The Pruitt-Igoe Myth of Public Housing

By Rachit Khaitan, IFMR Finance Foundation

The Pruitt-Igoe housing complex in St. Louis, USA has long served as an archetype for the failure of public housing and oftentimes for well-intentioned government policies in general. The Pruitt-Igoe Myth (2011), a documentary feature by Chad Freidrichs, attempts to systematically dispel this notion by bringing to light the often omitted explanatory factors at play in the decline of Pruitt-Igoe.

The Pruitt-Igoe housing project was a complex of 33 high rise buildings built by the St. Louis Housing Authority in the North side of the St. Louis, Missouri, USA. In the mid-1950s, it represented a dramatic shift from the squalid tenements that low-income residents in urban areas were used to. It was advertised as a place where people could live with indoor plumbing, electric lights, plastered walls, and other conveniences that were expected in the 20th century. Moreover, it was touted as a solution to bring the city’s slum-dwelling urban residents out of poverty and ultimately to put St. Louis on the path of prosperity. On one hand, the intent of Pruitt-Igoe was sound in addressing the post-war migration of Southern farmers who were forced to move into unsafe and unsanitary slums of the inner city to remain close to their places of work. On the other hand, it was the result of politicians and the elite bent on a post-war revival of St. Louis by eradicating slums from the centre of the city.

The 33 rectangular buildings that made up Pruitt-Igoe; Image Source: US Geological Survey

Pruitt-Igoe saw initial success and seemed to fulfil its original intent. Many residents who first moved into Pruitt-Igoe thought of it as a resort with all its facilities – people who had hardly seen the sun before could now have better views than the richest people in St. Louis in their high rise apartments and “poor man’s penthouses”. Residents were pleased to have beds and rooms to themselves while living in a lively and social environment. The complex was well maintained with handymen regularly sweeping the hallways and the elevator kept clean and functioning.

However, the city of St. Louis soon realised that where it had thought it had solved its problem of low-income housing, a monster was created. The Pruitt-Igoe housing complex over time became poor, increasingly segregated, heavily vandalised, and began to resemble the slums it had once replaced. It gained the notoriety of a battleground with crime and neglect seating fear in its occupants. It became a textbook example of a federal housing project as a centre of crime and violence, doomed to failure since its inception.

One of the most common criticisms of Pruitt-Igoe was its architect Minoru Yamasaki, who went on to design the World Trade Centre in Manhattan, New York. To many, the implosion of Pruitt-Igoe symbolised the death of Modernist architecture which they argued would inevitably become the breeding ground of isolation, vandalism, and crime. Others criticised the welfare state and argued against “big government” as the problem and Pruitt-Igoe as its result. Bankers and realtors labelled it un-American, Communist, and as an erosion of the free market. Some even pointed fingers at the residents as too poor, too uneducated or rural such that they brought down Pruitt-Igoe with their own problems.

However, not much was said about the laws that failed to maintain Pruitt Igoe, the economy that deserted it, the segregation that stripped away opportunity, and the radically changing city in which it stood.

Changing demographics

The post-war era saw rapidly changing demographic patterns in American cities all over as a result of two opposing forces. On one hand, rural migration caused an upward growth in the population of the city, while on the other hand, a large number of people who had the means of leaving it, fled to the suburbs, a phenomenon often dubbed “white flight”. The landmark Housing Act of 1949 that sanctioned federal money for housing projects such as Pruitt-Igoe at the same time fuelled suburbanisation and home ownership through affordable credit and easy mortgage facilities.

By 1980, St. Louis lost about half of its mid-century population; other rust-belt cities like Cleveland and Detroit met with the same fate. The loss of the middle-class, the loss of an industrial base, and the loss of tax base led to the deterioration of basic services in cities. The film argues that planners mistook recognising the dominant trend of post-war suburbanisation, when the new American dream was being built on cheap lots on the peripheries of cities with well-planned homes, gardens, and drive-ways. Dozens of tiny suburban townships were formed, determined to maintain their independence. But public housing in St. Louis was set up as a system that depended on an overcrowding crisis. Once people started moving out, the project couldn’t raise enough money from the dwindling tenants even after additional grants were given and studies commissioned to inquire about the causes of decline.

