What Do Solar Power, Affirmative Action, and Urban Planning Have in Common?

A clean slate isn't enough for housing and transportation policy.

A Bronx development with rooftop gardens shaded by solar panels, photo from



Debating the merits of more sustainable forms of energy, some people claim to be supportive in theory but disagree with the idea of government intervening to pick winners and losers. "Let solar, wind, nuclear, coal, and oil duke it out in the free market, and may the best man win," they say.

Opposition to affirmative action relies on a similar strain of thought—i.e., government, stay out of it. Blacks and other historically disadvantaged minorities have all the same legal rights as whites now, so we shouldn't let race play a role in our hiring practices. The days of explicit employment discrimination based on race and/or ethnicity are behind us, so our goal should be a purely merit-based system.

These arguments may sound reasonable and even-handed, but they share an (often) willful ignorance of the enduring power of institutions, and the role past policies played in constructing them.

In the case of solar power and other forms of renewable energy, there is no

tabula rasa

for competition with coal and oil. Oil extraction and production has been

subsidized by the U.S. government for nearly 100 years

, and the industry has been able to build an incredible portfolio of land rights, capital goods, and political and human resources. Even if the government immediately withdrew the

up to $50 billion a year

 it spends in support of oil extraction, production, and shipment, the physical and logistical resources amassed over the past century would remain. Demanding that relatively new sustainable energy industries compete on equal footing with an oil industry established over generations, and with trillions of dollars of taxpayer money, is both unrealistic and dishonest.

Huntington Beach oil field/beach in 1928, photo from the

Washington Post


Affirmative action is a more controversial issue, and one which reasonable people will disagree about, but the argument in support of it is similar. It starts with the idea that there's more to finding and securing a good job than the qualifications you can put on a resume. Everyone seems to be aware that connections are important—"it's not what you know, it's who you know!"—and the reality is that, largely due to the systematic racism of previous generations, disadvantaged minorities tend not to know the kind of people that can put in a good word for them, get them a foot in the door, etc. A black man who was qualified to go to school for engineering in the 1950s might instead have been forced to take a job as a janitor, and his children would grow up with less money and fewer connections to people in more prestigious, higher-paying positions. When they reach adulthood they're unlikely to have the same "ins" as those who grew up in more socioeconomically advantaged families.

And so it is with urban planning and development.

When I wrote last week that

some Millennials will move back to the suburbs and that's okay

, one criticism I received was that (paraphrasing) "No, actually it's not okay. Suburbs are economically and ecologically unsustainable, and there's nothing good about more people living in them."

My response was that it's not our goal to decide where people should live, and that we should focus our efforts on eliminating the

various subsidies that make suburban sprawl artificially cheap

. Without those subsidies, people are free to make whatever decision they like as to where they live, but with full awareness and responsibility for the costs of that choice.

But that's not the whole story. As with sustainable energy and affirmative action, history matters. Removing the current incentives for building and living in sprawl-type housing does nothing to change the character of previous developments; freeways built through city centers for the benefit of suburban commuters aren't going anywhere (


); and lenders will continue to be most comfortable with single-family, greenfield-type development after many decades of being conditioned to it. Even the pop culture appeal of "the house with a white picket fence" will likely persist, despite

a massive shift in the desirability of smaller, mixed-income, transit-accessible housing


No money for repairs, or for lacrosse gear. :(

In other words, suburbs are like the kid with the rich parents—or the rich Uncle Sam, as the case may be. You know, the ones that sent him to the best schools and prep courses, paid his way through college, got him his first internship, and paid his rent until he got on his feet at his first real job. Cities are the janitor's kid who was begrudged by wealthy families for being on the reduced-price lunch program, even as they spent thousands of dollars affording their child every possible advantage. Just because your parents cut you off when you turned 25 doesn't mean you're now on equal footing with the janitor's son.

Cities have been abused and neglected by the policies of our federal government over the past sixty-plus years, and they've overcome a great many challenges to finally begin truly thriving. Whether you live downtown or in the most rural exurb, you should be encouraged by that. But despite the recent success of cities, we can't ignore the fact that they're not working for lots of people. Exactly because of their incredible success they've become unaffordable to many lower-income households. As the great suburban experiment unravels, the demand for smaller, closer-to-work housing is only going to grow, and the pressure on low income families is going to grow with it. To capture that growth in cities without placing further burdens on the most vulnerable will be difficult.

To do so, the response needs to go beyond ending the wasteful subsidies for new suburban development. We need a rebalancing, one with much greater support for existing communities, both for urban neighborhoods and suburbs that commit to more economically and ecologically sustainable infill development. Simply wiping the slate clean of subsidies entirely does little to solve the growing affordability crisis for low- and middle-income families, and will result in more displacement than new urban housing. Unlike with sprawl, there are

numerous reasons

to make it easier for people to live less car-dependent lives (or at least encourage shorter commutes), so this should be a no-brainer. The same goes for our overbuilt network of urban highways and


. Communities affected need support, not indifference. The Federal Highway Administration took a tire iron to the kneecap of cities it built these highways through—promising not to build anymore isn't enough when the neighborhoods surrounding them now walk with a permanent limp.

On the bright side, there are plenty of underpasses

for all the newly homeless people to sleep under.

We can help cities and their residents adapt to their growing populations by taking 

the money we're using to pay wealthy families to buy homes

and using it to boost our affordable housing programs,

Section 8

, and

Community Development Block Grants


rather than cutting them

. This can be done in both cities and suburbs. With that money alone, we could quadruple the budgets of both programs. The money we spend on the suburbs should be used to make them

more resilient and productive

, not just bigger. Five-mile bike rides and one-mile walks should be treated as at least as valuable as car trips and our federal expenditures should reflect that, instead of representing the 

less than 2% of transportation spending

they do today. Federal transit spending should do more than keep the lights on; it should build for the future, as highway spending did sixty years ago.

The suburbs have been and continue to be coddled with incredibly expensive road projects and tract developments, neither of which pencil out economically without federal and state support. All the while, cities have mostly been forced to go it alone, and even the major highway projects within their borders have been in service to suburban commuters and those just passing through. It's time for us to invest some money in the people who choose lives of sustainability, greater economic efficiency and productivity, and more consistent physical activity, and to stop spending it on the opposite.