The Emergence of Urban Planning in the South, 1880-1930

To take a bibliography of southern history on its face, one could conclude that urban planning never touched the American South. No historian has yet made a comprehensive study of planning in southern cities. Southern urban planning has enjoyed the full attention of scholars only in the occasional dissertation or journal article, and these have taken the form of case studies looking at planning in a few cities or a single state. Otherwise, scholarly treatment of southern planning has played a supporting - and distinctly minor - role in more general studies of southern urban development, wherein a historian discusses planning for a few pages before moving on to topics like commercial architecture, railroad development, or the ideology of boosterism. Taken together, the direct and indirect studies provide a rough outline of how southerners responded to city environments between 1880 and 1930: urban planning emerged in the South in the early twentieth century in answer to the disorder created by rapid urbanization and industrialization after Reconstruction, first manifesting as private efforts to beautify the urban landscape and later as official government programs to make more efficient and stable cities. Given the lack of direct attention paid to the subject, this picture necessarily lacks the completeness that a comprehensive study could bring; in particular, historians’ overriding focus on the role of business elites in shaping the landscape has kept scholars from fully understanding the complexity of planning the southern city.

The historical study of southern cities, and planning in particular, long received little attention. Surveying the field in 1953, the editors of The Journal of Southern History noted that considerable territory lay open for southern historians to explore in the cities: “Much has been written about the rural South, but there is to date too little tangible evidence that the southern scholar has thought much about the urban South.” The authors went on to identify “city planning and lack of planning” as one of the topics as yet neglected by historians. More than ten years later, Norman Johnston observed in a study of urban planner Harland Bartholomew, “The present state of an historical record of twentieth century planning processes in the United States is marked primarily by its paucity.” By the 1960s few scholars had tackled the subject of southern cities directly or of American planning in general.

Interest in southern urban history surged not long after Johnston wrote, as a spate of dissertations and monographs appeared on the scene in the 1960s and 1970s. Elizabeth Anne Mack Lyon and Charles P. Garofalo wrote dissertations about, respectively, architecture and business attitudes in Atlanta in the early 1970s, and Kay Haire Huggins completed a doctoral study of city and regional planning in North Carolina in 1967. Two leading scholars of the urban South, Blaine Brownell and David Goldfield, published books and articles beginning in the 1970s. Each of these works addressed issues of urban planning in varying degrees, although only Huggins and occasionally Brownell pursued planning as a primary topic of concern.

The Journal of Southern History implied that any story of urban development in the South might be as much about a “lack of planning” as planning itself, and many scholars have described southern cities as almost completely lacking conscious form or design. David Goldfield arged that urban development in the South was chaotic in the late nineteenth century, noting unpaved roads and the presence of highly undeveloped areas throughout cities. “Some parts of [Atlanta] were positively wilderness,” Goldfield observed, “and a guidebook of the time recommended fish and duck-hunting in the city’s ninth ward, a district ‘which has never been visited by man, and as unknown as the centre of Africa.’” Similarly, Howard Preston argued that urbanites devoted their energies after the desolation of the Civil War to commercial construction, leaving roads deficient and disorderly and parks nonexistent.

Others have pointed out that the urban landscape had evolved with some degree of premeditated form. Lawrence Larsen, for instance, noted that most cities had a gridiron street plan of some kind. “By 1880, whether southern towns began as forts, blockhouses, stockades, elaborately planned communities, or hastily platted promotions,” he wrote, “a distinguishing feature was some form of rectangular street plan.” Larsen placed this feature within the larger American scene, arguing that the gridiron plan was “an American legacy to urban planning,” found in the mining towns of California as much as the bustling new cities of the South. Thomas Hanchett confirmed Larsen’s observation about street patterns in his study of Charlotte, North Carolina, tracing them to a strong tradition of urban planning in the city’s earliest years. A royal charter dictated Charlotte’s layout upon its inception, and for well over a century city officials carefully dictated the design of Charlotte streets. “In each expansion,” Hanchett wrote, “the new streets were planned by a decision of the community leaders rather than by any individual entrepreneur… Not until the dawn of the industrial era would that tradition be questioned.”

