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.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Moving from an "urban land ethic" to social justice

Steward Pickett has a blog post on humans and nature responding to the question,"How is nature critical to a 21st century urban ethic?" Pickett argues that there such an ethic does not yet exist and that we should be focused on building one. He cites voices like Leopold's andd Carson's as examples of the kinds of environmental ethical voices  absent from the social justice concerns of urban activists and scholars.  While he does mention the environmental justice movement, he largely dismisses it as being too ecologically naive or ignorant. His solution is a combined "urban-natural" ethic that can better guide decisions and policies for cities that are trying to survive and grow sustainably. Pickett, like many ecologically-oriented thinkers and activists, has reversed the causal chain of environmental degradation because he ignores political-economic and social relations'  role in mediating peoples' relationship with nature.

This inability to recognize the influence of these varied socio-political forces on our conceptions of nature explains why Pickett can blithely dismiss the nearly 40 years of environmental justice scholarship and activism, along with the radical critiques of political ecologists. Environmental justice and political ecology have drawn explicit links between the way society is structured, how nature is produced within these societal relations, and people relate to nature and natural processes. In other words, Pickett still places and artifical separation between the "social" and the "natural" that environmental justice scholars and political ecologists have long rejected. Their research has shown us that people, especially in urban areas, have a relationship with nature that is more complicated than a simple "land ethic" that comes from spending time in not-obviously modified natural spaces. Nature, especially in our cities, is simply more noticeably modified than out in our hinterlands and the institutions and practices that dictate our relationship with nature are more obvious. So, a love of green space, a particular charismatic species, or water quality concerns are more clearly linked to current governmental and non-governmental institutions, economics, and politics. Park land provision, for example, is less about neighborhoods not desiring green space or nature but is more intimately tied to historical decisions over placing amenities in our cities. Thus poorer, heavily minority, sections of citieis often have much less park space available because past administrations deliberately kept park space from the neighborhoods of undesireables. A neighborhood filled with landfills, incinerators, and other toxic land uses does not sigal that the residents are indifferent to the natural environment but is often a reflection of their lack of power in dictating where such toxic facilities can go in the first place.

Local activism, well covered in the environmental justice and political ecology literature, speaks to a fierce desire of people to live in a healthy environment Their form of environmental stewardship goes beyond a simple land ethic because they recognize that they live fully within their natural environment. It is a recognition of a more intimate, nested understanding of nature than is encapsulated by an urban land ethic. In this way, nature is produced by a particual set of socio-political relations even as those relations, in turn, exist in a greater ecosystem. There is a circularity of relations here, but the important thing to remember is that nature, the nature you and I experience every day, is intimately shaped by the social context in which we live. 

A recent article in The New York Times on the garment manufacturers association in Bangladesh is an excellent example of the nested, circiular relationship people have with nature everywhere, but especially in our cities.  The article focuses on the garment association's headquarters that sits in the middle of Dhaka's lake system. It is technically an illegal settlement that the association could build built due to a combination of official indifference and corruption. The result, a dramatically transformed local hydrological system that exacerbates flooding in a city that suffers terrible floods and cyclones on a nearly yearly basis. How could this happen? Do Dhaka residents, and Bangladeshi's, in general, simply not care about their envronment? No. The story is much more complex and is tied, ultimately, to Bangladesh's position in the global economy.

The garment trade has a near unbreakable grip on the reigns of power in Bangladesh and Dhaka. Bangladesh is a poor country and Dhaka is often viewed as a prototypical example of and ungovernable South Asian megacity dominated by slums and terribly polluted. Garment manfucaturing is the country's leading industry and the garment manufacturers association is a de facto government agency, responsible for tracking, managing, and regulating the production of garments in the country. In a word, they are nearly untouchable. The same power that allows this association to largely escape new regulation after horrific factory fires that kill hundreds of low income workers is the same power that allows them to build their headquarters in the middle of the sensitive wetland ecosystem that is vital to Dhaka's drainage. Additionally, the construction of that tower is tied to the way that Dhaka goes through its own increasing urbanization and growth. It all rests on the outsized power of a particular industry group in a poorer country that does not yet have the institutions in place to fully control it. In this way, we can see how flood control and water quality issues are intimately connected to global economic relationships and their links to local processes of urbanization that encourage the construction of ecologically destructive illegal settlements of a powerful trade group.

