Home Economic History Series The Chicago Planning Program and the Interdisciplinary Tradition of the Chicago School

The Chicago Planning Program and the Interdisciplinary Tradition of the Chicago School

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Hyde Park, Chicago, in 1966. Photo by Devin Hunter, via Wikimedia Commons [CC BY 2.0]

The Chicago Planning Program, an interdisciplinary program that operated at the University of Chicago between 1947 and 1956, is an often-neglected part of the history of the Chicago School, but its impact and ties to the UChicago economics department highlight the important role that interdisciplinary scholarship played in the production and diffusion of Chicago School thinking. 


Editor’s note: The current debate in economics seems to lack a historical perspective. To try to address this deficiency, we decided to launch a Sunday column on ProMarket focusing on the historical dimension of economic ideas. You can read all of the pieces in the series here.

The history of the Chicago School has always been entwined with departments and interdisciplinary institutes outside the University of Chicago’s economics department itself. 

These outside institutions have played pivotal roles in promoting Chicago economics. Prominent examples include the Chicago Law School with its role in the field of law and economics, and the Graduate School of Business, George Stigler’s base of operations. The interdisciplinary Committee on Social Thought was established in 1941 as a PhD-granting institute that brought together scholars to think across disciplinary boundaries. The Committee served as Hayek’s intellectual home after he was rebuffed by the economics department and was an important outlet for work by other Chicago economists, most notably Frank Knight and John Nef. Interdepartmental consilience and interdisciplinary programs are hardly unique to the University of Chicago, but what is unique is the way that Chicago economics has cultivated and leveraged these programs to broaden its impact on economics, social science, and policy.

An oft-neglected interdisciplinary institution with ties to the University of Chicago economics department is the Chicago Planning Program, which operated between 1947 and 1956 as an independent degree-granting program. The Planning Program was not a major source of research and instruction that we would readily identify as “Chicago School” economics today, and in that sense, it may be more comparable to the Committee on Social Thought than the law school or business school. Nevertheless, the Chicago economists who taught in the Planning Program had an enormous impact on urban economics and urban planning in the United States, comparable to the influence that their colleagues in the law school and the business school had on their respective peers.

The Chicago Planning Program began its work at an inflection point in the history of the Chicago School. Planning courses were offered starting in 1946 and the degree program began in 1947, coinciding with Jacob Viner’s departure from the University of Chicago economics department for Princeton, the death of Henry Simons, and the launch of the Free Market Study that Robert Van Horn and Philip Mirowski have identified as so crucial to the origins of the Chicago School. The Chicago Planning Program did not grow out of the same political ferment as the Free Market Study—in fact, its faculty were remarkably ideologically diverse—but it did reflect the same entrepreneurial intermingling of the economics department with other research groups at the University of Chicago.

The Chicago Planning Program’s history is chronicled most thoroughly in Education for Planning: City, State and Regional, a 1957 book on planning education by Harvey Perloff, the director of the program for most of its existence. In 1945, writes Perloff, a committee to design and establish the Chicago Planning Program recognized that urban planning at other universities had always been an “appendage to schools of architecture.” The committee rejected this subordinate status for the planning process and the narrow focus on physical design. At Chicago, planning would instead be independent and interdisciplinary, and it maintained close ties to the social sciences. A new Chicago Planning Program in the Social Sciences Division was approved by the end of the year.

Perloff recounts that the first professor hired to direct the Chicago Planning Program was Rexford Tugwell, the larger-than-life New Dealer who was just finishing his tenure as the last appointed governor of Puerto Rico. Although he is best known for his role in the Roosevelt administration, Tugwell taught economics at Columbia University before the Depression and had been a long-time advocate of planning grounded in the principles of social science. Tugwell recruited Melville Branch and Harvey Perloff to the faculty soon after his arrival. Branch was the first person in the country to earn a PhD in planning and represented the traditional perspective of planning as an extension of architecture. He focused on the physical design elements that had been so heavily emphasized in other programs. Perloff, in contrast, was a well-respected economist holding a joint appointment with the University of Chicago economics department. Perloff had professional experience at the Federal Reserve and with Tugwell in Puerto Rico and was highly regarded among economists for a book he co-authored with Alvin Hansen in 1944 on public finance in a federal system, State and Local Finance in the National Economy. More than anyone else, Perloff would come to represent the new social scientific approach to urban planning pioneered at Chicago. Others would soon join Tugwell, Branch, and Perloff at the program, including Edward Banfield, Martin Meyerson, and Julius Margolis.

