Trump in the Age of Urbanism

Our President-Elect

The unthinkable has happened and now we live in its wake. Donald Trump — an erratic, authoritarian strongman who sowed the seeds of division — has ascended to the highest office in the land. He did so by attacking America’s most vulnerable communities and by harkening to a glorious past that never existed. Trump painted a dark picture of America that runs completely counter to reality: jobs are growing (Trump: “they’re shrinking”), crime is at an historic low (Trump: “people will shoot you in the streets”), and America is respected around the world (Trump: “wrong!”)

In addition to these horrors, Trump espoused a complete misunderstanding of the state of American cities throughout his campaign. In the past decades we witnessed urban America become an engine of growth and a cauldron of prosperity for the nation as a whole, yet Trump portrayed them as dangerous places in decline.

In the post-mortem on the election, much has been made about the urban/rural divide, with calls for everyone to break out of their bubble. While this is certainly laudable in interpersonal relations, as a political strategy, we need to stand strong for cities.

Cities are, and will continue to be, the sites of American growth. As Vishaan Chakrabarti noted in A Country of Cities, 90% of GDP and 86% of jobs are generated on 3% of the land in the United States. Globally, cities will account for 75% of the population by 2050. Cities are to be celebrated and cherished, not diminished and feared. Cities put us in the best position make the most good for the most people. Cities better enable us to harness the power of technology to transform people’s lives, and make it much easier to tackle the greatest challenges of our time, such as climate change (which Trump thinks is a hoax).

So what are urbanists to do these next 4 years? Here are my key takeaways:

1. Don’t expect progressive leadership from the top. There will be no South by Southlawn next year. There will be no convening of thought leaders at the White House. It’s about to get real regressive at the federal level, so be prepared. This vacuum of intellectual leadership will make local leadership and progressive experimentation that much more important. We will need examples of excellence in dark days. To engage in civil society will be an act of courage.

2. There are some openings if we play our cards right. After 6 years of obstructing everything Obama touched, the first task of our newly unified Republican government will be the creation and passage of the largest infrastructure bill in recent American history. Many Democrats are signaling that there might be common ground here, but this needs to be a fight. The fight shouldn’t be about whether or not to do infrastructure, it needs to be about the type of infrastructure we do. Let’s put it this way: it better not be freeway expansion, pipelines, and an excuse to privatize the public realm. This needs to be 21st public infrastructure: internet connection for all, aggressive implementation of solar and wind energy, high speed rail, etc. We need to be steadfast about this. To put it in urbanist terms: we need Jane Jacobs infrastructure, not Robert Moses infrastructure. Obstruct everything else. Instruct your senators (particularly Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders) to do the same.

3. Cities are the front lines. Many of the battles to be fought over the next four years will play out in cities. Mass deportation can only happen if mayors are complicit. A muslim ban must be met by mobilizing in America’s streets. New York, in particular, can play an important role in shaping how every policy of Trump’s is received. If he crosses the line, he needs to be made to feel uncomfortable in his hometown. What country we turn into will be shaped by how cities respond. Keep your local government accountable. Take to the streets early and often.

4. We are still the majority. There will be a lot of pressure to concede that cities are not the real America. That somehow the heartland is America at its best, and that cities are its effeminate gay cousin that belongs in the closet. Hogwash. Cities are America. We are its present and its future. We represent everything right with this democratic experiment. In our streets and in our parks you can feel the truth of the credo “all men are created equal” better than any place in this great land of ours. The flag is still ours.

Cities are our future. They must be our future. They make America stronger, kinder, and better to party with. We must do everything we can to make sure this is still the case well into the future. This is the task of the next four years.

Our country depends on us.