Richard Florida

Children Show That The Urban Revival Never Happened

Little help here? (footballfoodandmotherhood)

Little help here? (footballfoodandmotherhood)

 

Richard Florida wrote an article on Friday in the New York Times declaring that the Urban Revival was over. He points to data showing that the suburbs around cities are actually growing faster and that most young people polled still prefer to live in single-family homes with yards. The larger truth is much simpler: an urban revival never really happened in America. You only need to look at children to see why.

Much of the narrative about the urban revival over the last 20 years focused on the “Creative Classes” that Mr. Florida coined in 2002. The term described the type of jobs (mostly tech-forward, service-based) and workers (mostly young and highly educated) fueling growth in (mostly major) cities. This lens, as Mr. Florida himself has pointed out, was less a complete picture of modern urbanism and more of a snapshot of emerging economic trends. However, media coverage tended to miss this nuance. As a result, “urban revival” has become a mostly bullshit catchall.

This was never a story about a revival of urbanism. As much as city planners praised this rediscovered appreciation for cities and helped promote trendy concepts like bike lanes, as much as developers internalized this fetish and marketed it, and as much as some people sincerely enjoy living in dense neighborhoods, nothing about our country has embraced urbanism as a way of life.

Our country remains anti-urban. It remains pathologically geared towards car ownership and single-family homeownership. These two pillars are deeply embedded in our cultural DNA, our built environment, our tax code, and our politics. Nothing about the “urban revival” has challenged this in a meaningful way. And it was never intended to.

This brings me back to children. If the urban revival was anything more than a development fad, fueled by short-term profit more than long-term planning, we would have embraced policy changes that increased the many natural advantages that urbanism has for raising children. We, or I should say market-driven public policy, have not done that.

1. Did it build more housing for families?

It is obvious and well documented that most new construction in city centers has been on the high end of the market targeted for wealthy residents (or foreign investors who don’t live there). That type of housing doesn’t benefit the majority of renters and is certainly not intended for most families. It was mostly intended for speculators.

Last year, NYC built 16,000 new housing units, the vast majority of which are luxury studios, 1-bedrooms, or 2-bedrooms. This is true every year. Affordable units, let alone three and four bedroom apartments are rare at any price-point in the current market (to rent or to buy), which means families either have to double-up or cycle out of the city. When number of kids you have has become a status symbol in the city, something is wrong.

2. Did it provide more family-related services?

Many of these new developments are in parts of cities that were not traditionally residential neighborhoods. This has meant that there are limited services and amenities for families close by. Most new buildings have doormen, fancy gyms, and skydecks — how many have playrooms or daycare centers? Amenities are titled away from families.

Older residential neighborhoods also don’t have enough family-related services, public or private. It is estimated that as many as 61% of New Yorkers live in what is called a “childcare desert” with limited or no access to childcare services. An entire generation of economic development, has precluded families, which disproportionately impacts lower-income and single-parent households.

3. Did it create jobs that work for parents?

For every creative-classy job that pays well, there are more service jobs that don’t, which are brutal on parents. Just this week, Richard Florida writes that 45% of the American work force — 65 million people — are in service jobs. In addition to the low pay, no benefits, and limited growth potential, these jobs also generally lack predictable scheduling and paid time off — which makes it that much harder to secure childcare or to be there for a sick child (or to get sick yourself). Without improving the lives of service workers on a grand scale, many of these people simply can’t afford to have kids or their kids suffer from their absence.

It is also important to understand that our modern economic “hustle culture” has caused women’s participation in the labor market to decline since the 1990s, which is very bad. At most levels of the labor ladder, we are working more for less, with less protections and accommodations. Lyft proudly touted a pregnant driver picking up a passenger while on the way to give labor — like it was a good thing. This is batshit crazy, terrible for our society, and — as a far second — terrible for our economy. We have designed an economy that priorities the shareholder over the family and it is damaging our social and civil health.

4. Did it commit to public education?

The public education system in the US is one of our greatest achievements. Despite the apocalyptic language in many circles, it still is. However, the very concept of public education and local commitment to it has been under constant threat during this age of development. Whether its disaster capitalism in New Orleans post-Katrina, or education Secretary Besty DeVos in DC, the idea of “school choice” has ravaged the larger civic ideals taught in and expressed through our public schools that are the bedrock of our democracy.

