Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Whitlock and the Politics of Blackness

Jason Whitlock loves black people. He unapologetically loves blackness and embraces it without hesitation. In a country, no world, predicated upon the disposability of the black body such an open and unguarded expression of love for black peoples is a radical proposition. But, contrary to shallow, saccharine representations of MLK and Gandhi, love, even a radical love of self, is not a political platform, though it is a powerful political statement.

It is this common misunderstanding, mistaking for a love for self and "community" (however you define it) as a self-contained that obscures not only trenchant political critique but also a coherent, actionable, and, dare I say, radical program.

Whitlock's most recent column shows the pitfalls that arise from a politics centered on loving blackness instead of challenging anti-blackness. This politics of blackness, which I would say is different than a black politics, plays with a dangerous essentialism that not only threatens to turn the black community into an undifferentiated mass, but also displaces the object of black political concern away from anti-black racism, the liberal logics of unfettered property rights and individualist politics, and instead becomes a project of intra-racial disciplining. The result is an inverted pedagogy of the oppressed that seeks not to counter the conventional wisdom of the day, a wisdom that is always liberal, capitalist, and anti-black, but instead seeks to accommodate it and turn the supposed failures of the black community back onto itself.

Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) are vital institutions for black Americans. Most HBCUs were founded in the immediate period after the Civil War in states with large black populations (read: former slave states) and were tasked with educating a nascent black elite. They have a long and proud history of producing black leaders and intellectuals. Until very recently, HBCUs were still responsible for producing the majority of black college graduates. But for-profit colleges like University of Phoenix, Everest College and countless locally serving for-profit secondary institutions have surpassed HBCUs in producing degreed black Americans. This shift reflects many things, the desire to be more economically competitive in slack job markets through gaining credentials, the desegregation of higher educational institutions that removed a good proportion of the captive student body HBCUs could draw from, and a concerted campaign of disinvestment from both the state and federal government over the past decades to choke the life out of these schools.

Something we can definitely agree on, though, is that the decline of HBCUs is not principally due to a lack of alumni giving or black Americans not caring for "our own institutions". Whitlock ignores the structural contexts of HBCU existence, again a context that is first and foremost virulently anti-black, and instead seeks to scold and discipline black people for insufficiently loving ourselves and our institutions. In other words, he attacks black people for being insufficiently in love with their own blackness, instead of recognizing the external attacks on black people and black institutions.

His column's most eloquent expression of racial disciplining is best exemplified in his comparison of Grambling State University and Notre Dame. Whitlock uses the example of Notre Dame and wonders whether the,"...well-to-do white catholics-- would flee their prized institution and let the football program rot from neglect, indifference, and a desire to make non-white Catholics love them?" This is in reference to the Grambling football team and its many trials over the past two decades. But what one should focus upon here is a fundamental misunderstanding of the context in which Notre Dame exists and the accusation of insufficient blackness as the primary driver of Grambling's issues.

Notre Dame is an elite private Catholic institution. It was started by and is still partially supported by the Holy Cross brotherhood of the Catholic Church. It has an endowment of over six BILLION dollars. It draws upon not only the private wealth of its esteemed alumni but also the support of the Catholic Church. A 2000 year old institution that is its own sovereign nation and is present in almost every country across the globe. And I would be remiss if I did not remind folks that  some proportion of the wealth of the Church comes from the benefits of black and indigenous slavery and the wealth benefits that white Catholics have gained over the years in profiting off of an economic system built upon the exploitation of black labor and the expropriation of black wealth.

Grambling State University is a public HBCU founded in 1901 in Louisiana for the purpose of educating black residents of northern Louisiana. The land on which the school was founded was donated by a local white lumber king. It has an endowment of nearly five MILLION dollars to serve approximately 5,000 students. Grambling has always depended upon the support of the state and Louisiana's governor, Bobby Jindal, has supervised a constant campaign of disinvestment, most recently cutting over $50 MILLION dollars of support. Grambling's decline is not due to the depraved indifference of a blind population obsessed with white acceptance, but is the inevitable result when states and the federal government disinvest from their own institutions. It should go without saying that the donated income of a few successful alumni will not be able to fill the gap made not only by more consistent external funding but centuries of accumulated wealth that black Americans have never had access to.

And this is what Whitlock's politics of blackness misses. It is not a radical proposition to retreat into the doctrine of "self-help" as the solution to black America's ills. This embodies what Adolph Reed Jr. calls a "politics of capitulation" that does not seek to demand that black Americans be afforded the same rights, privileges, and supports that non-blacks have, but instead turns away from "external" critiques and limits its critique at the racial line. Thus black disadvantage must primarily (because Whitlock and others will recognize racism's existence) due to black folks' unwillingness to properly support black people. This is the politics of blackness in its most pure manifestation. It is always a politics that rests upon a monolithic black particularity and is measured by one's racial authenticity and stated love for black people as opposed to actually representing or advocating for the interests of blacks. It not only abandons structural critique, but also subsumes intra-black difference by assigning a common political identity based upon racial identity as opposed to recognizing that black people, like any other group of people, is made up of a multiplicity of interests that cannot be boiled down to racial identity.

