Why is urbanism so white?

The answer has to start, of course, with an acknowledgment that there are multiple things one might call “urbanism,” and that not all of them are notably white. Within recent memory here in Chicago, for example, majority-Latino and majority-black organizations have led marches supporting better bus service and El extensions, and housing activists tend to be a reasonably diverse bunch.

That said, the people who tend to use the term “urbanist” to describe themselves – and the ones whose ideas and political programs are represented in national media outlets and departments of transportation across the country – tend, overwhelmingly, to be white. I suspect anyone who spends much time following “urbanist” news knows this to be true; but, if we need more concrete proof, Planetizen’s list of the “Top 100 Urban Thinkers,” selected by the votes of its readers, contains approximately three people of Hispanic origin and not a single black person. Whether or not this reflects an actual absence of important nonwhite urbanist thinkers (I’m doubtful), it certainly reflects the kinds of people urbanists look to for intellectual leadership.

As Pete Saunders wrote in this 2012 post (which directed me to the Planetizen list), this is curious. In most of the older, walkable, transit-oriented American cities where urbanists tend to congregate – New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, DC – whites are a minority. Even in Seattle and Minneapolis, which Aaron Renn once singled out for being urbanist causes celebres with notably pale inhabitants, nonwhites are about a third of the population. Moreover, up until very recently – and still, in certain circles – the very word “urban” was a euphemism for black people.

Saunders has a few ideas about this, and I think they mostly make sense. You should really read the post. But I would synthesize his points, and add a bit of my own ideas, like this:

1. Areas that were built up by the 1960s or so – the ones that are reasonably urbanist-friendly – were subject to public policies and social norms that basically ensured racial segregation, and also ensured that black areas would be starved of investment, and that most white areas would not. Then, of course,  we decided to tear down half of our inner-city black neighborhoods and replace them with highways, sports stadiums, or anything else that sounded better to the average midcentury city councilman than houses for black people. Thus, with some exceptions, when people think about urban black neighborhoods – the ones that still exist – the feelings they evoke are much more complicated, and less purely nostalgic and positive, than those felt by young white adults about the neighborhoods their parents and grandparents abandoned.

Moreover, it’s not totally clear how many trendy, vibrating* urban neighborhoods are unproblematic for large numbers of black or Latino people, given general preferences for places where your ethnic group makes up, at least, a large minority of the population (preferences obviously shared by white people, who however are not in the position of having to choose between vibrating urban spaces and being among their coethnics). This is a problem even in places where white people are generally surprised to hear it (for example, large parts of  Manhattan), and even the places that come immediately to mind as exceptions are also places where the white population is rapidly expanding.

Instead, the most prosperous black neighborhoods tend to be in the suburbs, or in relatively newer city neighborhoods – places like suburban DC or Calumet Heights in Chicago. It’s not an accident that Saunders writes of his own feelings in a more recent post:

I did not grow up in the suburbs.  I grew up in Detroit, albeit in a solidly stable, black middle class environment.  As a child, I never saw the suburbs as a place of stultifying soullessness or oppressive homogeneity.  I guess you have to grow up in them to view them that way.  I always viewed the suburbs as the other side of the new Wall, an escape from the messiness of the city.  I grew up a half mile from Eight Mile Road, Detroit’s northern boundary, and in the ’70s the differences between my side and the other side were pretty stark.  They still are.

In that context, a movement whose premise – whose ticket to membership – is the embrace of all things “urban,” and a corresponding disdain for suburbia, doesn’t make a ton of sense.

