Book Review Essay: The Unequal City
Introduction to Urban Studies (UPPP 4)
The book review essay is on Capital City: Gentrification and the Real Estate State. The essay
asks you to evaluate the book while drawing on readings and lectures from weeks 4 through 6.
Students are required to answer the four prompts below. Answers should be two pages long
(double space, 12-point font, 1-inch margins). We are assessing your knowledge of course
materials (lectures and readings). MLA or APA formats are acceptable. Submit in Word or
PDF format only. Do not submit in Pages format.
The book review essay is worth 50 points. 5 points will be deducted for papers turned in within
24 hours after the deadline. Essays will not be accepted more than 24 hours after the
deadline. Submit your papers at least two hours before the official deadline. This will help
prevent last minute glitches.
Due Monday, February 24 at 6:00 p.m. through Canvas.
Your answers must be written in a standard essay format consisting of a short introduction (with
a thesis statement), supporting paragraphs that respond to each of the prompts, and a short
conclusion. There should be no more than two direct quotations.
Capital City
1. What does Stein mean by the real estate state? Is the real estate state neoliberal? Support
your answer.
2. What are the principal causes of gentrification?
3. According to Stein, what are the specific things that planners do to support gentrification?
4. What are important consequences from gentrification?
Capital City
The Jacobin series includes short interrogations of politics, economics, and
culture from a socialist perspective, as an avenue to radical political
practice. The books offer critical analysis and engagement with the history
and ideas of the Left in accessible and popular form.
The series is a collaboration between Verso Books and Jacobin magazine,
which is published quarterly in print and online at
Other titles in this series available from Verso Books:
Utopia or Bust by Benjamin Kunkel
Playing the Whore by Melissa Gira Grant
Strike for America by Micah Uetricht
The New Prophets of Capital by Nicole Aschoff
Four Futures by Peter Frase
Class War by Megan Erickson
Building the Commune by George Ciccariello-Maher
The People’s Republic of Walmart
by Leigh Phillips and Michal Rozworski
Capital City
Gentrification and the
Real Estate State
First published by Verso 2019
© Samuel Stein 2019
All rights reserved
The moral rights of the author have been asserted
1 3 5 7 9 10 8 6 4 2
UK: 6 Meard Street, London W1F 0EG
US: 20 Jay Street, Suite 1010, Brooklyn, NY 11201
Verso is the imprint of New Left Books
ISBN-13: 978-1-78663-639-3
ISBN-13: 978-1-78663-637-9 (UK EBK)
ISBN-13: 978-1-78663-638-6 (US EBK)
British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
A catalog record for this book is available from the Library of Congress
Typeset in Monotype Fournier
Printed in the US by Maple Press
For my father, Joshua B. Stein (1944–2012),
who taught me to love cities and question authorities.
The Rise of the Real Estate State
Planning Gentrification
New York’s Bipartisan Consensus
The Developer President and the Private Side of Planning History
Unmaking the Real Estate State
On March 25, 1911, fire engulfed New York’s Triangle Shirtwaist Factory.
The bosses had locked the doors and 146 workers were killed. Two days
later, the Jewish socialist newspaper The Forward printed an impassioned
plea from its editor, Abraham Cahan. After describing the pain felt
throughout Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Cahan wrote that mourners were
beginning to see a figure through their tears: the biblical Angel of Death.
“Who is the Angel of Death? Who is the thug? Who is the mass murderer?
Must we again say it is that gluttonous ravager of humans—capital?!”1
Just over a century later, a public housing complex in West London
called the Grenfell Tower burst into flames. Though residents had warned
that the building was a firetrap, public authorities allowed it to deteriorate.
When the fire started, it quickly accelerated due to the highly flammable
cladding that management had added to the building’s exterior in order to
make it more attractive to posh neighbors. The fire killed over seventy
Who is the Angel of Death? Who is the mass murderer? Today, as a
century ago, the culprit is capital, rushing in and out of spaces with abandon
in search of profit and growth. In 1911, the arsonist was industrial capital,
then the dominant force in urban politics. In 2017, it was real estate capital.
Around the world, more and more money is being invested in real
estate, the business of building, buying and renting land and property. You
can sense it as you walk through most cities, and feel it every time you pay
the rent or mortgage.
Global real estate is now worth $217 trillion, thirty-six times the value
of all the gold ever mined.3 It makes up 60 percent of the world’s assets,
and the vast majority of that wealth—roughly 75 percent—is in housing.4
There are a number of reasons why capital is converging on land and
buildings: a long period of financial deregulation, low federal interest rates
and “quantitative easing” in the United States; massive urbanization
programs in China, the United Arab Emirates and several other countries; a
proliferation of predatory equity funds scouring the globe for “undervalued”
investment opportunities and finding them in housing; economic
polarization around the world, with extremely wealthy and somewhat
nervous individuals viewing property as the safest place to hide their
money; and more. When capital gains rise while rates of profit plummet
across many once-dynamic sectors of the economy, real estate becomes the
latest stop on what geographer Cindi Katz calls “vagabond” capitalism’s
eternal search for profitability.5
In the United States, homes are changing hands at a rapid pace, but
homeownership is at a fifty-year low. In 2016, a record 37 percent of home
sales were made to absentee investors.6 While some of those buyers were
pensionless seniors who needed a retirement strategy, most of them were
banks, hedge funds and private equity firms like Blackstone—now the
world’s largest landlord.7
As renting rises, so do rents. Average move-in rents in the United States
have more than doubled over the last two decades.8 Prices vary dramatically
across the country, but the trend is clearly upward, with the fastest growth
in mid-sized cities like Seattle, Portland, Denver and Cincinnati.9 Wages,
however, remain stagnant, putting tenants in a bind. There is not a single
county in the country where a full-time minimum wage worker can afford
the average two-bedroom apartment.10 Rent burdens—the percentage of
income tenants put toward housing—are becoming oppressive, particularly
for people of color in segregated neighborhoods. Around the country, rent
burdens in Black neighborhoods average 44 percent; in Latino
neighborhoods, it’s 48 percent.11 Every month in New York City, almost
two million people pass most of their income to landlords.12
With wages flat, many people—even those with full-time jobs—simply
cannot afford stable housing.13 Last year, as cities and states continued to
pass punitive legislation against the poor, about 2 million people in the
United States went homeless and 7 million more lived in precarious housing
situations—doubled or tripled up, couch surfing or sleeping in shift beds.14
This opens the door to an entire industry of private homeless services, with
philanthropic and real estate capital blended to find profits in extreme
The force behind these trends is the growing centrality of urban real
estate to capital’s global growth strategy.16 Through this process, the price
of land becomes a central economic determinate and a dominant political
issue. The clunky term “gentrification” becomes a household word and
displacement an everyday fact of life. Housing becomes a globally traded
financial asset, creating the conditions for synchronized bubbles and
crashes.17 Government, particularly at the municipal level, becomes
increasingly obsessed with raising property values and redistributing wealth
upward through land and rents. Real estate developer Donald Trump
becomes first a celebrity and ultimately a president. Taken together, we
witness the rise of the real estate state, a political formation in which real
estate capital has inordinate influence over the shape of our cities, the
parameters of our politics and the lives we lead.
The real estate state is not new, nor is it all-encompassing. Like the
carceral state, the warfare state, the welfare state or the administrative state,
it is an expression of government—a component, a bloc, a manifestation, a
tendency—that has been around in one form or another for as long as states
and private property have existed.18 Landowners have been determining the
shape of cities for centuries, and the idea of housing as a commodity—even
as a financial asset—is not exactly state of the art. What is relatively new,
however, is the outsized power of real estate interests within the capitalist
state. As real estate values have risen to absurd heights, so has the political
force of real estate capital.
The real estate state is a feature of government at all levels, from the
hyper-local to the global. It is most firmly grafted onto municipal
governments, however, because that is where much of the capitalist state’s
physical planning is done. City planners therefore sit uncomfortably at the
center of this maelstrom. Planners manage the levers of urban change and
make crucial decisions about land use, transportation, housing, the
environment and more. Though most people have no idea what they
actually do, planners have an immense impact on both capitalists and
workers in cities and suburbs. In most places, planners are tasked with the
contradictory goals of inflating real estate values while safeguarding
residents’ best interests. Capitalism never made planning easy –organized
money could always thwart the best laid plans—but today’s urban planners
face an existential crisis: if the city is an investment strategy, are they just
wealth managers?
This book is about planners in cities run by real estate. It describes how
real estate came to rule, and what planners do under these circumstances.
Planners provide a window into the practical dynamics of urban change: the
way the state both uses and is used by organized capital, and the power of
landlords and developers at every level of government.19 They also possess
some of the powers we must deploy if we ever wish to reclaim our cities
from real estate capital. Understanding planners is an important way to
understand the capitalist state—how it is built, and what it would take to
dismantle it.
While the nexus of planning and real estate is a powerful dynamic in
nearly every city, I mostly focus on the United States, and often use New
York City as a prime example. I realize there is some risk in focusing on
New York: for a US city, it is exceptionally large, dense and expensive. But
as the biggest city in the United States, it serves as an example for many
other places. Planners from around the country look to New York for new
patterns and practices. It is also a place where real estate’s rule is clearly
seen and deeply felt. The rents are outrageous, and the cost of living is
among the most persistent public issues. Most of all, though, I use New
York because it is my home and the place from which I see the world. I
know its gridded streets as well as its crooked politicians, and I’ve lived
here long enough to feel like the city knows me too.20
I am a planner. Though I don’t work for a government agency and I’m
not in charge of managing any physical spaces, I was trained as a planner
and I maintain elements of the planner’s worldview: to be simultaneously
abstract and concrete, utopian and pragmatic; to imagine what doesn’t yet
exist while figuring out how to get there; to care about systems and
processes, the way things work and the way they ought to. Fundamentally,
we believe it is a good idea to have a plan—an explication of the future.
