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Urbanism at a Crossroads

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New Urbanism, with its focus on building walkable neighborhoods and reestablishing population density in the urban core and its ability to inspire generations of citizen planners, is among the most successful thought movements of our time. For decades, New Urbanist prophets like Andres Duany and James Howard Kunstler, building on the teachings of Jane Jacobs -- who first reminded us that cities should be planned for people, not ideologues or machines -- have articulated a compelling critique of auto-centric lifestyles, the plasticity of suburban existence and the unsustainable cost-burden of post-war American infrastructure.

The New Urbanist creed has been embraced by milliions of millenials, whose tastes trend away from cul-de-sacs and toward pedestrian-friendly, transit-oriented neighborhoods in proximity to lively commercial districts. But with a wave of hipsters and empty nesters now flocking to cities across the country, New Urbanism faces a new challenge: how to advocate for principles of good design and the re-densification of depopulated districts while respecting the people for whom urbanism is not new at all -- the folks who remained in struggling neighborhoods now seen as hot and bore the brunt of the ills in the era of industrial collapse and suburbanization.

The central organs of the New Urbanist and allied movements -- groups like the Congress on New Urbanism and Smart Growth America--have fostered a consciousness so pervasive that it underlies most of the seminal projects remaking the American city, from the parks proliferating on the Brooklyn piers to Boston's Big Dig, a $14 billion effort to bury a renewal-era highway that cut through downtown. These are no small achievements in a country whose politics are so thoroughly dominated by the overlords of the auto-oil Leviathan, a complex heavily invested in the old regime.

Part of New Urbanism's appeal is that it offers the prospect of spiritual redemption, a hope of putting the existential gloom and isolation of suburban existence behind us as we move toward more connected lives on walkable streets that foster cultural and commercial exchange. With a revival of the street, we can soothe the strife of what Kunstler calls, "a planet rife with suffering and tragedy, the spectacle of a clown civilization."

The apotheosis of the New Urbanist gospel -- which draws heavily on the geometries and densities of town planners from antiquity to early modern era -- is upon us in the form of the Great Inversion, a futurist phenomenon first noted by author Alan Ehrenhalt in which core urban neighborhoods with vital streets and mixed-use development are in such great demand by back-to-the city millenials that working class and poor folks who held down the fort in these places for a half-century are displaced to decaying suburbs.

The ugliness of this process, and its threat to the culture that is the cornerstone of true urbanism, is entirely evident in the East Coast capitals, where epidemics of gentrification are moving forward with haste in vast swaths of Brooklyn, Boston and Washington, D.C. New York and Washington saw substantial African-American population losses in the last Census, a trend that will only intensify as rents spiral out of control. While some of these residents cashed out their appreciated equity on the way out the door, most were renters who gained nothing from the process.

In the cultural sphere, the legacy of jazz, soul, Nuyurican culture and hiphop, America's greatest contributions to the global scene, are in peril in New York, a tale well told in the documentary Brooklyn Boheme, which details the transformation of the Fort Greene neighborhood from a hot-bed of the black arts movement to an epicenter of gentrification.

The challenge for New Urbanism is that, as a movement whose base is comprised largely of middle-class planning professionals, it has always been better at prescribing bump-outs, round-a-bouts and bike lanes than it is at confronting the gaping race and class divides that have long shaped the spatial and sociological realities of the American city. New Urbanism has fully absorbed the teachings of Jane Jacobs and others who had the courage and foresight to question the groupthink of Corbusier-inspired renewal planners. But the movement is less fluent in critical urban thinkers like Henri Levebre and David Harvey, who recognize that infrastructure improvements and design interventions of the kind favored by New Urbanists have huge impacts on real estate appreciation, rental markets and the demography and culture of place.

The tendency to fetishize design over social analysis surfaced last month at the bi-annual Congress on New Urbansim conference held in Buffalo. In covering the conference, Buffalo News reporter Colin Dabkowski issued a much-discussed public letter calling on the 1,400 congregated New Urbanists to deepen their analysis of how to improve the lives of residents living in neighborhoods far off the hipster map.

Dabkowski's critique came at a pivotal moment. With market pressures rising, Rust Belt capitals like Buffalo, Cleveland and Detroit are running out of time to redefine race-class relations in ways that diverge from the banalities and inequities of the Brooklyn model.

There are proven community development approaches for guarding against the threats of cultural and economic colonization inherent in the Great Inversion, and now is the time to adopt them in older cities throughout the northeast and midwest experiencing new growth after decades of decline. These strategies include Community Land Trusts, municipal Land Banks, and ambitious affordable housing programs like the one sought by Mayor Deblasio in a last ditch effort to preserve space for working people in New York.

These approaches emphasize the stewardship of land and property in ways that preserve space and generate wealth for low-income people as market pressures heat up. Community Land Trusts, which typically impose conditions of affordability on parcels held in trust, are often administered by high capacity community organizations. The best ones utilize community-engaged design processes that achieve the ideals of participatory democracy. Variations of the trust model have been employed to preserve affordability in gentrifying markets in the Dudley Street neighborhood in Boston, D.C., Albany, and more than thirty other cities.

PUSH Buffalo, the organization I direct, has assembled a trust of 100 parcels on the edge of a gentrifying district to preserve affordability over time, while demonstrating that low-income neighborhoods can lead the fight against climate change and create green jobs through intensive investments in weatherization and green affordable housing construction.

Municipal land banks, which got to scale first in Michigan, are also poised to define the shape of cities that have struggled with tax foreclosure and abandonment. Detroit's land bank, for example, will soon take title to 50,000 vacant parcels. Of these properties, the most critical to safeguard for affordable housing and community-engaged planning are those located in proximity to the city's Woodward Avenue growth corridor, which is attracting middle and upper-middle class residents. Most post-industrial cities have similar such growth districts -- Elmwood Village and the Medical Campus in Buffalo, the Euclid Avenue corridor connecting downtown to the Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland -- typically designed along New Urbanist principles and located in proximity to job centers and public transportation networks.

Establishing community land trusts and working with municipal land banks to meet ambitious affordable housing goals on the edges of these growth districts is the only surefire way to stave off displacement, hipster monoculture and extreme wealth disparity. Community development entities will only have the leverage they need to shape urban growth in an equitable way if they gain a foothold in emerging growth corridors before market appreciation kicks in.

With hype about the Rust Belt renaissance growing by the day, the window for investing in strategic land acquisition in neighborhoods that will see a flood of millenials in coming decades, putting existing residents at risk, is closing. Our cities, many of which have lost more than half of their populations since WW II, should welcome the newcomers, but only when a plan is in place to manage growth in ways that reduce the threat of displacement and accrue wealth for long-term residents. With relatively modest investment from governments and foundations in community-controlled land banks and housing development initiatives, the new American city could aspire to principles of equity and heterogeneity so central to the democratic ideal.