The Enshittification of Small Urban Spaces

Cory Doctorow's landmark essay creeps off the screen and onto our streets.

I’ve been away and in the middle of a serious rethink about what I want EI to be going forward. I started this for something to do during plague; as a way to keep my skills sharp; as a way to build community; and as a way to build community. We’re approaching 1000 subscribers. I’ve got dozens of interviews I still need to publish. I have lots of ideas, thoughts, and meditations on the state of planning and infrastructure development. The common thread is counterintuitiveness, a misallocation of heuristics, and the simple fact that we just don’t know how to spend $1 trillion.

Let’s continue with something cross-disciplinary and highly relevant: platform decay, or as Cory Doctorow reimagined it, the technical term “enshittification.” Here’s what Doctorow wrote in his landmark essay, posted in full here entitled: “Tiktok’s Enshittification.”

Enshittification As A Noun

Here is how platforms die: first, they are good to their users; then they abuse their users to make things better for their business customers; finally, they abuse those business customers to claw back all the value for themselves. Then, they die.

The first problem with this comparison is that online social media platforms and the field of urban planning are not analogous, really, at all. Our field isn’t a “platform” and the line between “users”1 and business customers is less strict, though, maybe not. Planning, first as a scientific endeavor, then a design, then an economic, and now a social one, has evolved to a point where it’s increasingly hard to tell what the platform is i.e. from where does this pervasive practice get power—is it government-driven administration? Is it all the private and nonprofit organizations that support the governments in their endeavors? Is it the tech firms that insist on disruption?

We can lean into this to the point where we’ve just fallen over and laid there, face first into the snow for awhile. In all likelihood, planners have no power at all and are well-trained and underpaid punching bags, two layers of influence away from the pols who’ll do whatever they want and distribute credit haphazardly to themselves and all blame to anyone else. When planners were respected as scientists, we destroyed this country with overbuilt roads, no sidewalks, and just so much racism soaked in arrogance. While we’re not, well, respected at all as social scientists either, our role as “advise and ignore” is documented. We try anyway.

Back to Doctorow and this ridiculous analogy that I’m forcing: the “platforms” in Doctorow’s scenarios are websites and apps many, if not most of us, know, use and interact with; we often don’t care so much about what’s in the hood because we could—we won’t—but we could just not use them anymore. Tiktok, the eponymous platform, Meta (including Facebook and Instagram), Youtube, Reddit, Amazon, all of them. Doctorow argues they all follow the same cycle of enshittification. It’s funny that Doctorow doesn’t use the word exploitation once in his essay. Well, it’s not that funny really.

The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces

I entitled this essay “The Enshittification of Small Urban Spaces” as a play on William H. Whyte’s seminal book “The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces,” which acts as a biography of why some plazas and urban nooks work and why they don’t. It’s as much a design book à la Kevin Lynch as it is a sociology treatise (there are no famous sociologists). I use it here as a reference as much as an exemplar for my whole point. Go read Holly Whyte.

For our intents, we’re going to think about what happens when there’s a small plot of land available for redevelopment in the city, and we’ll talk about how the process has been enshittified. That “plot of land” is the physical version of the digital platform Doctorow has aimed at. And for a local example, let’s talk about the Elizabeth Street Garden in Lower Manhattan.

There’s a storied history behind the ESG, like there is a story behind almost every square inch of New York City’s rich history. Not all of the stories are comforting, some are partially apocryphal depending on who you ask—but there’s a story right there that requires contextualization before we use it to describe the enshittification process that has forced building anything anywhere nearly impossible.

In long: here’s the story from ESG’s website. I think it’s relatively fair and balanced considering the source.

In short: the property has changed hands over a handful of times—some underhanded (a no-look transfer from the Department of Education to the Housing Authority)—but mostly from a school to some supportive housing to what’s now a public space. A tiny park in an area severely lacking it. The city wants more supportive senior housing—which we need—but the “community” doesn’t want to lose its park. It’s a case of, somehow, both a win-win and a lose-lose.

Why is it enshittified? Because everyone involved is worse off and the platform for reform has been nearly, totally destroyed. Even as conditions change the ability for government to either 1) act or 2) enable others to act has become totally enshittified.

I’ve really, really struggled to analog a one-to-one relationship between the online enshittification of a platform and its physical counterpart, mostly because it’s so challenging to suss out the players—I’ll put this question to you: who is the platform equivalent in the real world? Who is the public- or private-sector equivalent of an Amazon or Meta or Google?

It has to be City Council, right? I don’t think it’s the fault of the Councilors themselves—depending on how you define Council, the body is either a bucket for power brokering or a bucket of jostling potential candidates for higher office. Is the office totally enshittified? Let’s walk through the steps. I’m going to leave a lot of this open.

City Council, Enshittified

Definitions: For this example, we’re assuming the “platform” is a City Council and Councilors2 control the interests and the direction of the platform; the “users” are the constituents—the people and entities the councilors are supposed to represent; “the business customers” are land and real estate developers and related interesting parties. This one is the trickiest because I think it also includes the city itself, which is a major landowner, developer, and landlord.

