Guardian (UK): The real cause of the housing crisis?

Profile of a new book that describes “…numerous actors in a complex network of landowners, housebuilders [developers], financial backers, professional bodies and politicians who are engaged in propping up the status quo to ensure that their interests prosper – at the expense of everyone else. The housing crisis is no accident…”

A recent article in the UK newspaper The Guardian profiles The Property Lobby, a new book  that suggests the UK housing crisis is the result of a “finance-housebuilding complex” that is “armed with foreign cash and backed by top lobbyists, [to] keep property prices high.”

Author and researcher Bob Colenutt of the Institute of Urban Affairs, University of Northampton, describes issues that seem uncomfortably similar to those in the US.   Perhaps that isn’t such a surprise, given that real estate markets and capital flows are increasingly global — or were, at least, before the COVID-19 pandemic. Perhaps this situation, like many others, deserves a more sober reassessment in the wake of the pandemic.

From the article:

Over the decades, governments of all colours have announced bold new methods to solve the housing crisis, but little has changed. Headlines have continually told us that we are short of 4m homes, that thousands are homeless, that 1.2 million people are on council house waiting lists and that a million private tenants are in deep poverty – not counting the impending impact of the coronavirus pandemic – but no effective action is taken. Instead, funding for social housing has been slashed while subsidies are lavished on the private sector housebuilders, in the hope that affordable housing will be delivered through “planning gain”.
…It’s a Faustian pact from which the public is doomed never to benefit. As Colenutt puts it, the situation has led to “the ultimate absurdity of public authorities actively pursuing higher values from market-led development in order to find crumbs for social housing development.”

Meanwhile, the housebuilders get ever richer. Berkeley Group, one of the Top 10 UK builders, built 3,536 homes in 2017, which sounds like a decent contribution to meeting the housing shortage. That is, until you realise that the average price of these homes – proudly described as “popular with overseas investors” – was £715,000. Tony Pidgley, the company’s founder and chairman, received a personal payout of £48m in 2018, after a previous payout of £23m in 2015, when profits rose 42%. At the same time, Berkeley has consistently reduced the amount of affordable housing on its developments across London, on the grounds that the local authority targets were “unviable”. Over the past eight years, Berkeley made a profit of more than £3bn.

Colenutt is not just describing the problems, but he also offers some proposed solutions:

…there must be fundamental land reform to bring development land forward for housing at sensible prices so that new housing can be truly affordable and existing prices can stabilise. Colenutt points to the examples of Germany and the Netherlands, where local authorities buy up development land at its existing use value, draw up real masterplans, then offer sites to housebuilders, who build to the plans of the local authority. In this way, housebuilders are simply builders of houses, not land speculators.

He says it is finally time to tax developers’ land banks and implement “use or lose it” measures, to discourage housebuilders from hoarding plots with planning permission. And, most importantly, the Treasury and the Bank of England must be weaned off their dependence on land and house prices, and rebalance the economy away from property. All of this is eminently possible, if the powerful property lobby can be resisted, and some local authorities are already beginning to take the lead, in spite of central government policy. As the Coin Street Community Builders’ slogan puts it: “There is another way.”

Read the full article here.


Why “a building is not a tree”

Or, how Christopher Alexander’s landmark 1965 paper can still guide us in thinking about the coronavirus, and other urban challenges

Or, how Christopher Alexander’s landmark 1965 paper can still guide us in thinking about the coronavirus, and other urban challenges

The coronavirus pandemic has forced a sober reassessment of a number of urban characteristics, and none has been more maligned – inaccurately so, I fear – than urban density. A closer look reveals that clustering of people in certain environments (like nursing homes) is far more likely to spread infections than in other places with similar population densities – notably public spaces. As I have written elsewhere, it’s quite possible to maintain “sociable distancing” in many kinds of public and semi-public spaces.

What are the lessons for urban density in private places? One of the topics that needs careful assessment in the wake of the pandemic is the impact of tall buildings, which also tend to bring many people into close contact — notably in their elevators, lobbies, and other spaces.

Epidemiologist Shai Linn has observed that the incidence of infectious spread can be high in tall buildings. He has drawn an analogy to the spread of coronavirus and other diseases in cruise ships: in both environments, people tend to crowd into elevators, stairs and other common areas. In both environments, infections (of all kinds) can spread rapidly.

There is an important point to be drawn from Linn’s work and others’. The issue is not merely that many people are in spatial proximity, but that they must pass through the “choke points” of centralized spaces, where airborne transmission is much more efficient. (Successive touching of “fomites” like door handles and buttons is also part of the problem, but can be controlled more easily.)

What is the deeper problem with these centralized spaces? One can think of the structure of a tree, where all the branches, twigs and leaves are connected only through the trunk. Similarly, in a tall building or a cruise ship, all the parts are connected through central elevators, stairways and common areas.

By contrast, a web-network doesn’t have to concentrate everyone into central spaces – even when a given unit of space has the same number of people, that is, the same “density.”

The drawing at the start of this post makes this point. We can contrast a tall building with a street lined with tightly packed rowhouses, or a series of small apartment buildings, each with its own entry on the street. Such a web-network allows people to be in social proximity – able to practice what I have called “sociable distancing” – without being forced into the kind of adjacency that allows transmission of pathogens.

As it happens, the urban and architectural theorist Christopher Alexander described these two kinds of structures in a famous 1965 paper. Alexander, who is better known as the author of the classic book A Pattern Language, wrote in his paper that “A city is not a tree” – or at least, a good city is not. That is, the best cities are not dominated by centralized tree-like structures, but rather, they have many web-like sets of connections that he referred to as “semi-lattices.”

An obvious example of a tree-like structure can be seen urban street patterns. Many sprawling suburban communities show a tree-like pattern that is easy to differentiate from, say, the web-like grids of many older cities (as in the figure below). The trouble with tree-like patterns is that they force traffic into limited “choke points” where it becomes congested and hostile to pedestrians. This pattern doesn’t allow vehicles or pedestrians to connect through other shorter trips between the branches, as is the case with the web-network. That usually means neighborhoods with tree-like structures are not walkable, are not very well suited to transit, and are prone to traffic congestion.

The sprawling, “tree-like” pattern at the top of this drawing makes it much more difficult to travel to the different destinations by transit, or especially, by foot. The pattern at the lower part of the drawing is much more inter-connected, offering many more ways to move and connect. Drawing by The Prince’s Foundation.
For Alexander, there is an even more fundamental problem for cities organized as “trees.” Cities get their vitality and their dynamism from these inter-connections — from the diversity of people who come into mutual contact, from the mixing of different activities and movements, and from the “overlaps” that happen when things are not neatly segregated into tree-like schemes.

He concluded:

It must be emphasised, lest the orderly mind shrink in horror from anything that is not clearly articulated and categorised in tree form, that the ideas of overlap, ambiguity, multiplicity of aspect, and the semilattice, are not less orderly than the rigid tree, but more so. They represent a thicker, tougher, more subtle and more complex view of structure.

