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From Top-Down Approach to Participatory Planning

Urban renewal is a form of land redevelopment which attempts to stall urban decay by clearing out the blighted areas and slums, and creating opportunities for private buyers and higher-class housing. One major consequence of urban renewal is the gentrification of a neighborhood, often characterized by edging out of the extant community and erosion of local culture – and it unfairly targets minority racial communities (Aoki, 1993). Urban renewal can be seen in the United States from the time of City Beautiful movement, to the work of Robert Moses who planned a highway through Greenwich village that met with resistance from none other than Jane Jacobs.

The City Beautiful movement flourished in the US in 1890-1900s, and was a part of the progressive social reform which claimed that urban design could not be disconnected from social issues (Blumberg & Yalzadeh, 2019)– in fact, architectural design and planning could instill a sense of virtue by infusing aesthetics into the unsavory and often chaotic city living conditions, and bettering the quality of life. This anti-urban life sentiment and the desire for country living, along with increasing belief in technology resulted in producing spatial distributions that were segregated along the lines of race and economy (Aoki, 1993).

The McMillan Plan - Source : Oxford Research Encyclopedias

Chicago’s World Columbian Exposition in 1893, guided by Daniel Burnham set an ideal for a “White City”, with no visible poverty and a high quality of transportation. The classical monumentalism envisioned in the ‘Beaux-Arts aesthetic’ (Blumberg & Yalzadeh, 2019) in this exposition was adapted on a large scale in American cities over the years. This called for invasive changes involving entirely changing the existing landscape of the cities, and attempting to bring in beauty with classical architecture of civic buildings, stately plazas, and boulevards and avenues (Bluestone, 1988), not unlike what was envisioned and executed by Hausmann in Paris (Jordan, 1992).

High modernism gained prevalence after the world wars ended, in the 1950s-60s. It was characterized by an unwavering faith in science and technology as the basis of planning and design to move society forward. It relied on technical experts such as planners, architects and engineers, and an authoritarian state that was ready to back the severe transformation required to render an old city precinct ‘legible’, i.e., make it look visibly ordered and simplified (Scott, 1999). It entirely disregarded historical, social and geographical context of a space in an attempt to achieve order and beauty. Examples of city planning via this approach include Brasilia and Chandigarh, that set up greenfield cities that had little to do with their surroundings and were later critiqued to be out-of-scale and disconnected from local culture (Scott, 1999).

One of the strongest critics of this kind of top-down approach to urban planning was Jane Jacobs, who was a believer of cities as a living ecosystem, made of interconnected systems rather than individual elements (Lewis, 2020). Jacobs, along with Louis Mumford, can be considered as the founder of the New Urbanism movement. It focused on understanding cities as they are in reality, and using bottom-up community participatory planning that relied on inputs from locals that any design would affect the most. It advocated for diverse, mixed use, high density neighborhoods, and preserving older architectural heritage wherever possible instead of tearing it down and starting afresh (Jacobs, 1961).

The observation that revitalization comes at the cost of community when it is not participatory, is the essence of her philosophy. Parts of her philosophy dealing with understanding how slums settle, and using subsidization and incrementality as a method of community upgradation has been used to great success in many parts of the world.



  1. Aoki, K. (1993). Race, Space, and Place: The Relation Between Architectural Modernism, Post-Modernism, Urban Planning, and Gentrification. Fordham Urban Law Journal, 20(4), 699-725. Retrieved 2020, from

  2. Bluestone, D. M. (1988). Detroit's City Beautiful and the Problem of Commerce. Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, 245-262.

  3. Blumberg, N., & Yalzadeh, I. (2019, January 04). City Beautiful Movement. Retrieved September 29, 2020, from Encyclopaedia Brittanica:

  4. Jacobs, J. (1961). The Uses of City Neighborhoods. In J. Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (pp. 51-57). New York: Random House.

  5. Jordan, D. P. (1992). The CIty: Baron Haussmann and Modern Paris. The American Scholar, 61(1), 99-106. Retrieved 2020, from

  6. Lewis, J. J. (2020, August 27). Jane Jacobs: New Urbanist Who Transformed City Planning. Retrieved from website:

  7. Scott, J. C. (1999). Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

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