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A Review of Pruitt-Igoe | A Failure in Urban Design? 2009/12/08

Posted by Lealan in Urban Design.
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The goal of planning is to improve quality of life for everyone. Studying and learning from planning history is the key part to theorizing and understanding what planners can do to implement this goal. As students in planning, we want to realize our reasons of planning failures and successes to make better calls in the future. This will initiate a response to change or continue current initiatives. As a professor in planning, Michael Dobbins states best, “in the room where the decisions affecting place design and development are made, the seat for someone who understands how it all comes together, the urban designer, has been empty.”

Urban Design is crucial to the planning process. Policy must be put into practice, undoubtedly. Just as policy is employed by the community’s needs, it does not always control the outcome of our physical world. Thus, planners must also understand the many parts of the design process under this same goal of enriching social welfare. Urban design has a strong part in the public realm. It must address the ability of these public spaces to connect and engage to its surrounding environment, including private spaces. Urban design grasps the entirety of these places, from an aesthetical perspective to an economic viewpoint. It studies the experiences held by the people who rely on these spaces to interact with other users. These interactions are the very essence of the life of the city.

As a relatively new part to the planning field, this concept of fostering healthy human interactions through urban design has not until recently been studied. As of today, this idea has yet to be proved. In the first quarter of the twentieth century, a first to be coined as an “urban designer” was the infamous Swiss architect, Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris know best as Le Corbusier. He helped pioneer the modernist movement in urban design, or modern urbanism. He had radical ideas of how people could live. As his studies were at a time when the automobile was becoming a part of the everyday, he did not fully comprehend the influence cars would soon have. But he surprisingly expected these vehicles would soon reign over planning decisions. His designs sought to separate vehicles and pedestrians all together, no sidewalks, completely divided paths. Land use was clearly broken into parts. Density was important, but by building up, it could free the ground plane. This ground plane would become a giant green space. Here, human interaction was to be made. To predict the unpredictability of human nature was a first poorly planned move.


Up until the 1960s, most of the big decisions in Urban Design were made primarily through the relationship between the business elite and government. Community involvement had virtually no role. Failures in this system have pointed to the ideas of urban renewal and of highway construction that dislocated both people and place. The reaction to these moves created patterns of sprawl in search for affordable housing, which today now calls for the consideration of other choices. Affordable housing is unquestionably a big issue in urban design. This relationship that represented only the public and private sectors had ideas on how to design for affordable housing, and foster a way to improve lifestyles. However, there was always an underlying plan, corruption in the system, which ultimately had a way with removing or isolating these citizens in need of homes. This adverse effect created may come from policy failure, a social failure, design failure or all of the above. One example comes to mind in determining what may cause such a failure in the goal of planning.

Pruitt-Igoe was a large urban housing project first occupied in 1954 of St. Louis, Missouri. Shortly after its completion, living conditions in Pruitt-Igoe began to decay. By the late 1960s, the extreme poverty, crime, and segregation brought the complex a great deal of tribulations soon brought to attention by media on an international scale.

Less than 20 years later, the complex began its first stage of demolition. Why was this the last resort? This has been highly debated up through today. Was the problem caused by policy makers? Can the inhabitants be to blame for being under-educated? Where do economic conditions fit into this? Or perhaps, was the physical design of the environment the underlying reason of its demise? The simplest answer would be to blame the tenants. However, this potential failure in a public housing project had never become such a serious issue until now. After all, the Pruitt-Igoe housing project was one of the first demolitions of modernist urbanism.

According to the planning principles of Le Corbusier and the International Congress of Modern Architects, residents were raised up to 11 floors above ground in an attempt to save the grounds indoor and outdoor for communal activity. Each row of buildings was supposed to be lined by rows of trees. However originally designed with a great amount of public spaces and institutions, none of which public aid would cover, parking and recreation facilities were inadequate; playgrounds were added only after tenants petitioned for their installation.

Before its construction, the city of St. Louis was criticized as an over-crowded city, with a deteriorating supply of affordable housing with slums of the old city becoming more segregated and expanding. To save central areas from a loss in value, the city was forced to take action. Under the National Housing Policy for St. Louis, the government made plans to rebuild and open up these areas. Pruitt-Igoe was intended for young middle-class white and black tenants, segregated into different buildings. Other goals included shifting the population from cities to suburbs trying to revitalize the downtown.
As completed in 1955, Pruitt-Igoe consisted of 33 11-story apartment buildings on 57 acres totaling 2,870 apartments, being one of the largest in the United States. These structures were no anomaly. Instead, the Pruitt-Igoe project was the product of a larger vision of St. Louis government and business leaders who wanted to rebuild their city into a “Manhattan on the Mississippi.” Completely separated from the surrounding blocks, fences were used as safety barriers. The apartments were arguably small. Elevators stopped only at the first, fourth, seventh, and tenth floors, forcing residents to use stairs in an attempt to lessen congestion. The same floors were equipped with large communal corridors, laundry rooms, communal rooms and garbage chutes. The stairwells and corridors attracted muggers. Ventilation was poor, with no air conditioning. One observer noted:

“Tenants complained of mice and roaches. Children were exposed to crime and drug use, despite the attempts of their parents to provide a positive environment. No one felt ownership of the green spaces that were designed as recreational areas, so no one took care of them. A mini-city of 10,000 people was stacked into an environment of despair.”