If good vibrant cities are not “trees,” what about buildings? It seems the same logic applies: at the scale of buildings too, and especially as they connect to the public realm, we should seek overlap, multiplicity of aspect, and the other characteristics that Alexander celebrates. We should seek buildings that are more fine-grained, with redundant connections to the street, rather than one centralized “tree trunk,” as tall buildings typically feature.

In structural terms, we can compare a tall building to a kind of “vertical cul de sac” – or a kind of vertical gated community, with all the same potential problems of that problematic structural form.

And as we can now see, for similar structural reasons, such structures are also more resilient in the face of a pandemic.

The diagram at the top of the post, developed by the UK Urban Task Force in 1999, shows three schemes, each with exactly the same relatively high population density (75 Units/Hectare or 30 Units/Acre), but with very different network structures. The scheme of small flats to the lower right offers many different connections to the street, and it avoids centralized “choke points” where everyone must come into close proximity.

It’s often assumed — wrongly, as research has shown — that tall buildings are necessary to achieve higher population densities. Yet these three schemes all have exactly the same density. They only differ in the way that those populations can connect — as “trees,” or as “web-networks.” The tall building is clearly a tree, with all its structural vulnerabilities.

Unfortunately, at this moment in urban history, the growth of tall buildings around the world is nothing short of explosive. As research is showing, the factors that propel their growth seem to have less to do with best practice knowledge, and apparently more to do with the dynamics of short-term capital, images, branding, and even the egos of their promoters. This is not the path to sustainable or resilient cities. It may in fact be the path to catastrophe.

Let us hope that, as this pandemic prompts a reassessment of recent urban orthodoxy, the tall building, along with other mega-structures, will be part of a much-needed critical re-assessment.

Gratz: “Zoning out the human-scale city”

The article by Roberta Brandes Gratz in the New York Review of Books, featuring an image of the Hudson Yards project.

The long-time colleague of Jane Jacobs writes in the New York Review of Books that “This is a New York story only for now” and “Upzonings and transfers of newly created air rights are occurring slowly in cities around the country.”


In yet another timely warning to Portland and other cities, Roberta Brandes Gratz, the long-time friend and colleague of activist and urban champion Jane Jacobs, describes the dangers of reckless upzoning and transfer rights:

I weep for my city; it is committing urban suicide. I am a daughter of Gotham, born and bred. My lifelong interest in the vitality of the city included a thirty-year friendship with famed urbanist Jane Jacobs, with whom I, and a small group of activists, founded the Center for the Living City to build on her legacy…

This is a New York story only for now. Upzonings and transfers of newly created air rights are occurring slowly in cities around the country. When it comes to real estate, New York City may lead the way, but others follow in time.

It appears that Portland is already following this path, notably in the adoption of the Better Housing by Design ordinance, which was opposed by Commissioner Amanda Fritz in a stinging critique (covered in the current Northwest Examiner on Page 1).

Gratz points out how progressive goals like sustainability become a mockery under these and similar “deregulatory upzonings:”

In 2018, Chase Bank announced that it would tear down the fifty-two-story, black-and-silver-ribbed, early Modernist tower at 270 Park Avenue in order to build a new tower at least seventy stories high. This will be the tallest-ever demolition of a perfectly viable building in New York City. In 2002, Chase began a total renovation of the building to LEED standard, a green building certification that gave it “platinum” status, a rating that acknowledges the value of preserving the embodied energy of an existing building and avoids energy use for demolition, landfill, and new construction. Landmark skyscrapers across the country—from the Empire State Building, Chicago’s Willis Tower (formerly Sears), and San Francisco’s Transamerica—have taken this environmentally responsible approach and upgraded their buildings to LEED platinum standard. And in doing so, Chase also benefitted from the five years of federal environmental tax credits that go with that designation. Then threw it all away.

To achieve the extra height and bulk of the new 270 Park, Chase is taking advantage of the “upzoning” of nearby mid-Manhattan that was applied in 2017 to a seventy-three-block area around Grand Central between 39th and 57th Streets. Upzoning’s relaxation of city planning regulations expands the development potential of new buildings by allowing increased height and density (the number of units or amount of floor area on a given lot), and simplifying the transfer of “air rights” from landmarked buildings to new sites within the district. (Air rights are the so-called unused development rights that would allow a hypothetical taller building on a particular lot, but they can be transferred by sale from one lot to another, depending on the district’s zoning designation.) A portion of any air rights sale does go into a city fund specifically for area subway and pedestrian improvements—but, in this case, that would be for an area already jammed with pedestrians.

Chase was thus able to buy air rights from the landmarked St. Patrick’s Cathedral, some six blocks away, and construct a taller, bulkier building. Preservationists have identified at least thirty-three buildings worthy of landmark protection from such redevelopment in this Midtown district, but after fierce resistance from real estate interests, only twelve have been so designated. By no logic—design, environmental, planning, zoning, landfill capacity—does demolition of 270 Park make sense, especially when at least some in the architectural community are trying to advance sustainable design…

Gratz also stresses the importance of a healthy urbanization process, something that Jacobs was careful to articulate:

Writing almost sixty years ago, Jacobs drew a distinction that warned of the difference between gradual evolution that does not disrupt a city and “cataclysmic” change that threatens a city’s fabric. The alteration we witness today is cataclysmic. Hudson Yards, the new mega-development on Manhattan’s far West Side, is only the most glaring example, but the supertall towers that are spreading like kudzu elsewhere are an increasingly visible disgrace. It is all a reflection of the stranglehold of big real estate interests, with their power to manipulate the zoning code beyond reason. Hudson Yards represents a kind of privately controlled gated community in the sky—definitely a cardinal sin of urbanism—but even more significant, from my perspective, is 270 Park.

Urbanism is the uneven process that creates cities, over time and organically, through a confluence of democratic, economic, and social forces. This is what Jacobs called an “urban ecology.” This same process can also rebuild and strengthen even troubled cities today, if given a chance, and if big profit-driven real estate interests are not the overriding force in urban development. But authentic urbanism is a process, not a project subject to a design or plan. The result is a balanced mix of buildings and uses resulting in a built environment at human scale. That is precisely what is being lost today in New York City.

In a description that could apply to other cities (including Portland), Gratz describes a “perversion” of the public process, including the provess of establishing historic landmarks:

The redevelopment of 270 Park Avenue, which has slipped under the radar of public attention, is an alarming precursor of things to come. It is characteristic of the way the city is committing urbanism suicide, a death by a thousand smaller, self-inflicted cuts. And it reflects how real estate owns and controls a city that is supposed to run on democratic principles.

