Urban Villages for the Proletariat

Compact, walkable urban villages benefit working families and organized labor by creating jobs, improving household affordability, reducing commute duration, improving economic opportunities, and creating cleaner, healthier communities.

February 10, 2022, 9:00 AM PST

By Todd Litman

MacDougal Street

Goran Bogicevic / Shutterstock

My recent blog, "Urban Villages: The Key to Sustainable Community Economic," describes how Smart Growth policies that create compact, walkable urban villages help local businesses, benefiting greedy capitalists. This column describes how they also benefit working families and unions. The proletariat has good reasons to prefer urban villages over sprawl.

Current development policies and planning practices are classist and racist, and unfair to working class families. Prohibitions on multifamily housing, and other policies that favor lower-density over higher density housing, and parking minimums that favor motorists over car-free families, are intended to exclude lower-priced housing, and therefore lower-income and minority families, from desirable neighborhoods. Automobile-oriented planning justified urban freeway projects which displaced and damaged lower-income, minority communities. Smart Growth reforms can start to correct these practices, helping to create more affordable, inclusive and equitable communities.

Many labor organizations support Smart Growth because it supports organized labor. Research by the labor organization Good Jobs First shows that wages and unionization rates tend to increase with urban density. As organizer Greg LeRoy explains:

I think sprawl stinks. I’ve also been a union member for 26 years, and I think sprawl is terrible for working families and their unions. Why do I think that? Because unions are urban institutions, and when sprawl erodes our urban cores, it also undermines good union jobs. For that reason, I am adamant that unions belong in the forefront of the smart growth movement, with environmentalists and others.

The AFL - CIO Resolution on Urban Sprawl and Smart Growth urges unions to support Smart Growth:

"Whereas the issues of urban sprawl and smart growth have become major public and political issues, as demonstrated by the recent passage of hundreds of ballot initiatives, ordinances and laws; and  

Whereas urban sprawl strains all working families by creating overly-long commuting times, fueling air pollution responsible for skyrocketing children’s asthma rates, creating a lack of affordable housing near jobs, eroding public services, and denying workers a choice about how to get to work; and

Whereas sprawling big-box retailers such as Wal-Mart undermine unionized neighborhood grocery retailers that provide family-supporting wages and benefits; and  

Whereas unionized, inner-city hospitals have been disproportionately shut down, partly because of the concentration of inner-city poverty caused by sprawl; and  

Whereas the abandonment of our cities, caused by sprawl, undermines their tax base and thereby harms the quality of public services, which in turn creates pressure for privatization of those services; and  

Whereas the same tax-base erosion is a fundamental cause of school funding inequities and classroom crowding, which fuel pressure for school vouchers; and

Whereas the rise of “edge cities” on the fringe of urban areas has harmed the collective bargaining strength of janitorial and building maintenance unions and dispersed the hospitality industry, harming the wages of restaurant and hotel employees; and  

Whereas sprawling development on urban fringes creates new jobs beyond public transit grids, leaving commuters no choice about how to get to work, and undermining public transit ridership; and  

Whereas anti-union manufacturers flee cities for outlying areas as part of their union-avoidance strategies, making jobs inaccessible for many people who need them most, including dislocated workers who have been victimized by deindustrialization and NAFTA; and  

Whereas many other unions have suffered as a direct result of the disinvestments, corporate flight, and tax-base erosion caused by sprawl; and  

Whereas many unions have long worked to defend urban institutions that benefit all working families; and  

Whereas unions of transit workers have for decades advocated to improve public transportation that improves air quality and gives working families a commuting choice; and  

Whereas many locals of the United Food & Commercial Workers have joined community coalitions against Wal-Mart and other anti-union “big box” retailers; and  

Whereas the AFL-CIO Housing Investment Trust has used Building Trades pension-fund investments to construct tens of thousands of units of low- and moderate-income housing, helping address America’s affordable housing crisis; and  

Whereas many other central labor bodies and state labor federations have long advocated for policies now collectively called “smart growth,” such as affordable housing, better public transit, school rehabilitation, and the reclamation of brownfields; and  

Whereas organized labor rightfully deserves credit for these many achievements, but has so far been largely overlooked in this national debate; and  

Whereas “smart growth” is an ambiguous and evolving term that applies to several different kinds of policies, and many competing interest groups are now seeking to define it;  

Now, therefore be it resolved that the AFL-CIO authorize and direct its leadership to actively engage in the emerging public and political debates surrounding urban sprawl and smart growth, asserting labor’s rightful role in the national debate about the future of America’s cities for the benefit of all working families."

