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The Just City: tensions between democracy and equity, heightened scrutiny for megaprojects, and a public share in the profits (and new taxes?)

The Just City is Harvard planning professor Susan Fainstein's effort to "to apply abstract arguments concerning justice to actual planning situations," as she said during a panel at the New School on Tuesday, and "to respond to the triumph of neo-liberalism"--thinking dominated by the free market--"in planning doctrine."

While New York has seen substantial growth in the last 40 years, it has also seen the widening of inequality. So there's reason to dispute the argument that benefits of growth will trickle down, she said.

She's long been a critic of the Bloomberg administration. In an article, The Return of Urban Renewal: Dan Doctoroff’s Grand Plans for New York City, in the Spring/Summer 2005 issue of Harvard Design Magazine, Fainstein wrote:
For planners who do not believe that the market always produces choices best for the city, seeing the city once again engaged in planning that makes explicit the changes to come is welcome. Thus, in one respect, the current thrust toward comprehensiveness and public investment is a step forward in making visible and contested a process that otherwise remains hidden. But the methods by which the plans are developed, the emphasis on sports complexes, the encumbrances on the city and state’s fiscal integrity, and the sheer magnitude and density of the proposed projects can only cause serious misgivings.
After Fainstein's discussion about how to apply principles of justice to specific projects, the discussion extended to the overall framework, notably the increasing gap between rich and poor, and the potential for fairer taxation to narrow that gap.

(Graphics from the Fiscal Policy Institute; see report below. Click to enlarge.)

The criteria: equity, democracy, diversity

The components of justice are complex, and can be in tension. Fainstein explained that she started with political philosopher John Rawls, noted for the construct in which individuals are placed in a "veil of ignorance" and thus would choose a society with rules that favor the least well-off.

But Rawls's focus on material equality scants issues like gender, difference, and caste--ways in which "people are not given recognition," she noted.

That means diversity (group belonging) and "recognition" deserve a role. And then there's the knotty issue of democracy, which she called "extremely important" and "extremely problematic."

In context, Yankee Stadium

Fainstein evaluated projects from three cities: New York, London, and Amsterdam.

She spoke with skepticism about the new Yankee Stadium, built in part because the team made the dubious threat to leave town. "Although the team would claim they're paying for the stadium, they're actually paying a PILOT [payment in lieu of taxes], which pays for interest on bonds," she noted. "So the first big subsidy has to do with the availability of industrial revenue bonds."

Other big subsidies, she said, include the avoidance of property taxes, a new railroad station, and the disappearance--and delayed replacement of new public parks. And when members of the local community board voted against the project, they were removed by then Borough President Adolfo Carrion.

"So this is a fairly clear case of no democracy, no equity, and I don't know what you'd say about diversity," she summed up.

What about AY?

Fainstein seemed to lump in Atlantic Yards with Yankee Stadium. The latter, she said, exemplified "a style of promoting growth that has been going on in New York... Bloomberg came in and said he wasn't going to give big subsidies to sports teams but in fact has done so... So all the teams got their stadiums, or their arenas."

Yes, but Atlantic Yards was presented in ways that some of those justice factors could be muddied.

Sure, there was no democracy. But there was purported equity, in the form of promised affordable housing, jobs, and minority/women contracting. The latter also represent purported diversity.

London, and Amsterdam

Fainstein suggested that London's spending on the Olympics was a costly way to get toward equity, given the displacement of businesses and roundabout way of building public housing.

Amsterdam, however, serves as a foil to the Anglo-American cities, with more sensitive planning.
"I would argue you can have growth with much greater equity than in New York City," she said, noting that Amsterdam has an unemployment rate about half that of New York.

Amsterdam's "very large and active economic development policy unit," she said, emphasizes not building business, but job training and placement.

One management consultant told her his company picked the Netherlands among other European Union countries because they promised to train his staff, helped locate a building (but didn't build one), and offered "phenomenally good infrastructure," a village location just 20 minutes by rail from Amsterdam's Schiphol airport.

By contrast, she said, "New York has subsidized virtually indiscriminately firms that were never ever going to go somewhere else." She cited NBC, the Yankees, and the New York Stock Exchange.


Fainstein suggested that democracy is not a simple value. In response to the urban renewal era, a time of bureaucratic unresponsiveness, some thought that increased community say would lead to redistribution of resources.

That's not so. "We've had a lot more participation, but a lot more inequality," she said. Participation, which now tends to be routinized, tends to be dominated by homeowners, who aim to protect their property rather than pressing for more equity.

That criticism can be and has been applied to those protesting Atlantic Yards, and surely there was self-interest at work. On the other hand, they were responding to a proposed project in which the developer was creating a facade of equity while--it could easily be argued--acting with even greater self-interest.

While citizen participation can be valuable as it provides local knowledge and a sense of democracy, it's "problematic" regarding equity, she said.

It also makes it hard to take into account citywide concerns. In the case of Atlantic Yards, for example, Borough President Marty Markowitz has pointed out, not unreasonably, that a project like an arena is of regional importance.

So how get the region to weigh in? Bypassing the City Council completely surely isn't the way.


While those echoing Jane Jacobs place a great emphasis on physical diversity of buildings, Fainstein said, there's no necessary relationship between diversity and equity.

She warned about public housing programs, like Hope VI, that disperse the poor or people of color/immigrants.

Sorting it out

Given that the values of equity, diversity, and democracy can be in tension, Fainstein offered a guide. When they are in conflict with each other, equity should receive priority.

