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This is Us. Urban density is our geopolitical destiny

Vishaan Chakrabarti, Dean of College of Environmental Design | November 9, 2020
A map of the US showing population sizes through large and small circles in red and blue

US map of the voting electorate based on population size. (Twitter photo by @karim_doueib)

The College of Environmental Design, proudly embedded within the University of California at Berkeley, is a global institution. With students, faculty, and staff from around the world, we watch domestic politics here in the United States through one eye, with the other focused more broadly on the larger world. But our parallax vision tells us that the two are inextricable. As a hegemonic international superpower, the U.S. and its elections have outsized impact for the planet in terms of global climate and culture. Like it or not, from Apple to Abu Ghraib, when America sneezes, the world catches a cold.

In the aftermath of this particular election we have a chance to recover from the illnesses currently plaguing us. First and foremost in terms of this pandemic, we now have the possibility not only of effective testing and vaccine regimes, but of regimes we can actually trust. We have in our President and Vice President Elect, compassionate individuals who seem serious about addressing systemic racism, potentially centering on the first woman of color, Senator Kamala Harris, to ever reach such high office…and hopefully higher still.

Depending on the great state of Georgia and the even greater work of Stacey Abrams we may—depending on the outcome of two Senatorial run off elections there—see investments in public housing and social infrastructure the likes of which we have not seen since FDR and LBJ, a reversal of decades of failed neoliberal policy that has brought us to this precipice as a culture. Given that our college centers on shared values of sustainability, equity, and human agency, these potential Federal changes are extraordinarily important to our collective work.

So yes, our long national nightmare is over. For now.

As a person of color—like so many of you who feel any sense of otherness in this country in terms of race, gender, and sexual orientation—I felt deeply the sucker punch of this election night. Yes Biden received the most votes of any U.S. presidential candidate, but Trump received the second most.

Near half of the electorate, over seventy million, said yes to more of a racist, misogynist President, either because they shared his views or because they were so hungry for unaffordable personal tax cuts and unfathomable environmental deregulation that they are willing to overlook his views. Others sat out the election believing, somehow, that all politicians are the same. The fact that millions of us could not rise to offer solidarity with millions of us who have for four long years felt fully unwelcome in this nation says volumes of what this culture had been well before Trump.

For many who have been fighting systemic racism and sexism for decades, the last four years came with less surprise despite the election of President Obama, yet for others, many progressives included, the Trump era remains a critical wake up call. Some will insist he was an anomaly, when others of us know he is the big, ugly underbelly that is ever present just under the surface of this nation.

Racism is not on the fringe in America. Sexual violence is not on the fringe in America. For Americans to admit this, like the British before them, this requires admitting that we are not always “the good guys,” we are not always the protagonist in the action movie, we are not always the hero in the poem, we are not always the champions in the song. To admit this is the actual love of country, the actual love of democracy, to which we must aspire.

In the days, weeks, and years ahead, we have much work to do. In our college, this work is particularly acute because geography is destiny, and our destiny is density. Red states and blue states? Fuggedaboutit! Elections in the United States are increasingly about our cities and the communities that enliven them. Make no mistake, without black and brown turnout in Philadelphia and Atlanta and Reno and Phoenix and Omaha and other diverse communities across this nation, Donald Trump would be remeasuring the drapes for his White Imperial Palace.

Those same black and brown communities have borne the brunt of this pandemic, of years of injustice, of centuries of disinvestment and disenfranchisement…it is they who stood in long lines to vote or whose ballots Trump is currently impugning. It is for those communities that we, in our work as architects, planners, and landscape architects have an obligation to listen, to learn, and to commit ourselves.

As this nation becomes more urban, we must understand that we are headed for a potential political calamity in the coming decades. By 2050, seventy percent of Americans will be represented by thirty senators, and vice versa. This is because most people will gravitate towards the employment centers and educational institutions in seven or eight mega-regions around the country, not only on the progressive gentrified coasts but in the Charlotte-Atlanta corridor, in the Texas Triangle, and other regions that transcend red, blue and purple.

Many of those trans-state regions will not have political representation in our anti-urban, Jeffersonian system of governance, which will no doubt result in significant political turmoil, a turmoil to which our disciplines are deeply relevant. Our work of creating sustainable communities of belonging is as pertinent to those regions—as well as the struggling rural communities too often left behind— as it is in the Bay Area, the Pacific Rim, or any other major city around the world. Strengthening all of our communities through public housing and social infrastructure can help abate the political storms before us, can help quell the coming civil unrest, can help forge a new American Dream for all.

As we seek this cultural sea change, we must be ever vigilant, because communities that desire belonging for all deeply threaten those who do not. The anger and grievance we see in half of our body politic is rooted in precisely this threat, because we have dared to challenge their closely held narrative that they and they alone are “the good guys”—this is what they dismiss as political correctness.