If black politics is to move forward, then it is time to abandon the politics of blackness that places responsibility for black community advancement squarely at the foot of black people as opposed to the racist state in which we live, and that equates black political success with the isolated success of black elites. Such a focus excuses someone like Barack Obama from concerted and vocal black critique due to a defensive posture that assumes that the criticism of one of us is a criticism of all of us. As long as Obama and other black political leaders support policies that contribute to increasing poverty in black neighborhoods, the imprisonment of black peoples, and, ultimately, the early death of black people, then we will never move towards a more responsible and radical black politics.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

You Can't Eat Respect

Noah Smith has a recent blog post reflecting on the differences between Japanese and US society and their conceptions of equality and liberty. In particular, the difference between Japanese notions of respect, and personal and social conservatism regarding overt displays of wealth, contrasted with America's, admittedly, more egalitarian (using the American habit of addressing people by their first names as an example) traditions  that lack an overall conception of "respect". Smith places this idea of "respect" as a fourth pillar of equality to add toward's Smith's descriptions of American conceptions of equality: equality of outcome, attributed to "true" communists and socialists; equality of opportunity, championed by centrist liberals; and equal rights under the law, championed by conservatives and libertarians.

"Equality of respect" in this assemblage of rights can ameliorate the dissatisfaction of those at the lower ends of society by demonstrating that they are, well, respected and, in turn, valued. The use of honorifics in communicating with a humble sushi chef demonstrate that his or her work is valued and their skill recognized. Smith admits to lacking evidence of a respect gap in US culture and politics, but nonetheless attempts to make the case that both conservative/libertarian and progressive/radical critics erode the idea of respect that rests at the core of American ideals. According to Smith, conservatives have too often insisted upon the intrusion of market institutions to guide social life and sponsored a hyper-competitiveness that makes many service workers embarrassed of their jobs while progressive and radical critics have focused too narrowly on income measures of welfare that overplays material inequity absent other cultural aspects, namely "respect".

In fairness, Smith recognizes the vagueness of these thoughts and one cannot expect a fully formed political theory in a blog post of a few hundred words. But I think it necessary to address some of these preliminary thoughts now such that we can move beyond a discussion that, I feel at least, will not benefit our understanding of history, politics, or equality. I'll try to address my concerns in three areas: the first is Smith's characterization of respect as a potentially lost or fading attribute of American society has little basis in US history; second,  focusing upon moving away from material measures of equality risks reifying unequal social relations and political institutions as well as blunting analytical space for examining inequality in any useful way; and third, Smith's utter indifference to towards race makes for an unnecessarily confusing and sloppy bit of analysis.

Smith's lament over the loss of a more casual egalitarian US as embodied in the spirit of the Declaration of Independence and  the raucous inaugural party of Andrew Jackson rest in a history that stands as a testament to profound inequity. Succinctly, America has never been as egalitarian as it thinks it is and it is arguable that America is somehow less egalitarian now than it was in the 1830s! The abolition of slavery, the destruction of Jim Crow, women's suffrage, and queer rights are all testaments to a growing egalitarianism and respect under the law. To somehow posit that Americans from the 1830s until the last 30 years or so were more egalitarian, as in all human beings are afforded the same moral status (as defined by Gray in Liberalism), than they are now is profoundly ahistorical. America has never really had a good run of such a pure egalitarianism even in its early years. Jefferson may have espoused the virtues of the yeoman farmer, but he also helped to better develop the immense plantation system in the deep south that not only further stitched slavery into American society, but also redoubled inequality between a small, yet immensely powerful, white plantation ruling class and poorer white farmer/laborer class. Thus one can see that particularly American paradox where the poor and ethnic minorities, in particular black Americans, where material well being improved with industrialization and urbanization, but egalitarianism, as in being perceived as equal in moral status to everyone else, remained static. The passage of the Civil Rights Acts may truly where we may legitimately start to speak of an egalitarian age in the US not in the streets of Philadelphia in the 1760s and certainly not in the raucous quarters of the White House in the 1830s to a slave-owning president responsible for the Trail of Tears.

