The jokes began immediately. When Forbes released its annual list of “America’s Coolest Cities” last week, Washington, D.C. took the top spot. For D.C.’s many fans, it was yet more evidence that the city has finally arrived as a world-class metropolis. For everyone else, the decision beggared belief. One New York journalist called it “next-level trolling,” and another said, “Being rated America’s coolest city by Forbes is sort of like…” The Times’ Josh Barro quipped, “Are we all going to Le Diplomate tonight to celebrate DC being America’s coolest city? Or are we doing Lauriol Plaza?” (These are two of the city’s most popular restaurants—respectively, a good but very unoriginal French bistro, and a really mediocre, yuppified Mexican joint.)
Though it’s impossible to reach any real agreement on what “cool” is, by the basic criteria of Forbes’ methodology, D.C. seems like a worthy winner. The magazine weighed six factors for its rankings: Cultural resources per capita; recreational amenities; local “foodie” culture; a city’s so-called “diversity index” (the chance you’ll randomly meet someone of a different race or ethnicity); the percentage of population aged 20-34; and the metro area’s net migration from 2010-2013. Washington is a young, growing city with lots of museums, local sports teams, music, and so on. It’s got lots of city parkland, and is close to a national park and large bay. It’s very segregated, but in the aggregate, it’s diverse. Check, check, check.
Even so, there’s something troubling about this list. It’s not that I think Washington is the wrong choice—I like D.C., though it probably wouldn’t be my personal pick for number one (it’s cliché, but I’d probably choose Portland, Oregon). The problem with a “coolest city” ranking is the way it takes things any city ought to be proud of—diversity, urbanity, art, energy, walkability, transit accessibility—and attaches them to a polarizing sociological identity. Most Americans probably don’t have strong opinions about multimodal transit, or bicycle infrastructure. But they do have strong feelings about snobbish urban hipsters.
In fact, as D.C. shines in Forbes’ eyes, the magazine seems to have missed the fact that a local backlash to the city’s “cool kids” is underway. Last summer, the city floated a plan to eliminate mandatory parking minimums from its zoning code (the Office of Planning is still in the process of rewriting the code, which dates to 1958). Parking minimums, which require builders to include a certain number of parking spaces in any new development, exist in most American cities. While the specific requirements vary by city and land-use function, what unites parking regimes across the country is their focus on the convenience of suburban commuters over the wellbeing of city residents. Minimums drive up the cost of development, incentivize private auto traffic over transit and walking, and require a one-size-fits-all approach to development that’s anathema to maintaining a healthy, livable city.
Washington, where an estimated 38 percent of households are car-free, was on the verge of ending parking minimums downtown and in the vicinity of subway, streetcar, and high-frequency bus lines. At the last minute, it backed down. It would be easy to caricature the victors of this battle as entitled, wealthy drivers. The loudest voices in favor of keeping the minimums, after all, tended to come from the city’s affluent, car-centric Upper Northwest. But their advocacy often came with a healthy serving of disdain for the “young people” behind the proposed changes. A local AAA flack, defending parking minimums, said that the move toward transit-friendly development just reflected the arrogance of youth.
The urge to associate young people with dense cities and a car-free lifestyle is reasonable. In the last decade, the most marked decline in vehicle-miles traveled has been among young people. It’s too early to tell whether this is more due to active choices or economic hardship, but it’s likely a combination of both. As Ben Adler has noted, the choice to travel by auto or transit is influenced by a web of incentive structures. If current trends continue, the incentives to go car-free will increase. For anyone who’s uncomfortable with this reality—either because they see driving as an American birthright, they’re resistant to change, or something else—the easiest thing to do is to link unwelcome changes in transit policy to a wave of young migrants who just don’t get how we’ve always done things here.
Of course, when it comes to hating millennials in D.C., no one can hold a candle to Washington Post columnist Courtland Milloy. Milloy’s anti-bike screed from this July, which stops just short of endorsing vehicular homicide, is a prime example of anti-cool-kids backlash. Milloy, who casts himself as the voice of the city’s forgotten black middle class (despite living in suburban Maryland), hates entitled bicyclists who believe they have just as much of a right to the street as drivers. They slow down motorists and keep the elderly from exercising their most important right of all: free parking in front of church. And demographically, they are “newly arrived, mostly white millennials.”
Almost all of Milloy’s writing about new arrivals in D.C. relies on cultural code words that play to common stereotypes about young people. He dismisses the city’s young transplants as people who are “too busy tweeting flash-mob snowball fights and guzzling imported beers at urban sandy beach bars” to really care for their new home. He once tweeted, “The main reason I’m on twitter is to track millennials & find out if they do anything in dc other than party and gentrify.” This ability to rely on his audience’s dislike of those kind of obnoxious people, is what saves him the trouble of actually having to explain why bike lanes, dog parks, and fusion restaurants are bad things.
As Milloy likely knows himself, these are not bad things at all. (In fact, he gives away the game late in his piece on bikes, when he justifiably complains that bike lanes haven’t been built in the poorest parts of town.) Almost all the available evidence on bike lanes suggests that they are very beneficial for cities in terms of safety, quality of life, affordability, and sustainability. Making bike lanes part of a broader, multimodal approach to transportation is even better. But the wealthy residents of Upper Northwest and Courtland Milloy, even as they come from radically different backgrounds, have arrived at the same conclusion: You don’t need to argue the merits of urban policy when you can rail against the kind of widely disliked people who you assume will benefit from said policy.
When city officials capitulate to arguments like this, they engage in the same sort of policymaking-by-tribalism that has been so destructive on a national level. (Issues ranging from capital-gains taxes to teachers unions to the mortgage-interest deduction are now proxies for debates over what kind of people deserve to be the beneficiaries of government policy). And while the last year in D.C. has been marked by aggressive moves from those looking to make their city less “cool,” that’s just one town’s experience. A couple hundred miles north, Bill de Blasio’s pitch to bring the 2016 Democratic Convention to Brooklyn has a lot to do with playing up the borough’s youthful, “cool” image, and very little to do with providing tangible benefits to people who actually live here.
Those “tangible benefits” are the heart of the matter, though. And questions about those benefits are what people who study cities should be asking themselves. Not “Will bike lanes, farmers markets, and art galleries appeal to young, well-educated people?” but “Will these things, on balance, make our city a more affordable and diversified place than it was before?” When the focus of city governance shifts away from hunting for compliments from Forbes and toward providing useful services for as many constituents as possible—cool people, uncool people, and the vast, middlingly cool majority of us—the U.S. will have finally have the urban renaissance we’ve been promised.