Going National: Urban Issues and the Public Debate

With four-fifths of Americans living in urban areas, we are a nation of cities, yet this is not the narrative you’re likely to hear in our national political conversation. As a result, urban policy doesn’t get the debate it deserves. But as U.S. cities change and evolve, it may finally be time for urban issues to become something that both parties care about.

In media reports and stump speeches, you’ll hear that true American identity resides in the heartland, on Main Street, in our farms and small towns—and in our ubiquitous suburbs. The suburbs are the political battlegrounds where the parties vie for attention, so it is no surprise that suburban issues, like the price of gasoline, get a voice, while more “urban” concerns, like public transportation or infrastructure planning, get short shrift.

A recent op-ed in The New York Times by Kevin Baker, titled “How the G.O.P. Became the Anti-Urban Party,” gives a great history of how this perceived bifurcation between cities and the rest of America came to be, why it is problematic, and why its days may be numbered. He describes how 80 years ago, the Republican Party increasingly abandoned cities to the New Deal’s Democratic heirs, concentrating its attention instead on the rapidly expanding suburbs. With the cities effectively ceded to Democratic voters and out of play, the two parties no longer competed on creative solutions to urban concerns, having each staked out their own reliable constituencies. He describes how the two parties have continued to hold firm to their old geographies, but points out how urban change is beginning to call these into question:

“as urban areas continue to grow, they become more and more intertwined with what were once distant suburbs, making “urban” issues all the more pertinent to everyone.

The old antagonisms between cities and suburbs will give way to cooperation over everything from where to build the next airport to how to combine municipal services to how to spread the wealth cities generate.”

The intertwined nature of urban regions may not yet be common knowledge as far as politicians and the media are concerned, but many urbanists and landscape architects know that the city/suburb binary is outdated, as is the city/rural divide. The contemporary city is a patchwork of varying densities, plugged into regional resource and commuter flows within a broader landscape. The participants in the landscape urbanism conversation have consistently described cities as entities in flux, sitting within urbanizing regions, growing along some transportation corridors, retreating from some declining districts—a varied intensity of settlement across a varied terrain.

Who owns the narrative about cities? As urban designers, we often find ourselves fighting for our particular visions of urban life and urban space. For decades, these have been exclusively local conversations—taking place at the scale of municipalities, mayors, city councils, or local institutions. It’s about time for cities and urban issues to get a national audience.

“Republicans may not want to go to the cities,” Baker says in his op-ed. “But that doesn’t much matter. The cities are coming to them.”

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