Democratic Planning in the Age of Urban Freeways and Today

I finished reading two very different, but equally interesting and informative, recent urbanist-y books over Shabbat. The first is Akum Norder’s The History of Here, a fun and talented Albany writer’s look into the history of her family’s house, the people who have inhabited it, and the life of the neighborhood around it. The second is Karilyn Crockett’s People Before Highways, an ethnographic and historical look of the anti-freeway movement in the Boston area in the 1960s and ‘70s. Both books are worthy of a full-scale review that I may or may not be able to undertake at some point, but I wanted to pull out a common element that I think makes for an interesting, and very relevant, point of discussion: the question of how democratic planning should be, and how that should look.

Let’s start with People Before Highways. Crockett’s work is essentially an ode to the grassroots anti-highway backlash that transformed transportation policy in Massachusetts and led to the end of freeway building inside the Route 128 beltway and the ability to “flex” federal transportation spending from highways to transit. Boston’s anti-freeway coalition was a broad–and varying at different times–group of institutions, scholars, “radical” planners like future Massachusetts Secretary of Transportation Fred Salvucci, and community members. The last element is perhaps the most interesting; participants ranged from tenant activists in public housing to Black Panthers to patricians in Brookline and Cambridge to people we would now identify as first-wave gentrifiers in the South End and my own neighborhood of Jamaica Plain. This coalition demanded not just an end to highway building, but also to the heavy-handed way in which the freeways had been planned, and significant amounts of land taken, with virtually no opportunity for public input. Crockett wastes no opportunity to remind the reader that the demands of the Boston anti-highway movement were not just specifically anti-highway, but processually radical and progressive in their insistence on the distribution of power.

Certainly, the righteousness of the Boston anti-highway, pro-public participation cause is not in dispute; it’s a difficult book to read for a professional planner. One thing that strikes me about Crockett’s work, though–and it’s a problem I’ve seen elsewhere in leftist planning thinking and writing–is that her narrative is shaped by a powerful nostalgia for the kind of grassroots planning and localist democracy that her subjects believed in, but doesn’t engage with some of the potential challenges of a highly democratic process. Indeed, some of the potential challenges with such a process show up even within her own research. In the sixth chapter of the book, Crockett profiles the planning process around the creation of the Southwest Corridor linear park, by all accounts pretty much a triumph of democratic planning that created a valuable community amenity and showpiece to this day. The cracks in the process of democratic planning, though, show through this account. Crockett shows how the South End community was able to demand that the Southwest Corridor trench through their area be roofed over to reduce noise, pollution, and vibration. This is, of course, not an unreasonable ask–but Crockett’s account makes it clear that the presence of educated, middle class people in the neighborhood, including some who we would clearly call gentrifiers today, was what got the deck built in that section, but not elsewhere in the Southwest Corridor. Why, one thinks today, is the trench not decked through Roxbury and Jamaica Plain? I lived a block from the trench for my first 10 months in Boston, and one can feel the vibrations and hear the roar from passing trains. A purely “democratic” planning process is already one that gives greater voice to those able to shout loudest–and Crockett’s account of the decking of the South End trench shows how this can lead to opportunities being available inequitably.

Crockett also narrates the process for planning the park that went on top of the South End trench, and if anything it reveals more of the cracks in the facade of democratic-planning-as-magical-cure. She writes:

By removing the railroad’s stone embankment and inserting decking along segments of each section of the Corridor, the Southwest Corridor planners knit together neighborhoods that had been physically separated for more than a century. Not every resident viewed this as social progress…The existing railroad right-of-way created a dividing line between the South End and St. Botolph neighborhoods. Though these two areas held only slightly different economic profiles, their racial and ethnic compositions could not have been more different. St. Botolph residents constituted a largely homogeneous block of white families and some professionals working in the city. Though they themselves were city dwellers, many St. Botolph residents looked askance at the idea that deck cover would allow other urban neighbors easy access to parts of their neighborhood previously blocked by the railroad. These residents used the Corridor’s public meetings to voice their opposition. (p. 187)

In other words, the residents of St. Botolph engaged in fairly standard-issue urban racism, classism, and (one would imagine, given the increasing gay population of the South End at the time) not a small amount of homophobia–and saw in the democratic Southwest Corridor planning process an opportunity to (very democratically!) write their oppressive agenda in concrete. Unfortunately, Crockett’s handling of this rather obvious challenge to the viability of democratic planning is less than inspiring. 

