REVIEW OF SAMUEL STEIN'S "CAPITAL CITY: GENTRIFICATION AND THE REAL ESTATE STATE"
When I was studying to become an urban planner, I could never figure out how to describe the professional degree to my grandmother. This was not an inter-generational communication failure. Having spent her professional career as an economist in a planned economic system and watching the rapid and often brutal urbanization of the Soviet Union, she had a clear sense of what planning was. What made less sense to her was what an urban planner would do in a market economy.
To an external observer, the U.S. reverence for property rights and disdain for regulation make planning seem superfluous. At the same time, U.S. localities are shaped by “tedious laws governing the building of everyday environments and way of life," as planning scholar Sonia Hirt notes in her comparison of U.S. land use planning to Eastern and Western European models. Despite anti-regulatory rhetoric, local planners in U.S. cities hold a significant amount of power over what our cities and neighborhoods look like, and who gets to live in them. But, how do they use that power?
Samuel Stein’s Capital City: Gentrification and the Real Estate State sets out to answer these key questions about the planning profession, using New York City as a case study. The book traces the historical transition of planning from practice–often in service of settler-colonialism and social control–to profession. And while professional urban planning in the U.S. has always had a complex relationship with capital, Stein posits that our contemporary paradigm emerged more recently, when the influence of manufacturing in U.S. urban centers declined and real estate capital filled the void: With real estate as the “primary commodity, revenue stream and political priority,” planners are increasingly tasked with using their power over land use, regulation, and incentives to increase land values at all costs. Gentrification is not an unfortunate byproduct or inevitable result of market forces at play, but the intended result of planning policy. Thus, gentrification is not purely a matter of supply and demand, but a political process, with the state as “a central actor, marshalling investment, boosting land values, attracting desired residents and industries [and] chasing away threats to profits.” The titular “real estate state” is an entity that balances the spatial needs of real estate capital and the taxation, land use and enforcement power of local governments. Urban planners – under both conservative and liberal administrations – manage the relationship between the two.
Capital City offers a powerful critique of how urban planners use their power to shape U.S. cities and unearths the structural reasons why the development of high-value real estate is the answer to seemingly any problem in the contemporary city: homelessness, underfunded schools and libraries, underperforming and public transit. It also explains why even the best efforts by planning departments to plan new parks, transit extensions or the redevelopment of vacant sites are rightfully viewed by communities as an existential threat to their continuing existence.
What sets this book apart from critiques of market-oriented urban policy is Stein’s effort to offer a path out. Planners are not doomed to be “capital managers” forever, existing only to facilitate new ways of pulling profit out of commodified urban land. Urban planning under a market economy is inherently contradictory; for example, planners have to negotiate between the needs of both real estate capital and communities threatened by it. Stein argues that the possibility for radical planning can arise out of these contradictions, suggesting the following broad guiding principles: public stewardship of urban resources like housing, hospitals and schools, which legal scholar Sheila Foster and philosophers Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri describe as the commons; reversing the increasing commodification of urban space through the socialization of land; and a reordered regionalism, to undo the replication of spatial segregation through resource-hoarding by wealthy and white communities.
To get there, radical planners have to find each other first (for example, by connecting through the Planners Network or attending the Affordable for Whom? Convening). Planners and planner-adjacent professionals are after all workers, and workers should organize.
Recognizing the pitfalls of tokenism and faux participation that use up community energy,
Capital City underscores that radical planning can’t be led by professionals or decoupled from social movements. This leaves space for technical expertise, but democratizes and disperses the power and responsibility over the spatial decision-making process through collective action.
Often, the most effective way to engage with a destructive project is to oppose it. However, Stein argues, and I agree, that social movements must have a planning vision.
U.S. cities have a rich history of social movements engaging with urban planning. For example, socialist, anarchist and communist organizing in New York City in the first few decades of the twentieth century centered on shifting power to tenants and workers and on decommodifying urban land. Just cause eviction protection, rent control and non-speculative housing models are the concrete policy outcomes of those struggles. Later, the New York City and Chicago chapters of the Young Lords Organization and the Black Panther Party both resisted urban renewal and disinvestment, and planned for local control over medical services and housing, often intersecting with housing movement groups like the Metropolitan Council on Housing. Planners provided their professional expertise to neighborhood-based groups fighting urban renewal, helping draft the Cooper Square Committee’s alternative neighborhood plan and participated in symbolic actions, testifying at the People's Court Housing Crimes Trial.
More recently, the successful fight to expand tenant protections statewide, pushback against new jail development, local organizing in Queens that helped stop Amazon’s HQ2 and is currently fighting back against an effort to bring Target to Jackson Heights are all community-led efforts to exercise control over urban space.
Capital City has generally been well-received among organizers and academics. But it has also been met with some hand-wringing among professional planners. In this, the book is similar to INCITE’s classic collection of essays analyzing the relationship between the non-profits, capital, and the state, The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex. Both works offer a political critique of mission-based, liberal professional sectors and institutions, while recognizing the radical potential among the people in those sectors. In the introduction to the 2017 edition, Soniya Munshi and Craig Willse write, “life within the NPIC [nonprofit industrial complex] and AIC [academic industrial complex] requires constant negotiation of how those complexes constrain and enable transformative work. In those negotiations, individuals are not only shaped by their institutional locations but also push back and shape their organizations, universities, and broader contexts.”
With shifting political winds locally, it is more important than ever for planners to claim their radical potential to act as public stewards of the urban commons. This starts with identifying and critiquing the contradictions within contemporary planning, finding co-conspirators, and then finding ways to challenge them together, both within and outside of our institutions.