It is time for new narratives, it is time to rebuild this nation physically and spiritually, and that must begin with admitting who we are, including our deepest faults. All of us must confront that this American carnage, that this is us.

But before we endeavor to change our collective future, let’s take a collective breath. Let’s allow ourselves to honor the hard work that went into this victory. Let’s celebrate the poll workers and poll goers who made this happen. Let’s celebrate for the planet. Let’s celebrate the possibilities of a better us.

Comments to “This is Us. Urban density is our geopolitical destiny

  1. What a shame it is that otherwise smart people (in this case, a dean of a college at UC Berkeley, no less) believe that half this country voted for Donald Trump “….because they shared his views or because they were so hungry for unaffordable personal tax cuts and unfathomable environmental deregulation that they are willing to overlook his views…” Could it be that many of those that voted for Donald Trump did so because they voted AGAINST the policies of the left that they believe are a clear and present danger to democracy? As an alumni, it is unfortunate to read something written by a dean of a college that clearly shows a lack of critical thought as evidenced by the fallacy of composition.

  2. “investments in public housing and social infrastructure the likes of which we have not seen since FDR and LBJ…Strengthening all of our communities through public housing”

    Much of the public housing built since LBJ, and even because of LBJ, was and is an abject failure, so much so that some of the worst exemplars were torn down (see Chicago and St. Louis, inter alia). That the author thinks that more disastrous LBJ style public housing is a solution to the problems that he is so insistent exist in the US speaks volumes.

    Like rent control and subsidies, public housing cannot solve the essential problem with housing in the current US, particularly in more urbanized areas, which is that prices relative to incomes continue to climb. This continuing price rise is the main reason why real wages in the US have stagnated for decades. This continuing rise is due to LAND, not construction prices, continuing to rise, because land cannot be created and there are no substitutes for it, so population growth will always push up housing prices, particularly in more urban areas due to housing being a “positional good.” Population growth in the US for many decades now is due to mainly to immigration, not fertility. By refusing to keep immigration to a moderate level politicians of both parties in the last few decades (with the notable exception of Trump) have connived in the decline of the US middle class, particularly in urbanized areas. You can’t undo the laws of supply and demand, no matter how much you slander those who point out why high immigration levels undermine US residents of modest means. You cannot have a middle class working class with expensive land.

    Richard Easterlin showed long ago that the reason why the US working class did so well from 1940 to 1970 was not just the war boom by itself but that politicians SIMULTANEOUSLY kept immigration low , and as a result, workers got higher real wages, whereas during the previous booms of the Gilded Age, high immigration, particularly in urban areas, kept labor supply so high that workers living standards did not benefit much from those booms.

  3. I hate all politics and all politicians equally, but I still spot wrongful, misleading statements when I see it. The phrasing below is very misleading. When stating facts, biases should be left out. Those less informed will take what you say very seriously. The president or president elect has nothing to do with our testing and vaccines. Our president elect didn’t create these, science and drug companies did. So he shouldn’t be getting any credit for this. He has not saved us from this pandemic with testing and vaccines, and you word it like he has. I won’t be reading this article any further.

    “First and foremost in terms of this pandemic, we now have the possibility not only of effective testing and vaccine regimes, but of regimes we can actually trust.”

  4. The gaming of the 2020 national census and the redistricting efforts on-deck in key states where Republicans control the legislatures is going to make this problem of misrepresentation even worse in the near future.

    The theme of our American narrative that praises equality before the law and equality of opportunity should be one we highlight — it isn’t fair that some of our citizens’ votes carry a lot more weight than others’ do.

    As educators and researchers, a narrative theme we should be emphasizing is accuracy and fidelity to reality. Our role is to create a better and better (meaning more accurate and useful) picture of who we are and what is going on. The ribbing that physical scientists sometimes jab at social scientists, that the difference between us is that physicists reach their conclusions _after_ they do the research, is a sore spot that we should seek to avoid as much as possible by not descending into a he said / she said pit of Foucaldian power relations relativism. We must keep the reality-based community as everyone’s community.

  5. The 2020 presidential election results do show the urban centers going blue. In any presidential election, if the urban areas have colored voters disinterested in turning out (e.g,, Hillary Clinton v. Trump) or colored vote is suppressed, a GOP candidate is likely to be president.

  6. Dear Mr. Chakrabarti,

    Due to the predominance of the anti-trump rhetoric, I am quite sure the that “illnesses currently plaguing us” are directed at the those who support Trump as a president since the remainder of the paragraph (and this article) demonstrates the cure for this [illness] is the compassionate Democratic presidential “elect”.

    I have listened to many of Trump’s speeches and fail to have, thus far, found evidence of Trump’s racism. I searched this on Google and can find a lot of chatter and conjecture based on statistical data about the “types of people” Trump caters to, but I do not find the quotes that I would need to be able to hold your viewpoint myself. Do you maintain a list of Trump’s racists comments and/or actions that you can provide or point me to?

    I would greatly appreciate the evidence that backs up your claim.

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