I haven’t written a blog post in about a month. I consider myself a positive, uplifting person, and for the most part, I believe that tone is evident in my hope for our American cities. I try very hard to walk the line between the excitement of new urban life, and the realization that we are still not addressing the issues of race, poverty and inequality in our communities the way we should.
But between the pandemic and the social justice issues that are rightfully highlighting the institutionalized racist ideals on which our country has been built, it’s hard to be positive about urban America. Nay, it feels disrespectful and wrong to be excited about the “progress” our cities have made over the last 20 years.
I’ve tried to use this time to listen. I’ve tried to analyze myself and the content I’ve been promoting for half a decade. Do I feel like I’ve focused on understanding racial inequities with regard to the subsidization of the automobile, the creation of urban highways that purposefully divided black neighborhoods, and economic disparities along racial lines created by government policies like redlining and the G.I. Bill? Have I advocated for walkability and public transit as a means to a more equitable urban environment?
Have I been critical of development that displaces or gentrifies? Have I worked with people of color in the communities I highlight to express a better “big picture” understanding of diverse viewpoints?
Absolutely not. And there’s no excuse for that. So my promise to you is that I will do better. I will be better. I will work harder to highlight the conflicting viewpoints of our diverse communities in the posts ahead… it’s something I should have done a long time ago.
I’m still going to champion economic investment in our cities. I’m still going to cheer when people who used to choose the suburbs choose city life instead. I cheer because our cities cannot overcome decades of sprawl and neglect without welcoming people and investment back into their midst. With this in mind, it’s critical that as more people return to the benefits of urban life, they must have a clear picture of the cultural, social and racial history that continues to shape our cities. New residents need to be made aware that they have an opportunity to be a part of the big picture urban fabric. With this comes a responsibility to everyone in the community to listen, understand and give back instead of assimilating and gentrifying.
We also need to hold our developers accountable. Mixed income housing, development that integrates instead of dividing and displacing… these need to be staples of local development rather than the exception.
Lastly, none of this can happen without the unquestionable dedication to these issues by city government. It is up to our local officials to promote a clear message of economic progress and inclusivity for all. It’s up to all of us, especially privileged white people such as myself to step up the pressure on local governments to ensure that a progressive, equitable agenda is the new norm.
So… is it ok to be excited and feel positive about our cities right now? I wrestled with this for a bit, but as long as we temper our enthusiasm with a critical eye based on a multi-dimensional view of how cities really work, we can still be hopeful and even a little excited about the future. White America (myself included) must do better to understand that “progress” for some is not truly progress for our cities. We must demand more from urban design and Urbanist culture… we must demand more from people like myself.
As for the pandemic upon us? I believe that our cities will emerge from this better than before. Support for street closures and the dedication of more urban space for people instead of cars is suddenly popular. Transit systems will be forced to clean vigorously and maybe, just maybe, public health disparities will finally be aggressively addressed. We are far from through with Covid-19, and it’s going to get worse before it gets better… but our cities will adapt and move on, better than before.
It’s ok if you’re still excited about the future of our cities. I am too. I really am. But in our excitement, let’s open a wide eye to the systemic issues that our cities are still struggling to address. Growth, vibrancy and investment don’t (or shouldn’t) happen in a vacuum. If cities are growing on the backs of those who have been silenced, we are making the same mistakes we have made for 400 years. Look forward, but always remember to look back… if we do this enough, we’ll do the right thing.