Beware of “Voodoo Urbanism”

Over-focusing on the wealthy cores of cities only fuels inequality, displacement, and other runaway urban problems — and degrades the cores too

Portland, Oregon — currently a textbook case of voodoo urbanism going wrong. Image: Wikimedia Commons (Truflip99)

The story is distressingly similar in many cities around the world. Newly popular city cores are drawing more people, pushing up prices, and driving out small businesses and lower-income residents. City leaders, alarmed at the trends, try to build their way out of the problems, on the theory that more supply will better match demand, and result in lower rents and home prices. But the efforts don’t seem to work – and even seem to exacerbate the problems.

That’s because cities aren’t simple machines, in which we can plug in one thing (say, a higher quantity of housing units) and automatically get out something else (say, lower housing costs). Instead, cities are “dynamical systems,” prone to unintended consequences and unexpected feedback effects. By building more units, we might create “induced demand,” meaning that more people are attracted to move to our city from other places – and housing prices don’t go down, they go up.

Unfortunately, we have been treating cities too much like machines, and for an obvious reason. In an industrial age, that has been a profitable approach for those at the top, and in past decades, it seemed to fuel the middle class too. More recently, the results have been destructive, creating cities of winners and losers, and large areas of urban (and rural) decline. Even government programs meant to address the problems have seemed at times like a game of “whack-a-mole” – build some social housing here, see more affordability problems pop up over there.

In the years after World War II, and especially in the United States, the largest areas of decline were often in the inner cities, leaving the “losers” of the economy behind, while the “winners” (often wealthier whites) fled to the suburbs. But more recently it has been the cores of large cities that have become newly prosperous, attracting the winners of the “knowledge economy”.

Meanwhile, the inner-tier suburban belts and the smaller industrial cities have suffered marked decline, with a predictable political backlash from the “white working class”. Lower-income and minority populations have been relegated to even more peripheral locations, with limited opportunities for economic (and human) development. This gap in opportunity means a gap in the lower-end “rungs of the ladder” that are so essential for immigrants and others to advance.  It is a gap in urban justice too — and it is not just bad for those in the peripheries, it’s bad for the city as a whole.

This more recent pattern of core gentrification and geographic inequality has also been an unintended result of conscious policies. This time we aimed to achieve not suburban expansion, but the urban benefits of knowledge-economy cities, and their capacities as creative engines of economic development. In the USA, authors like Ed Glaeser and Richard Florida have come to prominence by promoting the economic power of city cores. Florida’s “creative class” ranks alongside concepts like “innovation districts” to promote a critical mass of talent and interaction. Glaeser’s “triumph of the city” points to the environmental efficiencies of compact living, as well as the economic benefits.

These and other authors have cited as inspiration the urban economics of Jane Jacobs, who did indeed champion the capacities of cities as creative engines of human development. But Jacobs warned against the kind of “silver bullet” thinking that imagines an innovation district or a downtown creative class is going to generate benefits that will automatically trickle down to the rest of the city. On the contrary, she pointed to the dangers of any form of “monoculture” – including the monoculture of an innovation district or of a creative class.

Instead, Jacobs argued for a more diverse kind of city – diverse in population, diverse in kinds of activities, and diverse in geographic distribution too. Hers was a “polycentric” city, with lots of affordable pockets full of old buildings and opportunities waiting to be targeted.

This is a point that Ed Glaeser, Richard Florida, and the fans of “innovation districts” might not yet comprehend. Glaeser for one has been harsh in criticizing Jacobs’ defense of old buildings – for example, in Greenwich Village – which he sees as a sentimental preservation instinct that only feeds gentrification. His formula has been to demolish and build new high rises.

But Glaeser and other critics seem to miss Jacobs’ point. For Jacobs, the answer to gentrification and affordability is not an over-concentration of new (often even more expensive) houses in the core. Rather, we need to diversify geographically as well as in other ways. If Greenwich Village is over-gentrifying, it’s probably time to re-focus on Brooklyn, and provide more jobs and opportunities for its more depressed neighborhoods. If those start to over-heat, it’s time to focus on the Bronx, or Queens. Or Cleveland, Detroit, Baltimore, New Orleans…

There is no end of good urban fabric, in the US and in other countries, that is ready for some positive gentrification, the kind that increases diversity and opportunities for human development. (As we also offer targeted protections for existing residents.) It is not wise to over-concentrate on the existing cores, in the belief that this “voodoo urbanism” will magically benefit all of the city’s residents.

