Liveable cities for whom?

Issue 139

Hey urbanists,

I hope you’re well and staying safe. I’ve been consumed with the events in the United States in the past few days, hoping against hope that this will finally be the time that black people get the justice they deserve — not just for the death of one, but for centuries of murder and oppression.

This week, I decided to highlight two articles on the urban inequities that can easily be ignored in conversations about better and more equitable cities.

Paris Marx

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With the ongoing protests in the United States after yet another white police officer killing a black man, I thought it would be a good week to consider the inequities in how cities are planned and who benefits from the things we think are “good” planning decisions.

As this pandemic has progressed, there’s been a lot of talk of the benefits of density and of non-automotive forms of mobility — I’ve also been making such arguments. And while that may be true, keeping the conversation at the scale of broad generalizations can lead us to ignore how not everyone benefits from those changes equally, if at all.

The example that always comes to my mind is the transit gentrification in Los Angeles. Despite investments in transit expansion, ridership is falling, and part of the reason is that improved transit fuels gentrification, making those areas unaffordable to the low-income people who most rely on transit. Part of the issue here is expanding transit while failing to reckon with a private housing system that privileges wealth creation over habitation and has basically stopped building public housing at any adequate scale (and no, I don’t think private, “affordable” housing is a substitute).

To that end, I want to highlight two pieces today on this topic. The first is by Jay Pitter, a Toronto-based author who focuses on the growing urban divide. She writes about the “forgotten densities” of the pandemic:

This form of density expands the dominant density discourse (and its myopic, privileged framework) and includes favelas, shanty towns, factory dormitories, seniors’ homes, tent cities, Indigenous reserves, prisons, mobile home parks, shelters and public housing. […] These densities emerge from distinct histories and socio-political forces. However, they have common characteristics such as ageing infrastructure, over-policing, predatory enterprises like cheque-cashing businesses and liquor stores, inadequate transportation options, and sick buildings – structures that contribute to illness due to their poor design, materials and maintenance. The health of poor and racialized people has significantly been impeded by these issues – created and agitated by inequitable approaches to urban density. […]

While mainstream urbanists are loudly advocating to widen sidewalks and public parks – two important but narrow points of focus – individuals living in forgotten densities are pleading to have their urgent concerns heard. Black men, disproportionately profiled and murdered by police on streets, are weighing the risk of ignoring directives to wear a mask and possibly contracting the virus or wearing a mask and suffering the humiliation of being asked to leave stores when attempting to shop for essential supplies. Advocates for those experiencing homelessness warn that the deadly mix of crowding and a communicable disease will lead to catastrophic consequences. A petition has been started by those concerned about elders living in densely populated long-term facilities. Even in cities where the curve is flattening or hasn’t reached its deadly peak, communities living in forgotten densities – which tend to be disproportionately racialized and poor – are suffering in the margins.  

The second is by Julian Agyeman, a professor at Tufts University, who writes about the “invisible cyclists” who are too often ignored in conversations about open streets and improved cycling infrastructure:

Cyclists of color tend to miss the eye of city planners, but the same can’t be said of the law. Relations with the police can and do affect their daily spatial and cycling practices, governing where and how they ride. Of particular concern is the issue of racial profiling and harassment of cyclists. 

A study of bike citations in Chicago, revealed that between Jan. 1 and Sept. 22 of 2017, 321 tickets were issued in the majority African American, low-income area of Austin, compared with five in the nearby white, wealthy neighborhood of Lincoln Park. Similarly, a 2015 investigation by the Tampa Bay Times found that 80% of the 2,504 bike citations issued by the Tampa Bay Police Department were issued to black bikers, despite black people making up just 25% of the city’s population. This phenomenon of “biking while black” not only affects those who may want to cycle to work but those whose job depends on cycling, like food delivery workers. 

Physical safety concerns are often considered to be one of the most significant barriers to cycling. Here too the burden of injury and risk is wildly disproportionate. Latino cyclists face fatality rates 23% higher than whites, and for African Americans, they are 30% higher. In these communities, some, or all of the following hazards are more prevalent: higher vehicular traffic volumes, trucking routes, major arterial roads, intersections that are unsafe or impassable by foot or bike, and an overall lower level and quality of walking and cycling infrastructure. Contributing to such safety-related issues is the well-established, disproportionate exposure experienced by low-income and minority communities to air pollution.

Finally, I think it’s easy to think these are just American issues, but that’s certainly not the case. It just takes different forms in different places. For example, in Canada, new immigrants and poor people are increasingly pushed into the suburbs, where it’s harder to access transportation and social supports; and in Paris, residents of the banlieues get few of the benefits we hear about in Anne Hidalgo’s transformation of the urban core — just to give a couple of examples.

Some cities certainly do better than others, but in all the benefits are inequitably distributed to certain privileged groups, and while that needs to change, it will take more than tweaking how we build bike lanes or housing stock. The transformation will need to be much more fundamental.

Critical urbanism

Defund the police. Uber is trashing 20,000 perfectly good Jump bikes instead of reselling them. UK follows France with £50 vouchers for bike repairs. Austin’s bike share will become part of the transit system, making it easier to use. LA Metro is replacing its app with the Transit app (I disagree). Latin American cities are making permanent (positive) changes to cycling infrastructure in response to the pandemic. Cycling to work can cut risk of heart disease and cancer. California high-speed rail is slashing millions in spending on consultants (finally). Unionized bus drivers in NYC and Minneapolis are refusing to transport people arrested for protesting police.

Tech dystopia

This LA Times story about an Amazon worker who died of COVID-19 is a must-read. Donald Trump’s executive order on social media isn’t about Twitter; it’s about ensuring Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t do anything before the 2020 election. San Francisco COVID-19 testing site run by Google subsidiary turned people away for not having a smartphone or Google account. Facebook knew its algorithms were causing polarization, but top executives refused any fixes. Amazon wrote propaganda segments for local media — and they ran them. Instacart shoppers aren’t getting the sick pay and protections they were promised. New surveillance tools aren’t replacing workers; they’re making their lives terrible. Amazon workers are tracking COVID-19 infections since the company won’t share the info, and Whole Foods just fired a worker for compiling that information. After Walmart wouldn’t listen, workers went to reporters over the flaws in its self-checkout AI.

On Tech Won’t Save Us, I spoke to author and publisher Dan Hind about his vision for a cooperative system of technological development that serves human flourishing and builds a new kind of economy.

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