The critique that progressives focus upon material inequity, particularly income or wealth inequality, to the detriment of other values that in turns reinforces a kind of crass cultural materialism is a contradictory and fundamentally conservative position that Smith can't even keep straight himself. This confusion comes from a refusal to recognize social and economic inequality manifest themselves in many material ways that often end up doing real harm to people. This is where Smith could have fruitfully used Japan as a comparative case to show that while Japan may have higher income inequality than some European countries (though less than the US) it is also has a bevy of social programs designed to blunt the negative material consequences of economic inequity. In particular, Japan has had universal healthcare since the 1930s. Considering the massive health disparities in this country, largely tied to income inequality, such a comparison would have added an interesting aspect to his observations. But in trying to separate economic inequality from other forms of material inequity, the most dramatic of which includes black American infant mortality rates as twice that of whites, and the disparity persists even when controlling for income. Such an issue would seem to partially support Smiths contention that income is not the only factor when discussing issues of disparity and inequity, but he entirely ignores the need for greater redistributive policies and the obliteration of racism and instead stands upon this idea of "respect" and a shallow egalitarianism.

Smith, ultimately, does not seem all that interested in thinking deeply about inequality as a real force in peoples' lives nor is he interested in theorizing what it means for such stark material inequality and disparity to be essential parts of the organizing logic of our country. This gap speaks to either a relatively shallow understanding of what income and social inequality mean for those at the bottom of society or it speaks to how many self-described liberals are seemingly incapable of seriously contemplating questions of social justice in contemporary contexts.

Finally, Smith could have avoided much of the muddled reasoning on this if he seriously considered the existence of black people in the US. The history of slavery, abolition, civil rights and ongoing battles for racial justice and fairness under the law place the material, social, and political effects of income inequality and racism in stark relief. If we are to critique progressive critics for primarily focusing upon income inequality, then the proper critique is not to say that progressives should demand more "respect" from economic elites, but to show how other social factors like race, gender, and sexual orientation all interact to reinforce and exacerbate social injustice.

To conclude, Smith misrepresents American history in order to claim the US has become less egalitarian, in terms of a potential loss of "respect", even as the past 240 odd years of this country's history has been a slow, bloody, unsteady march towards greater egalitarianism. Second, Smith's inability to connect social inequality to greater material disparity leaves a confused reasoning that does not leave space for demands for greater social justice and potential redistribution because of an inability or unwillingness to connect inequality to real disparities in life outcomes or to connect continued to inequality to directly to the lack of "respect" he claims to care about. Ultimately, this is part of a popular project of seemingly reasonable, progressively oriented folks who worry about inequality but are profoundly uninterested in actually substantively transforming material benefit in our society. It is a politics devoid of any substantive positions of dealing with injustice outside of wishing for some greater cultural transformation that simply seeks to mollify those at the bottom of the social pyramid.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Inadequacy of "Good" Urbanism

Run a google search for the term “good urbanism” and you run into a bevy of blog posts, articles, and even books all proclaiming to know the secret to making good places through adhering to the principles of “good urbanism”. Invariably, the recommendations touted are almost all design-based or centered on modifying the urban form. The interventions offered usually focus on making cities “human scale”, encouraging multiple modes of transit etc...what’s wrong with this? It misses an essential facet of cities; they are the physical representations of social relations. Buildings, blocks, transportation systems represent the political, economic, and social relations of the time of their construction. Nothing about that statement is novel or particularly deep but it seems that many mainstream “urbanists” seem to elide over or entirely forget that cities are not solely objects but a set or array of social relations.

Roy (2011) has a piece where she says that the central role for planning theorists is to take seriously the question of the production of urban space-- or urbanism. She then goes on to introduce the four processes that make up urbanism, at least in the studies she is introducing. The first process she identifies is the role that capitalism and the flow of capital plays in the production of space and how capitalist market relations play upon issues of neoliberal style urban development and governance and post-colonialism. The second focuses on the struggle over urban space. Succinctly, highlighting the multiple contradictions and conflicts that play out everyday as different people go about living and creating urban space. The third aspect is that of urbanism as a “constituted object” that is produced through planning-- i.e. the built environment and how this built environment embodies, bolsters, or conflicts with the other processes. Lastly, she observes that urbanism is a global process that is manifested through the uneven flows of global capital, migration,  and massive urban growth in the Global South. That calls for recognizing these new, incredibly large and increasingly powerful cities that exist in entirely different historical, economic, and political contexts than Western cities requiring a new theorization of cities founded upon a serious study of urbanism-- or the production of urban space.

I find these four aspects of urbanism to be incredibly enlightening. Specifically, Roy points to the physical ordering buildings through planning as one of at least four aspects of urbanism. More importantly, she instructs us to examine the many relations that they embody within space. Planning here speaks directly to the three processes, but it does not dominate. This is something that many mainstream urban commentators seem to forget or do not adequately explore. To say that a certain kind of development embodies “good urbanism” versus “bad urbanism”, often framed as idealized dense central city living vs a more sprawled suburban design or lifestyle, is an absurd statement. The central city and the suburb both embody a set of social relations that dictate how that area came to be developed and how people currently live within it and create their own spaces. There’s nothing a priori better about the social relations in a central city than one found in the suburbs. Both areas can be sites of oppression, exploitation, sinks or sources of capital or, conversely, sites of liberation, fulfillment conflict etc...