These findings suggest that a more orderly pattern of urban planning predated both industrialization and the formal government planning of the twentieth century, but was lost in the shuffle of the late nineteenth century’s rapid urbanization. Indeed, urban growth after Reconstruction posed an array of problems that local leaders were ill-equipped as well as disinclined to confront. In his study of attitudes among urban elites, Blaine Brownell argued that city leaders held growth to be an end in itself and allowed the city to billow out into surrounding areas, taking little care to integrate these “seemingly indigestible chunks of land and people” into an orderly urban scheme. Several other scholars have painted a similar portrait of unresponsive leadership during the expansive years of the late nineteenth century. Kay Haire Huggins has shown that politicians, the press and others in North Carolina began to call for parks, land-use regulations and other forms of planning during this period, but local governments failed to act on any of these suggestions until well into the twentieth century. Similarly, Elizabeth Anne Mack Lyon observed of Atlanta, “Promoters and publicists boasted of the city’s many skyscrapers and talked much in the public press about the need for a ‘City Beautiful,’ but the rapidly expanding city was unable to obtain support for comprehensive planning ideas…”

David Goldfield’s Atlanta guidebook provides a clue to the unequal application of what efforts southern cities did make to shape the urban environment. Areas like Atlanta’s ninth district, which had a predominantly black population, received almost none of the benefits of government action, he said, while the central business district and higher class residential areas sometimes would. The limited government philosophy embraced by southerners during this period assumed that property owners would be responsible for paving roads adjacent to their holdings. Urban leaders were satisfied with this policy as far as areas inhabited primarily by poorer residents were concerned, Goldfield argued, but city governments periodically applied public money to enhancing the downtown areas, as well as the new suburban areas then being developed. As a result, the majority of streets in southern cities languished in poor condition well into the twentieth century.

Scholars have identified annexation as a major feature of southern urban policy in the late nineteenth century, but they have assessed the motivations of boundary-pushing leaders differently. Howard Rabinowitz argued that city leaders enthusiastically expanded urban boundaries during this period partly to post impressive gains from one census to the next. Local boosters believed, Rabinowitz said, that annexation would create the impression that their city was progressing rapidly by padding population statistics with outlying areas. David Goldfield agreed that annexation served a certain public relations purpose: “Following the antebellum precept that growth meant progress, southern urban leaders made up in territory what they lacked in economic and population growth.” However, Professor Goldfield also suggested that interests in land speculation and streetcar development drove the policy of annexation in many cities, since land values would likely rise and the extension of public services would make outlying lands – where streetcar lines were extending – more desirable for homeowners. In contrast, Rabinowitz emphasized the desire of urban leaders to capture the tax base of those who would be living in the developing suburbs. Goldfield’s interpretation seems more probable, given its emphasis on benefits that would accrue to speculative interests rather than revenue for city government itself. After all, the newly minted city residents of suburban neighborhoods received the lion’s share of benefits from city services, such as paving and lighting, as older areas suffered and lower-class neighborhoods continued to be neglected entirely. Capturing a new tax base would accomplish little if most resources were going to be shifted to these areas anyway.

In any case, the central role of business elites has been a consistent theme in studies of southern planning. Businessmen were able to dominate the planning process because they occupied most positions of political power in southern cities. “By fostering close ties with business and government leaders (usually the same people in southern cities),” argued David Goldfield, “[professional planners] demonstrated how their profession could further the city’s economic interests - a primary concern of the civic elite.” Several works have sought to identify this class and clarify what their interests were. For instance, in The Urban Ethos in the South Blaine Brownell sought to analyze the opinions “enunciated by a conscious urban elite,” because these people had “the requisite power and resources, and the greater opportunity, to determine urban policy and translate their thinking into action.” Brownell described this group of resourceful, influential city-dwellers as a “commercial-civic elite,” composed primarily of white male business leaders “whose principal focus of attention was the downtown business district, and whose views were most often reflected in the major urban newspapers and in many other printed sources.” These individuals have played some role in every history of southern planning, and their part has usually been a central one.