2. Urbanism, broadly speaking, is an optimistic, technocratic movement among people who believe – at their most cynical – that city governments can do the right thing, if only they are harangued enough. Suffice it to say that this worldview is somewhat harder to maintain while standing in a black neighborhood. Since most of the projects of urbanism are about using levers of public policy to reshape neighborhoods (even if, in very important ways, those policies would be liberalizing), there’s a sort of assumed trust in government, and if you don’t have that trust, the movement will be much less attractive to you. Given the sorts of interventions governments have taken in nonwhite neighborhoods, it’s reasonable to think that white people would be more likely to have that trust. (It’s probably worth taking this one more step and saying that, broadly, middle-class and especially educated upper-middle-class white people will be even more likely to have that kind of trust, and, indeed, I think urbanism is a pretty thoroughly upper-middle-class movement.)

Generally, it’s not ideal when a political movement in a democratic society is made up of a group of people who are wildly unrepresentative of the general population. Urbanists clearly have this problem. And it’s not just a matter of optics, or tokenism. Urbanism is still a relatively new, evolving movement, which is being shaped in front of our very eyes by the academics, writers, and activists we’ve just established are overwhelmingly white. If those shapers are missing important perspectives – the priorities, of, say, the majority of the people who live major American cities – they’re going to be missing a lot.

Partly, that suggests that urbanism is going to lean towards the yuppie variety, rather than the egalitarian. I’ve written about that issue before.

But it also suggests that even when you get people who are trying to construct an egalitarian urbanism, they’re going to have a skewed vision of what needs to be addressed. For example, they might spend an awful lot of time thinking and writing about gentrification, since educated upper-middle-class white people are much more likely to live in gentrifying neighborhoods than other people. They might spend less time thinking about, say, the problems associated with blue-collar inner-ring suburbs, where very few of them live, go to, or come from. Despite the fact that the latter is just as much – if not more – of a problem than the former, and that really they’re both part of the same problem, namely the way current policy encourages income segregation and damaging waves of investment and disinvestment.

Or you might also get people who are more invested in improving bicycling infrastructure – which is, to be fair, worthy in its own right – than bus networks, which carry orders of magnitude more people.

Anyway, I’m not sure what one does about all of this, except that if you’re part of an urbanist organization, you probably ought to make an active effort to reach out and recruit people from various neighborhoods and communities. And you ought to do it not by convincing them of things they don’t already believe, but by appealing to things they consider in their own self-interest. And if they don’t think anything you’re working on is in their self-interest, then you should probably re-evaluate what you’re working on.

* This is my announcement that I will hereafter never again use the word “vibrant,” which I hate, and when I am tempted I will instead use the word “vibrating.”


12 thoughts on “Why is urbanism so white?

  1. This is my announcement that I will hereafter never again use the word “vibrant,” which I hate, and when I am tempted I will instead use the word “vibrating.”

    That makes it sound like there’s an earthquake ongoing, though. 😀

  2. Political coalitions aren’t necessarily built by everybody agreeing to adopt the same language, like “urbanism.” Quite often they’re built by people who want the same thing for different reasons, or at least using different labels. For example, urbanists might support increased transit funding as a way to revitalize central city neighborhoods. Advocates for low income non-white neighborhoods might support increased transit funding to provide necessary services for their people. It would be good if “urbanist” organizations had more non-white members and leaders, but it’s more important that people of all races support pro-urban policies.

    There is an issue when “urbanists” blithely support a gentrifying agenda, without regarding to the impact on the people who already live somewhere, because they see it as pro-city. In the worst case scenario, existing residents–often non-white–are regarded as impediments to higher density development. There does seem to be more awareness of this dynamic among urbanists now, but it does still seem to be a problem.

    1. I think it’s a really important point that not everyone has to be part of the same organization or activist subculture. That said, two points:

      1. Separate organizations and subcultures need, at least, to talk to each other to coordinate efforts when they’re working on the same thing. I don’t think that’s really happening.

      2. If urbanist organizations don’t count non-whites or non-college-educated people among their constituents, then there’s no reason to believe that they’ll actually act in their interests. In that case, you get a white, white-collar organization that thinks – or, at the very least, says – they’re acting in the general interests of the municipal or regional community, but actually has no idea whether or not that’s true. And most likely it isn’t. A yuppie pro-transit organization is going to get very different things accomplished than a pro-transit organization whose constituents actually come from all over the region they supposedly represent.

