Year in Review: The Stories That Defined Urban Planning in 2021

Part two (of two) of Planetizen's review of 2021 collects the biggest stories and storylines of the year from the wide world of planning.

13 minute read

December 30, 2021, 5:00 AM PST

By James Brasuell


Joe Biden sits in a chair holding a microphone in front of a screen that reads Wall Street Journal and Infrastructure

Joe Biden talking infrastructure while on the campaign trail in February 2020. | Joseph Sohm / Shutterstock

This is part two of Planetizen's 2021 "Year in Review." Part one was published on December20, 2021. Check back again later for a "Top Trends to Watch in 2022" post.

Still Waiting for the Light at the End of the Tunnel

The defining characteristic of 2021 has been its capacity to defy expectations. How many lights at the end of the tunnel have vanished since April 2020? Just when we allow ourselves some comfort and normalcy, a new variant emerges, a new wave of infections overfills the hospitals, and it can feel like we are back to square one. The country's policymakers, its public, and its media are still totally engrossed, mired really, in the pandemic. The pandemic has its hands around our collective necks—whether we protest the constriction or not. With every passing day that the not-so-novel coronavirus hangs around, new, complex consequences emerge in the systems of the world—social, cultural, economic, and infrastructural. 

The themes and stories we identify here as the biggest of the year in planning (defined as broadly as possible: urban, regional, city, community, rural, and including some design practices) all have an element of novelty. Where a few of these storylines might have had precedent before 2020, they've been accelerated and exacerbated to unprecedented extremes over the past two years. All are examples of the pandemic's influence: we wouldn't be having these conversations with so much evidence at our disposal if Covid never happened in 2019.

Sure, 2021 has been an exhausting exercise in setting aside expectations, but it's also provided daily reminders that history repeats itself. Some of the pandemic's tricks are getting old, like songs on repeat or stories we've already heard. What was once novel in this pandemic eventually becomes typical. The typical eventually graduates to the traditional. Most of the biggest stories from 2021 were entirely predictable, even if we didn't predict them so explicitly in "Planning Trends to Watch in 2021." Surely, the lessons of 2021 will apply in 2022. 

Setting aside our expectations again, here's what Planetizen's editorial coverage and biggest stories of 2021 offer for perspective about what we've just lived through and expectations about what we might expect from 2022.

The Biggest Story of the Year for Planners: Approval of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act

The scale of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) would be historic even if it were a reiteration of the planning and engineering status quo, but this $1.2 trillion spending package includes $550 billion in new spending. Even with the failure of the companion Build Back Better bill, which would have created funding and programs for a social safety net the likes of which the United States has never known, and even with cuts to the original size and scope of the IIJA, we're talking about a generational bill, with massive amounts of funding for planning work. The big question waiting to be answered over the coming years is whether contemporary best practices of planning can be maintained as a priority at the same table with the same powerful lobbies that have dominated infrastructure planning and investment since the dawn of the automobile. 

The prospects for a less car-centric future already seem grim: the National Highway Safety Administration seems to be relying on the bold tactic of "asking nicely" for state and local governments not to keep planning and building the way they always have done, except now with a windfall of cash larger than anyone has ever seen from the federal government. The INVEST in America Act, which would have implemented legal guardrails against the car-centric status quo of transportation planning failed to make it through to the final, approved version of the IIJA, so asking nicely is one of the only tools the feds have for mitigating the potential damage of new car infrastructure. U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Puttigieg has talked a big game about equity and racism in highway and road planning, but all over the country, highways are being planned and built in the same old way—i.e., with much worse consequences for low-income individuals and communities of color. As of this writing, the U.S. DOT has stopped short of establishing a new precedent with Interstate 45 in Houston, a project known as the North Houston Highway Improvement Project. In August, the U.S. DOT reached agreement with the Texas Department of Transportation that allows the project to live on, even while undergoing a civil rights investigation.

In the end, the story of the IIJA, like the story of the North Houston Highway Improvement Project, is still only about the potential for a sea change. Both stories could both still could become another massive missed opportunity in the face of climate change and inequality. 

Planners will get paid. Planners will have their say. History will be made.

The Planning Reform Movement Gains New Steam

A list of the cities, states, and even countries on the cutting edge of a dramatic overhaul of the planning status quo would probably surprise anyone even casually familiar with the history of post-World War II planning in the United States. Try these examples of zoning and planning reform from around the country and world: Atlanta, Berkeley, Boston, Charlotte, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Iowa City, Minneapolis, the Port of Long Beach, Raleigh, Sacramento, San Diego, San José, Tacoma, Toronto, California, Connecticut, Minnesota, New Zealand, and the White House. All of these jurisdictions are leading zoning and planning reforms of varying scope and significance—some  by allowing new density and removing the exclusionary blanket of single-family residential zoning; some by removing the number of parking spaces required for development; some by rewriting local zoning codes; some by taking the law out of locals' control. There's even a growing chorus of calls for zoning reforms that allow corner stores and other neighborhood-serving retail spaces in residential areas.