Ill-planned finances

While the federal government paid for building a complex structure, it failed to effectively take into account the ongoing costs of maintenance. The revenue model was based on rent, which the dwindling residents could not afford in order to hire skilled handymen to maintain their buildings. By the end of the 1960s, rents were increased three times in one year stretching low-income residents thin. Some residents paid up to three-quarters of their income to live in Pruitt-Igoe. This resulted in rent strikes and nine months of negotiation after which the Housing Authority finally gave in and restricted rents to a quarter of the residents’ income. This victory, however, was short lived as years of neglect placed buildings on the verge of physical collapse. In the winter of 1970, water lines and sewage lines broke, flooding the complex with ice while residents’ heating facilities lay broken – this dealt a final blow to Pruitt-Igoe.

Draconian rule enforcement

The Welfare Department imposed and enforced stringent restrictions. Most notably, residents were not allowed to have able-bodied men in their house if a woman was receiving help for her dependent children, leaving many women and children without husbands and fathers. Furthermore, residents were not allowed to keep telephones or televisions in their apartments. Such stipulations made residents feel that were being strategically isolated and restricted almost to an inhumane extent, as if the price of receiving welfare was to live by punitive rules.

Racial segregation and stigmatisation

Urban historian Joseph Heathcott claims that public housing in St. Louis was always used as a tool for segregation and that St. Louis did everything in its power to prevent “negro deconcentration” i.e. African Americans moving out of particular neighbourhoods. Every project was imagined as a white or black project and was placed on the map in ways that deepened the pockets of segregation in one place or the other, radically creating racial distinctions in a way that no other form of legislation was able to do.

Moreover, ill-enforced rules and poor maintenance stigmatised Pruitt-Igoe’s residents to be associated with drug abuse, crime, and black poverty. In a resultant backlash, residents saw law enforcement and medical assistance as the enemy, oftentimes raining down bricks and fire bombs on them, so much that police officers and firemen refused to serve the complex.


By the mid-60s, Pruitt-Igoe was falling apart with rampant vandalism, crime, and a growing number of vacancies in an increasingly poor and emptying city. Lack of enforcement resulted in vacant apartments to become havens of guns and drugs forcing the last few residents to move out. In 1972, three of the buildings of the complex were imploded with dynamite, the first of which was nationally televised. Two years later, the St. Louis Housing Authority received federal orders to completely demolish the rest of the complex. By 1976, the site was clear with the complex razed to the ground and residents scattered across the emptying city.

Footage of the towers being razed to the ground in 1972 became symbolic of the failure of federally funded housing as a concept; Image Source: Pruitt-Igoe Myth press material

The demise of Pruitt-Igoe is attributable to many confounding factors rather than to the failure of public housing per se. However, there is not much compelling evidence of success even in other parts of the world. Singapore remains an outlier with about 85% of its population living in public housing, arguably because of its unique economic, demographic, and political characteristics. The Indian context is particularly problematic for public housing and other supply-side solutions for affordable housing given the diversity of its population and the requisite scale. Governments across the world are moving towards more market-based approaches to house their middle and low-income populations in the form of demand-side interventions and PPP solutions. India, however, continues to pose a challenge with its regulatory bottlenecks and distorted markets, as will be explored in a following post.


Ekumenopolis – Istanbul and the Making of the ‘Global City’

By Vishnu Prasad, IFMR Finance Foundation

Ekumenopolis, directed by İmre Azem is a hard-hitting Turkish documentary that reveals how the rapid growth of the city of Istanbul is engendering two polarizing visions for the future of the city. On the one hand, the Turkish state is intent on making Istanbul a global city; the cultural, artistic, economic and financial node of the region. This forms part of the larger vision of the ekumenopolis, a global network of urban areas that is expected to coalesce into a single, contiguous city-planet. On the other, the ordinary citizens of Istanbul, the migrants who come to the city seeking a better future, the quasi-visible proletariat who lubricate the city’s burgeoning service sector find themselves increasingly excluded from this vision. They want a future that they can claim a stake to- one that protects their right to the city and that they can shape themselves. This echoes of the conflict in most developing world mega-cities, including Indian cities such as Mumbai and Delhi which aspire to be global cities but at the same time struggle to provide the most basic services to large swathes of their populations.

