The Post-Planning Pandemic

The coronavirus will dismantle urban life in America—if we let it.

By Jacob Anbinder

Tagged affordable housingCitiescoronavirusHousingInequalitypandemic

In 1966, an aspiring city planner named Robert Goodman withdrew from his graduate program with a half-finished dissertation and a laundry list of frustrations. Planning, as it was then conceived, seemed too willing to instill in its disciples the notion that they were experts who could be entrusted with effecting progress in “blighted” neighborhoods by applying their superior knowledge of how cities worked. Looking around the Boston area, where such urban renewal projects had already razed the city’s West End and parts of its North End to replace nineteenth-century buildings with new apartment blocks, office towers, and elevated highways, Goodman saw no evidence that this approach had any remaining credibility. In a provocative book titled After the Planners, he argued that ongoing tragedies of urban renewal like the indiscriminate bulldozing of neighborhoods were partly the product of planners’ inflated sense of self-importance. They were hardly the “medicine men” they believed themselves to be, Goodman wrote, but rather mere cogs in capitalism’s violent machinery of creative destruction.

Goodman wasn’t alone in making the case against centralized planning in the late 1960s and early ’70s. The era was notable for the unexpected yet mounting critiques being leveled against government overreach from across the ideological spectrum, as Americans of wildly different political beliefs united to embrace the radical potential of devolved management of public policy. On the one hand, left-wing observers concluded that mainstream planners’ cozy relationship with the private sector meant that the tools of interventionist local government would forever fail to bring about more equal cities. On the other, conservatives were alarmed by what they saw as the powerful redistributive and integrative potential of the Great Society. As the years passed and the century waned, they worked to slash spending and reduce the size of the federal bureaucracy wherever possible. Left-of-center activists applauded the passage of legislation reducing HUD’s signature Great Society programs to block grants, which Gerald Ford called a move “to return power from the banks of the Potomac to people in their own communities.” By the end of the decade, Mother Earth News was making its way across Ronald Reagan’s desk. “Note the Reagan themes,” wrote an aide of the back-to-the-land, and decidedly leftish, magazine. “Self-reliance, independence, etc.” The proportion of the labor force employed by local governments fell after 1975 as government capacity was ramped down. For many, the private sector beckoned. In 1973, one study found that just 4 percent of planners who belonged to the two major professional planning associations worked outside of government; today, the figure is 28 percent.

The history of the planning state and its dismantlement is today more relevant than ever, as we continue to endure the deadliest American pandemic in a century. To many, the Trump Administration’s ongoing dereliction of duty has represented an apotheosis of the conservative approach to governance. The political consultant Stuart Stevens, writing in The Washington Post, called the President’s pandemic response the product of “toxic fantasies now dear to the Republican Party,” while David Corn of Mother Jones characterized it as “the culmination of decades of right-wing action aimed at subverting the one entity that can protect Americans from the deadly threat at hand: government.” While undoubtedly true, criticisms of the federal response overlook the way that the pandemic now poses the greatest challenge in at least half a century to planning capacity at all levels of government. With the Trump Administration having shirked its responsibility to plan for a pandemic scenario nationally, it fell to city governments to use a different kind of planning—urban planning—to mitigate its effects locally. As a result, the discussion about whether the virus will have a detrimental long-term effect on American cities is really a proxy for the larger debate about whether we can, and want, to resurrect the kind of interventionist government—a government of planners—that we abandoned over the course of the late twentieth century. This question is especially relevant in cities, given that the coronavirus not only takes advantage of the most precarious urban residents but does so by exploiting some of the worst planning failures of recent years.

Consider, for example, the housing shortage in large coastal cities that has been decades in the making. In places like Boston and New York, restrictions on construction—often implemented with the express purpose of preventing another era of urban renewal—have pitted old and new residents against each other for the limited supply of homes, all the while making homeownership an increasingly lucrative proposition for a select few and an impossibility for others. Consultants and financiers have outbid writers, civil servants, and grad students for well-maintained units; grad students have moved into homes originally built for day laborers; and day laborers have doubled- or tripled-up in the worst of the housing that remains. Now that the chief advantage of city living—the city outside—is not available to residents in the way it once was, those who have the privilege of socially distancing in their apartments have become hyper-aware of how much rent they pay for what few amenities they get in return. With every family Zoom call, young adults in particular are reminded of how little room they can afford relative to their parents. Nor is this simply a question of age. While Baby Boomers already owned more than 30 percent of American real estate by value by 1990, their children, who have never really experienced a bear market in urban property, own just 4 percent today.