For example, all new housing should provide for households with income below the area median. Moreover, no household or business should be involuntarily relocated for the purpose of obtaining economic development or community balance. (She said later she was referring to programs like Hope VI, not specifically eminent domain.)

Economic development programs should give priority to the interests of employees and small business owners, rather than subsidize large employers.

Heightened scrutiny for AY and others

Megaprojects should be subject to heightened scrutiny, she said, using the layperson's term rather than the legal phrase that would trigger a closer look by judges. (In New York, courts instead have largely deferred to the state agency, the Empire State Development Corporation.)

Such megaprojects should be required to provide direct benefits to low-income people, she said.

And if a public subsidy is involved, the public should participate in the profits, she said. In Amsterdam, for example, the city owns almost all the land, so it gains from increased land value.

(Extrapolated to projects like Atlantic Yards, that argument suggests that the arena naming rights should not have been given away.)

More goals

In furtherance of diversity, zoning should not be used to further discriminatory ends, boundaries between districts should be porous, and public space should be widely accessible, but groups with clashing lifestyles need not occupy the same location.

In furtherance of democracy, plans should be developed in consultation with the target population if the area is already developed, but citywide considerations must also apply. (She didn't explain how to square that.)

And, in planning for yet uninhabited or sparsely occupied areas, there should be broad consultation with stakeholders in the area.

Fainstein acknowledged all this was a tall order. "If the discourse surrounding policy-making focuses on the justice of the decision rather than simply its contribution to competitiveness, much will have been accomplished," she said.

Similarly, in an article written for a 2006 Columbia University conference on the Just City, Fainstein wrote:
The movement toward a normative vision of the city requires the development of counter-institutions capable of reframing issues in broad terms and of mobilizing organizational and financial resources to fight for their aims.

…The very act of naming has power. If we constantly reiterate the call for a just city (as conservative forces forever refer to economic development and the Congress for the New Urbanism talk about smart growth and stopping sprawl), we change popular discourse and enlarge the boundaries of action.
In the real world

Discussant Brooklyn City Council Member Brad Lander suggested that the One City, One Future agenda, proposed in 2009, seems taken from Fainstein's book, but it "almost feels like an alternative universe" that would be very hard to get to.

Still, after visiting the Brooklyn Navy Yard--these days an exemplary manufacturing zone--he suggested that moving subsidies from large-scale real estate development "to those pieces of the economy that make sense in New York City" would do a lot more good.

Vast inequality in NYC and NYC

He cited a December report from the Fiscal Policy Institute, which said that in New York City the income share going to the top one percent rose from 12 percent in 1980 to 20 percent in 1990 to to 44 percent in 2007.

New York State has the highest income inequality of all states and New York City is the most polarized among the nation’s 25 largest cities, according to the report.

The CPC view

Asked about the work of the City Planning Commission, Commissioner Kenneth Knuckles gave a rather curious answer: "Justice is generally defined by outcomes.... If it's an outcome you like, it's just." He went on to defend the CPC's rezonings.

Lander asked "if downzonings are rooted in a justice principle?"

Knuckles acknowledged "they're rooted in a preservation principle" but contended the CPC has achieved a "pretty good balance of bringing growth where there should be growth." (The Furman Center would say: not quite.)

That's when Fainstein said, "I would argue you can have growth with much greater equity than in New York City."

The issue goes beyond large-scale development and gentrification, which Lander said have dominated the media narrative. "I don't think we got that right, but we had a lot of conversation," he said, noting that we need to talk more about the role of immigrants in the city's growth and policies toward them.

Why aren't tax hikes on the table?

Given the statistics in the Fiscal Policy Institute report, why can't taxes be raised to narrow the long-growing gap between rich and everyone else?

Fainstein blamed the rhetoric of neoliberalism.

'The politics of the day, which local officials are responding to, and even the president, is that tax increases are just not going to be politically feasible," Knuckles suggested.

Lander agreed that "politics are not where we want them to be, but there are leadership questions." He said New Yorkers do not believe in extending the Bush-era tax cuts, and if those taxes were collected in New York, the city could recover $8 billion.

Instead, the governor wants to give New Yorkers a tax cut, he said, calling it "irresponsible leadership."

He pointed to a web site created by British activists, False Economy, which features a "wonderful two-minute video" in which ordinary folk lament the cuts they must absorb and the lessons learned: "that'll teach me not to gamble on Credit Default Swaps."

Why cuts are the wrong cure from False Economy on Vimeo.

From the Fiscal Policy Institute

The FPI report suggests the rich don't pay a fair share:
The people who have benefited so richly from the extraordinary concentration of wealth documented here should have no difficulty in paying their fair share of taxes and still maintaining a very comfortable lifestyle. While it is true that top earners pay the most in taxes, they are paying less than their proportionate share given their extraordinarily high income.
  • At the state level, the top one percent pay a smaller share of their income in New York State and local taxes than all of those less well-off, from the upper-middle, to the middle, to the poor.
  • The story is similar in New York City. While the top one percent has 44 percent of city income and pay slightly over half of all local personal income taxes, they only pay one third of total New York City personal income, city sales, and local residential property taxes.
  • At the national level, the income and estate tax changes agreed to by President Obama and the Republican leadership will provide 34 percent of tax cuts going to all New Yorkers to the richest one percent. On average, the richest households will receive a tax cut averaging $124,000 in 2011. The middle fifth of New Yorkers will average a $1500 tax cut, and the poorest 20 percent will get less than $300 on average.
The full report is below.



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