Last week on Slate, Witold Rybczynski wrote about Adolfo Carrion Jr.‘s White House Office of Urban Affairs, and argued that Carrion, and the federal government should “beware of the temptation of centralized city planning.” His argument, essentially, is that the government did a bad job 50 years ago when it funded urban renewal projects and expressways, which expedited white flight and disinvestment in urban cores, which many cities are still recovering from. Rybczynski goes on to argue that public-private partnerships like park conservancies and downtown associations — and even private real estate developers — do a fine job filling in for government planners in our cities.
The problem, in my mind, with Ryczynski’s assessment of the Office of Urban Affairs’ prospects is that he only allows himself to see federal urban policy in its most brutal, obvious form: 1960’s urban renewal. At the same time as HUD was funding slum clearance and unwittingly building the slums of the future in their place, the government was building a massive interstate highway system, and subsidizing a suburban lifestyle with cheap gas, and insured home loans. Looking at urban decay using the push and pull factor method of understanding migration, the federal government certainly did a lot to push residents out of cities — as Rybczynski points out — but they also did a lot to pull people out to the suburban fringe (a phenomenon I discussed on this website not too long ago). And this happened at other federal agencies like the US DOT and the FHA, not just HUD.
It’s not hard to fault centralized urban planning for ruining cities when you only look at what HUD has done to affect cities. And as an architecture critic, it’s no wonder that Rybczynski focuses mainly on the massive, hideous housing projects that are the lasting legacy of HUD’s policies in the postwar years. So, to Rybczynski and others like him, the free market does a better job guiding development than the government. But what if the market for suburban development was never as free as it appeared? It was heavily subsidized by the government, so, in a sense, urban decay was funded by a number of government projects that had nothing to do with urban renewal. In that sense, HUD was the only agency actually investing in our cities at that time. HUD was building an inherently unattractive form of housing, but the reason housing projects failed so thoroughly was also due – in part – to the wider, concurrent abandonment of urban neighborhoods. The created very concentrated pockets of poverty in neighborhoods that could no longer provide jobs or services to their residents, because they were abandoned.
Rybczynski goes on to defend the private sector’s efficacy when it comes to urban development efforts, but he omits the private sector’s failure from the dark days of the 1960’s. Blockbusting — the practice of scaring middle-class whites into thinking their home prices would plummet when people of color moved into their neighborhood, then buying the home from them at a low price, and selling it to minority buyers for an inflated price — was instrumental in the ghettoization of many American cities in the postwar years. Blockbusting at times took advantage of Great Society mortgage programs, but was ultimately a free market phenomenon. This was what the private sector did in declining neighborhoods: it expedited their decline for a quick buck. Careless federal urban policy and racial distrust created the incentives, and the free market delivered the coup de grace. This, in essence, is the problem with giving the private sector too much control over urban planning: public benefit is not at the top of their list of priorities.
So, when Rybczynski writes that the “important lesson is not that city planning is unimportant but, rather, that urban development should not be implemented by the public sector alone and that in a democracy, a vision of the future city will best emerge from the marketplace,” it’s easy to see some fault in that. The argument is intuitive, but only if you selectively remember all the ills brought upon our cities by the actions of the public sector — which at the very least had good intentions — and forget how entrepreneurial forces also helped decimate neighborhoods at the same time.
Rybczynski ultimately concludes that cities should “make no big plans, only many small ones”: that the federal government should let local organizations and the private sector take care of most of the details. He cites the HOPE VI program — which mixes public housing with market-rate housing — as a great example of Washington creating the proper incentives for private developers to help our cities — instead of harming them — and make money at the same time.
It would be hard for anyone to disagree with that sort of logic. If the federal government creates incentives for the private sector to work in the public interest, then everyone wins. But where Rybczynski and I part is that he feels the need to condemn any sort of centralized planning in order to reach the conclusion that public-private cooperation is necessary for successful urban development. If anything, his vision necessitates Washington having a hand in urban planning, or at least creating the incentives for certain types of development. Furthermore, you don’t have to be Mike Davis to point out the potential problems with concluding that real estate developers might do a better job than planners at building cities. That’s how we ended up with acre upon acre of mind-numbing sprawl spiraling out from our urban centers.
Urban America had a rough half century after World War II, due to federal policies that subsidized suburban development, and incentivized the destruction of inner cities. But to say that the federal government should, therefore, have little or no say in how our cities develop is a bit of a slippery-slope argument. The Office of Urban Affairs, according to their website aims to make cities more economically competitive, more green, and more inclusive. The description of their responsibilities is especially interesting. They aim to:
Empower metropolitan areas — to enable them to develop local strategies, develop or expand integrated programs that capitalize on their assets and improve and expand the many effective efforts underway; and
Maximize performance — through market mechanisms, encouraging partnerships between local governments and the private sector, and between cities and their natural regional allies
Either they read Rybczynski’s piece, or he didn’t bother reading theirs.
Either way, the federal government should have a role in how we build our cities. So many matters of national importance — dependence on foreign oil; our greenhouse gas emissions; our obesity epidemic — can, in part, be traced back to how we build the places we live. Though this doesn’t relate to urban planning, I challenge Mr. Rybczynski to take a look at this and tell me with a straight face that we can trust the private sector to handle any of the challenges mentioned above. I doubt he’d agree.