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Progressive Urbanism: Stuff White People Like?

By Matthew Yglesias  

"Progressive Urbanism: Stuff White People Like?"

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Aaron Renn has a slightly odd piece in New Geography in which he argues that, basically, the most-cited models of progressive urbanism don’t have enough black people in them:

The standard list includes Portland, Seattle, Austin, Minneapolis, and Denver. In particular, Portland is held up as a paradigm, with its urban growth boundary, extensive transit system, excellent cycling culture, and a pro-density policy. These cities are frequently contrasted with those of the Rust Belt and South, which are found wanting, often even by locals, as “cool” urban places.

But look closely at these exemplars and a curious fact emerges. If you take away the dominant Tier One cities like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles you will find that the “progressive” cities aren’t red or blue, but another color entirely: white.

In fact, not one of these “progressive” cities even reaches the national average for African American percentage population in its core county. Perhaps not progressiveness but whiteness is the defining characteristic of the group.

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This strikes me as largely an adventure in definitional games. Why would you take an accounting of American cities that leaves out the three largest cities? Should we really list Travis County, TX (i.e., Austin) as part of a phenomenon called “The White City” when its proportion of non-Hispanic whites—51.8%—is dramatically below the national average? Austin is a bit less black than the country as a whole, in other words, but it’s also less white. Rather than an disproportionately white city, it’s a disproportionately Hispanic and Asian city.

But to take what I think is the ray of truth here, if you take a place that’s under-invested for decades in walkable urbanism and then create a bit of walkable urbanism the tendency is for that bit to become very expensive. And since African-American households have lower incomes and substantially less wealth than white households, the tendency is for the walkable urban places to become white. But to raise this as an objection to building walkable urbanism is like saying that we shouldn’t try to have great public schools, because poor people might not be able to afford to live near them. That’s totally backwards—the inability of poor people to afford to live in good school districts highlights the need for more good educational opportunities not fewer. By the same token, if investments in walkable urbanism cause prices to shoot up and price people out of the area that shows that we need more walkable urbanism.

Meanwhile, a number of “uncool” sunbelt cities are working to change their policies. Miami Mayor Manny Diaz is pushing for bicycles, there are newish light rail systems in Houston and Dallas and Phoenix, etc. And I’m not sure why majority-black Washington DC—home of by far the biggest and most successful example of postwar urban rail investment in America—doesn’t count as an example of progressive transportation policy.

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