First is an underrecognized perversion of the landmarking process. Originally, landmarked buildings were awarded air rights to compensate for their owners being prevented from tearing them down and rebuilding on the same site. Those air rights, though, could be transferred to a building adjacent or opposite. Air rights from landmarks were never meant to float afar. A major consequence of the upzoning, though, is that air rights have now become transferable to increasingly distant lots…

Gratz spares no criticism of the New York development community and its “strange bedfellows” in the public sector:

There appear to be no limits to what the development community gets away with. They’ve taken effective control of both the City Planning Commission and the Board of Standards and Appeals (BSA). They have also succeeded in intimidating and taming the Landmarks Preservation Commission, restraining its original mission and turning its system of historic tax credits attached to landmark buildings to new commercial advantage. They are so in control, their machinations are not even hidden…

In another disquieting parallel to Portland and other cities, Gratz points out the egregious fallacy of local claims for building heights as a strategy to promote affordability:

Advocates of upzoning argue that it is needed to allow construction of taller buildings to create new affordable housing units. Real estate interests’ upzoning mantra perpetuates a confusion that height creates density. This is a dangerous myth. Along with many American cities after World War II, New York experienced years of demolition and de-densification in the name of “urban renewal.” This misguided movement, often acting in the name of “slum clearance,” used the concept of “towers in the park” to replace old neighborhoods that had grown up organically around a density of mixed uses—residential, businesses, factories, markets. “Urban renewal” demolished existing communities, never replacing as many housing units as had previously existed.

Gratz calls for a more cautious assessment of the impacts of unchecked upzoning, and the potential for better alternative development in the many empty sites in the city.  She closes by calling for a vigorous campaign to that end:

If we continue to allow the erosion of the human-scale city and long-evolved urbanism on which it depends, then I fear for the future. The first thing needed is a public exhibit of the many empty sites across the boroughs of New York, and a representation of what further, unchecked upzoning will it make possible to build in the future. But without a well-organized, well-financed campaign like the effort to save Grand Central, or a singular leader like Jane Jacobs able to take on the powers that be and a press willing to give these battles full coverage, the perilous undermining of authentic urbanism will continue.

The full article is worth a careful read, and  available here.


The New Yorker: We need to “decommodify” land and housing

PLight of the Urban Planner
The New Yorker article by Nikil Saval

A recent article on the work of geographer Samuel Stein argues that our housing dilemma derives from an “unholy fusion” of development and politics — “the real estate state” — which exacerbates, rather than solves, our crises of affordability, equity and sustainability.

This blog has frequently pointed out the egregious flaws in the “magical thinking” of some planners and activists — some of whom are friends of mine — who hold that adding housing supply at almost any place, of almost any kind, will somehow lower prices, promote equity, and achieve sustainable urban development. Worse, in the absence of a careful application of evidence-based tools and strategies, grounded in research evidence, we have argued that this deluded thinking will promote gentrification, degrade urban livability, and in the end, serve only the unaccountable interests of the real estate development, planning and design industry.

(Full disclosure, I am a member of this industry, but one who is, I hope, willing to entertain well-argued self-critical evidence — given the stakes when we get it wrong.)

Now, a thoughtful piece in the New Yorker dissects the flaws in this “magical thinking,” and it’s worth a careful read — and it offers a cautionary lesson for Portland and Oregon politicians, planners and activists.  A few excerpts:

In 2018, Scott Wiener, a California state senator representing San Francisco, introduced a co-authored bill that detonated a debate over housing. The aim of Senate Bill 827 was to override local regulations on building height in order to allow denser, high-rise construction near transit hubs. At once radical and simple, its target was nothing more, and nothing less, than zoning—the most common American way to control land use. Zoning determines whether a building is commercial or residential, how big it can get, whether it’s a single-family home or a high-rise tower.

[NOTE: The author fails here to make a crucial distinction between two very different kinds of zoning regulation, namely regulating use, and regulating form. The former is a culprit in any number of 20th Century fiascoes, including racially and culturally motivated exclusions.  The latter is a more recent and very different kind of reform tool, much more neutral on use, by whom, when, and so on, and much more suited to produce coherent, walkable urbanism at any scale.  The idea was prefigured by Jane Jacobs in her classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities.  But to continue from the New Yorker article…]

S.B. 827 elicited heated arguments, along with a few bizarre political coalitions. In supporting the bill, housing advocates found themselves allied with wealthy developers. Meanwhile, in opposing it, anti-gentrification activists found themselves allied with rich homeowners from places like Beverly Hills….despite late-breaking attempts to include anti-displacement measures, the bill failed to make it out of committee, losing 6–4. Of the votes in its favor, only two were from Democrats, Wiener and his co-author—further proof that the housing debate involves some strange bedfellows.

S.B. 827 nonetheless has spurred a more substantial conversation about zoning reform, of all things, than any urbanist could have predicted. Unfortunately, much of this conversation has taken place online, meaning that it’s resembled people screaming past one another and then shrinking into two opposing crags of congealed vitriol. On one side are the YIMBYs—the acronym stands for “Yes, in my back yard”—who believe that prices are too high because of market distortions that limit the amount of housing people actually want and need. For them, the solution is to increase market-rate housing, which, over time, will result in a reduction in prices and rents. Opponents of YIMBYs—often called “NIMBYs,” meaning “Not in my back yard” (as a term of opprobrium, it of course predates YIMBY)—have a variety of rejoinders to this argument, but they center on the idea that building market-rate housing will never deliver the amount of housing that people need, at prices they can afford. Furthermore, they argue that the immediate effect of introducing such housing is gentrification and displacement. It is at this point that the argument devolves into accusations that the YIMBYs are tools of rich, white real-estate developers, and that the NIMBYs are tools of rich, white homeowners, and the space in between these two positions is quickly converted into a muddy field, where no one dares show a white flag.

The particular airlessness of this debate is only partly due to its growth in the complexity-free vacuum of the Internet. The more significant constriction is that it is an argument that takes place almost entirely according to the terms of real-estate development. In a recent book, “Capital City,” the geographer Samuel Stein puts this debate into context, and adds to it. He argues that our housing dilemma derives from an unholy fusion of development and politics, which he calls “the real estate state.” Stein, a geographer at the City University of New York, tries to establish how industrial cities, in becoming postindustrial, opened the way for real estate to enter the breach. “Landowners have been determining the shape of cities for centuries, and the idea of housing as a commodity—even as a financial asset—is not exactly state of the art,” Stein writes. “What is relatively new, however, is the outsized power of real estate interests within the capitalist state.” Deriving his insights from left-wing geographers and urban historians, and also from interviews with activists in New York City, he alternates a panoptic view with one that looks more closely, from the ground up, at what reckless development does to lives and livelihoods.