Rexford G. Tugwell. Photo by University of Chicago Photographic Archive, [apf1-11280], Hanna Holborn Gray Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library.

Harvey Perloff and John Friedmann described the Chicago Planning Program as an “experiment in planning education and research.” They did not consider it experimental because it was the first planning school—that honor went to Harvard University, which established its school of city planning in 1929. Other universities followed Harvard before the Chicago Planning Program launched in 1946, including MIT (1935), Cornell (1935), Columbia (1937), and several more during the 1940s. Instead, the Chicago experiment was unique for its deliberate integration of social science with planning education.

Perloff’s history describes how every student in the Chicago Planning Program, regardless of their concentration, was required to take core courses in planning theory, the socioeconomic elements of planning, and the physical elements of planning. When students chose their concentration, there was no option to focus on the purely physical dimensions of planning. There were two concentration options, determined by the planning context: city or regional planning. Students were required to take four to six courses in one of the University’s social science departments, and of course, many planning students enrolled in economics courses. The program culminated in a workshop that combined the city and regional planning students, mirroring the strong workshop culture of the Chicago economics department. 

The Chicago Planning Program, Perloff wrote in his book, disbanded in 1956 because of financial troubles and fading support from the social sciences division. However, the community and the planning philosophy it cultivated continued to impact urban planning, urban economics, and other social sciences.

Perloff left the University of Chicago in 1959 to direct the Committee on Urban Economics (CUE) at the Washington, DC-based think tank Resources for the Future (RFF), a venture documented by Irving Hoch in his book on CUE and the beginnings of urban economics. Through CUE, Perloff channeled Ford Foundation funding toward strategic investments in the new field of urban economics, including research, travel, and communication grants. After seeding the new field of study, RFF shifted towards dispersing matching grants that incentivized universities to make their own investments in urban economics. CUE coordinated several affiliated subcommittees, including the prestigious Committee on Urban Public Economics (COUPE), which brought leading minds in public finance together to think about urban problems. Julius Margolis, Perloff’s colleague at the Chicago Planning Program, led COUPE from his new position at the Fels Institute of Government at the University of Pennsylvania. James M. Buchanan, who had Harvey Perloff as a member of his dissertation committee at the University of Chicago, was an active member of COUPE.

Buchanan is certainly not remembered as an advocate of planning, but when he arrived at Chicago to begin his doctoral studies after WWII he would have been interested in Perloff’s “experiment” in planning education. In 1943, Buchanan wrote to a favorite professor in Tennessee about his hopes for “the gradual adoption of the concept of centralized planning” and confessed his concerns about the “triumph of Republican conservatism” over the aspirations of “Roosevelt and some of his associates.” It’s easy to see why a young Buchanan might seek out Perloff—the link between the economics department and the Chicago Planning Program—to be on his dissertation committee. Frank Knight and others would quickly disabuse Buchanan of his youthful enthusiasm for economic planning, but his admiration for Perloff’s work continued, particularly Perloff’s analysis of federalism and public finance. 

“THE CHICAGO PLANNING PROGRAM HAS NOT BEEN FEATURED IN THE HISTORY OF THE CHICAGO SCHOOL. ITS IMPACT WAS DIFFUSED ACROSS A NUMBER OF FIELDS, AND COMPARED TO OTHER INTERDISCIPLINARY FORAYS, THE PLANNING PROGRAM WAS MUCH LESS RESTRICTIVELY TETHERED TO THE FOUNDATIONAL TENETS OF THE CHICAGO SCHOOL OF ECONOMICS.”

State and Local Finance in the National Economy, Perloff’s book with Alvin Hansen, described the problem of the “federal dilemma” that would become the focus of Buchanan’s dissertation and early scholarship. The federal dilemma referred to the structural problem that in a federal system similarly situated individuals living in different parts of the country could receive dramatically different fiscal treatment because state and local taxes and benefits were determined by state fiscal capacity. An individual living in a poorer state could expect fewer public benefits than someone with the same income living in a wealthier state better equipped to provide public goods. In his dissertation, Buchanan recognized Hansen and Perloff’s book as “one of the few examples in all the literature on the subject that points out that the fundamental problem is one of inequality in fiscal treatment among citizens due to place of residence.” Buchanan cites Perloff in his dissertation more often than he cites either Frank Knight or Roy Blough, his other dissertation committee members. 

