By David Imbroscio (University of Louisville)
Recent political developments in both the United States and Europe have been, to say the least, jarring. They should give us cause to begin a process of systematically re-evaluating many of our accepted orthodoxies in political strategy and policy development. Regarding the latter, the urban sphere is a critical, if not essential, place to start. For embodied in what we call urban policy lies a host of core values and assumptions regarding what has been the central political question since at least the time of Aristotle: Namely, what constitutes the nature of “the good society,” and how it might be achieved? Urban policy – properly understood – thus is best thought of as representational of all matters concerning the public interest, at least in the sphere of domestic affairs.
In my recent work I have attempted to interrogate and critique much of the dominant thinking and discourse about American urban policy. In the academy this thinking and discourse is decisively shaped by a political and philosophical commitment to liberalism (in the American sense of the term). As I have delineated, at the heart of (what might be called) Liberal Urban Policy lies a number of paradigms (or patterns or themes), including a Mobility Paradigm, a Redistributive Paradigm, a Meritocratic Paradigm, a Rationalist Paradigm , and a Centralization Paradigm. While the liberal approach to urban policy compares favorably to its neoliberal and neoconservative rivals, my analysis has found it nevertheless to be deeply flawed. It is by grasping the nature of the various paradigms of Liberal Urban Policy and comprehending their problematic nature that, I believe, will allow us to develop superior alternatives.
Interrogating the Rationalist Paradigm, for example, I find that Liberal Urban Policy’s strong commitment to rationalism causes it to manifest multiple defects, both normative and empirical. This critique in turn suggests a possible alternative – an Organic Paradigm – that might conceivably serve as a better foundation for American urban policy.
To aspire for policy to be “rational” seems on its face to be, well, eminently rational. It turns out, however, that many rationalist policy actions are in fact quite irrational — as well as troubling, bordering at times on dangerous. The political scientist James Scott’s work, especially his treatise Seeing Like a State, is indispensable for our understanding of this conundrum. Indeed, many of Scott’s perspicacious insights help us to better understand the mindset at work in the Rationalist Paradigm that shapes Liberal Urban Policy.
A Rationalist Paradigm imbues Liberal Urban Policy in three key, and interrelated, ways. It aspires to rationalize: residential settlement patterns, governance structures, and target populations/people (usually the urban poor). In Liberal Urban Policy settlement is seen as irrationally imbalanced, with too many of the poor, affluent, or racial minorities living too near others who are also poor, affluent, or minority. Local governance is seen as irrationally fragmented, with a multitude of political units operating within the same metropolitan area. And people are seen as irrationally constituted, with value structures fostering adverse choices detrimental to life chances.
Since Liberal Urban Policy views each of these irrationalities to be the source of serious social problems and inequities, it seeks to correct for them by: (1) reordering settlement patterns by moving the poor to affluent areas, the affluent to poor areas, and minorities to non-minority areas; (2) consolidating governance activities in regional-wide institutions; and (3) inducing poor people to make better choices via educative and inculcative strategies.
While these rationalizing efforts undoubtedly can produce some salutary outcomes, they engender serious normative problems as well, especially in regards to the quality of democracy and the vitality of community. It also turns out that, empirically, many of these types of rationalist schemes often fail to produce desired results (as the work of Scott elucidates in vivid detail). Such repeated policy failure, I contend, suggests a deeper problem with the Rationalist Paradigm. Namely it is infected with a fallacious social ontology (that is to say, an understanding of the nature of reality/existence), something that was suggested in the work of great urbanists like Jane Jacobs and Herbert Gans long ago.
If the real world is indeed quite different than how rationalists (and Liberal Urban Policy more generally) perceive it, such an alternative reality strongly suggests that an alternative approach to urban policy may well be both more fitting and more efficacious. Constructing another (better) world is thus possible, because the assumptions of rationalism about how the world works that limit the possibilities for emancipatory social change turn out themselves to be – ironically – irrational.
One possibility for an alternative would be to base American urban policy more upon an Organic Paradigm. Organic reform springs from the insight that policy efforts should afford respect to how particular societies have evolved historically. A reconstituted urban policy based upon an Organic Paradigm would, like the liberal approach, also seek to address urban problems in ways that establish more just conditions in cities. But, in contrast, it would realize this crucial goal via a host of contrasting means that eschew rationalistic measures for those more organic in nature.
What the movement toward an Organic Paradigm might mean in practice for urban policy is an open question. But one clear guiding principle would be the need to address the problems of dysfunctional governance, distressed neighborhoods, and disadvantaged people “as is,” rather than trying remake institutions, communities, and human beings wholesale from scratch. More specifically, the development of affordable housing in poor neighborhoods and the creation of spatially-accessible and skill-appropriate employment options for the urban poor would almost certainly fit the bill; as would building on the strengths of the American tradition of localism in governance.
Liberal Urban Policy – and, in fact, liberalism more generally, is clearly failing. It is equally clear that this failure contributed significantly to the stunning victory of President Trump. For all who care deeply about creating more just cities in these troubled times, it is past time for a paradigmatic change in our current urban policy strategies.
David Imbroscio is professor of Political Science and Urban and Public Affairs at the University of Louisville. He is author or editor of six books, including Urban America Reconsidered: Alternatives for Governance and Policy (Cornell University Press). Professor Imbroscio is a past recipient of the College of Arts and Sciences Award for Outstanding Scholarship, Research, and Creative Activity at the University of Louisville. He is currently writing a book critiquing contemporary American urban policy.