But Stein’s special aim is not just to show how real estate controls everything, which, if you were halfway paying attention during the financial crisis—rooted as it was in the predations of housing markets—you already know. His principal point is that the power of the real-estate state flows from the dynamic between development and the profession of city planning. Planners are usually thought of as bureaucrats, though sometimes they take on the aspect of legend: Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann, who tamed rebellious Paris into wide avenues that couldn’t be barricaded; imperious Robert Moses, who pummelled New York with expressways. Stein’s planners are at once lesser and greater than these. Though they may look like mousy cubicle denizens—determining the right sort of window treatment for a historic house, or calculating the Area Median Income for a smattering of affordable units in a luxury building—they’re more influential than they appear. Planners, he writes, “are tasked with the contradictory goals of inflating real estate values while safeguarding residents’ best interests.” The position is an inherently uncomfortable one. But planning holds out the promise that the future is, at least in part, knowable. Explicit in Stein’s narrative is the idea that a different, more democratic kind of planning might lead us to more democratic kinds of cities…

…Developers need planners, but a conflict arises when the former look to the latter for interventions in public space. “They demand that the state build the infrastructure that makes their land usable,” Stein writes of developers. At the same time, they are “fiercely protective of their property rights” and suspicious of planning insofar as it threatens their control over land. Planners, in turn, are agents of the public, but they are beholden to developers, in practice. Democratic societies require at least a display of public input, but often only a display: “planners must proceed with enough openness and transparency to maintain public legitimacy, while ensuring that capital retains ultimate control over the processes’ parameters.” From this comes the charade of public-comment sessions, familiar to most active city dwellers, in which so-called stakeholders are invited to discuss development plans, whose basic outlines they have little chance of influencing.

Similarly, planners who want to assert broad control over the public realm are often dependent on recalcitrant businessmen, who are unlikely to give them the full measure of what they might want to achieve, since planning often involves the creation of public infrastructure that requires business to get out of the way. Much of what does get achieved requires catastrophic, violent interventions in the lives of the very people that planners are trying to help. The land for Central Park, the “green lung” of New York and one of the greatest parks in the world, was secured by expelling Manhattan’s largest African-American settlement. The construction of most public housing required the resettlement of thousands of households, often those of working class African-Americans, in the destructive process known as urban renewal. (Urban renewal, James Baldwin said, in an interview, really “means Negro removal.”)

…This history sets up Stein’s main story, which is about the contemporary high-priced city of gentrification and displacement. Mercifully, his analysis does not mention hipsters, artisanal stationery stores, or CBD lattes. Instead, he discusses how planners have once again played a central role in scaling up gentrification “from a neighborhood phenomenon of renovation and reinvention to a larger process of displacement, demolition and development.” A miasma of guilt and misunderstanding surrounds discussions of gentrification. The usual story—of upwardly mobile people moving into depressed areas and displacing existing, less well-off residents in the process—is at least partly true. But, as geographers have pointed out for some time, it also requires disinvestment: neighborhoods decline, in part, because of state neglect, and yuppies rush in where planners fear to tread. This is how the familiar story of places such as SoHo, in lower Manhattan, and Park Slope, in Brooklyn, begins. Those neighborhoods were abandoned by the government before they were occupied by new residents.

Similarly, the past three decades have been characterized by hyper-gentrification, which is a largely legislative phenomenon, the work of planners and policymakers—not simply an ineluctable market signal that is sent when someone opens a vegan doughnut shop. Stein details the number of planning-policy innovations that have made it easier for developers and large nonprofits to avoid paying billions of dollars in taxes. In 1971, the establishment of New York’s 421-a tax program gave developers abatements on luxury construction, for anywhere from ten to twenty-five years. (One of the great beneficiaries of 421-a, Stein notes, was Donald Trump, who built Trump Plaza, on the Upper East Side with a thirteen-million-dollar tax break.) In 2016, when the program was set to expire, 421-a cost New York $1.2 billion a year. A recent revision to the law, under Governor Andrew Cuomo, brought the cost to $2.4 billion a year. That’s about six hundred million less than the M.T.A. requested from the state to fix the ailing subway system. These are the sorts of numbers that reveal how the real-estate state declares its priorities. As legislators made developers’ lives easier, planners became the helpless accomplices of urban inequality.

Jane Jacobs’s “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” an indictment of American city planning, appeared in 1961; Robert A. Caro’s “The Power Broker,” an indictment of an American city planner, appeared in 1974. In the years between their publication—and partly owing to their arguments—planning lost whatever was left of its swashbuckling air, and was increasingly seen as a clumsy, illegitimate, even villainous profession, its members casually carving their utopian visions into the fabric of complex, heterogeneous cities.

When planning lost its revolutionary élan, it also lost its sense of ambition. Many mid-century planners, for all their missteps, tried to engineer a more equal city. As planning lost its power, an impressive variety of inequities crept into policymaking.

…According to ultra-YIMBY reasoning, the addition of [high-priced] apartments might not be a problem, since housing markets are, like other markets, subject to supply and demand. But, as the author Rick Jacobus recently argued in the magazine Shelterforce, the housing market is segmented, better understood “as a set of interrelated submarkets that can move somewhat independently than as a single market.” For example, rent for student housing may roughly follow the laws of supply and demand, but, in general, its cost isn’t eased by building a lot of housing—what matters is the supply of student housing and the demand from students. By the same token, upzoning that allows for more affordable housing to be built has effects on existing affordable housing. “When planners upzone neighborhoods to allow bigger buildings, rent-stabilized landlords will have every reason to sell their properties to speculative developers, who could then knock down the existing properties and build something bigger and more expensive,” Stein writes. The long-term effect of a housing boom may be a housing bust—but, in the meantime, all sorts of pain may be inflicted on existing residents.

There are other reasons to be cautious. Historically, attempts to remedy segregation through the real-estate market have often ended up increasing it. In a groundbreaking new book, Race for Profit, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, a professor of African-American studies at Princeton, shows how the post-urban renewal-planning regime came to rely heavily on the real-estate industry. New forms of subsidized loans were, in her phrasing, a form of “predatory inclusion,” trapping black homeowners in substandard housing, while developers continued to reap dividends. Her analysis covers a specific period in time, and a particular kind of housing market, but its conclusion is general and damning: the American real-estate market was founded on racism and still depends on it. White NIBYs have kept multifamily buildings out of wealthier neighborhoods, in no small part to keep those neighborhoods racially homogeneous, and it is doubtful that real-estate developers can solve this historic inequity.

Though Stein supports efforts that would increase housing construction in wealthy areas, he is clear that these policies need to be part of a broader program. In a recent article for Jacobin, he argues that there is a general “overreliance on zoning,” which is, in any case, “a tool ill-equipped to confront the private land and property markets.” The solution, therefore, “is… the decommodification of land and housing.” In other words, having a market for housing is itself the problem. And a return to large-scale planning is the answer.