If that impressively long and varied list weren't enough proof, researchers surveyed 800 municipalities (all located in the 50 largest U.S. metropolitan areas) for evidence of zoning changes enacted as a tool of affordable housing policy and published the results in the Journal of the American Planning Association. According to the study's findings, 49 percent of municipalities were using zoning incentives (e.g., density bonuses, reduced development fees, streamlined permitting, and reduced parking requirements) in 2019 to spur the development of affordable housing. Among that total, 36 percent offered density bonuses, 3 percent allowed accessory dwelling units, 6 percent offered smaller minimum lot sizes, 18 percent offered building envelope extensions, and 18 percent offered reduced parking requirements. Eventually researchers will be able to say that those percentages continued to increase, and even picked up the pace, in 2021.

The increased adoption of zoning and planning reform is spurred by multiple drivers. Housing prices are continuing to spike and new cities are joining the most expensive club, so some of these reforms are designed to improve housing affordability. The growing number of cities and states implementing zoning reforms unequivocally signals the increasing influence of the YIMBY movement in planning politics (and also at least partly explains a planning reform victory lap published by the Reason Foundation earlier this week). 

The zoning reform movement is also spurred by an emerging awareness of the discriminatory intentions of single-family zoning. Look no further than Berkeley, California for an example of the arc of exclusionary zoning history. Despite its reputation as a liberal haven (the city is often called the "People's Republic of Berkeley"), Berkeley bears the ignominy of being the first city to implement exclusionary zoning, documenting its racist intentions in the process. For decades, Berkeley doubled down on the exclusionary system it invented. Now the city is undertaking a sweeping reform agenda to undo that legacy. In the past year, the Berkeley City Council has removed parking requirements for all developments, voted to end single-family zoning, and launched a process that could potentially add a 100% percent affordable overlay. The Berkeley Planning Commission is leading a push for new transit oriented density near stations on the regional transit system (i.e., BART).  

The momentum of zoning and planning reforms has even reached the institutions at the very core of planning practice. The American Planning Association (APA), a professional organization with every incentive to protect the status quo that it built over the decades, offered proof of its commitment to the growing reform movement with an article published in May 2021 calling for a "complete rethink" of zoning.

Vision Zero Fail

The pandemic has, understandably, held the attention of public health experts for two years now, but alongside all the lockdowns, hand washing, mask mandates, vaccination requirements, and travel restrictions imposed since early 2020, multiple public health crises have sprung up as collateral damage, namely opioid overdoses, suicides among specific populatioons (i.e., young adults and Black, Latino, and Native American men), and traffic fatalities.

The catastrophic spike in traffic fatalities comes despite lower levels of vehicle miles traveled—a trend that previous to the pandemic would have decreased traffic fatalities. The evidence of the complete collapse of traffic safety progress on U.S. streets and roads was already apparent in 2020, and the multiple factors contributing to the carnage—increasingly reckless drivers, the increasing size of private automobile, and the quick recovery of vehicle miles traveled after the first weeks and months of the pandemic—showed no signs of ebbing in the pandemic's second year. The failure of Vision Zero is likely to continue. 

A few examples from around the country offer optimism that reductions in traffic fatalities are possible. The Austin Department of Transportation this month reported early data showing significant reductions in injuries and fatalities on High Injury Roadways recently implemented safety upgrades. Hoboken reported in early 2021 that the city had completed a third year without a traffic fatality

Despite these fews signs of hope, Vision Zero lacks momentum, at best, and is headed in the wrong direction at worst. U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut) introduced Vision Zero legislation in May that piqued the interest of the media through the summer and then fell off the radar. In 2021, New York City is on pace for the most fatalities on its roads since adopting a Vision Zero program in 2014 (the city set a record low for traffic fatalities in 2019). Whether the story is told for the entire country, the state of Illinois, the city of Houston, or anywhere else, 2021 took several steps backward in terms of traffic safety and the promise of Vision Zero. 

We know what it will take to eliminate traffic fatalities from U.S. roads. If and when those changes are made, 2021 won't be known as the year we finally got our act together.

Institutional Investors Take Over

The institutionalization of property in the United States is not new, but 2021 marked a watershed year for awareness of the growing footprint of Wall Street and large, institutional investors in the real estate market. Some of the new attention is surely a result of growing housing stress as residential real estate prices increase further and further out of reach for potential buyers. More and more Americans, not just in New York and California, but all over the country, in settlements varying from urban to rural, and in states both red and blue, are asking the question: Who could possibly afford these prices? It's almost too convenient to point to Wall Street in response.