Many urban school systems are struggling; in NYC 1 in 7 public school students will be homeless at some point in the next year. Blaming schools and teachers for that is insane. But when systems are dealing with these types of issues, it makes it unlikely that young creatives will stick around a neighborhood when they want to have kids. Those that can will move to the suburbs, enroll kids in charters or private schools, or fight desperately for the few spaces in “good” public schools. Those that can’t leave will find fewer resources and allies left to help teachers and parents support their schools. Addressing the larger systemic issues hurting public schools becomes impossible.

5. Did it invest in public transportation?

Schlepping kids around is hard enough with a mini-van and ample parking. It is nearly impossible even on the top public transportation systems. As the Summer of Hell ends (Winter is Coming, though), we have no illusions that NYC is near the top. Part of this is the age of the system, but lots of it is the lack of commitment to long-term maintenance. Making our subways and buses more efficient helps everyone, but when even getting back to a baseline of reliability is a challenge, how can we plan system-wide upgrades to be friendlier for families with young children?

Public transportation should be one of the biggest assets to a family, sparing them prohibitive transportation costs and making it easier and quicker to get to places. It should also make it easier for school-aged children to be able to travel alone. But most cities have done little to invest in their systems (don’t get me started on streetcars.) 

At least in NYC we have an extensive network, as flawed as it is. But we (until recently) missed the opportunity to have highly lucrative development pay in to improve our public transportation.

Urbanism is a set of values, not wonky prescriptions. It is about creating an inclusive, shared identity as much as it is about dense development. It is about guaranteeing access to ideas and resources as much as parks and transportation. It is a commitment to public life first and private gain second. I firmly believe urbanism is a better way to organize our society and economy — at any age, in any type of household.

But we have not actually embraced those values over the last 20 years. As much as glossy design, food halls, and bike lanes might give cities a veneer of urbanism, the underlying reality of development is still mired in an isolating, individualistic, and profit-seeking ideology that favors the suburbs. That’s where we’re supposed to raise kids, unaccountably. 

Perhaps we should welcome Mr. Florida’s pronouncement that this urban revival is over. The missed opportunity of this period is staggering and the consequences are alarming. We must fight for a true urbanism to come next.

5 Reasons We Need More Federal Intervention in Housing

The United Cities of America (wired via garrettdashnelson)

The United Cities of America (wired via garrettdashnelson)

This past week, Urban Institute released a report on the dire state of the affordable housing crisis.  Put simply, every county in the country has a significant shortage of affordable rental housing.  Every. Single. County. This report focuses on extremely low-income (ELI) households (which make 30% of average median income) and shows that there are only 21 market-rate units for every 100 ELI renter households. The number climbs to 46 units with federal programs.  On it’s own, this report shows why federal intervention in housing is so important to this population, but taken in a broader context, it shows why we need to re-embrace the type of large-scale federal intervention that we saw from the 1930s-1960s. Here are five reasons.

1. Localism Makes Things Worse

“Localism” is a call for more local autonomy that acknowledges the deep geographical divisions that have paralyzed our federal government. Frenemies Richard Florida and Joel Kotkin have come together to make a compelling argument for why the only way to overcome this is to essentially admit defeat, avoid relying on the federal government, and let local preferences control tax dollars/policy. 

As I explained in last week’s blog, though both scholars, coming from different ideological perspectives, present solid reasons for supporting this idea, there are two practical problems that would potentially make the housing crisis worse.

First, we already have localism and it stinks.  As Matthew Yglesias pointed out recently about Palo Alto, localized planning policy has skewed political outcomes for one constituency – the connected present – at the expense of the non-connected present (and the future). These local groups in these select economic areas are suffocating the entire national economy. Right now.

Second, the history of NYC before the dawn of federal intervention in the 1930s shows that in many cases, even at the local level, the interests of “financial power” and “voting power” rarely align and at best create a corrupt status quo that serves only the leaders of each faction.  We wouldn’t likely see a return to political machines, but can we assume that contemporary “financial power” and “voting power” have similar political goals? Or can they find political strategies that both sides buy into?

Whether its local planning policies that prevent growth or deeply divided local political interests, our current reliance on localism is counterproductive. Removing the small federal power that exists now would only make these issues worse. We need to supersede these local interests as a nation.

2. Regionalism Has Too Many Boundaries

A counter-argument presented to localism is regionalism.  Amy Liu wrote about several areas – Chicago, Denver, and Seattle – where local municipalities are working together, across city-lines, to create equitable development.  Though these examples are encouraging, they show the larger political conundrum of planning this way.