The documentary explores spaces where the two fundamentally divergent visions clash- the urban renewal projects that disenfranchises original residents by resettling them to the periphery of the city, the proposed third bridge over the Bosphorus that could potentially precipitate the city’s impending environmental crisis and historic neighbourhoods that increasingly make way for gated communities, golf courses, shopping malls and speculative investments in land.

“Everybody deserves to live in a house with a swimming pool”

In many ways, the modern history of Istanbul’s meteoric rise starts post World War II. Armed with funds from the Marshall Plan, French urban planner Henry Prost devised a master plan, à la Haussmann that replaced a city prioritising tramways and public transport with wide boulevards that were meant to be automobile friendly. At the same time, the decline of agriculture in rural areas brought in cheap labour into the city that serviced the construction boom. The housing needs of this wave of migrants were met by permitting the building of ‘gecekondus’ or squatter homes that mushroomed throughout the city. A second wave of urbanization came in the 1980s under the regime of Turgut Ozal, whose neo-liberal policies quickly made urban land a tool for capital accumulation. Gecekondus that had come up on the highway leading to the first bridge across the Bosphorus were relocated to the peripheries of the city under the Turkish Mass Housing Corporation’s (TOKI) ‘urban renewal’ plans. The informal labourers that inhabited the gecekondus, whose livelihoods depended on easy access to the central industrial and business districts, found themselves marooned on isolated pockets of land, cut off from a city that could be accessed only by cars.

These developments share a strong resonance with the growth of Indian cities which have seen increased rural to urban migration over the past few decades leading to the development of large slums1. These slums, in many cases, occupy prime city land and have therefore been subject to periodic demolition drives accompanied by relocation of slum households to settlements in city peripheries. This approach was based on the central government’s Slum Clearance and Improvement Scheme passed in 1956, post which many state governments passed Slum Clearance Acts modelled on this scheme. States set up Slum Clearance Boards that were responsible for the eviction and relocation of slums. For instance, a recent study2 estimates that between 1990 and 2007, there were 218 instances of slum evictions in Delhi, displacing close to 65,000 households. The study also finds that the four primary uses of land reclaimed through eviction drives are vacant land, road and related infrastructure, parks and playgrounds, and government infrastructure. Close to a quarter of all reclaimed land remains vacant. Evicted families are mostly relocated to the edges of designated urban areas, leading to increasing peripheralization of the poor. More recently there has been a growing realisation of the deleterious impacts of slum clearance, such as the large-scale disruption of livelihoods and the destruction of social and economic networks.

The documentary shows how households driven to the outskirts of the city fall rapidly into poverty, forcing them to pull children out of schools and work on minimum wage, even as they await the apartments promised under TOKI’s social housing scheme. Most families return to their former neighbourhoods, looking for their old jobs in order to survive. Meanwhile, many of the former gecekondus are being converted into high rise apartments or hyper-luxurious gated communities, replete with shopping malls and golf courses. Their real estate advertisements promise the viewer a seductive escape to the ekumenopolis; a land where everybody deserves to live in a house with a swimming pool. In a poignant scene towards the closing moments of the film, a labourer working on a construction site that overlooks his former home tells the viewer how much he deplores having to make a living by building over the ruins of his former home, exposing the iniquities of the global city.

“Can you build a hotel in Central Park, New York?”

Azem also sheds light on the environmental disaster that awaits the city. Sandwiched between the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea, Istanbul’s development was largely restricted to the southern parts of the city. The building of the second bridge over the Bosphorus shifted the axis of development northward and led to large scale deforestation to accommodate the construction that the new roads brought with it. The fastest growing districts of Istanbul in the past three decades have been areas that are closest to the second bridge. The proposed third bridge over the Bosphorus remains a bone of contention between the state and civil society as it threatens to decimate what remains of the northern forests. Critics of the bridge argue that it is a continuation of the automobile-centric planning that will destroy the city’s last remaining breathing spaces; a plan as preposterous as building a hotel in Central Park, New York. They call for a revision of Istanbul’s planning paradigm that has seen car ownership increase ten-fold in two decades, leading to a 15% drop in use of public transportation. The resultant carbon emissions from road transport have increased 37% in a decade.

