Don't kid yourself – Donald Trump won't Make Cities Great Again

The psychology of a child, and the office of a president. This isn't going to be much fun for any of us, is it? Image: Getty

When children conjure alternate worlds out of thin air, ones that fly in the face of observable reality, we celebrate (or wave away) the phenomenon as a luxury of youth—one that expires with the twilight of adolescence.

But there’s a rare exception carved out for those who reach the heights of elite opinion-making. Time and again, one finds that to speak and write about a world of one's own creation, at odds with all available evidence, isn’t flagged up as the false prophecy or reality murder that it is, but as ‘journalism’.

In recent weeks for example, prominent thinkers on both the local and national stage have let their imaginations run wild with self-delusion, failing themselves and readers in the process.

Here, I’m thinking of the curious and deeply unconvincing case that the incoming administration in the US is set to unleash a rolling tide of goodwill on America’s cities. You’d expect anyone making such an ambitious claim to do so on something like solid intellectual ground. Instead, we get the opposite – arguments that begin to crumble under the weight of their own dishonesty.

A few of these are making the rounds, but here I’d like to focus on the most popular and least convincing of them all: that Trump’s cosiness with business magnates and bias for home-grown industries make him a friend to cities. Trump “doesn’t like losers,” one reminds us, and so – by some magic – the triumph of metropolitan manufacturing is a sure bet. While Trump has yet to offer specific policy plans for the metropolitan hellscapes he evoked during the campaign, we can draw some conclusions based on the available evidence.

So good for ridiculous photographs, so bad for high office. Image: Michael Vadon.

Trumped-up charges

Before we can evaluate the claim that great things loom on the horizon for cities, we need to diagnosis what afflicts them in the first place. That diagnosis has been offered by people smarter than me, but the basic story is simple: over the past century, America’s cities – particularly those with higher levels of poverty and those with high African-American populations – have been subject to a campaign of legal banditry.

These cities have lived through a highlight reel of the American talent for planned misery. A long record of both housing and job discrimination, enforced through relentless campaigns of white terrorism, combined in much of the urban north to mimic the horrors endured by black bodies across the apartheid South. Add to that the financialization of the economy and the evaporation of domestic manufacturing, and the picture looks a lot less mystical. Policy transformed whole cities into places where life is menaced by both past and present injury.

To start, the idea that Trump would take action against housing or job discrimination is one that laughs at itself right before bursting into flames. The man is, by any honest measure, a serial offender of both and there’s not a shred of evidence that he, his Attorney General, or his Secretary of Housing and Urban Development will lift a finger to see either vanquished, let alone to make amends for the devastation they’ve engineered in America’s cities.

In fact, we should expect the exact opposite. The incoming Justice Department is likely to enlist itself in the long war of attrition against civil rights. And Ben Carson, Trump’s nominee for HUD Secretary, is a know-nothing enthusiast for the days when solving housing discrimination was left to the real estate and mortgage industries – that is, people who struck gold in the heyday of residential segregation and never looked back.

Any effort to tackle the grinding poverty and enormous wealth inequality endured by so many city-dwellers must either reckon with these forces or risk being ridiculed as the nothing burger that it is.


Ben Carson, your neighbourhood's know-nothing secretary. Image: Gage Skidmore.

Sweeping up the Detroit-us

And what about all that fire-breathing about a manufacturing comeback? As Dean Baker points out, we may see more Carrier-style deals down the line that manage to protect a vanishingly small number of these jobs from outsourcing. But this isn’t the first breath in a long-awaited resuscitation of industrial America. It is the last gasp of an empire desperate to cover its tracks after pulverizing its own manufacturing base.

And there are zero signs of a reversal in sight.

Despite the strongly-worded skepticism about TPP-style trade deals coming from Trump’s pick for Commerce Secretary, Wilbur Ross, it should be remembered that Trump is enormously influenced by whoever whispers in his ear last. On economic matters, that whispering is most likely to come from folks like Steve Mnuchin and Gary Cohn, Goldman Sachs alumni who built their fortunes on the misery of others, and who show no signs of caring one iota about the public outrage over American trade policy. That’s a strong indication that reversing the corporate-friendly arc of those policies – the major, and perhaps desired, outcome of which has been the upward redistribution of income – is utter fantasy.

As the incoming administration recruits more and more pro-monopoly, anti-competition heartthrobs to its ranks, the flickering hope for a new approach on trade grows dimmer by the day. We know the cost of that decision: American manufacturing, especially in its former metropolitan cores, will continue to teeter on the brink of lifelessness, with the vultures circling anxiously overhead.

Detroit, home of urban decline and source of puns. Image: Arthur Siegel / Wikimedia Commons.

Meanwhile, Republican-controlled legislatures across the country are hard at work targeting trades unions for annihilation. Unions, you guessed it, being the primary vehicle for increasing workers’ negotiating power, and thus wages. The long awaited federal-state alignment is here, and it comes at the cost of considerable human suffering.

So what sort of narrow success story do these folks have in mind exactly? The answer is there if we look closely enough. Buried just below the surface of the arguments we’ve deliberated is a revealing admission: that Trump’s goodwill towards cities is measured not by the welfare of its residents, but the uninterrupted economic dominance of its corporations.

Their deepest ambition is to see to it that the economy of the last forty years – where corporations rake in enormous profits while working communities languish in the economic abyss – remains unchanged, other than to become a more bullish version of itself.

