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Preservation Movements and US Urban Development Essay (Critical Writing)

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Updated: Mar 3rd, 2021


During and after the mid-20th century, the United States sought to introduce large-scale urban restructuring projects to counter the many socio-economic problems arising from the diverse population of the region. This move was complicated and involving since amateurs, activists, lovers of landscape, and historical preservationists had to encourage citizens to seek some degree of control of the urban renewal projects.

The public outcry to overhaul the urban restructuring served a restraining role, which required historic preservation and environmental protection measures. Historical preservationists needed heritage conservation and protection of historic fabric within the American cities. These movements were key in forming the basis over which current preservationist groups emerged. These movements used the preservationist approach as the underpinning factor against public and private large-scale developers seeking to achieve social progressiveness through urban restructuring.

This paper adopts diverse discourse analysis to explore and explain the objectives of the historical preservationists pioneered during and after the mid-20th c by the city dwellers and the urban governments in upgrading the urban space. This study will show that despite the existing disparities in redeveloping the cities, the different movements shared key values and ideologies, which maintained the architectural quality and historical significance of most structures in urban cities of the United States. In addition, this paper will argue that the shared values were beneficial to the sustainability of the socio-ecological system of the urban cities.

Policy framework

The United States Housing Act of 1949 sought to improve the social livelihood of the underprivileged citizens particularly those residing in the slum areas (Datel 127). The Act identified slums as a national concern with potential influence on the economy and security of the United States. The many threats emanating from slum-dwelling such as ghetto crime and vulnerability of diseases like tuberculosis signaled national calamities.

The federal government sought to incur the costs of clearing the slums rather than facing the costs of escalating the effects of slum health and property protection. The Housing Act emphasized alleviating unsafe and congested poor houses coupled with replacing them with modern safe and permanent new housing. The main objective of the federal government was to achieve a decent livelihood for all Americans and in the desired environment within the shortest possible time frame. The federal government sought to achieve this project by funding private developers with loans and grants.

Preservationist ideals

However, historical preservationists maintained that there was a dire need to maintain old unaltered structures, which depicted exemplary achievements and architectural distinctiveness as heritage and acknowledgment of artistic mastery of the past. Therefore, the aforementioned factors were agreed upon to aid in the preservation criteria with commercial structures being more likely to be preserved as opposed to residential areas, which were experiencing overcrowding. Although a disconnect existed between the historical preservation and large-scale land use in the light of modern continuity and sustainability, the urban redevelopers chose to preserve some of the cities seen to fall under the preservation criteria (Datel 129).

For instance, the areas with historical significance to ethnic and racial affiliations in the American cities were also considered for preservation. Such areas included the LeDroit Park, which was preserved as a historic district serving as the home of famous white and black Washington dwellers. This idea was critical in protecting the heritage and the celebration of prominent and ordinary lives and events. This practice of preservation was meant to ensure that places, where daily life flourished, were conserved to offer continuity and sustainability of life in the future (Datel 129).

Objectives of historical preservation

Preservation movements assumed the responsibility of controlling landscapes and old structures that they did not want to be altered through the modern conservation models involving legislation and policing. Preservationists argued that it consumed a lot of energy to demolish and construct new building whilst it saved much energy to preserve or gentrify an old structure. Construction would consume a lot of energy at the same time contributing to the depletion of the environment. The landscape provided a unifying factor among all people, thus anchoring a sense of collective identity and belonging. San Francisco’s architectural preservationists claimed that it was necessary to avoid overbuilding and maintain the historical landscape that made the city special and unique from other cities across America (Datel 130).

How these values and ideals were beneficial to urban development

The feeling was diverse with the critical challenge being that not all people or groups believed that preservation was relevant for sustainable development. Some old dwellers felt that they had enough of the old structures and it was time to do an overhaul restructuring of the city. However, many people did not share these sentiments. Preservationist movements felt and emphasized the fundamental attachment and local identity linked to the historical landscape.

This aspect was an important heritage that gave people of diverse origins and cultural affiliations a sense of orientation to new localities and belonging. Conservationists articulated the economic rationale of saving funds, energy, as well as maintaining a green environment. In addition, this aspect enhanced the way that individuals interacted and appreciated nature with time. Efforts by the government were complimented with the entry of individual citizens who felt attached to several historical structures, which reassured continuity of lives and coexistence by common identity (Datel 303).

  • Question 2: Explain ways in which Americans regulated, imagined, and traversed their cities in the 20th c by reflecting on the themes and examples that represent the key ideas and moments of the 20th century US urban history

This section seeks to analyze the legitimate and rationalized planning models by the federal government and city residents in the mid-20th century, which sought to introduce a new socio-ecological approach through urban alteration in design and landscape in a bid to accommodate the ever-rising population within the American cities. As the society moved from the modern to the postmodern era, the planning and heritage theories experienced revolutionary shifts courtesy of the 1949 Housing Act.

