The Radical Urban Agenda of Bernie Sanders

Urbanists are always complaining presidents and other federal officials don’t focus enough on urban issues. They’re right to. National politics is framed around the Heartland of America, not dense urban centers where most of us actually live.

That could soon change. Bernie Sanders is currently waging an insurgent campaign for president inside the other corporate militaristic party, much to the shock of the Democratic establishment. And I was wrong. Other writers were too. We predicted Sanders would be a sheepdog who’d herd the Left to the doorstep of Hillary’s Starkiller Base, drop out, and promptly endorse her.

Instead we have the tie in Iowa, the record 3.5 million individual donations, the 84% youth vote.

And Sanders accomplished this by having two things Hillary can’t buy: authenticity and likability.

The other rare qualification Sanders has is being a former mayor. The only president in US history to ever have that in their resume was man-walrus Grover Cleveland.

Why does this matter? Because as a mayor, you’re far more engaged (hopefully) with the complexities of human nature and need, and likely less partisan or ideological. Liberal and conservative might be opposites in rural Ohio, but in cities such labels become meaningless. This might be why his proposed climate action plan includes increasing funding for transportation by a staggering 250%.

Screen Shot 2016-02-07 at 5.55.51 PMWhen you realize the guy feeding pigeons in his sandals might become president of America.

Sanders isn’t quite the Socialist that Kshama Sawant is, but he’s certainly in the ballpark. For all the Republican fearmongering about Obama and Hillary being socialists – they obviously aren’t – there’s an advantage with Sanders self-identifying as a democratic socialist while chairing so many bipartisan committees, and still getting shit done in the House and Senate.

As mayor of Burlington, Vermont in the 80’s, Sanders talked (and looked) not much different than he does today. Rather than a keen politician who drafted a platform based on Occupy Wall Street circa 2011, it feels very much like Occupy Wall Street was drafted on Bernard Sanders circa 1985.

In his first run for mayor 1981, Sanders campaigned against a developer’s unpopular scheme to convert Burlington’s lakefront to offices and luxury condos. Sanders coined the slogan “Burlington is not for sale“, and effectively killed the gentrified project.

Instead, Sanders pushed for a waterfront in 1983 that was inclusive, mixed-use, and provided miles of public beaches, bike lanes, and a science center: “It has to be recreational, primarily a place where people can come to enjoy themselves. Public ownership of key parcels means we’ll be committed to different priorities. We won’t be out to make a profit.

Thirty-two years later, this “people’s waterfront” served as the physical launchpad for Sanders to kick off his presidential campaign.


Under Sanders, Burlington became the first city in the nation to pilot community-trust housing, a nonprofit model based on affordability and access to services. Named the Champlain Housing Trust, the nonprofit manages 2,800 homes that are permanently price-controlled.

Other housing policies enacted under Sanders accomplished the impossible, actually driving down the cost of market housing.

As an independent, Sanders beat both Democrats and Republicans. Joining him on the council were other socialists, ensuring Burlington maintained a healthier three party system.

When we talk about the Right to the City, it’s usually framed around physical space in some way. But more often it’s becoming understood in addition to housing and labor justice, education and health care are intrinsically urban issues – universities are in cities, hospitals are in cities, people are in cities.

As The Nation said last year, creating more livable cities requires nurturing activist organizations to ensure lasting support for progressive municipal policy.

The political revolution Bernie Sanders calls for is but an extension of the social revolution of the last five years, and is hardly radical at all. It’s basic common sense, and it’s about the essential services all Americans depend upon to survive and flourish, especially within our collective urban landscape.


Bernie Sanders’ First Appearance on C-Span, Answers Questions from Callers

January 20, 1988:Bernard Sanders, the Socialist Mayor of Burlington Vermont appeared on C-SPAN to answer host and audience questions about his concerns as a …


The richest 1% owns more than half of the entire wealth of this country, and the other 99% of us share the other half.

~ Bernie Sanders, C-SPAN – January 20, 1988

1 comment

  1. Thank you for this post. I was trying to figure out why I should give a shit about him. And now I need to look more closely because he might just get my vote.

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