We can critique certain building patterns as being inefficient in terms of budgetary restraints, ecological impact, concentrating poverty etc but those are all results of a particular set of social and political relations that stand semi-independently of the built environment. The essential point is that a particular configuration of buildings is neither “good” nor “bad” in absence of a serious examination of the social relations responsible for the construction of those buildings and the greater social processes that continue to shape the greater community in which those buildings exist. In other words, urbanism is not about an object, but about a set of overlapping, constitutive processes that produce a wide range of physical forms. The physical form is largely a reflection of these greater processes and forces.

Insisting on ascribing a particular physical configuration with the moniker of “good urbanism” or, even worse, labeling individuals and institutions as good or bad urbanists based primarily on their physical design decisions obscures and depoliticizes the processes of the production of urban space, rendering critique to now-repetitive laments over building decisions. Commentators are more concerned over developers and corporations being good neighbors than giving a more full review of not just office placement and design, but in trying to situate the process in a fuller context of urban redevelopment and planning, regional and global economic change, and eternal conflicts over the claims to certain spaces.

To this end, it is absurd some of the more recent laments we have seen over the role of tech companies as “good” urbanists as demonstrated by how they re-shape neighborhoods. Such a label would assume that these companies are engaging in actions that are out of the ordinary or contrary to the goals of, at minimum, city and regional planners and policymakers. But a cursory reflection over how our cities, in the US at least, have grown not just in this past decade but over the past century, shows us the folly behind such assumptions. Urban development largely follows the dictates of social and economic elites, is based around uneven development, and exclusion. In a country with stubborn racial segregation, increasing economic segregation, and increased income and social inequality that is, in turn, reinforced by our city and regional governments uncritical embrace of economic growth as the only viable solution, why are we surprised that for-profit corporations act like for-profit corporations? And, more important for folks who proclaim to study and love cities, how are you so unfamiliar with the pattern of urban development, in the first place?

Let us stop the limited, and unproductive framing of “urbanism” as an object to be judged based principally on design and let us, in the spirit of Ananya Roy, see urbanism as the confluence of multiple processes in the production of urban space. This can move us beyond facile laments over twitter’s seeming lack of community engagement and show us how absurd it is to expect values not rooted in profit and accumulation to be expressed by profit seeking tech firms.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Affordability Index: Who is this for, exactly?

The new HUD housing/transport location tool has made a minor ripple in the urbanist blogosphere. The hope, as stated by HUD is to,"...to provide the public with reliable, user-friendly data and resources on combined housing and transportation costs to help consumers, policymakers, and developers make more informed decisions about where to live, work, and invest."  There have already been a couple of blog posts at sites like Next City and DC Streetsblog that have played with the tool and speak on its functionality. I don't wish to reproduce this work, but to ask a more fundamental question: Who is this exactly for and what are we trying to show here?

First, the tool is an excellent visualization application. The display is clean, the controls fairly intuitive and you can get a lot of information in a simple format. Kudos to HUD and its partners for making this available. But I also feel that this tool is supposed to provide a service that does not accurately reflect how people make housing decisions. I get it, this is a visualization application. It's not a policy or an office, but the stated goal of the tool does, in fact, hold a particular political orientation.

Succinctly, the tool, in holding up housing options for people as largely a rational exercise in cost tradeoffs, does nothing to interrogate the ways in which we construct housing or provide transit infrastructure. In framing housing choices as basically a rational choice exercise without also recognizing that most households, including all low to moderate income households, actually have an incredibly restricted set of choices based on market power, the tool subtly shifts the onus of housing affordability onto potential residents. This is not to say that this tool is part of a greater insidious project to disenfranchise marginalized populations, but it does show that the framing around this tool's use is based on a rational consumer in a depoliticized landscape of housing and transportation costs that are simply presented.

More specifically, while the tool offers a set of idealized populations you can map with that can offer some rather stark comparisons (the first image is a map of Portland's affordability index for a "region typical" household making around 56k a year):

It's clear your "region typical" household basically has their pick of spots. This may be the closest one can get to an idealized decision structure for a household. There are clear tradeoffs to be seen, at least for the rental market. When taking home ownership into account the decisions change drastically (again for "region typical" household):

We see a large jump in prices. This is largely a reflection to the really tight housing market we have in the region right now and you can identify some of the areas in the city and outer parts of the region that are still affordable and, in the case of Portland proper, is quickly being converted bought up by better off households.

Now, what does this same market look like for the "low income" category?

