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Does Oakland Have a Future as a Public City?

The city is experiencing significant growth and development, but it has a complicated history of booms and lags and its civic future is uncertain.
May 30, 2019, 12pm PDT | Camille Fink
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Emily Calhoun

Mitchell Schwarzer takes a closer look at the development history of Oakland, California, through its various booms—starting in the 1920s, then in the 1960s and 2010s, and now reflected in the current construction flurry in downtown Oakland.

While he welcomes the density and vibrancy that will come with the many new residential, hotel, and office buildings, Schwarzer argues that important aspects of the city, as well as its vulnerable residents, are being ignored by civic leaders. "Expanded rail and bus networks, education systems, parks, and civic buildings — active ingredients in earlier times of city-making — are largely absent. The myriad interrelated functions that maintain a public city are being neglected."

Schwarzer grapples with this conflict between Oakland’s new outlook, after periods of neglect when other cities like San Francisco and Berkeley reoriented themselves and flourished, and the rapidly growing problems with homelessness, poverty, and an extreme lack of affordable housing.

These new pricey rentals and condos, to a certain degree, make older housing more available, as they have in the past, he notes. "But it is increasingly common to hear longtime residents voice nostalgia for the days when Oakland was bypassed by global capital flows, when downtown was a dead zone in the dark hours, and cranes were seen only at the Port — when the all-too-gritty reality of the Town kept investors away."

Schwarzer concludes by saying that a plan for affordable housing and a commitment to public investment must be top priorities. He also urges residents who want to live in a modern-day city like Oakland to wake up to the realities:

Most folks oppose suburban sprawl into wild lands and farms. Most enjoy vital urban centers, and understand the need for affordable housing. Most celebrate class and ethnic diversity. Yet the NIMBY attitude spawned in the era of overreaching public projects remains powerful. It is simply not possible to have it both ways, attaining cosmopolitan complexity while enjoying what amounts to a suburban-style life.

The San Francisco Bay Area has experienced astounding economic growth, says Schwarzer, and he wants cities like Oakland to affirm the public city—one that is dense, equitable, and focused on the needs of all residents—rather than supporting privatization and economic and social exclusion.

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Published on Wednesday, May 22, 2019 in Places Journal
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