Urban Renewal

In Boston, one of the country’s oldest cities, almost a third of the old city was demolished-including the historic West End to make way for a new highway, low- and moderate-income high-rises (which eventually became luxury housing), and new government and commercial buildings. This came to be seen as a tragedy by many residents and urban planners, and one of the centerpieces of the redevelopment – Government Center – is still considered an example of the excesses of urban renewal.


Title One of the Housing Act of 1949 kick-started the “urban renewal” program that would reshape American cities. The Act provided federal funding to cities to cover the cost of acquiring areas of cities perceived to be “slums.” (The Federal government paid 2/3 of the cost of acquiring the site, called the “write down,” while local governments paid the remaining 1/3.) Those sites were then given to private developers to construct new housing. The phrase used at the time was “urban redevelopment.” “Urban renewal” was a phrase popularized with the passage of the 1954 Housing Act, which made these projects more enticing to developers, by among other things, providing FHA-backed mortgages.

Charles River Park billboard

Charles River Park billboard

The main elements of the Act included:

  • Providing federal financing for slum clearance programs associated with urban renewal projects in American cities (Title I).
  • Increasing authorization for the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) mortgage insurance (Title II).
  • Extending federal money to build more than 800,000 public housing units (Title III).
  • Permitting the FHA to provide financing for rural homeowners.

The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 gave state and federal government complete control over new highways, and often they were routed directly through vibrant urban neighborhoods, isolating or destroying many-since the focus of the program was to bring traffic in and out of the central cores of cities as expeditiously as possible and nine out of every ten dollars spent came from the federal government. This resulted in a serious degradation of the tax bases of many cities, isolated entire neighborhoods, and meant that existing commercial districts were bypassed by the majority of commuters. Segregation continued to increase as communities were displaced and many African Americans and Latinos were left with no other option than moving into public housing while whites moved to the suburbs in ever-greater numbers.