  3. This is a very thought provoking article, and yes, it taps its finger right on my (urbanist, white, educated, etc.) nose. Another thing to consider is that Sim City was released in 1989, followed by Sim City SNES in 1991 and Sim City 2000 in 1994. These are certainly games I spent hundreds of hours playing as a kid, and I can’t but help but notice the huge cohort of urbanists around my age 🙂 Like Sim City, capital-U Urbanism is in many ways a kind of Platonic ideal, separate from the messy reality of actual cities, politics, coalition building, etc… and leads, as you say, uncynical notions of pulling policy levers to materialize this form. Adjusting the tax rate and zoning. Building roads and transit. Siting a stadium. Perhaps particularly in the Bay Area, this dispassionate technocratic urbanism is baked into the DNA of people who are also drawn to careers in tech.

  4. Because hipster liberals run the urbanism movement. The same people who are protesting and marching to protect the under privileged and minorities of the country are at the same time kicking them out of their homes and tearing them down to build businesses and homes that everybody except people like them won’t be able to afford. It’s hypocritical and disgraceful. I hate how these idiots act like they care about the poor people in the neighborhoods they invade. They don’t care about them, and they certainly don’t care about their culture. We just lost Junior’s, what’s next?

  5. I’ve seen similar speculations about why bike advocacy is so white, and white privilege seems plausible. One key bike advocate was described in Jeff Mapes’ “Pedaling Revolution” as “a privileged, well-educated white guy who wasn’t used to being treated shabbily until he tried to ride a bicycle on the street… and that turned him into an activist.” What’s new, at least in the postwar era, is that large numbers of people with capital, and access to power, now live in urban environments.

    I’ve made the point before on a panel at the Congress for the New Urbanism that diversity begins with basics. One that consistently bothers me is that so many of the examples cited by urbanists are in the whitest parts of the world (Europe, mostly, but also Portland, and heck, even Curitiba) even when there are superior examples to be cited throughout the world.

    (Also on the anti-“vibrant” brigade here. I can’t suppress a giggle at it, having spent too much time in science-museum earthquake simulators as a kid.)

  6. From my perspective (as a middle class black woman interested in urban issues), I have a lot in common with those white urbanists. I grew up in the suburbs. My parents weren’t part of the great migration. On both sides some people moved north (way more in my dad’s family), but my parents grew up in the rural south. And didn’t leave until they went to college and the army. And then they got married and moved to the California suburbs (where I mostly grew up).

    I didn’t come to this “urbanist” perspective consciously, I always wanted to live in the “City” and identified with the whole loft/subway/urban glamorous image In retrospect, I would have studied urban planning in college, but I didn’t even know it existed. I just liked the idea of not needing a car. I didn’t have one for a little while after college. And then I had to get one, and started getting annoyed that it was a huge chunk of my budget. Then I started thinking there must be ways to look at things differently.

    I live in Oakland, in an area that might be “gentrifying” but really it is changing identity a bit from middle to upper middle class to a little more hipster. Oakland is a unique place, as one of the few areas in the Bay Area that had any semblance of a black middle class. But even so, middle class areas in Oakland tend to be pretty diverse. I started to care more about the development issues, when I noticed the problems of NIMBYs and other people who were making decisions for a place they would not be living in after 10-15 years.

    I realized a couple of things.
    1. People like me didn’t even know there was an urbanist party
    2. We don’t even know if we are invited to the party
    3. Things are intersectional for us, sometimes.
    4. The urbanist movement is terrible at framing things in a way that will resonate with multiple audiences
    5. Many people can’t see beyond their own perspective

    It is like everything else. Most people only know people like them. We might care about the same things, but we aren’t having these conversations together because we aren’t traveling in the same circles.

