Model Cities Program
On November 3, 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson (1963–69), signed into law the Demonstration Cities and Metropolitan Development Act. As a centerpiece to his Great Society Program, the act planned to relieve urban blight, poverty, and hardship in America’s inner cities.
Central to the act was the Model Cities Program, which made sweeping changes to urban planning, development, and restoration, and marshaled federal, state, and local resources to combat physical, social, and economic decline faced by city residents.
Previous slum clearance programs bulldozed old neighborhoods and displaced residents, interstate construction bisected entire communities, and landlords charged high rents and ignored property. By 1966, an estimated 7 million people lived in substandard housing.
In 1965, Johnson appointed Robert Clifton Weaver as the new secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Weaver moved quickly as riots in the Watts section of Los Angeles underscored the anger, discontent, and desperation that citizens in the urban United States realized.
Municipal governments set up demonstration agencies to coordinate federal resources. Local leaders worked with a HUD coordinator, city and county agencies, nonprofit service providers, business leaders, and neighborhood councils to plan and develop a citywide renewal effort.
Model Cities appropriations subsidized a number of objectives including low- and moderate-income housing; the demolition, renovation, and redevelopment of urban buildings; the construction of hospitals and schools; community centers and recreation facilities; and modern street and city landscapes.
A number of social service programs dovetailed the renewal effort. Outreach health care services, early child and adult education programs, housing development agencies, minority economic development councils, food assistance programs, and centers for the disabled were all designed to improve the well-being of urban citizens.
Model Cities incorporated modern building technology that made large-scale home construction efficient. Prefabrication methods applied in factories off-site meant quick completion of new homes for those in blighted neighborhoods.
Wide-scale recovery created new demand for skilled and unskilled labor. “White flight” in the 1950s relocated business to suburban areas. Industrial outsourcing led to termination and long-term unemployment. New construction and service delivery programs meant opportunity for the unemployed, idle, or displaced.
Civil rights leaders embraced Model Cities since it prohibited housing discrimination. “Blockbusting” in neighborhoods, zoning ordinances, and “redlining” practices isolated and segregated communities. Categorical and block grants-in-aid mandated local compliance with fair housing laws; noncompliance meant losing 80 percent of funding.
In 1969, President Richard M. Nixon’s (1969–74) New Federalism called for the consolidation of HUD and many of its programs. On August 22, 1974, the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) initiative replaced Model Cities.
Nevertheless, the Model Cities Program decentralized decision making, reducing the federal government’s role in local matters. It applied a comprehensive “bottom-up” approach to urban renewal. It put responsibility in the hands of cities, planning commissions, service providers, and citizens to identify neighborhood problems, offer solutions, design local plans, and coordinate meaningful change for the downtrodden in qualified areas.
Charles M. Harr, Between the Idea and Reality: A Study of the Origin, Fate and Legacy of the Model Cities Program (Boston: Little, Brown, 1975); and Paul VanBuskirk, The Resurrection of an American City (Cambridge, MA: Schenkman, 1972).
John Todd Young
Last Updated: 2006