The difference is there in stark relief. Low income renters, on average, are looking to spend 54% of household income on housing and transit. More recent rental market changes are especially evident in this map. Northeast and central east Portland are now areas where most low income households can be expected to pay nearly half of their income on housing and transport even though these areas are central to the region. For low income homeowners or prospective homeowners the difference is even more stark:

Uhhhhh...so....yeah. Nothing much to say here, really. If a low income household is able to buy a home (an unlikely proposition given still-tight lending standards and the hot market in PDX) this household can expect to 80% of its income on housing and transit. 

It's clear that low income households, both renters and homeowners, have a much more restrictive set of "options" available to them in terms of housing and transportation. This is to be expected in a system where housing provision is primarily left to market forces. There's nothing really new here, but it's always good to be able to visualize such stark disparity in simple ways. But if this affordability index tool is designed for policymakers and planners, then I'm wondering what this actually adds to planning or policy practice? Planners already know that housing and transportation are large costs and that these costs are borne more heavily on low income households. I don't know if this tool is telling us anything new or unique. If this tool is showing planners something new, then those planners don't deserve the title.

The obvious rejoinder to this observation is that this simply a tool and planners and policymakers can use it different ways. As a visualization tool it can display disparity in stark, unmistakeable terms that can help when engaging with elected officials or the public. Its simple interface allows for folks outside public planning agencies and government to make similar arguments as long as they have access to a decent computer and internet access (a barrier, but one that is being slowly broken down). In this way, it can potentially be useful as a tool for a particular political project, but as an actual analysis tool it is lacking. 

One gap, an entirely understandable one given model constraints but still big, is that you cannot disaggregate households on different demographic characteristics (see methodology here). For example, you cannot separate households by race and compare. Why is this important? Because household income varies widely among different racial/ethnic groups. In Portland, for example, median household income by race (ACS 5yr-2011) taken from Social Explorer:

The regional typical household for Portland makes around 56k a year for the HUD tool. But we can see that the only racial group that comes close to being a "typical" household is that for White households. Admittedly, this is a very White region compared to others, but this difference here is still striking. Planners and policymakers can see that if they're planning for households other than White ones, then they need to really focus on making housing available more generally to low-income populations, in particular Black households. But the tool, as offered, can't show planners that kind of detail or difference. This severely limits its potential as an actual tool of analysis for planners. As offered, the tool does not really give an accurate representation of housing or transport costs except at the most general of levels. 

For equity oriented planners, or for planners who want to be able to better track, analyze and display difference within their cities, this tool obscures much more than it can potentially display. I recognize the limits of creating a standalone web mapping tool, let alone one that is as easy and kind of fun to use as this one, but I have a hard time seeing the upside here. At least when it comes to planners making use of this. Add to that the implicit rational choice orientation of the tool that depoliticizes and obscures the role the market and market actors play in restricting housing to those who can afford it and the tool loses even more value. 

Overall, I give this tool a C- in terms of utility for planners or policymakers looking for analysis. It can maybe help planners to ask some deeper follow up questions on distribution, but, in my opinion, they should already be asking those questions. I'm inclined to give it a B or B+ for visualization in a simple, easy to use web format. What say you all? Is this a move forward? Does it potentially move HUD's mission forward? Does it help planning or planners? 

Monday, October 14, 2013

A Question of Legitimacy? Public Health and Planning

I had an interesting exchange on twitter earlier with @AlexKarner regarding the difference in the awareness of social injustice and advocating on behalf of the marginalized between public health professionals and, in particular, transportation planners. While I agree that public health, as a field, is much more open and honest not only about the corrosive effects of poverty on individual and societal health but also has a much more vigorous history of advocacy on behalf of the marginalized, I started wondering what were some of the structural, disciplinary, and political differences between the fields that allowed public health the rhetorical space and political capital to engage in such advocacy. These are by no means finished thoughts, but sketches of thoughts, and I invite comment and critique on this. I think this is a potentially useful discussion, though, especially as public health professionals and researchers make a more vigorous foray into aspects of physical planning.

Theoretical Consistency and Legitimacy

This is not to imply that research in public health is monolithic or one dimensional. Nor should anyone think I'm implying that there are not vigorous critiques of dominant research paradigms and approaches coming from practitioners and researchers as well as health activists. Even a cursory history of public health initiatives show a strong history of debate, protest, and contestation ranging from innovative community health programs in response to medical racism by the Black Panther Party to the direct action of gay activists in the midst of the AIDS epidemic. Of course, these traditions continue today with the field of public health being pushed from multiple levels. That being said, public health is able to rest on a relatively coherent and consistent epistemology that's firmly rooted in medical science. There are certainly challenges to the hegemony of positivist legitimacy and exploration, but public health researchers, practitioners, and activists can all reference shared notions of disease (though this can also be areas of intense contestation as in labeling homosexuality as a mental disorder) and a shared understanding that there are clear social determinants of disease in addition to physiological conceptions of disease. In turn, public health can also use the social position of "science" as widely construed as a platform of legitimacy, even in the face of historical and current abuses like forced sterilization and exposing children to lead in homes.

