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“I am convinced that any good that is going to come out of planning for the city is going to foster the city’s diversity instead of obstructing it.”[1]

Jane Jacobs

Historically, the Rockefeller Foundation (RF) is perhaps best known for its role in alleviating rural poverty through support for programs in public health and agriculture. From the beginning, however, the Foundation has also been concerned with urban issues.  Some of the RF’s earliest grants were made to the Bureau of Municipal Research in New York as well as to institutions focused on urban poverty and health issues. In the years following World War II, RF support helped shape the emerging fields of urban design and urban studies. As the closing decades of the twentieth century and first years of the twenty-first continue to point to an increasingly urban world, the RF has brought its experience and resources to bear on solving the major problems of the world’s cities.

Dean Rusk, Jennifer M. Hoyt, Lindsley F. Kimball<br>View from 41st floor of Time & Life Building, New York, 1959

Dean Rusk, Jennifer M. Hoyt, Lindsley F. Kimball View from 41st floor of Time & Life Building, New York, 1959

First Steps in New York

In its earliest years the Foundation most directly addressed urban poverty in the United States in its home city of New York, through grants to the New York Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor, the Brooklyn Bureau of Charities, the American Social Hygiene Association, and the Bureau of Municipal Research. In a rough parallel to its rural work, the RF was concerned with poverty’s root causes. Its early urban work included disease prevention and education as well as the modernization of hygienic practices. Its support of the Bureau of Municipal Research aimed, among other things, to improve urban infrastructure and alleviate the problems of slums by institutionalizing scientific management.

City and Country in an Interconnected World

In the United States, the New Deal and World War II prompted an unprecedented exodus from farm to city. The RF responded to this demographic shift with a comprehensive focus on urban design in the post war era.  In 1949, it funded the establishment of Columbia University’s Institute for Urban Land Use and Housing Studies with a $100,000 grant. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, the RF also helped establish the emerging academic discipline of urban design through grants to Harvard, Yale, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the University of California. It significantly supported the University of Pennsylvania’s Institute for Urban Research, including publications of historical studies, a new program in urban criticism, and a 1958 conference on urban design featuring participants such as I.M. Pei, Lewis Mumford, International-style architect Louis Kahn, and critic Jane Jacobs.

RF support often focused on the economic aspects of city planning, and hence intersected with its simultaneous support of public administration, especially to organizations including the City Managers Association, the United States Conference of Mayors, and the American Society of Planning Officials. In 1960, drawing on a network of professional contacts built over almost 20 years, the Foundation held its own conference on civic design. By this time, the Foundation’s interest in urban design issues had become quite direct.


Two midcentury initiatives have become permanently associated with the RF: the construction of Lincoln Center and the publication of Jane Jacobs’ path-breaking book The Death and Life of Great American Cities. These two undertakings, while of radically different scales and sensibilities, have each made a lasting impact on American urban design. Both had their impetus in the 1950s and came to fruition in the early 1960s.

Lincoln Center’s construction was enabled by the Mayor’s Slum Clearance Committee, chaired by Robert Moses, which authorized the dismantling of a neighborhood known as Lincoln Square. The initial steering committee to develop a performing arts complex was chaired by the RF’s Board Chair, John D. Rockefeller 3rd. Charles Fahs and John Marshall, RF Humanities Division officers, both played key roles in persuading the Foundation to assume leadership as the center’s earliest and one of its largest donors. Although the Ford Foundation eventually contributed more funds than the RF, the combined funds contributed by the Rockefeller family and Foundation were greater than those of any other donor.   

Lincoln Center was conceived as a center befitting New York’s role as the de facto “cultural capital of America.”[2] It brought together world-class companies across the performing arts into a campus-like urban platform. With buildings designed by leading architects of the day including Philip Johnson and Eero Saarinen, the center articulated modern design ideals in its very appearance.

