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New York: RACE, CLASS & SPACE A Historical Comparison of the Three Regional Plans for New York

March 6, 1998 by Administrator in March/April 1998

by Tony Schuman and Elliott Sclar 

The raw material of American planning history derives from two concerns: the physical problems associated with regional growth and the social ones connected to race and class. New York, because it is simultaneously one of the nation’s oldest cities as well as its largest, has been the crucible in which these powerful forces have engendered the now standard pattern of segregated sprawl which characterizes all too much of metropolitan America.

This is a critical juncture at which to focus on issues of race and class in the tri-state metropolitan region. The physical isolation of African-Americans in compacted inner city ghettoes has reached such proportions that serious scholars now invoke the specter of apartheid to describe the situation. The two largest cities in the region, New York and Newark, are among the most segregated in the United States; both cities score highly on every index used to measure racial isolation and concentration. Moreover, both cities have shown an increase in these indices from 1970 to 1990, indicating that racial segregation is now firmly built into the physical and social fabric of the region.

As this racial concentration has consolidated, structural changes in technology and the global economy have transformed the local job market. This is most notable in the loss of 140,000 production and craft jobs in the region that provided good paying jobs to unskilled or semi-skilled workers. Concomitant with this shift in the economic base has been a dramatic redistribution of income to the point where the United States now has the highest gap between rich and poor of any industrialized nation, an imbalance that is particularly severe in the tri-state region. There are at present more than two million poor people in the region. Many of them reside in the area’s central cities. As Douglas Massey and Nancy A. Denton persuasively argued in American Apartheid, this interaction of poverty and segregation is responsible for the creation and perpetuation of a black “underclass.” The contemporary black ghetto is a place of consistently high unemployment, low median income, low median house values, low school test scores, a high percentage of single parent families and births to unwed mothers and a high incidence of substance abuse and crime. The result is an environment where these effects not only occur, but are common or normative.

This article explores the relationship of physical and social planning through an analysis of the three regional plans for New York produced by the Committee on the Plan of New York and Its Environs, established in 1921, and its successor, the Regional Plan Association (RPA): the 1929 Regional Plan for New York (RPNY), the 1968 second regional plan, and the 1996 third regional plan. For over sixty years, the RPA has been the voice of the progressive business community, whose leaders seek to assure economic efficiency by promoting coherent regional planning competitiveness. While the first two plans treated the minority and immigrant workforce as a burdensome nonproductive sector, the current plan identifies this population as a critical component in workforce growth and competitiveness. Recognizing discrimination and segregation as obstacles to labor force productivity, the third plan gives prominence to issues of education and access to jobs. At the same time, however, the plan stops short of a concerted attack on segregation.

The (first) Regional Plan of New York and Its Environs (1929)

From the closing decades of the nineteenth century, when transit severed the ancient tie between residence and work place, there has been a strong impulse to channel the spatial evolution of walking cities into coherent metropolitan regions. Although the roots of conscious regionalism antedate the RPA and its predecessor, the Committee for a Regional Plan, the RPA is America’s oldest formal regional planning organization. It owes an evident intellectual debt to earlier attempts at regional rationality found in the English Garden Cities Movement and Burnham’s Plan for Chicago. In 1921 when the Russell Sage Foundation established the first Committee for a Regional Plan under Charles Dyer Norton’s leadership, a powerful consensus behind the notion of regional rationality was already in place.

At about the same time that regionalism was becoming a clearly articulated focus within the nascent planning profession, the mechanization of agriculture was transforming large numbers of rural African-Americans into urban immigrants. In the opening decades of the present century this population of former slaves and their descendants began leaving the southeast for the great cities of the northeast and midwest. In 1910, 90,000 African-Americans lived in New York City, less than 2 percent of the population. By 1920 their numbers had grown to 150,000, about 3 percent of the population. By 1930, when the RPNY was released, the African-American population had more than doubled again to 327,000, roughly 5 percent of the city’s population.