(Those who believe that cramming new units into existing core neighborhoods will do much good — indeed will do anything, other than to degrade existing neighborhood quality, and create bitter, needless political divisions — would do well to read Jacobs more carefully.  Oregon’s ill-conceived House Bill 2007 is a disturbing case in point.)

A second, related issue is the scale of urban plots or lots. Here too we need diversity at the smaller scales, just as we need geographic diversity at the largest scales of the city. Just as old buildings tend to be more affordable, accommodating smaller businesses and startups, so too, small plots and lots tend to be more affordable for those same users.

But as the cores experience hypertrophic growth, often the pressure to build very large buildings on very large sites also becomes irresistible. A mix of small and large plots can help to tamp down this tendency. At the same time, other tools can manage overheating of the core, and steer growth into new locations. For example, as Jacobs recommended, new public projects in new locations can serve as catalytic “chess pieces” to redirect growth into more benign forms.

These are examples of Jacobs’ “toolkit” approach – one that is badly needed today to cope with the dynamic challenges of rapid city growth around the world.

We need to become become wiser stewards of urban diversity, in both scale and location, so that we can counteract the effects of our current overheated urban growth. There are ample lessons in the past successes of cities that offer us effective tools and strategies.  By doing so, we can support a more even and equitable growth of smaller businesses, and viable employment for lower and middle classes. Out of that creative exchange, we will continue to get unimaginable marvels of innovation, and we might also get the next new world-famous startup. But we will also get many thousands of other healthy and creative businesses, forming the real backbone of great cities.

HB 2007 challenged in national debate

Planetizen’s feature article on HB 2007

Planetizen, the Los Angeles-based US planners’ website, ran some of our material on HB 2007 for a nationwide and international audience of planners and policy experts.  The comments were very interesting.

Jeff Joslin, Director of Current Planning at San Francisco Planning Department, wrote:

Since this is a national forum and not a local op-ed, I thought I’d shed light on one aspect.

The reviews the bill would obviate are not onerous, and there’s no data to support the case that eliminating them would result in more housing faster or meaningfully reduce the cost of housing (and increasingly true as projects scale up and the cost of review is spread across multiple units). This is because Oregon – since the 70s, has had in place a requirement that ALL discretionary reviews (even the largest and most complex in the land) be complete within 120 days of an application being complete, including any local appeal. This is remarkably streamlined by any measure, and provides a level of certainty that is readily incorporated into any project budget.

If this legislative effort was genuinely about the affordable housing it feigns to address, exceptions to certain types of reviews would be a carve-out rather than universal. Such is not the case. It is a jaded, opportunistic effort by certain forces (with a local and a national agenda) to wave the “housing crisis” banner and use it to significantly erode land use controls in the one state and city where they’ve been most effective (and which have served as a replicable model elsewhere). By bringing down a cornerstone of Portland and Oregon’s systems, the strategy can be applied throughout the land.

The problem is a genuine one, and the solution needs to be as well; not the cynical hijacking of the affordable housing issue to suit other agendas. This legislative effort is not that solution.

June Weenen, an advocate of “Georgist” land value tax policy based in the UK, wrote:

Affordability issues have zero to do with the supply side. A 100% tax on the rental value of land would half average selling prices and rental incomes while raising the disposable incomes of working households by thousands of dollars. Sorted.

It would also allow the market to allocate immovable property at optimal efficiency eliminating excessive vacancy and under occupation.

Sure, more building is always needed to put people where the economy requires and give them the living space they need. But until the demand side is sorted out first, then a dysfunctional market cannot know what to supply or where.

This is the kind of focus on a broader set of tools and strategies that we think is so badly needed.  (See more on Georgist policy and “Land Value Tax” at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Land_value_tax)

Closer to home, Ethan Seltzer, Professor of Urban Planning at Portland State, made a rather shocking comment in criticism of our piece:

When livability gets equated with faux tudor bungalows hyped up as historic, you know you’re in trouble.

From this it appears that Professor Seltzer believes that Portland’s classic bungalow neighborhoods (full of “faux” houses, apparently) are entitled to no historic protection, and we should be free to demolish them at will — anyone, at any time, for any reason.   Let’s demolish them all then!

I must say I find it a sad day when Portland and Oregon are willing to sell out their own livable legacy, on so slender a foundation of evidence and sloppy thinking.

Is this the Portland we want to become? Who gets to say? Will it be more affordable, more just? Where is the evidence? There is precious little – but lots of divisive identity politics and questionable thinking.