A Call for a Progressive Spatial Politics

By Scott M. Larson

Wins by left-leaning candidates in 2018 midterm elections have led many to suggest a progressive revolution is under way in Democratic — if not American — politics. With each successive victory progressive candidates have staked out bold positions on hot-button issues from Medicare-for-all to a $15 federal minimum wage and free college education.

But what isn’t so clear is what this insurgent wave and its progressive mantle mean for the shaping and planning of our cities.

That question took on added significance just a week after the midterm elections when Amazon announced plans to build one of two new headquarters in Long Island City. Details of the plan, which involved more than a billion dollars in publicly funded incentives from New York City and New York State, drew swift criticism from many on the left, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, one of the progressive movement’s rising stars.

“Amazon is a billion-dollar company,” tweeted Ocasio-Cortez, who in November was elected to represent New York’s 14th Congressional District, which borders the district that includes Long Island City. “The idea that it will receive hundreds of millions of dollars in tax breaks at a time when our subway is crumbling and our communities need MORE investment, not less, is extremely concerning to residents here.”

While opposition from Ocasio-Cortez and other local politicians, along with fierce resistance from community residents, ultimately led Amazon to back out of the plan, the larger question remains: what is progressive urban policy, and how does it hope to address the myriad problems facing America’s cities?

"The Spirit of East Harlem," a mural by Hank Prussing.

"The Spirit of East Harlem," a mural by Hank Prussing.

Urban geographer Sam Stein defines progressivism as implying “a set of normative values,” which include “addressing historical inequalities, privileging those most harmed by current economic and political conditions, and expanding the state’s role as a promoter of welfare.” Similarly, Pierre Clavel, professor emeritus of city and urban planning at Cornell University, writes that progressives “worry about inequality and advocate steps to reduce it,” including the redistribution of wealth through housing policy and participatory reforms.

Of course in contemporary American cities one of the biggest threats to many lower- to middle-income residents is the loss of affordable places to live and the resulting dislocation from political, economic and social bases that comes with that displacement.

Yet for the past decade or so what has passed as progressive housing policy has centered on the notion that the best way to provide and then secure affordable housing is through “inclusionary” programs. Although these come in many different forms, their basic premise is that by providing subsidies and other incentives, the state can coax private developers to create and provide affordable housing for both renters and homeowners.

Yet in city after city — from New York to San Francisco, Denver and beyond—these development-oriented, market-driven approaches have proven largely ineffective, providing a limited number of units, and virtually none for the neediest. One big reason why is because they revolve around contentious definitions of what is affordable, and for whom. At the same time, by placing the responsibility for the provision of affordable housing on the market, such programs are representative of what Stein calls an emergent form of contemporary progressivism in which “progress usually entails policies that offer a modicum of protection to the working class while safeguarding the interests of capital and property.”

In fact, it can argued that a range of contemporary problems — starting with the lack of affordable housing and displacement pressures to vast income inequality, structural contributors of poverty, homelessness and more — actually have their roots in development-oriented urban policy and planning decisions like the plan to bring Amazon to Long Island City. Far from offering any sort of progressive relief, these schemes mobilize corporate subsidies, tax breaks, threats of eminent domain and zoning changes to displace poorer residents and clear working-class neighborhoods in favor of city-shaping, capital-attracting design projects. In doing so they promote speculation and gentrification over the needs of neighborhoods, giving power to real estate, commercial, and corporate interests at the expense of existing community residents.

In Denver, however, one progressive candidate in upcoming May city council elections has responded with a platform that explicitly recognizes this relationship between contemporary planning and development policies and resulting urban ills. Local organizer Candi CdeBaca has issued a call for a comprehensive set of related initiatives designed to reclaim community control and redistribute land and resources. These include:

  • redefining affordability neighborhood by neighborhood to make it meaningful for existing residents

  • allowing for accessory dwelling units to generate more affordable options for families

  • limiting luxury builds to keep neighborhoods from being overwhelmed by speculative real estate

  • establishing zoning laws that allow for the development of cooperative housing

  • granting tenants right of first refusal to purchase their home if the owner decides to sell.

And she’s not alone. Elsewhere, progressive community activists are encouraging the creation, preservation and promotion of equitable and accessible opportunities to housing and exploring avenues for taking control of neighborhood assets through the establishment of community-owned real estate federations, community bills of rights and community-run community land trusts (CLTs). Already a number of community-driven CLTs exist across the country, including in CdeBaca’s Denver neighborhood, East Harlem and the South Bronx, where organizers have taken steps to protect local residents’ right to play a meaningful, even deciding role in all decisions — not just land use.

Of course these measures threaten the status quo, and therefore will be unpopular among conservatives and moderates of both political stripes. Market forces and the related sense of growth through development as a mechanism for fostering American ideals are so often portrayed as natural processes and the ultimate solution to our problems that they’ve become so fully embedded, so uncritically accepted, that it is almost impossible to imagine a society without them. But only when we change the narrative about what is natural can we begin to create meaningful change.

For progressivism to be that change it must embrace a creative — even radical — spatial politics, one that bends capital to social purposes while at the very least contesting if not restricting pro-development interests' hold on land use policy.

Scott M. Larson is a faculty member and Co-Director of the Office of Community Studies and the Service Learning program in the Urban Studies Department at Queens College.