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In Capital City: Gentrification and the Real Estate State, Samuel Stein approaches the issue of gentrification through the lens of urban planning, arguing for better understanding of the rising political influence of real estate interests within local and national governments. The book shines a light on the underlining political dynamic that lies at the heart of our cities and is essential reading for anyone interested in gentrification and displacement, writes Conor Wilson.

Capital City: Gentrification and the Real Estate State. Samuel Stein. Verso. 2019.

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The real estate industry is now worth $217 trillion, which is 36 times the value of all the gold in the world. What is more, it forms 60 per cent of global assets, and it is how one of the most powerful people on earth – US President Donald Trump – made his name. How, then, is the rise of the real estate industry transforming our cities and urban life? In Capital City, Samuel Stein argues that the emergence of the ‘real estate state’ has brought with it vicious gentrification, concomitant displacement of working-class people and remade our cities as temples of luxury development, rendering global cities increasingly inaccessible to all but an elite few. For Stein, ‘gentrification has become a household word and displacement an everyday fact of life’ (5).

Gentrification is, of course, a well-trodden path of academic inquiry. There is an extensive collection of books, articles and journal special editions spanning decades dedicated to the topic. Without treading on familiar ground, however, Stein approaches the issue at hand through the lens of urban planning. A central contention throughout is that, to understand gentrification, we must understand the rising political influence of real estate interests within local and national governments. Similarly, we are reminded of how these interests are actualised in a paradigm driven both by the growth imperative of capitalist development and the neoliberal state – that is, through urban planning and urban planners themselves. Early on in the book Stein, a trained planner himself, tells us that:

This book is about planners in cities run by real estate. It describes how real estate came to rule, and what planners do under these circumstances. Planners provide a window into the practical dynamics of urban change (6)

We can see, then, that Capital City is about understanding the dynamic that emerges between planners and real estate interests within the capitalist mode of production. It follows, therefore, that we must unpack the nature of urban planning itself. Stein’s genealogy of urban planning reveals that whilst the practice of planning is as old as human settlement, the profession of planning is a more recent phenomenon – and one with a rather oppressive history. ‘Proto-planners’, as Stein notes, advanced the ‘murderous westward expansion’ of the US (15),  and planned and facilitated slavery through plantations and the systemic racial inequalities eminent from decades of ‘redlining’.

Image Credit: Image by Jo Wiggijo from Pixabay

Planning is, then, intrinsically linked to the expansion of capitalism. It lies at the heart of the spatial and economic development of the city itself. With this in mind, the modus operandi of capitalist planning is to produce value through space: to raise the property values through discovering the ‘highest and best use’ of the land it is built on. Through this lens, gentrification is not a by-product of capitalist development, but rather an integral part of the process.

Throughout Chapter Two, ‘Planning Gentrification’, it is perhaps surprising to note, therefore, that Stein is somewhat reluctant to criticise those within his profession:

Most planners do not seek to line the pockets of wealthy elites or displace the poor. And yet this is exactly what has happened again and again in city after city across the United States and throughout the capitalist world (26)

While planners may well ‘be inordinately nice people’, it may be difficult, and not particularly helpful, to speculate on the individual intentions of those working in urban planning, especially given the oppressive history that Stein so eloquently lays out and its role in raising land values, either directly or indirectly. This is not to say, however, that planning is an inherently oppressive force, and indeed Stein compellingly notes that just as planners play a role in capitalist development, so too must they have an important role in the development of a more equal city.

Attention turns here to the case study of the book – New York City. Much ink has been spilled in the gentrification literature which focuses on ‘global cities’, and New York in particular. This perhaps calls for some analytical caution with regards to the generalisable nature of an, albeit biting and convincing, appraisal of urban planning therein. For Stein, ‘real estate in New York is like oil in Texas’ (79), and this chapter is quick to show that in political influence, if nothing else, that is certainly true. From Republican Mayor Michael Bloomberg to the much lauded progressive Democrat Mayor Bill de Blasio, Stein meticulously demonstrates bipartisan commitment to real estate development and rising property values above all else. In the real estate state, planners are tasked with massaging gentrification with tax abatements, up zoning and incentivising luxury developments. This, in turn, serves to strengthen Stein’s central premise: that in the neoliberal political order, real estate has come to rule at every level of political life.

Donald Trump is the embodiment of Stein’s ‘real estate state’. Rising up as a property tycoon in Stein’s home of New York to become the president of the US is both a symbolic and practical demonstration that real estate interests have infiltrated politics at every level. As Stein puts it, ‘in every step towards power, the Trumps were enabled and encouraged by the changing winds of US urban planning’ (117). As such, Chapter Four is dedicated to understanding the rise of the developer president by demystifying the Trump family dynasty. In doing so, Stein details the close proximity of the Trumps’ wealth to real estate capital: from ‘gold rush’ frontierism, through post-war development and redlining to Donald Trump’s construction projects, the Trumps built their legacy on real estate. And to do this, they had to utilise and manipulate politicians and planners alike. Whilst this connects to the dominant theme of the text, this is the longest chapter in the book. Given the otherwise concise nature of the work, this chapter takes a somewhat jarring biographical tone.

It is clear, then, that real estate interests have considerable political influence in modern capitalism. But what can be done to fight against the tide of luxury developments, rent gaps and rising rents? Stein dedicates his last chapter to asking us how we might consider moving beyond the era of real estate rule, and to reflect on what a more inclusive and just urban planning might look like. From ‘small changes’ to the existing framework of neoliberal planning through to more ‘radical’ solutions – how might we plan the abolition of private property? – Stein’s last chapter is a rallying cry for the development of an anti-capitalist city.

Overall, the relative brevity of the text does not detract from Stein’s timely and compelling ‘finger on the pulse’ analysis of the real estate state. Capital City is, then, a welcome and highly accessible contribution to the field of urban studies and planning. Stein shines a light on the underlining political dynamic that lies at the heart of our cities, and in doing so reveals to us the rise of the real estate state within capitalist urban planning. For this reason, the book is essential reading for anyone interested in gentrification and displacement.

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Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of USAPP– American Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.

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About the reviewer

Conor Wilson – University of the West of Scotland
Conor Wilson is a PhD candidate and Associate Lecturer based within the Centre for Culture, Sport and Events at the University of the West of Scotland. His research interests span across urban studies, media and communication studies and cultural studies. His PhD thesis explores the emergence of ‘culture-led’ urban regeneration, with a particular emphasis on representations of place.