…Decades of a housing crisis, accompanied by decades of organizing and activism, have finally led to revaluations of public housing and regional planning. A policy team led by the tenants’-rights activist Tara Raghuveer recently produced a proposal for a “Homes Guarantee”—a marquee plan that proposes the construction of twelve million new, permanently affordable homes as “social housing.” Meanwhile, the law professor Mehrsa Baradaran… has called for a twenty-first-century Homestead Act, under which a public trust would be tasked with purchasing distressed or abandoned homes in historically redlined areas—a form of direct capital investment with the aim of remedying the racial wealth gap. Both are serious proposals that have the potential to shift power away from developers and toward the people historically excluded from the housing market. To be achieved, both need the backing of enormous social movements. They could also resurrect large-scale planning, conceived on a freshly democratic basis, as a profession of consequence. The planner, after decades of irrelevance, or worse, might yet be a figure of note—and perhaps, in a time of crisis, one of purpose.

Read the full article here.


Learning from Vienna

Maintaining quality of life in spite of population growth

This blog has long argued that we have much to learn about livability from other cities. Indeed, that was the philosophy of blog co-founder Suzanne Lennard, who founded the International Making Cities Livable (IMCL) conference series with her husband Henry in 1985, and ran the conferences partly from Portland.  She felt that Portland had many lessons to share with (and to learn from) other cities like Vienna. In fact, the conference series alternated between locales in the US and European cities including Vienna.

As a recent article in CityLab recounts, Vienna has taken steps to counter the myriad destructive impacts of real estate dynamics and global capital flows, which Portland has seemed so unable to comprehend, let alone counter.  Indeed, a simplistic “build baby build” mentality has prevailed in Portland.  Some seem to believe in the silver-bullet strategy of deregulation and upzoning, and all will be well. As we have argued, this approach does little to address the challenges, and in some case actually makes them worse.  As an economic geographer from the London School of Economics put it (quoted in our last blog post):

“Upzoning is far from the progressive policy tool it has been sold to be. It mainly leads to building high-end housing in desirable locations…. Housing is an area where the law of unintended consequences is most powerful. The idea that upzoning will cause housing affordability to trickle down within our metropolis, while also setting up Los Angeles and San Francisco as the new golden land for people in less prosperous regions, is just a lot to promise—and it’s based on a narrative of housing as opportunity that is deeply flawed.”

Clearly Vienna has been more circumspect — with much better results to date.  The city maintains a strong supply of affordable housing distributed across the metropolitan area, not jammed into tall buildings in the core.  Much of it is “social housing” — housing created not as a speculative commodity but as a human right, with a variety of tools and funding mechanisms.  `And all of it is created as part of the seamless creation of livable neighborhoods that are healthy for all, especially children and families.

As Maria Vassilakou, the city’s former deputy mayor, put it in the CityLab article:

“A livable city is a city where people live because they want to, not because they have to… A city that is good for children is good for everybody.”

The City has maintained this livability, not by stiff-arming or demonizing residents, but by engaging them in a “win-win” civic planning process.  Where other cities (like Portland) have sought to marginalize existing grass-roots resident groups, Vienna has empowered them.  The City has supported and even strengthened bottom-up, neighborhood-level actions to improve livability, rather than imposing simplistic solutions top-down — whether through a city planning regime, a powerful real estate development entity, or a lobbying group of self-interested professionals (the combination of which we have referred to as an unhelpful “architectural-industrial complex”).

From the article:

In Vienna, one way that happens is with a community grant scheme that bestows hundreds of modest €4,000 grants for small neighborhood-level public-space improvement projects. “Once one of these initiatives gets implemented, it changes the perspective of the whole neighborhood,” Vassilakou said. “I think this works because this is not top-down. It’s the bottom-up kind of inspiration that can change the city.”

Read the full article here:




Thinking of Portland as an “urban connectome”

Network Graphic

New research suggests that cities, like brains, are immense networks of connective patterns built up over time. Understanding this evolving structure will help us to formulate better urban policies and practices, in Portland and elsewhere.

Few developments in the sciences have had the impact of the revolutionary discoveries in genetics, and in particular, what is called the “genome” – the totality of the complex pattern of genetic information that produces the proteins and other structures of life. By getting a clearer picture of the workings of this evolving, generative structure, we gain dramatic new insights on disease processes, on cellular mechanisms, and on the ultimate wonders of life itself. In a similar way, geneticists now speak of the “proteome” – the no less complex structure of proteins and their workings that generate tissues, organs, signaling molecules, and other element of complex living processes.

An important characteristic of both the genome and the proteome is that they work as totalities, with any one part potentially interacting with any other. In that sense, they are immense interactive networks, with the pattern of connections shaping the interactions, and in turn being shaped by them. Proteins produce other proteins; genes switch on other genes. In this way, the structure of our bodies evolves and adapts to new conditions – new infections, new stresses, new environments.

It turns out that something very similar goes on in the brain. We are born with a vastly complex pattern of connections between our neurons, and these go on to change after birth as we experience new environments and learn new skills and concepts. Once again, the totality of the pattern is what matters, and the ways that different parts of the brain get connected (or disconnected) to form new patterns, new ideas and pictures of the world.

Following the naming precedent in genetics, this structure is now being called the neural “connectome” (because it’s a structure that’s similar to “genome”) and the race is on to map this structure and its most important features. (Much of this work is being advanced by the NIH’s Human Connectome Project.)

What do these insights have to do with cities? As Steven Johnson noted in his book Emergence, there is more in common between the two structures than might appear. There is good reason to think that, as with brains, a lot of what happens in cities has more to do with the overall pattern of connections, and less to do with particular elements.

As Jane Jacobs pointed out over half a century ago, the city is a kind of “intricate ballet” of people interacting, going about their plans, and shaping the life of the city, from the smallest scales to the largest. This intricate pattern is complex, but it’s far from random. As Jacobs argued, it exhibits a high degree of order — what she called “organized complexity.”

And it’s physical, starting at the scale of the sidewalk, and encompassing all the other movements and connections of urban activity. “Sidewalk contacts are the small change from which a city’s wealth of public life may grow,” she wrote. We may also be plugged in electronically by telephone and now Internet, but (as research by Robert Putnam and others is showing) the root of the system is the physical proximity with the people we know and work with.

More than that, this pattern of connections generates remarkable efficiencies, forming a kind of “network metabolism.” Jacobs has since become famous for observing highly local “knowledge spillovers,” casual transfers of knowledge about a job or a new tool or idea, that help to grow new enterprises and new economic activities. Her insight, now called a “Jacobs externality” by economists in her honor, helps to explain how a city generates wealth. As we have written before, this phenomenon might well help to explain why cities are so efficient with resources per person, relative to other places.

In the same vein, the brain scientists offer some other important insights. For one thing, more important than the density per se (of neurons, or of people) are the patterns of connections. So we have to be able to ensure that many “neural pathways” can form and re-form – in the case of a person’s brain, that the person is healthy and well-nourished enough to remember, and learn. In the case of cities, we have to ensure that we have well-connected, walkable cities, facilitating many cross-connections.