By listening and respecting the concerns of residents, [Southwest Corridor planners] were able to identify an architectural strategy that was responsive to the demands of St. Botolph’s residents but did not subvert the overall public planning agenda for the Corridor…[they developed] designs for a removable fence that could be unbolted at a later date should the neighborhood change its mind. Unfortunately, the design was compromised by another decision to lay granite at the base of the fencing, and when St. Botolph’s residents did, in fact, reverse their decision and requested direct access to the Corridor Park, it was no longer possible. (p. 188)

One must, I suppose, applaud the Corridor planners for their commitment to democracy, inasmuch as they were committed to listening to, to the point of acting to some extent on, an obviously bigoted agenda. To this day, many streets on the western side of the Southwest Corridor in this area dead-end at the Corridor Park with a wall or fence of some considerable height rising to prevent what should be an obvious pedestrian connection.

blackwood barrier

A democratically erected barrier preventing easy pedestrian access to the Southwest Corridor Park, Blackwood Street, Boston.

Crockett calls this “The seeming contradiction of a connective landscape needing to reconcile itself with existing race and class divisions and residents’ divergent opinions about what to do about them,” (p. 188) but–especially as one of the direct inheritors of the conflict around transportation planning in Boston–this feels like an unsatisfying resolution to me. Many of Crockett’s interviewees for the book talk about how they saw themselves as “advocacy planners,” adherents of a mid-’60s theory that planners should not be impartial experts, but advocates for the oppressed in society. It seems to me that there’s an obvious tension between this identification and engaging in a planning process that encodes racial and class injustice (literally building fences!) in the built environment in the name of “democracy.” While incredibly valuable for its documentation of the Boston anti-highway movement, and its repetition of the lesson that megalomaniacal centralized planning is generally abusive, People Before Highways would be more useful and convincing if it grappled honestly and openly with some of the shortcomings of the democratic, grassroots visions of planning that it advocates.

Akum Norder’s book, too, offers a lesson on this topic–and perhaps the juxtaposition of the two narratives can allow us to draw some conclusions about the intellectual and social milieu of participatory planning and its challenges. Norder’s book is an ode to her Pine Hills neighborhood, an absolutely lovely streetcar suburb-era area that reminds me strongly of the Westville section of New Haven where I grew up. Pine Hills originally and today is a strongly middle-class area with a strong communal identity; but it’s had its ups and downs, borders the “student ghetto,” and generally has some reasonable fear of tipping into neighborhood decline in the same way that most middle-class areas in cities that aren’t part of the overheated coastal housing markets do. As such (and seeing that many of the residents are educated, have money, or both), these neighborhoods are ripe for democratic, grassroots organizing around the issue of perceived problems–and using a democratic planning process to deal with them in a way that may work well for the neighborhood but not always for those pushed out as a result.

Norder profiles one such case (though without the slightly negative valence I’m attaching to it). She writes, on pages 204-205, of a property on the corner of North Allen and Lancaster that, at 5,921 square feet, held by the early 2000s twenty-six units. That is, of course, far more than current zoning would allow, but most of the neighborhood is nonconforming and grandfathered anyhow. Normally, such properties can continue unmolested unless the owner requests a change of use or makes major modifications; but city code allows for the property to be forced into conformance if it’s declared a nuisance property. And since the building in question does appear to have genuinely been a nuisance property, generating fights, noise, and an astonishing number of police calls, the local neighborhood association took the opportunity to force a zoning board hearing. They won, and the landlord had to empty the building to cut its units down to the allowed two.

So, on the one hand, this is a victory for a democratic planning process and for community concerns. The area residents took on a nuisance landlord, used the objective rule of law, and made their neighborhood a better place. Bully for them–we should encourage everyone to care about their neighborhoods like that. On the other hand, we’re talking about a process–a very democratic process–that led directly to the eviction of at least twenty-four people, with those who provoked it presumably taking no financial responsibility for their relocation. This being Albany, where rents are generally cheap, I think it’s reasonable to assume that few of those people were displaced from the area entirely; most were probably able to find housing relatively close, and quite possibly at not much increased rent. So the result isn’t necessarily the worst. But what if it weren’t Albany? What if this were a property in Boston, where rents are triple or quadruple what they are in Albany? Would we tolerate a neighborhood group getting together to democratically destroy what’s effectively an SRO, a vanishing resource for the very poor? How should a progressive advocacy planner react to this scenario?