Planning is a way of knowing the world as well as a way of remaking it.
Like a lot of people, I became interested in planning because I was mad
at planners. I loved my city, but I hated what it was becoming. I came to
know New York at the start of the twenty-first century, when it seemed like
construction cranes were as common as pigeons and scaffolding was the
new streetscape. Gigantic glass towers were rising all over the place,
reflecting the old city grotesquely through their distorted mirror facades.
I thought the architecture was stupid, but that wasn’t what really
bothered me. I was working for a union, and though we were winning big
victories, there was a growing sense that the city we were fighting for was
disappearing all around us. The working class people who made the city
could no longer afford to live in it. Rents were skyrocketing and culturally
important spaces were shuttering. I learned the rent laws’ limits when I was
kicked out of a low-cost apartment. It was a stark lesson in landlord-tenant
power relations: my landlord tried to kill the downstairs neighbors and torch
the place, but he got to keep the building; the lessee had sublet the
apartment to me without registering and we were served an eviction notice.
I was excited by some endeavors that New York City planners were
undertaking at the time, like building public plazas and extending the bike
network, but I knew these benefits were linked to larger plots: rezonings
that brought luxury development; mega-projects that turned the urban fabric
threadbare; and management schemes that turned public goods into private
fiefdoms. I pursued planning because I wanted to understand how the city
works, and to figure out how to preserve the best parts and change the
worst. I believed in planning’s promise of better spaces and a better society,
even if I understood intuitively that planners had not exactly delivered on it.
I had two basic questions: First, how much planning will capitalism allow
in market-based systems? And second, how can we improve our cities
without inducing gentrification and displacement?
I spent two and a half years studying planning history and theory,
quantitative and qualitative methods, public finance, transportation, housing
and more. I learned a little about planning, and a lot more about how
planners think. There were tons of good ideas bandied about, and countless
practical ways to reapportion space and rethink urban infrastructures. But I
had a hard time answering my questions.
It seemed like the system allowed quite a bit of planning intervention
when it benefited business, including massive infrastructure projects and
tax incentives for development, but it imposed strict limitations on planners
who aimed to alter the balance of power. These limits are especially hard
drawn when it comes to private property and real estate, which meant
answering my second question—how can we improve cities without
sparking displacement?—wasn’t going to be easy, either. There appeared to
be a close link between “good planning” and gentrification, since private
property owners could capitalize on the value the state adds to land. By the
end of my education, I realized that capitalism makes the best of planning
impossible: any good that planners do is filtered through a system that
dispossesses those who cannot pay.
Planning today is defined by incredible dreams and stultifying realities.
A planner’s mission is to imagine a better world, but their day-to-day work
involves producing a more profitable one. They almost universally espouse
a commitment to pluralism and diversity, but the profession is 58 percent
male and 81 percent White—demographics that are way out of step with the
residents of the cities where most planners work.21 Though most planning
offices are structured to build continuity across changing administrations,
planners are still beholden to politicians and their political appointees. Their
agendas almost always tend to favor their most powerful supporters—a
group that usually includes some strain of real estate capital. And while
planning is a public function, planners in capitalist cities are always at the
mercy of the market, since most of what they do is regulate private actions.
The money planners have to work with is largely derived from property
taxes, an arrangement that incentivizes developer and homeowner-friendly
policies, and restricts the amount of land that is given over to truly public
A private land market is essentially a spoils system—whoever owns the
land keeps the accrued benefits, whether or not the owner is responsible for
them. Until land is socially controlled, those who possess property, capital
and access to power will shape planning priorities. With so much global
capital invested into real estate, planners are facing enormous pressure to
stoke land markets and enable gentrification. Their charge is to find creative
ways to raise property values—either because they are low and landowners
want them higher, or because they are already high and city budgets will
fail if they start to fall. Any seemingly technical discussions of growth,
density or urban form are always also shaped by this imperative. Planners
are not just shills to real estate, though; they can and generally want to
make spaces more beautiful, sustainable, efficient and sociable. But without
control over the land, the result of their work is often higher land prices,
increased rents and ultimately displacement.
As some places endure this kind of land market inflation, others fall
prey to disinvestment: their land loses its exchange value, their residents are
shut out of credit markets and their buildings fall into dangerous disrepair.
This leads to a landscape of radically uneven geographical development
between capital-flush cosmopolitan centers, like New York and London,
and investment-scarce cities like Camden, New Jersey and Blackpool on
England’s Irish Sea coast. Even within cities, the same inequalities are often
evident from neighborhood to neighborhood.22 Gentrification cannot be a
universal phenomenon; money tends to come from one place and go to
another, creating chaos on both ends. On the disinvested side, communities
face terrible choices. Many want the benefits of good planning—safe
streets, clean air, decent housing—but not the catastrophic tide of capital it
summons. In these places, residents will often reject planners’ interventions
out of a well-founded fear that they will be kicked out of their
neighborhoods before they ever enjoy the promised improvements.
One recent example: in March 2017, New York State Governor Andrew
Cuomo announced a major new initiative for the poorest parts of Brooklyn.
The plan promised jobs, parks, health care and housing at a cost of $1.4
billion. But Brownsville resident Dayon Hopkins was skeptical. He had
already been displaced from Bedford Stuyvesant after that neighborhood
started to gentrify. Pointing to an ordinary building, he told a New York
Times reporter, “They’ll take this right here, and put a glass door, a brick
wall on one side of the hallway, and now it’s a loft, and now it costs way
more than people are making around these parts. And I understand: It does
get nicer. But where’s everybody else going to go? Down south? Where are
we going to go?’”23
Hopkins says what most planners won’t: that as long as some people’s
business is to profit off land and property, most people will not be able to
enjoy the benefits planners promise. Of course, it doesn’t have to be this
way. We can imagine a better world—in fact, we must. First, however, we
need to understand how we got here and how the system works.
I wrote this book for anyone who is frustrated with both the direction
their cities are taking and the alternatives planners are offering. I put
planners at the center of the story because they are uniquely positioned at
the nexus of state, capital and popular power. On their own, however,
planners cannot unwind real estate’s grip over our politics. For that, we will
need organized people: mass movements to remake our cities from the
ground up, and gain control over our homes and lives.
Such movements have been a consistent feature of urban life, and have
grown and adapted to face new challenges. Gentrification is brutal, but
rarely total—not only because colonizers always rely on the labor of a local
workforce, but also because people always fight back: as individuals, as
families (of birth and of choice), as communities (local and international),
as neighbors and as a class. Even after displacement, people find a way to
remake their spatial cultures and rebuild their social ties—not just to
survive, but to fight back anew.
Gentrification’s apologists will see this and claim displacement is not
that bad—people are resilient, they move, they rebuild, they’re fine. My
point is precisely the opposite: human beings will always resist regimes in
which land ownership gives a small number of people enormous power
over the lives of all others. People will fight back, and I believe that we will
win. I hope this book contributes to that fight. It is made not only to be read,
but to be used.
The Rise of the Real Estate State
What is planning?
What exactly do planners do?
Planning is the way we shape space over time. In geographer Ruth Wilson
Gilmore’s terms, the point of planning is “to have some sense of how to
secure the future.”1 It happens on multiple scales: individuals plan for their
own survival and advancement; households plan ways to make their
incomes stretch and their futures brighter; businesses plan in highly
structured and rigorous ways, creating schemes to eclipse the competition
and increase their profitability; communities and movements plan strategies
for survival and resistance, and produce “insurgent” plans that chart the way
from deprivation to freedom.2
Often, however, what we talk about when we talk about planning is
government. For more than a century, professional planners have been a
crucial element of the state, and have made important decisions about the
ways our cities and towns function. In the United States, planners are
usually municipal employees, but they work in all levels of government and
include outside actors—consultants, designers, nonprofits and so on—who
seek to influence land use decisions. They survey and map the physical and
cultural landscape, plot what can go where and at what size and shape,
design infrastructure systems to move people and products, and channel
investment and development toward certain places and away from others.
The nature of planning in capitalist democracies like the United States is
mercurial and contradictory. No city is entirely planned, but none is devoid
of planning. Our political discourse valorizes the free market in a way that
makes planning seem unnecessary, yet the United States has consistently
regulated its urban spaces in important and powerful ways.3 Americans
often think of planners as either bureaucratic cogs or totalitarian tyrants, but
planners tend to see themselves as promoters of fairness and protectors of
the common good.4
Throughout the profession’s history, planners have enacted a pair of
opposing tendencies: a pragmatic utopianism, which aims to bring about a
new world from the structures (if not the ashes) of the old; and a crude
commitment to capital, which divides space by race and seeks ever newer
frontiers for private development. US planners are committed to both
securing social reproduction—or ensuring that people have the means to
survive into the future—and to turning everyone’s space into someone’s
profit.5 They are motivated by the social movements that animate history, as
well as by the economic powers that structure political realities. This
assures that the beauty of urban planning is always accompanied by its
horrors. In the words of planning scholar Ananya Roy, “planning’s promise
of creation and creativity is not possible without a frontier of destruction.”6
The Rise of Professional Planning
The practice of planning is as old as human settlement, and in the United
States it reflects all the conflicts and contradictions of this country’s history.
