“Optimistic Austerity: a need for dialogue”

This article was written by Jeremy Biden and originally appeared in print in LOBBY No. 4 – Abundance (2016) – published by the Bartlett School of Architecture at UCL and edited by Regner Ramos. (www.bartlettlobby.com)


“In my world, the world of city planning, an undertone of austerity is sneaking into the discussion. During the last decade in North America we have watched in horror as Detroit has crumbled; we’ve seen bitter fights in New York over policing; we’ve watched the mayor of Toronto ‘crack’ under pressure; and most importantly we’ve seen that narrative of austerity creep into the policy shops of the world’s leading metropoles.

Not to say that austerity is always a bad thing, in some cases it’s absolutely essential for the continued growth of the places we live, and especially the built environment. We cannot, as a rule, use up our spaces without considering the ways in which they play together and how our city forms are dictated by our ability to use resources, space, ideas and creativity.

We talk a lot about the importance of austerity for ensuring the continued flourishing of capitalism, and as many scholars in my field will tell you: capitalism drives development, and development ensures that planners like me have a job. The issue here is that we spend so much time talking about financial austerity, or the ongoing rollback of social services, that we neglect to look at major aspects of what this austerity means for the development of the urban form. The first thing that austerity does is it reduces the amount, quality and usefulness of consultation. Without these consultations it is all but impossible for my profession to do work that meets the public good. Without consultation we pretty much fall to the whims of the most qualified designer who wowed the hiring committee.

As we can see on a brief sojourn into the history of New York City the issues this can create are plentiful. Let’s take Robert Moses for a moment. Recently experiencing a bit of a renaissance as a villain to Jane Jacobs’ sainthood as the 50th anniversary of the publication of her seminal work The Death and Life of Great American Cities passed in 2011, Moses once again comes to the fore as the creator of vast urban inequality throughout New York and the surrounding area. Between the razing of neighbourhoods for expressway real-estate, to the construction of bridges that inhibited the passage of buses, Moses presided over a reign of development unhindered by consultation or discussion. Running roughshod over the wants of the populace, he developed the city in his image: an ideal world for wealthy white men and their automobiles. It’s also worth mentioning that Moses probably never heard the word austerity during his professional career as the U.S. burned through its New Deal dollars. Under President Roosevelt, the economic programs of the New Deal created countless jobs, and sparked major investment in infrastructure throughout the United States during the mid to late 1930’s in response to the dark years of the Great Depression. So what are the lessons from Moses and the New Deal? What can we take away as we toy with the concept of austerity and its cousin, abundance?

In planning, abundance and austerity create some interesting tensions. I would boldly suggest that austerity actually creates an atmosphere where certain types of abundance come about in decidedly complex ways. If we return to the discussion of, well, discussion we can see where abundance comes into play. In Moses’s age, with New Deal money rolling in, there was practically no need for the discussions that now drive planning in many North American cities. With all those resources, there was little reason to discuss plans with the public and a decidedly reactionary form of planning emerged. In the new age of austerity we have to think constantly and aggressively—and did I mention constantly—about the cost-benefit analysis of every move we make. In this environment we must create an abundance of opportunities for discussion and consultation in order to find the lowest common denominator: most benefit, lowest possible cost.

Here lies the caveat though: austerity measures can be incredibly severe (take Greece for example) and often lead to conflict rather than conversation. The ways in which we combat this trajectory are very much emerging and I wouldn’t dare suggest that I have the answers or strategies that will make it possible. What I do have is a certain level of optimism for the future of planning. We’ve acknowledged in many jurisdictions that public involvement and consultation forms a cornerstone of our practice. So a step in the right direction is for everyone to take heed and begin breaking down the binary between professionals and the public, and opening the conversations so we can move forward collectively. At the heart of it, we all have skin in the game. As the world moves towards a majority urban existence we all have to consider the role of cities and how we want them to grow and develop.

So how do we drill into the inherent issues of austerity and turn it into something useful? How do we break down the privilege and power structures that make austerity so damaging for some people? What approaches will help us turn austerity into greater opportunities for the public good? Can we approach our cities with austerity in mind and leverage those pressures of capitalism into something that improves life for everyone, or has that ship sailed?

I don’t know, I don’t. But I like to think that an optimistic approach with everyone sitting at the same table might give us an opportunity to set an urban agenda that leads us to greater equity.


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