Regions, let alone cities, are not recognized in the Constitution, which poses fundamental challenges to cooperation and coordination at the sub-state level. You only need to look at the dysfunction in North Carolina over Charlotte’s bathroom policy to show that the partisan divisions at the federal level are just as toxic, if not more so, at the state level. Cities and regions are not powerful enough to overcome bad state-level planning.

Even worse, NYC shows the challenge of interstate coordination.  Hundreds of thousands of commuters are stuck in perma-hell over the deteriorating train tunnels under the Hudson River, partly because NY and NJ have bickered about who pays for what. Forget Bridgegate, Governor Chris Christie's legacy will be scandalized for canceling ARC.

State boundaries in many cases do not reflect the larger economic and political cohesion of a commuter-shed and instead have the affect of pitting residents of the same region against each other or putting residents in one state under the whims of politicians in another. The only recognized power to overcome these obstacles – to get cities, states, and regions to work together - is the federal government.

3. There Already is Intervention - Just the Wrong Kind

The US is a majority suburban, majority homeowner society.  Why? Because the government decided that we should be. More specifically, the US federal government decided to promote white homeownership and car ownership as the bedrocks of the post-war American economy by building free highways, underwriting mortgages, and segregating neighborhoods.

There is nothing organic or market-driven about how our communities are organized in America.  These were political choices that tipped the scales decidedly towards certain outcomes that were not pre-destined and were certainly not universally accessible.

Over the last 80 years, the US government has spent trillions of dollars subsidizing the suburban expansion of our country.  Even today, 60% of government spending on housing (over $100b) goes to subsidizing homes for wealthy Americans.  We don’t think of this as a ‘handout’ in the classic sense, but it absolutely is and it has had immeasurable consequences to our society.

If we acknowledge that the federal government has always played a central role in our economy, we can get over the childish ideologies that continue to harm our country.  Instead, we can focus on how we want the government to intervene.

Do we really want to spend billions of dollars subsiding the homes of wealthy Americans when we can spend a fraction of that on providing guaranteed, affordable housing to all vulnerable citizens? This isn’t a crazy, ideological question.  It’s a value judgment first and foremost, but it also makes more economic sense on top of that.

If the economy is moving towards innovative jobs clustered in urban areas, we need to build more housing in those communities to encourage spillover affects for all workers. The federal government has picked housing winners for 80 years - we just need it to pick different ones now.

4. Late Capitalism is Eroding Our Civil Society

Late capitalism is an increasingly mainstream term to describe the inevitability of the economic and political malaise we have been in (depending on how you measure it) for decades.  We are in a sustained period of inequality, inopportunity, and insecurity that shows, demonstrably, that something is deeply wrong with our economy and the politics organizing it. The person who ignores this is a fool and the person who defends it is a villain.

Just as I outlined in the previous section, this is no accident.  The federal government over the last 40 years has tilted the economic playing field towards stateless globalization, corporatist monopoly, and sanctioned corruption. The logical conclusion of this unabated trend is social collapse. Maybe that sounds hyperbolic, but the populism seen on both ends of the political spectrum in the US and across much of the western world is a direct response to late capitalism and another step towards this frightening possibility. How (and if) this anger can be channeled constructively is the great political question of our time.

However, as we’ve seen during other eras of extreme political and financial inequality, that anger can be channeled positively at the federal level.  The legislation passed during the Progressive Era, the New Deal, and the Great Society were all far-reaching attempts to address massive, system-level problems (obviously with uneven results.)  Just as federal policies are the cause of many of these current problems, they can and must be the solution too.

5. It’s the Environment, Stupid

All of this comes back to the ghost at the feast: climate change.  Sorry Bret Stephens, but there is no debate about the danger this poses to our society.  Sure, scientists don’t know exactly how, where, or when these changes will manifest as an existential threat, but it’s not an academic question.  We are experiencing this all over the world right now.

The simple, unsexy truth is that our development history – sprawl – has been terrible for the environment overall and terrible for the health of many people specifically.  (One area where HUD Secretary Ben Carson has shown some potential is this connection between housing and health.)

Creating denser communities where housing and jobs are walkable and connected to public transit isn’t some liberal fantasy for its own sake.  It’s a proven form of addressing inequalities and inefficiencies harming our environment and our collective health. 