I don’t have a coherent set of answers to these questions yet. But I think they’re crucially important to ask. And I think it’s important to recognize that the historical and socioeconomic context in which calls for grassroots, democratic planning came around has in many cases vanished. The type of democratic planning Kaitlyn Crockett profiles so well was a product of a city under siege, under threat of imminent literal physical destruction. Places like Albany may well still feel a lessened version of that threat. But in Boston, today, it’s gone. There is still a threat of displacement and destructive change, but it comes from the opposite end of the spectrum, from a hyperactive real estate market and the desire of many more people than the city has been willing to build housing for wanting to live here. Already in the time period that Crockett narrates privileged voices were figuring out how to use the democratic planning process to subvert planning aims of social justice and integration. We can’t, and we won’t, throw out the baby of democratic planning and extensive public outreach with the bathwater of urban renewal and highway building.  But we can, and must, recognize that there are tensions between promising all comers a democratic process and achieving egalitarian, democratic outcomes. Just this past week the Globe wrote about how Boston’s input-based sidewalk-repair system is failing poorer neighborhoods that are less likely to call in for repairs. Is it possible, one must ask, that planners again need to start putting our thumbs on the scales of justice–this time, to tip them back toward the right?

Featured image source:


Itinerance is Not a Sin

It’s the beginning of the school year, so I’ve been sadly neglecting my little blog in favor of, well, schoolwork and a new internship.That being said, I missed an opportunity a few weeks ago to write on an issue that’s near and dear to my heart (and indeed, core to the mission of this blog), so hopefully this post will get me back on track a little.

It’s easy to make fun of the anti-gentrification politics of the progressive Left. They tend to come out in nearly incomprehensible social-activist jargon that contradicts the movement’s claim to populism. They tend to come out of ivory-tower academic circles that many Americans can’t relate to. But–as someone who identifies with progressivism, although not with this breed of of the Left–I think these politics, these ideas, matter. And some of them are really, really terrible.

Lisa Gray-Garcia’s August 11th piece in Truthout titled “Decolonization and Gentrification: Confronting the Gentrifier in All of Us” is one of those terrible ideas. Amidst a stream of anti-displacement rhetoric, some of it vaguely reasonable and some of it absurdly over the top, Gray-Garcia gives us this gem of anti-gentrification logic:

If we want to stop the high-speed gentrification, maybe we should do it ourselves. Maybe we should do what I teach students at PeopleSkool at POOR Magazine: to de-gentrify you must go back home. To decriminalize, you must set up systems of accountability and community care-giving. To stop displacement, you must stop seeking out places that are “fun,” “trendy,” exciting or convenient, but rather stay in your cities and towns of origin, embracing the comfortable rooms that your parents have or had for you. Stop ghettoizing your elders and hiring people to take care of your children and grandparents – do it yourselves.

That’s right: for one Lisa Gray-Garcia, the solution to gentrification is to do what many non-gentrifying Millenials find themselves forced to do these days: stay home indefinitely.

I’m not going to take down Gray-Garcia’s article point-for-point, because that would be silly. It also wouldn’t really be in keeping with what I want to say here. Gray-Garcia’s piece is remarkable not because it represents not a mainstream piece of leftist anti-gentrification politics, but the logic of those politics taken to its logical extreme. It’s an argument with three core tenets:

  1. Mobility of populations in a capitalist society must inevitably result in large-scale displacement
  2. The solution is to restrict, rather than accommodate, that movement
  3. Public policy and individual ethics should support restrictions on movement rather than system- or institutional- level integration of existing and new populations.

As such, lefty “solutions” to the gentrification and affordability crisis–which, in a limited number of cities in this country, is a very real, very serious thing!–tend to focus on protecting existing populations rather than trying to find a way to accommodate growth and population mobility. Policies like rent control, building moratoriums, and even inclusive zoning primarily or exclusively benefit people who already live in the area, and thereby leave newcomers of all social classes out in the cold, sometimes literally.

