To Save Urban Planners, Cities Need Community Organizers

A new book lifts the veil on what has happened to urban planning, and why it's worth saving.

Bronx tenants march to show their support of better policies to protect themselves and their neighborhoods from displacement. (Photo by Oscar Perry Abello)

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Samuel Stein’s earliest memory of urban planning as a profession is knowing of a friend of his parents at their synagogue, when he was growing up, who worked in city planning for the City of Providence.

“I’m pretty sure he was my first introduction to planning, but I didn’t really get what he did,” Stein says as we await our shawarma at Ruzana, which he says once claimed to be the first real shawarma joint in the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn he now calls home.

After post-college stints as a knish salesman and a fishmonger, Stein eventually landed a job with a union, researching arguments against development projects mostly for the sake of union jobs, and less, he says, for the sake of the things being argued for — arguments for environmental responsibility, for less traffic and particularly for more low-income housing. As he formulated arguments for those things, however, Stein came closer to his true calling.

“That experience is what motivated me to pursue planning,” he says. “I was interacting with planners all the time.”

He got a masters in urban planning at Hunter College, part of the City University of New York (CUNY) system. “I came in [to the program] being angry at the way planning was being done, but wanting to think through if there was a better way to do this and how can we change it,” he says. “I still believe that. I want more planning in the world, not less. I still believe in the idea of planning. But I was really coming in with these two specific questions.”

Those two specific questions are now the central questions of his first book, “Capital City: Gentrification and the Real Estate State,” out March 5 from Verso Books. The two questions: How do we make places better without sparking gentrification? And just how much planning will the system tolerate, especially in the economic and industrial realms?

If those questions don’t make it clear enough, this is a book that centers on planners and the power and place they hold within the political economy of cities in the U.S. While the book has a focus on New York, the city Stein knows best, it is very much a cautionary tale for other cities. The historical narratives that Stein uses to introduce planning’s historical role are certainly present in practically every city in the country.

Speaking generally, planners themselves weren’t asked to approve the violent takeover of indigenous lands in the Americas by imperial European conquerors. Planners themselves didn’t devise the idea to segregate U.S. cities by race. And they couldn’t by themselves fuel the mass displacement of neighborhoods of color for the sake of highways out to the suburbs or other grandiose public projects. But, as Stein argues in the book, by the nature of their profession, planners have played key roles in all of these historical narratives, proposing and implementing zoning ordinances and land use policies in service of the larger political and economic forces that did demand those things.

Stein’s book makes the case that planners today find themselves at the unchecked mercy of global finance, for whom real estate is now valued at some $217 trillion. That’s 60 percent of global assets, and three-quarters of those assets are in housing. He argues that no effective counterweight exists right now to the voices and interests of finance — as there have been, at times, in the past, and there could be again. Without an effective counterweight, nothing will push back against the constant pressure to drive up real estate values as the end goal or as an essential means to other ends. It reduces planners to mere wealth managers, wittingly or unwittingly.

“Planners tend to be inordinately nice people,” Stein writes. “They gravitate to the profession out of a desire to help their cities and improve living conditions for their neighbors. Most planners do not seek to line the pockets of wealthy elites or displace the poor. And yet that is exactly what has happened, again and again, in city after city, across the United States and throughout the capitalist world. If the personal motivations of planners cannot explain this dynamic, how do we account for it?”

At times, Stein argues, the key planners at the mercy of those larger forces are given the unenviable task of making things appear otherwise.

“Planners operate in a system that must appear open to the public, while simultaneously guaranteeing that ultimate power resides in the hands of propertied elites,” Stein writes. “It can be a really shitty job.”

Now working on his doctoral dissertation in geography at the CUNY Graduate Center, Stein still considers himself a planner.

“I expect people who are actually working planners to read this book and I want them to know this is coming from a person who sees himself among that group and is frustrated by the way that it currently is,” he tells me over his falafel shawarma.

He also wrote the book with another audience in mind — community organizers and tenants, many of whom he once worked alongside as an organizer with the statewide housing advocacy nonprofit Tenants & Neighbors. Stein invited some of those organizers to speak at the launch event for his book, held at the Verso Books Loft on a cold, windy February Monday night in Brooklyn.

There was Shellyne Rodriguez of Take Back the Bronx, Esteban Girón of the Crown Heights Tenants Union, Raquel Namuche with the Ridgewood Tenants Union, and Rob Robinson, co-founder of the Take Back the Land Movement and a longtime member of Picture the Homeless — a research and advocacy group founded and led by people who are currently or have previously been homeless.

“They’re all people I’ve worked with for years,” Stein says. “I wanted [the launch event] to be a panel of activists, people who I felt would want to use this book rather than just study it or teach it. They’re really the people I had in mind when I was writing it, so it meant a lot to me to hear what they thought of the book and how they wanted to use it.”

Rodriguez called the book a masterpiece. “It shows us what happened in the past, who’s responsible for what, and it shows us an entry point in the form of planners,” she said at the launch event.

Girón highlighted the agenda items and recommendations included toward the end of the book, dwelling on the fact that these ideas aren’t Stein’s; Stein pulled them from the existing work of organizers around the state, not just the city. “It’s inspiring to think that there are other people who might want to join in on this,” he said.

Namuche says the book got her thinking more and more about planners. “I’ve never really thought about how to use them. I have a lot of friends who are planners, and we could use their knowledge if we get them on our side. They have to plan for us, and not use zoning as a tool to displace us,” she said.

As if to stamp their own seal of approval that this was a legitimate city planning event, white men were the first seven out of the first eight audience members at the launch event who lined up to ask questions — a pattern consistent with planning meetings across the country, apparently. (The mic did eventually pass to voices in the room that were more representative of New York City.)

At a separate but recent gathering at the University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, a panel of developers with large-scale projects and ties to global finance faced the question of whether cities and planners are pushing them hard enough when it came to mandated housing affordability levels or other community benefits. At one point, developers responded that they were ahead of or exceeding new mandates placed upon them — suggesting that yes, planners and cities could push developers harder, even in a city like Detroit where one of the developers was active.

The real challenge of today, as Stein points out, is finding the political means to shift the frame of what’s considered possible.

“That’s what brought me to organizing instead of going into planning,” Stein says. “I wanted to be with the people creating the conditions on the ground that the planners had to respond to.”

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Oscar is Next City's senior economic justice correspondent. He previously served as Next City’s editor from 2018-2019, and was a Next City Equitable Cities Fellow from 2015-2016. Since 2011, Oscar has covered community development finance, community banking, impact investing, economic development, housing and more for media outlets such as Shelterforce, B Magazine, Impact Alpha and Fast Company.

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Tags: new york cityurban planninginclusionary zoning

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