America’s big cities are, without exception, politically blue cities, with a new class of progressive politicians doing real damage to public order. When it comes to urban development, however, the blue monolith breaks down: socialists, city planners, cyclists, environmentalists, pragmatists, and social-justice activists are often at odds with one another. They might all support more housing, more density, and more public transportation, but they disagree sharply on the means for getting there.
In recent years, a new faction has emerged in city politics: what one might call the new Left urbanists. These activists believe that local governments must rebuild the urban environment — housing, transit, roads, and tolls — to produce a new era of city flourishing, characterized by social and racial justice and a net-zero carbon footprint. The urbanists rally around provocative slogans like “ban all cars,” “raze the suburbs,” and “single-family housing is white supremacy” — ironically, since they’re generally white, affluent, and educated themselves. They’re often employed in public or semipublic roles in urban planning, housing development, and social advocacy. They treat public housing, mass transit, and bicycle lanes as a kind of holy trinity — and they want to impose their religion on you.
Housing is the central political battleground for these progressive activists. As David Madden and Peter Marcuse write in their book, In Defense of Housing: “The residential is political — which is to say that the shape of the housing system is always the outcome of struggles between different groups and classes.” Their goal is not simply to get new housing built but to build new housing owned, operated, and controlled by the state. If they can dictate how cities construct new housing, their logic goes, they can dictate how people live — and set right society’s economic, social, and moral deficiencies.
The urbanists laid out their plans in a widely circulated report from the People’s Policy Project, a crowd-funded organization founded in 2017 that seeks to “fill the holes left by the current think tank landscape with a special focus on socialist and social democratic economic ideas.” They envision the construction of 10 million “municipal homes” over the next ten years. Under this proposal, government would become the nation’s largest landlord and residential construction firm, building more housing units than the entire private construction industry. The abysmal record of public housing in the United States, from the Cabrini-Green Homes in Chicago to the Foote Homes in Memphis, where crime and blight prevailed, makes no difference to these urbanists. They have simply rebranded “housing projects” to “municipal homes,” arguing that public housing has been “unjustly stigmatized” and that these new units will somehow avoid the fate of American public-housing ventures over the past half-century. They believe that the new “municipal homes” will resemble neighborhoods in Stockholm, Vienna, or Helsinki rather than in Detroit, Newark, or Oakland.
The question for the activists is not just how much new housing gets built but who builds it and who will live in it. That is, new developments must also tick off the boxes of identity politics. In cities like San Francisco, some activists have taken the hardline position of opposing all private housing construction, regardless of how it might reduce the cost of housing for middle-class residents. In an essay in the San Francisco Examiner, public-housing activists Andrew Szeto and Toshio Meronek called advocates for more private-market housing part of a “libertarian, anti-poor campaign to turn longtime sites of progressive organizing into rich-people-only zones” and compared them with alt-right white nationalists.
One might dismiss this as radical posturing in a local alt-weekly, but public-housing advocates have seized real power in city hall. They have learned how to use the zoning and permitting bureaucracy to achieve their goals of no new private development. In San Francisco’s Mission District, activists forced Laundromat owner Bob Tillman to spend $1.4 million and nearly five years to gain permission to convert his business into an apartment building. Activists and their enablers in city hall claimed that Tillman’s project would cause gentrification and displace minority residents, and forced him through a gauntlet of Kafkaesque legal proceedings. At one point, the planning commission even hired a “shadow consultant” to offer an expert opinion on whether the shadows cast by the proposed building would create social and racial inequities. To the new Left urbanists, housing isn’t just housing; it must be evaluated on social-justice standards. If it fails to measure up, it must go.
In New York City, progressive urbanists have seized on public transportation as a primary instrument of “social, environmental, immigrant, and economic justice.” New York’s subway system was designed in the early twentieth century to serve the practical needs of city residents, but today’s activists have come to see its tunnels and trains as grand mechanisms for cosmic justice. In its annual “Transportation and Equity” report, for example, the Straphangers Campaign argues that “the most vulnerable New Yorkers suffer disproportionately from high fares, long commutes, polluted air, and dangerous streets,” and therefore, “equity demands that state leaders prioritize transit in the public budget and policymaking process.”
The Straphangers estimate that an additional $30 billion in tax revenues would be needed to complete its desired overhaul of the mass-transit system, with a ten-year goal of upgrading 11 subway lines, building 130 new accessible subway stations, and purchasing 3,000 new subway cars and 5,000 new buses. While state and local leaders haven’t signed up for such an ambitious plan, they do support some of the Straphangers’ funding proposals to expand the transit system—including congestion pricing, a “millionaire’s tax,” marijuana tax, stock-transfer tax, and even a $3-per-package tax on Amazon deliveries.
Most New Yorkers would agree that investment in mass transit is a necessity, and there is a reasonable argument for congestion pricing in traffic-glutted Manhattan—but the activists don’t formulate their arguments on these practical grounds. A close reading of their reports reveals that the long-term vision involves elimination of the automobile, which remains a staple for middle-class residents in New York’s outer boroughs. In the Straphangers’ plan, activists want to restrict curbside space for cars dramatically by building “protected bike lanes on all major arterial streets across the five boroughs,” “giving developers incentives to contribute toward sustainable transportation over private vehicle usage,” and eliminating parking requirements for new housing projects. Activists deploy euphemisms like “transportation alternatives” and “transportation choices”; but at heart, their vision for mass transportation is not about choice but control. They want to remake the urban infrastructure in their own image: green, moral, healthy, just, and in solidarity with the masses—at least as those masses exist in their imagination.
The new Left urbanists’ fatal mistake is their failure to absorb the reality that cities are not just buildings, roads, tunnels, and bike lanes, but living entities. The urbanists can demolish and rebuild the physical environment, but they cannot pave over the people who make up our cities. Life in a metropolis is simply too complex, too variable, and too ephemeral — it will evade even the most careful planning. If we want better, more beautiful, cities, we must bring neighbors, developers, employers, and governments into the conversation. Our cities must be built through cooperation, not compulsion.
Originally published in City Journal on September 3rd, 2019.