Classically-leaning economists will gleefully point out that these policies typically result in depression of new housing supply, and therefore rising housing prices as the rich inevitably and invariably buy their way into places they want to be, despite the best intentions of policymakers. I think that’s more or less correct. But my concern is more philosophical. Exceptionally high mobility has long been a defining characteristic of the American workforce. And even though it’s been falling recently, our workforce mobility is much higher than in most other Western countries. Why, exactly, is the anti-gentrification Left engaged in a war on worker mobility? Are not the most vulnerable populations the ones most likely to be forced into migration for economic reasons? And if mobility is the cause of gentrification and displacement, why do we think restricting it will work even as gentrification has accelerated at the same time as mobility has declined?

And there’s one thing about mobility that, I think, the Left’s solutions just don’t take into account. Despite the decline, it’s not going away–and it’s not always voluntary. Last year Cap’n Transit had a thoughtful post identifying “Five migrations in gentrification,” and it’s worth looking at the Cap’n’s categories as a way of thinking about how to cope with gentrification. Several of them do indeed represent optional flows, people using their economic privilege to insert themselves back into the city life that they or their parents or grandparents had abandoned decades ago. But I’m most intrigued by the Cap’n’s last category:

There’s a fifth migration that I think doesn’t get enough attention: the small city exiles. These are people who are not the best or the brightest, or complete misfits, but they’re pretty bright, mildly kinky or noticeably nonconformist. Or maybe they can’t drive because they’re blind or epileptic (I learned about this last one from Sally Flocks), or they just don’t want to. Eighty years ago they’d have been pretty happy in Rochester or Knoxville or Omaha or San Luis Obispo: reasonably normal, functioning members of society, with enough peers to have a stimulating intellectual and artistic fellowship.

Today, those towns have hardly any jobs at all, especially within walking distance of downtown, shopping and services are sprawled out across the area, and transit between them is inconvenient. With this fragmentation, they can barely sustain a monthly open mike or an Indian restaurant, let alone a poetry slam or a regional Thai place. Our heroes – somewhat large fish in not-so-large ponds – see the grim desperation in the faces of their older neighbors and head to the bigger cities, where there are more opportunities, not just for jobs but for dinner after 8PM.

Certainly, there is an element of choice and privilege in the migration from small cities to large, especially as the Cap’n has framed it; after all, it is largely the best and brightest of those smaller areas who move away. But it’s not all about privilege, and there are, of course, messy areas where choice and need blend together.

And the question of movement from smaller cities to larger ones is a very personal one for me. I grew up largely in New Haven (population about 130,000 in 2010), and I now live in Albany (just under 100,000). I’m in Albany because my partner got exceptionally lucky, and got a wonderful, challenging, well-paying job here with New York State right out of college. But I’m eight months away from graduating from grad school, and after that what happens? Albany is small, there aren’t a lot of jobs in planning, and unless I get stunningly lucky we’ll be looking to move on because of the area’s limited economic opportunities. There are upsides to that, of course; Albany doesn’t fit many of our needs socially or culturally, and as wonderful as it is, it can feel constricting at times. It’s likely that we wouldn’t be here for a hugely long time even if I do find a job.

Certainly, I’ll be leaning on my education and relative economic privilege as I look for a job, here or elsewhere. But how much of that is actually my choice? And what of the people who live here, but have fewer educational credentials or marketable skills? Though I don’t know of any research on it, I’d bet that the rise of the two-career household is no small part of the migration from smaller cities to larger ones. As limited as economic opportunities are for one in Albany, imagine how hard it is to fill two careers, especially in specialized fields, as the new economy increasingly demands. And if the situation is frustrating in Albany, it’s worse in Utica and Rochester and Syracuse and Binghamton and Buffalo and Dayton and Rockford and Des Moines and Milwaukee.

And that’s (the largest part of) why I support system-level, not protectionist, solutions to the gentrification and affordability crisis. Because there are no other options. In his classic of thoughtful Millenial urbanism, “There’s Basically No Way Not to Be a Gentrifier,” Daniel Kay Hertz wrote that systemic forces, and primarily our country’s dysfunctional approach to housing policy, are largely responsible for what we call gentrification,

And [that is] why none of your personal decisions about where or how to live will have any effect on gentrification. Being considerate to your neighbors might make you a good person, but I’d like to suggest that you have another kind of responsibility: to be aware of these underlying systemic processes and use what social and political power you have to change them.