An "urban land ethic" as called for by Pickett does nothing to address these concerns or relegates it purely to a question of environmental justice concerns that need to be more explicitly connected to ecology. But what it misses is that our ecology is produced by these greater political economic contexts. It's this nested, or integrative, view of nature and society that environmental justice scholars and political ecologists have articulated for years. It is precisely this lack of an integrative view of nature and society that has befuddled "traditional" environmentalists and their organizations when they've decided to enter cities and find that their calls for a conservation-led ethic fall on deaf ears. This does not mean that we can't use a more sophisticated understanding of how ecology plays out in different ways in our urban areas. The rise of ecosystem services has opened up new ways to imagine and discuss the benefits we receive from our surrounding natural resources, both within and without the city. But we must also recognize that nature is not separate from the urban or from society. We don't need a new urban-natural ethic if we're serious about actually protecting our natural environment and valuing it in our cities. What we need is to recognize is that the forces of capitalism and racism that have shaped our (American) cities are the same ones that have shaped our relationships with nature. The question is not one of bringing about a new urban land ethic, but of taking social and economic justice seriously, because a city that respects everyone's humanity and that seeks to make space for everyone to live and prosper will also be more sensitive to its effects on the surrounding environment such that everyone can benefit from nature's bounty.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

From the Fugitive Slave Act to COINTELPRO: The Racial Surveillance State

I stole the "Racial Surveillance State" from one of my twitter compatriots, @davidforbes, concerning a recent dustup between Tim Wise and some of his followers regarding some ad hominem attacks he aimed at Glenn Greenwald and Edward Snowden. I don't have a link to the meltdown Wise had on his timeline, unfortunately, but I wanted to speak to the critique he clumsily attempted to make. Wise was trying to point out the hypocrisy of many white people,  white social media folks/bloggers and mainstream media organizations (primarily run and populated by white people) who express surprise and dismay over the discovery of the NSA's massive surveillance programs given the fact that people of color, particularly Blacks, have been subject to systematic, large scale surveillance for a LONG time (read: since before the founding of the US). But Wise got bogged down in his mistaken statements regarding Greenwald and got appropriately shouted down for it.

That being said, I am sympathetic to what Wise was trying to say, and I to am incredibly unimpressed with the reactions around these discoveries about the NSA. And I do think if there is not a hint of hypocrisy here, then there is at least a strong contradictory note to the current mania over surveillance that ignores the very long history of race-based surveillance in this country and our large cultural indifference to its existence. Beyond that, I would also argue that this racial surveillance state has not only hurt black people but has also been targeted at white people at the same time. In this way, we can theorize on the myriad ways that racism hurts both the oppressed and the oppressor (though the victimization is nowhere near even).

Succinctly, the US has engaged in a near-continuous operation of surveillance on multiple groups of people, particularly Black people, for the purpose of control and economic exploitation. It is only until fairly recently that we can MAYBE claim such efforts exist simply because Blacks are naturally considered suspicious in a country built on white supremacy. So...you know...progress!

Black Americans have been under surveillance and control since before the inception of the US as a country. Slavery required an extensive surveillance network centered on watching and controlling Black bodies, but something we forget is that slavery also required an entirely new set of social relations, practices, and differing levels of surveillance for ALL people, especially since Blackness was a state determined by ancestry as much as physical appearance (the infamous "One Drop" rule and varied mixed-race classifications are a testament to this). But the larger point is that Black Americans have always been surveilled, monitored, and extensively policed and that these systems were also unevenly applied on greater populations. This history should expose the ridiculousness of current mania over discovery of NSA surveillance as some manifestation of new, dark turn our federal government has with its citizens. This policy is simply an extension of surveillance practices that were traditionally aimed at the US's problematic populations, of whom Blacks are a founding and permanent member (honorable mentions go to the Irish and Jewish folks for making it out!).

Not recognizing this history is not only fairly sloppy and indicative of how white privilege makes the lived experience of non-white people invisible, but it also obscures the true structural foundations of surveillance, as practiced by the US government (and its states and local governments). Cries over the transformation of the US from a free country to a "police state" ignores the fact that for many people in this country they are born into a police state and are often killed by it while others can walk worry-free, snug in the tattered, threadbare blanket of liberty that is Whiteness in America.

Because you cannot talk about the history of surveillance in this country without talking about the slave codes. You cannot talk about a police state if you do not talk about how poor white men were seen as suspicious by well off planters and were often victimized and killed for the crime of being suspiciously friendly to slaves. You cannot talk about the creeping police state if you don't talk about the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 (yes it was highly contested but it was upheld by the Supreme Court and it still demanded Northern complicity and expanded Black surveillance formally).