The brain scientists even believe now that this pattern of neural cross-connection is key to the formation of consciousness. In effect, the different parts of the brain join up into a larger system, and the result is that the system self-organizes into a state that is smarter and more aware. When a brain sleeps, this larger pattern seems to dissolve into fleeting sub-patterns – and we experience the loss of consciousness, and sometimes, dreaming.

Something similar might be going on with well-connected cities: they can self-organize to become “smarter” in their ability to generate great urban vitality with fewer resources. But this is true only if their “neurons” (the people) are able to be connected, especially physically connected, in this way.

Similarly, a city can “lose consciousness” by becoming too fragmented and too sprawling. Automobiles and other machinery can help to connect the parts of the city, but only in a very limited and encapsulated way. By contrast, a walkable public realm has vastly more capacity to form and re-form connections between people, allowing a dynamic pattern of interaction to form and sustain across the city’s urban fabric.

This lesson of self-organization carries an important implication for planners and urban designers. It suggests we need to focus less on the specific elements in relation to one another – and how we might imagine they are best placed – and focus more on how we can help them to self-organize into more complex (and more efficient) patterns.

On the other hand, human brains do not start from scratch as we once thought, nor do societies – we all have patterns that we learn and apply to new situations. So too, cities have patterns that facilitate this network structure. Like a good memory or innate knowledge, the best walkable cities of history offer us many good reusable patterns to create vibrant, walkable, resource-efficient cities.

A corollary is that in our automobile-connected suburbs, it seems we have been replicating this pattern of connections – but only with heavy and unsustainable inputs of resources. Furthermore, as noted before, the structure of encapsulated cars, and existing networks of people we already know, are no match for the open-ended nature of public space networks, and their capacity to exploit “propinquity and serendipity” – the accidental connections with people we don’t already know, where, as research shows, the new knowledge and innovations form. If we want more resource-efficient cities – and more creative and resilient economies – then it seems we will have to look much harder at this dynamic, and ways to exploit it to our advantage.

How can we do this, concretely? The brain scientists are working hard to map the connective patterns of particular brains, to get some idea of how the patterns tend to form characteristically within the “human connectome.” For cities, it seems we might do something equally useful: map the characteristic urban patterns that have proven most conducive to this connected vitality, and that also do not interfere with – or better yet that promote – the capacity for urban self-organization.

In a sense, we already do this when we speak of design types, or planning models. But this work is usually very constrained by parochial debates within the architecture and urban design disciplines over “progressivism” versus “historicism.” The result is that there has been a stagnation of real progress in this area. At worst, we have slipped into what Jacobs called a “neurosis” of “imitating empiric failure, and ignoring empiric success.”

By contrast, the brain scientists point to another, less ideologically constrained path. It seems we might have much to learn from a more open, aggressive mapping and re-applying the genetic patterns of such an “urban connectome,” looking at the most effective patterns from a range of cities around the world – and over centuries of evolution.

LSE researchers conclude: “Build baby build” is no answer

High rise construction“Upzoning is far from the progressive policy tool it has been sold to be. It mainly leads to building high-end housing in desirable locations.”

As this blog has long argued, the challenges of affordability, equity and sustainability are complex, and require a comprehensive approach, including economic tools, “polycentric” regional planning, and other strategic interventions.  These challenges are not likely to be addressed with simplistic “silver bullets.”  Case in point: the idea that just building more supply (especially in the cores) will automatically result in lower prices, more opportunities for formerly excluded populations, or more sustainable urban types.  (What some have called a “build baby build” approach.)

In recent research discussed on the CityLab blog, LSE economists Andrés Rodríguez-Pose and Michael Storper found that “Upzoning expensive cities is no match for the deep divides within—and especially between—cities, and is wholly insufficient to remedy them.”

The research by LSE is hardly the first to point out this problem with “build baby build”.  As the CityLab article points out, “Economist Tyler Cowen agrees that the ultimate beneficiaries from zoning and building deregulation are landlords and developers. As he puts it, “the gains from removing taxes/restrictions on building largely will be captured by landowners … More stuff will be built, urban output will expand, land still will be the scarce factor, and by the end of the process rents still will be high.”And a recent study by Yonah Freemark found that upzoning in Chicago led to higher, not lower, housing prices, while having no discernible impact on local housing supply.”

The author of the CityLab article, Richard Florida,  expressed dismay at the barrage of derogatory criticism that he and the LSE economists received from defenders of the “build baby build” approach.  “That makes little sense,” said Florida. “The paper is an important cautionary tale. The authors are not saying that we should not build more housing. They are simply saying that doing so won’t magically solve economic and spatial inequality, because both are deeply rooted in the very nature of the geographically clustered and concentrated knowledge economy.”

But perhaps the effects of financial and other self-interests are far more seductive than the calm and reasoned approaches that are called for.  Perhaps the lesson here is the one famously offered by Upton Sinclair: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

Excerpts from the CityLab article are below, and the entire article can be read here.

new paper by two leading economic geographers suggests this argument is simply too good to be true. Titled “Housing, Urban Growth and Inequalities” and forthcoming in the journal Urban Studies, it’s written by Andrés Rodríguez-Pose of the London School of Economics (LSE) and Michael Storper, who divides his time among the LSE, UCLA, and Sciences Po in Paris. According to Storper and Rodríguez-Pose, the notion that an insufficient supply of housing is a main cause of urban economic problems is based on a number of faulty premises. They say the effect of supply has been blown far out of proportion.

They agree that housing is part of the problem: “Housing market failures can imperil local economic growth and generate problems such as segregation, long commute times, deteriorating quality of life, homelessness, and barriers to social mobility for certain populations,” they write. But housing policy, and zoning restrictions in particular, are certainly not the be-all and end-all of urban problems. Upzoning expensive cities is no match for the deep divides within—and especially between—cities, and is wholly insufficient to remedy them.

“Housing is an area where the law of unintended consequences is most powerful,” Storper recently told Planning Report. “The idea that upzoning will cause housing affordability to trickle down within our metropolis, while also setting up Los Angeles and San Francisco as the new golden land for people in less prosperous regions, is just a lot to promise—and it’s based on a narrative of housing as opportunity that is deeply flawed.” And as Rodríguez-Pose told me via email: “Upzoning is far from the progressive policy tool it has been sold to be. It mainly leads to building high-end housing in desirable locations.”

Rodríguez-Pose and Storper question several pieces of evidence that stand at the heart of this market-urbanist view, a perspective they dub “housing as opportunity.” Whereas some urban economists suggest a close relationship between housing supply and prices (with places that add supply having lower prices), Rodríguez-Pose and Storper find the relationship to be weak.

Likewise, some market urbanists point to an association between city population size and/or density and economic growth. But Rodríguez-Pose and Storper argue that this too falls away under close scrutiny—the link between city population in 2000 and subsequent economic growth from 2000 to 2016 is weak to “non-existent,” on their analysis.For Storper and Rodríguez-Pose, the rising spatial inequality between cities and metro areas stems from different kinds of economies that distinguish different kinds of cities, not from differences in housing costs. Or as they put it, “the basic motors of all these features of the economy are the current geography of employment, wages and skills.” 