A city of close to 15 million residents, environmentalists fear that Istanbul has already exceeded its natural ecological limit. For instance, Istanbul faced a series of flash floods in 2009 that left 31 people dead and low-lying areas completely inundated. Much of the destruction was said to be a result of unbridled construction along the river bed. The documentary brings to the fore the class dimension of this ecological crisis- the wealthy live who live in luxury condominiums built on forest land, jog around artificial lakes serviced by groundwater and grow plants on their balconies are considered ‘green’ while the poor living in gecekondus and shanty towns are polluting, too dirty to belong to the lofty vision of the global city and therefore marginalized to its fringes.

The European and Asian parts of Istanbul separated by the Bosphorus Strait and wedged between the Sea of Marmara to the south and the Black Sea to the North. The two bridges over the Bosphorus are also visible.

The clash between the two divergent visions arguably reached boiling point during the Taksim Square protests earlier this year. The government wanted to convert Gezi Park, one of the last remaining green spaces in the city and the adjoining military barracks into a shopping mall and luxury residences. The documentary, filmed two years prior to the protests, contextualises and offers the best examination yet of the root causes of the protests.

Orhan Pamuk, writing on the protests in the New York Times says, “I’ve been living in Istanbul for sixty years, and I cannot imagine that there is a single inhabitant of this city who does not have at least one memory connected to Taksim Square. In the nineteen-thirties, the old artillery barracks, which the government now wants to convert into a shopping mall, contained a small football stadium that hosted official matches. The famous club Taksim Gazino, which was the center of Istanbul night life in the nineteen-forties and fifties, stood on a corner of Gezi Park.” This perhaps best captures the inherent conflict in Istanbul’s rapid transformation– a city that wants to build its dreams over the memories of its residents.

There is an astonishing uniformity in the forces that underpin the growth of the world’s mega-cities. As David Harvey, noted social theorist, argues in his book Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution, the growing polarization in the distribution of wealth and power is being indelibly etched into the spatial forms of cities. The wealthy are increasingly looking to separate themselves from the reality of their urban environment through the formation of fortified fragments or self-sufficient micro-states, while the poor- as Ekumenopolis shows- struggle constantly to establish the legitimacy of their urban existence in the wake of slum demolitions and renewal plans. There is an urgent need to reclaim the collective right to the city and shape our urban future in a manner that is equitable and sustainable.

Watch the trailer of the documentary here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XEzqu_z9fRo
The entire documentary can be seen here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=maEcPKBXV0M

1 – It is estimated that close to 55% of the urban population in Mumbai, 33% in Kolkata and 20% in Delhi and Chennai live in slums. Source: Slum Census of India, 2001
2 – Gautham Bhan and Swati Shivanand. (Un) Settling the City-Analysing Displacement in Delhi from 1990 to 2007. Vol XLVIII no 13, Review of Urban Affairs. Economic and Political Weekly. March 2013


The century of the city – “Urbanized”

By Rachit Khaitan, IFMR Finance Foundation

“There’s an optimism about cities in this century. There’s a sense that we’re creating something that is truly global. And we’re creating networks of people, not experts, but people of all strata of society who are involved in the building of something special. This is the century for the city lover; this is where it happens.”

Gary Hustwit’s documentary film, Urbanized (2011), presents an optimistic overture about the future of cities, but is not unchecked with caution. It paints an interdisciplinary picture of the design and development of a variety of cities in both developed and developing economies. Central to its analysis is the premise that cities are ultimately the physical manifestation of big and multifarious forces at play – economic, social, and political – where the flows of people, money, and goods have coalesced since the inception of the concept itself.

Through conversations with the world’s foremost architects, urban planners, policymakers, developers, artists, activists, and thinkers, each with their own perspectives, agendas, and roles, the film thematically explores key issues in urbanisation while showcasing model solutions and success stories.

Addressing unchecked urban migration

A key issue that many, especially rapidly-growing developing countries face is the unsystematic migration of people from rural to urban areas. The film documents that in 2010, 50 per cent of the world’s population lived in cities. Based on historical trends, it forecasts that by 2050, 75 per cent of the world’s population will dwell in urban areas, putting an enormous strain on existing systems with limited resources. On one hand, the construction industry in the recent years has produced a housing boom for the top 10 per cent of the socio-economic strata, building swanky apartment complexes touting luxury living. On the other hand, it has increased the crisis for the bottom of the pyramid which is forced to resort to informal living arrangements with severe lack of basic amenities and inadequate conditions of health and hygiene. An important causal factor of this phenomenon is that the existing urban plan does not systematically take into account the existence or the incentives of the migrating poor. Informal settlements oftentimes get ignored by city officials and policymakers; with no space allocated for growth, slums consequentially get denser and conditions get worse.

