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The Role of Urban Planning in the Maintenance of Capitalism


The Verso blog has an excerpt from the new book Capital City: Gentrification and the Real Estate State by Sam Stein, which is part of Verso’s Jacobin book series. In the excerpt Stein, who is a geographer, explains how professional urban planners unwittingly function to manage the contradictions between capitalist development and democratic governance, resolving these contradictions in favor of capital. Here’s an excerpt:

The built environment that planners establish is itself a means of securing consent; you don’t go where you’re blocked from going, whether by a road pattern, a fence or a wall. Planners also secure consent by cloaking their power in rationality. While the capitalist state can be considered a “dictatorship of the bourgeoisie,” it often operates as a republic with some democratic features. For the most part, planners cannot simply foist their plans onto the public, but must convince them that these plans are in fact the most rational option. As planning theorist Bent Flyvbjerg maintains, however, “power defines reality” and “rationalization presented as rationality is a principal strategy in the exercise of power.”

One of the main tasks of urban planning, then, is to make capitalist development appear to be in the rational best interests of workers and bosses alike. In order for capitalist development to work, though, planners need to look out for peoples’ survival in a way that capital cannot—or will not—do. This recalls Fred Moten and Stefano Harney’s definition of planning as “self-sufficiency at the social level.” The market alone will never fully meet the working class’ daily needs: wages are too low for food, and have to be supplemented with welfare or direct provisions; transportation costs are borne by the individual worker, who needs mass transit to get around; housing is perpetually beyond the means of working and poor city dwellers, thus requiring the state to offer public, subsidized and regulated housing.

Image: High-rise construction in downtown Brooklyn. Via Curbed.