The framers of the RPNY were concerned that the foreign and Negro population, in addition to constituting a nonproductive burden on the economy, would interfere with the efficiency of the residential and commercial real estate market. Chief economist Robert Haig expresses this concern succinctly in his study “Major Economic Factors in Metropolitan Growth and Arrangement” in Volume I of the Regional Survey that underpins the first Regional Plan:

    Some of the poorest people live in conveniently located slums on high-priced land. On patrician Fifth Avenue, Tiffany and Woolworth, cheek by jowl, offer jewels and gimcracks… on substantially identical sites…. In the very heart of the ‘commercial’ city on Manhattan Island south of 59th Street, the inspectors in 1922 found nearly 420,000 workers, employed in the factories. Such a situation outrages one’s sense of order. Everything seems misplaced. One yearns to re-arrange the hodge-podge and to put things where they belong. This, of course, is in large measure the logic behind New York’s first zoning resolution whose passage, along with slum clearance and tenement house reform, was championed by Lawrence Veiller and Robert DeForest, later head of the Russell Sage Foundation, the principal sponsor of the first Regional Plan. These earlier efforts shared with the RPNY an overriding emphasis on physical infrastructure as cause and cure for the region’s problems. The poor, including immigrants, Jews, and Negroes, are not viewed as human resources worthy of attention and assistance in their own right, but as impediments to the efficient functioning of the regional economy. The “sense of order” that Haig and his colleagues sought to promote reflects class prejudice as well as the desire for economic efficiency. The physical plan itself is a series of proposals of breathtaking scope to re-order the region through the construction of an elaborate network of bridges, tunnels, highways and parks. While the intention of the first regional plan was primarily to ease congestion and improve productivity, as implemented by New York City construction czar Robert Moses, it ultimately had a devastating long term impact on the social stratification of the metropolitan region.

This is especially poignant in light of the authors’ express denial of such an intention: “What we have to refrain from are those details of housing or sanitation or social order that have no direct relation to the development of the land, the transportation system, or the general scheme of city building. What we have to pursue as our primary task is the making of a comprehensive ground diagram.”

The Second Regional Plan (1968)

By the time the second plan was promulgated, the question of race was unavoidable. Deteriorating conditions led to urban riots and the appointment of a Presidential Commission on Urban Unrest – the Kerner Commission – whose final report warned that the United States was rapidly becoming two nations, black and white, separate and unequal. In this context, of the eight reasons the RPA gave as warranting a second regional plan, number two on the list (after “Uncontrolled Urbanization”) was: “A segregated society: the growing separation of rich and poor, Negro and white. The movement continues of white, middle- and upper-income families from the older cities to the suburbs.”

Despite the prominence that race is given in the plan, however, instances of overt discrimination such as willful housing segregation are never discussed. Instead the issue is handled mainly as a matter of economics. The absence of African-Americans and Puerto Ricans in the spreading suburbs is seen as a problem of insufficient affordable housing. In terms of employment the report calls for the perennial solution: more job training and, however quaint it may appear in our laissez faire age, guaranteed public employment.

On the issue of metropolitan fiscal resources the second plan was remarkably prescient. It called for a federal takeover of welfare as the necessary condition for allowing cities to cope with the pressures of the urban in-migration of poor people: “[Cities] will never be pleasant places to live compared to the newer areas until the cost of poverty-related public services is lifted from them. Nor will the poor ever have the quality of education and other public services needed to raise themselves from poverty as long as the cities must contribute a large share of the costs.” As with the first plan, the second regional plan places its heaviest emphasis and greatest specificity on those matters which lead to a more efficient and compact region. The principal difference is that the role assigned to the center has shifted. The second plan reverses the doctrine of decentralization and projects Manhattan as a national center of commerce and finance. To a large extent it formed the basis for the Master Plan published in 1969 by the City of New York. One of the key innovations of that plan was the introduction of special district zoning to attract and retain an elite work force in a new national center. Thus the first special district, at Lincoln Square, had two goals: to reinforce New York’s hegemony as a cultural capital and to provide a southern anchor for the revitalization of the Upper West Side.

Concurrent with this courtship of an elite workforce, the 1968 regional plan reflects the social turmoil of the times in its recognition of issues of race and poverty. Written in a period of economic expansion, however the plan permits itself the luxury of assuming that education and training will rapidly open the doors to uniVersal economic prosperity, placing its faith in “the steep climb in income that this economy could provide for everyone if recent economic trends can be continued and the prosperity widely distributed.” The history of the past thirty years demonstrates how much this over-optimistic economic projection was off the mark.

