Consensus, but Progress?

Josh Leon on whether the new standards of planning truly represent progress — or leave entire communities in the dust.

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If Bob Dylan were to look at urban development, he might say that the times are-a-changin’. There’s a new consensus emerging and it sounds a lot like what most of us want: Density, mixed usages, reduced traffic and public transit, for instance, are all synonymous with good planning nowadays. On these fundamental matters it’s hard to find anyone who disagrees anymore. In that case every commentator can start writing about something else or risk redundancy. We won!

It’s been a long time coming. In 1961 Jane Jacobs published The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which she declared was “an attack on current city planning and rebuilding.” By that she meant the dull, bloated, single use, suburban-driven model that characterized the planning consensus up until recently. Now the experts are in near unison decrying the very same “great blight of dullness.” Just look at the cover of a recent Atlantic, which declared post-crash that “the suburbs lose, the Sunbelt fades, New York wins.” Click around for long enough on the World Bank’s website and you’ll get a hagiography of New York’s subway system.

The World Bank, by the way, devoted its entire 2009 development report to urban geography. The Bank’s report extols the virtues of density, which it sees as the inevitable course of development in a global economy. Next year’s World Expo in Shanghai is themed “better city, better life,” and is poised to display super-duper best practices from around the world under the watchful eye of a nominally communist dictatorship. From what I’ve heard, they’ll be showcasing innovations in everything from traffic reduction to improved walk-ability. Even dictatorships are on our side!

It would look as if those of us who had been advocating for diverse, dense environments during the darker days of suburban hegemony have been subsumed by an enlightened mainstream. Are we the superfluous victims of getting our way? Of course not. We need only look at the new global consensus for what it is, an atomizing and polarizing mockery of time-honored Jacobsian ideals. On the other side of our density-tinted glasses, the new consensus is brewing disastrous mistakes down the road that ought to be opposed vocally.

For the World Bank, market forces will decide—without any direct public say-so—where the geographic winners and losers are in the mercurial global economy. The Bank’s recent report, Reshaping Economic Geography, recommend increasing connectivity between rural areas and cities so people can desert their communities for globalization’s success areas. Richard Florida, another consensus purveyor, explains in stark terms what a system of market-driven mobility means. For Florida, “we can’t stop the decline of some places,” and “would be foolish to try.”

I doubt sincerely that Jacobs would be fine with the mass abandonment of communities whose specialized services don’t satiate global markets, which these days happen to have the attention span of an ADHD toddler. Unstable economies, after all, don’t make for stable communities. Neoliberals have co-opted some elements of enlightened urbanism with their appreciation for the hallmarks of vital city life, but their bigger picture is of an amoral system that will most likely increase social divisions rather than bridge them.

As I’ve argued before, my feeling is that this kind of a system is creating a steep divide between the mobile and non-mobile. True, much of Florida’s vaunted “creative class” might be able to move freely from city to city, making residency at best a temporary thing. Deep connections to cities, districts, neighborhoods and streets are lost. So much for that Jacobsian ideal. Those without the resources or opportunity to migrate will be stuck in communities plagued by capital flight. For a case in point, just look at Detroit. The fact that its population decline has actually slowed in recent years might mean that many would like to move but can’t. Is it okay to leave these large residual populations in the dust?

For me, this emerging consensus—like the old one it may be replacing—is not at all the human centered one called for in Death and Life. It is instead a variation on the same inherently unequal system of market led development that reflects terribly upon cities. On that score the times are not a-changin’. Some wisdom instead from the Talking Heads: Same as it ever was, same as it ever was, same as it ever was…

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Tags: detroitjane jacobsshanghai

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