If you know just one story about the history of urban planning, it’s probably the one about Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs: about the imperious planner, in league with corporate developers and crony politicians, who tried to ram an expressway through the heart of New York City, and the heroic journalist, a champion of little neighborhoods and walkable communities, who stopped him. 1
That story has been told so many times in the past half-century that it has come to define a standard line of thinking for progressive urbanists. Jacobs taught us to be wary of paternalistic, top-down planning schemes and to respect the intricate social textures of everyday urban life. Recently, some critics have challenged that legacy, arguing that Jacobs’s grassroots tactics give cover to exclusionary practices and that her libertarian dream of self-organizing communities offers no defense against the global forces that have hollowed out many urban neighborhoods. These revisions have turned Jacobs into a more complicated hero than she once was. 2 Still, the Jacobs-Moses fight endures as a cautionary tale about bigness, a shorthand way of explaining that local wisdom is superior to bureaucratic hubris.
But there is another story about Robert Moses which flips his role in this script, where he is cast not as the embodiment of Big Planning but as its antagonist. At a pivotal moment in the early 1940s, planners in New York City considered a vision of the metropolis that was far more radical than anything Moses would ever propose. The story of his fight with New York City’s first planning commissioner suggests that the problem with Moses’s plans was not that they were too big, but that they were too small. 3
Long-Haired Planners and Their Abracadabras
In June 1944, the New York Times Magazine ran an opinion piece that savaged the elite class of planners and their grandiose designs for urban renewal. “In municipal planning, we must decide between revolution and common sense,” the author began. What followed was a righteous tirade against Big Planning. The author tore into the professionals who, with their “own curious lingo and double talk, their cabalistic writings, secret passwords and abracadabras,” operated in an abstract realm of urban theory, detached from the ordinary lives of most city-dwellers. These experts proposed massive, impersonal interventions, “splashing at a ten-league canvas with brushes of comet’s hair,” instead of focusing on “small stuff,” like schemes to “adapt, modify, improvise, improve, boldly but with respect for our heritage.” Planners in some distant municipal office, the author cautioned, were far too eager to barge into a community and “tear it up by the roots.” 4
It sounds like vintage Jacobs, but the author was actually Robert Moses. He returned to the pages of the magazine in 1948 to argue for the vital “set of amenities” that “flourishes in the heart of the city.” Sneering at the “long-haired planners” who idealized European cities and disrespected American capitalism, Moses equated large-scale urban redevelopment with an attack on individual liberty and free markets. Americans wouldn’t let themselves be “pushed around and regrouped by smart-aleck planners,” he insisted. “Scratch a revolutionary planner and you find a left-wing Socialist.” 5
Tugwell began to think about how the federal government might dramatically reorder the relationship between people, communities, and land.
One of the “revolutionaries” who drew his ire was the left-wing economist, planner, and public administrator Rexford Guy Tugwell, with whom Moses had clashed just a few years earlier. Tugwell was trained by a group of radical economists at Wharton in the early 20th century who advanced the notion that the state should play a role in economic regulation. In Tugwell’s version of this economic theory, the government’s role was not limited to correcting errors at the edges of the marketplace. Rather, he believed the government should actively set and direct the objectives of private industry through the instrument of the comprehensive plan. He saw central planning as a new synthesis of technical rationality and democratic decision-making, a mechanism for reorienting the economy away from “private money-making ventures” and toward “publicly defined and expertly approached aims.” 6
In 1932, Tugwell was plucked from a post at Columbia University to join Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s administration, where he represented the leftmost flank of the “Brain Trust.” From 1935 to 1937, he headed the federal Resettlement Administration, which was envisioned as a program to move farmers away from “marginal” lands that could not support agriculture. Tugwell felt his new agency had a broader mandate, and he began to think about how the federal government might dramatically reorder the relationship between people, communities, and land. He launched an ambitious suburban development scheme with the intention of building hundreds of “greenbelt” cities across the country. These greenbelt cities — derisively known as “Tugwelltowns” — exemplified two key elements of his planning philosophy. First, they were intended to provide an alternative to private speculative development, with the community retaining land ownership and political control over future expansion. Second, they were designed at a scale that exceeded traditional city planning. Greenbelt administrators would have comprehensive authority over a wide area, so that they could adjust the regional equilibrium of housing, industry, and recreation. 7
Only three greenbelt towns were built — in Wisconsin, Maryland, and Ohio — but they represented, together with the Resettlement Administration’s rural programs, a root-and-branch attack on the capitalist system of for-profit land development. 8 And so “Rex the Red” became a lightning rod for conservative critics of the New Deal, who blasted his community development schemes as a “gross waste” of public dollars. Tugwell described his role as “the whipping boy for the President,” and he resigned in frustration after the 1936 election. 9
Tugwell believed that bigness was a fact of modern life. Government power needed to scale up to match the power that private businesses had accumulated.