The act sought to address the rising concerns of the increasingly unsafe slum dwellers by clearing the slums and replacing them with modern safe and affordable housing for the low-earning Americans. This approach was a strategy by the federal government to nurture and empower good citizens in safe and healthy environments. Due to the booming construction and reshaping of the cities to match the economic growth of the postwar era, in 1966, the United States Conference of Mayors released a report concerning historical preservation. The booming growth and structural development created a sense of rootlessness and loss of natural heritage in the urban American cities.

Postmodern era

The Americans wanted to preserve the majority of their cultural and historical structures for the cities to maintain a sense of heritage continuity. Americans imagined that adopting new developments would invite new lifestyles. For instance, developments linked with the New England, California, Florida, and other cultures would create an incentive for newcomers to move in and adopt easily coupled with encouraging a different lifestyle in Leesburg (Datel 131).

The theme of postmodernism presented new platforms in architectural works and social order involving restructuring and recombining of past architectural designs linked to historical preservation with diverse and current models. During this era, the urban cities were rapidly growing creating centers of political, social conflicts, and industrialization. The emerging trends in the urban population called for adjustments in planning to measure up to the dynamics of a growing society.

The postmodern era was characterized by administrative problems arising from the urban renewal. For instance, the introduction of public housing led to the isolation of residents from the inner city, and since the public housing was comprised of the low-earning Americans, it meant that poverty was concentrated within specific zones (Datel 127). The gentrification of the dilapidated houses became costly and insufficient since the majority of the people were living in the upgraded public housing.

The clearance of the slums and replacement by modern housing meant that some individuals could no longer be housed in the upgraded zones, hence raising the demand for housing. Economic crises and the preservative social problems led to a decline in funding for the maintenance and renovation of public housing. This aspect escalated the social problems among the city dwellers such as the formation of gang units, drug abuse, destruction of properties, and theft.

The preservative community was perceived as anti-development with imposing legislation preventing any possibilities of growth. The new designs, construction, and postmodern planning in the cities of the United States became less environmentally sustainable in the long term and the cost of housing surged. This aspect translated into poverty due to job attrition, gang activities intensified, thus increasing police monitoring, and the relationship within the public housing was compromised.

Economic growth opportunities declined, thus escalating the membership to the gang and drug cartels across the city neighborhoods. Ghetto music and sports became the visible and attainable venture within the public residents, which distinguished lifestyles in the public housing with the rest of the city dwellers. The new life within public housing was riddled with poverty, joblessness, and violent residents, thus creating tensions and insecurity.

The unemployment amongst individuals raised widespread issues concerning the perceived role of men in the family, thus diminishing the culture of celebrating men as family heads and breadwinners. This aspect threatened social life within the urban cities during the postmodern era since women were gradually taking men’s roles in the job market. In addition, the population of gays and lesbians was increasing rapidly, thus threatening to undermine the normative sexuality and social order (Chauncey 334).

Urban life past the mid-20th Century was diverse and the cases of race became common in the way that Americans perceived urban life. Regions dominated by black Americans were increasingly becoming poor and hopeless particularly due to lack of growth opportunities and socio-economic crises such as vandalism. Most cities in urban American were experiencing economic crises, which the Americans referred to as ‘black poverty’.

However, the increased economic growth and social order prompted the need to improve and urbanize the suburban areas, which encouraged social interactions coupled with restoring social order. At this time, there was a public outcry to the government to facilitate reform agenda in a bid to secure the industries and provide employment for the poor Americans. In addition, the public wanted the government to improve the working conditions, increase wages, and illegalize the widely spreading practices of child labor (Chauncey 333).

Despite the underlying historic moments of the American urban renewal and changes in perception that traversed the American cities, the 20th century’s sustainability was a mix of postmodern advancements and preservation of major existing resources (Datel 140).

The dilemma revolved around how to come up with sustainable housing programs and at the same time preserve the heritage that was embodied in the old buildings, which could not support sustainable development. Consequently, efforts to influence a similar purpose in redeveloping proved difficult. For instance, the postmodern developers seeking to build high-rise structures to maximize space and leave large tracks for green land use were opposed by the heritage advocates who argued that the greenest structures already existed, since a lot of energy was needed in the construction of new buildings.

The shared perception amongst city dwellers, urban governments, and amateurs was that old places were more vulnerable to demolition or alteration compared to new ones. Due to the trends in growth and development of the cities, old structures and landscapes became scarce. That scarcity made them important and highly valuable, thus justifying their conservation as fundamental historic orienting entities. However, the aspect of preservation influenced the postmodern developments and the socio-economic changes of the late 20th century. Although achieving preservation came at great costs such as involving public motivated movements, old buildings have been connecting the past to the future coupled with alleviating possible isolation of the past from modern-day life, which is critical for posterity.

Works Cited

Chauncey, George. Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Makings of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940, New York: Basic Books, 1994. Print.

Datel, Robin. “Preservation and a sense of orientation for American cities.” American geographical review 75.2 (1985): 125-141. Print.

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