Confronting Globalization: The Role Of Progressive Planners

Prepared for the 1996 Planners Network Conference, “Renewing Hope, Restoring Vision: Progressive Planning in Our Communities.”

by Tom Angotti

Thinking global these days can make you gloomy.

All the progress made empowering communities and making national governments more responsible is threatened by the latest wave of globalization. Giant transnationals are moving capital around the globe at lightning speed, beyond the pale of government regulation and local activists. They’re closing factories, downsizing, and abandoning workers and their communities in the North; they pillage and pollute in the South. They seem to be accountable to no one. They are using new information technology to expand the global assembly line and conquer every corner of the earth without a fast food outlet and ATM.

It also seems that with capital’s new-found mobility there are relatively more constraints on labor. Labor protections are being undermined and regulations governing the quality of life in working class communities are under siege by right-wing ideologues. “Free trade” agreements like NAFTA spur the mobility of capital across borders but place greater penalties on the free movement of labor. And with the collapse of the Soviet Union, we are being told that all thoughts about an economic system based on labor are utopian, the market is supreme, socialism is dead, and government, anyway, is socialism.

At the same time, global inequality is growing. Hunger, shantytown housing, polluted air and water, traffic-clogged streets, crime and violence are the reality for a majority of the world’s urban inhabitants, who live in the former colonial countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America. The Western world, with the United States in the lead, is having a grand banquet, consuming far more than its share of the world’s resources and living off the surplus drained from the rest of the world. The Western world, Japan and a handful of “newly developed” countries continue to hog the lion’s share of capital and commodities. This feast is warming and fouling the globe. And the most powerful of the onlookers are waiting to sit at the same table instead of planning a more sustainable menu.

But we have to go beyond this gloomy outlook. Things are bad, but not that bad.

We are two decades into a new phase of globalization (it all began at least 100 years ago) and much remains of the social reforms and welfare state institutions erected in response to early unbridled capitalism. Even in this North American free market paradise, the major New Deal reforms, though seriously threatened by the insurgent right wing in Congress, remain intact. More importantly, communities all over continue to build social relations based on cooperation instead of competition, social need instead of profit, people instead of property. Maybe it doesn’t add up to a full-blown alternative like socialism. But it also cannot be said that within capitalism all social relations are based on profit and greed. In brief, confronting today’s globalization there are yesterday’s labor victories and many nascent alternatives.

The myth of the monolithic global market tends to paralyze political action and limit our ability to organize and plan for alternatives. And when we do act, we too often limit ourselves to the local level. It is easiest for planners to think locally and act locally. Planners growing up in the tradition of plain old pragmatism find it tempting to get lost in our own grass roots. What we need to learn how to do is to help build the power of historically disenfranchised communities, while fighting for national reforms and global alternatives.


There is already an alternative network of community-based organizations and planners that is helping to build community power, national reforms and global alternatives. We should join it. This is a loose network like Planners Network that brings together professionals and communities struggling against displacement and eviction, for better housing, health care, and education, and for a better quality of life. Part of this network has come together to participate in Habitat II — the second United Nations Conference on Human Settlements held in Istanbul in May/June 1996. During over a year of preparatory conferences and sessions, thousands of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) from around the world came together to pressure governments and international agencies to pay attention to the needs of historically disenfranchised neighborhoods.

As a whole NGOs have helped to brake the neo-liberal escape from government responsibility. But not all NGOs, and the policies they advocate, are progressive. Indeed, some of them help reinforce the neo-liberal agenda of government downsizing by giving credence to the conservative myth of self-help. They offer themselves up as shining examples of the myth that unassisted self-help is the solution to urban problems.


At international forums like Habitat II, the U.S. is a major advocate of self-help. The many grassroots efforts in the U.S. are offered as an example of the merits of local action. They glorify grassroots activism — not to help empower the poor but to deny them any assistance from the powerful. This is a cover for national government disinvestment, downsizing and deregulation. It takes the pressure off international lending agencies (which are dominated by the U.S.) to back government expenditures that benefit the poor. Progressive planners need to contest this distorted view both at home and abroad.

The U.S. advocates of local action leave out any mention of the history of U.S. government subsidies of urban development. Through highway and infrastructure development, loan guarantees, and tax benefits, government intervention in the U.S. is plentiful and favors the wealthy. The public-private partnerships favor the private; the public is usually the junior partner.

In reality, self-help is a survival strategy for the majority of the world’s urban population. It describes the way most poor people are forced to act because they don’t have the resources available to buy urban services on the marketplace. It is telling that most progressive NGOs are in fact committed to political agendas that call not for self-help but for greater government aid to grassroots efforts.


Another crusade led by the U.S. is for decentralization and local government control. While real decentralization of power is sorely needed everywhere, for the most part the U.S. and the global aid establishment propose decentralization as a cover for national government downsizing, privatization and withdrawal of assistance to low-income communities.

The U.S. federal system is often seen as a model for decentralized government. Home rule is equated with democracy. Not discussed is how powerful central government policies support private growth. Nor are the racial and class divisions between central cities and suburbs that are reinforced by local home rule.

Local and national efforts to improve cities need to be informed by a global vision or we can easily end up endorsing simplistic calls for decentralization and grassroots initiative. Progressive planners should find ways to support local efforts in community development and planning that contribute to broader structural change at the national and global levels. If we are not aware of the global trends and do not act to confront them, our local efforts can solidify the international structure of poverty and inequality.


The urban agenda needs to be strongly linked with the global environmental agenda by pointing to the wasteful process of urbanization propagated in the West. This is an issue that planners should be especially concerned with for it directly concerns the work we do.

