Regulating Place: Standards and the Shaping of Urban America

By Eran Ben-Joseph; Terry S. Szold | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 4

Standardizing Public Housing

LAWRENCE J. VALE

By the last quarter of the twentieth century, American public housing projects had become the nation's most vilified domestic environments. This was a far cry from their mid-century origins, a time when “housers” proudly promoted the projects as progressive modern alternatives to slums (see Figure 4.1). This chapter explores the role of standards in public housing design and decline by examining the assumptions about urban domestic life that such standards encoded. I argue that the design standards of the early projects-those completed prior to 1950-were clearly related to the behavioral standards expected of the intended occupants and embraced very high expectations about the ability of low-rent dwellings to serve as a tool for social betterment and as a reward for upwardly mobile low-income citizens. However, for the second major era of public housing construction-projects built under the terms and expectations of the Housing Act of 1949-housing officials subjected similar “Minimum Physical Standards” to very different interpretations. This was an era driven by emphasis on urban redevelopment and urban renewal in which the chief standard used for judging public housing was its low cost. Housing authorities dropped their mission of moral uplift and concentrated instead on producing a resource that could be used to house those displaced by urban renewal projects that themselves increasingly produced little or no low-income housing. Both prewar and postwar public housing design emphasized the use of superblocks-seen as the safer, healthier, and more economical alternative to the crowded streetscapes of slums and blighted areas-but the postwar interpretation of site planning standards abandoned the last vestiges of plans that related

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