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Planning and the New Deal

President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal is often remembered for its numerous federal agencies that hoped to stimulate America’s ailing economy through public works. The Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration, and the Public Works Administration each directed large sums to public improvement projects, ranging from national parks to hydroelectric dams to housing complexes.

But President Roosevelt and his Brain Trust of advisors also hoped to institute planning—city planning, economic planning, and resource planning—as a permanent federal government role. Within the Public Works Administration, Interior Secretary Harold Ickes (a Chicagoan) created the National Planning Board in 1933 with a mandate to coordinate federal projects and stimulate planning by state and local governments. Other Chicagoans played key roles on this new board, including Fredric A. Delano, the President’s uncle and a leader in the Commercial Club of Chicago that backed the 1909 Plan of Chicago, and Charles E. Merriam, a University of Chicago political science professor and long-time advocate of progressive planning.

The National Planning Board encouraged the creation of state boards and local planning commissions and funded regional, state-wide, and city planning efforts. Influenced more by the City Practical movement than Burnham’s City Beautiful, these plans involved heavy data collection and analysis, with sober rather than soaring recommendations for land-use, transportation, and natural resources. Even so, the National Planning Board drew the ire of Congress, which resented the power of the Executive Branch to influence the location of public works. The Board underwent multiple reorganizations before Congress abolished it in 1943.

Still, the New Deal solidified planning as a government function, with the federal government funding the planning and construction of large-scale infrastructure. Among many federal efforts, the Resettlement Administration built three experimental “Greenbelt” communities and numerous relief camps for migrant workers, while the Tennessee Valley Authority engaged in regional economic and infrastructure planning, providing low-cost power, flood-control, and agricultural resources to most of Tennessee and parts of six other states. And the Public Works Administration began slum clearance and public housing development across the country. In each program, supporters made a progressive case that rational, data-driven, public-sector planning would result in positive outcomes for citizens.

 

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