Populist urbanism: Beyond the creative class
A couple of recent stories on Better! Cities & Towns point to an ongoing problem: New Urbanism, smart growth, and related trends need to work on their appeal to working class and minority groups.
That may be one reason why Roxanne Qualls, mayor of Cincinnati in the 1990s, came far short on her bid to be elected again. Qualls built her campaign around support of the city’s streetcar. Qualls argued the streetcar is a key to economic growth in Cincinnati and that it will attract young, talented workers and connect the high-employment districts in the city. The $133 million streetcar has already begun construction with the aid of $44.9 million in federal grants. Mayor-elect John Cranley, Qualls’s opponent, promised to cancel the project.
Qualls is right. The streetcar would be good for Cincinnati. Canceling it will cost the city a pile of money and slow redevelopment of up-and-coming neighborhoods. Yet this position did not interest most voters. Minority voters mostly stayed home, even though city’s African-American Chamber of Commerce endorsed Qualls. The working class neighborhoods went for Cranley. Qualls won downtown and adjacent neighborhoods, but that only added up to 42 percent of the vote.
Qualls’s position of moving toward transportation choice was less appealing than Cranley’s emphasis on building a highway interchange and cutting other expenses. Many long-time citizens in the Queen City did not connect with the idea of fostering urban life through a walkable, transit-oriented city in this election.
Bicycles and black neighborhoods
A blog written by Jay Walljasper reports on the difficulty that bicycle planning often runs into in African-American neighborhoods. “Some residents even associate highly visible street changes, like bike lanes, with the displacement of long-time black residents in favor of younger, often white newcomers,” he writes. Walljasper offers tips for active transportation planners to speak to residents in less affluent minority neighborhoods.
Working class families in general, and minorities in particular, would benefit from planning that strengthens freedom in transportation. Many working class families spend more on transportation than they do on housing. Catherine Lutz and Anne Lutz-Fernandez, authors of the 2009 book Carjacked, report on the burden of automobile expenses on the less-well-off. "If the costs of cars for middle-class families have become largely unsustainable, those costs are immediately and profoundly crushing for working and poor families," they write.
Alternatives to the automobile and neighborhoods that are truly “car-optional” are empowering, therefore, to the poor and to the working class. If a family is able, through choice of neighborhood, to avoid spending 20 or 30 percent of its income on car expenses, what can that family do instead? Enjoy life more? Pay tuition so a member can go to college? Save a little for a rainy day? The possibilities are many.
The gentrification barrier
As the popularity of urban living grows, many neighborhoods in big cities have surged in value, displacing residents. However, studies also show that neighborhoods with no revitalization have higher displacement, because lack of opportunity and crime cause many more residents to leave.
I make a distinction therefore between revitalization that is desirable and necessary to avoid economic collapse and gentrification — when the truly rich arrive — that prices out the working class and poor.
Meanwhile, the young, educated, “creative class” is flocking to many downtowns and generating a degree of resentment among long-term residents. Millennials bring energy and vitality to cities as they struggle up the ladder of success, yet they are nevertheless sometimes dismissed as unserious “hipsters.”
It probably doesn’t help that urbanists are always talking about how the creative class will revitalize cities. That claim is true, but urbanists should also emphasize how cities — especially car-optional cities — empower people of all classes. By overemphasizing one demographic group, we send the message that other groups are not included in the urban renaissance.
One answer could be “Lean Urbanism,” an emerging set of ideas that are aligned with New Urbanism. Lean Urbanism is an answer, in a way, to gentrification. Millennials, immigrants, and people who work with their hands (also known as “self-builders”) have something in common, according to urban planner Andres Duany: They often don’t have the capital to get things done in today’s heavily-regulated urban places. Lean Urbanism is all about “lighter, quicker, cheaper” ways to revitalize cities and towns. It’s about streamlined codes and small-scale development that doesn’t require elevators and parking garages.
Recently in Detroit, I had an extended conversation with a bartender — a squat, bearded guy of about 30 whose name I never did learn. He and his wife are raising their two-year-old son in East Detroit, where you can buy a house for $5,000. He has personally fixed up three or four houses and rents them out. He and his wife also run a tea shop while he holds down the job tending bar. He’s not afraid to walk down most streets of Detroit, and the downtown has gotten a lot more livable in recent years despite the city’s bankruptcy.
This guy is practicing Lean Urbanism. Urbanists ought to be reaching out to people like him, and to everybody who is struggling to make things better in every city in America. We have to make the pitch that the city is not just for educated, mostly white, young professionals. There’s room and jobs and community enough for everyone in today’s resurgent cities.
New Urbanism is about safety and jobs and livability and freedom — that’s transportation choice — for everyone. Why can't smart growth adopt a more populist message? I don't have all the answers as to how that could happen. Yet advocates for walkable cities could lay the groundwork for our political leaders to run on a positive message of urban transformation.
Robert Steuteville is editor of Better! Cities & Towns.
For more in-depth coverage:
• Subscribe to Better! Cities & Towns to read all of the articles (print+online) on implementation of greener, stronger, cities and towns.
• Get the September-October 2013 issue. Topics: Phoenix: The ultimate car city seeks change, The end of the suburban era, Public housing towers, Upward mobility linked to walkability, 500 complete streets policies, Health in TODs, New Urbanism still on cutting edge, Seaside and Kentlands, The broad appeal of per-acre tax evaluation, Report calls for broad real estate reforms, Hamburg, NY, Urbanism Without Effort, Overcoming barriers to transit-oriented development, Is starchitecture compatible with New Urbanism? New Urban Update, CNU Charter Awards add topics, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk on New Urbanism impact
• Get New Urbanism: Best Practices Guide, packed with more than 800 informative photos, plans, tables, and other illustrations, this book is the best single guide to implementing better cities and towns.