In similar fashion, the plan invoked the contemporary political climate, notably the rise of the black power movement, to justify not taking a strong stand on residential segregation: “In many ghetto areas, a suggestion to move out is not popular right now… However, it does seem likely, that good housing outside the ghetto would be welcome by many Negroes and Puerto Ricans, as long as it were convenient to jobs and services and good schooling. This effort to improve housing quality and promote integration would fail in large part if housing that should be replaced is filled with new unskilled unemployed in-migrants as soon as it is vacated, as has been happening in the Region’s core.” This section is notable both for its frank description of the dynamics of ghetto housing and the affirmation, in passing, that integration is a goal.

The Third Regional Plan

In its emphasis on the metropolitan transportation network the third regional plan follows the general thrust of the RPA’s earlier efforts. It calls for expanding rail freight and for filling in missing links in existing commuter rail lines to create a regional rail system, including access to La Guardia and Kennedy airports. But the third plan, entitled “A Region At Risk,” is very different in tone from the previous documents in its expression of alarm over both wasteful land consumption and a decline in the economic competitiveness of the region. It is the latter aspect that bears most directly on workforce issues. Between 1989 and 1992, the region lost 770,000 jobs, the largest job loss in any metropolitan area in the country since World War II. At the same time, the composition of the region’s work force has changed: nearly half of those working or seeking work are women, and over a third (36 percent) are Hispanic, Asian, or African-American. Over the past decade, white male workers have decreased in absolute numbers. In New York City, 59 percent of the work force is comprised of racial or ethnic minorities. Moreover, the future work force will, in all likelihood, continue this trend because all population growth in the region is accounted for by foreign immigration, principally from the Dominican Republic, China, and the newly independent states of the former Socialist bloc.

The result of these demographic changes is that the third plan reverses the RPA’s historic perspective on minority and immigrant labor: instead of being maligned as a nonproductive burden on the overtaxed resources of the region, this group is seen as a critical component in the region’s return to economic vitality. As a consequence, the plan is focused on measures to bring the immigrant work force into the cultural and economic main stream, primarily through education programs. The RPA cites evidence linking education levels to a rise in income and, notably, productivity: “[A] recent study by the National Center on the Educational Quality of the workforce indicates that a 10 percent increase in the education level of a company’s workforce improves its productivity by nearly 9 percent… a larger increase than that caused by comparable increases in hours worked or investments in computers, machinery or other equipment.”

In other words, the ethnic and racial minority work force is now cast as human capital. In a region forecast to be a majority minority society by 2010, the education of this labor force is a matter of paramount concern. The difference in skill levels is identified as the most significant cause of the increasing polarization of the economy into high- and low-income segments. The draft plan emphasizes the dramatic decline over the past decade in wage levels of high school versus college graduates: in 1989, a 30-year old high school graduate made only 68 percent of the income of a college graduate, compared with 88% in 1979. Consequently the plan’s recommendations seek to improve the skill level of the immigrant and minority workforce by bolstering English language programs, currently over-subscribed in the region, and calling for state assumption of local school budgets. While these measures reflect a new generosity towards the minority workforce, there is also evidence that the RPA is making a virtue of necessity. The plan also calls for tightening immigration policy to better match the supply of incoming skills to the demands of the local labor market.

At the same time the plan demonstrates a high level of appreciation for the nontraditional contributions of the immigrant and minority community to the general well being through development of an informal economy. The plan endorses activities such as home-based business, street vending zones or bazaars, and incubator facilities to help unlicensed businesses improve their performance and gain necessary skills and credentials. Impressively, while the plan emphasizes assimilation of foreign immigrants, it also calls for foreign language instruction for native English speakers to improve their entry into the global economy.

Thus the third regional plan represents a major step forward in focusing on labor force participation as a critical component in regional prosperity. It elevates “equity” along with “economy” and “environment” as one of three foundation stones for improving quality of life in the region. But if the plan is forthright in acknowledging that the region is “shamed by its persistent racial and income segregation,” it soft peddles many of the formidable obstacles to transforming the region’s social and economic imbalance. While a concern is expressed for bringing low-income communities into the economic main stream, no concerted campaign is articulated for breaking up the ghettoes. In fact, the word “ghetto” does not appear in the document. Rather, “racially-segregated inner cities” are identified along with older working-class neighborhoods and immigrant ethnic “enclaves” as areas physically isolated from suburban job markets. The emphasis is on the relation to employment, not on the differences in levels and causes of isolation that distinguish these three forms of residential concentration.

