What Will It Take to Build Political Power For Better Urbanism in Philadelphia?


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Earlier on the Twitters, Andrew Goodman, GroJLart and I were having a discussion about urbanism and political power that started running up against the bounds of that medium's usefulness, so I thought I'd move the conversation over here so we could enunciate our arguments in more than 140-character spurts. 

I would restart this discussion as "what will it take to win pro-urbanism policy changes from Philadelphia city government?" and the point I want to make is that Philadelphia urbanists are not simply up against a few individual wrong-headed policies or officials, but a comprehensive political paradigm that favors a whole constellation of mutually-reinforcing policies that urbanists think are terrible.

The dominant paradigm we are fighting is based on the widespread and unquestioned political belief that the following things are inherently good:

1. Lower travel times and higher speeds for cars
2. More car carrying-capacity
3. Less congestion
4. Cheap and convenient parking

This is a political ideology - the modernist ideology of the Highway Capacity Manual - that pretty much every current member of City Council adheres to. Some of them will occasionally vote for individual policy changes that aren't compatible with this ideology, but these are the default political values they hold.

So in order to win policy changes, urbanists need to engage these fights at the values level - not just the law and policy level.

Cribbing from this presentation by Ian Lockwood of AECOM, here's my first pass at a clear contrast between urbanist values and modernist values:


Lockwood puts it even more succinctly in this presentation:

The purpose of cities is to advance efficient and effective exchange, where "efficient" means minimal use of resources - land, energy, and time.

The "transportation purpose" of cities is to minimize long-distance travel. 

The "land use purpose" of cities is to concentrate the components of civic life

When you think about the policies that urbanists typically favor - higher average densities, more by-right infill construction, higher levels of service for transit and active transportation, lower levels of service for cars and reduced car ownership - you can see why these policies are not compatible with the current paradigm, and thus have a hard time gaining traction.

Without challenging the paradigm, you can make some small changes here and there if you don't offend the dominant values. You can take away road space that cars don't use, but not space cars do use, however occasionally, and however redundant. You can invest in the transit network, but you can't do anything to advantage transit that disadvantages cars. You can build more housing, but only as long as it doesn't increase competition for curb parking. 

To win the really transformative land use and transportation policy changes we want, it's not enough to challenge the policies. We have to join the debate at a higher level as well, by challenging the dominant paradigm, questioning the modernist assumptions that politicians and officials now regard as foundational, and persuading officials, NGOs, influentials, and voters of the merits of our superior paradigm, and explaining how the policies we want fit into it. Once you win a paradigm shift, individual policy changes become much easier, because they flow naturally from the politics.

There is no easy answer. Politicians need to be persuaded that the urbanist values are genuinely better. Or else they need to be persuaded that there is a large enough and organized enough voting constituency for urbanist values that they will pay an electoral penalty if they fail to support these policies.

Last Updated: Sunday, 16 February 2014 @ 17.12
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jongeeting's picture Jon Geeting About the Author:

Jon Geeting is a Philadelphia-based freelance journalist and policy researcher. His writing also appears at Next City, Primary Colors, and Keystone Politics, where he covers politics and elections, land use and transportation, and urban economic policy. He also writes a monthly Political Machine column at Philly City Paper.