Yuppie Urbanism v. Egalitarian Urbanism

Via Whet Moser, an Urbanophile piece that asks: “Is Urbanism the New Trickle-Down Economics?”

That depends, it seems to me, on what we mean by the question. If we mean, “Do elites in the government use urbanist policies primarily for the benefit of other elites?”, then I think the answer is a clear yes. As Aaron Renn points out, much of the time politicians aren’t even pretending otherwise; investments in transit, bike lanes, or walkable design are explicitly pitched as bait for young people with college degrees and cultural and economic power. (Witness the incredibly stupid fight between Rahm Emanuel and the mayor of Seattle over whose bike lanes will poach the other’s tech workers.)

But that’s hardly a surprise. We could delete the word “urbanist” from the question and get the same answer. It is a given, here and nearly everywhere else, that governments are under outsized influence from the rich and powerful, defined broadly, and even policies that are ostensibly egalitarian or redistributionist rarely get enacted without partial or total cooptation. This is true in health care, this is true in taxes, this is true in urban policy. Our last great era of rethinking what cities should be – against which this one is often explicitly compared – involved even more blatant pro-elite bias (with elite, during the midcentury, having a more open racial component). Look at the history of the Chicago Housing Authority, which started as a basically socialist, redistributionist program and quickly devolved into government-enforced relocation and segregation of blacks, a story repeated in dozens of cities around the country; or the reign of Robert Moses in New York, and his exclusionary public works.

A better question, I think, is whether the current flavor of urbanism is inherently elitist – that is, whether the kind of urbanist policies promoted at The Atlantic Cities, or Streetsblog, are unprogressive even before being perverted by the political process. That’s a harder question, but I think the answer is no. Certainly, the aspects of urbanism that are most potentially redistributionist – radical liberalization of zoning laws, provision of city services, etc. – are not the ones with the greatest grassroots excitement. And a lot of urbanist causes célèbres, like bike lanes and urban farming, are fairly tangential to social justice.

But I think it’s hard to conclude that the standard basket of urbanist policies, taken as a whole, doesn’t have a strongly redistributionist bent. Two of its main effects – to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and lower the burden of transportation costs, especially on low-income households – are clearly progressive. (See the Center for Neighborhood Technology’s Housing + Transportation Affordability Index for details on the latter.)

The more interesting debate, which Renn sort of brushes up against without taking on directly, is whether the fact that urbanists tend to be culturally elite college-degree-holding types means that, inevitably, the more redistributionist parts of the policy basket won’t ever get enacted. It’s absolutely true, as he writes, that “with some notable exceptions, you don’t see social justice and equity issues front and center in the urbanists discussions outside of old-school community organizing/activism circles, groups that are almost totally distinct from Atlantic Cities style urbanism.” So we’re not getting any great political movement with the aim of urban economic justice.

But whether that fact dooms egalitarian urbanism depends in large part, it seems to me, on how successful yuppie urbanism is. If, on the one hand, the new urban ideology is applied in a limited, targeted way – if public transit investment goes mainly to pretty-looking but functionally useless streetcars in gentrifying downtown districts, rather than improving regional bus networks (and maybe trains in some metro areas); if politicians’ commitment to urban design is limited to sexy mixed-use development only in those same central areas they want to gentrify, rather than a complete overhaul of zoning and design standards across the region; if a few center-city bike lanes aren’t accompanied by a broader change in road construction guidelines to make walking and accessing public transit viable and safe; then early 21st century urbanism will have the same anti-egalitarian legacy as mid-20th century urbanism.

But if, instead, urbanists – out of pure self-righteous self-interest – win a kind of total ideological victory and manage to change the urban planning paradigm as fundamentally (or even half as fundamentally) as it was changed in the years after World War Two, and we get those improved regional bus networks, the liberalized zoning, the better design that allows for decreased dependence on cars and lower transportation costs, then the legacy will be quite different. The real challenge, of course, will be in those areas not where yuppie urbanism and egalitarian urbanism happen to coincide, but where they clash. Regional bus systems, and improved design guidelines in the ungentrified, and ungentrifiable, suburbs, may not get most urbanists to throw a party, but they’re clearly aligned with their ideological interests and don’t pose any kind of threat.

What does pose a clear threat to the professional class are policies more explicitly aimed at economically integrating neighborhoods: the dismantling of exclusionary zoning codes, the loosening of historic preservation districts, scattered-site public housing in non-poor neighborhoods, and so on. Those are the policies whose chances I would worry about most – and, unfortunately, they also seem to me to be the ones of greatest importance: reducing the burden of transportation costs on poor households is important, but economic segregation is the root of a number of cities’ most intractable problems, including crime and education.

Finally, I think it’s worth noting that I’m not totally convinced that a broad political movement that did explicitly promote egalitarian urbanism would do much good, at least on the economic integration front. The lines of self-interest would basically pit the lower half of the economic spectrum against the upper half, and it doesn’t take a genius to put odds on that battle.

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