Editorial: Save the City by Investing in Equity

A New York Times editorial presents a resoundingly pro-urban call to action regarding the future of planning and investment.

3 minute read

May 12, 2020, 5:00 AM PDT

By James Brasuell @CasualBrasuell

Joe Louis Memorial

cletch / Flickr

The Editorial Board of the New York Times published a feature-length defense of cities that also serves as a call to action for policy makers: break down class divides to rebuild urban areas in the wake of the coronavirus.

"The cities we need," the title of the editorial, builds its case on the history of cities as the "hammering engines of the nation’s economic progress, the showcases of its wealth and culture, the objects of global fascination, admiration and aspiration."

That was before, according to the editorial—long before the coronavirus upended life in the United States. For decades the infrastructure that built the economic prowess of U.S. cities has crumbled, and class divides have grown. The pandemic threatens to exacerbate the negative effects of these trends, according to the editorial. 

The pandemic has prompted some affluent Americans to wonder whether cities are broken for them, too. It has suspended the charms of urban life while accentuating the risks, reviving an hoary American tradition of regarding cities with fear and loathing — as cesspools of disease, an image that all too easily aligns with prejudices about poverty and race and crime. Even New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, has described New York City’s density as responsible for its suffering.

Here enters the central claim of the editorial: the compulsion to flee the city and to abandon the urban cause is "dangerously misguided." The best hope for the nation, as expressed here, is to break down the inequalities of the city, and to "change the harsh reality that the neighborhoods into which Americans are born delimit their prospects in life…"

The editorial's recommendations for achieving those lofty goals will prove controversial in every kind of community, such as reducing segregation by reversing the planning policies that exclude affordable housing development in affluent neighborhoods and by equitable investments in urban public schools.

This reader can't recall an editorial of such scope and ambition, including interactive features and requiring long-read patience of the audience. Similarly, this reader cannot recall such strict adherence to pro-urban polemics, even when delivered at the expense of suburban communities. A passage that describes a suburban community outside of Cincinnati as a parasite promises to inspire numerous counter arguments:

Life in America resembles an airline passenger cabin: separate entrances, separate seating areas, separate bathrooms. The Village of Indian Hill, a wealthy suburb of Cincinnati, touts its rural atmosphere, its “firm administration of zoning ordinances” and its “proximity to the cultural life of a large city.” It is, in short, a parasite, taking what it values from Cincinnati while contributing as little to it as possible. In this, it is hardly unique. Hundreds of similar suburbs encrust cities across the United States.

For more on the future direction of urban planning and cities in the post-Covid future, see previous Planetizen coverage gathered under the "Coronavirus and Density" tag.

Monday, May 11, 2020 in The New York Times

Large blank mall building with only two cars in large parking lot.

Pennsylvania Mall Conversion Bill Passes House

If passed, the bill would promote the adaptive reuse of defunct commercial buildings.

April 18, 2024 - Central Penn Business Journal

Street scene in Greenwich Village, New York City with people walking through busy intersection and new WTC tower in background.

Planning for Accessibility: Proximity is More Important than Mobility

Accessibility-based planning minimizes the distance that people must travel to reach desired services and activities. Measured this way, increased density can provide more total benefits than increased speeds.

April 14, 2024 - Todd Litman

Wood-frame two-story rowhouses under construction.

Fair Housing Cannot Take a Back Seat to ‘Build, Baby, Build’

If we overlook fair housing principles in the plan to build US housing back better, we risk ending up right back where we started.

April 11, 2024 - James Jennings

"No 710" lawn sign on green lawn.

LA Metro Board Approves New 710 Freeway Plan

The newest plan for the 710 corridor claims it will not displace any residents.

April 22 - Streetsblog LA

Close-up of row of electric cars plugged into chargers at outdoor station.

Austin’s Proposed EV Charging Rules Regulate Station Locations, Size

City planners say the new rules would ensure an efficient distribution of charging infrastructure across the city and prevent an overconcentration in residential areas.

April 22 - Austin Monitor

Green hills with orange California poppies in bloom in foreground in Chino Hills State Park, California.

Making California State Parks More Climate-Resilient

A recently released report offers recommendations for keeping state parks healthy and robust, including acquiring additional land for conservation and recreation.

April 22 - Spectrum News 1

News from HUD User

HUD's Office of Policy Development and Research

Call for Speakers

Mpact Transit + Community

New Updates on PD&R 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.

Planning for Universal Design

Learn the tools for implementing Universal Design in planning regulations.