On May 2, City Limits published an opinion piece by long-term New York City planner Sandy Hornick about Mayor de Blasio’s housing plan titled “Misconceptions Drive Opposition to de Blasio’s Housing Plan.” The essay argued that protesters at recent zoning hearings fundamentally misunderstand not only the mayor’s plan, but the very idea of planning itself. Rezonings don’t cause gentrification, Hornick argued, and the best way to bring down rents it is to allow developers to keep building more.
This, of course, flies in the face of everything the plan’s opponents know about their neighborhoods and their city. There’s a reason working class New Yorkers get nervous when planners show up and promise big benefits from new development. For years, planners have been telling residents that stoking the market will somehow benefit them too—that allowing developers to build big, expensive, private buildings will translate into lower rents and higher quality of life. It never happens, and instead leads to gentrification and displacement. That’s why communities all over this city—the South Bronx, Chinatown, Long Island City, East New York, Staten Island’s North Shore and beyond—are up in arms about rezonings.
From libertarian “market urbanist” types, we hear that that increasing the housing supply will drive down costs for everyone. From liberal “smart growth” advocates, we hear that including small numbers of quasi-affordable apartments in large scale developments is the best path towards integration and equity. Both sides, however, are telling residents: shut up. We’ve got this.
This is “plansplaining,” or the way planners talk down to residents as if they simply don’t understand the facts, when in reality those “facts” constitute their very lives. It’s the way some planners use their professional expertise as a cudgel against other forms of knowledge when those other perspectives go against prevailing orthodoxy, the politics of the day, or, most importantly, real estate profits.
Plansplainers love to cite personal experience when it confirms their biases, but shut it out when it doesn’t. To demonstrate that gentrification is independent of zoning, Hornick cites a recent anecdote from the New York Times. In a real-estate feature titled “Finding Washington Heights”—which was illustrated with a White woman holding a coffee amidst immigrants pealing fruit and playing dominoes—a new neighborhood resident describes his journey:
My house in Westchester County had become too large for me, and the taxes were high. One of my sons had settled in Brooklyn and another was contemplating a move back East from Colorado; moving into New York City made sense for me. I had rented an apartment on the upper end of Central Park West, but was priced out of that neighborhood when I wanted to buy. I rented in Harlem, but prices there were climbing fast, too. I wanted enough space to put up guests, to say nothing of books, my piano and a home office.
In the plansplainer’s playbook, the life experience of a Westchester empty-nester Columbusing his way to the Heights is considered solid evidence for the proposition that rational consumer choice is the driving factor behind gentrification. When their opponents cite their own standpoint or experience, they are pilloried as parochial and overly personal. Hornick starts his essay with a quote from Bronx activists at a rezoning hearing: “Whose Bronx? Our Bronx!” This simple statement is used to portray the plan’s opponents as passionate but stupid, and maybe a little scary.
Plansplainers talk over the people they are planning for, and ignore the fact that those people are, in many ways, experts in their own neighborhoods’ inner workings. These planners behave like the offending men in Rebecca Solnit’s classic essay, “Men Explain Things to Me”: stubbornly, sometimes angrily and often inaccurately waxing on about the very things the people they are talking to are far more knowledgeable about.
I’m a planner, and it happens to me, too. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been told that the only way to solve the housing problem is to dramatically increase supply through private development. When I try to counter with my own understanding, which is informed by years of experience as a tenant organizer and planning scholar, these planners interrupt to explain some combination of the laws of supply and demand (which always manage to leave out governments’ role in managing both) and the importance of change in the urban experience (which confuses involuntary displacement with freedom to move). They usually close with a personal anecdote about a younger relative who just moved to the city and had no choice but to live in Crown Heights, Harlem or some other gentrifying neighborhood. Nothing I say can stand in the way of their overconfident assertions.
In a recent issue of Poverty & Race, former New York City Housing Preservation and Development commissioner Vicki Been plansplained de Blasio’s housing plan to Tom Angotti, himself a veteran of the Department of City Planning and longtime professor and practitioner of community-based planning. Angotti, along with me and others, has been arguing that de Blasio’s so-called “affordable housing” plan is essentially a gentrification scheme, and that we can’t build our way out of the affordable housing crisis. For this heresy, Been accused Angotti of engaging in “the housing world’s equivalent of climate change denial.”
Often plansplaining and mansplaining happen in tandem. In 2014, the leftist urban theorist Neil Brenner gathered a collection of essays for a book called Implosions/Explosions, which argued that the world is experiencing “planetary urbanism.” As critics like geographer Cindi Katz have pointed out, however, a) this lengthy compendium includes just one woman; and b) it imposes a single explanation on all urban phenomena. This is a form of plansplaining from the left—or, as Katz called it in a recent lecture, “Splanetary Urbanization.”
Jane Jacobs’ classic 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities was an attack on both mansplaining and plansplaining: a masculinist regime that was telling city residents their way of life was backward, and had to be destroyed in order to be saved. She was taking on her nemesis, “master builder” Robert Moses, but also the “great men” of planning history: Ebenezer Howard, Daniel Burnham, Le Corbusier and others. Her work was panned by the most famous planning critic of the day, Lewis Mumford, who titled his review in The New Yorker “Mother Jacobs’ Home Remedies.” History has provided some corrective here—over 50 years later, everyone knows who Jacobs was, but few remember Mumford.
The meaning of Jacobs’ work, however, is highly contested, with some powerful people attempting to plansplain her legacy to her contemporary political heirs. Three days after Hornick’s op-ed was published, the “Friends of the BQX”—a developer-led lobbying group pushing the city to build a streetcar along a route that maps closely with their real estate holdings—held a walking tour called “Connecting Brooklyn and Queens.” This event was part of the Municipal Arts Society’s annual “Jane’s Walk,” a series of walking tours held around the world in honor of Jane Jacobs. In response, groups like UPROSE, Queens Is Not For Sale and the Queens Anti-Gentrification Project protested the event, calling it “Robert Moses’ walk.” In this case, the plansplainers lost—the protests garnered far more attention than the project, and the walk turned into a depressed “happy hour” instead.
Not all planners are plansplainers, but like men and mansplaining, there is a tendency. As Solnit wrote in her essay on the subject, “Yes, people of both genders pop up at events to hold forth on irrelevant things and conspiracy theories, but the out-and-out confrontational confidence of the totally ignorant is, in my experience, gendered.” There are planners who take their cues from the public and social movements, but they sadly are in the minority.
Planners should not respond to this critique by trapping themselves a cycle of self-doubt and self-pity, worrying constantly whether they should share their technical expertise or keep their mouths shut. The problem with plansplaining is not that it’s impolite, but that it’s reactionary. For too long, planners have tapped their social power to shut down popular movements for alternative futures, arguing that they, as planners, know better than everyone else. If planners have knowledge that serves to the movements against capitalism, patriarchy, racism and environmental destruction, then they’d better share it—and fast! But they must drop the presumption that they can explain the city to those who know it intimately.
Samuel Stein is a Ph.D. student at the CUNY Graduate Center who teaches Urban Studies at Hunter College. His book on urban planning and real estate will be published in 2018 by Verso Press.