On March 30th, 2011, as the last of the Cabrini-Green highrises was demolished in Chicago, a darkly mythologized corner of the American psyche disappeared in a cloud of dust. Following decades of declining populations, inhumane living conditions, and high crime rates, Cabrini-Green's towers—which had been culturally emblematic of the highrise "projects" like it around the countrywere gone forever. The demolition of the towers signalled a paradigm shift in public housing design, with Le Corbusier-inspired highrises giving way to New Urbanist communities as government policies and social perceptions shifted.

The demolition of Cabrini-Green, with Downtown Chicago in the background, image courtesy of Joe M500 via Wikimedia Commons

Yet, stepping outside this deceptively simple vignette, the troubled history of Cabrini-Green—and similar highrise public housing projects throughout the United States—is difficult to unravel, and perhaps impossible to reduce to a singular narrative. Any analysis of architecture and planning policy that ignores the broader problems of institutional racism and economic inequality can only ever tell part of the story. While this article examines how policy has shaped the built environment, policy itself has been shaped by a myriad of factors including the war on drugs, mass incarceration, the decline of the manufacturing sector, a problematic school district funding formula, the legacy (and perpetuation) of segregation, and widespread suburban exodus.

While a large confluence of factors have influenced the fortunes of public housing communities, understanding the architectural and economic principles on which they were built is a valuable starting point. From the Wagner-Steagall Housing Act of 1937 to the implementation of HOPE VI through to the present day, government initiatives—and the design aesthetics attached to each of them—have seen communities of varying scope created and demolished throughout the country. 

Early Public Housing Policies

Before the Great Depression, government involvement in housing was largely limited to enforcing building codes and construction standards throughout the country. As part of the New Deal, however, the government began providing Public Works Administration loans to public and private organizations engaged in constructing low-income housing in 1933. Soon after, the National Housing Act of 1934 saw the government begin direct administration of public housing project construction.

Between 1934 and 1937, the first fully publicly built housing projects were undertaken by the government, with Atlanta's Techwood Homes serving as perhaps the most prominent example of an early project. Opened in 1935, the low-rise Techwood Homes replaced a shantytown that had previously occupied the site.

Techwood homes as they appeared in the 1930s, image courtesy of the Library of Congress

Though the Techwood Homes would eventually be demolished in advance of the 1996 Olympics, the acute stigma associated with public housing was still many decades away. The first residents of early public housing projects lived in institutional-looking row houses and low-rise apartment buildings (which resemble schools of the same era), but their communities were not negatively mythologized in the way that later public housing projects would be. 

The first 50 public housing communities built between 1934 and 1937 were typically arranged around a central open green space, which was meant to encourage community building while creating safe, traffic-free play areas for children. Slum clearance saw urban shantytowns replaced with planned communities.

By 1937, the Wagner-Steagall Act solidified the government's role in constructing and administrating public housing nationwide. The nascent United States Housing Authority oversaw construction of a growing number of public housing projects in the years that followed. The beginning of WWII saw the war effort spur rapid construction of new public housing stock (some of which was intended to be temporary, but became permanent) next to heavy industry. 

In the early 1940s, the labour demands of industrial production saw higher density public housing built. For the first time, select subsidized housing projects were built specifically for middle-class families, addressing an acute shortage of residential housing stock throughout the country. The advent of public housing as both a lower-class and middle-class program, together with the patriotic elements of contributing to the war effort, and the industrial jobs created, kept life in subsidized housing relatively stigma-free.  

The Post-War Period

Following the end of WWII, American soldiers returned home with GI Bill incentives to purchase homes, while the Truman administration addressed a new shortage of public housing through market intervention and price regulation, rather than directly constructing new urban housing. A growing automobile culture and a lack of public commitment to the urban realm contributed—among other factors—to the post-war suburban exodus of the American white middle class, gradually hollowing many inner cities into economically marginalized and racially segregated spaces.

