Unaffordable: American 1950s Cold War Low Density Urban Planning Fiscal Failure; City-building Interrupted; Economies of Scale Lost; Obscured by Nominal High Housing Value

Authors: Thomas Christoffel*, Regional Intelligence-Regional Communities, LLC
Topics: Urban and Regional Planning, Historical Geography, United States
Keywords: Urban, Housing, Affordability, Density, Cold War, Sprawl, City, Infrastructure, Cost
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/9/2020
Start / End Time: 4:55 PM / 6:10 PM
Room: Capitol Ballroom 2, Hyatt Regency, Fourth Floor
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Urban planning is expected to correct the challenges of unaffordable housing and automobile dependence, but everything since the 1960s has been urban planned. From colonial times to the end of WW-II, Americans built cities. Puritan leader John Winthrop in 1630 stated their purpose: "We shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us." Following WW-II, emergence of the A-Bomb and potential for a Soviet long-range bomber attack, led the "Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists” to publish a “Special Issue on: Civil Defense Against Atomic Attack" which advocated population dispersion for survival. Large lot, low density development away from the City-center ensued, enabled by new Interstates. In 1963, G. Coleman Woodbury grouped local and State governments together as “urban governments,” making all planning urban as well. Though often called suburban, automobile-oriented development, the building standards and expectations are urban everywhere in the U.S. The 1974, “Costs of Sprawl” concluded large lot low density development was not cost effective, but there has been scant return to historic density in Towns and Cities. Unincorporated area Census Designated Places were a third of All Places in 2010. The high infrastructure and service costs for low density development is obscured by the high nominal value of housing and abandonment of the notion that affordable housing would be 25% of household income. The fiscal analyses of municipalities, conducted by the Strong Towns Movement, led by Charles L. Marohn, Jr., quantify the maintenance shortfall that low density infrastructure sets-up.

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