I think, above all else, this is what allows for the kind of message that allows public health practitioners to more fully explore and critique social determinants of disease. While we can argue over the social construction of diseases and their relational characters, public health scholars and activists can point to a child that has asthma, a pertussis outbreak, or widespread lead poisoning as clear and direct threats to public well being. But beyond having a political orientation towards the "public" (however you define that) it is the ability to express and formulate those problems that offer a foundation from which public health practitioners can not only collaborate but also critique other claims. The social realm becomes a much more legitimate arena of critique and exploration when everyone can point to some kind of disease incidence and say,"This is a clear problem and purely physiological/environmental causes are inadequate to explain these problems away."

Planning, on the other hand, lacks such consistency. Yes, planning largely adheres to a rationalist, post-structural set of theories that can encompass a wide array of knowledges, but this foundation is much more shaky and contested than public health's. Planners have a hard time truly formulating what are pressing problems that they can potentially address and serve. Ultimately, this is due to the inability of the field to adequately answer the questions,"Just what is it that planners do?" But part of why we can't answer such questions is because of our lack of a shared theoretical foundation. Calls for the rationalist, scientific city are widely discredited (though they are re-emerging with the obsession with smart cities) and planning has never been able to recover a foundation from which we can move forward.

This tension may be best illustrated by planning's continuous tension between process and outcomes. How do we balance our desires for democracy and representation with the priorities of a large city or even a region? The scalar questions alone are enough to tie you in theoretical knots for years. But a large reason why we even have such debates is that planning, and by extension planners, have little to no legitimacy in the greater public realm. We attempt to claim legitimacy through claims of technical expertise, position within a greater bureaucracy, or sometimes even as advocates, but planners in most of our cities and regions do not speak with the power and confidence that public health professionals can.

Planners cannot claim legitimacy because we have no widely accepted epistemological tradition to claim and draw upon and eventually extend into more radical areas. The result is a field where, academics at least, constantly tear each other's theories down and we move no closer to answering the essential question for the field of,"What do planners do?" This, in turn, feeds into the alienation we see between practicing planners and academic planners, whereas the public health field seems to have pretty decent relationship in terms of research from government and academic institutions reaching practitioners and being considered and used. Whereas planning practice seems to dominated by a small set of elite urban-oriented popular thinkers, sometimes academics but sometimes not, that cycle through eras of dominance. The durability of Jane Jacobs' critiques, the dominance of Florida's creative class thesis implicit in contemporary obsessions with attracting "millenials", and the new dominance of "sustainability" are all things that practicing planners draw from but can hardly be called a coherent theoretical base as opposed to a series of observations, interests, and practices at varied stages of popularity. Sustainability offers the closest to a coherent theoretical position that planners can work with, but the way it is often presented and acted out in practice is shallow and tends to favor policies that reinforce social inequity and represent the interests of social and political elites. That's a political critique, but we can also see that sprawl, while slowed down, continues on, fracking continues to despoil our water tables, biodiversity continues to suffer, and poverty and social inequity go unexamined in popular treatises in planning and quite often in published plans.

The result is a series of fads paraded as "best practices" repeated by the same cadre of consultants, journalists, and super-star urbanist academics until the next big thing comes along. All the while, the shiny new edifices planners are trying to build remain upon a foundation of sand consisting theoretical inconsistency, a lack of empirical support, and a lack of structural or institutional change that would cement the radical changes in urban governance that could actually bring about something like durable sustainability.

That's all I've got for now. I have some further thoughts also on the difference in political exposure and position within the greater economy between the two fields but I would love to hear from you all on this.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Why #MetrosDontShutDown is not only dumb but harmful

Brookings is running a social media publicity campaign under the #MetrosDontShutDown campaign to publicize their work on the rise of metropolitan areas and to highlight the kinds of policies they at Brookings seem to generally support. From the new parks construction agenda of Rahm Emanuel in Chicago to a STEM worker attraction project in Houston, Brookings is highlighting the ways cities work while the federal government fails and that metro areas are where "real" change gets done.


Forgive the profanity, but this campaign is emblematic of what's very wrong with the way popular urban commenters view cities/metro areas and their relationship with the rest of the country and world. Allow me the space to offer a few reasons why this kind of campaign is harmful and disingenuous to the point of being offensive.

