The Transatlantic Collapse of Urban Renewal: Postwar Urbanism from New York to Berlin

By Langford, Will | Urban History Review, Spring 2013 | Go to article overview
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The Transatlantic Collapse of Urban Renewal: Postwar Urbanism from New York to Berlin

Langford, Will, Urban History Review

Klemek, Christopher. The Transatlantic Collapse of Urban Renewal: Postwar Urbanism from New York to Berlin.

Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011. 315 pages, Photographs, appendix, notes, index.

Christopher Klemek's first book fleshes out the transnational character of the postwar modernist vision of urbanism in a concrete and detailed fashion. Urban historians, and planning historians especially, have long understood intuitively that postwar urban ideas, institutions, politics, and policies on both sides of the Atlantic were related. In general, though, studies of urban renewal have focused on a single city, on national developments or narrowly on planning ideology. But here, in extending the well-known transatlantic analysis of Daniel Rodgers to the postwar period, Klemek probes the common influences and connections evident in urban debates in the United States, Germany. Britain, and Canada with depth, insight, and clarity. It is an important contribution. As the book's title suggests, the trajectory of the narrative is about the unmaking of the urban renewal consensus in the face of criticism and popular protest in the 1950s and 1960s. Klemek's central thesis is that while urban policy in each of these four countries converged in the postwar years, "the local particularities of each urban policy crisis transformed the possibilities of the planning and yielded disparate outcomes in those places for the rest of the twentieth century" (6). In advancing this argument, he makes a case that even in the context of transatlantic ideas and forces, local politics mattered.


One of the key aspects of Klemek's work is that he gives a new name to the hegemonic urban paradigm of the mid-twentieth century: urban renewal order. He argues that, from the 1930s through the 1960s, this order was marked by a taste for modernist architecture, the professionalization of urban experts, the increased involvement of federal government in urban affairs due to the demographic dominance of cities, and the prevalence of ambitious redevelopment schemes increasingly advanced by "local public entrepreneurs" in municipal administrations (19). These insights are not original, but thinking in terms of an urban renewal order is particularly useful for understanding, comparatively, the ways in which postwar urbanism so neatly aligned on both sides of the Atlantic. Indeed, Klemek argues that parallel urban renewal orders were "rapidly built into a seemingly edifice on the political landscape" in each of the places he discusses (20). The bulk of the monograph chronicles the unraveling of this consensus in the face of criticism from within the urbanist establishment, from the social sciences, and from citizen outsiders like Jane Jacobs.

As he makes clear at the outset, Klemek's primary concern is with American urban history. He uses the experiences of Germany, Britain, and Canada as a way to inform an understanding of American urbanism. In the end, he builds a case for American exceptionalism. Popular protest against urban renewal, freeways. and technocratic planning gave rise to New Left advocacy planning, but also to an overpowering neocon-servative backlash that prompted the U.S. federal government to completely withdraw from urban policy in the 1970s (214-216). The total collapse of urban renewal order in the United States led to a new and overpowering paradigm of urban crisis. Conversely, in Berlin, confidence in urban renewal remained unshaken in the 1970s, with criticisms resulting in a more "gentle" approach to renewal that emphasized traditional cityscapes. In London, New Left planners increasingly turned to working cooperatively with community groups before the Thatcher government eventually curtailed planning efforts for ideological reasons (177).

Of particular interest to Canadian historians, the experiences of Toronto emerge in the latter stages of the book as Klemek's most important foil.

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