Thoughts of a progressive urbanist

The author on a Citibike.

The author enjoying a docked Citibike.

When Citibike debuted in NYC in May of this year I happened to be visiting while on tour with a choir I sing in. As a pro-bicycle, three-year car-free San Franciscan I was giddy about the Citibike launch, I even posed for a photo on one out of sheer exuberance on the day before they were made available.

The Citibike launch is now history and the prediction of the streets of NYC running with the blood of neophyte bikers turned out to be overblown but one impression from that weekend has stayed with me: two of my friends there, both life-long New Yorkers, one progressive, one conservative, agreed: they hated Citibike.

The conservative friend parroted the Murdoch papers’ complaints: it will be a bloodbath, old ladies will be knocked over willy-nilly, cyclists are lawless, non-taxpaying “hipsters” and clueless liberals heedless to the safety of themselves and others. The progressive friend, equally scornful, rattled off the progressive objections; Citibank is the Great Satan; why are we plastering our city with ads to these robber barons? Why is this program confined to wealthy white neighborhoods?

These positions illustrate the extreme political poles of the urbanism debate Jason Henderson so brilliantly frames in his great book, Street Fight: The Politics of Mobility in San Francisco. The middle position or “third way “ not depicted in my representation of the Citibike debate is the neo-liberal position (pro-Citibike), with which I think most self-described urbanists would identify. David Edmondson [ed. – founder of this blog] is an example.

It’s doubtful conservatives in the US can be won over to some of the core tenants of urbanism. Automobility is a defining characteristic of American conservatism. Fears of Agenda 21 and “one world government,” hostility towards the nanny state, and climate change skepticism make urbanism anathema to even mainstream conservatives.

Progressives however, can and should be persuaded to support urbanism’s goals. While progressives and urbanists often clash, recently and most visibly in the Bay Area over the question of gentrification (the Google Bus phenomenon) and labor issues (the BART strike), I believe these two groups have much more in common than they have in conflict.

Progressives and urbanists are united over the urgency of climate change and environmental degradation. In general, progressives and urbanists can agree on the need for revitalized cities as a solution, but they often part company with how to get there.

Neo-liberal urbanists offer market solutions to these problems, and view “livability” as an urban quality best viewed as a commodity. Progressives stress state solutions and social justice as integral to the project of urbanism.

Many progressives perceive “livability” as synonymous with gentrification. These progressives see parklets, bike lanes, bike share and events like Sunday Streets in San Francisco as part of an insidious march towards a city of privilege, for the rich only. I have even encountered progressives who defend access to cheap parking and automobility for the poor and working classes as a social justice issue.

My experience with these issues comes from my perspective as a resident of San Francisco. As a progressive sympathetic to urbanist goals, my desire is to appeal to both sides in this debate and harness the energy of both groups to drive a move towards dense, low-carbon, livable cities. If I could talk to both sides in this debate in this moment I would say this:

To urbanists

Stop focusing your support on high-end development and be more sensitive to the problems caused by gentrification. Gentrification reduces economic and class diversity and decreases a city’s cultural capital by displacing the creative class that makes the city attractive to begin with.

As well, it displaces the poor and working class folks who are the perfect constituency for public transit. These people end up moving to the outer urban core and contribute to increased automobility as a result. Likewise, high-income folks are generally wedded to automobility, their injection into the urban fabric in parking intensive developments increases automobility in the city.

The optics of luxury developments, like San Francisco’s 8 Washington, further drive a wedge between progressives and urbanists.

Urbanists are part of a professional class (architects, planners) who are by their nature and training data-driven thinkers. This fact blinds urbanists to the importance and validity of emotional responses to the use of urban space. Nothing could be more emotional in some ways than an individual’s identification with the place they live.

Urbanists should be wary of their own predilection to dismiss and belittle emotional reactions to development and gentrification particularly when they enter the political realm (as through Proposition B, which would approve 8 Washington) to further their goals.

To progressives

Livability is not gentrification, and anti-growth is not anti-gentrification.

Improvements to livability in the public space benefit all classes. Stop singling out parklets and bike lanes as evil, and learn to support increased density near transit. Dense development will increase housing stock and drive down displacement, reducing dependence on automobility among the poor and working class by providing a more robust (and yes, partially higher-end) constituency for public transit.

Acknowledge that dense development is inevitable, and that some of it will be luxury. As Edmondson has written before, luxury developments can and do take pressure off the housing market by shifting demand from existing “low-end” housing stock, thereby easing the market and slowing displacement.

