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Cities of Amber: Antigrowth Politics and the Making of Modern Liberalism

Cities of Amber, my current book project, is the first history of the modern urban affordability crisis and the political origins of the liberal “NIMBY.” It traces their roots to the national party realignment of the late twentieth century and, specifically, to the ideological transformations that took place among liberals around the issue of urban growth. During the New Deal Era, Democrats across the country emphatically supported the growth of cities and suburbs. Beginning in the fifties, however, Americans dismayed by the unfulfilled promises of postwar society began to question the idea that “the good life” demanded the continued development of the places in which they lived. Over the decades that followed, a constellation of loosely related citizen efforts to guide, limit, or reverse the course of metropolitan growth coalesced into a powerful movement uniting voters, activists, intellectuals, and politicians who once had little in common. By the late twentieth century, their work had produced a new antigrowth liberalism that appealed to disillusioned New Dealers, lapsed leftists, and moderates abandoning the Republican Party. This new generation of Democrats was much more skeptical of—and in many cases downright hostile toward—not only urban growth itself, but also the idea that such growth was in any way compatible with liberalism as they now defined it.

Image of a newspaper advertisement by the group San Francisco Opposition against construction of skyscrapers in San Francisco

Newspaper advertisement opposing high-rise construction in San Francisco, 1971.

Showing how debates about urban growth were central to the process by which the fragile social order of the twentieth century gave way to the fractious politics of the twenty-first, Cities of Amber offers a new understanding of the thing that we call “liberalism,” the influence of local politics in its creation, and its role in making modern American society. While many on the left believe today that America’s most pressing problems—particularly in its largest cities—originate in the Democratic Party’s supposed rightward turn, the history of antigrowth politics shows that Democrats never abandoned their core principle of using government power to effect social progress. Rather, in “blue” cities across the country, new groups of liberals reworked New Deal liberalism to serve different goals, on different ideological bases, at different levels of governance. Their success at reining in the “growth machine” benefited a fortunate few. Yet, their worldview’s own contradictions—unresolved and perhaps unresolvable—also produced the permanent housing shortages, exorbitant real estate prices, unsustainable commutes, and intensified segregation that plague cities today. Moving away from the popular idea that America followed a linear path from “big government” to “neoliberalism,” Cities of Amber demonstrates that our current cost-of-living crisis is the result not of the inexorable power of laissez-faire—or of simplistic liberal hypocrisy—but rather of Democrats’ deliberate attempts to improve the cities and suburbs in which they lived.

 

Cities of Amber is based on my dissertation of the same name, which I defended and deposited at Harvard University in 2023. The dissertation version is under embargo on ProQuest until 2025, but please email me if you would like a copy. Below, you can find a talk I delivered in March 2024 about Cities of Amber as part of the Cornell architecture school's City & Regional Planning Colloquium.

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