But the project was not without its controversies, including the legitimacy of the demolition of Lincoln Square and the center’s potential to serve a broad public rather than simply New York’s elite. As the RF considered its buy-in, President Dean Rusk questioned “the propriety of condemnation proceedings [of public property] for what may be, in effect, private purposes.”[3] RF presence on the steering committee proved instrumental in assuring that extensive surveys were conducted on transportation access and costs, as well as the center’s impact on a surrounding fabric of businesses and residences.

Ironically, Jane Jacobs’ book was written in defense of neighborhoods similar to Lincoln Square, and in her 1958 essay, “Downtown is for People,” Lincoln Center came in for a direct attack. Jacobs was also instrumental in fighting and, in this case, defeating another Robert Moses demolition project, the proposed Lower Manhattan Expressway. Jacobs, an editor for the magazine Architectural Forum, caught the eye of RF Humanities associate director, Chadbourne Gilpatric, who approved funding for three years of writing and research on how “the design of cities might better serve urban life including cultural and humane values.”[4] Working with Gilpatric, Jacobs also functioned as a regular advisor to the RF on urban design issues.

Jacobs’ work advocated mixed-use, human-scale streetscapes, looked at cities from the perspective of how people interact with each other in urban spaces, and argued persuasively against top-down urban renewal projects that did not take usability into account. Her book, published in 1961, met with critical acclaim and proved to be a turning point in urban theory and design.

Cities for the Next Millennium

Over the next three decades, Jacobs’ central questions became the Foundation’s mission as well. Beginning in the 1990s, the RF funded programs addressing the complex of issues affecting city dwellers, particularly the poor and vulnerable. In 1991, it seeded the National Community Development Initiative and funded the Social Science Research Council work on poverty and the underclass. Other major funding went to the Poverty and Race Research Action Council and the Urban Institute. In 1996, the RF launched the Neighborhood Jobs Initiative and funded Democracy Roundtables examining the intersection of race, poverty, and access to resources including health care, transportation and education. By the 2000s, it began to explore the potential for public-private partnerships, supporting the Community Development Venture Capital Alliance.

In the early 1990s, the RF helped launch Living Cities, Inc., a partnership of foundations, financial institutions, government agencies and local community development corporations originally focused on affordable housing and the economic redevelopment of inner-city neighborhoods in 23 cities across the United States. By the early 2000’s, Living Cities shifted its focus from community development to multidisciplinary neighborhood and system transformation. This integrative agenda concentrated on whole cities and multiple systems, and involved four components: bottom-up change spearheaded by non-profit organizations, top-down public sector change, proactive philanthropic contribution, and the engagement of the private sector.

This new direction articulated (and fit well within) the RF’s own emphasis on system transformation and resilience, which it has honed increasingly throughout the 2000s. Where Living Cities works predominantly in the United States, the RF has mobilized similar multidisciplinary approaches to look at cities throughout the world. In 2007, the Foundation convened the Global Urban Summit at the Bellagio Center, bringing together government officials, policymakers, urban planners, and philanthropic and NGO leaders to address issues of shelter, transportation, employment, and infrastructure worldwide. Its Asian Cities Climate Change resilience network (ACCRN) recognizes that the world’s fastest-growing cities are also its most vulnerable in terms of environmental threats, poverty and social conflict.

As it moves into the twenty-first century, the Foundation’s urban initiatives tend to emphasize economic and social resilience, take into account rural-urban migration patterns, consider the impact and potential benefit of digital literacy, and promote technological innovations in both sustainable housing and transportation.


[1] Jane Jacobs to Chadbourne Gilpatric, July 1, 1958. Rockefeller Archive Center (RAC), RG 1.2, series 200, box 390, folder 3380.

[2] “Report Regarding Lincoln Center,” August 24, 1956. RAC, RG 1.2, series 200.R, box 364, folder 3290.

[3] Dean Rusk to Chauncey Belknap, August 28, 1956. RAC, RG 1.2, series 200.R, box 364, folder 3290.

[4] Grant-in-aid GA HUM 5862, September 8, 1958. RAC, RG 1.2, series 200, box 390, folder 3380.

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