Beyond that, such positions ignore the heavy-handed surveillance and social control required to make the Jim Crow South and heavily segregated North run efficiently. De jure and de facto segregation in housing and in industry is still about control over Black bodies and fortune. In the South it was viscerally apparent and open, but in the North we still had riots over Blacks demanding fair housing, "hate strikes" (check out Sugrue's Origins of the Urban Crisis for more detail) by White unionists who wanted to keep their shops and plants Whites only, and a police force designed to control and contain Blacks in specific parts of a city or county. The edifice of White supremacy, ultimately, is built upon the vigilance of individuals and institutions to always be aware of non-White, particularly Black, bodies.

Indifference towards police treatment of Black Americans is what emboldens police forces, like the NYPD, to engage in a mass surveillance program like Stop-and-Frisk or to monitor mosques in secret because their jobs have largely been based on managing and controlling non-White people for the better part of three centuries. Suspicion over Black American agency and calls for freedom set the entire workings of the federal government against civil rights activists and laid the foundation for full counter-intelligence and monitoring programs like the notorious COINTELPRO program aimed at disrupting the Black Panthers and other radical Black groups. Ultimately, this long suspicion and desire for control over Black Americans encourages the application of state and state-sanctioned violence when surveillance is not enough, ranging from the lynchings of the late 19th and 20th centuries, to the assassination of Fred Hampton and other Black radicals by the police in the '60s and '70s, to the hundreds of innocent Black people killed by police every year, to the hundreds of thousands of Black people incarcerated in this country.

This is why we cannot reasonably hope to attack or defeat surveillance or the "creeping" police state without looking at the history and current practices of unevenly applied surveillance and policing of our problematic populations.

Because if we were able to tear down all illicit NSA programs tomorrow and guarantee they wouldn't spy on US citizens, I, as a Black male, would still be part of the essential problematic of America. I would still be more likely to go to prison, be discriminated against at my job or potential choice of housing, and be more likely to be killed by a police officer for the egregious crime of being Black in America on a day ending in "y". And if you aren't talking about when talking about surveillance of US citizens then you're missing a good part of the issue and you'll come back a decade from now when a new program is leaked and still be surprised as to why these things continue to happen.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

The bikes were never about them...

The urbanist/planning internet world has been taken over by the recent activation of NYC's bikeshare program, CitiBike. Folks on twitter breathlessly report growing enrollment and already are asking if it is time to expand the system. Tweets, blog posts, and articles in traditional media have explored this new system in a staggering amount of ways, ranging from the snarkily celebratory, to considered technical critiques, to outright winguttery. More recently, though, a new discussion point concerning bike share programs, and cycling in general has arisen. The basic question being,"What do we do about poor people and people of color?"

The relationship between cycling and poor and minority communities is one that is simultaneously simple and complex. A recent report from the American League of Cyclists and the Sierra Club, covered in Atlantic Cities here, puts some numbers challenging the "racial stereotype" of cyclists in America. This report has further spurred more commentary, again from Atlantic Cities on how communities of color and low income communities are not well served by "cycling's egalitarian aspirations".

Bike share programs are the perfect targets for these columnists and thinkers to express their racial and class anxiety concerning the fraught combination of race and class that is cycling in the US. Commentators accurately point out that the lack of infrastructure is a major impediment to getting low income communities excited about cycling and recent attention paid to the continued "suburbanization of poverty" speaks to a major spatial mismatch between those communities that could be best helped by safe bicycling infrastructure and programs or services designed to help folks bike.

But where these commentators fall short is that they take an implicit stance that this situation has just "developed" naturally over time as opposed to being produced. So, the questions surrounding cycling and communities commonly perceived to be disinterested in cycling often end up being some distillation of,"How do we get poor/POC onto bikes/using [insert corporate bikeshare name]?" When the question really should be,"What do these communities need/want?"

And this is my point/theory...bicycling's growing popularity over the past decade or so is due to the fact that a preferred demographic has now pushed for it. I had an extended conversation on twitter the other day around this idea where I semi-jokingly said that the forces that destroyed black and poor neighborhoods with highway construction from the 40s to the 60s are the same ones now pushing bike lanes. There are clear differences, urban renewal was a federally funded program (though locally controlled and the identification of "blighted" areas was often a pure racial clearance project) and transparently "elite" driven. Highways to downtowns were built in a vain attempt to draw new suburban residents back into cities to shop and work. We know the general story, segregated suburbanization continued uninhibited for decades, exacerbating sprawl, accelerating the disinvestment of central cities and intensified ghettoization.

