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Urban Renewal:
What's in a Name?

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by Claudia Schreier

Claudia Schreier (she/her) is a first-year Master of City Planning student with a focus in Smart Cities. Prior to coming to Penn, she worked in the clean tech and coastal resilience fields. Claudia is passionate about emerging technologies that promote equity and sustainability in the city. She holds a BS in Oceanography from the University of Delaware (Go Blue Hens!). Outside of school, Claudia is slowly completing her mission to enjoy a cold brew at every independent coffee shop in Philadelphia.

[1] “Clothing Rental + Resale Marketplace.” Nuuly. 

[2] “UO in Progress.” Urban Outfitters.

There are perhaps very few clothing companies more successful or synonymous with ever changing fashion trends than Urban Outfitters (UO). Started in 1970, the first store owned by the company was located in West Philadelphia, providing college students with an affordable option to shop for unique pieces. While UO has evolved over time to carry today’s popular trends and brands, the company has provided a continuous retail space for the young and the stylish. Nowadays, it’s at a relatively high price point. With shoppers continuing to prioritize sustainability in fashion, it’s now profitable to get into the resale market. Secondhand platforms like Depop, Vinted, and even eBay have exploded with vintage and secondhand resale in the last ten years, so it’s no wonder that UO is getting into the market. Aside from developing Nuuly, an online clothing rental and resale marketplace, UO has another secondhand resale label called “Urban Renewal” [1]. The label is “UO’s way of making old new again,” in which they source vintage or landfill-bound clothes and sell them, both in stores and online [2].

   To some, the name Urban Renewal may be inspired by UO’s commitment to circular fashion, aiming to extend the life of pieces and keep them out of landfills, but Urban Renewal was not first used as a brand name or fashion term. Instead, it describes the practice of a top-down planning approach that changed the landscape of many American cities, including Philadelphia, by demolishing existing structures and redeveloping entire neighborhoods, pricing residents out and replacing mostly poor residents with wealthy ones.

Figure 1: High Fashion High Rises (collage by Claudia Schreier)

The Legacy of Urban Renewal in Philadelphia

   Urban Renewal has its roots in the post-WWII American city, where there was a nationwide program instituted to maintain cities and remove what was known as blight, a term usually attached to working class and Black communities. Planners and developers co-opted this term—originally used by botanists to describe various plant diseases—as a moving force that would transform what they saw as “healthy” communities into areas with crime and poverty. Planners used disease terminology to describe working-class Black and Brown communities, ultimately justifying people who lived in “redevelopment” areas [3].

   In Philadelphia, the Society Hill Urban Renewal project is one of the first examples of such displacement. In the 1950s, the neighborhood was one of the poorest parts of the city. By 1970, after historic building renovation, demolition of other buildings, and new apartment construction, Society Hill was one of the most expensive and coveted parts of the city to live in [4]. These efforts did not account for residents who suddenly could no longer afford to live in the area. While new apartments were built, including the Society Hill Towers, many of the properties were not affordable. Around one third of the original residents, predominantly Black and Eastern European, were displaced.

   Institutional expansion in West Philadelphia—led by a coalition of universities including Drexel, the University of Pennsylvania, and Penn Medicine—razed Philadelphia’s Black Bottom, a neighborhood that extended from 34th St to 40th St along Market [5]. Using eminent domain and propelled by the Federal Housing Act of 1949, these institutions displaced as many as 5,000 residents from the Black Bottom, offering compensation that was well below market rate for owners and no relocation assistance to renters [6]. The area was then rebranded as “University City,” created to serve students and members of these universities. Local shops were replaced with businesses that catered to students, including the original Urban Outfitters store, then called “Free People.” 

   The legacy of Urban Renewal in West Philadelphia impacts residents to this day, spurring an affordable housing crisis and continued displacement. The UC Townhomes—the only community benefit to come from agreements surrounding the development of University City—is one such example. After the landowner decided not to renew the contract that provided affordable 70 affordable housing units for 40 years, as well as a massive amount of activism and protesting surrounding the Townhomes, residents moved out and the building was slated to be demolished by the end of 2023 [7].

[3] Moore, Justin Garrett. “Why We Need a New Word for ‘Blight.’” Medium, October 27, 2022.

[4]  Blumgart, Jake, and Jim Saksa. “From Slums to Sleek Towers: How Philly Became Cleaner, Safer, and More Unequal.” WHYY, March 12, 2018.  

[5]    “Black Bottom.” SEGREGATION BY DESIGN.  

[6]  Ibid.    

[7] Moselle, Aaron. “End of an ERA: West Philly’s UC Townhomes Slated for Demolition.” WHYY, November 9, 2023.