Indigenous nations planned both stable settlements and migratory villages
throughout the Americas, which included residential and commercial areas
as well as open spaces and commons. In a spatial form of primitive
accumulation, European imperialists and settler colonists built on these
plans and often superimposed their street grids over existing native trails.7
By 1573, the Spanish Crown published their Orders of Discovery, New
Settlements and Pacification, which codified decades of colonial town
planning practice into a set of strict standards for spatial segregation,
ordered development and efficient extraction.8 Planning scholar Clyde
Woods argues that the United States’ first real plan was for “the total
elimination, marginalization, or exile of indigenous people.”9 Protoplanners enabled the country’s murderous westward expansion, and mapped
the rail networks and other infrastructure that made it possible.
The plantations that eventually dotted and dominated the southern
landscape were a highly planned built form, which in turn created a
template for future US urban and suburban development as well as
contemporary “factories in the fields.”10 Within the plantation, however,
slaves planned their own plots—spaces in which to cultivate their own food
and practice everyday acts of resistance.11 While early town designs were
largely imported from European models and reflected Greco-Roman and
Enlightenment-era conceptions of order and environmental control, other
essential American forms—such as the skinny, rectangular “shotgun house”
design common in the south—were derived from longstanding West
African architectural practices.12
The United States’ largest city, New York, was built on Lenape land as a
series of scattered settlements emerging from Lower Manhattan. By 1811,
city leaders had imposed a rigid street grid pattern and a standardized set of
twenty-five-by-one hundred-foot lots, literally paving the way for future
real estate development. (The main exception to the grid, Broadway, was
superimposed over a preexisting Native American trail.13) Long before
zoning became common practice throughout the country, New York exerted
land use and social controls through fire codes and nuisance laws.14
While the practice of planning has therefore long been established, the
profession of planning is a more recent phenomenon. Modern urban
planning emerged in Europe and the Americas as a formal art, science and
vocation in the mid-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a moment of
rapid industrial expansion, massive rural-to-urban and international
migration, and widespread social, economic and political upheaval. In
Europe, the establishment of urban planning followed a series of proletarian
uprisings in the major cities of England, France, Germany and beyond. The
most famous case is Barron Haussmann’s reorientation of Paris. In the midnineteenth century, after a series of barricaded rebellions broke out on the
city’s streets—a form of working class insurrectionary planning—Napoleon
III appointed Haussmann to remake Paris’ physical layout, driving wide
boulevards through the city’s neighborhoods and displacing thousands. This
reflected not just an aesthetic preference for strong sightlines and
harmonious architecture, but the ruling class’s desire to defend their hold on
the city and prevent more working class uprisings.15
In the United States, planning’s formalization tracked not only with
northern industrialization and the burgeoning labor movement, but also the
end of southern reconstruction, which in 1935 sociologist W.E.B Du Bois
characterized as “a revolution comparable to the upheavals in France in the
past, and in Russia, Spain, India and China today.”16 In cities like Chicago,
grand Haussmann-esque plans were drawn up to modernize the city—
ironically by imposing neoclassical design aesthetics—and attract real
estate and industrial capital.17 In cities like Birmingham, planners wrote
land use codes to simultaneously attract mining investment and suppress
Black labor mobility.18
In both the European and US cases, the planning profession arose at
moments of extreme social contest and turmoil, which were expressed in
fights for control over land. It is no coincidence, then, that from its onset,
urban planning has contained both reformist strands, which sought to
maintain elite control of urban space while smoothing over capitalism’s
rough spots, and radical visions, which imagined planning as a means to
overturn the social order and create and maintain a socialist society.
A Brief History of US Urban Planning
Early US planning history is marked less by bold experiments in egalitarian
design than systematic attempts to juice urban land markets for private gain.
These initial planning impulses were formulated through three interlocking
urban movements, each of which left a profound legacy on contemporary
planning and city life: progressive reformism, City Beautiful and City
Progressive reformers tried to reshape the city toward three
simultaneous ends: to ensure the social reproduction of a rapidly growing
industrial labor force; to quell the urban rebellions that were rocking
nineteenth- and early twentieth-century cities; and to boost profits.19 In
some cities, this took the form of “municipal socialism,” in which public
monopolies took control of infrastructure development and maintenance.20
In others, progressives developed settlement houses, which provided much-
needed social services to poor urban migrants, while also imposing norms
of patriarchy and Protestantism.21 Perhaps the progressive reform
movement’s most enduring legacy in US cities was imposing building
codes, which provided minimum construction standards that promoted
health and safety. The New York City tenement laws of 1867, 1879 and
1901, for example, ensured that new residential buildings would have fire
escapes, air shafts, windows and toilets. In so doing, these laws managed to
simultaneously create somewhat safer housing while driving up property
values. The result was that the poorest families could not live in new
tenements and were relegated to the least safe and worst maintained
properties in the city. Meanwhile, rising land and construction costs
centralized new housing development in the hands of a wealthy elite.22
“City Beautiful” was perhaps the first self-identified planning
movement in the United States, coalescing around the inaugural 1909
National Conference on City Planning and Congestion and setting a high
standard for urban design and aesthetics. Before all else, however, City
Beautiful was a real estate program that sought to attract investment by
building massive, Beaux Arts-inspired municipal buildings, tree-lined
boulevards and carefully manicured open spaces. The movement is
frequently associated with architect Daniel Burnham, who created the 1909
Plan of Chicago before taking his approach to Detroit, Washington, DC,
and US-occupied Manila, but its presence is also felt in New York, from the
Manhattan Municipal Building to Grand Central Terminal. Inspired in part
by Haussmann, City Beautiful projects were often built on centrally located
land inhabited by poor people, immigrants and African Americans, who
were treated as wholly incompatible with and undeserving of urban beauty.
Central Park, for example, was built over the largest Black settlement in
Manhattan, Seneca Village, and also displaced large numbers of Irish and
German immigrants who were living on coveted real estate.23
While local elites desperately wanted a more “beautiful” city, they
refused to either pay for these developments or relinquish control over
them. The solution, then, was a system of municipal planning with strong
“public” input: the city planning commission. Established in most US cities
in the first half of the twentieth century, these largely unelected
commissions were often populated by real estate elites, who tried to ensure
that city planning decisions would stimulate profits.24 They approved
monumental projects—grand boulevards, parks, museums, municipal
complexes and more—which resulted in higher urban property values and
were largely paid for by the public.
Planning commissions marked the shift from City Beautiful to City
Practical. During a time when cities were growing chaotically and radical
social movements were gaining steam, this less famous but profoundly
important movement aimed to formalize and expand the scope of planning
in the United States in order to rationalize urban and peri-urban expansion.
Though rarely acknowledged, one of the most important forces behind City
Practical was archconservative Herbert Hoover, who, as secretary of
commerce from 1920 to 1928, oversaw the establishment of the federal
Standard State Zoning Enabling Act (SSZEA) and the Standard City
Planning Enabling Act (SCPEA). These two laws empowered municipal
governments to write “master plans” for their cities, and to create zoning
ordinances that mapped out what kinds of buildings (residential,
commercial, industrial, etc.) could be built where and at what sizes. While
some capitalists bristled at the idea of property controls and master
planning, Hoover’s Department of Commerce argued that planning was
ultimately in their best interest for it helped them predict how both residents
and politicians would respond to their proposals, and therefore increased the
chances that a conforming project would be supported.25
Around the country, many master plans would be produced but few
would be strictly implemented.26 Instead, cities like New York relied on
zoning as their primary planning mechanism.27 Zoning, however, is not just
a technical planning technique; as geographer Bobby Wilson argues,
“zoning had been developed as a tool for rational land use planning, but it
became a tool for accommodating the racial order.”28 In the United States,
zoning was always exclusionary. Modesto, California introduced the
country’s first zoning in 1885 as a way of barring Chinese people from
areas of the city.29 It came to New York in 1916, and among its most vocal
proponents were Fifth Avenue’s high-end merchants, who lobbied the city
to zone out manufacturing in order to keep Jewish garment workers off their
streets and away from their customers.30 The SSZEA and SCPEA gave
every city in the United States the power to enact such programs.
With this political infrastructure in place, state planning power grew
stronger throughout the country, reaching its apex in the rational
comprehensive planning movement of the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s. This
movement dovetailed with the massive expansion of state and military
capacity involved in the Second World War and its aftermaths, and built on
the planning theories and engineering systems that both the Allies and the
Axis developed during the war. It also proved an important Cold War
propaganda tool in showing that capitalism was capable of monumental
planned development.31 Rational planners imagined themselves to be
efficient, scientific, apolitical experts, who could collect and evaluate all the
relevant data and interests for a given area, and use complex modeling, land
use controls and state police power to remake central cities. This claim to
objectivity, however, masked a strong ideology that planners knew better
than those whose spaces were being planned, and that the interests of cities
were closely aligned with those of racial capitalism.32
In its radical form, rational comprehensive planning could also produce
awesome feats of “militant modernism,” including large-scale systems of
public housing, education, health and transit produced at the behest of
powerful popular movements.33 During this period, many cities adopted
rent control systems, which used intricate formulas to determine how much
rents could rise annually and provided stability for tenants (and landlords
too).34 Such public-spirited planning, however, was more the exception than
the rule. It was rational planners who oversaw the redlining of central cities
—in which bankers were given free rein to deny loans in Black and
immigrant neighborhoods—as well as the sprawling expansion of Whiteonly suburbs.35 And it was rational planners who enacted so-called “urban
renewal” plans in cities across the country, which displaced hundreds of
thousands of people by demolishing long-standing working class and
industrial neighborhoods and replacing them with highways and high-rise
residential and office towers.36
These plans met sustained resistance from local communities whose
neighborhoods had been written off as “blighted” and obsolete. Caribbean
Brooklynites formed mutual aid societies to combat the economic assault of
redlining.37 Puerto Rican tenants on Manhattan’s West Side refused to leave
their buildings, even as bulldozers gathered to clear the way for Lincoln
Center.38 Fighting alongside them were practitioners of a confrontational
new mode of planning that emerged in direct response to rational
comprehensive planning: advocacy planning. Advocacy planners rejected
the idea that professionals could forge a rational consensus between
opposing interests, or that planners should view the city from on high.