New York City was then in the process of rewriting its charter. For the first time, the municipal government would include a City Planning Commission, and a powerful one at that, tasked with the responsibility of preparing the city’s capital budget. The explicit premise of this reform was that “planning” represented a new form of government power, akin to a corporation’s executive agency, which would counter “local political or special interest” and act on behalf of the greater public by taking a top-down view of the city’s needs. The charter tried to insulate the planning agency “as far as possible from political control,” so that it would concern itself “with the welfare of the whole city.” 10
This was exactly the concept of central planning Tugwell had been developing throughout his career: a fusion between the democratic “public interest” and the new technical powers enabled by mass industrial organization. Tugwell believed that bigness was a fact of modern life. “Ours by now is a society of an intricate sort,” he wrote in 1939. The small-scale political processes that had worked in a pre-industrial age were now easily stampeded by the forces of capitalism, and Tugwell argued that government power needed to scale up to match the power that private businesses had accumulated. He saw the comprehensive regional plan as a “unifying, cohesive, constructive, and truly general force” that could overcome the contradictory, directionless competition of self-interested capitalists and put development back in the hands of the people’s representatives. 11
Under the new charter, New York seemed like a promising place to test this theory. The reform-minded mayor, Fiorello La Guardia, had put both the purse and power of the Roosevelt government behind an ambitious series of public works during the first years of the New Deal (many of them guided by Moses, in his role as parks commissioner). But La Guardia had his doubts about the Planning Commission, which imposed new constraints on the mayor’s ability to make spending decisions and threatened his hold on local political machines. When he finally invited Tugwell to chair the commission in late 1937, he had already packed the board with political appointees. 12
Tugwell, true to form as a quixotic champion of government power, interpreted his mandate broadly. His job, as he understood it, was to do “something toward seating the planning function in the government as the foresighted drafters of the new charter had expected.” 13 He proposed to lead a team of expert planners in a sweeping reorganization of land use and economic activity. In reality, the commission was pinned into a messy municipal structure that limited its ability to act autonomously, but Tugwell forged ahead with little regard for political feasibility. To “comprehend the parts,” he said, the commission would need to develop a master plan that articulated the growth of the city at a zoomed-out scale, both geographically and chronologically. The preliminary master plan, unveiled in November 1940, included a “prefatory note,” which was unsigned but written in Tugwell’s unmistakable voice:
A Master Plan can only be conceived and developed by first striving for the most comprehensive view and clearest understanding of the city, of its chief reasons for existence; its main functions in the larger scheme of things; of what facilities are needed to perform these functions. It is necessary to know, at least approximately, how many people are to be provided for in future years; where and how they are to live and travel about; how and where business and industrial activities are to be conducted; how space for various purposes is to be allotted; and, finally, how the whole can be integrated, unified, and stabilized, and yet provide for further growth and orderly changes, which cannot possibly be foreseen. 14
The master plan had two phases: an “intermediate step,” with compromises made to the “logical outgrowth of the unordered patterns of today,” followed by an audaciously redesigned system of land use controls and population redistribution. Between downtown and midtown Manhattan, the city would build a “wide residential belt extending from river to river,” replacing the “large motley area” of business and light manufacturing. Commercial areas would be “decentralized” and relocated to “new focal points of transit lines,” in order to move people closer to their places of work and ease gridlock. Borrowing a term from the Resettlement Administration’s suburban program, the plan proposed a series of “greenbelts” which would divide the new decentralized, residential-commercial hubs from one another. Large parks and public spaces would nearly triple in area, from 29,000 acres to 76,000 acres. The city’s notorious “old law tenements” would be “eliminated within not much more than one generation” and replaced by medium-density housing, “a more even and economical” form of development, such that the total residential area of the city would actually decrease.