But isn't everything different now? Young, "creatives" flock to central cities to work in high-tech firms and to enjoy the culture of cities against the banality of suburban living. And they bike! How is this a bad thing? Well, it's not a bad thing. But we need to step back and ask whose interests are being served. The return to the city of these folks are largely based on long campaigns of displacement and gentrification. Neighborhoods that were left to rot for decades are now sites of "revitalization" and are seeing the rise of new commercial services, infrastructure, and attention from city officials. But these are also the same neighborhoods that have asked for better transit service, safer streets, better schools, and opportunities to develop community-serving businesses and generally have been ignored or underserved. And yes, even these neighborhoods before the influx of new gentrifiers had people who cycled, but it was never the goal of the city to support these small, poor cyclists with essential infrastructure or to even encourage the activity in poorer neighborhoods. We can blame some of this on a "car culture" and bicycle stigmatization, but as Grabar's piece correctly points out, these areas have always been underserved.

My point is this, the same forces that sought to serve elite interests and encourage redevelopment of center cities through highway construction are the same ones that now see bikes, and their attendant infrastructure, as a way to spur redevelopment and to attract a new preferred class. Any statement from a mayor or urbanist commentator that speaks about bike lanes as a way to attract young professionals is part of this plan. It's simply the new infrastructure du jour designed to steer capital into formerly disinvested areas. This does not mean that bike lanes cause gentrification or that you can't build bike infrastructure anywhere for fear of displacement. But we should take a step back and truly ask,"Who are we serving?" and, "Why are we building?" It is telling and sad that we can recognize the spatial switch of our regions, now with more wealthy centers and poorer suburbs (a great adaption of the European model), and yet still puzzle over a lack of enthusiasm on the part of poorer neighborhoods and individuals for bikes. People aren't stupid. They know that their cities rarely, if ever, do anything to actually help them and the last 15-20 years in many areas has seen nothing but a race for cities to accelerate displacement through selective investments in formerly disinvested neighborhoods. Bike lanes are just yet another indicator of a city building something for a potential inhabitant rather than the folks already there.

To conclude...ask yourself about any plan or project,"Who does this serve? Why are we doing it? Who wins? Who loses? Who pays for it?".

Monday, April 29, 2013

Kotkin stays trolling

Joel Kotkin has a new piece out in the Daily Beast repeating his now well-worn shtick on the unqualified preference for single-family homes for the majority of Americans and the defeat of tyrannical "retro-urbanists" who want to impose an urban lifestyle on innocent Americans. The thing with Kotkin is that I can't disagree with him on some really basic facts, but like Randal O'Toole (who's vociferous criticism of transit boondoggles like Portland's Streetcar are fairly spot on) he has such a visceral hatred for planning and the city represents that it drowns out decent points. And because he's so hell-bent on taking down folks like Richard Florida and the entire field of urban planning, he loves to stretch arguments out too far and basically turns into one of many trolls we find with an outsized voice. A few reasons why we should ignore 90% of what Kotkin ever says (while keeping the last 10%)...

Suburbs are growing but not all suburbs are the same...

Kotkin is entirely correct when he talks about consumer preferences for "suburban" living. Ignoring the idea that the "preference" for certain suburban living may be partially constructed due to marketing and that we have subsidized suburban construction while neglecting the upkeep of our central urban areas, it's not unreasonable to recognize that a lot of people would like a single-family home of their own. But this assumes a rather uniform style of suburban development.

Look, not all suburbs are the same, just as not all cities are the same. Urban oriented commentators don't pretend that Houston and New York are the same thing even though they're both large cities and central to their MSAs. We recognize that they have dramatically different forms but still call them "cities". Kotkin, like other "pro"-density urbanists are falling into a rhetorical trap here that seeks to impose one manner of development on a highly heterogeneous array of settlement patterns. The fact is that there is no clean break between the "suburb" and the "city". Yes, we've seen massive sprawl over the past 60 years but we are also seeing a return not only to the "city" but also to inner-ring suburbs and a densification of suburban areas through the development of edge cities and other areas. Frankly, the development of suburbia is much more complex than an undifferentiated spread of cul-de-sac fueled development.

We really don't try to house everyone in the city who'd like to be...

Probably the most egregious set of comments in the piece that best show Kotkin's disdain for planners and really for poorer folks, in general. Here's the quote:

 Suburbs have never been popular with the chattering classes, whose members tend to cluster in a     handful of denser, urban communities—and who tend to assume that place shapes behavior, so that if others are pushed to live in these communities they will also behave in a more enlightened fashion, like the chatterers. This is a fallacy with a long pedigree in planning circles, going back to the housing projects of the 1940s, which were built in no small part on the evidently absurd, and eventually discredited, assumption that if the poor had the same sort of housing stock as the rich, they would behave in the same ways.

