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RMU Historian's Book Casts a New Light on Urban Renewal 

Moon Township, Pa. – Robert Morris University historian John McCarthy has chronicled a previously unheralded chapter in the saga of 20th century urban redevelopment with his book “Making Milwaukee Mightier: Planning and the Politics of Growth 1910-1960.”

Recently published by Northern Illinois University Press, “Making Milwaukee Mightier” is McCarthy’s first book.

“It is a story that challenges the normal arguments about urban redevelopment,” said McCarthy, an assistant professor of history.

In many cities, early- to mid-20th century urban redevelopment advocates emphasized slum clearance, beautification of the central business district, and large-scale cultural and civic facilities. Milwaukee’s socialist officials regarded that approach as elitist, primarily serving the interests of real estate developers, according to McCarthy.

Milwaukee’s planners focused instead on providing affordable housing through decentralizing the city’s population – a goal that required the city to annex swaths of unincorporated land outside the city limits. The city expanded from 25 to 44 square miles during the 1920s, and today the city stands at 98 square miles.

Redevelopment in Milwaukee was influenced by the British Garden City movement, which called for planned, self-sufficient communities with residential streets surrounded by rings of green space. Milwaukee’s Garden Homes, one of the first publicly funded housing communities in the United States, incorporated Garden City principles.

The Garden City movement has long come under attack by critics of centralized urban planning, including today’s New Urbanists, who believe that its use of zoning codes and low-density housing encourages suburban sprawl.

“Garden City advocates would counter that if they had their way, that nasty suburban sprawl that New Urbanists hate would not exist. Instead you'd have central cities surrounded by Garden Cities – really, a bunch of compact villages,” said McCarthy.

Mounting political opposition outside Milwaukee ultimately halted the city’s annexation policy, but it achieved some success. Annexation has spared Milwaukee many of the fiscal problems faced by cities like Pittsburgh, which has much less land and thus less taxable property to support municipal services. 

Nonetheless, many other problems that cities confronted during the postwar period afflicted Milwaukee. Jobs have fled downtown for the suburbs, which are politically fragmented. As white residents left the inner city and Milwaukee’s African American population increased, the metropolitan area became increasingly segregated along racial and economic lines. 

For McCarthy, Milwaukee’s experiences reinforce the late Jane Jacobs’ complaint that even planning based on egalitarian principles comes off as elitist to everyday citizens.

“Big ideas, like planning for regions instead of doing things incrementally like the New Urbanists prefer, are extremely difficult to navigate in a country like the United States, which almost reflexively rejects centralized planning as elitist or communist, or at least anathema to free market principles,” said McCarthy.