Many scholars have defined the interests of this elite exclusively in terms of business interests, with planning understood as a means to sell the city to outsiders. David Goldfield characterized Progressivism as essentially an overhaul of government on a business model that emphasized efficiency and economic growth, with city planning a key example of such Progressive reforms in the South. “The somewhat chaotic, rustic environment that characterized southern cities concerned image-conscious leaders,” Goldfield wrote, “though they did little beyond tidying up the central business district.” Urban planning, then, was primarily concerned with creating a positive and appealing business climate. Likewise, Norman Johnston pointed to the exhortations of Memphis business leaders in support of planning: “There follows a peroration on the attractiveness of planning for the businessman (‘… it pays to be able to say there are no slums,’ ‘It pays even in dollars and cents,’ ‘Beauty pays!’”)…” This was not beauty for beauty’s sake, but, rather, beauty for business’s sake. Goldfield would likely quibble with the enthusiastic businessmen quoted in Johnston’s work; as expedient as it may have been “to say there are no slums,” he insisted in Cotton Fields that Harland Bartholomew’s plans for Memphis, Knoxville and New Orleans deliberately lacked any provisions for ameliorating social problems. According to Goldfield, “There was a clear understanding between client and planner that ‘housing and other “social” concerns’ were to be eliminated from the final recommendations.”

Elizabeth Anne Mack Lyon demonstrated the primacy of economic growth in shaping the landscape by highlighting the low value ascribed to parks and open space by Atlanta’s leaders during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In her essay, “Frederick Law Olmsted and Joel Hurt: Planning for Atlanta,” Lyon vividly described the experience of Olmsted upon arriving in the Gate City. “Not even one small plot of green space greeted the country’s foremost landscape architect upon his arrival,” according to Lyon. “The area adjacent to the depot in front of his hotel, which had served the postwar decade a city park, was covered by a solid block of recently constructed business buildings.” What little open space existed in Atlanta fell victim to the dictates of expanding commerce, and Olmsted’s suggestions for comprehensive planning of parks and green spaces ultimately fell on deaf ears within the practically minded business community. Other forms of planning, however, could fare better than proposals for parks and other public amenities. As Lyon observed in her dissertation, “The city’s businessmen did press for the services and civic improvements they deemed important to the city’s commercial growth… Planning that was not directly related to the utilitarian side of business was largely ignored everywhere.”

Other assessments have construed the concerns of these “image-conscious” elites in less narrowly economic terms. Charles P. Garofalo’s dissertation, “Business Ideas in Atlanta,” takes an approach similar to Brownell’s Urban Ethos by making the mentality of urban elites his object of study. Like Brownell, Lyon and others, Garofalo identified “organized businessmen operating through their local chambers of commerce, trade associations, and other bodies” as the chief actors in systematically affecting the urban landscape through planning. However, he argued that the “status of their community” and social control were the driving concerns of these businessmen, not merely economic growth per se. Garofalo made the interesting choice of discussing architecture and planning practices in a chapter devoted to “The Arts,” grouping these “civic arts” with painting, theatre, music and opera as facets of the businessman’s search for status. For the businessmen in Garofalo’s study, urban planning was essential if Atlanta were ever to achieve greatness of the proper magnitude. The author pointed, for instance, to William J. Sayward’s plea for Atlantans “not to go down in history as a nation of traders simply like the Phoenicians and the Carthaginians”; Atlanta would have to take better care with its urban environment if it hoped to attain the status of an Athens or Rome. In Garofalo’s view, a desire for control over the city, which became increasingly disordered as it grew, also motivated elites. He argued that the surge of interest in parks during the 1920s represented “an attempt at social regulation,” although he did not provide much evidence for how or why calls for park development aimed at social control.

The “commercial-civic elite” — typically defined as a group of white, male business leaders — has occupied a conspicuous place in the historical literature, but several historians have noted the role of women’s groups in the developing of planning in the South. One could argue that distinguishing between businessmen and their wives makes little difference, since both can be defined economically as members of an elite class. However, the literature demonstrates that affluent women had goals and resources distinct from those of the businessmen who played a role in the development of planning. According to Kay Haire Huggins, women’s organizations devoted to the beautification of cities in North Carolina emerged from church groups and literary discussion clubs during the first decade of the twentieth century. These clubs concerned themselves chiefly with improving school buildings, cleaning streets and sidewalks, and beautifying the urban landscape with shrubbery and other decorations. Huggins showed that progressive women moved from smaller, more isolated projects, such as improving a single schoolhouse, to larger-scale programs like a citywide clean-up campaign.

