place them in public housing, this assistance was often late or never arrived at all. And as cities used federal money to raze entire areas to rebuild, people lost their homes and, more crucially, their communities. Because urban renewal was fundamentally targeted at clearing slums, poor people and people of color were often disproportionately impacted–something the map shows by designating cities with more people of color affected as purple and cities with more white people affected as green. Some of the disparities are shocking; for instance, in Lubbock, Texas, 3% of the population was non-white, but all of the 1,300 families that were displaced because of urban renewal projects were of color.

While much of the research on urban renewal focuses on big cities like Baltimore and New York, Nelson and his team found that the majority of cities that received federal funding and undertook urban renewal projects had populations of less than 50,000 people. Because the policy required cities to have zoning rules, it incentivized many of these smaller towns to establish formal city planning offices. “The federal government was responsible for creating homogenization and bureaucratization around planning at a local level,” Nelson says. “That didn’t exist before.”

Map of Atlanta indicating how urban renewal projects often corresponded with areas that had been redlined in the 1930s. [Image: courtesy Renewing Inequality/Digital Scholarship Lab/University of Richmond]
The policy did do some good–it brought office buildings, shopping centers, and entertainment centers to cities during the height of white flight to the suburbs. It paid for the likes of New York’s Lincoln Center as well as universities and hospitals. But those who benefited were often wealthier suburbanites. Cities were remade to their liking, leaving us with the car-centric urban areas we have today. And not only that; homeownership became even more concentrated in the hands of white people. “People of color more often than not were directed in public housing and the rental market and white families were incentivized to become homeowners, and that has effects through generations,” Nelson says.

To understand the impact of the policy, Nelson says, he and his team are also hoping to tackle a project that focuses more on individuals, using oral histories to tell the story rather than the vast quantities of data they analyzed for Renewing Inequality. If it comes to be, the project would be part of the Digital Scholarship Lab’s larger initiative called American Panorama, which aims to be a digital atlas of American history.


Nelson doesn’t believe anything on the scale of the urban renewal program will ever happen again. “[There was] a register of optimism about the power of government to do something that I don’t think we have today. This was a huge program that aimed to remake substantial parts of cities and it [did] that,” he says. “Maybe the failures of this program caused some disillusionment because it certainly wasn’t an equitable progress that handed out the benefits of this program equally. The social and emotional cost fell on poor people and people of color. That’s obviously intrinsically regrettable but it’s also regrettable in the sense that it poisons our sense of our effectiveness as Americans as a polity to do big things.”

Policy can often feel like an abstract thing, like stacks of sentences strung together behind closed doors. But with the perspective of history, combined with data and a commitment to highlighting personal stories, projects like this can bring the messy, idealistic–and ultimately unequal–impact of policies like urban renewal to life.

About the author

Katharine Schwab is an associate editor at Co.Design based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture.