Cities for profit or for people?

Issue 119

Paris Marx

Hey urbanists,

Thank you for your responses to last week’s essay on communal spaces and public luxuries. There will be more as I think through these questions for myself, and I’m also interested in your feedback.

I’ve been working a lot on my Master’s thesis these past couple weeks, and I’ve started reading the “Some Thoughts…” collection of short contributions inspired by the conversations that have been had about Sidewalk Labs’ project in Toronto. As usual, I’ve been tweeting my thoughts. I haven’t had any new pieces published this week, but you’ll find the video of the talk I gave at Mobilizing Justice in Toronto on the implications of having transport systems designed by elites at the end of this issue.

Let me know what you think, and have a great week!


P.S. — Press the heart below the headline or at the end of the newsletter if you like the issue!

Cities for profit or cities for people?

Last month, Garrett Dash Nelson wrote a long essay about Edward Bellamy’s “Looking Backward,” the utopian novel first published in 1888, and the effect it had on urban planning and left-wing politics in the early decades of the twentieth century. In the book, “[p]rivate residences are well-appointed but relatively unimportant, since meals are taken at community clubs scattered throughout the tree-lined neighborhoods, and domestic tasks like laundry are performed in public facilities,” reflecting Lewis Mumford’s observation that Bellamy “wanted private life to be simple and public life to be splendid.” It’s George Monbiot’s call for “public luxuries,” but over a century ago.

Nelson explains that Bellamy’s writings inspired a strand of municipal socialism that was less interested in the class politics of Karl Marx and more in the role of the planner to make life better for people through changes to the urban form and provision of services. And while he believed in the power of technology and science to better humanity, “he also knew that technical advances would not lead to social progress if they were not set in a political economy that prioritized shared benefits above individual gain.” If only the tech bros had cracked it open before moving fast and breaking everything.

In the United States, it helped to inspire a move to rein in industrial greed through regulation on the federal level — antitrust enforcement was one aspect of it — but on the municipal level, “there was a much sharper appetite for the outright acquisition of public services,” which included “municipalizing everything from streetcars to electricity to natural gas, while expanding their role in furnishing public amenities like parks and libraries.” We still benefit from some of those decisions today, but the past several decades have also brought a privatization and defunding of certain services, paired with suburban living that has left us more disconnected than ever. The public luxuries imagined by Bellamy have given way to private luxuries for the few, and little for those who can’t afford to buy those amenities themselves.

But why has that happened? After beginning to reflect on these questions last week, I got a considered response from subscriber Sverrir Bollason, who writes:

The communal system is quite alive in Danish communities called “bofællesskab” which are varyingly communal arrangements, some cater to old people and others to younger people with children. These are quite often in suburban settings. But even in central Copenhagen you have a venue like Folkehuset Absalon which is like a community center for all ages and has communal meals and events. 

But this sort of thing is deeply ingrained in Danish society, through decades of grassroots work and a penchant for democratic decision making at all levels of community. Hence, you won’t see the same eagerness for these things in neighbouring countries: Sweden or Norway or even here in Iceland, a former Danish colony. These types of arrangements need to be grounded in the right culture. Also, for me as a cooking male in my household, the solitary part is one of the perks of kitchen work, not a downside.

The other thing is that I’ve often been perplexed by the scale and quality of private ameneties in American McMansions and other suburban housing that should surely be part of the public domain. There are home movie theaters, home bars with TV screens to watch sports, pool tables and darts, home gyms with all types of equipment. I always get the feeling that these rooms have probably never seen any guests or at least not nearly as many as the owner envisioned when building them and furnishing. I can’t help but think how many rounds could be bought at the local pub for the price of a home bar and how spending that money there would benefit community better. The people invited to these homes surely also have their own home bars anyway, so why should the ever leave the house? 

