Europeans, especially, may be forgiven for assuming that planning history in the United States must be a limited subject and a frail intellectual endeavour. After all, urban regions there are noted neither for their age nor for the rigour and consistency with which they have been planned. However, since 1986, the continuing vitality of the Society for American City and Regional Planning History (SACRPH)1 has challenged sceptics and perhaps even surprised its own membership.
Attendance at SACRPH's latest biennial conference, in Oakland, California from 15 to 18 October 2009 reached an all-time high of about 300.2 Those present supported, and required, eight concurrent paper sessions spread over two days. These were bookended by field trips, paralleled by an academic book display (with free coffee), and interspersed with lunchtime plenaries or panels, breakfast and evening meetings, corridor kibbitzing, and evening bull sessions in excellent local bars.3 On this evidence, planning history in the United States is very much alive and well.
Its conferences have been the lifeblood of SACRPH, sustaining the organisation and indeed the field of study itself. Continuing a tradition established by a founder, Laurence Gerckens, they have always been stimulating, well-organised, eclectic and welcoming. The Oakland gathering was typical. Optional field trips included a food tour of the Oakland waterfront and tours of housing and housing projects in West Oakland (once home to the Black Panthers), of ethnic districts near the downtown, of Berkeley's architecture, San Francisco's urban renewal and of recent agricultural development (including vineyards) in Marin and Sonoma counties. (One vineyard - Ravenswood, if you must know - was a conference sponsor.) In between were squeezed plenary sessions on regional equity and San Francisco Bay Area planning initiatives; an end-of-term address by SACRPH president, Robin Bachin; 54 conference sessions that included roundtables on publishing and cultural sustainability; a dissertation workshop, and a poster session for undergraduate or Masters students; and a concluding awards ceremony and reception. Everything that I observed ran smoothly, while conversation hummed, notably at the three evening receptions, courtesy of excellent food and, on two occasions, complimentary drinks.
The eclecticism of the conference, noted by President-elect Alison Isenberg in her introduction to Bachin's Presidential Address, was apparent in the fact that it attracts planners and preservationists, as well as urban historians, in significant numbers. To be sure, many of the planners were from the Bay Area, and spoke about local issues, while the historians came from across the United States and Canada.4 None the less, many sessions and one plenary brought the two groups together, and this did promote dialogue. In part, such exchange is possible because, despite the everyday pressures to focus upon the present and immediate future, some planners have a concern for the long-term implications of public intervention. In part it also reflects the fact that a high proportion of urban and planning historians - who in Oakland included a sprinkling of historical geographers like myself, as well as those employed to teach urban, architectural and planning history - have interests that are focused on the recent past, or upon the connections between past and present. Thus, for example, Lawrence Vale enumerated the parallels between the slum clearance programs of the 1930s-1950s era and the HOPE VI initiatives, which are meant to revitalise public housing, sometimes through demolition. In addition, a whole session, for example, was devoted to an historical assessment of recent policies of Smart Growth.
The linkages between planners and historians were nicely exemplified at the concluding awards ceremony. The organisation's most prestigious award is the Gerckens prize. In Oakland the names of the two latest recipients were announced. The first, Robert Fishman, is a leading urban historian whose work is widely known beyond the field of planning history. The second, Eugenie Birch, is as well-known to planners as to planning historians, having served as editor of the Journal of the American Planning Association and as President of the Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning, as well as being a founder of SACRPH. By recognising them, the Prize Committee was reaffirming the continuing balance, and the linkages, that extend between American planners and urban historians.
The great majority of conference papers dealt with the twentieth century. For those historians, always a significant group at these conferences, who do research on the history of planning as a profession, such a focus is inevitable. In the US, the first university-level courses in planning were offered, at Harvard, in 1909 - exactly a century ago.5 Several sessions and many papers dealt with the activities of luminaries such as Patrick Geddes, John Nolen and the Olmsted brothers, as well as lesser lights such as Edmund Bacon, with the contribution of particular academic departments of planning, or with the history of planning practices and concepts, such as zoning and the neighbourhood unit.
Indeed, following a trend established over the course of the past two or three SACRPH conferences, a growing proportion of papers concentrated on the post- World War II decades. This trend has been sustained by a continuing interest in the role of the federal government in shaping US metropolitan areas. Federal activity gathered momentum during the Depression. A number of sessions and/or papers dealt with the chequered history of policy with respect to urban renewal, housing standards, and mortgage finance. Typical, and indeed exemplary, in this regard was an excellent paper session, appropriately entitled 'Follow the Money', in which Jennifer Light, Rachel Weber and Beryl Satter examined, respectively, the lending practices of the Federal Housing Administration in the 1930s, the emergence of post-war TIF financing (a form of securitisation) and the modern history of predatory lending. Other clusters of papers dealt with heritage preservation, a post-war movement that routinely brings together historians, planners, and interested local residents.
The Oakland conference was so eclectic that it included a number of papers that dealt only tangentially with planners or planning. To this writer, an especially interesting example was a paper session on 'Working-Class Housing and Landscapes'. This included papers on a progressive-era housing programme in Milwaukee (Judith Kenny), a survey of the ways in which working-class homes improved between 1880 and 1920 (Tom Hubka), a detailed study on how housing in one company town was improved in the second quarter of the twentieth century (Alison Hoagland), and a sceptical interpretation of a post-war housing programme in Baltimore that was designed to bring middle-income families back to the city (Emily Lieb). A complementary example was provided by a session on Chicago. This included one paper on industrial policy (Robert Lewis) that had explicit planning aspects, but two others on deindustrialisation (Brad Hunt) and urban pollution (Melanie Keichle) where the connection was more distant. These, and indeed a number of other sessions, addressed general urban-historical issues, of the sort that would be appropriate for the conference of the US-based Urban History Association (UHA). The UHA, a younger group, meets biennially, alternating with SACRPH. There is significant overlap between the two, in terms of interests, themes, organisational membership, and conference attendance. Between them, they provide an excellent opportunity for scholars working in the field of North American urban history to connect with one another on an annual basis.
