Greg Lindsay's Blog

December 02, 2016  |  permalink

Reading the “City of Trump”

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Futurists like to talk about “inflection points” when the range of futures suddenly shifts. Some are instantly obsolete, while others lurch from improbable to possible, and possible to frightening plausible. This year has been full of them — most notably Brexit and Trump — which for urbanists like myself has meant the end of the presumed “triumph of the city,” and the beginning of open economic and socio-political war with their own hinterlands.

What will cities look like in the Age of Trump? my Fast Company colleague Mark Wilson asked. I didn’t hold back:

Urbanist journalist Greg Lindsay imagines a darker scenario in which all public transit is handed over to private corporations. Imagine Uber running trains with surge pricing on your way to work each morning. Individual neighborhoods might be tolled on entry, effectively cutting off parts of the city to people without the means to pay. Consider having to pay $2.50 every time you go shopping in Tribeca or commute to your job in SoHo—perhaps through an RFID-powered deduction system that tolls users seamlessly across the city.

Such changes would put painful financial pressure even for middle-class city residents, and create deeper schisms within cities that are already socially and economically segregated. (In a very real panic of evaporating federal funding, the Chicago Transit Authority is currently trying to rush through a $2.1 billion grant before Inauguration Day.) “It’s hard for me to come up with deals that are win-win-win,” says Lindsay. “I personally can’t find an example where the will of the people has been done by [private investors].”

There’s also a more practical problem with privatization—which tends to work better for big, monetizable projects, and worse for smaller, necessary ones. Just look at a recent example from Chicago. In 2008, the city had an eager buyer to privatize its parking meters, which involved one lump-sum payment in exchange for 75 years of private rights. The deal immediately led to price hikes that required so many quarters that meters soon overflowed, unusable, and citizens were ticketed as a result. But when Mayor Emanuel floated the idea of a public-private infrastructure trust, in which investors would replace critical infrastructure components, it foundered.

“It failed because no one wanted to replace the boilers in schools; they wanted to buy Midway Airport,” says Lindsay of the pitfalls of privatization. “The size of the deals are out of whack . . . and it creates the incentive to give away the game to get all the money you can.”

While Fast Company grapples with the implications of a Trump presidency (and I’d encourage you to read the entire series), Curbed’s Alissa Walker and her colleagues have assembled a list of “101 books about where and how we live.” As they explained:

This isn’t necessarily the same-old list of famous urbanism books, although plenty of them are represented here. These are books about making cities, but also books about how cities have made us, whether it’s our own hometown or somewhere on the other side of the planet. These are books that examine how cities change, and sometimes end up alienating the people who built them. There are plenty of brand-new books on this list because they reflect what people are thinking about today, which, in light of current events, may be very different from what they were thinking about just two weeks ago.

I was pleased and honored to see Aerotropolis make the list (in addition to another recent list of the “best books about living in the city”) and also to be asked to contribute a choice of my own. I selected Joan Didion’s Where I Was From, which mixes the autobiographical with incisive reporting — the qualities in her work that inspired me to become a journalist in the first place. I was especially moved by her section on Lakewood, California and the “Spur Posse” — the teenage sexual predators who were an early manifestation of the white working class dysfunction described in books like J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. My explanation:

“The most trenchant passages for me concern Lakewood, California—the massive prefabricated suburb nicknamed the “Levittown of the West”—and how the mostly white, mostly working-class community gradually becomes unglued by the closure of the local aerospace factories in the early 1990s. ‘What does it cost to create and maintain an artificial ownership class,’ Didion asks rhetorically. ‘Who pays? Who benefits? What happens when that class stops being useful? What does it mean to drop back below the line? What does it cost to hang on above it, how do you behave, what do you say, what are the pitons you drive into the granite?’”

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Greg Lindsay is a journalist, urbanist, futurist, and speaker. He is a senior fellow of the New Cities Foundation — where he leads the Connected Mobility Initiative  — and the director of strategy for LACoMotion, a new mobility festival coming to the Arts District of Los Angeles in November 2017.

He is also a non-resident senior fellow of The Atlantic Council’s Strategic Foresight Initiative, a visiting scholar at New York University’s Rudin Center for Transportation Policy & Management, a contributing writer for Fast Company and co-author of Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next.

» More about Greg Lindsay

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