There was underlying ignorance by the city. Yes, they tried to get the community involved, but corruption covered such a vast part of Pruitt-Igoe that it could not get everyone on the same page. Thus, it had become too large a task.


Yet for all the criticisms, little is known about why Pruitt-Igoe was designed as a massive high-rise project in the first place. One popular theory blames the Swiss architect, Le Corbusier, and his influential conception of a modernist city of high rises. Another points to racial segregationist policies. Perhaps the most widely accepted theory holds that the federal Public Housing Administration’s (PHA) could not adequately fund Pruitt-Igoe unless it had the construction of a megalithic high-rise project.

Again, explanations for the failure of Pruitt-Igoe are complex. It included the architecture, sociology with the economic decline of St. Louis at the time, and its politics all-together: what the field of urban design attempts to cover and understand; yet the project’s Urban Design did none of this. The notion that the tenants were not to blame was rather difficult to swallow, yet critical in understanding reasons for its demise. Pruitt-Igoe has become, “a truism of the environment and behavior literature,” to the point where the story of Pruitt-Igoe “evolves as a self-sustaining myth shrouded in misconceptions.”

The city of modern architecture, the city of Le Corbusier, both as psychological and physical, has been “rendered tragically ridiculous.” Charles Jencks used Pruitt-Igoe as an example of modernists’ hazardous intentions running contrary to real-world social development. The failure of Pruitt-Igoe represents to many the failure of modernist thinking and high-tech solutions to social problems. Yet planning cannot be so rational. And human behavior is anything but objective.


Meanwhile, adjacent Carr Village, a low-rise area with a similar demographic makeup, remained fully occupied and trouble-free throughout the construction, occupancy and decline of Pruitt-Igoe. Remember, this was under the same policies and economic conditions, which points to the physical environment as the cause. Being of a smaller increment to the whole of the city is one suggestion that made it different. Thus, an Urban Design project smaller in scale and integrating other uses and demographics may be one solution. To state the obvious, the segregation of races within the complex and to the rest of the city was in opposition.

In addition, the key here is inclusion in all parts of the civic environment, interactions between not only the government and business elite, rather the Public, Private, and Community. And those in the government and the private sector are taking note of the trend toward greater influence of citizen activists. “The reality is that to make attractive and functional places that are meaningful and lasting, it takes cooperation and collaboration by everyone.” To respond to this new reality, the people who plan, design, and build places at all scales are recognizing the vital need from the very beginning to be inclusive.

There was clear failure, a clear misunderstanding between the public, the private, and the community. Having a voice for the community, such as a tenant organization (HOA) would have largely affected the decision making process. Urban Designers have something to learn here. Some issues were addressed. But it turned its back on street life. Architecturally, access to sunlight remained integral. But as always, aesthetics cannot be everything. Even though public housing wants to seek attention by those with the money. The design takes priority, as discrete, well crafted, well sited, with both living and working opportunities. Who are we designing for? In theory, good judgments come from mistakes made through bad judgments.


Dobbins, Michael. Urban Design and People. “Part 1: Background.” And “Chapter 1: People and Place.” Atlanta, John Wiley and Sons: April 2009. Pp 2-31.

Montgomery, Robert. “11: Pruitt-Igoe: Policy Failure or Societal Symptom.” The Metropolitan Midwest: Policy Problems and Prospects for Change. Ed. By Barry Checkoway, Carl V. Patton. Urbana and Chicago, University of Illinois: 1984. pp 229-263.

“Why They Built the Pruitt-Igoe Project,” Alexander von Hoffman, Joint Center for Housing Studies, Harvard University. April 2009. URL: http://www.soc.iastate.edu/sapp/PruittIgoe.html

PRUITT-IGOE HOUSING COMPLEX, By Mary Delach Leonard, Post-Dispatch, 01/13/2004

Wikipedia article: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pruitt-Igoe

Defensible Space: http://www.defensiblespace.com/start.htm

Lealan LaRoche


Urban Design Specialization  |  CP 6002 Intro to Planning  |  Georgia Tech  |  Fall 2009


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