The attention to the disruption  in the housing market caused by Wall Street and institutional investors was fueled by the news in November that Zillow had lost hundreds of millions of dollars, in a matter of months, through the practice of iBuying. In addition to the preceding New York Times and Vox links, respectively, Wired, the Wall Street Journal, the Guardian, CNN, Curbed, and Fox Business picked up the story, dominating the news cycle to a degree rarely matched by other stories from the entire calendar year.

As detailed at the height of the public interest in non-Zillow angles on the inroads of Wall Street into the residential market, back in spring of 2021, details about the true reach and potential consequences of the trend were still hard to come by. The story is too complex for simple explanation, varying by geographic region, forcing political rationalization spilling over into hypocrisy, and requiring years or even decades to properly analyze. Commentators have framed the conversation in dire times, calling the trend a "Wall Street Land Grab" that will turn the country into a "permanent suburban rental class." Others have described the widespread availability of new rental housing stock, even if it's corporate owned, as a net win for economic equality. The forces aren't at work at the same scale in San Francisco and Seattle as they are in Houston and Tennessee.

Another round of attention to the consequences of institutional investment broke in December, thanks to details of the business plan of Progress Residential and Pretium Partners, a New York-based investment firm, revealed in the Pandora Papers. "The plan sought to exploit the 2008 U.S. housing crash, which forced millions of homeowners into foreclosure and left a glut of cheap houses for sale. The financiers’ plan called for buying up tens of thousands of these properties at depressed prices and renting them to families who had lost their homes or, because of tightened lending practices, could no longer qualify for a mortgage," according to the article by Spencer Woodman, Margot Gibbs, and Peter Whoriskey for the International Consortium of Investigative Journalism.

Planetizen blogger Michael Lewyn wrote in response to the bombshell report that the negative results of "financialization" prove that the law of supply and demand still applies to housing: "out-of-town investors are 'outbidding middle-class homeowners.' In other words, demand for housing has increased (because corporations decided to buy houses), thus prices are going up." No matter whether that's the consensus conclusion in response to the evidence, the public, led by politicians and planners, will have choices to make about how to effectively respond to the new, ongoing facts of life in the housing market. 

Unfortunately, all the options on the table are controversial, exceedingly complex, and ripe with the potential for unintended consequences. Development opponents point to the zoning reforms discussed above as providing new opportunities for institutional investors to financialize the real estate market. The status quo is how we got here. Hopes for a new era of federal investments in public housing died with the Build Back Better bill.

So what's the move?

Amtrak Achieves Sexy Status

We at Planetizen have always catered, whenever possible, to what we assumed was a small but passionate subset of our audience: train fans. At the end of the year, 2021, we must reconsider whether that subset is growing or has been dormant, waiting around for good news to celebrate. 

Everything changed for the public discourse about intercity rail travel in 2021. Amtrak proved to be catnip for the planning Internet in 2021, bringing sexy back thanks to a proposed system expansion map, dubbed the Connect US plan, that picked up viral attention on multiple occasions throughout the year. 

The sudden attention for trains and Amtrak gained steam thanks to a windfall of funding that was hard to imagine coming to fruition in 2019. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), signed into law by President Joe Biden in November 2021, included $66 billion for various programs and projects at Amtrak with a promise of future annual funding allotments, subject to appropriations. Amtrak is promising to keep the public updated on the progress of Connect US online, and whether Amtrak and the IIJA manage a rebirth for intercity rail in the United States will be a story to watch for years to come. 

Other factors influenced this "trainaissance," like the emergence of TikTok as a go-to medium for urbanists and train fans. Look no further for evidence of this trend than the tremendous popularity of Francis Bourgeois, who has achieved mainstream acclaim with a TikTok account that showcases some of the purest joy ever witnessed onscreen…devoted entirely to trains (and aided by one of the most successful uses of a fish-eye lens in film history, but we digress.)

Advocates hopeful for a new era of intercity rail travel in the United States can also look to Europe, where significant progress was made over the past year in convincing the public to ditch air travel for train travel, thanks to what some call "flight shame," though the movement predates 2021. In 2019, Alliance 90/The Greens, a political party in Germany, proposed a plan to discontinue domestic air travel by 2035. But 2021 was a banner year for flight shame. In April, French lawmakers voted to ban all flights for routes that can be completed in 2.5 hours or less. In Italy, the popularity of intercity rail travel led to the demise of the national airline, Alitalia, in October. Survey findings published recently show a major shift in attitudes about travel decisions in Sweden.

Here's to hoping, for the sake of the planet and for train aficionados like Francis Bourgeois, that the IIJA continues to make intercity rail in the United States something to be excited about.

This is part two of the Planetizen 2021 "Year in Review" post. Part one was published on December 20. Check back in a few days for a "Top Trends to Watch in 2022" post.

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