What is urban planning’s role in the maintenance of capitalism?

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In this excerpt from Capital City: Gentrification and the Real Estate State, Sam Stein explores the coercise role of planners who are part of a system that asks them to sort out who will go where, under what conditions and for whose benefit.

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Why Capitalist Cities Plan

Planners tend to be inordinately nice people. They gravitate to the profession out of a desire to help their cities and improve living conditions for their neighbors. Most planners do not seek to line the pockets of wealthy elites or displace the poor. And yet that is exactly what has happened, again and again, in city after city, across the United States and throughout the capitalist world. If the personal motivations of planners can- not explain this dynamic, how do we account for it? What is urban planning’s role in the maintenance of capitalism, and all the exploitation and appropriation that system engenders? The history of capitalism clearly shows that market economies require planning. Despite the protestations of libertarian absolutists, markets do not emerge from a state of nature, nor are they the product of simple evolution from prior economic modes. They are carefully planned, crafted and controlled. They rely on massive legal, logistical, infrastructural and technical capacities, all of which must not only be imagined and developed but likewise maintained and reproduced.

They require the coercive power of militaries and police, which themselves require massive amounts of planning to accomplish such plunder and enclosure. And eventually they come to demand their own regulation, both to establish a predictable ground on which to operate and to create a suitable barrier against upstart competition. To be sure, planning can also get in the way of markets, whether by imposing price controls or by defending public space. But if planners help the state establish spatial order over time, and if the state under capital- ism is fundamentally “the executive committee of the bourgeoisie,” then planners—whatever their intention—are working for the maintenance, defense and expansion of capitalism.

Planners are also responsible for maintaining the spatial dimension of racial inequalities. Capitalism is always racial— though the precise meaning and articulation of racial differentiation and domination varies and changes over time and place. In all instances, however, capitalism produces powerful racial ideologies, a set of human categories with supposedly inborn and homogeneous traits that legitimate the system’s inherent inequalities.

Within the capitalist state, planners are tasked with reproducing this racist order through a series of supposedly race-neutral tools that are, in reality, anything but. The clearest examples are zoning and urban renewal, two policies whose formal raison d’être is to create rational and orderly urban landscapes; in reality, however, these tools are often used to target one racial group for exclusion or expulsion while clearing the way for another’s quality of life.

Planning itself is not inherently racist; in fact, it is central to racism’s negation. But racial capitalism asks planners to sort out who will go where, under what conditions and for whose benefit. Such actions are intrinsically coercive. Planners often describe the force underlying their work as “police power.”

This authority, however, is more commonly expressed through compelled consent than through overt force. The built environment that planners establish is itself a means of securing consent; you don’t go where you’re blocked from going, whether by a road pattern, a fence or a wall. Planners also secure consent by cloaking their power in rationality. While the capitalist state can be considered a “dictatorship of the bourgeoisie,” it often operates as a republic with some democratic features. For the most part, planners cannot simply foist their plans onto the public, but must convince them that these plans are in fact the most rational option. As planning theorist Bent Flyvbjerg maintains, however, “power defines reality” and “rationalization presented as rationality is a principal strategy in the exercise of power.”

One of the main tasks of urban planning, then, is to make capitalist development appear to be in the rational best interests of workers and bosses alike. In order for capitalist development to work, though, planners need to look out for peoples’ survival in a way that capital cannot—or will not—do. This recalls Fred Moten and Stefano Harney’s definition of planning as “self-sufficiency at the social level.” The market alone will never fully meet the working class’ daily needs: wages are too low for food, and have to be supplemented with welfare or direct provisions; transportation costs are borne by the individual worker, who needs mass transit to get around; housing is perpetually beyond the means of working and poor city dwellers, thus requiring the state to offer public, subsidized and regulated housing.

While buildings and bridges are the iconic imagery of cities and planning, the hidden work of social reproduction—housing, health care, education, food, culture, comradery—is what truly allows capitalist cities to work, and is thus a central pre-occupation of city planners.

Most of this work—production, consumption, social reproduction—takes place on land that is privately owned but publicly managed. Land is a particularly complicated factor in capitalism, as it is both a precondition for all commodities’ production and circulation, and a strange sort of commodity in and of itself. Land is not traded like other products. Instead, according to geographer David Harvey, land “is a fictitious form of capital that derives from expectations of future rents.” These future rents are highly susceptible to external factors, such as pollution, zoning or the vagaries of demand.

About thirty years ago, planning scholar Richard Foglesong examined leftist theories of land in relation to urban planning during the first 300 years of what would become the United States, and produced perhaps the most elegant explanation of planning’s function in capitalist cities. He noticed that the central conflict in this history was between the “social character of land”—or its value as “a collective good, a social resource”— and its private ownership and control.

From this conflict arose two contradictions—the property contradiction and the capitalist-democracy contradiction—and it fell on professional urban planners to handle them. The property contradiction describes the unhappy tension between capitalists’ desire for certain types of planning interventions and their antipathy toward anything that restricts their operations. They need government to undertake certain functions to secure both their own profitability and their workers’ survival; they demand that the state build the infrastructure that makes their land usable, such as roads, train tracks, water and sewer systems; and they demand that the state care for their employees through basic welfare functions, such as emergency health care and public education, in order to ensure a reliable source of labor.

Different types of capitalists, however, make different demands on the state. Industrial landholders reject environmentally strenuous zoning that restricts the location of their operations in the city; real estate capitalists would welcome such regulations because pollution diminishes their property values. Industrial capitalists might demand affordable housing for their workforce in order to stave off demands for raises; real estate capitalists would object to any constraint on their ability to maximize rental or sale profits.

While capitalists need a lot from planners (even if they can’t agree among themselves as to what, exactly, they want), they are also fiercely protective of their property rights. They know that private property laws are the only thing keeping their workers or tenants from expropriating them out of business, and therefore tend to be broadly suspicious of state interventions that could theoretically impinge on property rights. They know their land would be useless without planners, but they reject planning as such as an expression of government overreach. This, in short, is the property contradiction.

A second key phenomenon, the capitalist-democracy contradiction, is borne directly out of liberal governments’ attempts to deal with the property contradiction. In a nominally democratic capitalist republic, the state and its planners have to perform a delicate balancing act: planners must proceed with enough openness and transparency to maintain public legitimacy, while ensuring that capital retains ultimate control over the processes’ parameters. The people must have their say, but their options must be limited. If the system is entirely opened up, people might demand the full socialization of land, the abolition of private property and all the rest. If the system is completely closed, however, they might revolt against an unjust and unaccountable government. Planners are therefore tasked with creating public processes that are open but rigged. From this capitalist-democracy contradiction arises the familiar landscape of “participatory planning”—public comment periods, community boards, planning commissions, design charettes and a host of other interventions.

According to this model, urban planners’ main job is to contain these two contradictions; neither can be resolved, but both can be managed. This puts city planners in a complicated bind. They are encouraged to make certain land use interventions, but are prevented from making more sweeping changes. Planners operate in a system that must appear open to the public, while simultaneously guaranteeing that ultimate power resides in the hands of propertied elites. It can be a really shitty job.

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