Perloff’s modest but nevertheless underappreciated influence on Buchanan has been forgotten, in part, because the Chicago Planning Program and its connection to the Chicago economics department have been forgotten. But many of Buchanan’s insights into federal finance, externalities, and public goods supply echo Perloff‘s influence and work on the federal dilemma.

In 1968, Perloff moved to the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) to serve as the founding dean of the Graduate School of Architecture and Urban Planning. The UCLA urban planning program was organized along the same lines as the earlier Chicago Planning Program, and through the program, Perloff had a major impact on planning pedagogy and practice. He is credited as the first to explore the relevance of environmental concerns for urban planning in a seminal 1967 conference and edited volume on the urban environment. The UCLA program was also consciously concerned with questions of equity and has had a history of public interest advocacy work. In part, this is attributable to its birth in the midst of the 1960s and specifically the aftermath of the 1965 Watts riots against police brutality in Los Angeles. 

Perloff’s passion for equity in planning dates before his move to Los Angeles, back to his time in the Chicago Planning Program. Beginning in the late 1940s, Perloff and other community leaders called for a revitalization of the Hyde Park neighborhood around the University of Chicago. The university would play a leading role in developing these revitalization plans because of its dominant role in the neighborhood and the expertise accumulated at its planning program. Perloff criticized the University’s plans in a 1955 pamphlet as little better than “the slum clearance projects of the past.” Warning against displacement and community disruption, Perloff instead advocated more targeted “rehabilitation” and the cultivation of a mixed-use, mixed-income “biracial” community that could absorb recent Black migrants from the US South. These objections and alternatives resonated with the neighborhood, and Perloff’s pamphlet was distributed by the weekly neighborhood newspaper, owing to his authority as the director of the Chicago Planning Program. Perloff did not prevail, but continued to promote his vision of the planner as advocate at UCLA.

Edward Banfield was another scholar at the Chicago Planning Program who helped shape the academic and public urban policy conversations. Banfield was recruited to the Chicago Planning Program by Tugwell to be an instructor in planning while he earned his PhD in political science. During his time at Chicago, Banfield forged close ties with others in the Planning Program and with Milton Friedman and Frank Knight in the economics department. When he left for Harvard in 1959, Banfield was known for applying the tools of political science to the problems of city government and urban planning. This was innovative because at the time most sub-national political science in the United States was limited to “state and local government” studies. One of Banfield’s most controversial contributions to the analysis of cities was his argument that culture explained persistent poverty. His claims about culture were not strictly targeted at either urban poverty or even American poverty; Banfield’s first analysis of culture and poverty was an attempt to explain circumstances in southern Italy. But when he applied similar arguments to the American context in his 1970 book The Unheavenly City, Banfield was frequently accused of racism. A frequent target of the charge of racism was Banfield’s claim that people participated in riots “mainly for fun and profit,” and his broad skepticism of the government’s capacity to remedy urban poverty through increased spending. 

Banfield’s cynicism was emblematic of the broader neoconservative cynicism of his time. But as political scientist Daniel DiSalvo points out, his “conversion to skepticism about government efforts to solve social problems occurred in the 1940s and 1950s” when he studied and evaluated urban planning projects in the Chicago Planning Program, rather than as a direct reaction to the Great Society programs of the 1960s. Banfield had a substantial and often controversial impact on urban studies, but he continued to engage the work of economists, particularly those associated with the Chicago School and the Virginia School. He was an early promoter of The Calculus of Consent in his classes at Harvard. For example, he invited Buchanan’s University of Virginia colleague and coauthor, Gordon Tullock, to lecture on the book in 1963 and taught The Calculus in his seminar.

The Chicago Planning Program has not been featured in the history of the Chicago School. Its impact was diffused across a number of fields, and compared to other interdisciplinary forays, the Planning Program was much less restrictively tethered to the foundational tenets of the Chicago School of economics. Tugwell and Perloff in particular were a step removed from the Chicago School and not as closely linked to key players like Milton Friedman and George Stigler as their pupils Banfield, Margolis, and Buchanan were. But their enduring impact and significant ties to the economics department serve to highlight the role that interdisciplinary scholarship played in the production and diffusion of economic thought at the University of Chicago.

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