Debunking the Urbanist Fairy Tale

Put succinctly, urbanism is the belief that we can fix everything wrong with our cities by building them upward instead of outward, shunning suburbs, homesteads, and cars for row homes, bike lanes, and public transit.

The case goes something like this: Climate change? Density reduces the land footprint of cities and the amount of resources consumed by their residents. Traffic congestion? Density encourages public transportation usage, reducing the numbers of cars on crowded city streets. Housing affordability? Density increases the number of homes available to renters and buyers, bringing down the price of housing for all.

With most of our cities facing kind of urban crisis–subways and water pipes failing, rents rising without a ceiling in sight, traffic congestion ensnaring recovering economies–urbanism has evolved into a national movement. Its political advocacy is actualized by YIMBY (“Yes In My Backyard”) parties that are thriving in every large American city, loosely organized around a single issue: build, baby, build more housing. Like their cyberspace counterpart, the Pirate Party, the “YIMBY Party” are brazen, cocksure, and social media-savvy.

I know this because I used to call myself an urbanist. It was the natural label for someone like me, who cycles for transportation, rides public transit, and has never owned a car; I simply wanted to build better cities where these things were both viable and encouraged. So I jumped on the urbanist bandwagon. I subscribed to the Twitter feeds, read articles from Streetsblog and Curbed, and proselytized the fruits of market urbanism on my Daily Texan column. And for awhile, all was well–until I made some observations that were difficult to reconcile with urbanism’s precepts. I began to reexamine my beliefs–and cities, it turns out, are pretty complicated.

For one thing, urbanism’s prescriptions for cities don’t actually work.

Urbanism says that the way to fix cities is to build them up, and that the way to build cities up is to abolish land-use restrictions. This would pave the way for property owners to construct more housing units and thereby more dense, vibrant, and livable neighborhoods. At least, so goes the theory. But it’s an open secret among those who pay attention to cities that that is not what really happens when private infill development is let loose by urban planners and politicians.

The “urban villages” that developers build may have the signature high-rise condos, bike lanes, narrow streets, and roundabouts, but they bear little resemblance to the walkable, diverse, pre-automobile neighborhoods that urbanists so often celebrate. They are not walkable, but isolated and disconnected; nor vibrant and diverse, but sterile and exclusive. Far from Jane Jacobs’ intricate sidewalk ballet, the environment created by these new-age communities more closely resembles one of Le Corbusier’s dehumanizing machines for living.

Once again, I know this from firsthand experience. Austin is littered with many such failed New Urbanist experiments in community master-planning. Two of the most prominent are the Mueller and Domain neighborhoods, both designed to be incorporate all of the things urbanists strive for in a neighborhood–density, mixed-use, and transit-oriented design. Their tiny lots contain multi-story row homes and stores, woven together by narrow streets, wide promenades, and bike boulevards.

But closer inspection reveals some troubling details. Mueller, for example, is surrounded by a moat of empty space and parkland that segregates it from the rest of impoverished East Austin. And until recently, the neighborhood also lacked any basic bus service, although that did not stop Mueller residents and developers from lobbying for a streetcar line to downtown. The Domain, meanwhile, is filled with high-end chain stores (including one of Austin’s only Apple Stores, and a Whole Foods) and stories upon stories of covered parking garages. It has a stop for one of Austin’s rapid bus lines, but the bus lets off at a large parking lot, half a mile away from the shops.

The Domain, Austin’s much-hyped “second downtown.” (Credit: Austin Towers)

Nor has the neighborhoods’ design produced the social kumbaya that their high-minded architects envisioned. In Mueller, a neighborhood so liberal that it produced a nationally mocked Beto O’Rourke ad, residents of color routinely grapple with racial profiling. In the Domain, it’s no secret that the stores are largely stores for the affluent, and my UT friends tell me how “overwhelmingly white” the place feels compared to old Austin.

Mueller has attractive New Urbanist row homes and streetscape–but for whom? (Credit: Community Impact)

Worse still, elsewhere in Austin, as is the case in many of the world’s most affluent cities, new communities have been carved entirely out of old ones, leaving their once-vibrant streets safer and “cleaner” but also desolate and lifeless, not to mention the real human cost in terms of destroyed social networks and lost access to services and opportunities. Gentrification, contrary to urbanist rhetoric about “place-making” and “livable cities,” is both very real and morally reprehensible.

Why is it that every attempt to realize the urbanist formula seemingly ends in a gated community for the rich? Has urbanism simply not been given a fair shake–and if we kept critiquing its implementation, and iterating on it, the rents would eventually come down?

It isn’t so. The truth is that urbanism is allied with powerful forces that dominate municipal governments, forces that are not interested in just or equitable outcomes for cities. Urbanists like to portray themselves as a scrappy, millennial-led rebellion against backwards twentieth century urban planning paradigms. But far from fighting against the system, they’re part of it, complicit in its machinations.

Gone are the days when city governments simply apportioned services and infrastructure, if that ever was the case. Today, cities market themselves to global pools of capital and educated labor, competing for lucrative investments from the creative classes and the high-technology sectors. Urbanists may say that reinvestment in the urban core is a merely reflection of Americans’ desire to “return to the city,” but the reality is that urban redevelopment is the result of a conscious remaking of a city’s economy–a remaking that usually comes at the expense of its most marginalized residents.

In Austin, for example, the University of Texas has been the driving force behind the city’s meteoric transformation into the┬áSilicon Valley of Texas, acquiring land to donate to high-tech firms to establish local headquarters–necessitating, of course, the removal of less fortunate residents who stood in the way. Similarly, Austin’s smart-growth policies–a prototypical form of urbanism that encouraged compact land development within the inner city–were forged by a compromise between Austin’s business and environmental elites, who sought to replace environmentally damaging suburban sprawl with “sustainable” urban development–which in turn entailed the displacement of powerless residents from East Austin.

The urban development projects that urbanists champion–no matter how dense, no matter how “inclusive,” no matter how transit-oriented–solely reflect the desires of the developers and politicians who implement them. And because they are intended for “desirable” residents–the creative classes, the wealthy–only “desirable” residents are welcome in them. This is why such glaring injustices as gentrification, and poor doors, and over-policing are all but inevitable, and why harebrained projects like Mueller and the Domain perpetuate inequality instead of disrupting it.

Urbanism is a huckster that reduces the problem of fixing cities to architectural fetishism, and cities aren’t defined by setbacks or parking minimums or any other boogeyman invented by urbanists to attack housing and transportation policies. Cities are defined by power–who has it, who doesn’t have it, and what the people ordained with it do with it. Only by acknowledging this difficult truth can we hope to make cities work for everyone, not just for the affluent few.