Opposition to automobility should be a progressive social justice issue. The primacy of cars in the city places undue strain on poor and working class folks. It clogs our streets and slows public transit. A bifurcated, inequitable system, where the poor depend on transit slowed and made unreliable by the rich driving around them, is the result. The costs of car ownership – insurance, maintenance, and parking fines – are all borne disproportionately by working folks. Freeing them from automobility will engender increased social mobility.

Poor and working class neighborhoods near freeways and high-traffic city streets disproportionately suffer the worst health effects of automobility’s pollution. High rates of cancer and respiratory problems are the result. Globally, the effects of climate change brought about largely by car- and carbon-intensive cities will hit the world’s poor hardest.

Mostly, let’s all break free of the zero-sum tenor of internet discourse. Stop yelling past one another and listen. If we agree to do that, progressives and urbanists working together can achieve the common goal of sustainable cities. The time to make history is now. Let’s be the change we want to see.

Cross-posted with Vibrant Bay Area.


7 Responses to Thoughts of a progressive urbanist

  1. Richard Hall says:

    Some of the discussion here seems to be a good fit for existing urbanized areas of cities and the Bay Area, but they are dangerous in the context of Marin:

    You state: “Acknowledge that dense development is inevitable, and that some of it will be luxury.”

    In return I would say “acknowledge that Marin is a beautiful place, it should accept some growth via continued low density infill, perhaps a little high density in downtown San Rafael; but it should be shielded from urbanization”.

    Then I see the demonization of the automobile and the “swimming upstream” arguments kicking in of an urbanist true believer. Outside cities the automobile has become the preferred transit mode – people have voted with their dollars, per capita transit usage in the Bay Area has dropped since the early 80’s *despite* massive investments in extending fixed guide rail like VTA and extending BART.

    In areas that are urban and the density supports it, then indeed bikes and rail may be justified (I share your skepticism of your friends’ opposition to the bikes in NYC – straight out of the Daily Mail). But imposing rail and defunding automobile infrastructure in suburban and rural areas is “swimming upstream”, a denial of realities and ultimately an irresponsible use of finite resources (taxes).

    I think there should be a balance – a plan for swimming downstream, a plan that is not a one size fits all:

    – IN URBAN AREAS, where urbanization is appropriate, acceptable (E.g. downtown areas of cities in the South and East Bay, SF) then go for bikes, buses and rail (again only if justified)

    – IN SUBURBAN AND RURAL AREAS concede that getting people out of their cars is like Aesop’s fable with the wind trying to get the cloak off the central character. People will clutch ever more tightly to their cars. In Europe despite gas costing double and high parking charges in these areas people continue to use their cars. Embrace a different approach, swimming downstream. Embrace improved bus systems, subsidized fares for low income riders, encourage car chaining, encourage subsidized zip cars and systems like Lyft.

    I think the biggest obstacle here is that you, Dave Edmondson, would like to see Marin urbanized. I would suggest that the majority of Marinites, if polled, would disagree with you. They’d accept some progress – but we’ve already seen resistance, and horror, at the arrival of Tamal Vista in Corte Madera. They’d accept continued slow, low density infill growth.

    In Aesop’s fable you need to be the sun, not the wind trying to make the man remove his cloak. Only the sun’s gentle positive persuasion succeeded.

    • printtemps says:

      Richard, I guess you are not my audience but I would ask you to consider how strategic density and improved transit in Marin can help maintain open space and quality of life. None of this is zero sum, some people will keep driving, some will choose not to if you give them choices. The problem now is that in a place like Marin, opting out of automobility is opting out of full citizenship in a way.
      Maybe the the wind can get the man to adjust his cloak slightly, an off the shoulder look perhaps.

      • Richard Hall says:

        This line of thinking – if you’re talking “workforce housing” makes flawed assumptions like…
        – “if they built a house/apartment near where I work I would move to it”
        – “my job / job location never changes BUT if it did I would soon move to a location near there”
        – “I’d prefer to live in an apartment / smaller house /yard nearer to where I work than where I live now”
        – “I am prepared to move away from friends / family…”
        – “school districts make little or no difference to me”
        – “if I move to nearer my work, then the person who moves into my old place will shorten their commute too”

        I’ll ask the question – given your situation if housing was made available right across the street from where you work, but it was considerably smaller than your present house, would you move there?

        If you lived in Vallejo and worked in San Rafael, then moved to San Rafael, would the person who moved into your old Vallejo house from Fairfield that worked in Vallejo not now find themselves in commute range of higher paying jobs in SF and be willing to commute there too? They were already predisposed to commute long distance for a higher wage.

        I like the off the shoulder comment 🙂

      • Richard Hall says:

        I see your line of thinking is not so much workforce housing , but that if you opt out of automobility you opt out of full citizenship.

