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'Sustainable' Urban Policy: Old Wine in New Bottles?

City Sustain

Initially, this was going to be a response primarily aimed towards Kaid Benfield's most recent post here at Sustainable Cities. But I realized my annoyance with this post rested upon a greater critique of "sustainability" (as popularly commented upon) and other topical areas that fall under sustainability oriented science in relation to cities.

Frankly, sustainability advocates need to move beyond a consumptive conception of cities that's based on attracting a preferred social elite, whether they be footloose "millenials" or "middle class families". There's plenty to take issue with regarding these strategies, and, of course, it comes down to a particular set of values and politics. And to a large extent, this focus is entirely understandable, even sensible, in many ways.

The older, experienced commentators of the mainstream environmental movement are middle-aged family types who left the cities years ago and are excited at the opportunity to return or were some of the "brave few" who decided to not decamp to suburbs and are now excited at the burgeoning urban "renaissance" we see around the country. Younger environmental activists crow about the return to the cities, the millenial preference for urban living, and how cities are an antidote to the social dead spaces that are the suburbs. And just as Kaid points out in his piece, good urban policy is, in fact, good for the environment.

But "good" urban policy seems to be curiously built around fulfilling the desires of the relative newcomers to these urban spaces. And this is where the "sustainability" paradigm and integrative thinking meets its own politics and shows, at least to me, its remaining yawning gaps. Kaid's analysis is built upon cities making themselves attractive to those "with the choice of where to live". Of course, this leaves out a large proportion of the population, those with few, if any, choices on where to live. And it also performs the neat, historical trick of erasing decades of urban history and politics centered around those people who could not leave, who didn't have a choice, and had to actually live through those periods of disinvestment and decline that Kaid reminds us many new urban residents observed from the confines of their suburban enclaves (myself included, I'm a suburbs kid).

And that's the point. Ultimately, urban policy among the sustainability cognoscenti has the same goal as it does for the political elites and growth machines of the city: bringing the middle class back, not creating a city that actually serves everyone. It's a city that ultimately serves them. And as I've written about time and time again on this space and in others, such policies fuel displacement or place what social and environmental disamenities that still exist on those folks the cities aren't interested in serving.

This is how sustainability discourse can be used/co-opted/targeted/abused in the name of urban development at the expense of the poor or people of color. Kaid's piece is an excellent example of how this still occurs. He simultaneously critiques the frivolousness of Park(ing) day as not really helping the environment but simultaneously extols the virtues of "free, sidewalk libraries" as a "community building" exercise. In light of disinvestment of public libraries in our cities, libraries that low income folks use to access any variety of services from access to the internet to community spaces, cheering these "sidewalk libraries" is just as laughable as claiming Park(ing) day is some revolutionary environmental transformative act. But those "sidewalk libraries" help to make areas more charming and do what Kaid and others like him really want, for middle class families to find cities attractive and move in.

This is little different than any other attraction strategy and it's been a constant call for years by more urban oriented mainstream environmentalists. Improve city schools so families will return, improve transit so middle class residents can navigate cities better and so on and so forth. What these arguments never cover is that you should do these things anyway because there are thousands of families with kids in these cities that have dealt with god-awful schools, insufficient transit systems, degraded social safety nets, and no job opportunities for decades. It would seem that good urban management and sound city planning's primary value is in attracting skittish former suburbanites.

Ultimately, the call for urban policy to be centered around attracting these desirable families, incidentally the goal that cities have been pursuing in earnest since the 1950s, doesn't offer anything really new for those who have actually been in the cities this entire time. And this is the primary issue in a lot of urban sustainability policy. Sustainability is used as a carrot in attracting a preferred social group. The exact same arguments were made as part of urban renewal programs that cleared out "blighted" areas of cities in order to open up room for highways to better connect suburbanites to downtown or to redevelop areas of cities in order to bring back those who fled. It did not fulfill its hope for purposes then and there are no guarantees it will do so now.

The unquestioned "preferences" for urban living that urban and sustainability boosters constantly cite are never as neat or certain as they make them out to be, and there are many more structural and economic barriers to the type of widespread policy adoption that would make more urban living the norm in this country. But, mainly, it is generally a faulty strategy to base the lion's share of your policies on a known footloose demographic. In trying to make itself palatable to existing power bases and structures, the sustainable urbanism movement routinely ignores the ever-neglected "third leg" of sustainability- the social. There's nothing "socially sustainable" about supporting policies that reproduce current discrimination, encourage displacement, and don't even attempt to address issues of poverty. And, contrary to the assumption of many of its champions these sustainable urban policies offer uneven benefits and costs on the population with the poor and traditionally marginalized communities usually bearing the brunt of the costs.

I'll end with this: I could not care less about carbon mitigation, sprawl, biodiversity or whatever ecocentric concern you may have if it means that people like me still suffer disproportionately from poverty, premature death, displacement, and discrimination. Let's stop assuming that making a city attractive for the "middle class" in any way implies benefits for the least powerful or for those traditionally marginalized. To insist on that connection is too insist on a trickle down sustainability that we know does not work. What's "good for the environment" may not be all that good for me.

Photo Credit: City Sustainability/shutterstock