The Crisis of Urbanism is a Crisis of Americanism

Onward, willingly in the dark (masscommunications)

Onward, willingly in the dark (masscommunications)

This Friday in Kansas City at the KCADC annual meeting, two prominent urban scholars with opposing views of urbanism will meet for the first time on a single stage to debate the direction of modern urbanism.  Richard Florida and Joel Kotkin are both well known in the urban policy world and are also well known not to care for each other’s vision of a future America. 

At the heart of their disagreements, however, lies awareness that the current rebound of American cities is not producing the types of economic and social ‘rising-tide’ that most had hoped for.  Many people, including Mr. Florida, are referring to this as the “crisis of urbanism.” How to address the increasing economic inequality in cities while creating policies that combat climate change are the central questions facing urbanism and will likely be at the center of Friday’s debate.

Readers of this blog will recognize many of the concerns about our current form of urbanism.  I have written about a number of the misconceptions about the ‘urban renaissance’ including the fact that more Americans are still moving to suburbs rather than inner-urban cores.  I’ve written about how gentrification is just another form of sprawl – which itself is a form of white supremacy in its basic structure – that is increasing already-damaging segregation in our cities.  I’ve written about how our schizophrenic housing, transportation, and education policies are failing to provide enough options for families of different economic backgrounds across neighborhoods let alone regions.  I’ve also written about how the concentration of economic activity in a small segment of (largely coastal) cities is having a profoundly negative impact on social and economic mobility.

21st century urbanism should be a great economic engine that can simultaneously address social mobility and environmental sustainability, but it hasn’t proven to be so far. Both gentlemen have identified the same problems in their work, though through different lenses, and have different opinions as to why.

Richard Florida famously coined the term ‘creative classes’ in 2002 to identify how cities could become drivers of the modern economy by focusing on attracting younger, highly skilled workers.  The idea that urban amenities were more attractive to this worker base and thus more attractive to potential entrepreneurs and employers has largely proven to be true.  Over 50% of new job growth in the last 15 years has come from only 2.5% of American counties, all of them dense urban environments. However, as Mr. Florida acknowledges, this progress has come at a steep cost in the form of economic and social immobility for many less-educated workers.

Joel Kotkin has emerged as a contrarian not so much to this trend, but to its consequences. He has been skeptical of most peoples’ interest in living in dense cities and how many people can benefit from those types of jobs and policies. He has also been critical of policymakers’ attempts to ‘engineer’ this outcome and points to the increased inequalities of our cities as examples of the failure of this mindset.

Mr. Kotkin advocates for ‘localism’ which is a loosely-defined concept based around the rejection of centralized planning, whether it comes to zoning or other regulations of the built environment, with a focus of homeownership as a stabilizing civic force.  He thinks communities have a stronger record of creating policies tailored to its needs and has stronger incentive to address the issues facing it as opposed to a state or federal agency full of planners.

Given the history of urban planning, especially during the urban renewal period, Mr. Kotkin’s skepticism towards central planning has merit.  Many of the orthodoxies adopted during this period have had damaging, long-lasting consequences, particularly for minorities.  Attempts to unravel those past mistakes have also proven to be clumsy or ineffective.  Trusting the stakeholders in local communities to define how they want to live is an entirely reasonable, and essentially American, concept.

However, ‘localism’ has proven to be just as flawed.  First of all, the decentralized suburbs that tend to form the basis of Mr. Kotkin’s preferred environment were themselves products of a very concentrated, very centralized federal effort to plan the future of the country. There is no way to show objective evidence that people prefer the suburbs when they were subsidized strongly to do so for generations.  It’s unlikely that our country would like the way it does – largely suburban rather than urban or rural - if not for massive government intervention. This has permanently filtered our view of the built environment.

Second, as Mr. Kotkin has conceded, the keys to these developments and towns were handed over to local stakeholders that turned around and locked the door to many minorities and ‘undesirables’ that were likely to be renters.  As Rick Perlstein described in Nixonland, racial backlash amongst homeowners over integration (as opposed to small government ideology) was the organizing principle of the rightward lurch of the Republican Party.  How creating policies to address these injustices gets called “social engineering” while the original conscious discrimination does not is confounding.

The debate over urbanism is of course part of a larger debate over the nature of the state.  Should the state organize itself in such a way to maximize the utility for as many of its citizens as possible or in such a way as to have as minimal an impact on its citizens as possible? This debate is as old as America itself, even as it has taken on different shapes and forms over the years.

This debate is healthy in a republic and, if encouraged and supported by institutions trusted by the people, can produce stunning progress based on shared, if contested goals.  However, our current political polarization has undermined the ability to have this debate. In fact, it calls into question our very ability to address large, complex problems as a nation. 

Given the erosion of our politics and the corporatism that has filled the vacuum, it is hard to argue that our republic is healthy at all.  Nor is it easy to determine what either party believes to be a positive future for it. We've entered into what Adam Curtis has called a "HyperNormalization" where we know the system is broken, but do nothing to change it.

(With the 2016 Presidential Election a week away, the urban/rural polarization of politics has become alarmingly pronounced.  Seeing Mr. Florida and Mr. Kotkin comment on how this impacts urban policy will be a highlight of the debate on Friday. )

The stakes in the larger debate over urbanism are demonstrably higher now because of one simple issue: climate change. Of course, it isn’t a ‘simple’ issue in our political discourse, but it is as a practical matter.  Climate change is unquestionably real, unquestionably human-made, and unquestionably a threat to our long-term existence. The fact that this statement might be dismissed or criticized by some people is disheartening and dangerous.  It is also disingenuous, but that’s another discussion.

The development policies implemented over the 20th century in America have led the way in causing climate change and has served as an unfortunately tempting map for other industrialized and developing countries.  Our reliance on fossil fuel burning homes and cars, our preference for cheap, disposable goods and foods, our growth-focused consumerism in general have all severely damaged our planet as well as our societies and our bodies.

Now that we know the consequences of these related development policies, we must do everything we can to mitigate them and to reverse them for future generations.  Mr. Kotkin might criticize ‘centralized planning’, but he has recognized its necessity at other times in American history – the New Deal, WWII, and the Civil Rights era for example. To the extent that the US can even centrally plan to fight climate change, surely this is as important, if not more so?

Mr. Florida and Mr. Kotkin no doubt will have a respectful and lively debate centered on issues of urbanism.  But they will be addressing the very idea of living in America, whether they acknowledge it or not.  How we organize the built environment in the 21st century, knowing now the consequences of how we did so in the 20th century, will define what America is to become, how plentiful it will be, and how aspirational it will remain.