There’s nothing quite like a good fearmongering op-ed to get the blood boiling. Unfortunately for everyone, the Wall Street Journal published a whopper yesterday about transportation, homelessness, and urban policy that got my blood circulating faster than normal. Not because I am terrified of the cabal of leftist agitators coming for my...zoning codes?...but because it is quite possibly the dumbest thing I have ever heard or read on urban issues, an impressive feat considering I have attended a lot of New York City community board meetings.
The article in question, titled “‘New Left Urbanists’ Want to Remake Your City,” was penned by Chris Rufo, a contributing editor at City Journal, a publication of the right-libertarian Manhattan Institute, and former candidate for the Seattle City Council.
Rufo’s contention is that these “New Left Urbanists” are secretly taking over local governments to re-shape cities to fit their priorities which include, among other things, public transportation, government-subsidized housing, and bike lanes. All of which he says are hopelessly out of step with John Q. Homeowner.
Right off the bat, I feel compelled to note that I had never heard the phrase “New Left Urbanists” before, even though I’m fairly certain Rufo would qualify me as one. This had me wondering, does this phrase even exist?
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Of the 299 Google hits for the phrase at the time of my search, the only ones that don’t originate from Rufo’s article come from a 2011 book by George Washington University history professor Christopher Klemek, whose work is not cited by Rufo. Which is a shame, as Klemek’s work is quite germane to nearly all of the logical fallacies Rufo would subsequently trip over.
Not that Rufo is any stranger to such ideological clumsiness, given his prior employment as a documentary filmmaker at the Discovery Institute, a think tank for the promotion of creationism.
Now that we’ve established Rufo made up a term to denigrate opponents, it’s time to ask: who are his opponents, and why?
These activists have big dreams. They want local governments to rebuild the urban environment—housing, transit, roads and tolls—to achieve social justice, racial justice and net-zero carbon emissions.
My god! The absolute horror of people having places to live, the ability to get from place to place in a way that doesn’t poison the planet, and to benefit everyone regardless of skin color?! What will these monsters think of next?
They rally around slogans such as “ban all cars,” “raze the suburbs” and “single-family housing is white supremacy”...
First sign Rufo is grasping at plastic straws—you just know he would never condone the usage of paper ones—is these are somewhat fringe attitudes within the urbanist community.
Yes, urbanists want to limit car usage inside the city and even create limited car-free zones in areas with ample public transportation and high pedestrian traffic, but most do not want to “ban all cars.”
True, urbanists argue suburbanization was the result of explicitly racist housing and transportation policies, but that’s not even controversial. There’s ample historical evidence. It is also not the same as saying “single-family housing is white supremacy,” a phrase that has been written by only one person: Chris Rufo.
Anyways, you’ll never believe who these people are, according to Rufo. Why, they might even live in your neighborhood:
...though they’re generally white and affluent themselves, often employed in public or semipublic roles in urban planning, housing development and social advocacy.
Buh gawd! They’re employed in the very professions relevant to the topic of conversation! To think, they may even have advanced degrees in urban planning. Next thing you know, a biologist might tell him evolution is real.
Indeed, Rufo’s disdain for experts as opposed to normal folks of the community is a theme throughout, as he goes on to disapprovingly quote two “new left urbanists”:
“The residential is political,” wrote new left urbanists David Madden and Peter Marcuse in 2016. “The shape of the housing system is always the outcome of struggles between different groups and classes.” By dictating how cities build new housing, the logic goes, urbanists can dictate how people live and set right society’s socioeconomic, racial and moral deficiencies.
David Madden is an assistant professor at the London School of Economics and Peter Marcuse is an an Emeritus Professor of Urban Planning at Columbia University. The WSJ should have given them an op-ed to discuss urban issues instead of this jamoke, as they have actual knowledge and qualifications.
In any event, Rufo doesn’t seem to grasp that what he dubs the “new left urbanists” are hardly the only ones who want the government to fund projects and enact rules that dictate how cities build and how people live. In fact, one other person who argues in favor of those policies is Chris Rufo.
Rufo decries the desecration of our glorious highways, roads, and suburbs, but those did not sprout up due to the Magical Invisible Hand of the Free Market. Perhaps he has heard of the various Federal Highway Acts that funded the Federal Highway Administration and paid for the interstate system, which in turn enabled suburbanization and the domination of the car as our main mode of transportation, a development entirely linked to these federal government policies, not grassroots community meetings.
And I know Rufo’s heard of zoning codes, laws enacted by governments to prevent developers from building bigger buildings. I know this because he laments how these same laws are used to staunch development (but only when the New Left Urbanists do it; not when literally every single suburb in the country does it).
I also know Rufo’s heard of parking minimums—laws enacted by local governments that require developers to put a minimum amount of parking attached to new buildings regardless of whether these precious private property owners want to do something else with their land—because he likewise warns WSJ readers New Left Urbanists are coming for those, too:
Their plan would restrict curbside space for cars by building “protected bike lanes on all major arterial streets across the five boroughs,” “giving developers incentives to contribute toward sustainable transportation over private vehicle usage,” and eliminating parking requirements for new housing.
Rufo’s historical illiteracy would be mostly harmless if it wasn’t A) published in the Wall Street Journal and B) emblematic of a large swath of American attitudes.
Rufo has been on Tucker Carlson’s show to lament “survival crime,” a concept the entire segment is built around deriding that homeless people should not be thrown in jail for sleeping on the street. Rufo nodded along in agreement with Carlson’s position that survival crime is a manifestation of liberal “guilt transfer.” Rufo went on to say that not throwing homeless people in jail for sleeping on the street creates “parallel justice systems” for “taxpaying middle class citizens and a totally separate system for politically favored identity groups.” Yes, Rufo had the gall to posit that homeless people are the real privileged class here, unlike homeowners and their mortgage interest deductions.
Of course, Rufo doesn’t actually have any ideas how to address these problems; that is, of course, presuming he thinks homelessness, unsustainable transportation, and unaffordable housing is a problem. Instead, he throws up his hands and says other people should figure it out:
Making cities better and more beautiful requires bringing neighbors, developers, employers and governments into the conversation. Thriving cities are built through cooperation, not compulsion.
It almost sounds to me like he’s promoting a bottom-up, evolutionary approach to urban development, because no single person or entity could possibly be intelligent enough to design a city that works. Hmm:
The mission of Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture is to advance the understanding that human beings and nature are the result of intelligent design rather than a blind and undirected process.
Ah well, in any event, these urban issues are hard problems without easy answers (assuming you’re not God, of course). I wouldn’t expect Rufo, of all people, to have those answers. Especially when he says shit like:
The new left urbanists’ fatal mistake is to view cities as collections of buildings, roads, tunnels and bike lanes. Urbanists can demolish and rebuild physical environments, but they can’t pave over the people.
...without a hint of irony that “pave over the people” is a pretty damn good summation of 50 years of U.S. urban policy. And why should we expect any different? After all, Chris Rufo has a roof to sleep under at night, so what’s the problem?