Working-Class Urbanism

In Budget Politics, Economic Planning, Economics, Housing, Inequality, Liberalism, Living Wage, Mass Transit, Politics of Policy, Poverty, Progressivism, Public Policy, Public Sector, Public Works, Regulation, Social Democracy, Social Policy, Unions, Urbanism, Welfare State on October 30, 2009 at 5:14 pm



Recently, there was a bit of a stir when geographer Aaron Renn posted an article on New Geography alleging that “progressive urbanism” was advocating for a model of urbanism that was melanin-deficient. Now, this study was flawed in many ways – the sampling excluded New York, Chicago and L.A as progressive urban models, it equated non-black population with white, which is a major mistake especially in the Southwest, it left out San Francisco, and so on.

However, while progressive urbanism can for the moment be cleared of the charge of being blind to issues of race, it is true that new urbanism as a movement has tended to emphasize the physical side of denser development, as opposed to some of the more human-scale issues – and class is one issue that comes to mind as an area that needs to be dealt with.

The Problem of Class in an Urban Context:

To be fair to new urbanists, they do emphasize the need for affordable housing as a major aspect of creating dense, walkable, livable, and diverse neighborhoods.  And, especially in regards to mass transit, they also pay attention to access to public goods and services that are needed to allow people to live car-free and work for a living. But when you consider the way that class cuts across virtually every aspect of life that involves money, that really doesn’t go far enough to ensure that a viable city is also a city for everyone.

As this Center for an Urban Future report on the declining middle class in New York City shows, New York City is increasingly becoming a “bar-bell” class society, with a relatively large concentration of the wealthy centered around Wall Street and a large concentration of poor people, most of whom work in low-wage service sector jobs attending to the needs of the wealthy. The major factors driving the shrinkage of the middle class – and the even more critical disappearance of mobility from the working class into the middle class – are not just the cost of housing (which does make up 23% of incidence of middle class people living the city), but include as well the decreasing number of jobs paying a middle class real wage (just 2 out of the top 10 largest job openings pay more than $30,000 a year), the “New York City” premium on food and other goods, fears about the quality of public education, limited transportation infrastructure (especially in the outer boroughs), and the low supply and high price of child care.

And while not every city is the same, I would not be surprised to see similar circumstances in other major cities that are the ultimate testing grounds for a kind of new urbanism that really does refute Aaron Renn’s accusations of lily-white affluence. What this report points to is that it is not enough to build affordable housing – you need enough good jobs so that people can afford to pay the rent on their affordable housing, you need good education and even better transit options, you need to expand the availability of quality child care, and you need to do something to counter-act the inevitable demand effects of large numbers of educated professionals living in close proximity.

Making Ends Meet:

So how do we actually go about making new urbanism safe for the working class?

Jobs: Perhaps one of the greatest urban histories of the last decade years is Eric Freeman’s Working Class New York, which points to an important point about urban life; namely, that the class composition of a city shapes the society, culture, and politics of that city. The New York of its glory days, when New York was the image of modernity and cosmopolitan urbanism, was a city defined by the working class – the “New York intellectuals” were second-generation immigrants who went to CCNY, a free public college designed to give the working class access to higher education; the playwrights and screenwriters who gave New York City such an oversized impact on popular culture drew their inspiration from the ethnic neighborhoods they grew up in; and the city’s economic might rested as much on the shoulders of garment workers and dockworkers as they did on the Mad Men and Masters of the Universe.

Since then, New York City, like most cities in the 1970s, took a massive economic beating that knocked a giant hole out of their labor markets that had been an enormous source of living wage jobs. While  it’s unlikely that manufacturing will return (or even if it did that it would create the same number of jobs it once did), there is more that cities could be doing to reshape their labor markets than the massive tax-and-service giveaways we call boosterism. To begin with, an urban job insurance system would be difficult (but not impossible) to finance on a city-wide level – although New York City, for example, could build up enough of a reserve in five years to employ 135,000 workers, bringing a hypothetical 10% unemployment rate down to a more manageable 6.6% – but would be quite manageable if done on a statewide or even multi-city compact level. Next, Swedish-style labor market reforms, which involve much less in the way of expense,  should be implemented as part of an overall drive to create a labor market that has a good mix of living wage jobs, middle class jobs, and professional/executive jobs.

Wages and Prices: What makes things even more difficult in trying to build a space for the working class in the city is that normal wage scales don’t particularly work in an abnormal price environment. Creating a bunch of $40,000 a year jobs would normally be a success in terms of creating genuinely living wage jobs – but if the price differential means those $40,000 salaries only purchase a $20,000 living standard, one has to push harder and further to achieve a genuinely egalitarian urban society.

In dealing with this issue, there are essentially two options – the first attempts to compensate by boosting incomes, the second attempts to compensate by reducing the price of “big-ticket” items on people’s budgets, allowing their incomes to stretch further. In the first option, combining expanded living wage ordinances with local EITCs (financed through progressive taxation, to deepen the progressive impact) to achieve a guaranteed minimum income for workers is the ultimate objective. In the second option, which harkens back to the glory days of “municipal socialism,” the government provides services such as transportation, utilities, housing (or at least, providing rental assistance – more on this later), education, you name it, to bring down the cost of living. However, one thing that needs to be understood and pushed much more heavily is the idea of making these public services as close to free as possible – there is a basic human right to water and heating as a pure matter of survival, so the city should own those utilities outright, reversing privatization wherever possible, without treating them as revenue-generating services. Similarly, increasing public use of mass transit is critical to making cities even more environmentally sustainable than they are (more on this later) should suggest that we should try to make mass transit as cheap as possible – and certainly making use of mass transit free to senior citizens, children, and the working poor.


Obviously, trying to make major cities like New York or Los Angeles more egalitarian is a tall order – there are very closely connected groups of the rich and mega-rich who wield disproportionate political power, and there are enormous numbers of the working poor, working class, and middle class who have to be levelled upwards on limited resources.

However, there is a driving concern that should overwhelm any such hesitancy, and it’s this: we know that there are essentially two class structures in cities, a “pyramid model” in which the very wealthy seclude themselves in tiny islands of privilege while the vast majority of the population are left to their own devices, and a “diamond model” where prosperity is shared broadly, where upward mobility is made easier by public institutions that reward merit, and where a cohesive society is held together by well-organized and economically secure groups of ordinary people. Only in the latter does democracy really work.

  1. […] us imagine a city. Enough jobs have been created that the labor market is tight, wages are rising, and increased consumption fuels a thriving […]

  2. […] I’ve written about the way in which new urbanism needs to do a better job attending to issues of class. However, I want to avoid the accusation that new urbanism is classist in the same way that others […]

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