New Urbanism – 21st Century Municipal Socialism

Steven Attewell and Daraka Larimore-Hall:


Let us imagine a city. Enough jobs have been created that the labor market is tight, wages are rising, and increased consumption fuels a thriving economy. Enormous amounts of affordable housing have been built, despite the unending flow of people into the city. Does this city work? Does it fulfill the hopes of the “new urbanists”?

Not necessarily. Because the city I have described is the New York of the Five Points, or Dickins’ London, or Detroit on June 20th 1943 or Los Angeles on August 11, 1965. Making the city work goes far beyond the concrete reality of real estate and employment – there are a vast number of services that have to work for a city to be livable.

And to understand why this is, we have to understand the political and social movement known as “municipal socialism.”


One of many books that every progressive should read is Daniel Rodger’s Atlantic Crossings, a history of the early progressive movement as a trans-atlantic conversation between American and European reformers confronting corporate capitalism and its social consequences. One of the reasons why American reformers were driven to attempt a total reconstruction of economic life was that when they encountered the European city, they felt an unaccustomed feeling of inferiority at how advanced European civic reform had gone. Beginning in Britain in the 1840s, urban social reformers horrified at the unhealthy and dangerous state of water, sanitation, and public health had been forced to confront the reality of private waterworks, garbage collectors, ice companies, and hospitals who saw no profit in meeting the needs of the working classes. In the face of cholera and influenza, the industrial giants of Manchester, Birmingham, Glasgow, Belfast, Liverpool, and London were forced to break the taboos of laissez-faire and provided public services to the masses.

American reformers returning from Europe came back with visions of public water companies and sewers in cities in which one in eight had access to running water, public gas and ice companies to deal with the depths of winter and the unbearable heat of the summer, public subways and streetcars to replace the anarchy of competing private firms who would rather cut off entire sections of the city than allow rivals access to a permanent market, and public housing to replace  the overstuffed and dilapidated tenements.

More importantly, they brought with them an understanding of the city as a “web of mutual dependency,” where daily survival relied upon farms and factories whose goods came to the city through the labor of sailors and longshoremen, railroad workers and teamsters and flowed through a massive network of retailers, shopkeepers, and salesmen to satisfy the needs of the people. Even in a capitalist system, the maintenance of this delicate machine was the charge of the city itself: public markets where consumers could be sure of fair dealing thanks to public inspectors and licenses; public roads, docks, train stations, and warehouses where goods could be moved and stored; and public fire, police, and public heath services to keep the public safe.

Through a series of grueling political battles that lasted from the 1880s through the 1930s and 40s, generations of progressive activists established the principle that we cannot allow the necessities of urban life to be left to the mercies of the market. It is hardly a coincidence that  we began de-regulating utilities and privatizing government in the 1970s at the same time that the cities began to decline – cities need public and regulated services to prosper.

Rebuilding Public Services:

If “new urbanism” is to actually make the city once more a functioning organism, one of the elements of constructing the “new urbanism” must be the re-publicization of services.

Electricity, Water, Climate Control, and Garbage Services:

These services have two things in common: first, they are very much necessities, and second, at the same time they are also public goods. Garbage services, for example, benefit both the individual (who gets a home that is clean and healthful) and the community (who are protected from the “great stench” that once characterized urban life, and the epidemic diseases that made it so precarious). Water is a human necessity for life, but it also benefits the community in that it allows people to cook and clean in their own homes, which aids in sanitation and public health. By the way, if the emphasis on cleanliness and disease strikes you as a bit odd, consider the ease by which epidemic diseases swept the great cities of the 19th century and then imagine the scale by which similar diseases would speed through cities that are ten times larger and where people can travel from country to county in a few hours.

Climate control is normally somewhat marginal in terms of human survival – except at the extremes. In the middle of winter, people do get sick and a smaller number die from extreme cold, especially the young and the infirm. Likewise, in major heatwaves, we also see that the elderly and infirm often succumb to heat stroke and similar conditions. Beyond the extremes, however, there is the issue of “livability.” Given how densely-developed cities function as “heat islands,” and similarly how canyonization can amplify the effects of high winds, having some kind of climate control is important for keeping urban residents happy in close quarters. There is a reason why major urban riots in the 20th century were most frequent in the summer – extreme temperatures can have a catalyzing effect on existing tensions.

In terms of making a city livable, the immediate purpose is to make these services both abundant and affordable – without sacrificing the long-term goal of making cities more sustainable when it comes to power, water, and waste disposal. Given the extremely mixed results of privatization of utilities, especially in regards to equitable distribution of goods and the impact this has on class inequalities in quality of life, one strategy that the “new urbanism” movement should support is the re-publicization of basic services, especially models that combine decentralized production (rooftop solar panels) with public “yardstick” utilities to create both competition with private corporations and outlets for new strategies in the sustainable production of services.

Mass Transit:

Mass transit is something of a given when it comes to municipal socialism – spatially, a city is essentially a network that allow people to move between different buildings and open spaces. Beyond just saying “mass transit is good,” there is a larger point that needs to be made: contrary to the conventional wisdom that “there’s no Republican or Democratic way to fill a pot hole,” there are different ways to make mass transportation work. Choosing between highways and subways, or between more car lanes or more bike lanes, or between systems that privilege ex-urban commuters over intra-urban commuters have both practical and ideological consequences.

In most American cities, there is a disparity between how we treat roads and how we treat public transit – roads are generally free to the user (with the obvious exception of tolls, but these are rather rare) but funded by the public via taxes or bonds, whereas public transit is viewed as a service that the user pays for at the point of use. If we are to make mass transit the hallmark of new urbanism, one mental change that has to happen is a rethinking of public transit as something that should be made cheap, if not free – because the city has a vested interest in making it more attractive than low-density methods of transportation. To that end, establishing free passes for the elderly and working poor families, as well as subsidized passes for regular commuters should be a standard part of the new urbanist toolbox, especially because such programs also act as a mechanism of wealth redistribution that can nurture a “bell-curve” city.

Free Higher Education, The Arts, and Wireless Broadband:

Here, we move from the realm of practical necessity to what once was called “the civilizing arts.” Free higher education is not a necessity – but it a public good that both ensures the social mobility necessary for preserving the “bell-curve” of a healthy democratic society and the robust economic development and the intellectual and cultural innovation that are the hallmarks of a great city, and its true justification as a social organization. Likewise, creating a vibrant artistic nexus where talented people can gather and collaborate both provides additional routes for upward mobility, and allows the city to develop its own voice and its own conscious identity. Wireless broadband is a newer entry onto this list, but the potential benefits of freeing up communication, business startups, and facilitating political mobilization are too strong not to include it.

Together, these items help to incubate the base elements for a true, Deweyian democracy, a city that can think, and debate, and act collectively. They’re not sufficient – you need political and social organization before you can really have a self-directing city – but they do create the raw material of experts, ideas, means of communication, and so on that the organizing process relies upon.


The role of “municipal socialism” in creating the new, livable city ultimately comes down to the very origins of urban life. Civilization began in the cities, with the creation of an agricultural surplus that allowed for the seperation of a population from the all-consuming task of acquiring food. Civilization in this sense begins by transcending necessity.

To this end, the livable city must be one in which people spend as little time and resources on the basic necessities of life as possible, and thus can devote themselves to the progress of society.

Read original post at The Realignment Project

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