Planning as a Front Row Political Issue

By: Evan King

The people who benefit most from the American urban environment’s injustices do not usually make a habit of talking about them. Wealthy suburbs are built not just to keep resources away from minorities, but to make this deprivation invisible and undiscussed. It’s no coincidence that high-profile political debate rarely focuses on the built environment – national elections hinge on the support of suburbs and it does not do for candidates to question their inhabitants’ way of life. 

But nor was it common to aggressively support suburbia until recently. To be sure, suburbanites themselves push back against concerns relating to sharing their resources and always have. Threats to property value or the exclusivity of schools are often met with fury. But the Not in My Backyard (NIMBY) movement has in the past been more of a local phenomenon, even if one that occurs in every locality. Sure, people want to protect their property values and live separately from other races, but these are due to selfishness and racism, not some broad ideological vision for how the country should be, shared and propagated on Fox News. I want to emphasize that long-held racism and NIMBYism are just as evil as the more dramatic policies being advanced at the national level right now, but I have always been able to discuss issues of the built environment with people I disagree with far more reasonably than any other political issue. The injustices and inefficiencies of suburbs are intuitive and easy to explain, tax policy or abortion rights not so much. 

But the urban environment is now a mainstream political talking point, if it ever really wasn’t. In July, the Trump administration rolled back Obama-era housing policies meant to bring more affordable housing to suburbs, appealing to tweet-based racist fears about crime reduction and home values without evidence. In the past, an administration might have quietly undone these regulations, justifying it only if opponents called attention to it and probably trying to disguise it as something more innocuous. As with so many political controversies now, however, President Trump understands that making more overtly racist appeals is effective for him in appealing to his base. Justice in the built environment has always been a cause of the left, but now it is fully and visibly partisan whether we like it or not – Not in My Backyard is now Not in Anyone’s Backyard.

This is unfortunate, but what is more disturbing is the fact that left-leaning politicians cannot even touch the issue; to do so would alienate most swing voters and many Democrats, who may say they want a transportation system that minimizes emissions and opportunity and justice for Black people. But at the end of the day, they have a $100,000 house and a $20,000 car and loath to share the fruits of their success when a substantive chance comes. If politicians campaigned more on affordable housing, mixed-use development, or transit, we might not see as many Bernie stickers on Porches in hilltop McMansion driveways in exclusive school districts (a sight I see every so often), nor as many progressives holding office. Meanwhile, President Trump can continue “telling it like it is” and reminding suburbanites of why they are truly there, celebrating this and reaping political rewards.

Perhaps aversion to the current presidency will win some support for modern planning ideas from moderate Democrats – it would only be fair given how much Republicans have united on so many issues. And maybe some change is on the horizon as more and more people find themselves unable to afford homes or cars. But for now, planning is under an unfriendly spotlight – one many of us likely hoped would never materialize. If planning is to stay in the front row of the national consciousness, we can only hope some new voices join the conversation and push urbanism forward.

Photo Credit: National Archives HOLC records (left), (right)

Evan King is a second-year master’s student in city and regional planning. His interests include transportation policy in the developing world, light rail, and freight movement on inland waterways. He can found in his free time trying to kayak long distances and making hand-drawn maps. Evan hails from central Connecticut and completed an undergraduate degree in Maryland. Opinions are his own.

Edited by Emma Vinella-Brusher