I’ve been working as an urban planner for more than twenty years, and I’ve devoted my career to the revitalization of cities. I view cities as one of humanity’s greatest achievements, and also view the way our nation turned our backs on that in the last 70 years will be judged negatively by future generations.
But today, by most measures, cities are at least on equal footing with the suburban landscape that proliferated for three generations. I should be happy, but I find myself dismayed and disillusioned.
Let’s look at the evidence of the shift. The New York Times recently lauded the reordering of our society and suggests this is a long term trend. In a statement tantamount to the U.S. Census’ declaration that the American frontier was “closed” in 1890, blogger Alex Steffen claimed “cities won” and that we’ve reached “peak gentrification”. Studies abound that city growth is now outpacing suburban growth. Spike Lee decries the changes taking place in his beloved Brooklyn, but the backlash was immense. San Francisco’s “Google Bus” controversy pits affluent tech employees against affordable housing activists. More and more, people are suggesting that the problem in our cities is a lack of housing supply — in Seattle, San Francisco, New York, and Chicago, among others.
Clearly, this is not the same built environment landscape that existed when I entered planning in the ’90s. I see our nation at an inflection point not unlike when global climate change was first seriously debated twenty years ago. Signs pointed to ongoing climate change; denialists sought to shift attention away from it, until overwhelming scientific evidence gathered over the ensuing two decades proved its existence. That’s where we are now with our back-to-the-city movement.
Yet I remain dismayed and disillusioned. Why? On the front lines of the movement, where gentrification is taking place, there seems to be an undercurrent among new city inhabitants. There is a sense that longtime inhabitants “had their chance” at revitalization and that their time is up.
I’m dismayed because cities did not “win” as much as the benefits to those who once shunned it now exceed the costs.
I’m dismayed because there are calls for more affordable housing units in upscale neighborhoods, even as lots languish in pockmarked neighborhoods just a few miles away.
I’m disillusioned because whether it’s Chicago, New York, or other cities, we’re establishing starkly divided two-tier metropolitan areas — one side full of opportunity, the other notable for its lack.
I’m dismayed because there seems to be an implied indictment of longtime city inhabitants, often minorities, of poor city stewardship, when the tools for revitalization were never fully available to them.
I’m disillusioned because this is the natural outcome of 75 years of de facto urban policy at the federal, state and local levels.
The nonprofit journalism outfit ProPublica produced a fascinating series over the last 18 months that shows that what we have today is not coincidental; it’s by design. The entire series is worthy of your attention, and has far more than I can quote in any coherent fashion. But, if I were to summarize our nation’s de facto urban policy since the Great Depression, particularly for America’s northern industrial cities, it would be this:
- Capital was squeezed from cities, by not providing insured mortgages for homes in city neighborhoods and blockbusting techniques.
- Transportation policy was designed to pull people from cities into suburbs, and destroyed intact urban neighborhoods.
- People were further displaced through federal urban renewal programs.
- Residential integration has been stymied at the federal level despite the 1968 Fair Housing Act, because enforcement of the Act has been nonexistent.