Durable Growth, Government, Transportation

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 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 The Greater Marin.

Written by Anthony Ryan

Anthony Ryan

Anthony Ryan is an artist who teaches at San Francisco State University and Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill. He is interested promoting alternatives to car ownership in San Francisco. Anthony and his wife Sarah live in the Mission District of San Francisco and use public transit, car share, walking, and cycling to get around.

22 comments to Thoughts of a progressive urbanist

  • Anthony Ryan

    Elliot, that is fascinating!, so much for my blithe writing off of conservative urbanists. And I thought I had an uphill battle!

  • A well written piece, Anthony, of which I agree with you for the most part. My only comment would be on the architects-as-data-driven statement. Most of us, by nature, are not primarily this way, although architecture, being a marriage between science and art, requires us to think this way as part of the design process. Our clients, on the other hand, most often are entirely data driven (market, profit, etc.) Since we rely on clients for our existence, it’s easy to make the connection that we are this way as well. Architects are trained to consider many facets when designing buildings: use, budget, environment and yes, social implications as well. The problem is that the last two are often at the bottom of our clients priorities. Most architects that I know are both progressive and urbanists, and if we were independently wealthy (which 99.9% of us aren’t), we could fund and build the buildings we want.
    We have a saying: “The architectural profession would be wonderful if we didn’t have clients.”

  • But of course, I have worked with clients that do care about social issues and some architects (David Baker comes to mind) have almost specialized in projects with high sensitivity to its surrounding populace and clientele.

  • Anthony Ryan

    Hi again,
    After receiving his permission I thought I’d share an email response to this post I received from Alec Bash, he is probably well known to foks in the SF planning community. I just happened to chat with him this weekend while he was tabling for the yes on B campaign.

    Hi Anthony,

    Yes, and you make some good points. I totally understand emotion driving people to want to stop any new housing labeled luxury condominiums, even more so if also labeled highrise. Meanwhile, data drives people to believe that if such housing also contributes funds to build affordable housing, then it’s worthwhile. More data, that if it’s only 5-6 stories on The Embarcadero, it ain’t no wall.. but walls on the waterfront are Terrible. And if it’s 150-200′ back from The Embarcadero and much lower than neighboring highrises, it ain’t no Embarcadero Freeway risen from the dead…but that freeway was the most Terrible.

    You’re probably familiar with George Lakoff, the Berkeley linguist who made a big splash after the 2008 election with his book “Don’t Remember an Elephant”. He makes the point that if evidence doesn’t fit within one’s frame, it’s disregarded.

    It’s harder to understand people not liking public parks, but if they believe those parks somehow benefit a greedy developer, that’s another thing entirely. It’s like “red states” voters hating government even though they get much more back from the feds than the blue states. Sometimes reality begins to prevail over ideology, such as when big business decides it can’t just keep backing Tea Party Republicans if they’re gonna keep trying to shut government down and default on the nation’s credit limit if they can’t get their way. But not often.

    I try to confront rhetoric and ideology with reality, and I quickly see when I’m not making any headway. Maybe I need to include more rhetoric that fit others’ ideology…but the election’s only a week away, I expect almost half the people have already voted, and many are fixed hard in their positions at this point.


  • […] What Progressives and Urbanists Both Need to Realize, According to One Advocate (Vibrant Bay Area) […]

  • Oregon Mamacita

    “Urbanists are part of a professional class (architects, planners) who are by their nature and training data-driven thinkers.”

    Data driven? Money driven is more like it. Please be aware that the Urbanists profit from pro-rich person density. They are compromised. In Portland, global warming (a reality) is an excuse for non-green, greed driven projects by the development interests that are the big campaign contributors.

  • […] star of today’s story, Anthony Ryan, writes about how neoliberal urbanists and progressives can find common ground in the urbanist agenda. He expresses doubt that “conservatives in the US can be won over to […]

  • Henderson’s book is crap, over and above the clunky, academic prose style. I was here for the SF history he distorts, and it didn’t happen that way at all. I’ll be writing a review of the book on my blog sooner or later. I’ll send you a link when I do.

  • Anthony Ryan

    I’m looking forward to it Rob, but I’m also prepared to not be surprised. If you didn’t go in for constantly insulting and demonising people you disagree with I might be more inclined to hear you out.

  • Here’s a link to the first critical post of several I’ve made on the book:http://district5diary.blogspot.com/2013/11/street-fight-1.html

    Henderson is not just making the usual arguments in the bike versus car debate, he’s trying to re-write San Francisco’s history for the last ten years.

    Please provide some evidence that I demonize those I disagree with, though I do sometimes insult them.

  • Anthony Ryan

    Hi Rob,
    I’ve been checking it out. I obviously disagree with a lot of what you have to say about it. Would you like to do a point/counter point? Maybe VBA would be willing to publish it.

  • Okay with me. Let me know.

    • Anthony Ryan

      Ok Rob,
      Here is my proposal:
      We’ll have a point/counterpoint email exchange about Street Fight.
      First volley will state a position, respondent will then answer position and can present a new point. Let’s try to keep it fairly brief and focussed so that if some poor soul decides to read it they won’t go insane.

      If this sounds good I will use my home field advantage and email you my 2 cents frst. I have the email address from your blog, is that good?

  • Yes, my email address on the blog is good. And of course we should both post the exchange on our blogs. Bring it on!

  • On second thought, maybe we should give Vibrant Bay Area exclusive publication rights to the exchange, since it was your idea.

  • What happened to Anthony Ryan’s point/counterpoint proposal? Ready to go anytime on this end.

  • Dave:
    If you’re not going to post the exchange after all, let me know and I’ll post it on my blog.