The expanding scope of women’s activism in North Carolina led to the first formal efforts at city planning, Huggins argued, but women lacked the resources to realize their plans. This process culminated in North Carolina’s first comprehensive city plan, when the Woman’s Club in Raleigh commissioned a leading spokesman for civic design, Charles Mulford Robinson, to create a design for Raleigh in 1912. Robinson’s plan emphasized beautification of the city, calling for “the elimination of overhead wiring, sign and billboard control, the use of more ‘comely’ waste receptacles, and a more efficient system of collecting rubbish”; he also envisioned improved parks and playgrounds and a grand public square around the capitol building. The Woman’s Club sold copies of the plan in the hope that the public would study it and embrace Robinson’s recommendations, but the plan ultimately faded into obscurity. Huggins attributed the plan’s failure to the women’s political inexperience and the club’s inability to fund extensive projects independently. However, they did establish a precedent that foreshadowed the active embrace of planning by local governments a decade later.

The Woman’s Club pursued a concept of planning embodied in the “City Beautiful” movement of the early twentieth century, and scholars have agreed that this represented a key step in the establishment of urban planning in the South. Most have placed the beginning of this movement in the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, where the elaborate construction of a “Great White City” had sparked Americans’ interest in civic art, classical architecture, and landscaping. City Beautiful advocates aimed to make the urban landscape more aesthetically appealing with statues, tree-planting programs, wide boulevards and other beautification projects. Historians have concurred that the City Beautiful movement failed to realize its goals, with most citing the prohibitive cost of improvements that were thought to be merely decorative. The first planning commissions during the early years of the twentieth century embraced the City Beautiful concept, said Lyon, but they “had little money and less power.” In The Rise of the Urban South, Lawrence Larsen also acknowledged the financial limitations of planning concerned primarily with beautification: “Few people objected to urban beautification. The problem was to raise money, particularly in the South.” However, unlike most other historians, Larsen argued that the City Beautiful was not necessarily an import from Chicago. “By 1880, the new City Beautiful movement already had strong southern roots [in] the concept that cities could have pleasing environments… A number of cities already had parks. Beautification was an old concept in Dixie.”

Every study of planning in the South acknowledges a transition from the City Beautiful to a more practical subsequent period of planning. Although the City Beautiful movement pressed mostly for superficial reforms and met with little actual success, it served as the forerunner of the formal planning programs embraced during the 1920s. Various scholars have called this succeeding movement the “City Efficient,” “City Useful,” and “City Practical” period, owing to the multiple terms used by people during the period. City governments throughout the South initiated official planning commissions during the 1920s, beginning with legislation passed by North Carolina in 1919 allowing local communities to establish such bodies. As state and local governments began to take up the cause of urban planning, aesthetic concerns gave way to an emphasis on efficiency and practical application. “Considerations of cleanliness and artful symmetry remained, to be sure,” Blaine Brownell argued, “but these were clearly secondary to matters of urban transportation, land use, and subdivision controls.” Alternately, Kay Haire Huggins defined the City Useful ideal as “a city with adequate public utilities, parks, an efficient network of roads and transportation, and, above all, a municipality which spent its money economically.”

Historians have disagreed as to the cause of the shift from beauty to utility. Brownell attributed the new interest in practicality to the mentality of the elites who ran city governments and hired planners. Huggins, on the other hand, argued that planners had already begun to view their work as a science rather than an art during the 1910s. “North Carolina,” she wrote, “whose only plan from 1900-1917 was drawn up by Robinson, was, therefore, a little behind the more advanced national pace.” Norman Johnston offered a slightly different perspective in his study of Harland Bartholomew and the rise of the planning profession, contending that groups emphasizing aesthetics and efficiency had long coexisted during the early years of planning. The impact of trends within the planning community should not be discounted. Historians have shown that city governments repeatedly called upon planners from outside the South to design their cities; Memphis, for instance, turned to St. Louis’ Bartholomew, and the people of Raleigh hired Chicago’s Charles Mulford Robinson. These planners appear to have brought the national discourse of planning with them to southern cities, meaning that larger trends were likely to have influenced southern policymakers. Whether Johnston or Huggins is correct about the evolution of planning attitudes, concern for beautification clearly preoccupied many influential planners up to the 1910s, and the City Efficient idea dominated by the time many states and cities had formally adopted planning as a government function during the 1920s.