        The implication is if you opt out of mobility that your existing suburban or rural location be made urban to suit your preference – notwithstanding the views of the existing residents. A better solution is that if you opt out of automobility there are many available urban locations better suited to your needs.

        Taking this further one might say there are some suburban locations where the residents may choose (if properly consulted) to embrace densification and those may better suit your preference.

        Bottom line – who gets to impose on whom their preference?
        – if Jane wants to opt out automobility should her suburb forfeit it’s low densities and urbanize
        – if John wants his suburb to remain low density and low rise should his view prevail?
        – Should this not be put to a vote? (rather than decided by JPAs, politicians who are susceptible to influence by special minority interests that may differ from the majority)
        – If the area is a very beautiful rural / suburban area should that be taken into account?
        – if the water supply doesn’t support densification should that be taken into account?
        – if there are existing acute congestion issues, which urbanizing would exacerbate should this be considered / dealt with first?

        • Franz Listen says:


          Regarding your last bullet……. We can have places that are compact where destinations are never far. These places will tend to be congested. We can loosen up the congestion by spreading things out. In these places, however, destinations will be relatively far away. There is no free lunch and people will end up paying the transportation gods either way.

          You wonder about infill development exacerbating the congestion problem. However, the flip side of this coin is a worry that a spread-out development will exacerbate the distance problem.

          The compact place at least opens up the possibility that things might be close enough for people to walk or bike. I think of this as the heart and soul of “urbanism”. That word has lots of shades of meaning in English, but I see it as more closely related to walkability than to high densities. By this definition, the Loop in Chicago can be urban but so can a tiny village in Denmark, or a village-like neighborhood in Marin.

          Seen this light, there is a considerable diversity of places in Marin. We have very low-density, truly rural areas, along with fairly spread-out, low density, car-oriented areas and modest density “urban” village areas. And all of these very different types of places are considered “suburban”.

          I think that there’s lots of consensus in Marin about keeping the rural areas rural. I also think that there are lots of protections for single family residential neighborhoods in Marin. The controversy mainly surrounds what should be allowed to happen to underutilized parcels that fall outside of single-family residentially zoned areas. (think Northgate, Tamal Vista, Redwood Blvd, etc).

          How those decisions get made (or should get made) is fundamental, as you suggest, and also very complex. I see three camps, who tend to articulate the following:

          1) A dense urbanism is empirically better for society. Therefore, it should be imposed using any regulatory or fiscal tools available to government. Urbanism must solve a wide range of societal ills.

          2) Marin = suburban. Suburban = low-density, car-oriented, and mid-to-late 20th century-style development. Therefore, any attempt to allow development that doesn’t fit this template will turn Marin into the Bronx and ruin it.

          3) We should allow the marketplaces to determine some outcomes. Let’s allow for a reasonably-scaled urbanism in certain places, with an emphasis on walkability, and see what happens. Let’s put the emphasis on choice (and not mandates) and retain some humility and modesty about the ultimate societal benefits.

    • Elaine Clegg says:

      You forget that low density development, even infill, equates to more land consumed somewhere (even if not in your neck of the woods) and also that some density doesn’t mean uniform high density. It can mean choosing discrete activity center locations where transit service and destinations come together to infill at higher densities, many of these can be at quite small scale – say one to four quality buildings with 40-120 units total. (BTW we have built some really bad density in the last 50 years that is not at all urban, so design plays a big role as well.) Each of these activity centers might mean 20 acres or so of less land consumed overall. These activity centers can also provide real benefits to existing residents by making it possible to change at least some of their trips to walking or biking or at very least making some of the auto trips much shorter. In the aggregate the cumulative GHG savings, increased local use of disposable income and increased opportunity for local business development is good for everyone. In addition the costs of building and maintaining infrastructure systems at low density eventually doesn’t add up for local governments, so another benefit is added revenue to support those areas already suburbanized. Urbanizing doesn’t mean an uniform change across all of Marin, it should mean identifying those places it does make sense and allowing it there. This isn’t an either/or – urban core/rural equation. Its a continuum where aggregate cumulative environmental, social and economic benefits can add up to something very big. Asking only a few places to carry the all of burden while I choose my automobile dependency and be damned with the cumulative impacts because my place is ‘special’ is really not progressive at all.

  2. dw shelf says:

    As usual, the view from the left ignores the elephant: crime.

    Given current political climate, we’re to choose between
    1. low crime high density (gentrification)
    2. high crime high density (class diversity)
    3. low crime suburbanization & automobile dependence

    When the left can figure out how to be class sensitive while being crime intolerant, their density goals will become more broadly palatable.

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