Yes, planning has a dark history around environmental determinism and assuming physical planning tools will instantly solve social problems through either disciplining a population or demonstrating a better way of living through design. But this is a total mischaracterization of the push for greater access to housing in cities and pathologizes the poor in a way that is, frankly, indefensible. The fact is that since before the 1940s, going all the way to back to slum and tenement reform programs, planners, public health advocates, social workers, labor unions, and neighborhood groups have called for more housing in urban areas that was not hopelessly deteriorated and ill-maintained. That call still goes on today. The fact is that because this country doesn't actually have a coherent affordable housing policy the poor have consistently lived in older, more dilapidated housing stock. The recent observations around the "suburbanization of poverty" only reinforce this idea as poorer folks have moved into poorer, older inner ring suburbs who's housing stock is quickly approaching obsolescence.

The fact is that this country still does not make legitimate attempts to integrate its population with each other, preferring to let segregation by income and race be dominant factors in settlement patterns and relying on housing "filtering" to substitute for building good housing for all. It's dishonest for Kotkin to not even engage with this and its patently offensive that he'd sit there and just say that poor people can't have nice housing.


Kotkin adamantly refuses to address the question of the supply of housing because it adds a wrinkle of complexity and ambiguity to the argument and that is what are the primary motivations that push or pull people to the suburbs. Yes, it is widely recognized that construction of suburbs and even exurban areas is starting to recover and that we saw a massive bit of building before the recession. But why were builders building out in the suburbs at such high rates?

Consumer preference for suburban living is certainly a large part of this. But we must also simultaneously recognize that it is still incredibly difficult to build housing in urban areas. This is an area where I fall with many market-oriented urban planners and economists who decry density restrictions in many of our growing cities. There is a real push of potential development outside of our city borders because it is not possible for developers to make any money off of relatively low-density development in already built up areas. Combine that with a non-existent social housing policy and there are very few people building any units in our cities that are accessible to folks of all income classes. The result is that a lot of housing development goes to cheaper pastures and people follow that.

A similar idea must be broached when we discuss "job sprawl". Kotkin, correctly so, points out that job growth has been and continues to grow outward and that people are moving to follow, but the same questions regarding housing supply are open here. Job sprawl has been a constant thing in American cities for nearly 70 years. Detroit had to deal with the suburbanization of industry back in the 1940s and was never able to adequately recover its lost central city industrial sites, much to the chagrin of its planners. But the question here, again, is who leads this? In the case of Detroit, at least, according to "Redevelopment and Race" by June Manning Thomas, industry lead the way in suburbanization and residential suburbs grew up in response to industrial decentralization. Frankly, the dynamics of regional expansion are never so neat as to simply ascribe consumer residential preference as the primary factor. We see waves of decentralization, some industry led, then residential, then industry...there are cycles and historical contexts to suburbanization that call into question the assumptions we have about the preference for them (on both sides of this "debate").

"Lifestyle" and the kid question...

My friend and colleague, @tressiemcphd, made a sharp observation about this Kotkin piece. She said that probably the biggest blindspot urbanists have is that kids change everything. Her point, for my urbanist colleagues who may not see it, is that even if we take all of the celebratory commentary of the "return to the city" and the preference for urban living by millenials, that all changes when these millenials reproduce.Let's be real for a second....people want the best for their kids. Because people want the best for their kids they will often do their utmost to provide that, including moving from cities to the 'burbs. The point is not to question the values of these folks but to see why they feel it is necessary to move out of our cities. Some things we can't really do much about, like guaranteeing a big yard for everyone in the central city. We simply don't have the space and the vast majority of folks couldn't afford a house with such an amenity in most cities anyway. But a major reason why people do move is the schools and perception of safety. These are things city-leaders can, and admittedly are trying, to address. But uncritical urbanists will continue to be mystified by demographic and economic trends that show a robust demand for increasingly segregated suburbs if they don't start seriously examining the schools.

The trick here is to actually try to provide folks with the services necessary for them to live and grow without them leaving. It's especially grating that this concern is now being taken up by the usually design and development-oriented urbanist set because they don't want to lose the precious millenial population they believe makes up their cities while ignoring the millions of poor and working class, largely minority, communities that have clamored for better schools for years. All of this is to say that Kotkin is right to point out lifestyle preferences as driving residential choices, but we should be seriously asking ourselves what people find in some suburbs as opposed to central cities or denser areas of our metros?