Instead, they believed that neighborhoods should create their own
community-based plans in direct opposition to the state. One of the most
effective advocacy planners was Walter Thabit, a New York City planner
who joined with residents of the Cooper Square section of Manhattan to
stop the city from demolishing their neighborhood and help envision an
alternative. After fifty years of struggle, Cooper Square now operates as a
community land trust, and most of the housing will remain genuinely
affordable in perpetuity.39
Many advocacy planners took their critique directly into the state and
joined city planning departments as equity planners. The most celebrated
among them is Norman Krumholz, who spent decades fighting from inside
Cleveland’s planning bureaucracy, but equity planners also worked in
Bernie Sanders’ Burlington, Harold Washington’s Chicago and more,
helping to shift their cities planning priorities leftward while building
institutional mechanisms for popular expressions of power.40 Advocacy and
equity planners’ critique of rational comprehensive planning was itself
attacked from the left by scholars like Frances Fox Piven, who argued that
they were diverting poor communities from more disruptive and effective
forms of protest, but it nonetheless provided a platform for more
confrontational forms of planning.41
Advocacy and equity planning, however, were not the only responses to
rational comprehensive planning. From the right, the critique took the form
of incremental planning. Incrementalists argued that the problem with
rational planners was less their racism than their ambition. Big plans reeked
of state-powered social engineering, and of an epistemological
overconfidence in planners’ abilities. Instead, they proposed that planners
practice “the science of ‘muddling through,’” or a trial-and-error approach
that valued stability over transformation.42 While more modest in its goals
than its left counterparts (advocacy and equity planning), incrementalism
had an enormous influence on the profession, which was suffering a crisis
of confidence at exactly the moment when conservative political elements
were seeking to dismantle its power.43
In the early 1970s, the United States and much of the world underwent a
number of critical economic and political realignments that are often
described as the “neoliberal turn.” The state’s function turned from modest
welfare toward gross deregulation; public policy marginalized the industrial
sectors of the economy and elevated finance, insurance and real estate
(FIRE); eventually, the role of city planners devolved from reshaping space
to retaining investment. In many cities, this transition began with
neoliberalism’s close cousin, neoconservatism. In New York, following the
fiscal crisis of 1975, planners—informed by studies produced by the RAND
Corporation—instituted a harsh program known as “planned shrinkage,” in
which city services (such as fire houses and public hospitals) were shuttered
in order to encourage poor people of color to exit the city.44 Former
Trotskyite-turned-neoconservative planning commissioner Roger Starr
defended the policies as an attempt to “stop the Puerto Ricans and the rural
Blacks from living in the city … Our urban system is based on the theory of
taking the peasant and turning him into an industrial worker. Now there are
no industrial jobs. Why not keep him a peasant?”45
Neoconservative planners starved their cities; neoliberals begged
capitalists to feed off them. “Economic development” specialists became
competitive sales representatives for their cities, citing low taxes and
limited regulation as reasons for investors to choose their towns.46 By the
1990s, the line between planners and real estate developers blurred as “new
urbanism”—a movement to make the suburbs great again—became the
vague watchwords of builders and bureaucrats alike. Public-private
partnerships flourished, as planners increasingly sought profit-oriented
entities to do the work of urban design, construction and maintenance.47
Communicative planning became the primary professional mode, focusing
less on changing cities (or, in one proponent’s terms, “going beyond a
preoccupation with the distribution of material resources”) than on listening
to all the relevant “stakeholders” and crafting a balanced response.48 While
prior planning movements could be criticized as elitist and in service to
capital, they nonetheless produced spaces for large elements of the public to
use and enjoy. In the neoliberal era, the trend in planning became private
development for private accumulation—damn the public.49
Why Capitalist Cities Plan
Planners tend to be inordinately nice people. They gravitate to the
profession out of a desire to help their cities and improve living conditions
for their neighbors. Most planners do not seek to line the pockets of wealthy
elites or displace the poor. And yet that is exactly what has happened, again
and again, in city after city, across the United States and throughout the
capitalist world. If the personal motivations of planners cannot explain this
dynamic, how do we account for it? What is urban planning’s role in the
maintenance of capitalism, and all the exploitation and appropriation that
system engenders?
The history of capitalism clearly shows that market economies require
planning. Despite the protestations of libertarian absolutists, markets do not
emerge from a state of nature, nor are they the product of simple evolution
from prior economic modes. They are carefully planned, crafted and
controlled.50 They rely on massive legal, logistical, infrastructural and
technical capacities, all of which must not only be imagined and developed
but likewise maintained and reproduced.51 They require the coercive power
of militaries and police, which themselves require massive amounts of
planning to accomplish such plunder and enclosure.52 And eventually they
come to demand their own regulation, both to establish a predictable ground
on which to operate and to create a suitable barrier against upstart
competition.53 To be sure, planning can also get in the way of markets,
whether by imposing price controls or by defending public space. But if
planners help the state establish spatial order over time, and if the state
under capitalism is fundamentally “the executive committee of the
bourgeoisie,” then planners—whatever their intention—are working for the
maintenance, defense and expansion of capitalism.54
Planners are also responsible for maintaining the spatial dimension of
racial inequalities. Capitalism is always racial—though the precise meaning
and articulation of racial differentiation and domination varies and changes
over time and place.55 In all instances, however, capitalism produces
powerful racial ideologies, a set of human categories with supposedly
inborn and homogeneous traits that legitimate the system’s inherent
inequalities.56 Within the capitalist state, planners are tasked with
reproducing this racist order through a series of supposedly race-neutral
tools that are, in reality, anything but. The clearest examples are zoning and
urban renewal, two policies whose formal raison d’être is to create rational
and orderly urban landscapes; in reality, however, these tools are often used
to target one racial group for exclusion or expulsion while clearing the way
for another’s quality of life.57 Planning itself is not inherently racist; in fact,
it is central to racism’s negation.58 But racial capitalism asks planners to
sort out who will go where, under what conditions and for whose benefit.
Such actions are intrinsically coercive. Planners often describe the force
underlying their work as “police power.”59 This authority, however, is more
commonly expressed through compelled consent than through overt force.
The built environment that planners establish is itself a means of securing
consent; you don’t go where you’re blocked from going, whether by a road
pattern, a fence or a wall.60 Planners also secure consent by cloaking their
power in rationality. While the capitalist state can be considered a
“dictatorship of the bourgeoisie,” it often operates as a republic with some
democratic features.61 For the most part, planners cannot simply foist their
plans onto the public, but must convince them that these plans are in fact
the most rational option. As planning theorist Bent Flyvbjerg maintains,
however, “power defines reality” and “rationalization presented as
rationality is a principal strategy in the exercise of power.”62 One of the
main tasks of urban planning, then, is to make capitalist development
appear to be in the rational best interests of workers and bosses alike.63
In order for capitalist development to work, though, planners need to
look out for peoples’ survival in a way that capital cannot—or will not—do.
This recalls Fred Moten and Stefano Harney’s definition of planning as
“self-sufficiency at the social level.”64 The market alone will never fully
meet the working class’ daily needs: wages are too low for food, and have
to be supplemented with welfare or direct provisions; transportation costs
are borne by the individual worker, who needs mass transit to get around;
housing is perpetually beyond the means of working and poor city dwellers,
thus requiring the state to offer public, subsidized and regulated housing.65
While buildings and bridges are the iconic imagery of cities and planning,
the hidden work of social reproduction—housing, health care, education,
food, culture, comradery—is what truly allows capitalist cities to work, and
is thus a central preoccupation of city planners.66
Most of this work—production, consumption, social reproduction—
takes place on land that is privately owned but publicly managed. Land is a
particularly complicated factor in capitalism, as it is both a precondition for
all commodities’ production and circulation, and a strange sort of
commodity in and of itself. Land is not traded like other products. Instead,
according to geographer David Harvey, land “is a fictitious form of capital
that derives from expectations of future rents.”67 These future rents are
highly susceptible to external factors, such as pollution, zoning or the
vagaries of demand.
About thirty years ago, planning scholar Richard Foglesong examined
leftist theories of land in relation to urban planning during the first 300
years of what would become the United States, and produced perhaps the
most elegant explanation of planning’s function in capitalist cities. He
noticed that the central conflict in this history was between the “social
character of land”—or its value as “a collective good, a social resource”—
and its private ownership and control. From this conflict arose two
contradictions—the property contradiction and the capitalist-democracy
contradiction—and it fell on professional urban planners to handle them.68
The property contradiction describes the unhappy tension between
capitalists’ desire for certain types of planning interventions and their
antipathy toward anything that restricts their operations. They need
government to undertake certain functions to secure both their own
profitability and their workers’ survival; they demand that the state build
the infrastructure that makes their land usable, such as roads, train tracks,
water and sewer systems; and they demand that the state care for their
employees through basic welfare functions, such as emergency health care
and public education, in order to ensure a reliable source of labor.