The eclecticism of SACRPH makes sense, given that the line between public and private initiatives in the field of urban governance has often been blurred and crossed. This was noted in many presentations. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, land developers pioneered the use of restrictive covenants that, in time, provided the impetus for municipalities to introduce zoning. During the 1930s, the FHA was peopled by professionals from the private sector, and freely exchanged knowledge (and prejudices) accordingly. More recent innovations in mortgage finance came from real estate investment companies, who lobbied, staffed, and/or consulted for federal, state, and municipal governments. To an unusual degree, urban and regional planning in the United States has always involved a close interplay between public agencies and private interests and can only be understood by taking a broad view of the field.
Perhaps the most striking feature of the Oakland conference, and an excellent augury for the future of SACRPH as an organisation, was the way that it welcomed and nurtured junior scholars, even to the undergraduate level. Many papers - perhaps a quarter - were presented by graduate students, and the organisation provided 14 travel scholarships (each worth $250) to promote attendance. More significantly, in the corridors, in the comments of the discussants, and in general discussion, the culture of the organisation is for senior scholars to treat the graduate students in a supportive manner. A dissertation workshop, organised by Andrew Wiese, provided the opportunity for doctoral students to meet in small groups with established scholars (Owen Gutfreund, Joseph Heathcott and Greg Hise) to discuss their work. A poster session allowed Masters and undergraduate students to show off their work and to receive feedback. For those embarking on a career, then, the SACRPH conferences are non-threatening venues in which to test out ideas and to practice their presentation skills. They are also likely to foster the loyalty of the next generation.
So, what was not to like? Those doing research on housing and related matters were well-served by the Oakland conference, but those interested in the history of planning for industry, offices and retailing probably felt deprived. This, of course, reflects the state of the field and cannot be blamed on the conference itself. Then again, it feels churlish to complain that the vast majority of papers (more than 95 per cent, depending on exactly how you count them) dealt with, and an even higher proportion of attendees were based in, the United States. It was, after all, a conference on American planning history and, despite some efforts over the years to broaden the definition, 'American' effectively means 'United States'. However, such a narrow geographical focus did limit the opportunities to engage in comparative discussions; and because national comparisons were rare, some cultural assumptions went unchallenged. The interpretation of federal housing policy and urban renewal are two examples. Since, for several decades, both worked to the disadvantage of African- Americans and, it must be said, because of the understandable residues of white liberal guilt, the sorts of historical interpretation favoured on field trips and in conference papers played up the significance of entrenched racism. There is no question that racism was (and indeed remains) a force, and it may be that no outsider such as myself can fully appreciate just how powerful, and enduring, it has been in the United States. But analogous government programmes worked against low-income families in Canada and, at least in the case of urban renewal, in many European countries too. In an international perspective, then, the US experience does not appear to be wholly unique and neither were the forces, including a reckless faith in technology and modernity, that shaped it.
A related limitation concerns the reluctance of most attendees - at least in the sessions that this writer was able to attend - to engage explicitly with social or political theory. Of course, neither planners nor historians are known for their theoretical inclinations, and so their consistent respect for detail was to be expected. This way of thinking clearly has its merits: it is by turns grounded, practical and an effective guard against woolly speculation, but it hints at a reluctance to innovate, while hindering the exploration of larger themes and issues: planning as form of governmentality, for example, or as a way of framing markets and stabilising capitalism. One entertaining and acerbic exception was the introductory lecture given by the geographer Richard Walker on the history of Oakland at the opening reception. Although it did not explicitly invoke theory, it was clearly guided by a keen appreciation for the enabling influence of a capitalist land market, exploited by a succession of powerful investors. Many other presentations were critical of the undue influence of specific individuals and groups, but wider themes were rarely broached.
A simple extrapolation of recent trends would suggest that the future of planning history in the US is sound. Beyond the bare count of SACRPH members, conference attendees, papers, and sessions, the fundamentals look solid, including the encouraging flow of younger scholars. However, the past 18 months have taught us that simple extrapolations can be simple-minded, and the paucity of conceptual innovations and, if anything, an ever-tighter focus on the US experience may flag or produce problems. A cautious commentator would hedge bets. None the less, I'm already saving my pennies for the 14th biennial SACRPH conference, to be held in Baltimore in the fall of 2011.
I would like to thank Ryan George, Paul Hess, Alison Isenberg, and Robert Lewis for supplementary information, and/or for their thoughts and comments. The opinions expressed, however, are mine.
1 For background on SACRPH see http://www.dcp.ufl.edu/sacrph/about/about.html
2 Recent comparisons are difficult. A conference held jointly with the American Planning Association two years ago was slightly larger, while the SACRPH Miami conference four years ago drew an advance registration of about 200 before plans were disrupted by Hurricane Wilma.
3 Disclosure note: I am a convert to northern California-style ales.
4 The latter was the only other country to be represented to any significant extent - by my count 10 people on the conference programme.
5 Holmes Perkins, G. (1950), 'The Planning Schools: 3 - Harvard University, Town Planning Review, XX, 315-8.
Richard Harris is Professor of Geography and Earth Sciences, McMaster University, 1280 Main Street West, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, L8S 4K1; email: firstname.lastname@example.org…