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Samuel Stein giving the introductory keynote for 2019 PN conference in New York City. Photo by Arielle Lawson.

Note: The following article was presented by the author as the introductory keynote lecture for the 2019 Planners Network conference in New York City.

We meet today at a decisive, uncertain, frightening, and contradictory political moment. These dynamics are manifested in multiple ways, at both the international and the urban scales.

First, this is a time of mass displacement, as well as place-based struggles.

At the international scale, millions of people are fleeing war, violence, poverty, and climate disaster, all of which can – and must – be traced back to policies and practices of imperial nations. A recent UN report counted 71 million forcibly displaced people, roughly half of whom are children. At the same time, we are seeing radical uprisings in places like Sudan, Rojova, elsewhere for not transformative visions of self-determination.

At the urban scale, we see the extremities of uneven development – gentrification and hyper-disinvestment – causing displacement and eviction at historic levels. As wages have remained relatively stagnant, housing costs have risen perilously, causing tremendous rent burdens (a high percentage of income paid in rent) for tenants. This is a dramatically racially segmented phenomenon, with predominantly white neighborhoods facing already high average rent burdens of 31%, while predominantly African American neighborhoods average 44% and predominantly Latino neighborhoods averaging 48%. Every month in New York City, over 2 million tenants pay more than half of their income in rent. You can imagine that as a tremendous cash transfer from bosses to landlords that tenants never see. At the same time, we are seeing a bubbling up of radical tenant movements fighting luxury development and pushing for rent control and social housing. New York State’s new rent laws are a tremendous victory for tenants, and just one example of what our movements can accomplish.

Second, this is a time of climate peril, as well as growing awareness of our environmental precarity.

At the international scale, we are experiencing what seem like ever-decreasing countdowns toward the end of everything. Sea levels are rising, and so-called “natural disasters” are plaguing vulnerable locales, leading to an already-existing and fast-worsening dynamic of climate apartheid. At the same time, we see a new consciousness arising about the problem, its scale, and thus the scale of the actions necessary to halt it. Indigenous movements worldwide continue to fight extractivism and the destructive and displacement-inducing land politics that surround it. In the US, social movements are coalescing around “Green New Deal” demands and pushing for its most radical manifestation, while the leftist indigenous organization Red Nation has rolled out a Red Deal – not “new,” but truly transformative.

At the urban scale, we see worsening precarity for many coastal cities, which a) developed along waterways for commercial advantage, then b) placed much of their public housing and infrastructure along their waterfronts, partially because of then-low commercial land values in those areas. In response to this threat we have seen a truly baffling mix of responses from municipal governments – including, in New York City, back-to-nature buyouts and intensive new building codes at the same time as the city continues to incentivize intensive new luxury construction in the most vulnerable areas and underfund coastal public housing repairs. There is, however, a growing understanding among city residents that the status quo is ultimately – even immediately – untenable and must be radically confronted.

Third, this is a time of both rightward drifts and left-wing possibilities.

At the international scale, we have seen a right-wing resurgence, coalescing into a truly terrifying nationalist international. The US is, of course, leading the way in terms of our national political leadership, but we have seen a similar brand of politicians selected to lead in Brazil, Hungary, the Philippines, India, the recent European Union elections, and more. At the same time, we are seeing the rise of left-wing challengers, with growing popular support – particularly among young people – not only against capitalism but for socialism.

At the urban scale, we are living under the reign of what I’ve called “the real estate state” – a convergence of real estate capital and state power toward the goal of ever-rising profitability for land and buildings. The real estate state is particularly powerful at the municipal level, for that is where a great deal of our land use and planning decisions take place. Planners have been pushed into a paradigm which I have described as “whatever the problem, the solution is luxury development.” At the same time, on top of radical movements around housing and tenants’ rights, we’re seeing insurgent political campaigns that are challenging real estate’s grip on the state. Chicago recently elected six new socialist city councilmembers, while the successful push to remove New York’s “Independent Democratic Conference” and primary other conservative democrats created the conditions for the state’s new rent laws to pass after decades of retrenchment or stalemate.