  7. It might help if you define who you are talking about when you use the word “urbanist.” This is a bit of a straw man argument when the only mention of actual people/thinkers is a Top 100 list from some blog.

    1. Admittedly, this is written to a certain community. Within that community, I think it’s understood what I mean by “urbanist,” and there’s little debate about whether there’s a diversity problem there. But I’ll grant that for a wider audience, it would make sense to be a bit more specific.

  8. Ad point 1, my suspicion is that what’s happening is that back-to-the-city is a movement that comes out of disaffection with the suburbs, which themselves came about because of a certain income level; just as blacks lagged whites in suburbanization, they’re lagging whites in the return to the city. (Some central US cities, including New York, are growing faster than their suburbs, but the black population is growing faster in the suburbs than in those cities.)

    And yet. There’s an impressive number of countries where the average income is comparable to that of black America, and this isn’t really what we see there – at least, zeroth-order eyeballing doesn’t give a trend. To add a complication, Europe exhibits huge interregional income disparities, so places like Paris and London don’t actually lag US incomes. And to add a second one, few European countries had the inversion of the US in which the suburbs became wealthier than the cities, so reurbanization would be unaffected by things like fear of urban crime.

    1. I think the same thing is happening in Chicago re: overall growth, population and economic, in the central city even as black households, including relatively well-off ones, move to the suburbs.

      Yeah, one thing I’ve been wondering recently – and maybe Europe is useful in thinking about this, and maybe it isn’t – is the extent to which what’s happened in US cities over the past century really can be described by something like Neil Smith’s theory – I forget what he calls it; rent gap? something like that – but basically the idea that this boom and bust is built into the economic cycle of a neighborhood, at least when neighborhoods are all built at once. The buildings themselves form an impediment to capital investment, and so investment moves to the next ring, until the inner ring has become so disinvested that there’s a huge profit to be made in reinvesting.

      To be honest, although I do see some of that, I’ve become less compelled by this theory since I read Smith’s book nearly a year ago – the truly catastrophic disinvestment in US inner cities seems explicable largely as a matter of policy and racism, not economic cycles. Although maybe it’s more in play in the sort of greying of inner-ring suburbs. Maybe not. I dunno. Thoughts?

  9. I don’t know much about the North American context around this, so please forgive my ignorance. But I wonder if part of the issue here is that many white people have always had more options when it came to housing, both in terms of location and actual housing style.

    Presumably it was (mostly) white people who had the wealth to move out of the cities in the first place (the whole “Garden City” movement), but in doing so gradually discovered that suburban life was not necessarily heaven on Earth. As such, the white “rediscovery” of concepts like human scale, walkability and local culture may not make all that much sense to people who never left the inner cities because they are self-evident to the people who actually live there.

    And so when white urbanists talk about these issues, it’s possible that both the language used and the actual aims of such conversations don’t resonate with the existing inhabitants. For example, the word “accessibility” for gentrifiers could mean that a fence with a hole in it beneath a freeway gets fixed, and the existing housing near it demolished to make way for other buildings etc. It could be that the new area has some benefits for many people – a park, bicycle paths and a community centre would be examples of “urbanist”ideals.

    But what if accessibility for the existing residents was provided by that hole in the fence under the freeway? Was this what allowed people living in the area to access the suburb on the other side of the freeway by foot, and even while pushing a pram? Is this how many residents in the existing housing found their easiest access to health, education and employment opportunities, because public transport didn’t go to their part of town?

    If the urbanists held a public meeting, and described all of their ideas about the park, etc, it would sound good to most ears, I’m sure. But would the topic of the hole in the fence come up. And what would the original local residents do when they found this access path blocked?

    This is, of course, all hypothetical, but I think it’s a good example of the need to really understand and talk to different people before changes are made to the urban fabric. Jame makes a great point above when she talks about us travelling in different circles; I think our words travel in different circles as well – sometimes even when we are in the same room!

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