Trump's urban policy: Highways and gentrification?

Urbanists face considerable uncertainty and concerns in a Trump presidency, but there may be silver linings.

As I went for a run this morning, everything looked normal. The buses were running in my small city, and workers in hard hats swarmed around steel and wood framing of an affordable housing project that is underway four blocks away. Yet this normalcy seemed strange—juxtaposed against the actuality that a billionaire reality TV star has just been swept into the Presidency by a populist uprising of non-college-educated white males, largely from rural and exurban areas. 

What is going to happen in the next four years, specifically with regard to urban policy? Although Trump himself has been an urban resident all of this life and made his fortune as a real estate developer in cities, his coalition resents cities and their largely liberal residents. Trump received very few votes in big cities, although his support in smaller cities was a little stronger. That alone is reason to think that the next four years will not be favorable to urban policy and urbanism—specifally the building of cities, suburbs, and towns on a human scale.

In some ways, the federal government's impact on such trends is limited. Regulations on construction and development are local laws, upheld by mayors and councils and administered by planners. Most of what is built in America is determined by the market in accordance with those laws. The redevelopment of cities and towns, much of which is now taking place in a walkable form, will move forward without regard to Trump.

"The outcome of the election does not change any of the things that you and I believe in," said Dobbs Ferry, New York, architect and developer Paddy Steinschneider on an urbanist listserve. "Maybe we will need to approach how we achieve our goals differently under Trump than we would have under Hillary, but that is what we are already good at. We look at the circumstances and figure out the way to make it work in the way that supports our vision for a better future."

Yet there is one area where the federal government has a huge impact: Highways and mass transit. Although Trump himself is reported to care about mass transit, his coalition does not. The Republican Platform in 2016, adopted at the same convention that nominated Trump, calls for a change in the Highway Trust Fund that would eliminate funding for mass transit, bicycle infrastructure and programs, and sidewalks, according to The Washington Post. Under such a plan, that funding would be channeled back into to roads for cars.

Drive-only roads have been the foundation of a an auto-centric, single-use built environment for six decades. That bias in infrastructure spending is likely to continue under the Trump administration. We may see reversals in progress toward complete streets and mass transit use, which peaked in 2014 and declined slightly in 2015. 

Donald Trump's promises on infrastructure are suspect in general. He has vowed to spend a trillion dollars to upgrade the nation's roads, bridges, trains, and airports, but he has also said he will eliminate the $19 trillion national debt. His tax cut plan alone would add $5.3 trillion to the national debt, according to an analysis by the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. Since all of these promises conflict, reality is bound to assert itself.

Trump also made a recent speech in Charlotte where he promised tax credits to developers and foreign investors for what he called "urban renewal" in blighted inner city and African American neighborhoods. He vowed a big anti-crime push in those neighborhoods.

"We will also police our streets. I want every poor African-American child to be able to walk down the street in peace. Safety is a civil right. The problem is not the presence of police but the absence of police. I will invest in training and funding both local and federal law enforcement operations to remove the gang members, drug dealers, and criminal cartels from our neighborhoods. The reduction of crime is not merely a goal – but a necessity. We will get it done."

If Trump is serious about these proposals—and as a developer of luxury urban housing he may be—these policies could result in more development in poor neighborhoods of cities with both positive and negative impacts on residents. This could be called a gentrification policy.

If the Trump Presidency is a big question mark for urbanists and cities, the former executive director of CNU Peter Katz noted a parallel between today and the funding of the Congress for the New Urbanism more than two decades ago. A similar populist uprising in Bill Clinton's first term gave the House of Representatives to conservative Republicans and produced the "Contract for America."

"At the time, many funders who had been patiently working on enviro legislation (mostly energy, land conservation, etc.) threw up their hands and realized that the approach they were taking in DC and at the state level just wasn’t working," Katz says.

"They all put on a series of strategy retreats and as a result decided to redirect their money into PR. The Energy Foundation, then led by Hal Harvey, noted the work that I was doing with the new urbanist leaders and mentioned to foundation colleagues (MacArthur, Hewlett, etc. ) how impressed they were with the results, specifically my book (The New Urbanism) and the Newsweek article (Bye, Bye, Suburban Dream). They decided that they would give me a grant to keep doing what I was doing, and amp up my efforts. They were breaking with convention to award funds directly to an individual (versus a nonprofit), but they felt that the crisis justified such an approach." Katz worked with the CNU founders on a proposal, which was eventually funded and helped launch early CNU activities.

The lesson is this: When things look dark and uncertain, good things can happen.

Of course, there is another way that the federal government can have a major impact on cities and urbanists: That is through policies that bring about a major recession. With the election of Trump, I note that Gold prices are on the rise—usually a hedge against potential financial calamity.

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