It is (or should be) rare to accuse the contemporary Left of ignoring social, structural, and institutional forces in favor of personalized jeremiads, but that seems to be sadly where we are in terms of urban, housing, and neighborhood policy. Lisa Gray-Garcia may not be representative of the broader Left conversation on these issues, but her extremism does point to the failures of the Left’s conventional wisdom on the topic. Her solution–and the solutions of the current urban Left–is, in the end, no solution at all, as the ongoing escalation of urban housing prices so obviously demonstrates. The Left is often accused of not having ideas about how to solve the urban housing crisis, but that’s not exactly accurate. There are ideas. Those ideas just don’t quite make it all the way to the status of solutions. We need better ideas, and we need to make sure their first principle is inclusion of all who need.

Urban Activism, Emotion, Intellectual Honesty, and Opportunity Cost

A prominent feature issue among Albany urbanist and activist-y types recently has been the battle against Canadian Pacific’s plan to bring increasing numbers of trains loaded with crude oil to a transloading facility at the Port of Albany. Concern about the inherently polluting and noxious nature of oil, mixed with a reasonable level of fear over the recent rash of horrifying derailments of trains carrying crude, has led to the tossing around of rhetoric about “bomb trains” and “environmental justice” (the trains often sit outside Kenwood Yard limits, adjacent to some of Albany’s poorest neighborhoods). Activists have demanded–and gotten–a review of the state DEC’s previously pro-forma approval of the heating and transloading facility. It’s an inspiring urban crusade.

I wonder, though, if this is the best way for Albany activists to be spending their energy. In an ideal world, certainly, trains would not be carrying crude oil into our city. Some of the details of the proposal, however, have gotten lost in the furor. While Global Companies, the company sponsoring the shipments, has refused to publicly say where the crude is coming from, Scott Waldman of Capital New York wrote in the article linked to above that it is expected to be “Heavy crude from the Tar Sands of Western Canada, which needs to be heated to be transferred off of a train car…Albany deputy fire chief Frank Nerney said company officials told him heavy crude would be heated at the facility.” It’s worth considering the immediate environmental risks posed by heavy, as opposed to light, crude. Fred Frailey writes in the February Trains magazine (certainly an industry-friendly publication, albeit one more concerned with the interests of the railroads than of the oil industry) that “Both the Lac-Megantic and Aliceville accidents involved light sweet crude that originated in North Dakota. As for tar-like bitumen, you could probably hit it with a flamethrower with no explosive effects.” (“Five myths about crude oil by rail,” Feburary 2014 Trains) Bitumen, of course, is what is probably going to be brought into Albany under the current proposal. I don’t begrudge local activists their opposition to the operation (in fact, I agree that it probably shouldn’t happen), but not considering some of the technical factors involved doesn’t cast us in a particularly good light. Throwing around phrases like “bomb trains,” when in fact the crude at play is not explosive until heated (and off the train), is anti-intellectual emotional manipulation that undercuts our credibility as activists and affected residents. Let’s debate the merits of the project that exists, not some straw man out of our worst fears.

Which brings me to my other point. How is it that this issue, above all of the other challenges facing the city of Albany, has captured the public’s imagination? We live in a city with hundreds of abandoned properties, with inadequate city services, with creaky, minimally functional infrastructure, and with severe social dislocation between city and suburbs. We live in a city where someone who’s not able-bodied and is reliant on public transit can’t get around when there’s snow on the ground because no one bothers to shovel the bus stops. We live in a country where approximately 35,200 people died in car crashes last year. The images of the leveled center of Lac-Megantic, Quebec are horrific, and the images of fireballs going up from derailed oil trains are seared into all of our minds, but for all of the fear that inspires, fewer than 100 people, and probably fewer than 60 (I can’t find the numbers easily available online), died in accidents related to railroads and crude oil shipment last year in all of North America. Where’s the outrage about traffic deaths? Where’s the horror at our citizens’ lack of mobility? Where’s the organizing around these issues? The fight against the crude transshipment plan is a worthwhile one, but I fear the opportunity cost is too great. We’re sending the message that rather than organize about the mundane, but much more immediate, dangers in our everyday lives, we should be scared of ways of dying that are truly spectacular, but vanishingly unlikely. Are those the priorities we want to set?