As part of his Great Society Program in the mid to late 1960s, President Lyndon B. Johnson persuaded Congress to enact the Model Cities Program. It was a five-year program to develop new antipoverty programs and alternative forms of municipal government. The ambitious federal urban aid program succeeded in fostering a new generation of mostly black urban leaders. However, the nation moved to the right after the urban riots of the late 1960s. This led to a shift in goals to bricks and mortar housing and building projects. The program ended in 1974.
At the time, there was some discussion of a totally different model cities program. Rather than distributing resources amongst a host of cities, the idea was to provide resources to cities in need on a one-by-one basis. Could America take one of its decaying inner cities with an aged infrastructure and a host of socio-economic problems and modernize it so that it had the physical and social amenities “new towns” such as Reston, Virginia or Columbia, Maryland?
Whether it’s Detroit, Baltimore, Cleveland, Oakland, or St. Louis, what we know for sure is that a half-century of urban renewal programs have only helped in selected areas of the cities. While “jewels” in the form of new stadiums, concert halls, and university expansions have been constructed, the poverty has remained. As a nation we are all affected by our failure to turn our core cities around and have them be the hubs of revitalized metropolitan areas. Our patchwork approach has not worked and it will not be the solution to Detroit’s present problems.
In many ways, what we need to do is to go back to scratch, literally to scratch. What is the best way to utilize all the land in a city such as Detroit which has 80,000 vacant buildings and empty lots? Let me suggest something that Detroit and a host of other cities have already started, but only started – urban farming. This is a form of continuing the cycle of metamorphosis. First there was the founding of a city, then development and growth, and more recently decay and flight. White flight has been joined by black flight. Some cities such as Detroit have less than a third of the population they had in 1950.
Before our cities became the centers of American civilization, the land on which they currently sit consisted of healthy woods and plains. Then much of the land was developed into farmland. That is where we need to go again, this time starting from decay rather than virgin land.
This is the easiest thing for us to do with the abandoned parts of our cities. It can be done in a comprehensive way rather than piecemeal. The land that is now vacant as well as that on which dilapidated structures sit need to bulldozed and cured to remove the toxins from the land. We have to literally clean up our cities. As that is done, we will be able to put people to work with special considerations given to those living in the core city and who have skills but not jobs. Some of the land might be renovated into small “new towns” with the likes of townhouse residences and new small businesses providing basic necessities for residents. Those people who would be the new urban pioneers would also be the people who would have first chance at farming the now available land.
The work could be done by adults and children in school as well. Schools in the community could involve real experiential education. They would get away from the boring test-driven curricula and rather teach students to maintain and strengthen their innate curiosity and desire to learn. Additionally it would provide students with jobs skills that would make them “work-force ready.”
As areas within the city limits became productive, safe, and clean, more and more people would be motivated to move in. This is one of the beauties of a transition to farming. New development in the areas that were farmland would not run against current obstacles to potential growth such as neighborhood opposition. Rather than people living impoverished lives in these areas, the land would be used for farming. Owners could make healthy profits off the sale of their land while not uprooting residents and businesses.
This model cities program would really be an experimental program. Could it work in Detroit? If so, how long would it take? Would enough federal money be available for several years to fund the project? If it worked in Detroit, could it be replicated elsewhere, utilizing the lessons learned in Detroit? Would we actually learn how to take a decaying city and turn it into a vibrant area in which to live and work? Would we have discovered a new way to rebuild our urban areas and not be the kind of half-way measures that have been used the past half-century with limited success?
Progressives do have the insight to base many of their beliefs on promoting the common good while protecting individual liberties. Could a real model cities program demonstrate how we can improve our society by taking a holistic rather than half-way approach to renovation? We don’t know the answers now, but it certainly is worthwhile to make something as concrete as a real model cities program a cornerstone of progressive thinking.