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Urban politics: Or, the fall and rise of some American cities?

August 29, 2012

The Republican convention is in full swing in Tampa. It was rather funny to hear a political reporter covering the convention admit that he was, well, not in Tampa, but near Tampa. Because Tampa, like many U.S. cities, represents the kind of sprawling metallic mushiness that characterizes so much turn-of-the-Millennium neoliberal urbanization – an economic city, not a social one.

Aerial photo of Tampa. Image by AP via Politico

Last weekend a Salon article written by Will Doig labeled Tampa “America’s hottest mess,” focusing in particular on the privatized, disconnected urban environment there, and the extreme aversion towards public financing displayed by city and state decision makers. Governor Rick Scott nixed plans (and federal funding) for a high-speed rail system in Florida. Tampa metro area voters turned down a one-cent sales tax that would have funded a new light rail system. One result: apparently 50% of the urban core is designated for parking.

As Doig appropriately suggests, Tampa is in many ways the perfect (non)place to host the Republican convention, a harbinger of the kind of splintering urbanism that might engulf even more of urban America should the conservatives get their way this November. As much as the Tea Party-dominated right wing cares little for welfare programs, progressive taxation, public education, it also holds any kind of social or sustainable urban planning agenda in much disdain, viewing it as a kind of global conspiracy and/or UN plot to achieve a world government. (If only that were true – things would be much more interesting in the sustainability movement.)

Ironically, recent expenditures have gone into new public toilets at the Tampa airport (because, you know, Republicans love airport toilets) and new palm trees along the road to the convention. And $50 million of federal money is going towards the extreme securitization of “downtown” Tampa during the convention. This is the kind of dual-action urban cleansing – selective aesthetic sprucing up and intense security – that now dutifully precedes spectacular events like political conventions and Olympic Games.

Security in Tampa for RNC convention. At least they’re on bicycles! Image by Reuters via The Atlantic

One sentence in the Salon piece particularly caught my eye. Referring to Tampa’s penchant for unplanned, real-estate-driven development and lack of attention to public urban space, Doig writes, “This left little of the quality urbanism people now pay a premium for.”

He means, presumably, the type of urban development that has motivated a kind of resurgence of cities of late. In the U.S. the epitome of this is probably New York City, which has gone from near failure in the 70s to the much admired city of today, filled with parks, bike lanes, and farmers markets. But beyond that one city there’s been a veritable outpouring of excitement about the city, and about city life. Some suburbs have actually begun to contract, and young families now choose to stay in, or even move to, cities. (A lot of this is due to stark economic realities, not simply to shifts in preference.) Cultural media outlets, nonprofit organizations, and business groups have been quick to notice, with initiatives like the NPR Cities Project, Next American City, and even CEOs for Cities.

More than a few renown urban thinkers, legislators, business leaders, and social and environmental advocates have declared cities to be critical to our economic and environmental future. They cite the higher densities and (relatively) smaller geographic footprint that allows a correspondingly smaller carbon footprint, and the compactness that encourages walkability and social interaction, and allows a confluence of institutions like libraries and museums. This is pretty much a 180 degree turn from the prevailing view of cities in the late 19th and earth 20th centuries, when cities were popularly equated with alienation, anomie, and the 70s, when they were “inner cities” filled with crime, poverty, and so many people of color.

The new champions – simultaneously visionaries and cheerleaders – of the greatness of cities include Harvard economist Edward Glaeser, former New York City planner and current SHoP Architects partner Vishaan Chakrabarti, and Columbia sociologist and popularizer of the “Global City” in the 90s Saskia Sassen. Among them they’ve written about how cities make us smarter and richer, how a true-cost, market-based approach would lead to a healthier and greener “country of cities,” and that cities will be the “heart of our environmental future.”

This sounds great so far. I do love parks, bike lanes, and farmers markets. In full disclosure: I am a huge fan of cities. I chose a profession and academic career in which I get to think, read, and write about them basically all day, and sometimes even get to design small parts of them.

While the resurgence of cities is something mostly hopeful, something to be excited about after the meandering and formless growth that dominated the last decades, I’m still concerned. What, in fact, is the urban future that we are excited about? New York’s resurgence has been partly attributed to an astonishingly low crime rate. But this appears to come with astonishingly extreme stop-and-frisk policies to match, as well as a still-overheated and very uneven housing market. New York’s new elite urban parks, in particular, as the darlings of this development model, rely on mechanisms that in effect exchange high-ticket real estate deals for privatized “public” green space. Would any of these parks exist without the structural ability to create highly unequal cities, both spatially and economically? (I’ve written about these here and here and won’t spend more time on them at the moment.)

The “premium” Doig notes is not simply an articulate turn of phrase. It is more expensive, sometimes very much more so, to live in “quality urbanism.” And some of our favorite cities are not only dynamic, dense, and diverse places, they’ve become, in a sense, sifting machines that attract and then sort out elaborate acts of “quality urbanism” with those who can afford them, and the neglected zones of leftover spaces with the correspondingly poor and marginalized. This is not a rhetorical statement. Cities are hotbeds of inequality, and New York City is among the most unequal cities in the United States. The city revolution, so far, has not really been a social one.

Perhaps not a lot of this is new per se. Activists and scholars railed against gentrification in the 1980s. And New York’s private-public efforts have been transforming arcades and plazas since the 1960s. But what might be new is the confluence of such mechanisms of development, sharpened with new-found corporate branding and “placemaking” strategies, with political support for low taxation and correspondingly low public investments, heightened environmental advocacy, and a cultural turn towards city life. What this could mean is that those who love the (often somewhat glorified) urban lifestyle now are invited to, nay, must embrace and participate in the economic system that enable it. How many of us strenuously object to social and economic stratification? And how many of us love the High Line? Probably a huge majority, in each case. Is there a contradiction to be sorted out? Or can’t we love the urban nature splendor of the High Line and yet understand the politics and economics underlying its development?

Going back to my earlier sentence: Every city is an economic city. Some cities might be equitable social ones. How do we address this? How do we fight for the diversity, dynamism, hybridity, the possibility of cities? Do we really have a Right to the City?

I find myself conflicted at multiple levels about this. In the worst case I sense a lack of social accountability in this new love for cities, a neglect of shared ideals in the new embrace of urbanism as a way of life. I would love to hear what others think. Am I being too critical of current development patterns? Is the excitement for the urban enough to fuel actual social change?

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