Urban development and planning in the U.S. are dominated by a pro-growth mentality, spurred by the real estate, auto and oil industries. Metropolitan growth is sprawled to accommodate the private auto as the main transportation mode. Urban sprawl consumes large amounts of land and encourages higher rates of energy consumption and waste than more compact forms of development. In large part because of its sprawled metropolitan regions, the U.S. is the largest source of carbon dioxide emissions in the world, and a major contributor to global warming.

Reliance on the auto not only wastes energy and pollutes the environment, but wastes human resources because people spend excessive time in traffic. In international forums, the U.S. is relatively silent about sprawl. The main strategy it advances for dealing with its consequences is treatment of tail-pipe emissions and alternative fuels. By themselves, this strategy would help rationalize sprawled growth and stimulate auto use without necessarily lowering pollution levels.


Throughout the world, women have always played a central role in urban movements, and today women are organizing to change urban policies. In the Habitat discussions, women’s groups were among the most outspoken critics of the lack of urban services, particularly family support services. They highlighted the impact on women and children of displacement and evictions, and the inequality of access by women to everything from employment opportunities to political office and land ownership. Since many governments are yet unwilling to acknowledge, and take measures to eliminate, gender discrimination, the reaction from governments has been a mixed one.

The U.S. plays an ambiguous role in this debate. On the one hand, the Clinton administration plays a progressive role by supporting gender equality in international forums. On the other hand, it tends to narrowly define gender equality as an issue of property rights — specifically, the right of women to own property.

Since the massive entrance of American women in the labor force in the last few decades, gender equality has been a central issue in national politics. Women, and to some extent the women’s movement, have become important players on the political scene. As a result, there is broad acceptance of the principles of equal access to jobs, housing and property, even though in practice there is quite a distance to travel before anything approaching equality is achieved. On the other hand, in less developed countries, the issue of women’s equality is much more intertwined with basic issues of survival, freedom from repression, violence and, perhaps most importantly, the enormous gap between rich and poor. Discussion of inequality of all kinds invariably leads to a discussion of the gaping divide between the majority urban working class and the minority elite. It leads to a recognition that underlying gender inequality are the larger economic and political imbalances that are reproduced by every wave of global capital expansion. Global financial institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, which are dominated by the U.S. and Western nations, further reproduce this structure of inequality.

The U.S. declarations of concern for equality have to be carefully examined to distinguish empty rhetoric from real commitment. We also need to look at U.S. posturing with respect to racial equality. Throughout the world, metropolitan regions in the U.S. are viewed as the premiere example of urban segregation. Over a century after the end of slavery and decades after the end of Jim Crow, the sharp separation between white and black communities, and between central city and suburbs, are the most durable aspects of urban life in North America. Racial segregation is also a reality throughout parts of Western Europe, though usually not as prevalent or obvious as in the U.S. The most important experience in transforming segregated cities to non-racialized metropolitan regions is underway in South Africa. With the end of apartheid and the institution of the principle of majority rule, the conditions now exist for the elimination of the sharp racial divide imposed by European settlers. It is important that planners concerned about racial equality seek to understand the process now underway in South Africa and extract the lessons appropriate for dealing with our own apartheid in the U.S.


After Habitat, new ways should be sought to build the network of progressive NGOs. Progressive planners in North America can play an important role. We can question our own government’s behavior from the inside while building ties on the outside.

Progressive planners in the U.S. should be especially forceful in pressing for a truly balanced approach to urban problems that includes greater government responsibility at all levels, particularly at the national level, and genuine community empowerment, as opposed to self-help rhetoric. With strong national institutions, decentralization to regional and local governments can be more than the shifting of public resources from outlying areas to center that it often turns out to be. To confront the current wave of globalization, it is important to help protect the national-level government and legal institutions that were established over the last century, which have effectively expanded the social wage. Therefore, safeguarding social reforms will help expand the role of labor and serve as a counterweight to the expanded role of capital at the global level.

Another critically important area for progressive planners is the environment. We can help broadcast to the world the substantial negative effects of sprawl and the private auto on the human and natural environment. At a time when most of the world is following the U.S. model of sprawled growth, we can help chart the way towards new models. We can join the advocates for public spaces, mass transit, pedestrians and bicycles, like the Institute for Transportation and Development Policies (based in New York City). We can raise criticisms of global trade policies that favor auto and oil monopolies, national policies that discourage taxation of auto and oil, and local policies that allow for uncontrolled auto use while neglecting alternative transit modes.

In building ties with progressive planners in other parts of the world, there is much we can learn from the experiences in countries, like Mexico and South Africa, where large coalitions of grassroots organizations play a major role in national decisionmaking. We can build ties to planners that have worked closely with the community, women’s, environmental and shelter rights movements in these countries. In South Africa, we should seek to develop ties with the civic organizations and local authorities that are committed to the goals or economic and racial justice.

Planners Network can take some modest steps towards networking with progressive communities and planners in places close to home where we already have ties. A first priority should be to expand ties in Canada and Mexico, where the issues raised by NAFTA — industrial mobility, immigration, free trade zones and urban inequality at the borders — can bring us together. PN on the East Coast can strengthen links with the Caribbean, especially Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Jamaica and Cuba. Progressive urbanists from these countries often have ties with the large Latino and West Indian communities in the Northeastern states. In Cuba, there are important new efforts in community-based planning that we can learn from and perhaps contribute to.

Tom Angotti is Chair of the Graduate Center for Planning and the Environment at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York.