US housing crisis: what can Ben Carson learn from radical 1960s ‘new town’ plan?

The US housing department’s ambitious initiatives of the 60s and 70s created urban communities that were both mixed race and mixed income. Though many didn’t last, are there lessons in them for Donald Trump’s new housing secretary?

Anthony Paletta: The Guardian – Tuesday 10 January 2017 11.36 EST

Innovation is, to put it mildly, not one of the first attributes that come to mind when you think of “Hud” – the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, soon to be overseen by Donald Trump’s former Republican rival Ben Carson. Yet this wasn’t always the case.

Imagine urban and suburban communities that banned cars, collected trash in pneumatic tubes, offered prototype community video chat capabilities, built elaborate pedestrian and cycle networks, and carefully retained existing foliage. You may not be thinking of the Jetsons, but products of the groundbreaking Hud New Towns initiatives in the late 1960s and early 70s.

What’s more, these aims were achieved while paying real and successful attention to creating both mixed-income and mixed-race communities.

So where should Carson go to be inspired by these pioneering projects? The catch is (with a few exceptions) federal support for them had sputtered by the mid-70s and vanished entirely in subsequent years, leaving at best, mere fragments of their once grand ideals.

The genuine problems with some of these projects – now perceived as failures, if recalled at all – eclipsed their admirable qualities in historical memory. These are qualities that might have offered Carson models for a country that is currently experiencing acute housing shortages in many of its metropolitan areas.

In the 70s, 15 projects were approved for “Title VII” support, most on greenfield sites near existing metropolitan areas. Two were in cities: Roosevelt Island (previously known as Welfare Island) in New York and Riverside Plaza in Minneapolis. Another, Soul City, was distant both from any nearby cities and prevailing practices of building them, as an effort to build a genuinely multi-racial community, spearheaded by an African American developer and African American architects.

There were many inventive elements on the drawing board, and some became a reality. If most developments were substantially suburban in character, planning mainly for single family homes, they often integrated higher density elements or multi-family homes, as well as significant efforts at pedestrian friendliness.


Ben Carson

Donald Tump nominated Ben Carson as his secretary for housing and urban development. Photograph: Rainer Ehrhardt/Reuters


The Woodlands, near Houston, attracted praise for a trait that seems intuitive: retaining nature. Initial planning in semi-arid Texas was guided by an intention not to disturb the site’s water table, which would have affected the vegetation. The preservation of generous amounts of greenery around existing streams and drainage patterns was the first planning goal, not an afterthought.

Jonathan, Minnesota, a suburban new town, included an extensive trail system throughout the community and even more futuristic touches. According to Andy Sturdevant in the Minneapolis Post: “Each house was to be wired with interconnected cables as part of a General Electric Community Information Systems (CIS) project that would turn each television into a telephone that allowed you to communicate visually with your neighbours.”

Each home’s address was also its ID number for the system: “Someone dials up 110612 on their television, your TV makes a futuristic ringing sound, and you can have a video conversation,” Sturdevant wrote.

The two urban projects, Roosevelt Island and Riverside – both of which were fairly substantially realised – were thoughtful reactions against the known shortcomings of the design and composition of prior decades of low-income housing. Both forsook the anti-urban characteristics of prior decades of towers in the park and stressed the importance of planning for a mix of incomes.

Roosevelt Island (substantially the work of New York’s fascinating Urban Development Corporation) centred its marquee-architect designed main street around a coherent, colonnaded main street lined with shops. It introduced other innovations, banning private cars (for a while) and collecting trash via a pneumatic tube system.


Floyd McKissick

Floyd McKissick visulizes the future Soul City to be built on these empty fields in Warren County: Harold Valetine/AP


Riverside Plaza, designed by the notable modernist Ralph Rapson, included Minneapolis’s first high-rise residential towers – but, more importantly, offered buildings at a variety of scales designed to house a variety of incomes, along with retail and community amenities. It was also a surprising television star, the site of