Throughout the 1940s and 50s, some of the largest (and most notorious) highrise public housing communities were constructed across the country. In 1942, Chicago's Cabrini-Green (below) began as a series of racially integrated row houses. Many residents were employed in manufacturing and heavy industry. In the postwar years, however, new highrise towers joined the row houses as many white residents departed for another America. What remained was a socially and economically isolated collection of towers in the park.

A new Cabrini-Green, image courtesy of the National Park Service

1949 brought a new Housing Act which promoted further slum clearing and highrise development. St. Louis' massive Pruitt-Igoe housing project (below), designed by Minoru Yamasaki, sought to replace overcrowded 19th century tenements with more comfortable, modern housing. However, living conditions deteriorated so quickly that the entire complex was demolished only 20 years after its completion. Like in Cabrini-Green, black residents found themselves increasingly isolated from the economic opportunities of middle-class America.

Pruitt-Igoe, image courtesy of the National Geological Survey

The "tower in the park" concept came under growing criticism during the 1960s and 70s, as urban theorists—perhaps most prominently Jane Jacobs—decried communities that fostered little socialization and economic activity for their residents. The "parks" were dangerous and empty, while the monolithic towers were often far away from viable economic opportunities. Many became food deserts, and often lacked access to basic services.

Section 8 to HOPE VI

By 1968, many of America's highrise public housing projects had become so destitute that the newest Housing Act prohibited towers designed for families with young children, deeming the conditions unsuitable. Communities like Pruitt-Igoe and Cabrini-Green became virtually unliveable, to the extent that vacancy rates in some buildings rose above 60% by the early 1970s. 

In 1973, the Nixon administration expressed such disillusionment with public housing that a moratorium on new projects was announced. After Nixon's impeachment the following year, the Housing and Community Development Act of 1974 introduced the Section 8 Housing Program, which provided incentives for private developers to build affordable housing.

While a limited number of private Section 8 projects were constructed in the 70s, all that remains of the program are government housing vouchers that pay for a portion of low-income residents' rent in private housing. The Section 8 voucher program marks a shift in which direct welfare-state intervention is replaced by social programs that subsidize private services.  

A renewed commitment to funding public housing came in 1992, when the HOPE VI program was launched. The HOPE VI program seeks to rebuild older public housing communities as mixed-income neighbourhoods. Like the Section 8 projects of the 70s, HOPE VI relies on partnerships with private developers to build new housing.

Besides creating mixed-income communities, HOPE VI is predicated upon the concepts of Defensible Space and New Urbanism. The notion of "defensible space"first postulated by Oscar Newman in the book of the same name—suggests that crime and urban blight occur when residents feel little personal connection to the environment they inhabit. According to the theory, highrise apartment buildings in the middle of large parks foster poor living conditions since the architecture and urban design of the neighbourhood do not allow residents the opportunity to take ownership of the space around them, thus facilitating crime and negligence.

Typical 'tower in the park' layout in Toronto's St. James Town, image courtesy of SimonP via Wikimedia Commons

By creating low-rise communities where residents have the ability to watch over (or "defend") the space around them, the defensible space theory suggests that crime and anti-social behavior can be significantly reduced. A sense of neighbourhood "watchfulness" can, according to Newman, discourage criminal activity while giving residents a sense of control and responsibility. 

Similarly, the broader notion of New Urbanism encourages mixed-use, walkable neighbourhoods, where a sense of community exists alongside the economic opportunities provided by nearby commercial space. New Urbanism encourages narrow, pedestrian and transit-oriented streets alongside mixed-income housing. Buildings face directly onto the street, bringing public life closer to the public realm, encouraging a sense of community and civic responsibility. 

The end of the highrise?

Since the 1990s, a number of prominent public housing projects have been redeveloped under HOPE VI funding, including Techwood Homes and Cabrini-Green, as well as a number of other communities along Chicago's State Street Corridor. In the years between 1993 and 2010, $6.1 billion of government spending saw 254 HOPE VI grants awarded throughout the country. By bringing in new mixed-income residents and retail, most of the neighbourhoods redeveloped under HOPE VI have seen lower crime rates and at least somewhat improved economic fortunes than their predecessors. 

