Rexford Guy Tugwell testifies before a Senate committee about his ability to take on the position of Undersecretary of Agriculture (June 11, 1934).
Harris & Ewing/Library of Congress
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Rexford Guy Tugwell and the Case for Big Urbanism

New York City’s first planning commissioner lost a bigger battle against Robert Moses than the fight Jane Jacobs won.
In June 1944, the New York Times Magazine ran an opinion piece that savaged the elite class of planners and their grandiose designs for urban renewal. “In municipal planning, we must decide between revolution and common sense,” the author began. What followed was a righteous tirade against Big Planning. The author tore into the professionals who, with their “own curious lingo and double talk, their cabalistic writings, secret passwords and abracadabras,” operated in an abstract realm of urban theory, detached from the ordinary lives of most city-dwellers. These experts proposed massive, impersonal interventions, “splashing at a ten-league canvas with brushes of comet’s hair,” instead of focusing on “small stuff,” like schemes to “adapt, modify, improvise, improve, boldly but with respect for our heritage.” Planners in some distant municipal office, the author cautioned, were far too eager to barge into a community and “tear it up by the roots.”

It sounds like vintage Jacobs, but the author was actually Robert Moses. He returned to the pages of the magazine in 1948 to argue for the vital “set of amenities” that “flourishes in the heart of the city.” Sneering at the “long-haired planners” who idealized European cities and disrespected American capitalism, Moses equated large-scale urban redevelopment with an attack on individual liberty and free markets. Americans wouldn’t let themselves be “pushed around and regrouped by smart-aleck planners,” he insisted. “Scratch a revolutionary planner and you find a left-wing Socialist.”

One of the “revolutionaries” who drew his ire was the left-wing economist, planner, and public administrator Rexford Guy Tugwell, with whom Moses had clashed just a few years earlier. Tugwell was trained by a group of radical economists at Wharton in the early 20th century who advanced the notion that the state should play a role in economic regulation. In Tugwell’s version of this economic theory, the government’s role was not limited to correcting errors at the edges of the marketplace. Rather, he believed the government should actively set and direct the objectives of private industry through the instrument of the comprehensive plan. He saw central planning as a new synthesis of technical rationality and democratic decision-making, a mechanism for reorienting the economy away from “private money-making ventures” and toward “publicly defined and expertly approached aims.”
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