This heightened context highlights the dire need for change. The status quo is absolutely untenable, and so are many of the alternatives being presented by those in power.

In terms of planning and urban development issues, our choices are often framed as a fascicle binary between two opposing tendencies: NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) and YIMBY (Yes In My Back Yard), meaning essentially movements to protect privilege through the preservation of our built environment versus movements to enable developers to build anything anywhere. Though framed as opposites, they are both essentially movements for the status quo: either freezing contemporary inequalities in place, or further enriching the most powerful forces in contemporary urban politics.

Clearly, we need an alternative. Among Planners Network members, we frequently name that alternative “progressive planning” – which was also the name of the Planners Network’s longtime print publication (now supplanted by the online Progressive City).

Despite the ubiquity of its call, the meaning of “progressive planning” remains elusive: even if we can all agree that it’s needed, we probably don’t agree about what it is. This can lead to a long debate about the true nature of progressive cities, but that’s not exactly what I have in mind this morning. For me, the call for progressive planning for raises a trio of important questions for practitioners, activists, and theorists to consider as we move forward through this conference, and onward in our work.

First there is the land question: in a context of largely private land ownership, and at a time of unprecedented investment in urban real estate, who benefits from the social value planners add to space?

Around the world, approximately $217 trillion is invested in real estate – the equivalent of 36 times the value of all gold that has ever been mined. Real estate makes up 60 percent of the world’s hard assets, of which 75 percent is in housing. The US is experiencing record high home sales to absentee investors, who made up 36% of buyers in 2016, and the private equity firm Blackstone has become the world’s largest landlord.

When progressive planners work to make urban spaces more livable, sustainable, transit-oriented, and pleasantly dense, they create a tremendous amount of social value. In a capitalist land market, that social benefit (or “use value”) is immediately translated into commercial gains (or “exchange value”). In other words, whoever owns the land and buildings makes a windfall profit, while those who live there pay ever-higher rents to enjoy the improved environment. Sometimes progressive planners try to use “value capture” mechanisms to offset this dynamic, but the most popular models for this tend to create far more value for landowners than they ever “recapture” for the public.

Second, there is the power question: who ultimately makes progressive planning possible? This is a serious question of political theory and strategy that too often we – me very much included –elide.

Is it the planners themselves? To some extent the answer is yes, as “equity planners” have demonstrated in various cities around the world. But generally planners do not usually have the power in and of themselves to change the course of urban politics from their perch inside city agencies or as independent outside advocates.

Is it the politicians responsible for policymaking and agency appointments? They certainly have the power to change policy, at least within the limits of city charters, state mandates, federal policy, and the constitution. But they are also often beholden to real estate interests, in both their concentrated form (like New York’s Real Estate Board of New York) or their diffused manifestation (such as conservative homeowner associations). They are under great pressure to push planning policy toward programs that raise the value of land and property, thus concentrating and reproducing economic and racial inequalities.

If it’s not the planners, and it’s not the politicians, is it the people? Ultimately, I believe so: popular movements are the only way to get the state – politicians and planners alike – on board with a political agenda that stands up to racial capitalist exploitation.

The existing channels for participation in planning, however, tend to dilute, rather than concentrate, popular calls for change. First, they present a limited set of options. Communities can choose options A, B, or C, but options D through Z are off the table. Second, they tend to present plans in ways that are either technocratic or infantilizing. Participants are either expected to debate the merits of highly technical zoning language, or place colored stickers on maps. (There’s a place for both of those activities, of course, but too often they serve to pacify debate, rather than to solicit meaningful participation.) Third, they reproduce urban inequalities by advantaging places where people with the most money, power, time, and access live, resulting in participatory planning for the privileged and top-down, market-driven planning for the poor.