That’s where this analysis trips on itself—there are no clear winners and losers in public, physical enshittification. Instead, there’s a series of overlapping needs represented by conflicting interests. Without a clear path forward with serious leadership, the enshittification ensues, unscathed by negative feedback. Everyone, save the select few, loses. Can a City Council…die?

Putting it into theory.

First: they are good to their users.

The idea of municipal government comes from a desire to organize many needs—and the needs of many—into a predictable, recallable, responsible, representative process. Ideas should funnel up from the inches that stitch together the pavement, asphalt, brick, and mortar that make up a city. And in many cases these ideas do. Zoning, the process of organizing and separating land uses came out of an idea to do good.

I don’t think that the idea of a City Council is prima facie corrupt or out to enshittify; it’s simply as good a place as any to aggregate resources and talent and as such is good to its users when it responds to needs with coordination and municipal aplomb—so many stunning parks and buildings and stores and public art installations. After all, its users make up the platform itself. This assumption holds true: it’s attractive to live in a place that can marshal resources like this and give some multiplier of value to people who get to use their byproducts.

Next: they abuse their users to make things better for their business customers.

The second a city becomes ensnared by private capital—which it is going to—Council will likely follow—or will it? For every fast track through zoning or favorable tax incentive given to big development, there’s an equal and opposite disincentive given to the people who live, own, rent, and/or occupy those buildings. Because land—building footprint—is a finite resource, the more of it that’s sliced and diced and controlled by a select few, the worse off the unorganized and whatever middle class is left has. Council will sell property tax receipts and that’s not untrue per se. In theory, the more taxable property there is, the more the dollars should flow to a city’s coffers. Users suffer—higher rents as luxury property developments (read: juuuuust out of reach for a normal wage earner) fill a city up. Who does City Council serve, really?

Then: they abuse those business customers to claw back all the value for themselves.

Well, zoning is the land use giver and its taker. A code clarifies what’s allowed and what’s not. Then there are endless applications for variances or exceptions or amendments to squeeze the most profitable buildings into the city’s Rubik’s cube of skyscrapers and brownstones and half-parks and mishmash, ugly three-over-ones. The zoning code—and the development process—has been captured by the city in the name of doing “right,” namely by following the letter of the law. What was once good for developers—and still can be—is now enshittified by the very thing that was supposed to help. The only way out is by trusting the platform to right itself. Woof.

Finally: they die.

I don’t think cities die like this—I do think the ideal “efficient” city does, though. When cities become the playgrounds for the wealthy first and foremost, they become sterile. We’re not there yet in any of our cities, but we’re also not far off. When it’s impossible to rent a 2 bedroom apartment on the federal minimum wage in any county in the US, we’ve entered some bizarro world where everyone suffers but the very few.

But maybe the platform has to change. Within the enshittification of the municipal government’s expressed value, that there’s a huge housing shortage literally everywhere, it’s evident that no one wins except the people who were already winning and the rest of us are just marching in place. The real problem, if you caught it, is capitalism. The amorphous catch-all for the enshittification of money and markets.

What’s Going to Happen to the Elizabeth Street Garden?

It seems, try as they might, that the ESG will be no more in its current iteration by the end of the decade. The combination of a desperate need for more housing—and more specialized, supportive housing in one of the densest neighborhoods in one of the densest cities in one of the worlds—plus an enshittified public land use process by way of a broken Council all but guarantees the ESG will be no more in its current format.

Is it the fault of the enshittification? Would the outcome have been any different if the process by which land use decisions are made were less jumbled and confusing? Or is this the natural city/neighborhood evolution when one need conflicts with another need. Does Council need to unshittify and rethink how it handles conflicts like this?

Does this essay make any sense, at all?

It’s more of a thought experiment than anything else. If we go back to Doctorow—I’m not sure there’s a true analog here. Or maybe I’ve framed this argument incorrectly. I’m curious what this audience thinks—please comment below or send me an email at [email protected] and let’s talk more.

  1. “Users”: An ugly, term, really.

  2. I’ve had discussions with friends and colleagues that the Mayor—or more precisely—the office of the Mayor is the platform (rather than the City Council and Councilors). I’ll hear this argument and likely one might replace “City Council” with “The Mayor’s Office” in the following paragraphs, and it will read eerily similar. The tie, in my mind, goes to the City Council for two reasons: one—it’s the legislative branch; it makes the laws, and two—the Mayor’s Office is too obviously corruptible and can just as easily be a great bastion of hope insulated from platform decay as it is the generator of the decay. In a way, the Mayor’s Office is the business customer rather than the platform and its enshittification is the outcome of Council’s lethargy.

    Oh, also, the Council’s the one that needs to write the laws to change/update the land use and development process. The Mayor may ask for it and campaign on it, but the best he can do is whip fervor and demand change. It hasn’t happened yet. 

Sam Sklar is a Partner Writer for Resident Urbanist. Sam is a transportation planner and writer. He's worked on projects all over the world that focus on safety, dignity, economic development, and environmental sustainability. For this publication his focus is on transportation and infrastructure policy. Sam graduated with a Master's in City and Regional Planning from the University of Pennsylvania's Weitzman School of Design and a Bachelor's from Boston University's Questrom School of Business. He also runs the Exasperated Infrastructures blog. You can follow him on Twitter, Threads, and LinkedIn

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