I appreciated Sverrir’s email for the reflections on culture and the private amenities of American suburbia. I don’t believe a culture shift in the U.S. and other English-speaking Western countries will happen overnight, and I wonder how much of the shift that has occurred over the course of decades of suburbanization is the result of a material change in the way we built cities, rather than inspiring that change in the first place. The result is people who are less community oriented and more physically distant, which makes community spaces less accessible and increases the desire for individual spaces to fill the void. Thus, larger homes with rooms serving needs that would have once been served by communal spaces.

But why did that change occur? As I argued in my recent presentation at Mobilizing Justice in Toronto, the shift toward automobility and suburbia was driven by elites and served particular (white and well-off) groups of people. It was initially fought by urban dwellers who used the streets, but they lost to the power of the state, the police, planners, and corporations that would benefit from an automotive, suburban future.

I’ve been reflecting on the role of capitalism and profit in the transformation a lot this week, especially after receiving Sverrir’s email. Everyone owning their own home and plot of land generated more profit for developers than if they lived in apartment units. That extra space also needed to be filled with more commercial products, fueling the expansion of a consumer economy. And the distance between everyone forced them to buy cars, which created more profit than if people relied on transit and bikes. The expansion of suburbs and shift to auto-oriented development provides many more opportunities for private profit than a denser, walkable, more transit-oriented way of life.

In last week’s essay, I linked to Angie Schmitt’s essay, which reflected on this through more of a feminist lens, but looking at suburbanization, the privatization of services, and the greater degree of individualism that was promoted through the lens of profit and capitalism is essential. Suburban living, automobility, and the defunding of public and community services so people have to procure their own private alternatives is more profitable, even if it doesn’t increase the quality of life that people experience. And, with the United States being the “heart of capitalism,” as Parasite director Bong Joon Ho observed after winning Best Foreign Language Film at the Golden Globes, it makes sense that it’s the place where this more profit-centered form of life was most fully implemented, with the negative social implications that have developed now that the state’s ability to keep subsidizing it is eroding.

Instead of prioritizing private profit, we need cities that put people’s wellbeing first. That means bringing people closer together so they can benefit from having shops, essential services, people, community spaces, and public luxuries within a reasonable distance so they can enjoy a richer — socially, not monetarily — life. But that also means throwing off this false notion that leaving things to ‘the market’ and allowing people to access them if they can afford them is acceptable. It simply is not, and many of the things currently left to private companies should be brought under public ownership and community control.

There are people who will respond negatively to any attempt to reorient people around community and public luxury rather than their privatized, individualized existences — and that should be expected. Just as suburbanization took a little while to change the culture and bring most people on side, so will reurbanization and reconnecting people with community. In the most recent episode of Daniel Denvir’s The Dig podcast, he spoke to Thea Riofrancos and Daniel Aldana Cohen about the Green New Deal. At one point, Aldana Cohen noted that when the Workers’ Party took power in Brazil under Lula da Silva, its initial base was the middle class, but after taking power the poor and working class became its biggest supporters because of the policies the government implemented to help them. I wonder if we might see a shifting coalition with policies aimed at recentering urban life.

This week in the news

🚗 Elon Musk’s Boring Company project in Las Vegas “is being publicly dubbed as the “first underground people mover,” what’s being built appears to be more of a mechanism for giving one-minute test rides in Teslas.” He originally promised 16-passenger vehicles going 155mph on tracks. Now the plan is for Tesla Model 3s going 50mph on underground roads. These are car tunnels, not public transit.

Tech dystopia

✊🎮 Communications Workers of America, one of the largest unions in the U.S., is launching a new campaign to unionize video game and tech workers

🙃 “[T]he Victorian-era used to be thought of as an anachronism, a societal structure we’d rather not to return to. Well, as it turns out, we don’t mind turning our clocks back a century or so, as long as a few Y Combinator graduates get rich.”

Amazon workers pushing the company to adopt more ambitious climate plans say they’re not deterred after leadership threatened them. “Pissed off, maybe, but not deterred.”