While the issue of segregation is identified, including the desire of the white middle class to keep “them” out, the plan offers no targeted response to this issue. A case in point is the discussion of “housing” incorporated into the “Governance” initiative, which, as in the second plan, speaks more to issues of affordability than to racial integration. For this it relies on voluntary efforts and moral exhortations: “Communities should welcome and include all races, ethnic groups, income groups and age groups.” The review of New Jersey’s experience with the Mt. Laurel court decisions is instructive here. The Mt. Laurel cases, resulting from a lawsuit brought by the NAACP against exclusionary zoning in the New Jersey Township of Mt. Laurel to open up the suburbs to lower income inner-city residents, resulted in a court-ordered mandate for all New Jersey municipalities to provide their fair share of low- and moderate-income housing. The Council on Affordable Housing (COAH), established by the New Jersey legislature to oversee compliance with the decisions, created a mechanism called the Regional Contribution Agreement which permits municipalities to buy their way out of up to half their obligation by making a financial contribution to another municipality within the same housing region. The result of this experience is that while New Jersey has added thousands of new units of affordable housing under the Mt. Laurel program, it has had little impact on inner city movement to the suburbs.

During a series of Roundtable discussions preceding the draft plan, the Mt. Laurel experience was discussed in some depth at a session on “The Habitable Region.” When this discussion found its way into the draft third regional plan, however, its thrust had shifted. Instead of identifying the absence of black migration to the suburbs as a shortcoming of the Mt. Laurel plan as implemented by COAH, the draft plan tries to reassure its readers who fear that “affordable housing” will bring unwanted “outsiders” into their communities: “The fears are misplaced, because the ‘outsiders’ are the community’s own grown children, teachers, firefighters, and police officers who want to stay in the town where they grew up or now work but cannot afford to.” Similarly, a discussion of the Gautreaux court decision in Chicago, which mandates housing vouchers to allow public housing residents to rent apartments in outlying suburbs, fails to examine fully the improved life circumstances these families have found outside the ghetto. While the recommendations call for building housing for all residents of the region regardless of race or income, there is no mechanism suggested as to how this might be accomplished, only a brief allusion to federal Fair Housing Laws. There is no discussion of pro-integrative strategies which have been successful elsewhere, such as targeted mortgage assistance.

The RPA’s Dilemma

The timidity of the RPA’s discussion of suburban segregation is emblematic of the internal contradiction at the heart of that organization. More importantly it is emblematic as well of the political difficulty we as a society have in effectively addressing our urban problems. On the one hand, the RPA is at the forefront of efforts to promote coherent regional development that conserves natural resources as it nourishes human ones. On the other, the corporate sponsorship that helps to make it an effective planning organization also limits the scope of practical initiatives which it can put forth. Typically, where longer term social issues clash with more immediate political imperatives, the social issues are given second priority.

Thus “the sweeping vision” heralded in the first plan or the “radical restructuring of the status quo” promised in the second are compromised from the start. It was precisely this tension that was at the heart of the famous Adams/Mumford debate in the early 1930s. Writing in The New Republic, Lewis Mumford argued that there was no “regionalism” in the plan, that it merely confirmed chaotic methods governing regional growth and proposed no serious attempt at regionalizing the organization of production. The Regional Plan for New York and Its Environs, Mumford charged, “was conceived… in terms which would meet the interests and prejudices of the existing financial rulers… and its aim from the beginning was as much welfare and amenity as could be obtained without altering any of the political or business institutions which have made the city precisely what it is.” Thomas Adams, author of the plan, responded angrily by accusing Mumford of being an ineffectual idealist, an “esthete-sociologist,” and defended the plan as a practical and workable set of proposals. As a later commentator observed, Adams was “so concerned not to interfere in any way with existing rights and institutions that he rejected even the possibility of public intervention in low-cost housing.”