For people who cannot afford to self-isolate, the coronavirus is, of course, a far more visceral problem. Here too, the housing crisis has compounded the dangers already present in the workplace. In the Boston area, the epicenter of the pandemic is Chelsea, whose residents—about half of whom are immigrants mostly from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras—earn their livings by cooking, cleaning, working retail, and caring for the sick and elderly. There, one in 13 people has tested positive, and a recent study showed that as much as one third of the population have already developed antibodies. The Census Bureau estimates that roughly 10 percent of homes in Chelsea have more than one occupant per room, the standard measurement of overcrowding. In Corona, Queens, the most severely COVID-affected neighborhood in New York, the figure is close to 30 percent. (Given what we know about the Census’s tendency to undersample immigrants, the rates in both places could well be higher.) Unable to quarantine at home when they get sick, entire neighborhoods of working-class people are paying the price for our inability to guarantee them a bare minimum of personal living space. A study by the UK’s Office of National Statistics reported in Inside Housing found a similar relationship between overcrowding and infection rates there.

The shortage of homes is not the only urban policy problem relevant to the pandemic, but it is representative of the way that our broader abandonment of planning has had a measurable impact on our ability to manage a major public health crisis. Rediscovering the value of a vigorous planning state, however, is not merely a question of electing Democrats to national office. Of course, self-styled progressives would go to the mat for policies like a comprehensive national testing-and-tracing program, government support of vaccine research, and increasing the size of the Centers for Disease Control and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which Anthony Fauci heads.

In cities, though, there exists much more resistance from those same progressive voters to the idea of expanded government capacity at the local level. It is not an exaggeration to say the current structures of local planning owe less to New Deal or Great Society traditions than to the beliefs articulated in After the Planners, albeit denuded of the revolutionary potential Goodman saw in them. Today, bulldozers no longer threaten urban neighborhoods. In their place, preservation commissions, zoning boards, and design review committees—often comprised of local residents rather than professional planners—have grown to wield significant power to alter, delay, or cancel projects altogether, whether government-led or privately funded. Elsewhere, elaborate series of public meetings and environmental review requirements perform a similar function.

The necessity of such measures intended to slow the pace of physical change was debatable in the best of times. In a pandemic, where making urban living tolerable depends on rapidly modifying the ways city-dwellers live, work, and move, they constitute a threat to public health.

In other countries, local authorities have taken steps to encourage walking and cycling and to reassure people that transit use is safe, installing vending machines with face masks in subway stations, converting miles of city streets to enable commuting without close physical contact, and pedestrianizing large public spaces. These, along with a host of other recommendations recently published by the National Association of City Transportation Officials, would be welcome changes in our cities. Implementing them at the necessary scale, however, demands not just painted lines and plastic bollards but also a reorientation of attitudes. In the near term, planners within city government—whether working in transit, housing, recreation, or street design—must advocate for aggressive policy agendas to make social distancing easier. The elected officials and top-level bureaucrats to whom they report must likewise convey that they will support their planners’ work in the political arena, allowing for implementation of these plans without fear of reprisal. Given that every day wasted can result in thousands of lives lost, it is far better at the moment for governments to ask for forgiveness than permission.

Over the long term, a more fundamental shift will be necessary. Nationally, the Democratic Party remains broadly, if vaguely, supportive of expanded state capacity. Locally, however, progressives must cast off the risk-averse approach that has defined their urban policy since the sixties and rediscover the sort of ideology that the New Right feared, one that asserts the coronavirus and other parasites like it—including parasitic forms of state power—thrive in the absence of planning, not the presence of it. Indeed, planners themselves must reassert their profession’s essential role in a vibrant social democracy, not as facilitators of pseudo-democratic input processes but as civil servants entrusted with improving urban life. It is not a coincidence that the late twentieth-century rise of private planning firms occurred contemporaneously with the profession’s crisis of confidence in its public purpose. We need not defend the specific works of the midcentury master builders to recognize that the model that has replaced them—where some planners spend their evenings being berated by neighborhood busybodies and others bill governments rather than work for them—has produced its own undesirable outcomes.

A half-century after Goodman mocked planners for thinking of themselves as medicine men, it is clear that they can in fact offer a salve while we await a more robust federal response. That cavalry isn’t coming until next January 20 at the earliest. Until then, we must admit that Republicans aren’t the only group under the sway of a devolutionary philosophy about planning and its relationship with government. COVID-19 is not inevitably a disease that preys on cities and the most vulnerable people in them. But it will become one, in America, if we let it.

Read more about affordable housingCitiescoronavirusHousingInequalitypandemic

Jacob Anbinder is a PhD candidate in history at Harvard University, where he studies the politics of American cities and suburbs in the twentieth century. He was the editorial intern for Democracy in the summer of 2011.

Also by this author

Politics is Failing Mass Transit

Click to

View Comments

blog comments powered by Disqus