One of the best things about an open platform like the Lab is that it cuts through politics and gets to the heart of what city dwellers really care about. It turns out, if you really ask people what problems they face on a day-to-day basis in their cities, and how they think those issues should be addressed, well, they’ll tell you.
More often than not, however, the problems they’ll tell you are not the ones getting attention in press. They’re the ones that fall by the wayside, that politicians and media sidestep because they are the hardest to fix.
One of these problems overwhelmingly left unsolved in most cities today is the issue of affordability. Whether north or south, east or west, whether we’re talking about slum dwellers in Bangkok or the whopping 27 percent of Americans paying more than half their income in rent, it is an issue increasingly prevalent in cities around the world. Yet, considering how pressing it is in the lives of so many, it receives shockingly little attention in the large-scale conversation. Sure, we’ll talk about former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg’s sexy micro-units, throwing in a statistic or two about skyrocketing rents in Manhattan, but the depth of conversation often stops there. The systematic “whys” and “hows” and “what-can-we-dos” get left in the dust.
But here’s the thing about affordability: whether we see it or not, it is an intrinsic piece of nearly every urban problem. Why do North American cities have problems with car traffic to the ’burbs? Often, because people have moved there in search of a lifestyle they can’t afford in the city center. Sometimes, they have even been incentivized to relocate in that way. Are poor children in your city more likely to drop out of school? Perhaps that’s due in part to frequent moves due to lack of stable housing. Have you heard that disease is spreading in Indian cities due to public defecation and overcrowding? That’s because slum dwellers cannot afford a large enough space with sanitation services, and have to pay per use of the toilet.
What has consistently astounded me while following the urban conversation in New York, Berlin, and Mumbai with the Lab, and in other cities around the world, is how little affordability enters into it. We tend to see affordability as its own isolated issue, rather than viewing it as one of the missing lynchpins in all our conversations around sustainability, resilience, and livability. The fact is, where we live determines how we live. Even if most of us want to make choices that are good for the environment, our kids, our economies, our health, or even our social lives, whether or not we’re able to do so depends largely on the living situation we can afford. If we want people to make better choices, they need to be able to afford them.
If there is one cry for help I’ve heard muted around the world over the past several years of this project, it is undoubtedly just this: if we want to build cities that will save the environment, save our economies, save our communities, and save the world, they must be cities we can all afford to live in in a reasonable and dignified way. Then, and only then, can we expect everyone to worry about the rest.