Tuesday, December 3rd, 2013

Time For an Urbanist “Tea Party”? by Jarrett Walker

[ You’ve heard me tout the writings of transit consultant Jarrett Walker before and his web site Human Transit. Well he’s well-versed in many things besides transit. His background in theater and the humanities I think informs a keen analytical eye he brings to the city generally and many other subjects. He attended the recent City Lab conference, and had the following thoughts in the wake of the discussion there. Think of it as additional commentary on local autonomy, in line with my debate a couple weeks ago – Aaron. ]

The "tea party" US House members who currently dominate the news are unlikely allies of urbanists.  But on one core idea, a band of urbanist thinkers are starting to echo a key idea of the radical right:   Big and active national government may not be the answer.

Images-5Last week, I was honored to be invited to Citylab, a two-day gathering in New York City sponsored by the Aspen Institutethe Atlantic magazine, and Bloomberg Philanthropies.  The event featured mayors and civic policy leaders from both North America and overseas as well as leading academics, journalists, and consultants.  

I expected the thrilling mix of new ideas, compelling stories, and quirky characters, but I got one thing I didn't expect:  A full-throated demand, from several surprising voices, for an urbanist revolt against the power of national governments.

Al Gore said it with his trademark fusion of bluntness and erudition: "The nation-state," he said, "is becoming disintermediated."  If you're not an academic at heart, that means: "National governments are becoming irrelevant to urban policy, and hence to the economy of an urban century."  

On cue, the New York Times published an op-ed on "The End of the Nation-State," about how cities are leaving nations behind.  Citylab also featured a terrific interview with political scientist Benjamin Barber, whose new book If Mayors Ruled the World argues for the irrelevance of nation-states in a world where cities are the real levers of economic power.  (According to Barber, the full title of his book should have been:  If Mayors Ruled the World: Why They Should and How They Already Do.)  When I spoke with Barber later, looking for nuance, he was full-throated in ridiculing the US Federal role in urbanism.   On this view, all the well-intentioned money that the Federal government doles out for urban goodies should be spent by cities as they see fit, or perhaps (gasp) never sent to Washington at all. 

Follow this logic and you might arrive at a radical urban Federalism, perhaps even one that could meet tea-party demands to "Abolish the IRS!"   Pay taxes to your city or state, and let them send a bit of it on to central government to do the few things that only a central government can do.  Push power downward to the scale where problems can be solved. 

You might even separate urban from rural governance in a way that enables both to thrive, each at its proper scale, replacing the eternal struggle between these necessary opposites that makes today's political discourse so inane.  The "size of government" debate is just a pointless and eternal struggle between urban and rural experience, both of which are right.  Living in cities means relying on government for many things that the rural resident provides for herself, so of course the attitude toward government is different.   But what's really logically different is the role of local government. Both urban and rural experience provide good reason to be suspicious of big-yet-distant national government, which can be as unresponsive to big-city mayors as it is to a Wyoming county official who just needs to get a bridge fixed.

At most of the urbanist and transportation conferences that I attend, though, any shrinking the national government role is met with horror.  And that's understandable.

In the US, the prevailing local response to declining federal spending is outrage and redoubled advocacy.  In Australia or Canada, two countries I work in extensively, working urbanists and infrastructure advocates seem to agree that of course there must be a bigger central government role in everything, with the US often cited as the model.  In the US itself, it's easy to see the current cuts in Federal spending as a disaster for urbanism and infrastructure.  It is, but it could also be something else: an invitation to governments that are closer to the people to have their own conversations that lead to local consensus about funding and solutions.

If mayors do end up ruling the world, it will be because the city, unlike the state or nation, is where citizenship is mostly deeply felt.   A nation's problems are abstract; if they show up in your life you're more likely to think of them as your community's or city's problems.  And that, in short, is why the city may be best positioned to actually build consensus around solving problems, including consensus about raising and spending money.  

And yet …

Before urbanists join the tea partiers in trying to shrink the national government, they have to grapple with the problem of inequality.  As sites of concentrated opportunity, cities are attracting the poor as well as the rich, and are thus becoming the place where inequality is most painfully evident.  But no mayor can be expected to solve a problem that exists on such a scale.

In small-c conservative terms, of course, the problem is not income inequality but rather the declining credibility of a "ladder of opportunity" that convinces everyone that reasonable effort will improve their circumstances.  One reason to care about transit, walking, and cycling — for many points on the income spectrum — is that transportation can form such a formidable barrier to opportunity.

All through Citylab, hands were wrung about inequality and the need to Do Something about it, against the backdrop of a New York City mayoral election that is mostly about this issue.  A rent control debate, featuring New York City Planning Director Amanda Burden and economist Paul Romer, found no middle ground on the question of whether city policy can usefully intervene to help low income people.  Income inequality appeared to be one issue where cities can do little by themselves.

When I asked sociologist Richard Florida about this in the North American context, he pointed me to an article proposing that the US create a Department of Cities.  He has good ideas about how to keep this from being just another bureaucracy, but if income inequality is the big issue that only national policy can address, it's not clear that it should be tagged as an urban issue at all.  Cities are not where the problems are.  Cities are just where people see their society's problems most intensely in daily life, because they get out of their cars.  

The great city in the wealthy parts of the world cannot just be an enclave of success.  It will deserve the self-government that the mayors seek only if it relentlessly inspires, supports, and gives back to its suburban and rural hinterland, creating its own "ladder of opportunity" for access to the riches of urban life.  Only a few people can afford Manhattan or San Francsico, so those cities' money and expertise must focus not just on themselves but on making life in more affordable places incrementally more humane.  Turning Newark into Manhattan would just make it unaffordable, so some of the urgency must lie in less photogenic intervention that works for each place's price-point.  It lies in providing safe places to walk and cycle, and a safe way to cross the street at every bus stop, even in landscapes of drive-through everything that will be what many people can afford, and what some prefer.  