The Literal Approach- Cities/Metros Do, in fact, Shut Down

I appreciate a pithy hashtag as much as the next twitter user, but the hashtag itself is just wrong. Metros do shut down. In fact, there are multiple metros right now that are functionally shut down. Here's a post from Governing magazine covering recent municipal bankruptcies that forced city governments to sell off assets, cut essential services, or, in some cases actually dissolve. Yes, there are the expected cities on that map like Detroit but a quick glance at the map shows that the problem of actual governments shut down because they are incapable of meeting their obligations is very much a real phenomenon that has afflicted cities of ALL sizes. 

Some metros(in case you don't want to click the link provided) that have field for bankruptcy or have defaulted in the past couple of years:
  • San Bernadino, CA (population: 210,100)
  • Stockton, CA (population: 289,926)
  • Detroit, MI (population: 738,223)
  • Harrisburg, PA (population: 49,499)
  • Central Falls, RI (population: 19,360)
That's a little over 1.3 million people that live in cities that cannot meet its obligations to its creditors, employees, or citizens. And that's within the last few years! 

What are you actually trying to say?

Something that puzzles me about this position that Katz and Brookings have been pushing pretty consistently for a few years now is the basic question of why? Metro areas really don't need much more positive press extolling their economic might, their cultural influence, or as pockets of progressive, or at least daring, policy opportunities. So, what does it gain you to try and constantly parallel metropolitan governance to federal governance?

There's a curious politics here and I'm not entirely sure what it is. Is this more a libertarian call for radical decentralization of power and authority from the federal government to metro areas? Is this a call for a resurrected system of independent city-states al la Italy before the unification? What's your damn point?

The Quiet Hypocrisy or Brookings is just being dishonest

Something interesting about the way the so-called "metro revolution" is framed often by Brookings and other urban boosters is that there's little recognition or a begrudging admission that our metro areas exist in a federalized system that means that different scales of political organization and governance are dependent upon every other scale. This means that while metro boosters sneer at congress (and it is deserving of sneers) they should also take a look at their and themselves and their dependence upon federal resources.

For example, did you know that 10% of NYC's revenue (h/t to @xenocryptsite for this link) collected for its budget is federal grants and aid?  All of our cities and metro areas, ESPECIALLY the largest metro areas depend on the federal government to provide multiple essential services or to offer money for the city to operate those services. This interdependence means that urban boosters like Brookings need to not celebrate the fact that, supposedly, metros don't shut down, but instead they should look at how the shutdown of the federal government exposes their own weaknesses and how metro areas can navigate those weaknesses until House republicans pull their heads out of their asses. 

And, of course, I gotta point out the obvious contradiction of metro boosters championing and comparing metro areas with federally supplied data. Literally, the primary means by which these folks can say that metro areas are even engaged in a revolution is because the federal government gives them the data necessary to make that assertion. City and metro agencies that deal with a lot of federal data from environmental departments, to public health agencies, to city planning departments ALL depend quite heavily on current federal data in order to do their work. The shutdown of the census website is many ways a disaster for these departments and for the people they serve. 

Austerity as Shutdown or "It's About the Governance, Stupid"

Something that a cursory reading about the "government shutdown"makes clear is that this isn't really a total shutdown of the government. "Essential services" and employees are still in operation, although who counts as essential is a heated topic. Law enforcement is still in full effect but the vast majority of employees at the EPA, CDC, and NIH are no longer working.

While this is a tragedy this is not a total government collapse or a shutdown. This is a particular form of austerity politics played out in real time. It's open knowledge that the republicans are using this as a negotiating chip for future debates on the debt-ceiling. The direct cutting of federal jobs, limiting environmental regulation, freezing scientific research, and hobbling the nation's public health agency just happens to coincide with traditional targets of conservative ire. They couldn't cut out the EPA through direct debate so they use the shutdown. This is a particular articulation of right-wing governance. We should examine the policies conservatives in congress have called for before and what they say openly they want with their current shenanigans. That's a much more subtle job than simply pointing to a shutdown and simply citing "gridlock". This isn't about paralysis, this is about a group that seeks to impose a particular set of austerity-based policies that involve cutting environmental regulation, limiting civil rights, and increasing social inequality by favoring social elites.

Why does this matter? Because we see our metro areas engage in the same kind of austerity politics that are hostile to environmental regulation and exacerbate social and economic inequity. This is where Brookings performs a neat trick of selectively highlighting policies that fit its narratives around metropolitan policy leadership, particularly around encouraging exports, while ignoring issues around gentrification, other forms of displacement, poverty, and the increasing social inequity that now largely define many of our urban areas. For example, one of the programs breathlessly reported by Brookings is a new parks funding program in Chicago. While it is an ambitious program this is also the same mayor that signed off on closing nearly 50 schools, primarily in poor African-American and Latino neighborhoods, against the protests of teachers, parents, and students in neighborhoods, that due to decades of racial and social segregation and disinvestment, where schools were vital community centers. It is telling that the policies highlighted deal only generally with "economic development" and don't mention pressing issues around social justice, housing affordability, jobs-first policies, poverty reduction etc...