It's also likely that UO benefitted from, and may not even exist without, Urban Renewal and university expansion.


[8] Tsai, Jasmine. “Urban Outfitters Founder Returns to Birthplace of Popular Chain.” The Daily Pennsylvanian, February 15, 2005.
[9]  Kornelija. “Depop Gentrification and the Middle-Class Superiority Complex.” Medium, December 10, 2020.  

[10]     “2022–2023 Impact Scorecard.” URBN.

So what does Urban Outfitters have to do with this?

   The resale process employed by the “Urban Renewal” label is ironically similar to renewal planning practices. For the label, the company says that each “garment is uncovered and sold in its original glory or remade into a totally unique look.” Thinking about the high prices of the “Urban Renewal” line, many shoppers cannot afford this type of secondhand, curated vintage shopping experience. This process is also not that different from a planning group leveling an area they deemed undesirable, building luxury apartments, and selling to rich, white families.

   It’s also likely that UO benefitted from, and may not even exist without, Urban Renewal and university expansion. Their first physical store was built in 1970 and located in West Philadelphia at 43rd and Locust Streets, directly adjacent to the edge of the University of Pennsylvania campus and in the new University City neighborhood [8]. University expansion effectively razed the surrounding neighborhood up to 40th Street, but the effects extend farther than the edge of Penn’s campus. The expansion of Penn displaced thousands through eminent domain and increases in housing costs. This cleared the way for the rich, white student clientele to move in and shop at places like the original UO store. 

   Perhaps the name “Urban Renewal”  is an indicator that UO is engaging in a new type of “thrift store gentrification” [9]. According to the 2023 URBN Impact Scorecard, “Urban Renewal” recirculated over 50,000 pairs of denim and upcycled deadstock fabric into over 80,000 styles [10].         

   While keeping pieces out of the landfill is good, the price of some of these pieces could be almost ten times the price of a similar item found in a local Goodwill. While shopping secondhand is a sustainable alternative to fast fashion, resellers online can make a huge profit for curating vintage, taking the digging-through-bins search out of thrifting. What was once $5 shirt at Goodwill is now a “vintage Y2K coquette fairycore” listing for $50 on Depop.

   This phenomenon of resellers buying cheaper secondhand and marking pieces up on vintage and resale sites leaves many shoppers, especially low-income shoppers, with limited options in the thrift store. Curated resale may be sourced from lower-priced thrift stores that rely on donations, and the market is not accessible to many at such a high price point. Of course there will always be a surplus of clothes in Goodwill donation centers, but as the curated market becomes more popular, those high-quality “good finds” that thrifters used to discover on the average trip to the store may be instead sourced to lines like “Urban Renewal.” This leaves the local Goodwill and Salvation Army racks littered with Shein and other fast-fashion. 

Figure 2: Philadelphia's Urban Renewal Legacy: Society Hill Towers and University Expansion Plans (collage by Claudia Schreier)

Urban Renewal and “Urban Renewal”

   UO is a company that is regularly trenched in scandal (ex. racist hiring policies, racist code words for suspected shoplifters, and numerous offensive apparel designs), but for a retail giant that has its roots in a small store in West Philadelphia, naming a label “Urban Renewal” is irresponsible and tone-deaf [11].


    Philadelphia is a city where today, thousands do not have access to permanent housing, and it is a city where gentrification makes home ownership and even renting an apartment unattainable for many. The name “Urban Renewal” could sting, a reminder of the collective loss that many Philadelphians have suffered for decades.  

   In the face of this housing crisis, critiquing a name for a clothing label might seem silly, but it’s a clear marker that the company is not thinking introspectively about their impact in this city, and certainly not when URBN’s portfolio is doing so well fiscally [12]. Despite the steep prices, the “Urban Renewal” label could not be more successful. It’s gained popularity since it was introduced in the early 1980s, with consumer opinions about sustainability causing the market to explode. Additionally, with Gen Z becoming a dominant consumer base, thrifting and secondhand is more popular than ever. Jumping into the resale and curated vintage market has been a lucrative move for the company, as it is estimated that the US secondhand apparel market is going to be worth around $70 billion within the next couple of years, up from $39 billion in 2022. UO even opened up a new store in 2021 in Herald Square, New York City, carrying only vintage and upcycled clothes. Can you guess what it’s called?

[11] Wong, Venessa. “Black Women Who Worked at Anthropologie Describe a ‘Whitewashed’ Company That Made Them Feel Undervalued.” BuzzFeed News, June 24, 2020.

[12]  “Here’s Why Urban Outfitters (URBN) Is Thriving in the Industry.” Yahoo! Finance. 

Image (left): Thrift store in Philadelphia

Source: Katie Hanford
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