Different types of capitalists, however, make different demands on the
state. Industrial landholders reject environmentally strenuous zoning that
restricts the location of their operations in the city; real estate capitalists
would welcome such regulations because pollution diminishes their
property values. Industrial capitalists might demand affordable housing for
their workforce in order to stave off demands for raises; real estate
capitalists would object to any constraint on their ability to maximize rental
or sale profits.
While capitalists need a lot from planners (even if they can’t agree
among themselves as to what, exactly, they want), they are also fiercely
protective of their property rights. They know that private property laws are
the only thing keeping their workers or tenants from expropriating them out
of business, and therefore tend to be broadly suspicious of state
interventions that could theoretically impinge on property rights. They
know their land would be useless without planners, but they reject planning
as such as an expression of government overreach. This, in short, is the
property contradiction.
A second key phenomenon, the capitalist-democracy contradiction, is
borne directly out of liberal governments’ attempts to deal with the property
contradiction. In a nominally democratic capitalist republic, the state and its
planners have to perform a delicate balancing act: planners must proceed
with enough openness and transparency to maintain public legitimacy,
while ensuring that capital retains ultimate control over the processes’
parameters. The people must have their say, but their options must be
limited. If the system is entirely opened up, people might demand the full
socialization of land, the abolition of private property and all the rest. If the
system is completely closed, however, they might revolt against an unjust
and unaccountable government. Planners are therefore tasked with creating
public processes that are open but rigged. From this capitalist-democracy
contradiction arises the familiar landscape of “participatory planning”—
public comment periods, community boards, planning commissions, design
charettes and a host of other interventions.69
According to this model, urban planners’ main job is to contain these
two contradictions; neither can be resolved, but both can be managed. This
puts city planners in a complicated bind. They are encouraged to make
certain land use interventions, but are prevented from making more
sweeping changes. Planners operate in a system that must appear open to
the public, while simultaneously guaranteeing that ultimate power resides in
the hands of propertied elites. It can be a really shitty job.
The Real Estate State
Three decades after Foglesong presented his contradictions, many of these
conditions are still in place: planners still have to balance capitalists’
demand for intervention and fear of domination; and planners still must
uphold a precarious equilibrium between public participation and private
control. But one key factor has changed. Throughout the 300-year period
covered by Foglesong in Planning the Capitalist City, manufacturing
capital was a serious player in municipal politics; and yet, by the book’s
publication in 1986, US industry had already undergone remarkable centralcity contractions, with its urban political influence diminishing in turn.
Today, in much of the country, manufacturing capital is not a leading force
in urban politics. In most cities and towns, real estate rules.
Of course, other strands of capital make important claims on the city
and its management. Finance continues to be a major force in New York
City politics, but it is so thoroughly integrated with real estate—and has
been for so long—that it is hardly an independent influence.70 Technology
firms are at the heart of San Francisco’s new political economy, but their
vision of the city is all about private property and profitability and thus
retains a central role for real estate.71 (In the case of Airbnb, big tech and
real estate capital are one and the same.72) Although Ford and General
Motors still make some cars in Detroit and Dearborn, their presence there is
also felt through corporate headquarters and downtown real estate holdings.
Financial offshoots like Ford Credit and General Motors Financial are now
among the most profitable aspects of the auto industry.
Even though manufacturing capital is less of a force in US urban
politics than in the past, the industrial sector has certainly not disappeared.
The world is more industrialized than ever, and the United States still
produces plenty of goods. In fact, manufacturing remains the most
important sector of the US economy in terms of total output.73 What has
happened is a major geographical reorganization in production and
distribution. Over the past seventy-five years, the United States has gone
through three major industrial shifts: a movement of parts and assembly
plants from older northern cities to newer southern cities and rural areas
from roughly 1947 to 1973; a deeper set of national and international
production relocations from 1973 through the 1980s and 1990s; and finally,
in the 1990s and 2000s, an expansion of logistics clusters that coordinate
the flow of goods into and out of population centers around the country.74
As a result of these relocations, much of the United States’ industrial
activity today takes place outside the big cities: giant food processing plants
in exurban areas; energy extraction centers on Appalachian mountaintops
and Gulf coast outposts; and, most importantly for big cities, growing
import/export processing zones in major metropolitan areas.75 These
distribution hubs employ enormous numbers of workers but, because of
their demand for fast access out of central city traffic, their sprawling size,
and the high cost and regulation of central city land, they tend to be located
outside the political boundaries of the main cities they serve.76 Crucially,
this means they make fewer land- and housing-based demands of city
planners in places like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago than centrally
located urban factory owners would. When these logistics clusters are
located inside the political boundaries of major cities—like New York’s
Hunts Point Market and JFK Airport—they often operate on public land,
meaning the companies that depend on them are not particularly bothered
by the cost of urban land and housing (particularly if they assume their
workers will live in cheaper suburbs or exurbs). In fact, since publicly
operated logistics clusters are largely financed through municipal bonds,
city governments may see inducing gentrification—something bond buyers
generally interpret as a sign of urban health and future wealth—as key to
financing this increasingly important form of urban industry.
The United States’ most important urban industrial sector, then, does
not act as a powerful counterweight to real estate in central city planning
and development politics. Real estate does not itself constitute a new urban
economy; its locational value is still dependent on proximity to other
productive economic forces, usually in the expansive service sectors. Still,
real estate’s gargantuan growth manages to overdetermine cities’ economic,
political and demographic futures, pricing out certain actors and industries
while encouraging others.77 In the absence of any major competition, real
estate dominates contemporary urban planning.
This is not a uniquely American phenomenon; as the global 1 percent
reaps the majority of the world’s economic growth, they have formed what
one analyst calls “a Niagara of capital into real estate” and shifted the bulk
of their investments toward property over all other forms of economic
activity.78 Building booms are eating up cities around the world, from
London to Mumbai to Nairobi to São Paulo and, of course, New York,
where enormous, expensive and largely uninhabited investment properties
float menacingly above scenes of homelessness and deprivation.79
Vancouver planner Andy Yan labels this the “hedge city” phenomenon, or
the way the world’s wealthiest are transforming urban high-rises from
“machines for living in” to machines for money laundering.80 Such cities
have seen their housing prices balloon over 50 percent in the past five
years; in some places, far more.81
This is an extremely precarious position. Each of New York’s previous
periods of massive skyscraper construction tracked with spectacular
speculative booms and subsequent busts—1929, 1973, 1987, 2000 and
2008.82 With every cycle, the number of high-rises climbed higher,
monuments to the growing price of real estate that underwrote their
elevation. After the crash of 2008, however, US property values only
dropped momentarily before restarting their steady uptick. Even as singlefamily homes around the country were foreclosed, they were often resold to
private equity firms and rented for significant profit, contributing to a
nationwide spike in evictions. With planners’ help, real estate capital has
been able to turn such crises into new opportunities.
The opportunity to benefit from property booms, however, is never
universal. In the United States, real property has always been patterned by
racism and sexism, its most brutal expressions being “manifest destiny” and
slavery. While the real estate industry exploits people of all backgrounds,
long-standing racial inequities have allowed White wealth to be passed
down generationally through inherited housing and the profit from its
sale.83 Where wider opportunities for ownership have arisen, the real estate
industry has repeatedly tested its most exploitive innovations—from
contract housing to subprime lending—on women and people of color, who
were long shut out of standard credit markets.84 Imani Henry of Brooklyn’s
Equality for Flatbush sees in the current property boom “a whole new
wave” of exploitive real estate practices. “In Flatbush, real estate agents
have told me they aren’t even allowed to rent to Black people anymore.
Landlords want to flip everything here and kick us out to New Jersey.”85
Real estate’s rise is not a tide that lifts all boats, but a force that feeds off
long-standing structural inequalities.
It also presents serious and specific problems for planners. In a private
land market, all planning interventions will impact land and property values
either positively or negatively. Where there is an inter-capitalist feud
between manufacturers and developers, a number of possibilities arise. The
presence of industry, for example, means there is a capitalist—not only a
labor—demand for government-sponsored affordable housing and rent
control. It also means there is a powerful constituency that values lower, not
higher, land values, since industrialists tend to see land and buildings as
costs rather than assets. With the decline of urban industry, as well as the
real and aspirational rise of homeownership among working and middle
class people, the demand for lower land values comes only from organized
renters. While urban tenant movements have secured important victories,
they face a constant struggle against difficult odds. Assessing this political
landscape, many nonprofits, unions and community-based organizations
have determined that the most likely way to secure gains is through political
programs that align with factions of real estate capital, such as development
schemes that pair the construction of luxury housing with a modicum of
affordable units, or labor peace deals that secure union status for workers in
upscale developments. In manufacturing’s absence, real estate holds
something approaching monopoly power to shape the narrative around
urban planning and urban futures.86
At the same time, essential public services in most municipalities are
funded through property taxes. The fate of public education, public libraries
and public transit are therefore directly linked to the value of property and
its rate of taxation. Places with high property values are able to maintain
palatial public places, while cities with low property values suffer the
indignities of crumbling buildings and broken services.87 Cities are
incentivized to drive out anything that is understood to reduce property
values: types of buildings, businesses, land uses or even people. While this
has long been the case for suburbs, where industry and commerce are
expected to be subordinate to residential land uses and segregation has long
been a defining characteristic, it is increasingly true of cities, where real
estate is becoming the primary commodity, revenue stream and political
Under these conditions, planners managing the property contradiction
are being asked to intervene in only one way: to do everything in their
power to make land more expensive, and to do nothing that would
challenge its status as a commodity rather than a commons. Central
business district transportation and park plans? Great. Industrial retention
and universal rent control? Maybe not.
