Planning and Finance Series: Priming the Planning Pump – The Legacy of HUD 701 Grants

by Patrick L. Dugan, Everett, Washington

Ever wonder how comprehensive planning got started in your community? If you are in a small- to mid-size community, chances are that planning began with a Housing and Urban Development (HUD) 701 grant made to your community between 1954 and 1981. If your city did not receive a 701 grant directly, it may have participated in a council of government (or similar association of local governments) that prepared comprehensive plans using 701 funds. Even if this assistance did not reach your community directly or indirectly, your community may have emulated those communities that had their plans financed by 701 by developing plans with other grants or its own funds.

Although planning as we know it today owes much to the 701 program, only a few old timers like me who started families on salaries provided by 701 seem to be aware of its importance.1 While one can find a few hits on the web that relate to this program, you would have to be a creative and patient Googler to learn much about it.

The Beginnings

Although, as we all know, planning in the United States has a proud history that dates all the way back to colonial times, comprehensive planning was rare outside of larger cities prior to 1954. While there were numerous cities of all sizes that had zoning ordinances, few of these regulations were backed by, or were part of, a comprehensive planning program that we would recognize today.

The 701 program grew out of various federal housing programs stretching back as far as the New Deal. In particular, the Housing Act of 1949 required that urban renewal project applications “…conform(s) to a general plan for the locality”, but provided no financial assistance for such plans. Carl Feiss, the first professional planner with the Housing and Home Finance Agency (HUD’s forerunner), was charged with reviewing local plans submitted in compliance with this requirement. He found that while most large cities had adequate planning staffs and programs, “…the status of local planning and plans in smaller cities was abysmal.” He concluded that small cities did not know “what it was all about.”2

Observations such as this led to federal planning assistance to be included in Section 701 (hence the title “701”) of the Housing Act of 1954. At first, planning assistance was directed to cities and counties of less than 25,000 population.

Evolution of 701

Since the early 701 program proved attractive to many local governments, it was gradually expanded beyond smaller governments through later legislation to first to include cities and counties up to 50,000, then to support statewide planning, Indian reservations and counties of all sizes, then to regional councils of governments, etc., until gradually reaching directly or indirectly, through regional councils, virtually all jurisdictions. Of particular note was the extension in 1965 of eligibility to regional councils – associations of local governments often known as councils of government. This 701 assistance provided the key financial basis for the proliferation of these regional planning organizations during the 1970s. These regional councils, which were composed of and depended on local governments, frequently used HUD 701 planning to develop comprehensive plans for jurisdictions throughout their regions. Over the duration of the 701 program’s life between 1955 and 1981, just over $1 billion (in nominal, unadjusted for inflation dollars) was invested in local planning.3

Since only a few colleges and universities offered a degree in planning back before 1970, many early planners were liberal arts majors (lots of geographers and political science majors). The first professional credential for many early planners was designation as a HUD 701 “planner-in-charge.” In response to the rapidly growing demand for planners, fueled by 701, many universities and colleges developed professional planning degrees, so that today it is rare for an entry level planner not to have a planning degree.

Accompanying 701 assistance were hosts of other federal planning assistance for a variety of programs, from economic development planning to coastal zone management. A large and particularly important program was financial assistance for transportation planning, which is one of the few federal planning assistance programs that survives to today. A common objective of these programs was to insure that federal investments in infrastructure met local needs as expressed through planning. Combined with various federal programs to require, coordinate, promote, and fund planning and infrastructure investment, 701 grants gave today’s planning its base. While regional planning was originally given its biggest boost with 701, transportation planning is regionalism’s bread and butter today.

Many state governments also joined in the process of promoting planning at the local level by passing laws or programs to either support or require planning. Usually these statewide planning efforts were assisted by 701 planning grants to the state.

As Carl Feiss observed in 1985 shortly after the demise of 701: “Between 1954 and 1981, the number 701 was magic to American planning commissions, whether municipal, county, regional, or state. To official planning and planners throughout the nation, that number provided political status and public acceptance of the planning function.”4


Planning probably would still have evolved even if there had been no HUD 701 or similar program, but it would have no doubt been a much slower evolution. The 701 program primed the pump for planning by reaching into virtually every community, even very small and rural ones. While it would be hard to document the value of these 701 plans, they must have had some value to the communities they served, since after the funding went away, most local governments found a way to continue planning, often picking up the bill for local planning from their own scarce and constricting revenues. To those of us who practiced planning during the 701 period, it would have seemed impossible that planning would have taken root without federal or state aid.

Patrick L. Dugan has been a city planning director and a city finance director. During the last 30 years, he has held various financial and planning positions in cities, counties, and regional agencies in three states. Now a private consultant in Washington, he can be reached at


  1. I have often referred to my now adult children as “701 babies.”
  2. Feiss, C. “The Foundations of Federal Planning Assistance: A Personal Account of the 701 Program.” (R. J. Kaiser, Ed.) Journal of the American Planning Association , 51 (2), page 179.
  3. Ibid, page 182
  4. Ibid, page 175.
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