That's why I'm happy to be working not just in San Francisco but also in Houston, where affordability is a leading selling point.   It's why I'm suspicious of transit planning that defines an elite "choice rider" as the only important customer, including much of the transit-aestheticism that comes out of urbanist academia.  Where are the prestigious awards for the best affordable, scalable, but nonsexy intervention that made low-income inner-ring suburbia more safe and functional?  How do we build not just the shining city behind a moat (San Francisco, Manhattan, Singapore) but a chain of humane and functional places, at every price-point, that combine safety, civility and opportunity?

Where is the money in that?    If mayors ruled the world, I hope that would be obvious.  So let's hope they already do.

This post originally appeared in Human Transit on October 14, 2013.

6 Comments
Topics: Public Policy, Strategic Planning

6 Responses to “Time For an Urbanist “Tea Party”? by Jarrett Walker”

  1. Chris Barnett says:

    Walker writes: Only a few people can afford Manhattan or San Francisco, so those cities’ money and expertise must focus not just on themselves but on making life in more affordable places incrementally more humane. Turning Newark into Manhattan would just make it unaffordable, so some of the urgency must lie in less photogenic intervention that works for each place’s price-point. It lies in providing safe places to walk and cycle, and a safe way to cross the street at every bus stop, even in landscapes of drive-through everything that will be what many people can afford, and what some prefer….

    Where are the prestigious awards for the best affordable, scalable, but nonsexy intervention that made low-income inner-ring suburbia more safe and functional? How do we build not just the shining city behind a moat (San Francisco, Manhattan, Singapore) but a chain of humane and functional places, at every price-point, that combine safety, civility and opportunity?

    In community redevelopment, we have a pretty reliable playbook for dense, close-to-the-core neighborhoods. It is now critical that we “figure out” redevelopment in first-ring suburbia…and this is how I answer people who ask “why do you work THERE?”

    At the sub-city level, community development organizations are often where those micro-level incremental solutions are developed and tested and implemented. Think East Lake in Atlanta. Look at the work supported by LISC in large cities in the US.

    Fortunately, for most of us who do this, the work…leaving a place better than we found it…is the reward. No “prestigious awards” necessary. But we do have to figure it out first, and Walker is dead on about what needs to be figured out and where it needs to happen, on the old mid-century boom edges of cities.

  2. Eric says:

    Canadian Witold Rybczynski has been talking about this for 20 years and “Suburban Nation” is probably the first book to popularize it. More people need to give CNU credit as an advocacy group.

    It’s not that urbanists have likened themselves to the radical right, it’s that a few key libertarian viewpoints of new urbanists are common with tea partiers/libertarians and Millenials. And though Obama is protransit, one can’t help but remember that he’s given much more to GM and Chrysler, so maybe voting Democrat isn’t always the answer for urbanists.

  3. Paul Lambie says:

    While I don’t agree that restoring the “ladder of opportunity” will fix the growing income inequality problem without redistribution of income, I certainly agree that there should be a moral imperative to retrofit our urban/suburban environments to tear down the barriers to opportunity. Get rid of all the federal money coming from HUD and DOT that is tied to sexy projects that allow bureaucrats to pose for pictures in front of, often without doing much to improve the built environment for people. Either just hand the money back to states and/or local (ideally regional) governments based on need, or don’t take it in the first place.

  4. Chris Barnett says:

    I overlooked (purposely) the whole city vs. metro structural issue. North American big-city mayors aren’t metro mayors, except in Toronto…and we see how that is working out for them.

    Absent a round of forced consolidations that form actual metro governments, Walker’s concept is unfortunately DOA. The hodgepodge of urban and suburban government jurisdictions preserves the power of states and feds in US metros.

    We can ask “what if” NYC, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Denver and Indianapolis (the earliest metro city-county consolidations) had been allowed by their state governments to continue consolidating (annexing) adjacent towns, townships, cities and counties, but unfortunately the price of consolidation exacted by state legislatures has almost always been freezing the boundaries.

  5. Jon Seisa says:

    Per the critical concerns in the City Lab discussions regarding inequality and the decline of the ladder of opportunity, it just seems that whenever Big Gov rears its ugly head it fosters obstructionism and bureaucratic convolution, modes that are entirely counter to the efficiency required to act adroitly in administering timely action in volatile business environments that changes by the nanosecond. In order to create prosperity that can improve these areas of concern with opportunity, meddling and sluggish Big Gov must be removed from the process and equation. The current administration, alone, has systematically published 80,000 pages of draconian new business-strangling regulations for each year that Obama has been president. That is roughly 400,000 pages of new business regulations aimed at consolidating authority into a centralization micromanagement nightmare with more fees, penalties, fines, restrictions, codes, things that prevent businesses from thriving, and cause downsizing and layoffs, due to the overburdens created by the piles of regulations. So in the end, do we see vast Herculean improvements over the last 5 years from this type of death-wish modus operandi? No. Things are actually much worse than what is publicly revealed or admitted, if one merely probes the experts off record. This is what happens in a Nanny State… “To mother is to smother.” And opportunities diminish radically. So, I agree, local provincial dynamics and authority are the wave of the future if people expect any form of achievements in their best community’s interest is ever to be realized. Soon it may even be a vital necessity, because to be honest, this top heavy Big Gov with its Ponzi economic schemes and $202 Trillion true concealed debt, as reported by some independent economists, will not endure past 2017. It will literally implode, and then the city-states will quickly discover their new found provincial independence.

  6. Anon says:

    “…and Indianapolis (the earliest metro city-county consolidations)”

    Indianapolis consolidated in in 1970. Nashville-Davidson consolidated in 1963.

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