As a British academic (and without meaning any disrespect to American colleagues) I usually approach US conferences with some trepidation. For a start, they always seem to start at 7.30 in the morning (ridiculously macho!) with papers talking about British planning issues (and other minority sports) relegated to the early morning graveyard slots. The well attended papers later in the day, talking about US matters, often require a deep background knowledge of the particularities of the American system. One is often left wondering whether there really is a common language between us.
Happily, a recent trip to New York changed my view completely. An excellent conference hosted by the New School fostered some genuinely shared collaborations on matters of housing policy and finance and left me with the impression that, even if the niceties of language and the technicalities of policy are different, the basic struggles and problems facing planners and policymakers in our two countries are remarkably similar. (And they’re also not too far from those experienced in other parts of the world, too, including those parts of Europe that have a very different welfare model to our own.) The common element, of course, is that systems that are broadly capitalist in nature throw up all the same sorts of problem: uneven economic growth, housing market volatility, the plight of the urban poor, gentrification and displacement, etc. How we think about the solutions is where the differences begin to emerge. That said, it’s clear that however we try to cut the cake we’ll end up with the same issue: not enough to go around. This applies equally to the US and the UK, where a million different combinations of land tax, betterment, tax credits, tax increment financing, public-private partnerships, leaseback schemes, welfare conditionality and caps — and complex subsidies and instruments of what a delegate charmingly referred to as “the French vanilla” variety — fail to really make a dent in the intractable housing problems that have beset our nations’ communities in various ways for over a century.
'Hyper-gentrification' in Manhattan's Lower West Side: from zero to six-zeroes in a few years
Without wishing to be overly dramatic, it might boil down to what Anne Shlay considered to be a fundamental problem with the way we conceptualise of the value of housing. Governments traditionally seem to undervalue housing, seeing it often in strictly economic terms. We will not get housing policies and systems that are fair and affordable, meet needs and secure minimum standards of quality, and promote environmental sustainability without investing in housing with the explicit recognition that it is a social good. The philanthropists of the 19th Century recognised this in their own rather bounded ways (i.e., good housing = productive workforce) and we can apply that logic to recognise housing’s direct and indirect impacts on a variety of other goods including health, education, crime, and transport.
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Robert Moses' fiefdom: Wards Island and the Triborough (Robert F Kennedy) bridge
My visit to New York was the first in about 8 years and I was keen to see how it might have changed. To an outsider such as myself, the first impression was: “not by much”. It’s still the incredibly brash, vibrant, delightfully monumental mess that it ever was. Compared to sqeakily efficient European cities it still seems to have something of the dirty residue of the chronic fiscal problems of the Wagner and Lindsay eras (but in actuality it’s a lot sprucer than that). It’s still largely paying the price of the Moses fiefdom, with its snobby parkways, surgical expressways, totemic bridges, and crushing housing projects. In contrast to the rest of the world, you can even find payphones that work. Bits of the place still truly never sleep.
Not all parts of the West Side Highway bike path are pretty: but it is functional!
But under the skin there are some subtle and not-so-subtle changes. The scars of 9/11 are still there: much of lower Manhattan is still a building site, though with much more optimism than before. But I sensed (perhaps wrongly) that New Yorkers were, sadly, becoming ever so slightly more like Londoners in that they didn’t seem to talk so much to each other on the subway. (They’re still unfailingly friendly and helpful, though, which I think surprises many). But the biggest change I saw (I’m sure there are others!): the invasion of hundreds, thousands of cyclists into the sacred domain of the yellow cab: the fearsome avenues that run for 100s of blocks north and south the length of Manhattan. Mayor Bloomberg appears to have pulled off what the grumbling cabbies would have said was impossible: slicing an entire traffic lane out of these arteries and giving them over to bikes, without snarling everything up. This, together with countless other examples of pedestrian and bike friendly infrastructure throughout (including the famous West Side Highway bike path, part of the Manhattan Waterfront Greenway) mean that the eternal dominance of the medallion cab now seems less sure. (And a good many of them are now compact hybrids rather than the petrol guzzling boats they’ve had since the days of the checker cabs.)
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Now there's a pessimistic bunch...!
So, back to the conference. I and my fellow panellists were accused (nicely!) by Christine Whitehead of being far too pessimistic about the capacity of our present systems to deal with the housing crisis. George Galsterwrapped things up very nicely by using one of his famous flow charts (with feedback loops!) to demonstrate why we might have reasons for pessimism: there are too many structural determinants and self-reinforcing mechanisms moving in the wrong direction to believe that short term solutions will prove to be an enduring fix. But, despite what Christine says, I am generally an optimist and if there’s one thing that visiting a city like New York — with its endless capacity to adapt and change and yet still stay the same — tells me is that, with luck, something of the human spirit and the ingenuity of humankind will prevail to fix the worst things, even if we do invent some new problems as we go along.
I am indebted to Alex Schwartz of the New School, the Housing Studies Charitable Trust, and the Rockefeller Foundation for organising the conference and inviting me to speak at it.