Most ambitiously, Tugwell’s master plan imagined the city government taking a lead role in redevelopment and expansion projects. Urban form, it argued, had to be planned “not lot by lot as in the past, but whole blocks and groups of blocks at a time.” This would allow the city to develop cellular, master-planned neighborhoods that would function as little cities of their own: “well-knit residential communities complete with the small parks and playgrounds, public and semi-public buildings, and local shopping centers requisite to a satisfactory neighborhood environment.” The 1940 master plan built on ideas set forth the previous year in a plan for low-income housing, and Tugwell imagined — as in the New Deal suburbs — that the public would come to underwrite housing as a public service.
Moses cast himself as a centrist guardian fighting a common-sense battle against the overreach of utopian bureaucrats.
Ambitious regional plans like these, which sought to resolve both the congestion crisis and the housing crisis by creating satellite new towns and rebalancing the equilibrium between city and countryside, were in vogue among left-leaning planners from the 1930s through the early postwar years. Regional plans such as Sir Patrick Abercrombie’s in London and Yngve Larsson’s in Stockholm married functionalist architecture and regional transit development to expert-led economic planning and an expansion of public services like senior housing and medical clinics. Urban planning, not yet reduced to zoning and code enforcement, was essential to the major political promises of social democracies around the world. Lewis Silkin, the Minister of Town and Country Planning in Britain’s postwar Labor government, argued that the only solution to urban chaos was for the government to nationalize land ownership outright. 15
Nearly everywhere, and especially in the United States, these socialist planners were opposed by conservative coalitions of business interests and landowners. In New York City, their chief antagonist was Parks Commissioner Moses, who cast himself as a centrist guardian fighting a common-sense battle against the overreach of utopian bureaucrats. As the historian Mark Gelfand has written, Moses scorned Tugwell as “a dreamer in a world that called for hard-nosed, practical men.” Tugwell represented the “centralization of decision making,” while Moses “held that great deference had to be paid to politicians and public opinion.” 16
Writing to Tugwell in 1939, Moses criticized him for over-reaching. “I can’t see that any useful purpose is gained by putting a lot of dashes and dots on a map in a way that is difficult to figure out what they mean,” he complained. He called Tugwell’s proposed express highways “ridiculous,” and cautioned that they would “frighten conservative people to such an extent that all parkway and arterial work might be indefinitely delayed.” He compared Tugwell’s plan to the fanciful models that the industrial futurist Norman Bel Geddes had designed for the 1939 World’s Fair, and he dismissed the proposed “sixteen ply motor roads” and “elimination of the human element” as “figments of the imagination.” 17 In another letter, Moses accused Tugwell of stuffing his master plan with “projects running into staggering sums, many of them impossible of accomplishment, wholly unnecessary … or calculated to frighten, confuse, and antagonize many elements and forces in the city.” 18
Here was the lesser-known Moses: defender of cautious incrementalism, critic of grandiosity.
Here was the lesser-known Moses: defender of cautious incrementalism, critic of grandiosity. In public, at least, he sided with the business elite who recoiled at Tugwell’s assault on the central role of private developers in shaping the city’s future. “The real estate interests in New York,” Tugwell wrote in his diary, “were as self-centered and as effectively obstinate a group of reactionaries as can ever have existed anywhere.” Even though Tugwell believed that he and Moses were ultimately on the same side, working “for the city’s improvement,” he felt that Moses “took advantage of the elaborate campaign” to discredit comprehensive planning, which turned the parks commissioner into “a kind of hero to the exploitative interests.” 19
Forced off the planning commission in 1941, Tugwell concluded bitterly that “not that much was accomplished” during his tenure in New York. 20 He went on to serve as governor of Puerto Rico, where he continued to chase his dream of establishing a powerful comprehensive planning agency. Meanwhile, Moses consolidated his authority in New York, becoming the “Power Broker” mythologized in Robert Caro’s biography — until the early 1960s, when that power was checked by the community resistance that Jacobs chronicled. He is now remembered as a symbol of the very kind of planning that he had once fulminated against: the splasher of a ten-league canvas with brushes of a comet’s hair.
An Alternative to Moses vs. Jacobs
If we retell history in a way that casts Robert Moses not as the symbol of Big Planning, but as its nemesis, how might it change our attitudes towards urban development today? What if we were to associate top-down planning not with expressways and racist clearance schemes, but rather with urban greenbelts and the provision of social services?