📱 Uber made a number of changes to its app in California to try to avoid classifying its drivers as employees

👁 Ring, the Amazon-owned home security/surveillance company, fired employees for watching customers’ videos against company policy. Meanwhile, it’s adding new lightbulbs and a “privacy dashboard.”

🚜 Midwest farmers are buying up tractors built in the 1970s and 1980s because they last much longer than new, high-tech tractors and are much easier to repair

☕️ Starbucks is offering free subscriptions to a meditation app to help workers with their mental health. Workers say that won’t address the root of their problems: understaffing and low pay.

Critical urbanism

🚇🛣 “American cities added more than 1,200 miles of new and expanded transit lines between 2010 and 2019, spending more than $47 billion in 2019 dollars to do so,” but is also “added an estimated 28,500 new lane-miles of arterials […] This is infrastructure hostile to pedestrians and transit users—and likely to reinforce patterns of automobile dependency and sprawl.”

📱🚌 Las Vegas’ transit agency becomes the latest to hand its relationship with the customer/resident to Uber by allowing it to sell bus tickets. Instead, transit agencies should become the ‘Amazon for transportation’ and control the interface.

💥 The California Public Utilities Commission keeps ride-hailing accident reports confidential, but an investigation by the San Francisco Public Press finds that Uber is not doing its duty to keep the public safe and keeping those reports secret is allowing dangerous drivers to stay on the road. They further found that the provision to keep the reports secret was inserted after heavy lobbying by Lyft, and their lobbyist was later fined for not even being a registered lobbyist.

🏙 Manhattan has 7,050 unsold luxury condos that could take up to six years to sell, while working class people struggle to afford their rent and there’s a homelessness crisis. But sure, leave housing to the private market, developers clearly have everyone’s best interests in mind.

🛴👋 Lime is laying off around 100 workers and shutting down its operations in 12 cities: Atlanta, Phoenix, San Diego, and San Antonio in the United States; Bogota, Buenos Aires, Montevideo, Lima, Puerto Vallarta, Rio de Janeiro, and Sao Paulo throughout Latin America; and Linz, Austria.

🚽 Companies at CES want us to put surveillance devices in our bathrooms. Fuck that.

🏘 The U.S. state of Maryland is considering two new bills to encourage denser housing and put a lot more money into social housing

🚁 Uber unveiled its flying taxi thing yet again at CES. Why does it feel like they reannounce it every few months??

🙄 GM is bringing back the Hummer as an electric truck. With all the mining required to make its battery, it should never be considered ‘green’.

Climate crisis

📚🔮 “Science fiction reflects back current events and current fears and aspirations, and then the world turns some of those fears and aspirations into reality, which in turn sparks new science fiction. […] I make no claim to predicting the future. I make up stories. Stories are better than predictions: predictions tell us that the future is inevitable. Stories tell us that the future is up for grabs.” — Cory Doctorow

🇦🇺🔥 Lizzie O’Shea explains the political angle of the Australian bushfires, and why it should force the opposition Labor Party to get serious about an export ban on coal and gas and a just transition for workers. Meanwhile, smoke from Australia’s bushfires has made it all the way to South America.

🇦🇺🦘 The World Wildlife Fund estimates 1.25 billion animals may have died in Australia’s bushfires. South Australia will also be culling 10,000 camels because they threatened the water supplies of remote communities.

🇨🇦🛢 Imperial Oil, Exxon’s Canadian subsidiary, knew about climate change decades ago, but covered it up and kept drilling.

The cache of documents shows that as far back as the 1960s, Imperial had begun hiring consultants to help them manage a future public backlash over its environmental record, as well as conducting surveillance on its public critics. The documents also show that, as the company began to accept the implications of a warming planet, instead of acting decisively to change its business model, it began considering how a melting Arctic might open up new business opportunities.

🇺🇸☀️ Alaska recorded its hottest year ever recorded in 2019. The “average temperature was 0.1 degree Celsius (32.18 degrees Fahrenheit) in 2019, above the long-term average of -3.3 degrees Celsius (26.06 degrees Fahrenheit).”

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