Union pension funds often invest in real estate to support local jobs, economic development, and housing. National Association of Building Trades Unions president Sean McGarvey explains, “We want all of our resources to support our value, not to undermine it. That includes leveraging our own money, while also securing competitive returns.”

Benefits to Workers and Labor Organizations

Compact and multimodal development can benefit workers and labor organizations in many ways.

More Local Jobs and Economic Development

Smart Growth allows households to save on vehicle expenses, which leaves more money to spend on public transit travel and housing. Residents of walkable urban neighborhoods spend far less on automobiles and fuel and far more on public transit and housing.

This generates more and better local jobs. One study found that Smart Growth cities average $100,000 in additional construction jobs per new resident compared with sprawled cities. This suggests that every 100 households that move from a sprawling, automobile-dependent area to a walkable urban neighborhood add five to twenty permanent jobs to the region, many of which are well-paying union jobs.

A major study by economists Chang-Tai Hsieh and Enrico Moretti estimated that allowing more affordable infill development in productive cities such as Boston, New York, Seattle, and San Francisco could increase total U.S. economic output by 13 percent, equivalent to several thousand dollars of additional income for an average worker, and would improve economic opportunities for disadvantaged workers.

More Affordability

Smart Growth policies that allow more compact housing types (multiplexes, townhouses and low-rise apartments), reduce or eliminate parking minimums, and improve affordable transportation options can significantly improve household affordability. Households typically save $5,000 to $10,000 annually by living in a compact neighborhood with lower vehicle expenses. For moderate-income households this is equivalent to a 10-15% raise in income. The map below, from Center for Neighborhood Technology’s Housing + Transportation Affordability Index, shows the portion of budgets that households must devote to housing and transportation expenses for various Nashville, Tennessee neighborhoods. This indicates that central neighborhoods offer the most affordability, particularly for moderate-income families.


Smart Growth also tends to reduce mortgage foreclosure rates, indicating better economic resilience (that is, residents can better respond to unexpected economic stresses such as reduced incomes or increased financial burdens). For example, Smart Growth offers workers better commute options if their car breaks down, and more ways to save transportation costs if they are laid off or lose their job. Surveys indicate that many low- and moderate-income households want to live in compact housing in walkable urban neighborhoods, but cannot due to shortages. These include many current and potential future union members, particularly younger workers starting their careers, who can benefit significantly from the increased affordability provided by Smart Growth policies.

Reduced Commute Duration – More Free time

Living in a compact, central neighborhood saves time as well as money. The Mineta Transportation Institute’s new Commute Duration Dashboard, shows commute duration (average minutes per commute) for most U.S. communities, plus residents' demographic data. Below is the view of the Nashville, Tennessee region; darker color indicates longer duration commutes. It shows that central neighborhood residents tend to spend significantly less time commuting than workers in outer suburbs, a pattern found in most urban regions. Smart Growth gives workers more free time.



Economic Opportunity

Improving affordable housing and transportation options tends to improve disadvantaged people’s economic opportunities by improving access to education, employment, and services. This is particularly important for disadvantaged workers who cannot drive. Smart Growth tends to increase economic mobility, or the chance that a child born in poverty will become more economically successful as an adult. One major study, “Does Urban Sprawl Hold Down Upward Mobility?”, found that each 10 percent increase in a community’s Smart Growth rating is associated with a 4 percent increase in residents’ upward mobility. Multimodal neighborhoods tend to have lower income inequality, and higher earnings for disadvantaged groups.

Health and Safety Benefits

Compact, walkable neighborhoods provide significant health and safety benefits, many of which are particularly relevant to workers. Researchers found that adults living in the 25 percent most walkable Vancouver neighborhoods rely on walking, bicycling, and public transit at rates two to three times higher than residents of less walkable areas, drive 58 percent less, and were half as likely to be overweight as people living in the 25 percent least walkable areas. A 10 percent increase in a Smart Growth index reduces per capita traffic crash fatality rates by 14 percent. Shorter and less stressful commutes tend to improve workers’ physical and mental health, quality of life, and productivity, including less chronic fatigue, obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, backaches, fatigue, sleep disorders, depression, chronic stress and anxiety, social isolation, domestic conflicts, and job retention. Overall, residents in Smart Growth communities have significantly higher life expectancy compared with sprawled areas.