The economies and talent bases of cities have diverged over time. Expensive cities have much larger clusters of leading-edge tech and knowledge industries and of highly educated, skilled talent. It’s this, rather than differences in housing prices, that is behind growing spatial inequality.

“The affordability crisis within major urban areas is real,” they write, “but it is due less to over-regulation of housing markets than to the underlying wage and income inequalities, and a sharp increase in the value of central locations within metro areas, as employment and amenities concentrate in these places.”

A key factor here is the growing divide between highly-paid techies and knowledge workers and much lower-paid people who work in routine service jobs. These service workers end up getting the short end of the stick, spending much more of their income on housing in expensive cities. “Under these circumstances moving to big cities provides no immediate benefits for workers without college education,” Rodríguez-Pose and Storper write.

Upzoning does little to change this fundamental imbalance. Because land in superstar cities and tech hubs is so expensive to begin with, upzoning tends to create even more expensive condominium towers. “While building more affordable housing in core agglomerations would accommodate more people,” the authors note, “the collapse of the urban wage premium for less-educated workers means that the extra housing would mostly attract additional skilled workers.”

Opportunities for improved wages in core areas have stagnated, and the “ladder has shrunk.” Therefore, the decline in interregional migration can be attributed to many factors, including the new geography of skills and wages. But housing restrictions in prosperous areas wouldn’t top the list. And upzoning ends up fueling, not relieving, economic and spatial inequality. As Rodríguez-Pose told me: “Income inequality is greater within our cities than across our regions. Upzoning will only exacerbate this.”

“Planning deregulation and housing costs are neither going to solve the problem of areas lagging behind, nor are they likely to have an impact on the economic development of dynamic cities,” Rodríguez-Pose and Storper write. Worse, they caution, “an excessive focus on these issues at the expense of serious and sustainable development strategies, can fuel economic, social and political distress and anger in declining and lagging areas that can threaten the very foundations on which economic activity, both in less developed and more prosperous areas, has been erected in recent decades.”

This last point deserves special consideration.  By focusing on a kind of “voodoo urbanism” approach — by concentrating too much on the urban cores, including new building there, and hoping the benefits will trickle down to everyone else — we are not only not improving the affordability and equity issues, we are actually fueling a spiraling dynamic of “left-behind places.” These  include the suburbs, and also, importantly, the smaller towns and rural areas where much of the so-called “populist revolt” is occurring (in both the US and other countries).  Rodríguez-Pose in particular has argued for a more evenly distributed, “polycentric” approach to economic and human development, within city regions as well as national regions. 
For Portland, this would  suggest de-emphasizing the “build baby build” approach, and the “shove density down their throats” approach — which are both likely to fail, and to produce unhelpful political backlash — and instead, focusing on a more even-tempered and polycentric approach to development across the region —  exactly as was advocated in the Metro “Centers and Corridors” report, fulfilling the Metro 2040 plan’s vision of a polycentric network of walkable, compact, transit-served places across the region.  It would also suggest the kind of “Goldilocks” or “QUIMBY” approach we have advocated before on this blog.  

Suzanne Lennard’s legacy, and the “International Making Cities Livable” conferences, will continue

Home page for the conference website to be held in Carmel, Indiana in June 2020.

Friends and colleagues of Suzanne Lennard, director of the acclaimed conference series International Making Cities Livable (IMCL) based in Portland, are celebrating her life and legacy following her death last month.  (Suzanne was also co-author of this blog.)

Before she died, Suzanne made plans for the 2020 conference to be held in Carmel, Indiana.  That conference will continue, and will include a celebration of her life and legacy.  In fact, it will be an occasion to celebrate the new “Suzanne C. and Henry L. Lennard Institute for Livable Cities,” which will continue to operate the conferences. This author (Michael Mehaffy) will serve as the new director, at Suzanne’s request before her passing.

Suzanne’s lifelong passion was to promote livable, equitable and sustainable cities and towns for ALL, and to share the lessons of what works and doesn’t work in reaching that goal.  One of the biggest obstacles is the phenomenon of sprawl — the growth of fragmented, segregated, car-dependent suburbs that work passably well for the wealthy,  but much less effectively for the poor, for the elderly, for the infirm, for migrants, for caregivers and stay-at-home parents — in short, for far too many people.  Thats why the theme of the 2020 conference will be “From Sprawl to Neighborhoods: Livable Cities (and Suburbs) For ALL.”

As a venue for this topic, the conference will be located in the ideal town of Carmel, Indiana, which, as the conference website says, offers

…a fascinating case study of a remarkable transformation from a sprawling bedroom suburb of Indianapolis into a thriving, livable community. We’ll share concrete examples of what has worked in this and other suburbs, where such a high percentage of the population now lives – either by choice, or too often because they have been unwillingly displaced from gentrifying city cores. We’ll examine tools and strategies that are effective in building a new generation of walkable, equitable, livable cities – AND suburbs – for all.

 This and other examples remind us that most people in the United States live in suburbs, as do increasing numbers of people in other countries.  It is not enough to densify the cores of cities – which often causes profound rebound effects, as we have discussed before – but it is necessary to create many good places to live, within so-called “polycentric” regions, consisting of a range of neighborhood types and densities.  (The Portland region is supposed to be planned that way as well – a point that many people seem to forget.)

As Jane Jacobs reminded us, diversity is an essential attribute of great cities — and geographic diversity must be part of the mix.

Remembering Suzanne Crowhurst Lennard

It is with great sadness that I report the passing of our dear friend and collaborator Suzanne Crowhurst Lennard, at 3:15 AM on September 17, after a relatively short illness.  The cause of livable and humane cities has lost a champion — but her work and legacy will go on, including the International Making Cities Livable conference series begun by her with her late husband Henry Lennard.  The next conference will be in Carmel, Indiana June 2-6, 2020. (Dr. Crowhurst Lennard was also co-editor of this blog.)

Dr. Crowhurst Lennard and her husband co-founded the International Making Cities Livable conferences in 1985. Since that time, she directed the organization of these conferences that have been acclaimed as “…the best conference on cities” (Mayor Joseph P. Riley), and “the most important continuous conference dialogue on making the world’s cities and towns more livable for all of their inhabitants” (Governor Dr. Sven von Ungern-Sternberg).

Since 1985 Dr. Crowhurst Lennard was dedicated to fostering this international interdisciplinary dialogue among outstanding international practitioners, scholars and city officials on strategies and tools for increasing the livability of our cities. The IMCL Conferences have drawn architects, urban designers, planners, city officials, public health scientists, social scientists, artists, urban geographers, transportation planners and community representatives to share expertise and experience on such issues as “Reviving the Heart of the City”, “Planning Healthy Communities for All”, “Creating Community through Urban Design”, “Reshaping Suburbia into Healthy Communities”, and, for the Carmel conference next year, “From Suburb to City: A Livable City for ALL.”

