Pete Saunders | ecoWURD guest oped
The parallel rise of cities and the tech economy, fueled by the educated creative class that favored city living (and the serendipitous creativity it can deliver) meant to many people that cities had won.
I never really thought that. Instead, what I saw was the back-to-the-city movement as having successfully completed its first phase and waiting for the second to begin. Unfortunately, it hasn’t happened.
Cities have overcome a significant hurdle over the last couple of decades. Cities – or, at least the most successful of the superstar variety – have continued to attract the best and brightest, the highly educated and the talented. Cities have gained a new appreciation over the last 30-40 years. In fact, what we may see is that successful suburbs of the future will get that way by becoming more urban in their orientation, not less. More density, more mixed use, more diversity of housing stock, a reimagining of the auto-oriented, shopping-center-and-big-box model that’s dominated communities for decades.
However, an infatuation and hyperfocus on the new economy/creative class growth paradigm left lots of people on the margins. In retrospect it was limited from the outset because it relied so heavily on a well-educated workforce, and only so many people have access, or even the desire, to pursue that route. Many people also thought that the tech economy would have the widespread economic imprint, especially in employment, that manufacturing had.
It did not.
The creative class model had a ceiling and we reached it. The Great Recession first revealed it. The Covid pandemic has made it profoundly clear.
The comeback of cities over the last 30-40 years has largely been the tale of the return of the upper-middle class to cities. But it was never a tale of the rebirth of the middle class in cities, as much as the upper-middle class seeks to define themselves that way. And it was hardly a tale of the return of the upper-middle class to all cities – only the ones that were the largest and had intrinsic appeal to begin with. All this was happening while the solid middle of the economic and social spectrum continued to fade away.
The creative class model never had, and never will have, the potency to transform more than a segment of cities.
Don’t get me wrong: I think the creative class paradigm is here to stay. Young creatives have been attracted to the city since the Beat Generation of the late ’50s. A new channel has been opened that cities can tap into for revitalization. But the middle class that was largely concentrated in the manufacturing sector for the second half of the twentieth century is a shadow of its former self. It’s not coming back. It’s been replaced by an expanded service class that includes bar and restaurant workers, low- and middle-skilled healthcare workers, retail workers, gig workers (like rideshare drivers and deliverers) and more. The expanded service class grew to meet the needs of a growing creative class. It’s here to stay as well.
The creative class paradigm just needs to be expanded to include the service class that’s been neglected for the last 40 years. Our service class may be the middle class we seek, but we don’t treat them that way now.
We need a national policy program for a rebirth of the middle class in America’s cities. I definitely think the pandemic has revealed our over-reliance on and lack of appreciation for our service class. That has exposed some real problems. Deeming the service class as essential workers in a time of crisis, without doing much more than offering our gratitude, is outrageous.
It’s time to recreate the American middle class, and expand the revitalization of cities in the process. Here are ten ideas on how we can do it.
Increase pay for service workers. Americans are addicted to getting something for nothing. Maybe we all are. Sadly, as the demand for services has increased over the decades, the cost of service has barely changed. It’s time to acknowledge the true value of service work, and pay service workers for it.
Continue making healthcare coverage affordable. With the new Biden administration, it looks for now as if the Affordable Care Act has survived four years of attacks from former president Donald Trump and Republicans. But returning to a status quo that hardly got established under the Obama administration isn’t enough. Affordable health care has tangible economic benefits, offering economic security and fomenting entrepreneurship when a significant barrier – paying high healthcare coverage costs – is reduced or removed.
Bring back management training and apprenticeship programs. At the point where creative class and service class workers intersect, it might also mean management or apprenticeship programs at large corporations that help service workers rise to management ranks, opening up a new route to professional growth.
Normalize employee benefits like sick time, vacation time and overtime across the workplace spectrum. Professional workers of all types, creative or otherwise, take for granted the time flexibility offered to them. Why can’t more of that be extended to service workers?
Support union organizing and participation for service workers. Today’s service class is currently in no position to bargain for the kinds of benefits I’m proposing above, and unions are dramatically weaker than they were 40 years ago. The service industry desperately needs union support.
Establish a greater – federal – commitment to child care and higher education access. I know from personal experience – paying for child care for four children consistently over 12 years – that child care is brutal. We were fortunate; we were able to (barely) make it. But the high cost of child care for less skilled workers may mean that someone opts out of the job market rather than take on a job with wages lost to child care. Similarly, our reliance on education loans to fund college serves as a deterrent to many. Both need our attention.
Establish a greater – federal – commitment to entrepreneurship to support small business formation and growth through loans and grants programs. Another major barrier to entrepreneurship is the access to capital. If large corporations aren’t able to harness more of the nation’s workforce, let’s help more people get the necessary resources to start and grow businesses.
Neighborhoods. This might be a pipe dream, but I’ll say it anyway: I wish that full-fledged, fully developed neighborhoods – the so-called 15-minute city that includes most of an individual’s daily needs within walking distance – became the unit of development in American cities. Not the subdivision, not the commercial node at the highway interchange. It would dramatically alter our views of how we live.
Get serious about housing policy. It seems housing policy has gained greater attention over the last decade or so, leading to more activity – but not necessarily better results. While a lot of effort has been spent in building more housing in the hotspots of the high-priced cities, it would be time well spent to focus on removing affordability barriers with the same fervor in the nation’s suburbs.
Gentrification Management. Battles between low-income longtime neighborhood residents and affluent newcomers have defined the back-to-the-city movement since it started. But what if gentrification was seen as an opportunity to expand opportunity, and not diminish it? There are models out there to revitalize communities without displacement. We just need the will to implement them.
Radical ideas? Mostly no. There’s nothing new in any of the ideas I propose. But taken together they create ways to challenge the economic hoarding of the affluent and professional classes, the top twenty percent, for the last half century.
It might be more sexy to say the game has changed and that cities will never recapture their recent glory, but I don’t believe so. I think the movement, if that’s what it was, reached its logical conclusion. Let’s use it as the foundation for the next level of urbanism.