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© Frank

interviews

Consequences of Incompetence

by Vishaan Chakrabarti
April 6, 2020

This interview with Vishaan Chakrabarti, the founder of PAU, was conducted and condensed by frank news.

I want to talk about New York specifically, as it’s an epicenter of this crisis. How do you see the city through a planning perspective?

Right now, planning wise, obviously everything is about public health. That obviously necessitates public health expertise, which is not what I really do, so I like to defer to the experts on that. 

In terms of how we move forward, I think about how my entire experience was forged through essentially a series of crises. I moved to New York right after the 87 stock market crash and saw the architecture firm where I worked go from 485 employees to 90, and I got to be one of the unlucky 90. And then after 9-11, I watched major leaders say, we're going to have to diffuse all the office space in the city. We don't know how many attacks are coming.

What's really interesting is that after each of these things, there is a move to de-densify. There is a tendency to say, oh, the city's not working, but after a few months we get over that. Just think about the 1918 influenza. What comes right after 1918? The Roaring 20s.* It's New York City's heyday for a decade, before the depression hits.

It seems to me, if the past is prologue at all, people will actually emerge from this missing density and missing human connectedness.

Will this change a few things? I think a lot of the battles that we've been fighting in urban planning for the last 10 years have become all but irrelevant. New York City is probably not going to see a lot of gentrification concerns over the next couple of years. Real estate demand is going to go way down, and there just won’t be that kind of building. The homeless crisis will likely get worse, and I imagine a need for much more housing. Culturally, maybe we'll stagger some more work hours or people will work remotely more. But, I just don't think that this is the death of office space or the death of cities. I think that everyone's yearning to get back to normal – and that is an immediate sign you're going to see people move back to the way cities were. 

Do you think there will be a rejection of density again? As we’ve seen historically, or are we seeing through that rhetoric already? 

I’ve seen some writing arguing that this is why sprawl is better, but the total bullshit about that is places like South Korea, Japan and Singapore, and Hong Kong, some of the densest environments in the world, are dealing with this crisis way better than we are. 

To me, the thing that's really remarkable is that I have now witnessed, in my own lifetime, twice, New York City having to bear the consequences of a president ignoring their intelligence briefings. There were intelligence briefings that told us 9-11 was going to happen. And we had intelligence on Coronavirus.

The idea that the city is the last line of defense because there's so much incompetence at the federal level - that is the problem. 

Plenty of dense cities are out there proving you can manage this virus and actually defeat it. I am sure there will be a bunch of rhetoric about how we need to de-densify and then we're going to come out of that, and people realize why we've always lived in dense circumstances and that we’ve continued to despite technological advances.

Technology has actually promoted more density, not less. I remember reading an article about how the fax machine was definitely the death of the city. But cities didn't die. Fax machines died. We've had a huge exponential growth and change in technology since 2007. Within the same period, we see more people living in cities than in any other form of human inhabitation. This idea that telecommunications is de-densifying us or providing some incentive to de-densify, doesn’t hold. Even at the level of Tinder and Grindr, what is that about? It's using technology to actually get together. 

There's both an economist and technologist mindset that says cities are necessary evils, and if you take the necessity away, people will not live in cities anymore. Which belies the fact that human beings actually like human connectedness and they like to get together. Cities are just constant proof of that. I am very bullish about the future of the city. Nothing about this has shaken my aspirations and hopes for cities.

I do think that perhaps the bigger victim of this crisis is neoliberalism. It's really hard to put up a Margaret Thatcher or Ronald Reagan defense of the current system. The private market and tax cuts are not helping us right now. We don't have a national pandemic office. Our infrastructure is failing us. And I think that's just four decades of neoliberalism coming home to roost.

The jig is up.

Right. The stimulus package is not a neoliberal package, let's put it that way. Where I think it gets interesting is looking at what this means for city planning in the coming years. What I would imagine it means is the need to make huge public investments in, what I call in my book, an infrastructure of opportunity. Meaning not just traditional infrastructure – water, power, waste management, transportation. But expanding it to include things that create social mobility – like housing and culture. Assuming the administration changes in November, I think there's going to be a huge move towards multiple packages that can wake us up out of the neoliberal fever dream. Maybe the way out of this crisis is we have a national high speed rail program. Maybe we have a new national housing policy. Like you just said, things that sounded absolutely nuts during the primaries are going to come to fruition now.

There's something about the ugly underbelly of this country that this exposed. The fact that in New York City, they hesitated so long to close the city school system because basically it acts as a homeless shelter for a lot of kids, is really, really ugly. Things like this were made really, really apparent to the world. We’ve become a Banana Republic.

We spoke to the Dean of Boston University's School of Public Health, he talked about how public health isn’t about just healthcare, but rather, affordable housing, good schools, fair wages, clean water, etc. I wonder if you feel like within this broader definition of public health, there is space for planning to improve?