So...even if metros did not shut down, though they do, we still need to recognize the selective, shitty politics that Brookings seems hell bent on co-signing, both at a national and metro level by engaging in these antics. And I, for one, am tired of it. 

Friday, September 27, 2013

What's Good for the Goose...Integrative Thought Gaps

Initially, this was going to be a response primarily aimed towards Kaid Benfield's new post on the Sustainable Cities Collective site (I also contribute there on occasion). But I realized my annoyance with this post rested upon a greater critique of "sustainability" (as popularly commented upon) and other topical areas that fall under sustainability oriented science. This idea? Integration.

I don't mean integration as popularly understood, at least in the US, but the idea of "integrative" thought. The idea that everything matters and effects everything else. It's an idea largely taken from systems science and, in many, many ways, is an incredible powerful idea and basis for analysis. This is especially so for those who are concerned about our environment. An integrative approach allows us to sketch the connections between our policies, like housing subsidies that encourage suburbanization, and link them to the negative environmental effects of sprawl. What's not to love?

Well, there's plenty to take issue with, and, of course, it comes down to a particular set of values and politics. Frankly, the integrative approach, as called upon by many environmental commentators, especially in relation to questions of urban development and planning, represent the interests of those whose interests are already well represented and catered to. This group is the ever mobile, amorphous "middle class family". This focus is in many ways a logical one. The older, experienced commentators of the mainstream environmental movement are middle aged family types who left the cities years ago and are excited at the opportunity to return. Even younger environmental activists crow about the return to the cities, the millenial preference for urban living, and the social dead spaces that are the suburbs.

And just as Kaid points out in his piece, good urban policy is, in fact, good for the environment. But "good" urban policy seems to be curiously built around fulfilling the desires of the relative newcomers to these urban spaces. And this is where the "sustainability" paradigm and integrative thinking meets its own politics and shows, at least to me, its remaining yawning gaps. Kaid's analysis is built upon cities making themselves attractive to those "with the choice of where to live". Of course, this leaves out a large proportion of the population, those with few, if any, choices on where to live. And it also performs the neat, historical trick of erasing DECADES of urban history and politics centered around those people who COULD NOT leave, who DID NOT have choice, and had to actually live through those periods of disinvestment and decline that Kaid reminds us many new urban residents observed from the confines of their suburban enclaves (myself included, I'm a suburbs kid).

And that's the point. Ultimately, urban policy among the sustainability cognoscenti has the same goal as it is for the political elites and growth machines in this city- bringing the middle class back, not creating a city that actually serves everyone. It's a city that ultimately serves them. And as I've written about time and time again on this space and in others, such policies fuel displacement or place what social and environmental disamenities that still exist on those folks the cities aren't interested in serving. This is how sustainability discourse can be used/co-opted/targeted/abused in the name of urban development at the expense of the poor or people of color.

Kaid's piece is an excellent example of how this still occurs. He simultaneously critiques the frivolousness of Park(ing) day as not really helping the environment but simultaneously extols the virtues of "free, sidewalk libraries" as a "community building" exercise. In light of disinvestment of public libraries in our cities, libraries that low income folks use to access any variety of services from access to the internet to community spaces, cheering these "sidewalk libraries" is just as laughable as claiming Park(ing) day is some revolutionary environmental transformative act. But those "sidewalk libraries" help to make areas more charming and do what Kaid and others like him really want, for middle class families to find cities attractive and move in. This is little different than any other attraction strategy and it's been a constant call for years by more urban oriented mainstream environmentalists. Improve city schools so families will return, improve transit so middle class residents can navigate cities better and so on and so forth. What these arguments never cover is that you should do these things anyway because there are THOUSANDS of families with kids in these cities that have dealt with god-awful schools, insufficient transit systems, degraded social safety nets, and no job opportunities for DECADES.

Ultimately, the call for urban policy to be centered around attracting these desirable families, incidentally the goal that cities have been pursuing in earnest since the 1950s, doesn't offer anything really new for those who have actually been in the cities this entire time. And this is the primary issue in a lot of urban sustainability policy. In trying to make itself palatable to existing power bases and structures it routinely ignores the ever-neglected "third leg" sustainability- the social. There's nothing "socially sustainable" about supporting policies that reproduce current discrimination, encourage displacement, and don't even attempt to address issues of poverty.

I'll end with this. I could not care less about carbon mitigation, sprawl, biodiversity or whatever ecocentric concern you may have if it means that people who like me still suffer disproportionately from poverty, premature death, displacement, and discrimination. Let's stop assuming that making a city attractive for the middle class in any way implies benefits for the least powerful or for those traditionally marginalized. To insist on that connection is too insist on a trickle down sustainability that we know does not work. What's "good for the environment" may not be all that good for me.