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Planning the Postwar Status Quo

Posted On November 20, 2020 | 09:11 am | by mayw | Permalink
Lizabeth Wardzinski traces the postwar reach of American urban and regional planning

Lizabeth Wardzinski, PhD candidate at North Carolina State University College of Design, is a junior fellow in Garden and Landscape Studies. Her research report, “A Model for the World: Tennessee Valley Authority and Postwar Development,” discussed the role of the Tennessee Valley Authority in disseminating modernization and decentralization theories of postwar city and regional planning.


Q&A with Lizabeth Wardzinski

What is regionalism, and how does it relate to the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA)? 

In the early twentieth century, the Scottish biologist Patrick Geddes developed a regional planning model he called the “valley section,” which sought to optimize a region’s productivity by acknowledging the relationships between humans’ productivity and their environment. The Tennessee Valley Authority, created in 1933 to build infrastructure and provide services to revitalize the region’s mining, farming, lumber, and river-based industries during the Great Depression, used Geddes’s theory as a basis for American regionalism, a method to ensure regional resources were being used efficiently. For example, prior to TVA interventions, the Tennessee Valley lacked electricity to operate textile factories that would have enabled them to profit from their cotton crop—so to turn a profit the TVA first had to electrify the region. 

Resources can be human as well as natural, and mid-century regionalism was injected with new ideas about the social sciences and how human beings are valued and used. Exporting the TVA’s idea of optimizing use of resources to postimperial countries after World War II seemed natural, as they faced similar geographical and efficiency problems to the Tennessee Valley, like unsustainable extraction economies or conditions for malaria. These countries had extensive human resources to mine natural resources the United States wanted, and wanted to trade for, so the US exported the TVA model as a way of shaping the new postwar economies, which functionally replicated colonial traditions in the new postcolonial nations.


How does the TVA relate to postwar planning; Morganton, North Carolina; and Knoxville’s International Visitors Center? 

The TVA provided money, instructors, and curriculum input to the University of North Carolina’s Department of City and Regional Planning in the early years after the department’s foundation in 1946, an investment that suggests the TVA knew what they wanted this area of the country to look like beyond their actual presence. The postwar era also shows how our “American dream” identity was established and how we continue to be confined to it; the TVA was setting this up by promoting policies that functionally created “separate but equal” racialized spaces.

I had been looking for theses produced by DCRP graduates, whom a news article called “Missionaries of Planning” because they were implementing the department’s teachings in towns throughout the region. One day, almost by chance, the assistant to the DCRP chair told me about some boxes full of documents—the theses—in an old storage room they were about to demolish. One of them was about Morganton, a town that remains heavily segregated. I lived there until I was seven, so it was easy for me to read the maps and understand continuities between the DCRP interventions and the divisions in the town. “Practical” planning proposals by DCRP students—eventually implemented by Morganton—offered zoning solutions to grow industry that ended up displacing 125 Black residents and reinforcing white privilege. 

I am also studying the International Visitors Center in Knoxville to connect the TVA, the American status quo, and its presence abroad after World War II. The International Visitors Center was where the TVA hosted visitors of the US State Department from decolonizing nations around the world. It was the venue for establishing their international impact and for shielding international visitors from the segregated reality of Knoxville. After the war, the United States was viewed as this industrial powerhouse that postimperial countries looked to as the goal, and one of the ways the US promoted democracy was through industrialization.


How does your work add to our understanding of the American South? 

I’m looking at how TVA ideas affected the land and the people rather than the urban planning profession per se. When you look at how the TVA affected the human beings on that land, interesting stories emerge and elucidate later phenomena, like redlining or how the town of Morganton did not integrate until eleven years after Brown v. Board of Education. What did those planners do that helped maintain that status quo of segregation in Morganton, even though there was no longer any legal reason?

The most beneficial part of my time with Dumbarton Oaks has been the people I’ve met. My advisor, Burak Erdim, introduced me to DO’s programming. I’ve spoken often with Zeynep Kezer because she’s looking at dams in Turkey and how they affected people there. Thaïsa Way has been really helpful in guiding me on the reframing I’m doing now. Even over Zoom, sharing ideas and getting feedback from people who can guide me down the right path is so important as I finish this dissertation.


May Wang is postgraduate writing and reporting fellow at Dumbarton Oaks. Photo by Richard Tong, postgraduate digital media fellow.