The progressive rejection of Big Planning that coalesced under Jane Jacobs was part of a broader trend towards anti-statism in the second half of the 20th century. The tragedy of the Vietnam War and the faltering project of racial integration in the United States led activists to focus on how government made racism and cronyism worse, not better. Planning departments became seen as alliances between Babbitts and Poindexters, symbols of the cozy relationship between financial and bureaucratic elites. Environmentalists challenged the midcentury planners’ enthusiasm for automobile infrastructure, and by the 1980s it was common wisdom that modernist principles of urban renewal had not saved cities, but in fact had hastened their decline. The liberal answer to the Reagan revolution was not a New Deal faith in the power of the state but a “Small is Beautiful” embrace of localism and self-help. As Anthony Fontenot writes in his “Notes Toward a History of Non-Planning,” this bottom-up movement valued spontaneity and freedom, while casting suspicion on anyone with a surveyor’s map and a government mandate. 21
We can heroize a people-powered movement that stops an expressway, but what about one that prevents a public housing development from being built?
But there are at least two major problems which the small-scale, bottom-up critique of expert urban planning cannot solve. First, the “society of an intricate sort” that Tugwell could see emerging nearly 80 years ago has only grown more complex and interrelated. The economic and social forces that shape cities far exceed the spatial limits of the block or neighborhood. When political geography and economic geography are mismatched in this way, it is a cinch for capital to leap outside the control of the body politic. To plan fairly and equitably for a modern metropolis of several million people — not to mention a global economic system of billions — institutions and political processes that attempt to synthesize “a concept of the whole” must enjoy both legitimacy and meaningful power.
As countless city leaders learned in the past half century, the inability to control regional development left them politically handcuffed. Whenever neighborhood activism or social-justice movements in the city got too hot, wealthy and white residents simply retreated outside municipal lines to establish communities insulated from the political power that threatened their privileges. And local control meant something very different for communities that enjoyed access to institutional power than for communities that were systematically excluded from it. Tugwell warned in a 1950 article that the high ideals of “grass-roots” democracy were often translated into “grass-tops” rule by local tyrants. 22 We can heroize a people-powered movement that stops an expressway, but what about a people-powered movement that stops a school from being integrated, or prevents a public housing development from being built?
As Lily Geismer notes in her study of suburban liberalism, the virtue of “smallness” in land-use controls often led to battles where privileged homeowners appealed to locality and community in order to “protect” their neighborhoods from minority groups who tried to work their way in through larger-scale systems of political emancipation. 23 Tugwell believed that in New York City “the whole metropolitan area” deserved “some sort of unified supervision” that would counter local communities’ ability to jealously guard their own unfair advantages. 24 And he insisted that planning at the national and even global levels was necessary to match the scale of democratic control with the scale of economic activity in the modern world.
The second problem with small-scale urbanism was that anti-statism on the left was easily co-opted by reactionary forces. Jacobs’s critique of the planning establishment came just as a new right-wing ideology was rising up to oppose the transformations of the New Deal and the Great Society. Planners who were genuinely striving for social integration and economic justice were painted with the sloppy brush of anti-bureaucratic fervor. For example, Robert C. Weaver, the first secretary of Housing and Urban Development, the first black member of a presidential cabinet, and a tireless advocate for large-scale public urban renewal, found himself and his department simultaneously under fire from both right and left. As the historian-lawyer Wendell E. Pritchett notes, Weaver was dismayed by what he saw as Jacobs’s “romanticized” sentimentality for small-scale urban life, especially at a time when conservatives and white supremacists were trying to delegitimize federal efforts to desegregate urban ghettos and create housing and jobs programs for the poor. 25
Cities today have many problems which littleness can’t solve.
We cannot know what New York City would look like today if Tugwell had been able to lead a powerful planning commission and Moses were sidelined. But the city Tugwell described is something to strive for: “a city of neighborhoods” making “intensive use” of “all its living and working areas, but one which does not sprawl over peripheral slums and a rotting, half-demolished center.” In a phrase that would not sound out of place in a contemporary progressive urbanist playbook, Tugwell imagined “a city without suburbs as we know them —because the city itself is a good place to live.” 26
From the affordable housing crisis to infrastructural collapse to racialized sorting, cities today have many problems which littleness can’t solve. The lessons of the Jacobs-Moses fight have been learned well by citizens and reformers in the last decades — and eventually over-learned. History, however, offers alternatives to the symbolic, reductive fight between libertarian Jacobs and crony Moses. In Tugwell’s brief encounters with the Moses machine we see the political possibility of fighting bureaucratic urbanism not from below — but from above.
If you would like to comment on this article, or anything else on Places Journal, visit our Facebook page or send us a message on Twitter.