The Green New Deal needs a theory on cities, fast

Promising start tho (Time/Saul Loeb/AFP — Getty Images)

Promising start tho (Time/Saul Loeb/AFP — Getty Images)

Last week, Rep. Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Ed Markey introduced a resolution outlining the broad ambition of the Green New Deal. It’s a stunning document that calls for the full transformation of the American economy and society to a degree that our political system has seemed incapable of producing for decades. Given the urgency of the climate and inequality crises, this failure is untenable. The Green New Deal offers a very exciting beginning to how we solve these problems.

However, because we’re at the beginning, there are still a lot of unknowns. There is plenty of time to address what, for my money, is the biggest blindspot in the resolution: cities.

Right now the only implicit mention of cities is about public transportation and high-speed trains (which are both great). That misses the challenges and opportunities inherent to cities for fighting climate change and economic injustice. It needs a theory on cities, fast.

Cities will win or lose the future of our planet

One of the least appreciated stories of the late 20th century is the rapid transition of humans from rural or urban living. The global urban population went from 750 million in 1950 to over 4 billion today. More than 53% of humans live in cities, the first time in recorded history that more than half have done so. The UN expects it to increase to 68% by 2050, largely driven by growth in Africa and Asia (though demography is tricky to predict.)

The explosive growth of cities across the world is in part a reaction to the problems outlined in the Green New Deal — climate change and economic injustice. Climate change is making large swaths of rural inlands and coastlines unproductive and even uninhabitable, causing a mass exodus to cities that is destabilizing many regions.

The triple blow of neoliberalism — globalization, privatization, and deregulation have created an economic race to the bottom between countries that have left millions of urban dwellers in the US and internationally in poverty or near poverty. The disgust many Americans feel about the now cancelled Amazon HQ2 “contest” has been happening on a global scale for 40 years. As capital has been allowed to flow across borders, labor has not, which leaves a lot of people vulnerable and powerless.

It is safe to say that the future of our planet will be decided in cities. If we get the growth and development of cities right, we stand a good chance of addressing climate justice, economic justice, and social justice at a global scale. If we don’t get cities right, we’re screwed. It’s that simple.

The Green New Deal doesn’t do enough to address cities right now, so let’s fix that. This is something it and Congress can do a lot about. Allow me to pitch why cities are so important to the success of the Green Neal Deal going forward.

Cities promote density — which is the foundation of modern justice

We know that cars are terrible for the environment, but the bigger problem is that car-centric development is terrible for our health environmentally and socially. This development in 20th century America — commonly known as sprawl — was deeply racist and deeply unjust.

The government and private industry subsidized the exodus of white families to the suburbs, where they built generational wealth. The same forces blocked communities of color from doing so and instead exploited and/or neglected them in cities. This eighty-year government project is where the racial wealth and health gap comes from.

Zero-emission standards outlined in the GND solve direct pollution from cars, but they don’t solve this structural legacy of discrimination. There is simply no way to address climate change, economic justice, and social justice in the US without fundamentally rebooting the built environment towards density. With density comes greater accessibility, agency, and opportunity for all income-levels.

Luckily, we have existing infrastructure to accomplish this — in cities. The problem is that we don’t have enough of them. Few American cities have a high level of density or the means to achieve it right now. Even the ones that do, like New York City, have terrible accessibility and affordability challenges that make it hard to live there. As a result, the urban revival that has been talked about over the last 10 years is mostly bullshit. We’re still a sprawl nation.

For the Green New Deal to deliver in practical ways, it must focus on cities and demand that we abandon the 20th century car-centric, racist assumptions caked into our land-use policies. That means it must address everything from land-use to building codes that promote low-density and separate commercial and residential life at a city, neighborhood level, and individual building level.

We need to promote density in our cities and connected inner suburbs so we can create greater accessibility for the disabled, elderly, and families with young children. We can provide all income-levels, particularly historically marginalized communities, with more agency and opportunity when they are integrated into the built environment. And we can change the energy and transportation habits called for in the GND.

Cities rely on socialism to work and it does

Neoliberalism has pushed public ownership and engagement out of favor in America over the last forty years. They have been replaced by the much more individualistic ideas of corporate shareholder value and consumer identity. That’s a big reason why our physical infrastructure is crumbling, our institutions are fraying, and our civic culture is stratifying.

We need to make all three work to tackle climate change and inequality. Doing that requires abandoning neoliberalism and embracing a new commitment to shared, publicly controlled action. That means socialism — in the American tradition that has quietly and successfully worked in cities for over a century.

You might bring up the fire department or public transportation as good examples of socialism to your angry uncle at Thanksgiving, but cities themselves are the best example of socialism working in America. Public transportation and housing, public schools and hospitals, public libraries and parks — these are all deeply ingrained institutions that make cities possible for all residents at all levels of income and types of background. They were all the products of public-minding government in the Progressive and New Deal eras.

None of these institutions are in great shape today, but that’s not because of problems inherent to socialism. It’s because neoliberalism has crept into cities and attacked these institutions for multiple generations. A failing public institution is an opportunity for private profit. As bad as NYCHA or the MTA is today, the fact that they are even working at all is a testament to how well built and managed they were for so long — through strong public commitment and vision.

There is no way the GND can work unless we embrace public ownership and engagement at a renewed level. We can start be reviving American socialism that built these treasured public institutions in cities.

But cities have more people than power right now

The Constitution does not recognize cities and has a rural-bias that artificially limits the power of urban centers in American politics, both at the state and federal level. This is partly because cities are classified imperfectly in the US — overall more people live in surrounding suburbs than cities themselves, which doesn’t reflect the economic and cultural ties between them (and ignores the legacy of race-based decisions white enclaves made to secede from cities.) Given the problems facing the US and cities’ abilities to address them, this disconnect is untenable.

The GND must embrace Constitutional reforms that empower cities. This means adding representation in Congress (we need more reps and more states), abolishing the electoral college and, perhaps most radically, a realigning existing state boundaries to better incorporate natural urban geographies.

Some of these ideas sound outlandish and are probably unfeasible in the short-term, but they are also necessary to talk about. The GND is about injecting big thinking back into politics as much as it is about climate change. Introducing long overdue structural changes to our government to make cities as powerful as they should be must be a central pillar of that effort.

The Green New Deal is a work in progress. Critics can dismiss it for where it is right now, but activists are focusing on where it is going. And all roads lead to cities being its primary weapon against climate change and inequality.