I think that that larger point is correct. You can't have a healthy society if you don't have housing. That is a really basic thing. I think what's going to be really interesting about what follows out of this moment is the question of whether the power structure of this country is going to recognize this? Lots of people have been talking about different aspects and angles of this issue for years now, but is the power structure going to really realize that like the jig is up? 

I wonder if even something of this scope can reach enough people to alter the power structure? Can people see their votes in action and see the difference between what is said and what is done?

I don't know how you feel about it as someone who actually works in the news, but like I feel like this is going to really put ideology to the test. Look at this sudden enormous popularity Andrew Cuomo is enjoying. That is extraordinary, right? This guy was not a popular guy, especially among progressives, and yet so many people are so hungry for core competence. Ideology is proving to be way less important than core competence. 

I do think that that's going to take hold for a while because, let's face it, some of the ideological battles that we've been in over the course of the last decade are a consequences of the country that feels like it's at peace, even though it's at war, and is extraordinarily prosperous, even though that prosperity is incredibly uneven. So there's just been this ability to have a lot of noisy dialogue.  Let’s face it, the fake news phenomena is not reserved to the right side of the spectrum. I wrote an op-ed about Amazon today, and even if you hate Amazon, what is really clear is that people who considered themselves progressives who are fighting that deal, were churning out a lot of false facts. When it comes to something like this, it cuts all that clutter away and begs the question, ok who can do the job?

It will be interesting to see how long that lasts. The issues that we have with things that feed into the public health infrastructure - mass transit, housing - these things take patience and time. Catherine Bauer wrote the National Housing Act in 1937 and the first public housing project was built two years later. But it doesn’t really take off until after World War II. It takes 20 years for that to actually manifest. 

Yeah. I wonder. The other thing that I think about is how information is acquired and dispersed. Will information start flowing upward?  

You've got people drinking fish tank cleaner because the president told them to. I do think it'll be really interesting if the epicenter shifts from New York to some of the red states, like, Dallas or Houston where a lot of the people will suddenly see their friends and neighbors on the ground experience something that's diametrically opposite from what the president is saying.

Exactly.

Right. Like will that change the way they think about this? I don't know. 

I mean the president's clearly trying to turn this into a blue state and red state thing. He is trying to pin it on the governors and that will influence infrastructure funding and public health funding. But clearly, while this virus might start in big population centers, if it goes unchecked the way it is without a testing regime, it's not going to stay in those population centers. And when the red states start feeling it, what is going to happen? 

Right, it still feels really far away to some areas. Is the news manipulating the seriousness or the horror? People can still imagine that might be true. 

All the other tropes come out too. If you look at the comments on any of the news articles, you'll see well of course this is happening in New York, there's all these public housing projects and they're dirty. All of these dynamics about race and class that are embedded in people's narratives about a city like New York or a city like San Francisco all come out. What is going to happen when it's Dallas or Houston, and they can't hang on those same tropes?

There has to be this culture of government matters, right? We started this interview discussing urban planning. One of the big challenges of urban planning in this country is that people are very anti-government. And not just on the right. 

I am not a public health expert, but there are those who have been warning about a pandemic for 20 years. And they just have to sit there and watch our government fail to act accordingly because no one trusts authority. 

I don't know if we have the capacity to think one hundred people removed from us. We need leadership and clarity.

Well that and expertise. I think that's the other really interesting thing here – the postmodern period is defined by this gutting of expertise, and that could also fall victim to this virus. 

To me, this seems to relate directly to thinking on climate change. If scientists were right about this, maybe they're right about climate change. I think that's going to be one of the most interesting things I'm going to be watching in the coming years. Whether this influences how people think about science, and think about expertise. And about why people who are trained to think about things have a more earned voice then just anyone who can pop off on social media, and say well this is my take on it, and it's equally valid.

I don't think by having this critique that says that we need to have experts and we need to have government means that we're somehow going back like to some 1950s socialists model. I think there's a big difference between staying within the framework of the culture and the society we have. There should be an ability to listen to experts, to plan for the future. That is not contradictory to the American model. 

When the left talks about their Scandinavian fever dream, I’m like, I’m a brown guy, I don’t want to live in Scandinavia. There are things about the American ethos I hold really dear, so there has to be some nuance to the conversation.  You can have expertise and an assertive government without us talking about going back to Yugoslavia. There is a middle ground, these things are not so cut and dry. 

There’s a world where what is provided by government is not antithetical to personal freedom, but actually enables freedom for the individual. The idea of freedom and the reality of freedom in America is vast. 

No, I know. I think this is going to be a very interesting time to talk about the future of human habitation and environmental design. For decades we’ve been responding to neoliberalism, which is really hard to do because the things that we care about in this discipline require a mental framework that is diametrically opposed to neoliberal thinking. One that says you plan for the future. You don't let private markets do everything. You know, you do have an assertive government. You do have to have expertise. 

I think it's going to be a really interesting moment to ask if we regain that sort of thinking and actually use it to address public health, climate change, these large systemic things that we haven't been addressing. 

I hope so. 

Yeah, me too.

*Author has amended original quote “The Gilded Age” to the “Roaring 20s” for clarification