You are here

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.



Becker, Heather. Art For the People: The Rediscovery and Preservation of Progressive- and WPA-Era Murals in the Chicago Public Schools, 1904-1943. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2002.

Bowly, Devereux, Jr. The Poorhouse: Subsidized Housing in Chicago, 1895-1976. Carbondale and Edwardsville, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1978.

Cahan, Richard, et al. Edgar Miller and the Handmade Home. Chicago: CityFiles Press, 2009.

Carr, Ethan. Wilderness by Design: Landscape Architecture and the National Park Service. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1998.

Davis, Kenneth S. FDR, The New Deal Years, 1933-1937: A History. New York: Random House, 1995.

Davis, Ren and Helen. Our Mark On This Land: A Guide To The Legacy Of The Civilian Conservation Corps In America's Parks. Granville, Ohio: McDonald & Woodward Pub. Co., 2011.

Fuerst, J. S. When Public Housing Was Paradise: Building Community in Chicago. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2003.

Gray, Mary Lackritz. A Guide to Chicago’s Murals. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.

Ickes, Harold. Back to Work: The Story of the New Deal. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1935.

Knepper, Cathy. Greenbelt, Maryland: A Living Legacy of the New Deal. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.

Leuchtenburg, William Edward. The New Deal: A Documentary History. New York: Harper & Row, 1968.

Merrill, Perry Henry. Roosevelt's Forest Army: A History Of The Civilian Conservation Corps, 1933-1942. Montpelier, Vermont: P.H. Merrill, 1981.

Paige, John C. The Civilian Conservation Corps And The National Park Service, 1933-1942: An Administrative History. Washington, D.C.: National Park Service,  1985.

Reagan, Patrick D. Designing a New America: The Origins of New Deal Planning, 1890–1943. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1999.

Smith, Jason Scott. Building New Deal Liberalism: The Political Economy of Public Works, 1933-1956. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Szczesny, Christy M. Americanization in a Greenbelt Town: The Colonial Revival in Greendale, Wisconsin. Charlottesville: University of Virginia, 2000.

Wagner, Philip K. “Suburban Landscapes for Nuclear Families: The Case of Greenbelt Towns in the United States.” Built Environment 10, 1 (1984).



Department of Geography at the University of California, Berkeley. “The Living New Deal.”

Gonzalez, David. “New Deal Utopias: Photographs by Jason Reblando.” New York Times Lens blog.

PBS. “The Civilian Conservation Corps.”

Texas State Parks. “The Look of Nature.”

The Roosevelt Institute. “1933.”

United States Resettlement Administration. Greenbelt Towns. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1936.

Weible, David. “Endangered Species: Chicago’s Animal Court Playground Looks to Rebound,” Preservation Blog, National Trust for Historical Preservation.