Setting planners aside, few historians have analyzed the differing visions of urban development promoted by private citizens, such as the women’s groups, and the state-backed planning projects that followed. Planning focused on tweaking the aesthetic appeal of urban landscapes when it was the province of civic groups working with private funds, but worked toward creating a more efficient city and a climate conducive to economic growth when governments took on planning and invested public money. Scholars might fruitfully press Blaine Brownell’s argument about the ideology of urban elites further and explore what relationship, if any, existed between these parallel changes. In other words, historians could investigate not just the mentality of the businessmen who ran the government, but also of others who contributed to the planning process. Why did women’s groups envision a particular kind of landscape? Did earlier conceptions of urban improvement persist and compete with those of business leaders once local governments embraced planning? Although the shift in emphasis within planning circles has been widely noted, no one has yet puzzled out the origins of the perspectives held by these historical participants.

While historians acknowledge that the City Useful movement brought a more comprehensive approach to urban problems, many point out that the new plans only addressed a few issues thoroughly. Earlier civic groups often dealt with one aspect of the city at a time – a citywide clean-up, for instance, or the beautification of a particular school – but the city planning commissions developed plans that ostensibly tackled a variety of problems at once. “A typical comprehensive plan,” wrote Kay Haire Huggins, “presented inventories of land-use, transportation, the basic economic activities of the city, and the existing provisions for public welfare, in particular health, recreation, and housing.” Despite these wide-ranging concerns, she said, the plans often directed greatest attention to transportation issues. Huggins argued that city leaders devoted most of their energy to relieving traffic congestion, providing automobile parking, and widening streets because they considered such reforms “good business,” aimed at increasing efficiency and facilitating economic growth. Blaine A. Brownell found a similar pattern in Harland Bartholomew’s plan for Memphis. The planner devoted sections to “major streets, transit, transportation, recreation, zoning, and civic art,” but the sections on zoning and streets were most fully developed.

Goldfield and Brownell have demonstrated how the complex motivations that drove transportation policy led to unexpected results. Professor Brownell argued that planners improved streets in the central business district and expanded the street system into less developed areas of the city not only to foster outward growth, but also to enhance access to the downtown area. He attributed these reforms to the motivations of businessmen, particularly real estate interests and developers, who sought to increase property values and foster confidence in expansion. As David Goldfield observed, however, the conflicting aims of elevating the central city and promoting speculation-driven growth could cause significant problems. “Planners believed,” he wrote, “that a decentralized metropolis would enhance the central business district by removing competing residential uses and by improving access to the center.” By the 1940s, leaders in Richmond had discovered that roads led out of their dowtown as much as into it, and called upon Bartholomew to develop a plan to save an increasingly neglected central city. By then, Goldfield said, their efforts were largely in vain.

Apart from transportation, zoning has occupied the interest of historians researching the new city planning boards of this period. Even after planning bodies became officially recognized by state and local governments, they still served in an advisory capacity to urban leaders. Zoning had a special significance because it represented the first independent, coercive power that many planners possessed. Whereas planners could before only recommend a street system to a city government, now they could stipulate specific land-uses and require that property owners conform to their dictates. In her work on planning in North Carolina, Kay Haire Huggins documented how this new government power met with significant resistance from citizens unused to intrusive regulation. Planning boards, she said, were often so consumed by hearing appeals over zoning disputes that they could devote few resources to larger, long-term projects.

Scholars have discussed zoning as part of an ideological shift that valued insulating residential areas from other economic uses. Local leaders conceived of industrial and commercial ventures as intrusions in people’s living space, unlike an earlier urban pattern that freely mingled uses. The public had to intervene, planners thought, to prevent one property owner from using his land in a way that would reduce the value of his neighbors’ holdings. Kay Haire Huggins argued that a new idea of creating “neighborhoods” drove planners and politicians to utilize zoning codes, as suggested by a Durham plan: “Have a City Plan prepared by experts and officially adopted so that people will feel safe in buying real estate and improving it in a manner characteristic of the neighborhood.” This statement embraced both the pecuniary interest in property values and an ideal of the neighborhood. Blaine A. Brownell found similar attitudes in Memphis’s planning program. Mixed-use areas, so common in the past, were labeled “transitional,” and planners like Bartholomew sought to “give stability and character” to districts that included a variety of land-uses.

