Interview conducted and transcribed by Goncalo Borges, the production editor of the e.polis and PhD Student in the Urban Studies Program at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
The current interview was conducted on September 15th, 2017. Professor Rachel Weber joined me for some minutes in the Urban Studies’ meeting room, and we talked about her career, her intellectual work, and about her perspectives on US cities. Rachel Weber is the author of From Boom to Bubble: How Finance Built the New Chicago (University of Chicago Press, 2015), which received the 2017 Best Book in Urban Affairs award from the Urban Affairs Association. Her research focuses on the relationship between finance and the built environment.
Goncalo Borges (GB): I would like to thank you for accepting the invitation for this little interview. The first question I have, and for everyone’s curiosity, why were you drawn to the planning field, and why your interest in finance and in urban development? How did you start this journey?
Rachel Weber (RW): I grew up in the shadow of New York City. My parents are born-and-bred New Yorkers, and they sadly kind of “white–flighted” out of the neighborhood they grew up in in Queens (Jackson Heights). Many of my family members did it. I was born in Providence, Rhode Island, but the bulk of my family all lived in New York City, and so we would spend weekends there, and then sort of go back to our suburban existence. So, I think at an early age I got a sense of the contrast between different kinds of built environments, different kinds of aesthetics, and different kinds of cultures and the racial, class, and ethnic differences found between different spaces. So, I began to associate space and location with different kinds of attributes.
I always welcomed the opportunity to go to New York City. The city just became imbued with a sense of excitement, thrill, and of surprise and discovery. I have always associated cities with a lot of good things, and then I became curious about the complexity and challenges of trying to understand what makes them work. Like, I never could quite understand how you would turn on the faucet in an apartment, within one huge apartment building, and water would come out. To me, this was an amazing thing, as amazing as being able to observe all these different urban systems interacting.
GB: What about your decision to study cities? Did you studied cities in college, or it was something that you discovered later?
RW: I studied development economics and anthropology. As an undergraduate, I was very interdisciplinary, with a focus on the Global South. I studied a lot about South Asia, and I lived in Varanasi, India during my junior year. I went there through the University of Wisconsin at Madison’s program. So, I spent the summer in Madison learning Hindi and then went to India on a very well-organized program that has been in existence since the sixties. My interests back then were really in gender and property relations, and in rural-to-urban migration.
Later, when I graduated from college, I worked for a couple of years in law firms. I was disillusioned. I did mostly immigration law, but I was still disappointed. After that I went back to India. I went to Calcutta on a Fulbright Scholarship, and during this year, I focused more on urban space. I was interested in how women, who came in different waves of refugees from what is now Bangladesh, remade their homes in an urban context. I was interested in women, who were rural and coming to the urban area, organized space. These women were squatting on publicly owned land, but had created their own communities and become incredibly politicized – it was amazing for people who had mostly been in ritual seclusion in Bangladesh.
That was when my interest in planning started. Later I met somebody who was doing a PhD in urban planning at UCLA, and she recommended urban planning to me. She told me that it was for people who were, by nature, interdisciplinary. It was for people who were interested in geography, but with an activist bent. This was something that I really appreciated because there is a part of me that is very pragmatic. I like to do things, and I like to figure out how you organize to change things. I had really never heard of planning until I was probably in my mid-twenties. However, it was interesting academically. I went to Cornell for grad school, and there urban planning offered intellectual flexibility with a nice combination of theory and practice.
GB: Can you situate your scholarship in terms of a theoretical framework? Do you draw on political economy of place, global cities and liberalization? How important is the local context after all?
RW: Can I just answer “yes”? I would say that I take from many traditions, but I don’t feel beholden to any one of them. Being pigeon-holed into one particular kind of literature or conceptual frame is unsatisfying. I guess I am mostly doing critical urban political economy. That would be my kind of home. But even then, I think I break with some of the traditions because I am really interested in the production of knowledge. I like to study the interplay between markets, institutions, and agents to understand urban economies and urban development.
GB: I have a quote by Saul Bellow to start the next question: “Chicago is always transforming itself. Chicago builds itself up, knocks itself down again, scrapes away to rebel and starts over.” In your perspective, where is Chicago now, and where does this phenomenon of overbuilding and revitalization fit – do they fit in the scraping and cleaning process?
RW: I think the city is still in a building mode. In fact, building does not seem to have slowed down much since I have been in Chicago, almost 20 years. It is a city that is chomping at the bit to build, and there are so many different actors, organizations, and professions whose livelihoods depend on a pipeline of new construction projects. Even if the data shows some up- and down- cycles, there is still a tremendous amount of construction taking place, primarily in the apartment market downtown and in the South Loop.
GB: Do you think that real estate investment in apartments is an attempt to solve the problem with buildings that are supposed to be used for commercial and office use? Do you think that this is an attempt to try to bring people to the city, so they can fill in those gaps?
RW: Not at any kind of organized or planned level. But I do think that oftentimes cities are overly ambitious in terms of the scale of residential development they expect to be able to support. It’s unclear if the regional economy can create a sufficient number of jobs to employ all of these people. Maybe, which is what I think is going on in Chicago, households are relocating from housing in other parts of the region – i.e., filtering. However, when one tenant leaves a place, a vacant unit is left behind unless there is growth. And then at the bottom of the food chain, there is a tremendous amount of vacancy, which is what we do see in a lot of low-income neighborhoods.
GB: Concerning overbuilding, Milwaukee is going through a boom in terms of construction and investment, especially residential apartments in downtown. Do you see the same patterns in Milwaukee and Chicago? If yes, what are the risks of overbuilding for cities of the size of Milwaukee?