Localism and regionalism can’t address the dangers of climate change if some localities “want” to maintain sprawl.  Decades of federal intervention in homeownership and car ownership that cause climate change can’t naturally be reversed. The ills of late capitalism that have damaged the physical and political health of our society won’t fix themselves.

The federal government is the only entity strong enough and ultimately legitimate enough to adequately address all of these problems.  Giving up on this idea, as academics or advocates, is giving up on the American experiment itself.

Rather than abandon the idea that the federal government can help, we must commit ourselves to a national “reboot” of political, economic, and social priorities.

Starting with housing seems like the logical place to begin this process.  The moral urgency of the housing crisis calls for big, bold national ideas.  The economic and social benefits of committing the nation to housing-as-a-right are self-evident.  Where and how we build that housing may just be the difference between a sustainable future or something far darker.

The Urban Crisis in Late Capitalism

We can crop him out before posting, right? (elianlindt)

We can crop him out before posting, right? (elianlindt)

It’s purely a coincidence that the startling footage of a paying customer being dragged off of a United Flight by airport police went viral the same week that Richard Florida’s latest bookThe New Urban Crisis” came out, but I think the two events demonstrate the same problem.  As individual consumers, as cities, or as entire regions, we are experiencing the long building, negative consequences of “late capitalism.”  It is a force that has not only dehumanized many aspects of our society, but it has also failed to deliver its promised shared prosperity.  How we address this problem, or if we are even able to, will take more than zoning reform or affordable housing funding.

Late capitalism as a term has its origins in Marxist critiques of capitalism from 100 years ago, but has generally been applied to capitalism post-1945.  As I’ll explain, I think the term works better when focusing on the post-Cold War period.  In any case, it is meant to describe our current period of development as a limited stage of evolution as opposed to a permanent state. Eventually, as the theory generally goes, the extreme concentration of economic and political power will undermine and potentially destroy the stability of the larger society.

This is certainly a provocative way to understand what has been almost a century of relative global economic growth and stability.  No generation is fully aware of its place in broader historical cycles, but particularly after WWII, our period sure feels unique.  Famously, Francis Fukuyama published an essay, then book, called “The End of History and the Last Man” in 1992 about how liberal democracy (which is how I’ll describe our model for this blog) might represent the endpoint of human social and economic evolution.  How could such triumph be described as “late” to imply that it won’t last?

Fukuyama has at times been misunderstood (he didn’t think liberal democracy would go unchallenged or wouldn’t experience set-backs) but his belief that the economic and social model of western democracy would be the default setting for human evolution has been criticized by some as historically naïve or culturally biased.  History doesn’t “end” obviously and many systems have looked stable and enduring until they aren’t.

Fukuyama also assumed that the liberal democratic model “worked,” inherently. There are lots of metrics to point to about how much peace-and-prosperity the world has enjoyed post-1945. Of course there are also many metrics that point to this peace-and-prosperity being a zero-sum game that relied on denying peace-and-prosperity to a considerable amount of the global (and domestic) population. 

More importantly to this idea, though, is that liberal democracy produced the most peace-and-prosperity at least compared to communism. That’s the big catch to all of this.  As Churchill famously stated (or restated) about democracy, it is the worst system of government except when compared to every other form of government.  For most of the post-1945 world order, we had the Soviet Union as a competing model to compare to.  And it’s pretty easy to see which system was ‘better’ relative to the other.

However, over the 25 years since the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, it’s harder for us to remember just how much of our foreign and domestic policy was based on competing with communism. The US Government wanted and needed to show the world, let alone its own citizens, that liberal democracy created a better life than communism.

The New Deal coalition that emerged from the Depression to dominate domestic politics for most of the post-1945 period was based partly on the existential fear that Americans might want an alternative system if there was one to compare with. If capitalism were more brutal than communism, as it certainly appeared to be during the Great Depression, maybe the American model would fall.

This real tension served as a check against unfettered capitalism and produced public and private institutions that ensured prosperity – and power - would be shared on a large scale. This check is what allowed the greatest wealth creation in the history of the world to expand in America.

That check is gone.  (It started to breakdown before the end of the Cold War certainly.) Our politics have enshrined the supremacy of the market and our culture has so sufficiently demonized “government intervention” as ‘socialism’ that we have allowed many of those public and private institutions to be gutted or removed entirely.