Unfortunately, the character of a neighborhood could also mean its racial composition, and several historians have documented how southern planners used zoning codes to fix residential segregation in place. Although primarily concerned with the effect of the automobile on residential patterns in the early twentieth century, Howard Preston’s Automobile Age Atlanta includes a discussion of urban planners and political leaders’ commitment to planning segregation, even against the dictates of federal law. The Supreme Court ruled in the 1917 decision Buchanan v. Warley that cities could not require residential segregation based on race, but Preston said that this did not stop Atlanta and numerous other southern cities from promulgating just such zoning regulations. Planners and politicians usually schemed to confine black people to a city’s older areas. However, simple divisions of space into “white” and “colored” areas could be problematic, and Blaine A. Brownell has shown how elites developed creative exceptions to preserve desired elements of the status quo. Most codes, he said, permitted white people to own property in the black areas, thus protecting white landlords, and allowed for black employees to continue residing in servant quarters in white areas.

Thomas Hanchett, Howard Preston and others have argued that zoning did not create residential segregation from scratch, but codified and reinforced existing patterns of segregation. According to Hanchett, a considerable degree of residential integration between black and white people persisted in cities like Houston, Atlanta and Charlotte for more than twenty years after the Civil War. Hanchett traced the beginning of residential segregation to the political struggles of 1890s, after which, he says, black people began to cluster in separate communities. Preston emphasized the economic basis for increasing segregation, arguing that most black citizens could not afford to reside in the new suburban developments of North Atlanta, to which the white middle and upper classes were then flocking. Since some black citizens could afford the pricey new neighborhoods – and the threat of black suburbanites pressing into white areas unnerved political leaders – legal innovations such as deed restrictions and zoning stepped into prevent this from happening. A 1922 zoning ordinance defined North Atlanta as a “For Whites Only” residential area, while setting aside other parts of the city “For Colored Only” - the same year that Atlanta’s first official Planning Commission came into existence.

Many histories of planning and related issues stop at 1930, suggesting a turning point in urban development. Blaine Brownell’s The Urban Ethos in the South covers the 1920s, the decade when most formal planning programs came into existence. Similarly, Elizabeth Anne Mack Lyon’s dissertation on the architecture of Atlanta’s central business district deals with the years 1866 to 1930. Lyon argued that the Great Depression ended, at least temporarily, the period of robust construction with which she was concerned, and that the emergence of the automobile altered the course of urban development enough to mark the beginning of a new period. Kay Haire Huggins also argued that the Depression curtailed planning efforts, as local governments responded to falling tax revenue by cutting “unnecessary expenses.” Given the hardships of the time, city planning hardly seemed to be an essential service.

The literature suggests that, even before economic calamity intervened, urban planners were poor in influence, power and funding. Indeed, historians have generally judged the early planning programs a failure. Several have cited the lack of political leverage held by groups who advocated planning as a major limitation. The women’s groups who undertook beautification projects and initiated the first city plans lacked political experience and, more importantly, power. Without the vote or representation in government, the Raleigh Woman’s Club opted to publish its plan in the hope that it would find an audience. Even the official planning boards that came to power in the 1920s could only recommend plans to local leaders, although the invention of zoning did lend them some independent power. This lack of political influence led to a lack of funding as well. “People supported the idea of planning but did not come to grips with the full implications of implementation,” Kay Haire Huggins argued. “They never gave planning boards sufficient power or funds to carry out their programs.” Operating on a shoestring budget and occupying a mostly advisory role, planners could not fully realize their ideas for developing the urban landscape.

The gap between idea and implementation could be a broad one in an enterprise wholly underwritten and overseen by business interests. The business elites who dominated city government in the South may have liked the idea of urban planning, but, Huggins suggested, they stiffly opposed any revision to the landscape that might infringe on their profit margins. Charlotte, for instance, did not have a city planning commission until 1929 because many prominent businessmen opposed zoning. Suburban residents had pressed for a zoning ordinance to prevent stores from being established in the affluent Dilworth neighborhood, but businessmen protested because they felt their property would lose value if zoned residential. Although fifty citizens came out in support of zoning and only six opposed, Huggins said, every city commissioner voted against the ordinance. Blaine A. Brownell found that real estate interests resisted zoning in many other southern cities, although most were eventually persuaded by the argument that zoning could stabilize property values and protect their investments. As both Huggins and Brownell demonstrated, disputes over zoning and subdivision regulations often overwhelmed planning boards such that “long range planning gave way… to immediate, piecemeal changes.”

