Urbanism as reform: Modernist planning and the crisis of urban liberalism in Europe and North America, 1945–1975

Christopher Klemek, University of Pennsylvania


This dissertation follows two titanic twentieth century concepts, modernism and liberalism, as they began to run aground; having become tangled up together in the urban setting, each hastened the other's demise. I examine urban renewal in six cities---Berlin, London, Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Toronto---and the effects of its downfall on attitudes toward cities, in general, and on urban planning, in particular. While similar policy instruments and objectives were in place in these cities by the end of the 1950s, the underlying assumptions of European and North American planners and policymakers came under divergent pressures in the 1960s, undermining any transatlantic urban renewal consensus. While clearly inspired by international modernism, planning nevertheless functioned in specific political environments, merging with idiosyncratic liberal reform movements in each city. While a groundswell of participatory politics resisted technocratic authority and called for greater community control, each particular planning failure variously constrained the policy possibilities and left distinctive imprints on these cities for the rest of the twentieth century. Each city reaffirmed its traditional urban texture and rejected wholesale redevelopment. But in discrediting certain planning approaches, the confrontational political culture of Great Britain and the United States, by comparison with West Germany and Canada, left residues which continue to inhibit urban initiatives. Focusing on watershed projects and confrontations, the "golden age" of postwar planning emerges as a struggle to reconcile the conflicts between expertise, power, and democratic accountability. By studying the efforts of both professionals and residents to gain influence over cities, I place these controversies in sociopolitical context and assess their impact. A broad field of policy-oriented inquiry, called urbanism or urban studies, and which included sociologists, economists, planners, architects and even historians, exerted institutional influence---cresting in the 1960s---discernible in journals, exhibitions, academia, and government. Most adhered to an international movement calling for the eradication and reorganization of the traditional city, which had migrated (along with many proponents) from Europe via Britain to universities and planning agencies in North America. Its critics were initially dismissed as nostalgic, reactionary, or unscientific, though mounting public opposition eventually shifted the ground.

Subject Area

American history|European history|Canadian history

Recommended Citation

Klemek, Christopher, "Urbanism as reform: Modernist planning and the crisis of urban liberalism in Europe and North America, 1945–1975" (2004). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI3125847.