In the 1950s, many center cities were in decline, crime-ridden, smelly, and crowded. Meanwhile, suburbs were new, shiny, and full of promise. Civic leaders very seriously believed that ripping out most of the old downtowns and replacing them with tall towers surrounding by parking would actually improve the quality of life in the city. This 1955 video from Pittsburgh extols leaders’ wisdom in knocking down most of an older warehouse district, putting up giant freeway interchanges and some office towers in its place.

Tom Vanderbilt writes,

The irony of this video (and, I must say, the supposed congestion horror depicted here looks pretty tame) is that just about everything that’s proposed here is the sort of thing that, half a century later, would be seen as a nightmare from which cities were trying to awake. ...

It’s hard not to see Le Corb and Broadacre City all over that image of the tall tower, surrounded by acres of parking — my initial thought was, where would you go for lunch? It’s the sort of mundane question the motopians never paused much to consider as they drafted their gleaming tomorrows.

This article summarizes the successes and failures of Pittsburgh’s far-reaching mid-century urban renewal program. At the Point, the subject of the video, the clearing did bring some immediate benefits, drawing more jobs into the area than were there before. However, we can’t know how much more vibrant that district might be today had the warehouses been preserved. Nearby, planners demolished the Lower Hill residential area largely because the immigrant families populating it had less political power to stop it.

The population of the Lower Hill dropped from 17,334 in 1950 to 2,459 in 1990. People forced to leave the integrated area moved mainly to neighborhoods that reflected their own race, thus worsening the city’s segregation problem. By 1960, Pittsburgh was one of the most segregated big cities in America. ...

A 1968 editorial in The Pittsburgh Press read, “The men of the Renaissance have been unable to produce anything but a crop of weeds on 9.2 acres of prime public land next to the Civic Arena.” The land remains a parking lot today.

Ironically, while today we talk about “human scale” in terms of smaller plazas that work for people, detail on buildings, ground-floor articulation, and other elements of a more walkable urban place, the advocates of urban renewal also used the same phrase. According to the Post-Gazette, Fortune Magazine said in the 1950s, “Pittsburgh is the test of industrialism everywhere to renew itself, to rebuild upon the gritty ruins of the past a society more equitable, more spacious, more in human scale.”

At that time, planners thought that auto-dependent freeway cloverleafs were more “human” than historic downtowns.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.