This pragmatism pervades the Third Plan as well. While the plan’s section on “Equity” recognizes that “governance is critical to breaking down remaining segregationist barriers,” the section on governance offers no specific proposals to address segregation directly. Except for a proposal for state assumption of school financing, the RPA relies again on voluntary cooperation among the over 2,000 separate administrative entities in the region. Here the authors acknowledge that problems besetting the educational system go far beyond formulas of per capita expenditure per student, but the proposed remedy does not address underlying inequities of neighborhood conditions, concentrated poverty and the like. The principle of “home rule” is held sacrosanct despite a very clear understanding of the costs of this system:

    The net result of this property tax-based and highly fragmented system is a region in which the cost of living is among the highest in the nation and the quality of life it offers its citizens is declining. Unsustainable growth and development patterns are established; the future workforce is inadequately educated and unprepared. Low-density automobile dependent sprawl is encouraged; centers of all sizes are emptied of residents, jobs, and retail establishments; and open space and sensitive natural resources are consumed.

Citing widespread popular skepticism about big government, the authors are wary about proposing new layers of municipal or regional government Instead they argue cautiously that the home rule-based governance system should be improved rather than dismantled. Their presentation misses the fire of former New Jersey Governor Jim Florio’s keynote address at the RPA’s 1991 Regional Assembly, where he spoke candidly about the need for government initiatives and tax increases to provide necessary services and infrastructure improvements. Florio paid a high political price for his willingness to move ahead of current political wisdom. In his farewell “State of the State” address, Florio warned, “It’s time to stop living in a fantasy where we think small is automatically better when in fact the price we pay is the duplication and inefficiency of maintaining 611 school districts and 567 totally independent municipalities awash in administrative redundancies. The bottom line cries out for more cooperation, coordination, and, yes, regionalization.”

Conclusions: The Regionalization of Racial Conflict

When the first regional plan was gestating, in the late teens and early twenties, the orbit of racial conflict was within five miles of the central business district (CBD). Harlem was the flash point of urban racial change as speculators recouped their losses by converting a white community into a black one. By the time of the second plan, in the early 1960s, the racial front lines had moved further out from the CBD. The emblematic fight in Forest Hills, a middle income neighborhood in Queens, was triggered by a decision to locate a large public housing project at the edge of the neighborhood. The City was ultimately forced to back away from its original plan. Instead of a larger number of low income housing units, it substituted a drastically scaled back plan replacing most of the family apartments with units for the elderly. The site of the most recent racial clash, unfolding as the third regional plan was being readied for release, is Leonia New Jersey, a predominately white middle class, inner ring suburb just across the George Washington Bridge, about 15 miles from the CBD. Leonia sits adjacent to Englewood, a racially integrated suburb with a heavily black public school population. The fight is over court ordered regionalization of suburban schools to promote racial integration. In none of these cases did or will the outcome bring a satisfactory resolution. By the 1930s Harlem was an overcrowded ghetto with a large concentration of very poor people. Forest Hills, which was a prestigious urban neighborhood until the 1970s, is no longer a preferred social destination, serving at best as a stopping point on the way out of the city for those with upwardly mobile ambitions. The pressures on Leonia are similar to ones felt in Yonkers and Mount Vernon in Westchester County. They will only push more middle class people further into the hinterlands. These three examples are important because they demonstrate that the unsolved regional problems related to race do not go away as a result of infrastructure improvement. Instead they make the next round of planning more difficult. Indeed if Massey and Denton are correct, the regional crisis will only get worse as the effects of racial segregation are compounded by fading economic opportunity. By not targeting the dismantling of the ghetto as a priority concern, the RPA is not only missing an opportunity to link social and physical planning in a comprehensive way, but is making a potentially serious error. Either we make a concerted effort to open up the region or we can stand by and watch as the white middle class withdraws into ever more remote and gated reserves and devotes an ever higher proportion of both private and public wealth to personal protection. The state of California already spends more of its resources on prison construction and maintenance than it does on higher education. It is hard to imagine how such choice an allocation of resources can ever be a recipe for a healthy and prosperous democratic society.


This article is excerpted from a paper presented by the authors in 1995 at the 6th Conference on American Planning History and has appeared in shorter form in MetroPlanner, Newsletter of the APA Metro NY Chapter.

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