The Wise Men of public opinion may envision a different world, but offer no evidence for us to base such a conclusion on. That’s the thing with reality: it hovers ominously over those who can least afford to live in myth, calling on them to confront the world as it is, or give free reign to the dark imaginations of others.

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To beat rising temperatures, Vienna launches a network of 'Cool Streets'

A Vienna resident cools off at one of the city's new Cool Streets installations. (Courtesy Christian Fürthner/Mobilitätsagentur Wien)

Over the past several months, Austria has recorded its highest unemployment rate since World War II, thanks to the economic aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic. With no job or a suddenly smaller income – not to mention the continued threat of the virus – many Viennese will opt for a staycation this summer.  

At the same time, last year, Austria’s capital experienced 39 days with temperatures of over 30°C (86°F), one of its hottest summers in history according to the Central Institute for Meteorology and Geodynamics.

Climate experts expect a similarly sizzling 2020 season, and city officials are now doubling down on efforts to combat the heat by launching a “Cool Streets” initiative as well as a new, state-of-the-art cooling park.

“As the city councilwoman in charge of climate, it is my job to ensure local cooling,” Vienna’s deputy mayor Birgit Hebein proclaimed at the opening of one of 22 new “Cool Streets” on 22 June.

“In Austria, there are already more heat deaths than traffic fatalities,” she added.

Hebein was referring to the 766 people the Austrian Agency for Health and Food Security included in its 2018 heat-associated mortality statistics. The number was up by 31% compared to 2017, and in contrast to the 409 people who died in traffic collisions the same year.

The project includes 18 temporary Cool Streets located across the city, plus four roads that will be redesigned permanently and designated as “Cool Streets Plus”.

“The Plus version includes the planting of trees. Brighter surfaces, which reflect less heat, replace asphalt in addition to the installation of shadow or water elements,” said Kathrin Ivancsits, spokeswoman for the city-owned bureau Mobilitätsagentur, which is coordinating the project.

Vienna's seasonal Cool Streets provide shady places to rest and are closed to cars. (Petra Loho for CityMetric)

In addition to mobile shade dispensers and seating possibilities amid more greenery provided by potted plants, each street features a steel column offering drinking water and spray cooling. The temporary Cool Streets will also remain car-free until 20 September.

A sensor in the granite base releases drinking water and pushes it through 34 nozzles whenever the outside temperature reaches 25°C (77°F) . As soon as the ambient temperature drops to 23°C (73°F), the sensor, which operates from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., turns off the water supply.

The sensors were included in part to allay concerns about legionella, a pathogenic bacteria that can reproduce in water.  

“When the spray stops, the system drains, and therefore no microbial contamination can develop,” said Dr. Hans-Peter Hutter, deputy head of the Department of Environmental Health at the Center for Public Health at Medical University Vienna, in a televised interview.

Hutter also assured the public that there is no increased risk of a Covid-19 infection from the spray as long as people adhere to the one-meter social distance requirement.

But Samer Bagaeen of the University of Kent's School of Architecture and Planning notes that air cooling systems, like the ones used in Germany at abattoirs, have been found recently to be a risk factor for Covid-19 outbreaks.

“The same could be said for spay devices,” he warned.

Vienna’s district councils selected the 22 Cool Street locations with the help of the city’s Urban Heat Vulnerability Index. The map shows where most people suffer from heat by evaluating temperature data, green and water-related infrastructure, and demographic data.

“Urban heat islands can occur when cities replace the natural land cover with dense concentrations of pavement, buildings, and other surfaces that absorb and retain heat,” as the US Environmental Protection Agency states.

A rendering of Vienna's planned park featuring a Coolspot, which is scheduled to open in August. Click to expand.
(Courtesy Carla Lo Landscape Architecture)

Vienna’s sixth district, Mariahilf, is such an area. The construction of the capital’s first “Cooling Park”, a €1 million project covering the 10,600 square-metre Esterházypark, is designed to provide relief. 

Green4Cities, a centre of excellence for green infrastructure in urban areas, designed the park’s main attraction, the “Coolspot”. The nearly 3.40-metre high steel trellis holds three rings equipped with spray nozzles. Textile shading slats, tensioned with steel cables, cover them.

The effects of evaporation and evapotranspiration create a cooler microclimate around the 30 square-metre seating area, alongside other spray spots selectively scattered across the park.

The high-pressure spray also deposits tiny droplets on plant and tree leaves, which stimulates them to sweat even more. All together, these collective measures help to cool their surroundings by up to six degrees.

The landscape architect Carla Lo and her team planned what she calls the “low-tech” park components. “Plants are an essential design element of the Cooling Park,” Lo says. “By unsealing the [soil], we can add new grass, herbaceous beds, and more climate-resistant trees to the existing cultivation”.

Light-coloured, natural stone punctuated by grass seams replaces the old concrete surfaces, and wooden benches meander throughout the park.

Living near the park and yearning for an urban escape close by, Lo says she’s motivated to ensure the park is completed by mid-August.

“If we don't do anything, Vienna will be another eight degrees Celsius hotter in 2050 than it already is,” Hebein said.

Vienna recently came in first in the World's 10 Greenest Cities Index by the consulting agency Resonance.

“There is no one size fits all on how cities respond to urban heat,” says the University of Kent’s Bagaeen, who points out that Vienna was one of the first European cities to set up an Urban Heat Islands Strategic Plan in 2015.

In the short term, prognoses on the city’s future development may be more difficult: Vienna votes this autumn.

Petra Loho is a journalist and photographer based in Austria.