How Urbanism Got Hijacked
The “problem” of cities has not been fully solved. It’s only been buried by the concerns of a new urban demographic that emerged in the last 20 years
Pete Saunders | Corner Side Yard
The urbanism of the 2000s and early 2010s, when the rise of cities gave so many urbanists hope that a new urban era was dawning, is not the urbanism we talk about anymore. There has been a subtle shift that eventually replaced all previous urban discourse. The affordable housing crisis has hijacked urbanism.
Over the last 20 years or so, I’ve witnessed a steady change in how cities are discussed. The urbanists of 20 years ago celebrated the vibrancy of cities. New residents, who previously had never considered city living, were finding that cities were lively, complex yet adaptable places. But more new residents meant the eventual rise of housing costs, the threats of gentrification and displacement, and calls for increases in housing supply to address the problem. The housing crisis has consumed urbanism to the point that many other challenges in cities have been neglected.
I’m prepared to get slammed for this take. I understand how astronomical home prices and rents have fundamentally changed the urbanist conversation. The rise of homelessness, particularly on the West Coast, is a direct result of the housing crisis. Yet, I keep returning to the point that these are problems of urban success, and not every city or metro has crossed that threshold.
This past summer I interviewed five practicing planners who are now (or were) elected officials for the October issue of Planning Magazine. The interviews were enlightening because they showed how the urban planning training of the interviewees informed their thinking and policy goals in their very different roles. Former HUD secretary Henry Cisneros talked about how the chaotic urban unrest of the late 1960s led him to study urban planning, and the planning discipline allowed him to have a wholistic view of cities when he was mayor of San Antonio. Phoenix city council member Debra Stark remarked on aging infrastructure and Phoenix’s status as one of the nation’s unfortunate leaders in traffic and pedestrian fatalities. Alderman Daniel La Spata of Chicago and Florida state Senator Bobby Powell each spoke about giving voice to the voiceless and working to create better communities that strike a livable balance for current and future residents.
Perhaps the most riveting interview, however, was with Nithya Raman, a city council member from Los Angeles. Her focus was almost exclusively on increasing housing supply in Los Angeles to reduce homelessness and increase housing affordability. I quote …
Our challenges today demand that we look at our land use past; my planning education has taught me to look at that history very closely. The prescription for what ails us is thinking of how to undo or historical decisions around a lack of affordable housing. Unless we get to the root causes of housing insecurity, we won’t be able to solve the problem.
We need more housing supply.
Raman’s laser focus on the housing crisis of Los Angeles was evident throughout the entire interview. Los Angeles, and other coastal cities like it, are indeed facing an existential crisis that requires that kind of focus from elected officials. If people cannot afford to live there, people will not live there except for the wealthiest few. That’s not a future anyone wants for cities.
But have all the nation’s large cities really reached a point where all should adopt a similar strategy? I don’t think so.
Honestly, the housing costs of Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, New York and Washington, D.C. demand that kind of action from elected officials. Those cities have already zoomed past the threshold of global city success and have created economies that will attract the world’s best and brightest for years to come. Using yesterday’s land use policies to address today’s housing challenges will not work.
But the same can’t be said for all large American cities. By nature housing markets are local, and many cities maintain a level of housing affordability. Some, like Chicago and Philadelphia, lie at the cusp of global city success yet contain enough of their gritty, industrial working-class pasts to prevent a true urban economic escape velocity. Other cities, perhaps like Atlanta, Nashville, Dallas or Phoenix, are still on the rise. Their rapid growth in recent decades gave them a new stature, but housing affordability is still often a selling point for them.
Some cities, however, were late to the urban transformation of the last 30 years, or never participated in it at all. Cities like Baltimore, Cleveland, Detroit, St. Louis, Memphis have seen bits and pieces of the kind of revitalization that powered the growth of coastal cities and gave upstart Sun Belt cities new power and status, but still have industrial – and social – legacies that hinder their transformation. And that doesn’t even include mid-sized cities with the same challenges, but that often remain invisible to the rest of the nation.
Why do I have this concern about housing’s preeminent position in the mind of today’s urbanists? Because from my vantage point, the “problem” of cities has not been fully solved. It’s only been buried by the concerns of a new urban demographic that emerged in the last 20 years.
What’s to Solve?
What still hasn’t been “solved” in cities? The economy. Inequality. Segregation. Education. Crime. Some cities show these scars much more than others, but they exist in all.
As much as urbanists talk about the impact of affluence on cities with their rising housing costs, cities - and many of their adjacent suburbs - have also witnessed a corresponding rise in poverty. It’s true of most cities, including the coastal cities, but especially so for others. It’s been noted in various studies over the years, but the attention goes to the lack of affordability in cities that are in high demand for people making upper-middle incomes.
When you examine the trends, it becomes more clear: The most desirable parts of cities are experiencing concentrated affluence in the urban cores, while less desirable parts of cities, and many suburbs, are witnessing expanding poverty on the periphery.
Many urbanists will say that metro areas are in this position because numerous jurisdictions simply haven’t taken on their fair share of affordable housing. Many point a finger directly at suburbs, and they’d be right to do so. Exclusionary zoning in suburbs has kept low-and moderate-income people out. Widespread single-family zoning and the exclusion of multifamily developments works to keep prices high. It is the economic and social incentive that creates the NIMBYs that urbanists demonize.
For what it’s worth, I believe single-family zoning must go in cities. I admire the efforts of urbanists pursuing single-family zoning’s abolition. However, without a corresponding effort in suburbs, metro areas could witness an economic and demographic shift they’re not prepared for.
We’ve seen how America responded to the mid-20th century housing crisis, and I think it serves as a guide for the path we could be headed on now. The economic growth following the Great Depression and World War II, a period when housing development was effectively stunted, sparked an incredible demand for housing. That demand, along with favorable federal housing and land use policies (the G.I. Bill; the Housing Act of 1949; the Interstate Highway Act), supported the creation of today’s suburbs. At the same time, America provided new housing for an expanding middle class in suburbia, the government at all levels undermined the revitalization of cities – slum clearance and urban renewal, the construction of public housing in inner cities. Capital flowed out of cities and into the new suburban landscape. Cities spent the next half-century trying to climb out of that hole.
The cities that suffered most were the ones whose economic and demographic decline occurred at the same time as the suburban boom. Are we at risk of repeating history?