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Taking Stock of the Cities

ISSUE:  Spring 1934

Urban Land Uses. By Harland Bartholomew. Volume IV, Harvard City Planning Studies. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. $3.50. The Rebuilding of Blighted Areas: A Study of the Neighborhood Unit in Rcplanning and Plot Assemblage. By Clarence Arthur Perry. New York: Regional Plan Association, Incorporated. $2.00. One Hundred Years of Land Values in Chicago: The Relationship of the Growth of Chicago to the Rise in Its Land Values, 1830-1933. By Homer Hoyt. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. $5.00. Housing America. By The Editors of “Fortune.” New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. $2.00.

For the first third of this century two tendencies worked their opposing wills upon our American cities, The professional planners sought to force these growing, dynamic, commercial centers into the formalistic vistaed mould of Baron Haussmann’s capital of the Third Empire. Unhappily, this artificial parti pris largely undermined whatever guiding and moderating influence they might have exercised. Capitalist, speculator, and individualist rebelled as much from instinct as from reason. Subdivisions sprawled; the skyscrapers blotted one another out. (Curiously enough, by the way, the great American individual fortune reaped through the exploitation of a natural resource—oil—has been in part absorbed by the efforts of the second generation to improve the fundamental natural resource, land: through Edith Rockefeller McCormick’s subdivisions and John D. Rockefeller Jr.’s Radio City.)

The net results: Excessive development, both extensive and intensive, vacant lots, vacant offices and apartments; loss not merely to speculators but also to small investors in “homesites” and “real estate gold bonds”; increased costs of government; tax delinquencies; “blighted” districts. At least, these are realities, and to deal with them architects, city planners, and real estate men are doing some hard and honest thinking.

Harland Bartholomew’s study of “Urban Land Uses” is a, conspicuous example. Its subtitle is fully descriptive: “Amounts of land used and needed for various purposes by typical American cities.” Unfortunately, the cities analyzed represent the smaller group—Louisville, Kentucky (population, 307,808), being the largest. And it is in the half-million and million class that these problems are most acute. Happily, these metropolises are beginning to make individual studies of themselves—that of the Los Angeles Bureau of Municipal Research standing out as a brilliant, albeit disillusioning, model of technique applicable to larger units as Mr. Bartholomew’s is for smaller ones.

Mr. Bartholomew’s statistical conclusions are interesting and to some students of real estate will be startling. For instance, he has closely confirmed the ratio previously discovered in the Chicago area of actual frontage used—not merely zoned—for commercial purposes: about one-half foot per person of population; and this figure may hereafter be taken as a pretty safe and very valuable rule of thumb. Also, despite the great popularity of apartment houses in recent years, they occupy only two or three per cent of the city area; as a factor in land values their importance has been grossly overestimated.

Backed by the Regional Plan Association of New York and the Russell Sage Foundation, Clarence Anthur Perry, in “The Rebuilding of Blighted Aneas,” boldly demolishes a dozen forsaken blocks out in Queens and rebuilds thereupon a “neighborhood unit” of various pleasing and somewhat Utopian characteristics. The analysis of the problem is excellent and the concluding suggestions on “A Method of Pooling” the various ownerships—the knottiest problem in any such scheme—are novel, interesting, and might prove applicable to other development projects as well.

City planners are fond of—in fact, can hardly be restrained from quoting—Burnham’s stirring exordium beginning, “Make no little plans. . . . ” It is to be regretted that they have followed this opening injunction so literally. The horrors of the “slum” have been preached into the American people, yet for every territory where only a noble and complete slum clearance project could be applied there are perhaps a dozen or a hundred blighted or partly blighted districts where a moderate infusion of new capital, new spirit, neighborhood activity and reasonable service from the health and building departments would effect a general renovation upon a practical and individualistic basis. Mr. C. F. Palmer of Atlanta, while President of the National Association of Building Owners and Managers, suggested the allotment of modest federal aid for such purposes, but his voice was drowned by the roar of the rushing billions of the R.F.C, H.O.L.C., and P.W.A., not one trickle of which, however, can be diverted into the parched desert of established commercial real estate.

In “One Hundred Years of Land Values in Chicago,” Homer Hoyt has written a remarkable exemplification, through the history of Chicago real estate, of the cyclical economic theory of “ups and downs.” The array of facts and figures which he has collected and analyzed is stupendous and his work, in so far as this reviewer has the knowledge to check a small sample, is honest and accurate. IF the tax burden can be surmounted, if the oversupply of lots and space can be absorbed despite the declining growth of population and any general decentralizing tendencies, if the metropolis is not to be outmoded technologically or outstripped economically, then the future is bright. Mr. Hoyt admits these ifs although his hypothesis discounts them.

The Editors of Fortune offer, in “Housing America,” a lively and useful summary of the entire problem. There is little discussion of mass housing, but more of various ingenious new plans of standardized houses, a number of which were exhibited in 1933 at the Chicago Century of Progress,


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