Whether it’s the loss of unions or anti-monopoly agencies, the march of stateless, shareholder corporatism has continued unabated for decades.  It is no wild-eyed conspiracy to say that big, global corporations are the dominant actors in our society.  It seems like a quaint formality that it was even necessary to give them the same constitutional rights as citizens (without many of the same responsibilities.)

Many people will point to the wealth creation and job creation of these corporations (along with the cheap goods and services they create) as a clear public good.  No doubt there is some public good there.  But the cost of this concentration of power at the same time as it recuses responsibility has a clear public cost.  Wages have stagnated, health outcomes have declined, economic mobility has flatlined, and our environment continues to deteriorate at a frightening pace.  We have no mechanism politically to make those corporations pay these costs.  The public – present and future - does instead.

And, after the Cold War, there is no external pressure on our system to keep corporations and the capital behind them accountable. The idea that our system has to ‘compete’ with another system to maintain its legitimacy is laughable now.  Capitalism won. 

It shouldn’t be laughable.  Long before the 2016 primaries and election, it has been clear that many Americans across all political spectrums simply don’t believe in the legitimacy of our model.  This anger has, regrettably, manifested in different forms with different villains depending on the constituency you’re looking at, but the message is clear and universal.  Our form of liberal democracy isn’t producing the type of economic prosperity or social progress that we’ve been trained to expect as Americans. 

The social contract has broken down and been replaced by one-sided terms and conditions.  The joke is now on us, whether we fly Untied or not. That is late capitalism.

This is where the "new urban crisis" and Richard Florida’s book comes in.  Mr. Florida famously coined the term “creative classes” in his first book 15 years ago that showed how the concentration of knowledge economy jobs in cities was driving the urban revival that was destined to benefit all of humanity.  That optimism might sound hyperbolic but Mr. Florida and many urban boosters championed this in earnest and for sincere reasons. (I also believe urbanism is a better way of organizing society.)

However, late capitalism was always going to create a winner-take-all urbanism. Smaller (mostly non-coastal) cities have been gutted while larger (mostly-coastal) cities have been gilded.  The poor and working class suffer in both scenarios, but the very wealthy are the only ones benefiting from this urban revival. 

Mr. Florida has undergone a commendable self-correction. He acknowledges that the great urban revival hasn’t happened.  Outside of a few ‘superstar cities,’ too many places in America haven’t benefited from the ‘creative class.’ Even the gains made in those cities haven’t been shared and haven’t led to an expansion of opportunity for others. As a result, Most Americans still live in the suburbs or want to move there eventually. Poverty in the suburbs is in fact exploding as a result of some of these trends in cities. Cities aren’t part of the solution. If anything, they are exacerbating the problem.

Mr. Florida has also come to recognize the larger structural issues facing cities around class and race that were neglected in his original work.  Building tech and young-friendly neighborhoods with great amenities and transportation networks doesn’t help existing working-class or poor residents and makes it too expensive to attract new ones.  Too many of the benefits are going to a small pool of affluent, educated residents that are mostly white.

Mr. Florida outlines several city-level and state-level policy suggestions about how to mitigate some of these stratifying elements.  Some are worthy of support, others are not as comprehensive.

But more importantly, he acknowledges that these are larger questions that we must address as a society.  He hedges on criticizing capitalism overtly (and as far as I know has never commented on late capitalism) but it is refreshing for someone with such passion for cities and experience studying urbanism to challenge our assumptions about our liberal democratic model. More of this is needed.

The urban crisis is not a problem for technocrats.  This isn’t the fault of urban planning.  It’s the inevitable consequence of economic nihilism.  It is a political problem and a values problem.  These require value-based solutions (as opposed to ideologically-based ones) and political changes that our current model refuses to entertain or acknowledge.

As it stands now, it is likely that the unfortunate United passenger is going to get millions of dollars in a settlement.  Maybe the airlines relax some of their overbooking policies.  But the structure of the airline industry – the oligopoly – is enshrined in our laws and culture, which won’t change anytime soon.  Most passengers won’t have the option to refuse to fly United.  As consumers, we have lost the fight in late capitalism.

The urban crisis is more complicated (indeed, crisis isn't really the right word), spanning many industries, many political interests, and many stakeholders.  There is no single incident to go viral (or maybe there are too many) to galvanize the nation and there are no simple, populist solutions that can quickly satisfy it.  But there can be change. Frankly, there must be change. As citizens, the fight against late capitalism must begin. It is our only way to define what comes next.

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.