Community Livability and Environmental Quality

Compact development can help improve local environmental quality and reduce climate emissions. The Cool Climate Map below shows total greenhouse gas emissions from buildings, transportation, and other sources in Nashville, Tennessee. This indicates that central neighborhood households produce far lower emissions—less than half—as residents of sprawling, automobile-dependent areas. If you want less pollution, support compact infill development.

Total Greenhouse Emissions




Working families and labor organizations have good reasons to support policies that create more compact and walkable urban villages. This supports local jobs and economic development, increases affordability and resilience, reduces commute duration giving workers more free time, increases economic opportunity, creates more livable communities, increases public health and safety, and protects the environment. Many labor organizations support Smart Growth because it helps achieve their goals.

This is an optimistic message. At its core, the labor movement is about empowering workers through community cooperation. Too often, people claim that problems such as unaffordable housing and transportation, inadequate opportunity, social exclusion, poor health, and pollution are caused by outside forces beyond our control. Smart Growth allows communities to solve these problems using local policies and resources to create the types of housing and transportation systems that allow all residents to flourish.


For More Information

AFL-CIO (2001), AFL - CIO Resolution on Urban Sprawl and Smart Growth.

Blue-Green Alliance (https://bluegreencanada.ca) provides guidance for creating a sustainable economy.

Joe Cortright (2018), Does Your Neighborhood Help Kids Succeed? City Observatory.

Chad Frederick and John Hans Gilderbloom (2018), “Commute Mode Diversity and Income Inequality: An Inter-Urban Analysis of 148 Midsize US Cities,” International Journal of Justice and Sustainability, Vol. 23/1.

GJF (2021), Unions and Smart Growth, Good Jobs First.

Greg LeRoy (2010), Talking to Union Leaders About Smart Growth, Good Jobs First.

Todd Litman (2020), Understanding Smart Growth Savings: What We Know About Public Infrastructure and Service Cost Savings, and How They are Misrepresented by Critics, Victoria Transport Policy Institute.

Philip Mattera with Greg LeRoy (2013), The Jobs are Back in Town: Urban Smart Growth and Construction Employment, Good Jobs First.

Patrick Sisson (2018), “The Housing Crisis Isn’t Just about Affordability—It’s about Economic Mobility, Too,” Curbed.

Alexis Stephens (2015), Sprawl Is the Most Inconspicuous Adversary of Labor Unions, Next City.

Todd Litman

Todd Litman is founder and executive director of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, an independent research organization dedicated to developing innovative solutions to transport problems.

Chicago Commute

Planning for Congestion Relief

The third and final installment of Planetizen's examination of the role of the planning profession in both perpetuating and solving traffic congestion.

May 12, 2022 - James Brasuell

Twin Cities

Minneapolis Housing Plan a Success—Not for the Reason You Think

Housing advocates praise the city’s move to eliminate single-family zoning by legalizing triplexes on single-family lots, but that isn’t why housing construction is growing.

May 13, 2022 - Reason

Single-Family Housing Construction

New White House Housing Initiative Includes Zoning Reform Incentives

The Biden administration this morning released a new program of actions intended to spur housing construction around the United States.

May 16, 2022 - The White House

Protected bike lane New York

How To Sustain the E-Bike Boom: Make Riders Feel Safe

Riders of electric and non-electric bikes alike agree that they would ride more if they felt safer on city streets, signaling a need for an increased focus on bike infrastructure.

1 hour ago - Bloomberg

Urban Solar Power

Zoning Stands in the Way of Renewable Energy

Renewable energy is cheap as ever, but zoning isn’t keeping up with the market.

2 hours ago - Popular Science

Walkable DC

Mixed Use Could Lower Neighborhood Crime Rates

New research shows areas with a heavy concentration of commercial offices experience 40 percent higher crime rates than neighborhoods that mix residential and commercial uses.

3 hours ago - Arch Daily

HUD’s 2022 Innovative Housing Showcase

HUD's Office of Policy Development and Research

Expanding HUD’s Eviction Protection Grant Program

HUD's Office of Policy Development and Research

New Updates on The Edge

HUD's Office of Policy Development and Research

Urban Design for Planners 1: Software Tools

This six-course series explores essential urban design concepts using open source software and equips planners with the tools they need to participate fully in the urban design process.

Hand Drawing Master Plans

This course aims to provide an introduction into Urban Design Sketching focused on how to hand draw master plans using a mix of colored markers.