Rex the Red

Official Portrait

Rexford Guy Tugwell (1891 – 1979)
(Official Portrait, Library of Congress)





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 “The Dreamer” (Rexford Guy Tugwell, 1915)

By all accounts, Rexford Tugwell was one of the first preeminent modern planners in America — the very type of intellectual superman he wrote about in his poem for his school paper in 1915. An academic star, prolific author, and professor of Economics at Columbia, in 1933 Tugwell was recruited by President Roosevelt to serve in his newly created “Brains Trust”. This group was composed of a number of highly respected intellectuals whom the president would come to rely upon for advice as he worked to steer the country out of the Great Depression. When Roosevelt asked Tugwell if he wanted a job in his administration he asked for only one position — undersecretary for the Department of Agriculture in order to work on agricultural economic reforms.

Almost from the beginning Tugwell drew criticism for his doctrinaire and (some would say) elitist attitudes. It was asserted that Tugwell was a radical anti-capitalist, enamored by the national planning efforts of the Russian Soviets.

“Fundamental changes of attitude, new disciplines, revised legal structures, unaccustomed limitations on activity, are all necessary if we are to plan. This amounts, in fact, to the abandonment, finally, of laissez-faire. It amounts, practically, to the abolition of “business”.”

Rexford Guy Tugwell (The Principle of Planning and the Institution of Laissez Faire, American Economic Review, March 1932)

Yet, truer to his personal opinions, Tugwell saw the value of planning as a tool to implement good governance – as a way to restructure policies away from the failures of the past to a hoped-for Liberal future. Further, he decried the chaos that always appears to result from radicalism.

“Liberals would like to rebuild the station while the trains are running; radicals prefer to blow up the station and forgo service until the new structure is built.”

Rexford Tugwell (The Industrial Discipline and the Governmental Arts, 1933)

Within a short period of time, Tugwell was promoted to assistant secretary for the Department of Agriculture, where he advocated for, and implemented, the “domestic allotment” program that paid farmers to reduce production as a way to stabilize agricultural prices. From this point of success he created and headed the Resettlement Administration. This program led him into his first brush with the actual planning of physical communities, since one of the purposes of the program was to relocate poor rural farmers to newly created co-operative communities. One of the more successful of such communities is Greenbelt, MD — which is still operated as a co-operative, with much of its housing collectively owned by the town residents. These were patterned after Ebenezer Howard’s Garden Cities.

One the sections of the Resettlement Administration was the photography division. Tugwell hired Roy Stryker, a graphic designer he had worked with to illustrate his economics textbook at Columbia, to manage the division — and it was Stryker who hired art photographers (like Dorothea Lange) to travel out to rural America to document the impoverished conditions during the Great Depression. These photographs were used to great effect to champion the efforts of the New Deal, and the Resettlement Administration.

Dorthea Lange

Migrant Mother — Florence Owen Thompson
(Dorothea Lange, 1936)

But, by 1936 the mounting criticism of Tugwell’s programs led to his resignation from federal government. And, perhaps not surprisingly, his subsequent work on Wall Street for business interests did not prove either personally or intellectually stimulating. In 1938 he accepted the nomination as the chairman of the newly created Planning Commission for the City of New York.

Perhaps due to his growing frustration with the perpetual stalemate he found himself in, and a bit enamored with the potential for power the Planning Commission offered, within a year Tugwell had seized upon a new idea about planning. He felt the planning profession should play a more central role in good governance, and proposed a fundamental reworking of the balance of power in government to that end. In a paper he delivered in 1939, titled The Fourth Power, he proposed a central Planning Branch; whose purpose would be to inform the Legislative Branch how much money to appropriate and order the implementation of policies for the Executive Branch. Such ideas led to another struggle, this time with the political apparatchik, Robert Moses. To Moses, Tugwell’s ideas branded him a “do-gooder” and experimental reformer — a type of person Moses found dangerous to proper government and inimical to a central role of business interests. And, although Tugwell’s proposed Master Plan for the City of New York called for a massive increase in the amount of open space within the city (which by 1990 would have seen the conversion of 30% of the land of the city into parks) something Moses, as a Parks Commission, would have tacitly found appealing — and, although the plan called for a decentralization of business and housing, again something Moses himself was proposing, Robert Moses condemned the plan as a step toward a “socialist planned economy.”

Tugwell's Master Plan for New York

Master Plan for New York City
(“Proposed” Future Land Use Map, Fall 1940)

Ultimately, Robert Moses had his way and the Planning Commissioners failed to back their Chairman — so New York City, the largest metropolis in America, was left with no Master Plan.

Like a lot of sheep, they shivered in the storm and asked for more by ‘continuing’ the hearing.

Rexford Tugwell, commenting on his planning commission’s unwillingness to adopt his Master Plan for New York City (Personal diary entry, 12 December 1940)

Perhaps the most galling aspect of the plan for Moses was what Tugwell planned to do for the residents of New York who would be displaced to make way for all the new parks. In a decidedly non-laissez faire move, Tugwell planned on building a series of Garden Cities that would ring Manhattan — with housing and land that would be co-operatively owned, much like that currently operating in Greenbelt, MD. This proved too much for the pro-business minded Moses.

Tugwell felt that there was no future for planning in New York City and he approached newly re-elected President Roosevelt for a position in his administration. In late 1941, Roosevelt offered Tugwell a daunting task, the governorship of the island territory of Puerto Rico. Tugwell immediately leapt at the chance to finally implement a regional planning effort. By 1942 Tugwell signed into law The Planning, Urbanization and Zoning Law. This created two new agencies, the Planning Board and the Bureau of the Budget — and assigned the Planning Board the task of guiding and controlling all government policy making and planning. And, consistent with his concepts outlined in The Fourth Power, the Planning Board was semi-independent of both the Executive and Legislative Branches.

Tugwell served as the governor of Puerto Rico until 1946, not only steering the territory through World War II and simultaneously pulling the island’s economy out of the depression that had seen little help during the New Deal — but he worked tirelessly to ensure that a native Puerto Rican would be appointed as his replacement when he retired.

After a long professional life arguing for the centrality of planning to the human cause, the young man who (in 1915) wrote of scientific supermen bending the forces of the untamable to re-make America had gained a deeper understanding of the role of planning.

The Planning Agency is an actively functioning organ of a living human colony… It exists to live, to have being, not to conform to any concept or to any standards of behavior; its objective is not to be scientific but to establish conjuncture among the other organs and, in general to act as a collective mind… Planning, then, is not a science.

Rexford Tugwell (The Study of Planning as a Scientific Endeavor, Michigan Academy of Science Report, 1948)

Towards the end of his life, Rexford Tugwell resumed his role as an educator. Taking various teaching positions, primarily with the University of Chicago. With he and his wife retiring to his beloved planned community of Greenbelt.

This entry was posted in Leadership in planning, Science, policy and planning by Dean Gunderson. Bookmark the permalink.

About Dean Gunderson

Dean recently completed a Masters of Community and Regional Planning from Boise State University. He has served on committees for the Community Planning Association of Southwest Idaho, as a Director for the Valley Regional Transit Authority, and as the Associate Director for the Idaho Chapter of the American Institute of Architects. He has also received regional and national recognition for his architectural, urban design and sculptural work. He's committed to improving the quality of life within his community through livable design.