It’s no secret that U.S. cities are more progressive on the whole than suburbs and rural areas. Some cities, however, are now beginning to see rifts between left-leaning residents and the rest of the population.

This divide is largely brought on by income inequality that’s forcing many residents out of cities, leaving the very wealthy living alongside an increasing homeless population in cities like San Francisco, Seattle, and Denver.

Understanding the “New Left Urbanists”

Writing in City Journal, journalist and filmmaker Christopher Rufo characterized the new Left urbanists in the following way:

These activists believe that local governments must rebuild the urban environment—housing, transit, roads, and tolls—to produce a new era of city flourishing, characterized by social and racial justice and a net-zero carbon footprint. The urbanists rally around provocative slogans like “ban all cars,” “raze the suburbs,” and “single-family housing is white supremacy”—ironically, since they’re generally white, affluent, and educated themselves. They’re often employed in public or semipublic roles in urban planning, housing development, and social advocacy. 

These urban residents represent a shift from the views of more moderate urban Democrats, who focus on incremental policy change and a healthy relationship between business, government, and civil society.

As Rufo points out, the “New Left Urbanists,” as he dubs them, hold political power because of their affluent status and knowledge of government and public policy. They’re using this power to push for reforms that meet their agenda. 

For example, a bloc of “urbanists” held back business development in San Francisco’s Mission District by claiming that converting a business into an apartment building would displace minority residents. Others in New York City are urging City Hall to eliminate the use of cars in all five boroughs by restricting curbside parking space and giving developers incentives for eliminating parking in their buildings.

Pushback at the Ballot Box

While these urban activists on the left have been successful at making some policy changes, other efforts are met with resistance from the electorate at large. 

This past May, 81 percent of Denver voters opposed a “right-to-survive” ballot measure that would have legalized homeless encampments in public spaces. The city’s progressive activists argued that its current camping ban was inhumane and unconstitutional because it violated a person’s “right to exist.” 

A coalition of business, government, and nonprofit groups rose up to oppose the ballot initiative, including the Denver Downtown Partnership and National Association of Realtors. Together, these groups raised more than $2 million to fight the measure and ultimately persuaded voters to reject it.

A similar situation played out in Seattle, where 53 percent of voters support a zero-tolerance policy on camping — despite the city’s progressive reputation. 

Former Washington state gubernatorial candidate Bill Bryant summed up the arguments surrounding the encampment policy when he ran for office in 2016.

“For some reason, enabling people to live in these tent encampments has become a progressive idea,” he said. “Our solution to homelessness and these encampments should not be about what makes the bourgeois feel better about themselves. It should be about what helps those [homeless] people.”

San Diego seems to be closer to striking a balance between progressive activists and the rest of the city’s residents, creating a template for other cities to follow. Republican Mayor Kevin Faulconer plans to reinstate a ban on sleeping in cars and RVs in residential neighborhoods and parking lots. 

“If you are living out of your vehicle because you have nowhere else to go, we want to help you,” Faulconer said. “At the same time, residents and businesses have a right to clean and safe neighborhoods. We will not allow conduct that takes advantage of San Diego’s generosity and destroys the quality of life in our communities.”


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Image Credit Photo by Andrew Amistad on Unsplash