Monday, 14 November 2016 13:06

Trump, planning and cities

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Klaus Kunzmann has pointed to the potentially negative impacts on planning arising from Donald Trump's ascendency to the US presidency.  It is difficult to disagree with his dystopian prognosis. An active attempt to ignore the Paris agreement on climate change has been widely touted.  The demise of the USA's Environment Protection Agency is also likely. Then, as Klaus notes, there could be knock-on effects within and across the European Union, with spatial planning being consigned to the history books. Maybe as planners we should have foreseen all of this! There is the further irony that the US election was held on World Town Planning Day, 8 November. Might this explain the drop in turnout that did much to ensure Trump's victory? Were millions of Democrat voters too absorbed in the annual celebration of town planning that they forgot to vote? Maybe not.

The patterns of voting have been explored at length in the media. From a spatial planning point of view, two things stand out. First is the urban-rural split. The big cities backed Clinton, while Trump was the man for rural America. This mirrored the pattern in the UK Brexit referendum where places like London, Manchester, Bristol and Edinburgh were strongly pro-Remain, while (outside of Scotland) the countryside backed Leave. Second, the significance of the smaller and deindustrialised towns in the rustbelt, where the Democrats lost the election. If we set aside Florida as a "special case", these two geographical patterns set the parameters for analysing what happened and looking to a possible future.

In a sense, the big city / rural divide is a further reflection of the way that agglomeration economies have so come to the fore over the past quarter century of globalisation. The big cities with their open labour markets (easy in at the least skilled level, competing for international talent at the high end) have been a cause and a consequence of policies favouring the free movement of labour, which stoked so much of the revolt in other places. Indeed one might view the backlash as one of the diseconomies of such agglomerations, along with housing shortages, air pollution etc.

Universities are an integral part of such big city growth,  providing a stimulus to innovation while also contributing to growth through their burgeoning student numbers. Furthermore, being a student forces you to meet very different types of people, to make friends with "the other", and to tolerate and respect diverse views. Thus the growing compact city / well educated / tolerant place is the quintessential 21st century form of urbanism, and  is creating the architecture of the longer term electoral politics. In this sense, Trump and his followers are on the wrong side of history.

Trump's triumph is another setback for the United Nations. The delivery of the Sustainable Development Goals 2016-30 now will depend heavily on the efforts of urban local authorities. This will be especially the case for Goal 11, which seeks to "Make cities and human settlements safe, inclusive, resilient and sustainable". The cities themselves need to campaign, network, build critical mass, and tap into the creativity of their dynamic, young, educated citizens. They need to rediscover the civic ethic for the world of today and tomorrow. If they can do that, much is possible. 

Meanwhile the fate of the rustbelt, and the lack of any clear narrative (other than Trrump's) to address those voting there, again mirrors what happened in the UK in June's referendum (again with the exception of Scotland). As I blogged at the time, the marginalisation of these once proud places amounts to a failure of territorial cohesion. If "territorial cohesion" has seemed a mysterious bit of meaningless Euro-jargon, then  the divisive US election, its aftermath of urban protests, and the threat of the EU unravelling, show in very concrete terms what happens when policy makers don't care for, or even understand, the concept. 

So what are the implications? Firstly, we can expect the cities, rather than national governments, increasingly to lead efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change. Of course it would be better if the national governments were helping, rather than undermining their efforts. However, the cities are crucial players and will become even more so. The challenge to their planners is to become more brave and creative, rather than retreating. Zero-energy districts, sustainable travel, closed systems for waste, brownfield renewal, roof gardens, urban agriculture, inclusive planning... the list of possibilities is long, though time could be short.

Second, we need to recreate a future for the places that have suffered long term disinvestment, the shrinking cities and small rural towns that ambitious youngsters leave and never return to. This involves understanding better how culture and perspectives are reproduced in such places. In rural regions and small towns, for example, the kind of servces seen as essential in cities are typically distant or absent. This shapes attitudes to government, "elites", and even "facts".  We need to think about how to connect local identity, uniqueness, conservation, social enterprises, online learning, and youth entrepreneurship into new pathways to development.  Once again, yes, it would be better if national governemnts and supra-national bodies like the EU backed such efforts,. They may, indeed, be more alert to these issues in the light of Brexit, Trump and the rise of the far right in Europe. Meanwhile planners should be coming forward with creative ideas and local experiments.

Famously, Dickens' "Tale of Two Cities" begins "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times". He was referriing to the French revolution, but the message feels highly relevant today. In terms of the slow  progress made on climate change over the past 20 years, President Trump may indeed usher in the worst of times. Similarly, this may become the worst of times for the kind of 20th century approaches to urban and regional planning that have been so ravaged by the anti-regulation ideologues, and by the hollowing out of local governments. But every crisis brings opportunity. The real cause for dispair would be if planners, designers, and urbanists were to be paralysed by the assaults on their past instead of inventing their futures.   






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