To Conclude: On the one hand...

All of this space has been to try and say that, as with most things involving human settlement, the "truth" is much more complicated than either Kotkin or some non-reflective urbanists would have us believe. Last year I wrote a piece warning people that the vaunted "Death of Sprawl" was grossly immature and largely based on folks not moving as much due to the economic recession and a misunderstanding of the census designation of "urban areas". My point then is the same way I have now except I now aim it both at doctrinaire urbanists and trolls like Kotkin. And that is always to show me the data and give me a good theory to help explain it. Though Kotkin mocks many urbanist commentators, he suffers from the same weakness they do, creating a convenient narrative from cherry-picked data. The competing narratives are basically the same in that they both ascribe a near-universal qualitative preference for either city-living or suburban-living. Neither theory is correct or even widely applicable in most cases.

So, on the one hand, Kotkin is a troll. On the other hand, he makes some good points that planners and some urbanists absolutely have to think about. But on the other-other hand, both sides tend to ignore or gloss over the heterogeneity of our urban areas and both sides often don't try to parse out the push and pull factors that operate differently in many of our regions. This "debate" could be more fruitful if everyone were just more honest and recognized not only the messiness of the real world, but stopped trying to fit one solution onto everyone else. Suburbia is not the answer. But neither is the "city". I am close to rejecting the entire discussion because we have drawn a too-sharp, false distinction between the two that not only limits our own imagination on how to deal with our increasingly unruly regions, but it also does not accurately reflect the current dynamism and differentiation that exists in our metro regions.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Don't Weep for Richard Florida

I was not going to write on the recent spate of critical articles targeting Richard Florida and his creative class theory/evangelism because, frankly, the arguments are not very compelling and they recycle (poorly) the critiques of economic geographers and planning scholars from the early 2000s. I have always been clear on my distaste for Florida's creative class thesis and its perverse politics, but a recent article at Rustwire has forced me to respond.

The gist of the Rustwire post is that current attacks on Florida are overblown for the following reasons:

1. Florida never claimed to be a poverty researcher therefore we should not attack his theory if it doesn't alleviate poverty.

2. There is only one recent study that challenges the benefits of creative class development and it does not focus on the other potential benefits of "talent agglomeration" on the poor and that the empirical evidence on “talent agglomeration” is well supported.

3. Economic development policy was largely restricted to ineffective industrial attraction schemes and Florida changed the game up (a policy disruptive or paradigm shifting argument)

4. Florida's detractors are playing a cynical "class resentment" game

5. Florida's ideas are based on the benign wish to make cities "inviting" places to live.

I shall try to respond to these reasons in a relatively concise fashion in order to show why these reasons are not only foolish, but just an apologia for current urban development trends that many scholars and commenters, including yours truly on this blog and in other outlets, have critiqued harshly for exacerbating the worst excesses of American social inequity.

Florida never claimed to be a poverty researcher...

This may be the weakest argument of the list because it is the least accurate and relevant. I say least accurate because it would be rude to call it dishonest. Yes, if we take Richard Florida's direct quotes as gospel, then MAYBE you can claim that he has never positioned himself as a “poverty researcher” but this would favor a narrow set of statements against a decade of actions that clearly demonstrate the opposite.

Florida has spent the better part of a decade traveling around the country, and the world, advising city leaders on the benefits of a “talent attraction” strategy. A unique sub-class of cities he's visited, at least in the US? Declining Rust Belt cities. This 2009 article from the American Prospect gives only a very small sample of cities Florida advised: Baltimore, Youngstown, Cleveland, Toledo, Des Moines, Roanoke etc...Florida may not sell himself as a “poverty researcher” but many of the cities that he has consulted, at great personal profit, have huge impoverished populations and economic development policy is poverty alleviation policy. Claiming Florida never willingly took on the formal title is absurd on the face of it. You do not go to Youngstown or comment on Detroit or any number of smaller, declining cities and pretend that you aren't talking about poverty because these cities are largely defined by entrenched poverty.

 Evidence on “Talent Agglomeration” and its Benefits

This critique is more subtle, and potentially legitimate, but it rests upon an ignorance of the body of work that not only precedes Florida's creative class thesis (itself a repackaging of human capital economic theory) but the large body of theoretical and empirical work developed in the past decade that support and challenge Florida's conclusions. This is largely academic, but this is an example where academic arguments and social science processes are incredibly important because Florida's approach to urban policy is the dominant policy framing of the day.