The new mixed-income buildings that replaced Techwood Homes and Cabrini-Green's near-abandoned towers, for example, have not seen the crime and neglect of their predecessors resurface, while many of the international redevelopment projects built along similar principles—such as Toronto's Regent Park—have turned previously stigmatized communities into attractive mixed-income neighbourhoods.

Despite its benefits, the HOPE VI program—which faced cancellation during the George W. Bush administration—has also faced significant criticism. Perhaps the most common, and consequential, criticism of HOPE VI is that the program's redevelopment projects do not require a "one for one" replacement of previous units. This means that some residents are permanently displaced when their homes are redeveloped, and left with no home instead of a bad one.  

Even in Cabrini-Green, where many of the previous apartment towers were largely unoccupied by the 90s, it has been reported that only 12% of the residents who were displaced by the redevelopment process were eventually resettled into new homes. Likewise, the redeveloped Techwood Homes—now called Centennial Place (below)—has far fewer subsidized units than the previous community. In this regard, the goals of the HOPE VI program appear to privilege creating pleasant new neighbourhoods over improving the quality of life of the people who inhabit them.

Atlanta's Centennial Place, image courtesy of CentennialPlace.com

The problem of resettling displaced residents becomes particularly acute when more populous highrise communities are considered. While the depopulation of Cabrini-Green serves as a somewhat extreme example of the inhumane conditions faced in older public housing projects, many similar communities maintained higher populations, making the prospect of resettling even more difficult.

At heart, HOPE VI's logistical problem is simple: transforming highrise towers into mid-rise (or low-rise) communities involves a loss of residential density. What's more, the fact that new communities are designed as mixed-income and mixed-use means that the loss of low-income housing is even greater. A redeveloped community usually cannot accommodate all pre-exisiting residents unless it is massively expanded.

What Now?

For all its good intentions, the limitations of HOPE VI's parameters become startlingly and explicitly apparent when considered within the context of very high-density communities. In New York, for example, the city's population density—and shortage of space—makes redeveloping public housing according to HOPE VI guidelines practically impossible. 

According to The Atlantic, New York's crowded, highrise public housing communities—which cannot realistically be redeveloped in line with HOPE VI—face significant funding shortages, since HOPE VI, which did not make the city tear down its skyscrapers, also did not provide the money necessary to maintain them. 

However, the failure of HOPE VI's tenets to redevelop New York's exceptionally dense communities has actually seen the policy occasionally bent to fund highrise redevelopment. Given the fact that highrise living is commonplace and stigma-free across social strata in the city, the HOPE VI program was tailored to accommodate the city's unavoidable density for three mixed-income highrise projects throughout the city.  

The structural failure (and subsequent adjustment) of HOPE VI in meeting New York's housing requirements evidences the need to reconsider highrise projects as a viable public housing strategy. Although many of New York's tall public housing projects are failing to provide an acceptable standard for their residents—Brooklyn's impoverished Brownsville neighborhood (below) is made up of an unbroken square mile of socio-economically isolated residents—the city nonetheless demonstrates that life in skyscrapers does not inherently create poor living conditions. 

Samuel J. Tilden Houses in Brownsville, Brooklyn, image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

More broadly—and outside the direct scope of HOPE VI—the strict height limits in cities like Washington D.C. and San Francisco have contributed to an inadequate supply of public housing, with San Francisco going so far as to sue its suburbs for not creating more public housing units.

While many of the mid-century's tower in the park communities can be considered unmitigated disasters in highrise public housing strategy, the need for density means that building tall—as De Blasio is planning in New Yorkmay once again be necessary in parts of the country. In fact, using some of HOPE VI's principles to create mixed-income, economically vibrant communities may prove to be a way of creating responsible and livable highrise communities for the 21st century. And, unlike Cabrini-Green and Pruitt-Igoe, we can hope that their ascent will prove to be more iconic than their demolition.