Much of her work focused on the design and functioning of public urban places. The purpose of this work was to understand how public places (particularly urban squares, plazas and market places) can generate social life, community and participatory self-government, and contribute to social equity and health. This work combined the study of social interaction patterns, history of the square and of democracy, building use analysis, effects of the architectural frame, influence of the surrounding built urban fabric, transportation planning, streetscape and seating design, influence of public art, and management issues such as scheduled weekly events (farmers markets), street entertainment and community festivals in the space.

Dr. Crowhurst Lennard’s work concerned the social, cultural and psychological aspects of architecture, urban design and city-making, clarifying how the built environment affects social interaction, health and quality of everyday life. Her studies encompassed making cities “livable” for children, youth and the elderly; relationship between physical health, social health and the built environment; walkability, bikeability and transit; small footprint mixed use urban fabric as essential for a livable city; the mixed use square as the “heart” of the city; the DNA of the city; city identity through regional architecture; balanced transportation planning to enhance health, social life and community.

Through intensive case studies of numerous European cities that since the 1970s have been implementing innovative approaches to land use planning, transportation planning, housing, architecture, urban space design and sustainability, she identified strategies and successful solutions that contributed most to creating livable cities.

Dr. Crowhurst Lennard co-authored the following books that summarize this work: Genius of the European Square (2008); The Forgotten Child (2000); Livable Cities Observed (1994); Livable Cities, People and Places (1987); and co-edited The Wisdom of Cities (2005); and Making Cities Livable (1997). She also published numerous articles in professional journals, including Planning, Urban Land, The Mayor, Western City, Environment & Behavior and other journals for professionals and city officials.

Dr. Crowhurst Lennard received her professional degree in architecture, B.Arch.(Hons.) from Bristol University, England (1968); and an M.Arch. and Ph.D.(Arch.) in “Human Aspects of Architecture and Urban Design” from the University of California, Berkeley (1974). She later held professorships and other academic positions at the University of California, Berkeley; Oxford Brookes University; Harvard University (Summer School); and the Universities of Ulm, Germany and Venice, Italy.

Betraying our city’s legacy of public involvement, and our values in grass-roots democracy

An editorial

A Portland City Council meeting from September 2018.

Those of us who work professionally in public involvement (including this author) know that people can be a real pain in the rear.  They can be selfish, short-sighted, unreasonable, even hostile.  We can react to them in one of two ways.  We can stiff-arm them, marginalize them, attack them for their behavior, and replace them with more pliant tokens of representation.

Or we can treat them as fellow citizens.

For that is what they are – citizens, with democratic rights to participate in the shaping of their public realm, their neighborhood, and their city.

We can remind them civilly too of their responsibilities, to engage pro-actively and not just reactively, to consider other points of view, and to participate in a constructive conversation and a civic process.  We can also do our own level best to maintain such a process, and engage them in it. We might all then learn something from one another, and accomplish something together. That would be democracy at its best.

But democracy at its worst is still democracy – still “the worst form of government, except for all the others.”

Disturbingly, some people in Portland have made it pretty clear recently that they don’t have much stomach for democracy.  They’d rather impose their own ideas about social justice and how to achieve it, for example. Their methods include shouting down their opponents, bullying, threatening and suing.  They seem only too happy to become little dictators of their own opinions, and to hell with the rights of other citizens in this city – others who might happen to disagree with them.

Incredibly, some of these people are in government – and today they are engaged in the systematic dismantling of Portland’s vaunted public involvement system, based in neighborhood-scale, grass-roots democracy.

Take Jamey Duhamel, policy director for Commissioner Chloe Eudaly.  After recent citizen testimony by members of southwest neighborhood associations who were upset about the City’s unilateral change of their addresses, she expressed her true attitude to public involvement in text messages obtained by The Oregonian newspaper.

It is especially notable that Eudaly is the commissioner in charge of the City’s public involvement system, and her office has long denied that it is hostile to neighborhood associations.  But Duhamel’s emails reveal a different story.

“Why is this taking so long, ffs? Like WE GET IT ALREADY!! Who are they trying to convince?” she texted to Mustafa Washington, Mayor Ted Wheeler’s operations manager.

“How you like that ‘high income, high caliber’ bullshit. This is why we need our neighborhood associations in their place. They get too much power and voice….they are white and ‘high caliber’ soooooooo … any inconvenience is a big deal to their cozy lives. HOW DARE WE STRESS THEM OUT!!!… So. Much. Privilege.”

But is it privilege for citizens to complain to government about unilateral actions that affect those citizens’ lives?  Or is it the responsibility of government to listen to citizens, whatever their backgrounds or identities (certainly non-white but also white), and try to involve them respectfully in decision-making?  The City of Portland claims that is the case – but its actions here and elsewhere betray those claims.

It is a common narrative that neighborhood association members are white, wealthy, exclusionary, even oppressors of minority voices. It is a broad brush and often flat out untrue.  Worse, it is a pretense to deny an entire class of citizens their democratic rights – no less offensive than denials to other classes of citizens, in a democratic society in which all are supposed to be equal under the law. Injustice spread around is not justice.

Let’s be more specific. This narrative is also too often a mere cover story, providing the convenient pretext by which to bully citizens into submission in order to get pet projects through city approvals.  This is straight out of Donald Trump’s playbook, formerly as a developer, and now, as president: attack, insult, divide. Launch Twitter tirades. Harass, bully, and file lawsuits.

It is not a coincidence – though it is certainly an irony – that one of Donald Trump’s biggest supporters in the Northwest is allied with some of these same aggressors, these same promoters of pet projects. This Trump supporter is himself a major developer, so his own interests are obvious.  The interests of other allies who act like Trump, but fly the flag of social justice in order to promote a “build, baby build’ agenda, is more confused — to put it mildly.  What they have in common with Trump is an apparent disdain for democracy.  (Trumpism in a blue flavor, perhaps?)

What is going on? At best they are being manipulated, encouraged to be divisive, and playing into the hands of those who have the real power — those who are smiling all the way to the bank.  This is certainly not promoting constructive engagement and problem-solving, which is the public sector’s primary responsibility. Nor is it promoting real social justice — or real affordability, or real sustainability. It is simply allowing the city to be divided and conquered – and in some cases, doing it from City Hall.

The hostile reaction of neighborhood activists to such stiff-arming, tokenism and demonization is all too predictable. For those of us who work in public involvement, it’s a familiar reaction.

But in Portland’s case, we have fallen so far from what we were, and claim to be, as a healthy grass-roots democracy. The good news is that there are already signs of a new awareness — a new willingness to look hard at ourselves, to pick up the pieces of our legacy, and to revive and strengthen a moribund system. It’s high time.