The answer, then, is not participating and legitimizing planning processes that ultimately end in our own dispossession, but rather building disruptive movements for popular control of the city. This is not a new argument; some of Frances Fox Piven’s first theoretical contributions about the disruptive power of poor people’s movements were directed toward reformist urban planners. In her brilliantly acerbic 1970 article “Whom Does the Advocate Planner Serve?” Piven wrote:

Involving local groups in elaborate planning procedures is to guide them into a narrowly circumscribed form of political action, and precisely that form for which they are least equipped. What is laid out for the poor when their advocate arrives is a strategy of political participation which, to be effective, requires powerful group support, stable organization, professional staff, and money—precisely those resources which the poor do not have … The absorbing and elaborate planning procedures which follow may be effective in dampening any impulse toward disruptive action which has always been the main political recourse of the very poor.

While the rise of the real estate may make such uprisings seem unlikely, I believe that, in contrast, it represents an enormous opening for working class tenant movements. Real estate capital has built itself a trap in the heart of our cities. Investors have taken out tremendous amounts of debt to buy land and property under the assumption that the state will do everything in its power to allow or encourage those investments to become ever more valuable: for land values to grow; for rent gaps to expand; and for housing costs to rise to ever greater heights. Tenants, then, are in a structurally powerful position to throw a wrench into this machine of accumulation, through both direct actions (like rent strikes or occupations) and through political campaigns to unseat real estate-friendly administrations and legislators.

There is, however, a third a final question that must be answered for such a movement to manifest, let along succeed, and that is the definitional question: what, exactly, do we mean by “progressive” anyway?

It seems to me the word “progressive” is a two-pronged rhetorical device. On the relative right end of those labeling themselves “progressives,” the term simply replaces the pilloried “liberal” – as in centrist politicians who call themselves progressive to look cool. On the relative left side of the spectrum, the word “progressive” is used to allow radicals to enter the political mainstream without identifying as outsiders – as in the mid-20th century “Progressive Citizens of America” or Vancouver’s “Coalition of Progressive Electors” party.

I think what people commonly mean by labeling something as “progressive” is: it addresses historical inequalities in a way that prioritizes those most harmed by current economic and political conditions, and usually does so by expanding the state’s role as a promoter of welfare. That’s a fine definition, but it’s still pretty broad.

I would like to suggest that the real question about the notion of “progressive” is this: who is supposed to be progressing, and what are they progressing toward?

It’s a simple question, but too often those propounding a “progressive” have no answer for it. If we lack a real and specific answer to this question, the word “progressive” becomes just another empty signifier – a label that distracts and divides movements rather than one that clarifies and propels them. Avoiding the question can lead to meaningless political programs: if a plan or a policy is supposed to progress everyone in unison, then it simply perpetuates contemporary inequalities into a new era.

When I was in Vancouver recently, I saw a poster in various leftist spaces and homes that read: “Class consciousness is knowing which side of the fence you’re on. Class analysis is figuring out who is there with you.” I think this is the kind of positionality we need if we’re going to make the signifier “progressive” useful again for planners on the left.

It’s not a zero sum game, but we are not all progressing forward together. Someone is going to progress, and someone else is not. Who is it? Who are you with? Who are you against? What are you progressing toward? What are you moving away from?

I think a lot of us have personal answers to these questions, but too often planners are encouraged not to think in these terms. Instead, we are instead supposed to seek consensus and minimize conflict.

Maybe it’s time to sharpen the conflicts instead.

I hope that exploring these three questions – the land question, the power question, and the definitional question – allows us to develop greater clarity over the meaning, merits and limitations of our progressive planning models. I hope this weekend provides us all with challenging, inspiring, and clarifying visions for urban planning, and one that charts the way from this disastrous moment toward a better future.

Samuel Stein is a geography PhD candidate at the CUNY Graduate Center. His work focuses on the politics of urban planning, with an emphasis on housing, real estate, labor, and gentrification in New York City. In 2019, Verso published his first book, Capital City: Gentrification and the Real Estate State.



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