RW: I haven’t studied Milwaukee to the same extent, so I don’t know exactly. This is pure conjecture and opinion, as opposed to something that is empirically based or has any sort of evidence behind it. But by taking a look at Milwaukee, and also by taking a look at smaller midwestern cities, I would say that there is a kind of an attempt to mimic Chicago’s success with development. I think there’s a kind of a: “Well, Chicago is doing it, then we should do it.” Chicago paved the way for a kind of a new Midwestern urban model, which includes all of this downtown residential now.
I think a lot of Midwestern suburbs are having a hard time demographically. As we can see, there is a movement from the suburbs to downtown. Now, central cities have the problem of sustaining that relocation through the childbearing years — are the schools good enough or prepared for such transformations? Are the public services good enough? What about transit? Cities need to have new kinds of infrastructure, services, amenities, and also some sort of entertainment and leisure.
Rebuilding basic infrastructures would benefit not just these new urban residents, but also longer-term residents who have felt marginalized and ignored for decades. So, it would be nice for cities to think about the consequences of new residential development and the consequences vis a vis infrastructure. It seems that Milwaukee is doing some of that. It is putting a lot of effort into making the downtown a center of leisure and entertainment. That will satisfy the needs of some urban residents, but not all of them.
GB: In this post-recession contemporary reality, and with Trump’s new administration, what kind of dynamics, challenges and consequences do think cities like Chicago will face? And what about smaller sized cities that are looking forward to developing themselves?
RW: I think the crisis exposed and created even more polarization. Some of the latest data suggests that there has been a slow recovery during the last ten years. I think what happened is, and I am looking at city governments, that have to rely more on their property tax base because other forms of fiscal support have been taken away from them. And the federal government has been hostile towards urban policy. There are a lot of federal programs that are in jeopardy, such as HOME block grants. Cities rely on these as a source of discretionary funding to build affordable housing.
GB: This can be also a very serious problem for social classes with lower income. Do you think that in the next four or five years these populations will be left even more abandoned by cities and by states?
RW: Maybe I am pessimistic, but, yes, I am worried about that. I think cities have less autonomy and less money and when they do have money they want to put it into things that are going to help grow the property tax base. They make developmental types of investments as opposed to redistributive ones. I think that even well-intentioned city governments may feel a certain pressure to focus on downtown development instead of dealing with basic services such as education and transit. Overall, I fear that the fiscal imperative is going to lead to things that will increase the property tax base and this is not good for those who rent and who have lower incomes.
GB: In which dimensions can overbuilding be seen as a social problem? And what kind of solutions can be proposed to solve the overbuilding problem?
RW: It is a social problem because much of the economy in the global economy is tied up in real estate. And if you have overbuilding, then you will likely have some sort of a credit crisis because of the amount of debt used to pay for new construction. So, as we saw during the Millennial Boom, overbuilding has the potential to bring down the global economy, which can lead to people losing their jobs, municipalities going bankrupt, etc; it has serious consequences that reverberate beyond the point of overbuilding because real estate markets are so tightly linked to financial markets–like how people’s pensions are tied up in investments in real estate. So, when property markets crash, people lose their wealth. It is not just about the housing; I think the real estate economy now has the potential to drag down every sector. I mean, the real estate economy is baked into the fundamentals of our entire economy.
Global economic crises are a potential consequence of this, and I think that local governments play a role here. They could be watching the new supply, and also being a little bit more cautious when it comes to permitting all of the entitlements that go with the land. This is where the planning function comes in. In some ways planners are supposed to be the gatekeeper to decide if space is being optimized and organized in a rational manner, but they also need to be considering whether or not certain development decisions are economically optimal. So, there is a role for local government: they can implement growth controls or at least make sure that that growth is well distributed throughout the city.
There is also room for the federal government in terms of financial regulation. We are allowing financial institutions to do whatever they want, and this is not a way to bring any kind of discipline to the financialized property economy. The Trump administration is taking apart these regulations, and legislation passed that substantially defanged Dodd-Frank. What’s new is that banks have to have a certain number of mortgages on their books, and they cannot sell off all their mortgages as quickly. And there are reporting requirements for investors and for banks. But there’s still an easy supply of credit, and the effect this is having on real estate does not seem to be getting a whole lot of attention right now. I mean, look, we have a developer in office, who just wants banks to open up their checkbooks and give people like him whatever they want. So, Trump is certainly not going to be pushing for that kind of discipline or attention to the problem.
GB: Do you think that urbanists, planners, and researchers in the field of urban studies should be the observers simply watching, analyzing, describing, and acting in the formal space, or should they be more active. Can they assume an activist attitude because they have the knowledge?
RW: I think we are well positioned to be advocates for certain issues. You always have to watch it because if you are advocating strongly for one thing, then the people on the other side of the debate will just kind of write you off. I do think that there is a role for academics in those activist spaces, but we tend to be a little bit more cautious about making bold pronouncements and proposals. We must try to look to the data to support what we have to say. My experience getting involved in politics has allowed me a special role because it often seems like I am the only one in the room trying to point to what the data show.
I love being in the field of planning. It brings together theoretical and academic credibility with issues of application and topics that are affected in real time by policy, planning decisions, and different practices. I do think that one of the advantages of being in a field like planning is being a little closer to the world of practice. However the tradeoff is that, as a result, it does not get as much respect in the academy. Planning is seen as a more professional discipline than, say sociology or political science, and that can be misinterpreted as anti-intellectual. But I think what is so great about planning is that we constantly get to theorize – and do – practice.
GB: Thank you again for joining me today for this interview. It was very clarifying, and I am sure that our readers and students will appreciate your words.