In recent years, the young, educated, and affluent have surged back into cities, reversing decades of suburban flight and urban decline. And yet all is not well. The very the same forces that power the growth of our great cities have generated a New Urban Crisis of gentrification, rising inequality, and increasingly unaffordable urban housing.
The New Urban Crisis is different from the older urban crisis of the 1960s and 1970s. That previous crisis was defined by the economic abandonment of cities and their loss of economic function. This New Urban Crisis is more all encompassing than its predecessor, hitting at both growing and declining cities as well as urban and suburban centres.
The New Urban Crisis is shaped by the fundamental contradiction brought on by urban clustering. On the one hand, the grouping of industry, economic activity, and talented and ambitious people in cities is the basic engine of innovation and economic growth. But, even as urban clustering drives growth, it carves deep divides into our cities and our society. As the affluent and advantaged return to cities, they colonize the best locations. Everyone else is then crammed into the remaining disadvantaged areas of the urban core or pushed farther out into the suburbs.
My new book, The New Urban Crisis, reflects my experience living in Toronto for the past decade. The rise of Rob Ford in a diverse and progressive city as Toronto was a “big wake up call” to the dark-side of the urban revival. Ford’s rise was the product of the city’s burgeoning class divide. As Toronto’s once sizable middle class declined and its old middle-class neighborhoods faded, the city was splitting into a small set of affluent, educated areas packed in and around the urban core and along the major subway and transit lines, and a much larger expanse of disadvantaged neighborhoods located far from the city center and transit. Ford’s message resonated powerfully with his constituency of working people and new immigrants, who felt that the benefits of the city’s revitalization were being captured by a downtown elite and passing them by.
I came to see this mounting class divide as a ticking time bomb. If a city as progressive, diverse, and prosperous as Toronto could fall prey to such a populist backlash, then it could happen anywhere. It did. In short order came England’s stunning and wholly unexpected decision to leave the European Union with the Brexit and then the even more unexpected and more frightening election of Donald Trump as President of the United States. All three — Trump, Ford, and Brexit — ultimately form the deep divides and contradictions of the New Urban Crisis.
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