Note: this is the first post in a series of 3-4 articles about consensus urbanism.
The dominant discourse on cities nowadays focuses on the role of visionary, top-down innovation. Some write about mayors who change paradigms, such as Michael Bloomberg and now Rahm Emanuel. Others write about entrepreneurs and the role of new technology, and invariably portray the change as groundbreaking and unforeseen by all except the dogged inventor. In contrast to this worldview, let me propose a view of urbanism based on political consensus among disparate interests, on forging agreement instead of trying to defeat everyone else.
The current trend toward livable cities, as seen in road diets and bike lane projects, is entirely top-driven. Bloomberg decided to make it his legacy, and Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan moves aggressively with little consultation with community interests except those that already agree with her. Rahm Emanuel, infamous for his combative style, followed suit. This caused livable streets advocates, led by Streetsblog, to often identify community consensus with NIMBYism and top-down change with improvement; it’s unavoidable on Streetsblog, though sometimes there are glimpses of support for a more consensus-based policy on other livable streets blogs.
In reality, in cities, there are too many interest groups for one to normally dominate: labor, the middle class, multiple kinds of business, organized religion – and in the exceptional cases, such as Singapore, it comes out of autocracy. This is especially true in the US, with its multi-ethnic cities, requiring delicate acts of ticket-balancing. This is easy to paper over in majoritarian political systems, as the US is, but the actual practice of politics in American cities is far from majoritarian. Liberal cities have become cities of primaries – one wins by assembling an ad hoc coalition that can win the Democratic primary. In general, cities have multiple interest groups, even independently of ethnicity: see for example Christof Spieler’s analysis of the 2009 Houston mayoral race. The reason this political process hasn’t led to a consensus-based decision making is that the electoral process – in particular, the authoritarian strong-mayor system – is anti-consensus.
And yet, a consensus-based agenda is possible. As one of the Streetsblog community members explained to me, the way to obtain community support for a project is to talk to all stakeholders in the neighborhood, and understand what their hidden hopes and fears are; it’s important to avoid any situation in which someone later complains “Nobody informed me about this.” Ordinary people are far less intransigent than they can appear in the papers. For example, along Queens Boulevard, the long-term residents are still reeling from plans to turn the street into an expressway, and therefore will support or oppose a livable streets proposal in part based on whether they perceive it as turning the street into more of a highway (closing cross-streets) or less of one (widening sidewalks).
A community so empowered with its own ideas about how to make itself pedestrian-friendlier will of course help if a top-down reformist politician wants to make the city more livable, but it can also convince an apathetic politician to champion its cause if it can demonstrate that this cause is popular. The same is true of many other public projects and contentious issues; support for many of them crosses ideological and partisan boundaries, both the normal national ones and the specific issue of machinists vs. reformists in American cities.
Consensus must be contrasted with its distant top-down cousin, outreach. Outreach is what a partisan or dominant side in a debate does to get the little fish on board. There’s almost no possibility of dialogue. In contrast, consensus implicitly assumes that all stakeholders own the decision, more or less equally even if one side began the push for it and in reality did most of the work. One can imagine a community board agreeing to a development plan put forth by a mayor, and then criticizing the mayor for it after it fails; one can’t imagine the same if the community board is the body that created the plan.
Film critic Pauline Kael, when asked to comment on why Nixon won the 1972 election, refused to comment, saying she couldn’t know because nobody she knew voted for him. (This has been misquoted in conservative circles as her saying that she couldn’t believe he could have won.) Kael’s contrition was unusual; most people are more than happy to generalize based on the few people they know who fit a type, or, even worse, based on stereotypes they’ve heard from others. It’s bad enough in a bipartisan world, but in city politics, the large number of different factions and worldviews is such that no one force can possibly know enough to govern for everyone.
Although the political process of any non-autocratic city forces some cooperation among groups, the practice can be authoritarian enough that many are completely unheard of in the halls of power. This is especially true of recent immigrants and others who have no long-term activist presence, or of racial minorities in cities with a majority race and racist politics. But even groups with some organization and voting power can be shut out by a Bloomberg, an Emanuel, or even a Villaraigosa. The result is that even policy that isn’t malevolent can be destructive; this is the sin of many postwar urban renewal programs, which didn’t have to accommodate the concerns of the neighborhoods they leveled and had no intention of listening to anyone they didn’t have to listen to.
The alternative is to embark on a process that’s slow, but more robust. It’s immune to changes in electoral fortunes, since swings from 52-48 to 48-52 don’t have such a huge impact on policy. The roads movement in the US got everything it wanted from the 1910s to the 1950s, from governing ideologies ranging from Hooverism to New Deal liberalism. It’s important to imitate this one aspect of the roads movement, and ensure as many groups as possible pull in the same direction.
There are always authoritarians-in-making, people who pay lip service to any consensual and democratic concept they need to be seen to support but in reality seek power for themselves and surround themselves with yes-men. Those we need to be watchful of, to make sure that they never have the power to cause permanent damage. Streetsblog has shown glimpses of holding the Bloomberg administration’s feet to the fire on issues on which the city has not been a positive force for livability – for example, the 1st/2nd Avenue bike lanes – but we need to do more than that, and ensure that even if an autocrat has power, we use him more than he uses us.
Switching from a fundamentally authoritarian booster mentality to consensus governance has no hope of getting us demolition of low-performing or city-splitting freeways, or Hong Kong-style traffic restraint, at least not until the far future. It will take a long time to overturn preexisting anti-urban biases – even longer than necessary, since it will be based on consultation with many groups that oppose gentrification and find what’s happening to American cities now a bad thing. It requires letting go of many proposals that are currently too expensive, and focusing on making the process friendlier to good transit and walkability and less so to boondoggles and pollution. It requires sitting down with people we may find abhorrent on other issues. Its saving grace is only that, in the medium and long runs, it works.