Historians’ preoccupation with the goals and role of elite businessmen in the history of southern planning may have narrowed the field of vision too much. Given their prominence in local government, and the narrow political space afforded by the disfranchisement of black and many white voters, they would necessarily loom large in any history of a public policy like planning. However, this focus has largely kept scholars from analyzing the role of other groups and interests in affecting the urban landscape. For instance, did black citizens challenge the legal legimitacy of racist zoning after the Supreme Court’s Buchanan decision clearly forbade laws mandating residential segregation? What ways, if any, could people resist these efforts to organize the landscape? Scholars may find a greater diversity of interests and opinions among the elite as well. Businessmen may have had a lock on local government, but the middle and upper classes appear to have housed a variety of responses to planning. Some findings tentatively suggest that conflicts existed between varying business interests and different members of the affluent classes, as when Kay Haire Huggins showed suburbanites and real estate interests clashing over zoning codes in Charlotte. Further study could examine fractures within the groups that actually could participate in local politics and policymaking, and how this competition of interests yielded changes in policy and the landscape.

As these questions suggest, many potential directions for research take off from points already briefly touched by historians. For instance, several scholars have discussed the issue of parks in southern cities, but it is not yet clear how these public spaces developed over time. Some historians have emphasized the existence of planning and parks prior to the period of the City Beautiful movement. Lawrence Larsen has argued that urban beautification and a modest measure of planning had long been practiced in the South, giving as evidence the park systems of New Orleans and Savannah. These were not the product of Progressive Era zeal but had been developed long before the modern planning commissions came along. Likewise, Howard Rabinowitz argued that Norfolk, Atlanta, Charleston and several other cities had already created a substantial stock of parks by the turn of the century. However, it is not yet clear how much modern planning differed from earlier efforts. Elizabeth Anne Mack Lyon’s work on Atlanta suggested that the fortunes of public space shifted significantly over time. Atlanta, she said, had a downtown park prior to the 1880s, which was then covered over by business buildings; after the turn of the century Atlantans worked to develop several new parks into the landscape. By studying the evolution of one city’s park system over time, a historian could gauge how much the expanded public action of the early twentieth century actually represented a break from the past.

Scholars could also explore the relationship between private and public planning efforts. The construction of suburbs by developers and mill villages by industrialists could both legitimately fall under the rubric of planning. Since the historiography of all planning projects would have been beyond the scope of a short paper, I have focused on planning by noncommercial entities like private nonprofits and local governments. David Goldfield, for one, has briefly discussed how urban governance came to incorporate privately planned, outlying areas, but questions persist. How were mill villages, which were often built outside city limits, absorbed into cities? How did the annexation of suburbs unfold politically? Such situations involve fairly well ordered chunks of space that would have to be integrated into the existing landscape of cities and the strategies of planners.

The subject of urban planning in the South, then, invites greater attention than it has yet received. Historians have charted a general course of development from the rapid urbanization begun during the 1880s to the work of middle and upper class citizens, first through limited private actions and then, in the 1920s, through official planning by local government. The rough sequence from freewheeling urban development to the City Beautiful and Useful movements appears in virtually every work on southern urban planning, along with an emphasis on the role of local elites in shaping the landscape. Beyond this much remains to be learned. Most problematic, scholars’ attention to the power and influence of affluent businessmen has resulted in a simplistic picture that may overlook greater participation and competition of interests in the planning of southern cities. Historians have made gestures in a variety of directions – the evolution of parks and public space, for instance, or political conflict within the planning process – that could be more fully pursued. By and large, scholars have dealt with these issues in works devoted either to much larger topics, such as urbanization in general, or to more specific subjects tangent to planning, like business attitudes in southern cities. As a result, their findings have often been cursory, and a thorough study of urban planning in a particular city or region could flesh out our still skeletal understanding of the South’s urban landscape.

Alex Cummings


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