Planners managing the capitalist-democracy contradiction are facing
planning commissions and review boards comprised almost entirely of
people whose futures are tied to real estate. To take New York as an
example, at the time of this writing the Planning Commission is made up of
four members with backgrounds in commercial real estate promotion, two
luxury developers, two development consultants, a realtor, a nonprofit
developer, a corporate lawyer, a business improvement district president
and the building engineer behind Trump Tower.
This is the real estate state, a government by developers, for developers.
It is not monolithic; there are plenty of disputes within it. Builders’ desires
are not always the same as owners’, as reflected in the presence of separate
developer and landlord lobbies in New York. Nonprofit developers follow a
somewhat different model than for-profit builders. And of course
government is still accountable to voters, who are by and large either
renters or mortgage holders and continue to organize collectively against
real estate’s rule.88 But the parameters for planning are painfully narrow:
land is a commodity and so is everything atop it; property rights are sacred
and should never be impinged; a healthy real estate market is the measure
of a healthy city; growth is good—in fact, growth is god.
It is a horrible atmosphere for planners interested in social reproduction,
let alone social transformation. Planners are allowed to do little that won’t
raise property values. Often they do so directly and intentionally, by
initiating rezonings, targeting tax breaks or gutting protective regulations in
order to stimulate development. Just as often, however, increased property
values are the result of genuine, socially beneficial land improvements.
Public improvements become private investment opportunities as those who
own the land reap the benefits of beautiful urban design and improved
infrastructure. Those who cannot afford the resulting rising rents (or, in the
case of homeowners, rising property assessments) are expelled: priced out,
foreclosed, evicted, made homeless, or, in the best case scenario, granted a
one-time buyout that will not afford them a new home in the neighborhood,
or even the city.
Preservationist Michael Henry Adams has chronicled this dynamic as it
unfolds in Harlem, where he has fought to maintain the tremendous record
of Black history and culture that is contained in both the neighborhood’s
architecture and the memories of its long-term residents. He recounts a
conversation between young people in the neighborhood, who were coming
to terms with the greening of their block. After speaking with the children
about his activism, Adams recalls one telling the others, “‘You see, I told
you they didn’t plant those trees for us.’ It was painful to realize how even a
kid could see in every new building, every historic renovation, every
boutique clothing shop—indeed in every tree and every flower in every
park improvement—not a life-enhancing benefit, but a harbinger of his own
displacement.”89 In the real estate state, planners can create marvelous
environments for rich people, but if they work to improve poor peoples’
spaces they risk sparking gentrification and displacement. Rich
communities can lobby for all sorts of planning improvements, but many
poor neighborhoods fight planning interventions they would otherwise
embrace out of a very real fear that any enhancement will trigger
The promise of planning—of creating more beautiful cities; of imposing
order on capital’s chaos; of undoing the exploitive relations between people
and land, and between city and country—is virtually impossible to realize
under these conditions. Instead, the forces of property present two options
for cities: gentrification or disinvestment. Other modalities surely exist, but
they are made to feel increasingly unlikely under real estate’s rule, which
pushes cities toward this binary.91 Urban planners’ main task is ensuring
that the former, rather than the latter, represents their city’s lot.
Planning Gentrification
What is happening to our cities?
Why are they becoming so impossibly expensive?
Healthy cities exist in a state of flux.1 Change is necessary and good: people
come and go, are born and die; industries are carefully harnessed, but
almost never become permanent fixtures. A city that never changes is
probably not a city at all.
But a particular kind of change is taking hold in many cities and towns
around the world—one that presents itself as neighborhood revitalization
but results in physical displacement and social disruption for the urban
working class. In geographer Ipsita Chatterjee’s terms, it represents “the
theft of space from labor and its conversion into spaces of profit.”2 This
change is generally known as gentrification, the process by which capital is
reinvested in urban neighborhoods, and poorer residents and their cultural
products are displaced and replaced by richer people and their preferred
aesthetics and amenities.
Every time it happens it looks somewhat different. Spatial
transformations are always premised on local political-economic conditions
and shaped by particular narratives and ideologies that are specific to each
location. But there are some features that occur again and again.3
Low rents become high. Landlords and speculators profit from the
eviction of long-term tenants, who are forced to live farther and farther
from their jobs and communities. As space-time contracts for wealthier
people moving closer to their central city jobs, it expands for those pushed
to the geographical limits of metropolitan areas.4 Bankers walk to work
while debtors endure super-commutes.
The people of color and immigrants who built up neglected
neighborhoods are recast as outsiders in their own homes and expelled in
favor of White newcomers. Neighborhoods and, eventually, cities become
places only the rich can afford, with environments designed according to
their desires.
The commercial fabric turns over and replaces itself. Existing bars,
restaurants, coffee shops, supermarkets, hardware stores and other everyday
urban spots are deemed deficient, and are replaced by new bars, restaurants,
coffee shops, supermarkets and hardware stores deemed superior largely
because they charge higher prices and pay higher rents.5
Municipal investment follows real estate investment. After years of
complaints about failing schools and subpar parks, new funding suddenly
manifests. Though residents used buses and bicycles before, new lanes dot
the landscape once new money arrives. These benefits appear as long-term
residents are priced out and have to find homes in other divested
All this change does not just happen on its own. It requires investors,
developers and landlords—the “producers” of gentrification—to buy and
sell land and buildings at ever higher costs. It also requires wealthier
homebuyers, renters and shoppers—the “consumers” of gentrification—to
valorize areas they would have previously ignored. Neither side alone
makes gentrification a reality, since economic value is only realized when
both production and consumption demands are fulfilled. If producers build
but consumers don’t bite, the market busts; likewise, if consumers are
prepared to purchase but producers don’t invest, the result is unmet
Part of what planners do, then, is ensure that both sides of the
relationship are present by luring gentrification’s producers with land use
and tax incentives, while inviting its consumers through race- and classinflected neighborhood initiatives. The state is a central actor, marshaling
investment, boosting land values, attracting desired residents and industries,
chasing away threats to profits and rolling out the welcome mat for
developers and investors. Gentrification, then, is a political process as well
as an economic and social one; it is planned by the state as much as it is
produced by developers and consumed by the condo crowd. Planners did
not invent gentrification, but they helped foster its development and
transform it from a local phenomenon into a global business model.6
Why Gentrification?
While land ownership, property development and speculative investment
have always been part of the capitalist economy, until recently, real estate
represented a smaller and more specialized business than industrial
production. Like real estate, industry requires investments in land,
infrastructure and buildings, but in an industrial context those features’
worth tends to be a function of their productivity—if a factory were not
productive, its buildings would not be considered valuable in and of
themselves. Historically, as buildings aged their property values tended to
drop, not climb, over time. The central city was the site of production and
distribution, and those who lived closest to it usually could not afford to live
farther away.
A number of changes in local, national and international political
economies during the second half of the twentieth century, however, led
investors away from industrial production in first-world cities. Global
treaties among capitalist countries in the postwar era established
organizations like the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the
World Trade Organization to facilitate low-cost global production and
distribution of goods with minimal taxes and tariffs.7 Labor unions were
attacked and marginalized, undermining their ability to act as a counterhegemonic force for urban industrial retention.8 Advances in transportation
technology and the standardization of containerized shipping made the
exchange of goods across space a much simpler and cheaper proposition,
and required a different spatial layout than most central city planners and
politicians were willing or able to provide.9 Real estate-minded city
planners actively pushed industry out with land use changes and
redevelopment projects meant to marginalize manufacturing while driving
up land costs.10
As a result of these and other changes, during the second half of the
twentieth century industry decamped from many first-world central cities in
search of lower wages, looser environmental standards and wide-open
spaces in northern suburbs, rural towns and international “free trade zones.”
New York City is an extreme but telling example: from the 1950s to the
1990s, the city lost 750,000 manufacturing jobs while its land values soared
from $20 billion to $400 billion.11
As the complex process of deindustrialization unfolded, capital became
both more mobile and, ironically, more grounded: tariffs dropped, firms
internationalized and corporate globalization took hold while, at the same
time, investments in land and buildings filled the literal and figurative space
left by urban industrial flight. Real estate went from being a secondary to a
primary source of urban capital accumulation. This switch is the genesis of
gentrification in the United States.12
US urban property investments were patterned by two prior federal
programs, redlining and urban renewal. During the postwar era of rational
comprehensive planning, the primary project of real estate capital was
suburbanization. Massive amounts of public and private money poured in to
create segregated residential enclaves located outside central cities and
connected by new highways and railways.13 In the 1950s and ’60s, city
governments responded with “urban renewal” programs, in which entire
working class and industrial neighborhoods were bulldozed to make way
for central business district expansions and infrastructure projects.14 While
some low-income developments were produced through these programs—
including much of the country’s public housing—90 percent of new
residential construction was designed for middle- and upper-class
households.15 Robert Fitch called it “real estate Stalinism.”16 With markers
of poverty cleared, more city space was produced and coded for urban real
estate investment and development.17
Even before bulldozers cleared the way for cranes, bankers and planners
had set out on a stealthier form of urban neighborhood clearance, which
established the preconditions for gentrification.18 In 1934 New Deal
legislation established the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) to
standardize, regulate and insure home mortgages. Not everyone, however,
could access these loans. Along with the FHA, the federal government
empowered bankers and developers to lead the Home Owners’ Loan
Corporation (HOLC). HOLC was tasked with quantifying the risk bankers
would take in giving loans to particular people in particular places. This
would allow the federal government and the banks to agree on rates for
FHA loan insurance. To make these decisions, HOLC sent surveyors out to
every residential block in just about every city in the country; those
surveyors would look at a neighborhood and grade it on a scale from A
(very safe) to D (very unsafe).19
There were three main criteria HOLC used to determine risk: 1) the age
of the building stock; 2) the density of housing; and, by far most
determinately, 3) the racial composition of residents. Jews were considered
communistic and likely to go on rent strike. Italians were characterized as
dangerous gangsters. African Americans were written off entirely, and
virtually any block with any Black people was given a low grade.