As a model design-based solution, the film presents the case of the Lo Barnechea project, a low-cost social housing project produced by the organisation Elemental in Santiago, Chile. Prioritising location to enable access to schools, transportation, and jobs, the project leveraged elements of design to keep low costs of living in an expensive locality, while maintaining access to vital networks in the city. Using the $10,000 subsidy that each family received from the state, Elemental bought the land, provided the infrastructure, and built a set of houses. Instead of producing tiny units, the organisation produced “half houses” i.e. houses with bare necessities that families would have otherwise been unable to afford, and left the rest of the house for families to build at their own pace and according to their own needs. An interviewed resident revealed that she didn’t need to modify anything since she moved in because she got to choose everything that she wanted for the house. Over time, however, she plans on adding a “nice-to-have” tiled floor. What makes this architectural project unique is that it allowed families to afford housing in a prime location, while actively participating in the design of their houses from the ground level.

This also got me thinking about the need for development of rental housing markets and how they were critical, especially for poor households. In view of the fundamental income uncertainties that surround many low-income households – such as income volatility, asset allocation challenges and migration needs – rental housing is a much needed solution for the bottom of the pyramid. My colleagues have written more about this here.

Modern urban design and the issue of transportation

The film provides an expose of modern urban design which is built on the tenets of simplicity, order, rationality, and function over form. It was influenced by the Garden City movement, of the late 19th century, which espoused the idea of separating out the different functions of cities with concentric roadways and greenbelts. An archetype of this school of design is Brasilia, Brazil. While Brasilia as viewed from an airplane might look pretty and organized, Jan Gehl of Gehl Architects argues that on the ground it is a disaster. Every distance is too long, and going from place to place involves driving along many miles of straight roads. Principally, the design of Brasilia failed to take into consideration that having to make every single trip by car would not allow people to simply zip around the city. In fact, it would entail too many cars on the road ultimately causing people to be stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic jams.

Brasilia, Brazil. Image Source

The mayor of Bogota, Colombia presents a few model solutions to congested roads. He argues that the best way to avoid traffic jams is not to invest in bigger roads, more flyovers, or elevated highways, but to simply restrict parking in a city, in order to restrict car use. In terms of investing in an alternative form of public transportation, he showcases the bus rapid-transit system (BRT), dubbed the TransMilenio, which is as efficient as a metro system but built at a fraction of its cost. With dedicated lanes for such buses, the system enables thousands of people to get across the city every day, while a new name removes the stigma of riding in buses which in many developing countries is associated with poor people. Such a system is flexible and works especially well in younger cities whose centre is not well-defined and is shifting over time. The mayor also showcases Porvenir Promenade, a 24 km street built exclusively for pedestrians and bicyclists, connecting very low income neighbourhoods to the richest area of the city. He believes that such high quality infrastructure for cyclists not only increases their safety, but also their social status.

Challenges and opportunities for the future

The documentary presents many more interesting cases that characterise the complexity of developing cities and urban areas. It highlights the pattern of suburbanisation in Post WWII America which may have eased the pressure on cities at the time, but eventually created vast tracts of sprawl putting an enormous strain on non-renewable resources and environmental systems. It shows that where safety is a major concern in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas, there is a large role that technology can play to facilitate coordination between the various departments of the city in order to ensure prevention and prompt action. On the flipside, it illustrates the case of Stuttgart, Germany which has ambitious plans and commensurate resources to make itself ready for the future, but faces immense opposition from a large population whose interests lie in preserving historical landmarks that are vital to the city’s heritage. With numerous vested interests and diverse forces at play, Rahul Mehrotra, architect and professor at Harvard GSD, predicts that the physical plan of cities will hardly determine their successes. Rather, the critical challenge will lie in managing demography and the intersections of architecture, mobility, and creating a humane environment through design and technology.