Empirically there is still an open question as to whether Florida's creative class thesis is correct (some recent papers here, here, and here demonstrate the rather mixed results of the thesis). I'm gonna get a little in the weeds here but only to demonstrate that the evidence for the creative class thesis is decidedly mixed and that part of the reason for the mixed results is that the creative class is a sub-theory of human capital theory and is not well operationalized. Simply put, human capital theory states that long term economic growth is possible thanks to the increasing returns of scale due to human knowledge. Knowledge is unique in that is inexhaustible and can combined and recombined in an infinite array. Policies built around human capital theory include subsidies for R&D, subsidizing eduation for city or regional residents, or even technological outreach programs and extension programs.

Florida goes beyond the basic human growth theory and traditional policy programs built around human capital theory. His defintion of “creatives” as those who add economic value to a city is a large step from human capital theory and he goes even further by focusing upon a set of occupations he dubs “creative” as essential to economic growth. Human capital theory is relatively agnostic on certain occupations and certainly does not posit direct growth measures to a specific set of occupations or attempts to link growth due to “creativity”. In addition, Florida also posits that the co-location of “creatives” is adequate to enable economic growth. This differs from other innovation or human capital theories that focus upon the interplay of the co-location of educated people and institutional forms necessary to convert their ideas into products. This is a little nitpicky, but it is important because it frames the decisions city leaders make and the infrastructure they decide to invest in. Basically, the creative class is an extension (some would say an overly ambitious extension) of human capital theory but it is empirically ambiguous due to the fact that there is a large overlap between variables used to measure traditional human capital variables and those that measure the creative class. This is an important point because the policy implications between following a more traditional human capital approach and a creative attraction approach are drastically different. Again, and I can't repeat this enough, human capital theory is a largely recognized and tested theoretical approach but the evidence for economic growth due to the co-location of “creatives” and basic policy around attracting these creatives through forming a portfolio of attractive urban amenities is not remotely settled. (For more on this please read this excellent review by Scott and Storper).

 Economic Development was only concerned with industrial attraction before Florida showed us the light

This observation is one that is simply incorrect. Economic development policy has indeed by dominated by industrial attraction (and it still goes on, much to my chagrin) but industrial attraction and convention center construction are considered pretty old school economic development techniques that practicing economic developers. I won't go into deep detail on the history of economic development but there is an absolutely essential paper on by Bradshaw and Blakely. This paper (from 1999, by the way) talked about current economic development policy, at the time, being focused not on industrial attraction but the use of public-private partnerships, industrial clusters, human resources and human capital strategies, and is characterized by state governments moving away from expensive incentive programs and focusing uponbuilding strategic advantages within industrial clusters. This is a paper from 1999 and shows economic development practice, even then, was dynamic, imaginative and had moved beyond industry and convention center attraction as a primary form of economic development policy. Florida certainly helped to switch the economic development game up but to say economic development policy was still primarily promoting policies that were largely sidelined over a decade ago is either incredibly sloppy or dishonest.


Frankly, this argument is pure neoliberal, trickled-down economics. Thirty years of local, state and federal policies that have favored the interests of economic and political elites have shown us that simply assuming that the success of one group will help others is wrong. Amenity-based development, “placemaking” projects, the varied accoutrements of the sustainable city like farmers markets and bike infrastructure, the intense redevelopment of central cities, the conversion of industrial land, and any other array of city or regional policy decisions and priorities are NOT value neutral or apolitical and have a disparate impact on city populations.. Let me repeat: city and regional policy decisions and priorities are NOT value neutral or apolitical and have a disparate impact on city populations. The way many of these policies have been rolled out in American cities have seeded and exacerbated displacement, gentrification, housing affordability crises, and increased income inequality. To say that the interests of “creatives” and the poor or communities of color implies an overlap that in many cities simply does not exist. There are legitimate trad off decisions and real winners and losers when it comes to policy and planning decisions and we should honestly interrogate the disparate impacts of amenity-based planning strategies instead of effacing the real conflicts and decisions that undergird creative class policy.

 He wants livable cities, though!

This argument is a good intentions argument. I'll be honest, I don't care if Richard Florida wants livable cities. If his concept of the livable city is synonomous with the creative city, then he can have it. Livability, like his own version of creativity, are not immune from political challenge or analytical critique. If livability is dependent upon the displacement of poor people and communities of color, then I will fight livability as it is presented with every fiber of my being and any planner or urbanist who is concered with social justice should be skeptical of livability discourse claims that do not deal with poverty or social inequality explicitly. The risk of perpetuating already incredibly unequal social relations is simply to great.