Following real estate industry “best practices,” the FHA made segregation
and suburbanization the United States’ de facto housing policy. Over time,
as property owners in Black, immigrant and racially mixed neighborhoods
were shut out of the finance system, many of their buildings declined, rents
fell and some landlords resorted to abandonment.20
One landlord’s abandonment, however, is another buyer’s opportunity,
and in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s many young urbanites, as well as a few
farseeing financiers, saw an opportunity to grab low-cost properties and
renovate them.21 “Brownstoning” and “loft living” became touchstones for
young artists and professionals seeking urban “authenticity” and
alternatives to the dominant pro-suburban narratives of the 1950s and
1960s.22 Although many considered themselves architectural
preservationists, few paid much attention to preserving their neighborhood’s
social character. Many these new brownstone owners evicted all of their
tenants and converted their buildings into single-family homes, while loft
landlords actively pushed out their remaining industrial tenants in favor of
residential converters.23
In several cities, these trends coincided with a severe round of fiscal
crises and capital strikes—moments when a state cannot raise the capital it
needs to maintain its budgets and bond investors refuse to buy shares in its
future.24 New York’s late-1970s recovery from the brink of bankruptcy was
led by banks, real estate interests and municipal unions, who disciplined the
city through a process of privatization and disinvestment from social
services that continues to this day.25 Municipal wages and benefits were
slashed; welfare payments fell by one-third; the city’s public universities
started charging tuitions. Meanwhile, stock taxes were dropped, income
taxes were halved and real estate taxes fell to historic levels.26 This became
a model for neoliberal governments throughout the country and around the
During this process, gentrification presented an alternative way for
cities to continue redeveloping their housing stock and boosting land values
without (at first) spending much money. Over time the model proved
effective, and local governments, banks and major real estate firms got into
the business of financing gentrification, either through loans to high-income
homeowners in places that were previously redlined, or by building luxury
landscapes in neighborhoods that had long been considered unsafe for
Gentrification, then, was a “spatial fix” for capitalism’s urban crisis: a
way to profit from previous disasters and to find new places for investors to
turn money into more money.28 Deindustrialization created the space for
real estate’s revival, and redlining and urban renewal set the spatial patterns
for disinvestment and reinvestment. What first appeared as an opportunistic
venture for middle class movers and profit-seeking landlords—a buildingby-building, block-by-block phenomenon—became a way to transform
entire cities from places into products.
The Economics of Gentrification
By definition, gentrification cannot happen everywhere. It is the third stage
in a long-term process of capital flow in and out of space: first comes
investment in a built environment; second, neighborhood disinvestment and
property abandonment; and third, reinvestment in that same space for
greater profits. The key to understanding why some places gentrify is the
amount of money that a landowner—who effectively holds a monopoly on
all rents from a particular geographic location—can expect to generate from
a given lot and the building atop it. Real estate speculators choose to invest
in a particular location because they identify a gap between the rents that
land currently offers and the potential future rents it might command if
some action were taken, such as evicting long-term tenants, renovating
neglected or unstylish properties, or demolishing and reconstructing
Geographer Neil Smith proposed this thesis in 1979 as the primary
driver of gentrification at the building level. Gentrification, he theorized,
“occurs when the gap is wide enough that developers can purchase shells
cheaply, can pay the builders’ costs and profit for rehabilitation, can pay
interest on mortgage and construction loans, and can then sell the end
product for a sale price that leaves a satisfactory return to the developer.”29
Smith formulated this theory during a period of urban disinvestment, when
the rent gap described the space between falling actual rents and stable or
slowly rising potential rents. In today’s context, the rent gap in hyperinvested cities like New York is more likely to be between slowly rising
actual rents and exploding potential rents.30
Under these conditions, rent gaps exist at more than just the building
scale. When enough individual buildings in an area are brought up to their
full potential rents, the remaining surrounding properties exhibit a rent gap
(as does the entire neighborhood). The rent regulations that govern prices
and tenure rights for nearly half the private rental apartments in New York
have tenuously kept hundreds of thousands of apartments at below-market
rents. This creates a citywide rent gap that landlords are working hard to
close through evictions and demolitions as well as political lobbying.31
In some markets, real estate firms try to profit from the potential value
of their properties by selling rather than renting them. This can take the
form of townhouses being converted from apartment buildings to singlefamily homes, or individual apartments in larger buildings being sold as coops or condominiums. As the market for such housing rises in cities around
the world, the value gap between the income they generate as rental
properties and their potential sale price expands and the potential for
gentrification rises.32
A similar dynamic exists in places where a property’s current use masks
the potential income that property could generate if it were given over to
another activity. The clearest example of this functional gap would be the
remaining factories in central city locations.33 In Manhattan’s Chinatown,
for example, the garment industry—which by the 1980s employed roughly
20,000 people in 500 shops—has now nearly vanished, not only because of
competition from cheap imports but also because of a widening functional
gap: the difference between current manufacturing rents and potential
residential or commercial rents became so great that building owners were
willing to evict their industrial tenants to make room for higher paying
alternatives.34 By now, most of Chinatown’s factories have been converted
into offices, hotels or condominiums, forcing the workforce that sustained
them to shift to service-sector jobs, while enabling the industrialists who
ran them to move on to other, more profitable pursuits.35 John Lam, one of
the neighborhood’s most infamous garment titans, went from owning
fifteen factories, employing 1,200 workers and doing over $40 million in
business annually to being one of the “undisputed titans of Manhattan’s
hotel scene.”36
By the twenty-first century, real estate developers and city planners
learned how to identify and exploit these opportunities, turning grit into
gold. They developed housing, policing, education and design strategies to
identify rent, value and functional gaps, and encouraged speculators to
close them.37
This has given rise to new and peculiar forms of gentrification. Rich
neighborhoods that never truly experienced disinvestment have become
“super-gentrified,” with homes in places like New York’s Greenwich
Village and Brooklyn Heights selling for astronomical figures to finance
titans, and unregulated rents pricing out even relatively wealthy
households.38 Far from central cities, some rural towns are moving through
the phases of gentrification, with rent gaps making historic barn houses and
ranch-side cottages alluring sites for speculative investment.39 Some rural
areas, like billionaire Ted Turner’s sprawling 2 million-acre ranches in
Montana and New Mexico, are gentrified virtually overnight and send their
effects rippling outward through the local land market.40 Meanwhile,
billionaires like Warren Buffett and Sam Zell are buying up trailer parks
and raising rents for tenants, many of whom are displaced urbanites.41
Beyond housing, global media corporations like Disney, Universal and
Sony have worked with city planners to transform commercial areas such
New Orleans’ French Quarter and Manhattan’s Times Square into gentrified
tourist traps.42
As much as the process mutates, it always retains its core: landlords and
developers identify gaps and act to close them. In most cases, however, it’s
not just capitalists initiating the process, but also local state actors who, in
responding to the changing economic landscape as well as the demands of
specific landholders, aim to lure investors and developers to particular
areas.43 The politics of gentrification are therefore just as important as the
The Politics of Gentrification
The emergence of gentrification in the late 1960s and ’70s tracked closely
with important political changes at the national and local levels. For
gentrification’s advance, the most significant was a shift in US cities’
governing coalitions.
When manufacturing firms exited post-war urban centers, they left
behind not just a tremendous amount of property but also a political
vacuum. Since the industrial revolution took hold, cities had been governed
by the political party that could best bridge the divide between the needs of
industrial capital and its workforce. But with the flight of manufacturing
from cities, real estate and finance became the remaining major urban
power bloc and the key to rebuilding local economies.44 Real estate was an
especially potent force in urban politics, because while finance can be
ephemeral, real estate is always place-based.45
This economic restructuring forced local governments to seek out new
coalitions for securing political power. Being a friend of industry and a
champion of industrial unions was no longer a viable strategy for winning
(or financing) elections. By the late 1960s, it was becoming much more
important to be a friend of real estate capital and the service and building
trades unions.46
This new growth coalition looked little like the old, and as a result some
of the elected officials who rose to prominence during this transitional
period—like New York’s mayor, John Lindsay—were branded as refreshing
reformers. They made common cause with the nascent community
development movement, which, with support from federal anti-poverty
programs and the Ford Foundation, was encouraging reinvestment in
central city neighborhoods that had long been redlined or targeted for
“urban renewal” clearance. They tweaked city land use laws to allow for a
balance of renewed commercial development and historic preservation.
