The last two centuries of American settlement have been characterized by a huge influx of people moving to cities. City life offered the possibility of regular employment not subject to the seasonality of agriculture, as well as better education, easier access to healthcare, and other urban amenities. Cities came to be viewed as drivers of economic prosperity, producing more jobs and higher average incomes for their residents. At the same time, however, rising city populations also accompanied increasingly unequal access to amenities, with relatively wealthier residents located in positions with better access to education, healthcare, and other amenities. City planners and policymakers were thereby forced to address the ramifications of increasingly wide variations in amenity access. Doing so meant reconciling differing views of the role of urban policy with the design and layout of the city itself.
Perceptions of the city have not remained constant throughout this time period, and, consequently, neither have patterns of settlement. As a result of income inequality, cities have sometimes appeared to be drivers of poverty and crime, leading to middle-class perceptions that the central city is an unsafe place. These perceptions coupled with the rise of automobile ownership to prompt the 20th-century development of edge cities, where middle-class residents predominantly lived in suburbs and commuted to work in suburban office parks. Downtowns were left to government entities, a few businesses, and those too poor to go elsewhere.
Today, however, young generations’ perceptions of the central city and their consequent patterns of settlement are changing. Increasingly, residents choose to live either in the central city or near public transit for easy access to downtown areas, where restaurants, bars, and other venues for social interaction are within walking distance. Businesses, too, are increasingly moving from suburban office parks to downtowns, where they can better attract young talent looking for a seamless live-work-play experience. Although this process creates an economic boon for the city, it also necessitates reevaluation of the way urban amenities are distributed and managed.
City planners and policymakers hold much of this management power. By building quality-of-life focused amenities such as parks, museums, and sports stadiums, as well as business-focused amenities such as convention centers and hotels, planners can increase the place value of their city and encourage residents and businesses to locate there. Policy efforts can support this by zoning for dense development, offering tax incentives for the rehabilitation of historic buildings, and encouraging universities to create urban campuses. But they must also address the complications that arise from such an expansion. As more people use public transit to access the city, transit lines must be maintained, expanded, and updated to avoid overcrowding and delays. Highways must be effectively designed with sufficient capacity to avoid congestion. And firms that produce waste and pollution must be regulated as to how and where they dispose of it, as well as considerations for limiting the amount of pollution they generate.
Additionally, planners and policymakers must consider how a rising cost of living, which often accompanies urban revitalization, will impact its residential population. Although some residents experience an increase in income, low-income residents who do not may resort to relocating to cheaper areas with poorer access to amenities, or even to living without a house altogether. This presents an ethical problem, where city planners and policymakers must decide the extent to which they will address the displacement of their residents. In some cities, affordable housing laws or rent controls are used to combat this, while others offer vouchers to low-income families. Still others attempt to address the issue by building public housing projects. The methods used in any city depend on the local housing market, and how much importance politicians place upon the idea that all residents deserve access to affordable housing where necessary amenities are made available to them—a concept known as housing justice.
My concentration focuses on the landscape of amenity access within cities and the interests which approach it. This focus brings together notions of the process of urban revitalization with the ethics of justice in access to amenities. Extending beyond the scope of any one group of people, interests in amenity access rely on the development efforts of planners, the legal efforts of policymakers, and the design efforts of architects. Additionally, these groups of people are sometimes able to leverage the influence of the business community and of the residential population. By working collaboratively, these groups of interests may be able to produce results greater than any single entity could create on their own.