 Don't weep...

Richard Florida is still one of the most influential urban thinkers in the world. Whether you agree with his theories and policy recommendations or not, his influence is absolutely undeniable. He dramatically changed how planners and economic developers plan and set policy and has made an ungodly amount of money from consulting, writing multiple bestsellers, and his own research center at the University of Toronto. This current “backlash” may be unfair or biased in some instances (Kotkin's critique is based on a visceral hatred of cities and astrong aversion to planning), but Florida's work needs to be tested and critiqued. The empirical weakness of his conclusions should be shouted from the rooftops because planners set their policies based on unfounded claims. The political questions around creative class planning should be challenged because they have helped to accelerate displacement of poor communities around the country and shift city government priorities away from poverty alleviation to amenity development. So, don't weep for Richard Florida. Ask wy there's such a backlash in the first place.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Austerity Planning? Land Sell-Off in NYC

A recent article in the New York Times caught my eye. The article describes the conversion of a series of public-properties, primarily old libraries and schools, into new residential towers that would include replacement space for the lost civic institutions. I don't wish to get into the disruption of students' lives or the fact that existing neighborhoods will be without convenient library services, in some cases, for multiple years. These are quite serious impacts and should not be ignored, but there are many better education and library writers who could probably do justice to those topics.

What I am intrigued about is the approach certain offices in the city are taking-selling city land to the highest bidder for repair or renovation costs. There are a LOT of overlapping factors here that I have neither the time not the skill to fully delve into but I think we should question a second as to why it is necessary for these sites to be sold. For example, the schools that are being sold off are managed by the Educational Construction Fund. The Fund, since the 1960s, has been tasked with developing new school space through mixed-use development to help support construction. The Fund has done this primarily through the issuing of bonds and leasing the land to developers. The Fund has a variety of projects listed on its page, although many seem to be older than ten years old.

I think the next question to be made here, at least in the case of Fund, is why the desire to sell-off these properties? This especially confusing when the city's Housing Authority is leasing land on existing parking lots to new residential developers to the tune of $60 million.

The city is approaching this question of redevelopment, renovation, and amenity provision in a variety of ways, but I am incredibly curious as to why the Fund, an organization with a history of leasing and bond management, has decided to sell off this land, thus losing any claim to future gains land value and control? I could not find details on the contracts between the Fund and these developers, but I am always concerned with the sell-off of public amenities, especially during times of fiscal distress/austerity. It's quite clear that NYC's libraries and schools are hurting for revenue, but the sell off of precious assets to act as one-time payments does absolutely nothing to fix the structural funding gap that exists. Since the late 1970s/early 1980s the sell off of public assets has been a central strategy that cities and nations have made in the face of structural adjustment programs imposed by financial institutions like the WorldBank. Of course, the most famous example in the US may have been Ford's mythical declaration to New York City to "Drop Dead" in 1975 when NYC was on the verge of defaulting. While Ford eventually got Congress to approve a set of federal loans to the city, the repayment of those loans involved a series of painful cuts to city services including the imposition of fees on what was once the free CUNY system. We see a similar set of events now in Detroit with the imposition of a state emergency manager to tame the city's debt. The expectation, of course, being that Detroit will see even more cuts on worker pay, available city services like fire and police, and the potential sell-off of public assets.

This is not to defend the mismanagement of city finances, but to point out that varied financial crises both domestic and abroad have been used as a way for the private sector to extract huge gains at the expense of the public sector. We should not question the efforts of cities to raise more funds to meet their financial and social obligations but we should look at the policies that cities choose to get there. Selling off land, even with a promise to rebuild the library, should be seriously analysed, especially given the strong history and ability of the city to lease land to interested developers and more fully recoup gains on land redevelopment.

The overriding question in all of this should be what is the actual problem these varied city agencies are trying to solve? If the city feels its landholdings are legitimately bloated, then selling some properties for a high return can be a solid strategy. But in the case of a persistent, structural funding gap, like in the case of the libraries and schools, it is irrational to sell off assets as a primary means of funding. What they need is a consistent stream of funding that will cover renovations and repairs and that can only be handled through policy that increases funding in order to cover capital costs or it could be done through a longer-term leasing arrangement that the schools and libraries could draw from and set up vehicles for consistent capital cost financing.

I am not privy to the political and financial dealings of the varied New York City agencies, but this current path that the schools and libraries are on seems terribly short-sighted. Only time will tell us whether this strategy will help make these agencies more solvent and support the surrounding communities.