They recognized that the country was moving toward social liberalism, and
spurned overt racism and bigotry (without fully addressing the structural
racism embedded in their policies and programs). They embraced art and
cultural production as ways to bring people with money to their cities; when
artists began renovating industrial lofts and middle class professionals were
renovating brownstones, they saw a smart strategy for redevelopment that
was simultaneously edgy and posh.47
New regional blocs in New York City, along with Philadelphia,
Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Washington, DC, and a number of other
deindustrializing cities with historic housing stocks, made it part of their
mission not only to encourage downtown construction, but to create policies
that would hasten gentrification.48 The City Planning Commission’s 1969
Plan for New York City stated, “If brownstoners have done what they have
done in the face of major difficulties, it is staggering to think of what could
be done if the difficulties were removed.”49 The plan proposed guaranteed
mortgage loans for one- and two-family home purchases, long-term loans
for renovations and tax abatements for home improvements.
Loft conversions were legalized and encouraged in sections of the city
where planners wanted to spark industrial flight and residential reuse. Some
housing leaders were initially bemused by the fury over “obsolete” loft
buildings. Union co-op developer Abraham Kazan joked sardonically that
“a finer collection of fire traps would be hard to find anywhere.”50 Over
time, however, many policymakers came to embrace the idea and were
relieved to be dealing with artists demanding live-work spaces rather than
impoverished tenants demanding livable conditions. In her book Loft
Living, sociologist Sharon Zukin quotes a SoHo resident recalling a crucial
public hearing on a proposed artists’ district:
[T]here were lots of other groups giving testimony on other matters. Poor people from the
South Bronx and Bed-Stuy complaining about rats, rent control, and things like that. The board
just shelved those matters and moved right along. They didn’t know how to proceed. Then they
came to us. All the press secretaries were there, and the journalists. The klieg lights went on,
and the cameras started to roll. And all these guys started making speeches about the
importance of art to New York City.51
Early gentrification was a boon to politicians who were both hamstrung by
shrinking municipal budgets and unwilling to take on serious problems of
entrenched poverty and structural racism. To their relief, the face of early
gentrification was a group of middle class, mostly White liberals looking to
add value to the city’s building stock—just the kind of constituents they
were seeking to cultivate. In many cities, these newcomers took over
neighborhood associations, asserted their power within party clubs, and
steered the work of local governance and planning bodies that had recently
been created in response to the urban civil rights struggles of the 1960s. In
so doing, they exerted power far disproportionate to their actual numbers.52
By the 1970s, conditions were in place to promote gentrification as a
spatial fix for capital and a political fix for cities in crisis. It would take
planners, however, to scale up gentrification from a neighborhood
phenomenon of renovation and reinvention to a larger process of
displacement, demolition and development.
Planners for Gentrification
Real estate fortunes are cyclical. The job of planners, then, is to keep
business booming as long as possible, and when land and property values
ultimately fall, to get them back up as quickly as possible. In order to do so,
planners and policy elites have developed a wide range of mechanisms,
which they put to use in various forms depending on particular local
Local property tax cuts are one of the main incentives cities use to lure
and retain real estate investment. They come in two main forms: those for
renovation, and those for construction. In 1955, New York lawmakers
created the J-51 tax abatement, which gives landlords a fourteen-year tax
break for repairing their properties. In 1975 they expanded it to encourage
industrial-to-residential conversions. At a cost of over $250 million per year
in lost revenue, building owners continue to use J-51 to gut and renovate
old buildings and drive up rents, or convert their rental properties into
condominiums.53 In 1971, to spur new apartment construction, the city
created the 421-a tax incentive program, which gives enormous tax breaks
to luxury developers in gentrifying areas.54 By 2016, the program was
costing the city $1.2 billion per year in lost property tax revenue; it was
subsequently tweaked to extend the tax break at an estimated cost of $2.4
billion per year.55
Critics call this “geobribery”—the way planners use public finances to
lure private investment into specific areas.56 Among the most direct
examples of geobribes are Payment In Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) projects,
which have become commonplace in municipalities large and small. Under
these schemes, developers pay a low annual fee to the municipality rather
than a full tax load. Sometimes these deals are negotiated for deep-pocketed
nonprofits or developers building on publicly owned (and therefore taxexempt) land, but many cities—like New Jersey’s Jersey City—have found
ways to apply them more generally in order to incentivize downtown
development.57 In some cases, in order to pay PILOTs instead of ordinary
tax bills, for-profit developers will pay nonprofits to buy a piece of land,
then lease it back to them. Cities get a little bit of cash from these deals, but
they are often legally bound to use those funds to upgrade nearby
infrastructure. In this sense, the developers win twice—they pay lower fees
over time and they get improved public services.
An even grander geobribe is Tax Increment Financing (TIF), a widely
used development incentive. Under TIF, planners usually start by
designating an area as “blighted”—terminology borrowed directly from
“urban renewal” planning.58 Next, the city issues bonds for new
infrastructure development in the district. After making improvements to
the land and raising its value tremendously, the city hands the land to a
developer, who builds private commercial or residential buildings. If their
property values rise, their tax revenues are “captured” and used first to pay
off bondholders, and then for renewed investment inside the TIF zone; if
property values are stagnant or fall, the city is on the hook to pay back the
bondholders. Risk is thus transferred from the private sector (real estate
developers) to the public sector (the rest of us). When they fail, TIFs blow
up budgets; when they are successful, they magnify uneven development.
In such “successes,” TIFs can generate more revenue than an entire city’s
municipal budget, reinforcing the disparity between gentrified and
disinvested neighborhoods.59
In addition to geobribery, planners have taken steps to surrender public
ownership of land and buildings. One important manifestation is selling off
tax-foreclosed properties acquired during recessions. In the wake of its mid1970s fiscal crisis, New York City seized thousands of buildings when their
owners stopped paying property taxes. In severely disinvested
neighborhoods, this represented an enormous transfer of property and
wealth; a 1983 study showed that 19,588 buildings had been taken in
Harlem, representing more than a third of the total housing stock and nearly
as many buildings as were owned by private landlords.60 Some of these
foreclosed buildings were turned into limited-equity co-ops and controlled
by former squatters.61 Most of them, however, were sold cheaply or given
away to landlords who wanted to upgrade them.62 Years later, Obama’s
Housing and Urban Development secretary, Shaun Donovan, would look
back on these actions as “the largest privatization of housing anywhere in
the country.”63 This form of strategic liquidation played a large part in the
gentrification of disinvested neighborhoods.
While cities were giving away their seized properties, many were also
demolishing much—if not all—of their public housing. In conjunction with
federal and state governments, cities across the country—from Atlanta to
Chicago to Baltimore to New Orleans—severely underfunded their public
housing and allowed projects to fall into dangerous disrepair. Building off
architectural analyses and social science fads, many planners claimed the
problem was bad design and a concentration of poverty—a problem they
never seemed to associate with a concentration of wealth elsewhere.64
Financed by the federal government’s HOPE VI program, these cities
developed plans to destroy their public housing complexes and build smallscale, mixed-income, subsidized private housing wherever lots were
available. The numbers of new apartments rarely came close to the number
of homes destroyed, and they often cost significantly more to rent, but the
process freed up coveted central city land for new development and
As cities destroyed their public housing, they chipped away at rent
controls or abandoned them altogether. This helped cement the relationship
between planning and gentrification. With strong rent controls in place,
urban planning interventions like new parks, schools and transit do not
necessarily produce elevated housing costs; while public investments in
neighborhoods might widen rent gaps, rent controls would prevent
landlords from closing them. With rent controls diminished or removed,
however, landlords could more easily raise rents based on new
neighborhood improvements; they market these planning interventions as
amenities for their property, and thus immediately turn inclusionary public
investments into exclusionary private gains. Today a weak form of rent
control still stands in some California, DC, Maryland, New York and New
Jersey cities, but these systems have been systematically undermined by
landlord-backed legislators and under-enforced by regulators. Many US
states have passed ordinances outlawing further controls.
In addition to straightforward land giveaways and deregulation,
planners have overseen a subtler but more systematic privatization of urban
spaces.66 Historic gathering places have been turned over to private
developers for the creation of festival markets—an economic development
strategy that rarely benefits city residents as much as it does tourists and
developers. Such projects, like Harborplace in Baltimore and South Street
Seaport in New York, were especially popular among neoliberal planners in
the 1970s and 1980s.67 Management of many older parks has been handed
over to conservancies, who raise private funds for improvements and
impose new rules that often target the poor.68 Newly designed public spaces
are often privatized from the start. Not only do they come with
conservancies attached to them, they are even sometimes private property—
as in the case of New York City’s privately owned public spaces. In cities
throughout the country, commercial main streets are encouraged to form
business improvement districts (BIDs), self-taxing entities run by and for
landlords that collude to raise rents, bring in big box stores, and impose new
security regimes on streets, sidewalks and public parks.69 Reflecting on the
impact of one such BID on a strip of immigrant-owned small businesses,
Tania Mattos of the group Queens Neighborhoods United recalled, “it used
to be Calle Colombia. Now it’s Calle Corporate.”70
Likewise, planners have increasingly used zoning to facilitate
gentrification. Zoning holds an outsized place in US municipal politics
because of the particular dynamics of political devolution during the
neoliberal period: responsibilities have been pushed to the local level, while
control over policies and purse strings is held at higher governmental
scales.71 For planners, this is a catch-22: cities are responsible for solving
their own housing crises but the federal government res…
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