Tropics of Meta Review

Ryan Reft, an editor at Tropics of Meta and a doctoral student in the History Department at the University of California at San Diego, offers an extensive examination of Planning the Home Front in the context of the historical literature on Detroit, suburbanization, including working-class suburbs, and the relationship between the U.S. military and local governments. Tropics of Meta bills itself as “historiography for the masses.”

Article excerpt from Ryan Reft’s “The Motor City at War: Mobilization, Wartime Housing, and Reshaping Metropolitan Detroit”:

In addition, Peterson focuses far more [than other studies] on the planning aspects of Willow Run—for the military, Detroit and its municipalities, and the federal government—and what that meant for an expanding metropolitan region overwhelmed with infrastructural needs and migrant labor. Finally, Peterson wades deep into the wonkiness of wartime mobilization and provides, at least for this historian, one of the few narratives regarding the debate around and the creation and implementation of the Lanham Act, which proved so important for expanding housing and infrastructure in places ranging from Detroit and San Diego to Oakland and Norfolk, VA. For historians of public housing, it would be hard to underestimate the importance of Peterson’s work.

Tom Boyd, a reporter at the Rocky Mountain Post and managing editor of, included Reft’s article in a thought piece about the lessons Detroit holds for cities of the American West. Links here to the’s “Top 6 reads about Detroit, and lessons to take away from the Midwest’s great experiment” and the longer version, “Detroit Future City: Lessons for the West from a city that learned the hard way,” from the Rocky Mountain Post.

Review in Planning

Harold Henderson included Planning the Home Front in the Planners Library section of the October issue of Planning, the magazine of the American Planning Association. (Planning’s online edition is open to APA members and subscribers.)

Excerpt from his review:

Planning the Home Front: Building Bombers and Communities at Willow Run, by independent scholar Sarah Jo Peterson, is a lucid account of the planning problems inherent in a World War II defense plant. Peterson skillfully weaves a narrative from the ad hoc, disjointed, and participatory efforts, which included housing for newcomers in an undeveloped exurban region all at once and right away.

On a personal note, I found it gratifying that the first review of my book appeared in Planning, the magazine by and for practitioners. Henderson also quotes what I think of as some of the most important lines in the book. Authors, of course, never know how big the gap will be between what they find important and what readers decide is important. But for my first review, the reviewer and I were on the same page.

Participatory Planning on the Home Front

Planning the Home Front argues that the U.S. federal government used a participatory planning approach to mobilize the American home front.

Over the last six months, I’ve had the privilege of presenting this argument to audiences of urban planners, both in Dublin, Ireland and in Washington, DC. I’ve enjoyed the exchanges with other planners and with people who spend a lot of time thinking about planning. What struck me as I researched the American home front mobilization is how different World War II era “participation” was from contemporary ideas of “public participation.” This came out in many of my discussions with others too.

At the Fifth Congress of the Association of European Schools of Planning/ Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning held in
Dublin, Ireland, July 15-19, 2013, I presented examples of participatory planning as it played out in terms of housing for the workers at the Willow Run Bomber Plant.

Paper Excerpt:

Instead of comprehensive planning, Planning the Home Front argues that the federal government adopted a participatory planning approach to mobilizing the American home front. Total war demanded significant top-down direction, of course, but it is the presence of an equally significant role for the “bottom up” that makes this an interesting and important planning model. As the top-down engaged the bottom-up, national objectives (win the war) joined local objectives for building communities, and interest group politics were harnessed to a national project (total war). For Willow Run, the federal government dictated the goal (produce bombers), but federal policy left many of “the means” to the local level–and often to individuals. Indeed, many of the means implemented at Willow Run would qualify for what Leonie Sandercock calls planning as “community building” or planning as “self-help, community solidarity, and community organizing for social and economic development” (Sandercock 1998, pp. 9-10).

A PDF of the conference paper, Lessons from the Housing Crisis on the American Home Front during World War II, is available here: Dublin Paper Draft.

In October, I presented an extended version of the participatory planning argument as part of the American Planning Association’s Tuesdays at APA speaker series in Washington, DC. The APA website includes links to the slides and audio recording of the presentation and discussion.

In both presentations, I closed by presenting summaries of the pros and cons of the American World War II planning model:

Glass Half Empty

Glass Half FullAnd then turned to discussion with three starter questions for the audience:

  • How is today’s public participation in planning different from the World War II model?
  • Do you see this type of planning at work today? Where?
  • Do you think the World War II model has advantages? Worth emulating?

I welcome your comments and ideas.