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Urban Justice

Urban planning, housing, transportation, the privatization of public space and the criminalization of people of color and poor people.

Community Planning for Power

Low-income communities of color have long struggled with racist, discriminatory land use practices that diminish health, safety, and quality of life. It is not uncommon to see residential areas opened up for industrial development, houses located next to freeways and toxic polluters, and new freeway development and truck routes targeted at these communities.

The question is: Do these communities have the power to change these zoning practices and revitalize their neighborhoods? How can they leverage their needs against developers and decision-makers seeking to gentrify their communities?

Empowering the Poor
The Environmental Health Coalition (EHC) has worked for nearly 30 years to empower poor communities to become meaningful participants in their neighborhood’s policy decisions and development processes to:

* ensure healthy neighborhoods
* maintain and create affordable housing
* preserve community character and culture
* promote sustainable communities.

Community Benefits: New Movement for Equitable Urban Development

The fight for the heart and soul of our cities and suburbs is being taken into communities all across America. In churches and synagogues, in union halls and other meeting places, powerful coalitions of diverse stakeholders have been creating a new approach to economic development. The result has been tens of thousands of middle-class jobs, thousands of units of affordable housing, and the creation of permanent avenues for public involvement.

PlaNYC: EJ Group takes the Inside Track to Advocate Sustainability

The explosive growth of urban centers worldwide has forced government and civil societies to grapple with the question of how to manage population growth without destroying the environment, while simultaneously ensuring economic prosperity. The quest for this balance is commonly captured by the phrase “sustainable development.” By any measure, achieving sustainable development is a significant challenge. However, when you try to make New York City—the world’s financial and entertainment capital—sustainable, you need more than chutzpah; you need environmental justice (EJ).

Saving Community Gardens in NYC: Land Trusts and Organizing

Classie Parker in Five Star Garden in Harlem

In the late 1990s, the community garden movement was thriving in New York City. In hundreds of locations, community members had cultivated gardens of all kinds on city owned land. The gardens presented a cornucopia of vegetation—with flowers, vegetables, and fruits. Some gardens were only a sliver of land wedged between buildings, while others were contemplative or artistic, but all were social centers where life literally bloomed.

The Giuliani administration decided to sell off the 114 city-owned lots for development despite the protests of members who had created these oases of green and community. The Trust for Public Land (TPL), is a national nonprofit dedicated to conserving land for people. When it became unclear whether litigation could save the gardens, TPL stepped in and purchased a little over half of the gardens, with Bette Midler purchasing the remainder through the New York Restoration Project.

TPL’s 1999 acquisition of 62 community gardens slated for destruction was the single largest nonprofit initiative in America to preserve urban gardens. (Since then, other gardens were added to bring the total protected by TPL to 70.) Some of the gardens have been turned over to the city’s Parks Department, others needed to be taken over by the community to ensure that they would be adequately stewarded over the long term. (The deal provided that the land would revert to the city if it ceased to be used for gardens).

People Power In San Francisco: The Mission Coalition

"The Mission Community Organization 'showed a remarkable capacity to combine grassroots organization with institutional social reform.'”

"We had a sense of power. People saw they could make changes. People who got jobs through the Committee would come back to give something back to the community. People on the street knew… that this Committee was doing something for them. I learned things in the Mission Coalition Organization that I’d never have learned anyplace else. And they worked other places, too.” So said the late Rich Sorro, executive director of the Mission Hiring Hall, a nonprofit job placement agency in San Francisco’s Mission District, in a 1996 interview shortly before his death.

Over 25 years ago, Rich Sorro was a leader in the Mission Coalition Organization (MCO)—an important organization in the history of the neighborhood and the city. The MCO grew out of the Mission Council on Redevelopment (MCOR), formed in 1965 to either control or stop a plan to make San Francisco’s Mission District an urban renewal area. San Francisco’s low-income communities had already experienced the bulldozer approach of federally-funded urban renewal and had learned that early community action was the only way to halt the bulldozers.

When the city’s Redevelopment Agency began eyeing the Mission, organizers and activists were ready. The urban renewal proposal for the Mission was defeated in early 1967 by a slim 6-5 majority in a combined city council/county board of supervisors meeting. MCOR suffered the fate of single issue organizations—it won its victory and disbanded. But many of its leaders and organizers remained in the Mission.

Then in 1968, Mayor Joseph Alioto announced his intention to include the Mission District in San Francisco’s Model Cities application to the Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), if a broadly-based group of Mission District leaders came together and asked him to do so. Afraid that this might turn into a Trojan Horse for urban renewal, veterans of MCOR banded together early to provide leadership for the coalition, which was called the Temporary Mission Coalition Organization (TMCO) and recognized as the neighborhood’s voice in Model Cities planning. The leaders, however, agreed that the organization, unlike the MCOR, would be multi-issue in character and would not limit itself to participation in the Model Cities effort. After a founding community convention was attended by over 800 delegates and alternates, “Temporary” was dropped from the name.

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Removing the Poor through Land Use and Planning

“I don’t want a seat, I want the table. A person of color table. We need to have our own people writing the legislation. People from the most impacted communities.”

In Texas, when they talked about “smart growth,” they said it would limit suburban sprawl but it was just gentrification. Sprawl hasn’t stopped. As they began to develop downtown, they pretended that there were no people of color downtown. Those people who were supposed to be our allies are running us out of our communities.

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Democracy vs. Development Oakland Wins a Round

"Even where communities take affirmative steps to set aside open space parkland and waterways, the attempts to subvert that set-aside to private, commercial use can be both enormous and insidious."

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor

Lake Merritt © Oakland Convention and Visitors Bureau Oakland has always had a decidedly mixed relationship to its waterways. The city retains one of the largest working shipping ports in the nation but elsewhere along its extended waterfront, the East Bay’s gateway city has largely neglected its shoreline. That longtime neglect is more than made up by Oakland’s care for its most popular attraction, Lake Merritt. Created at the same time as the city itself, the lake was carved out of a fetid, marshy tidal pool. Today it is the home of a string of pleasant lawns, walking and jogging tracks, and the nation’s oldest wild bird habitat, the place where Oakland residents go to relax, and where they bring out-of-towners to show off. The lakeshore could be a prime spot for high-rise residential development butting up to the edge of the water. But over the years, the city and its public and politicians have fiercely protected both the view from the lake and public access to its environs, refusing to give in to the box-in builders. It is one of Oakland’s greatest success stories.

Six years ago, Oakland residents decided to extend that preservation success all the way out to the bayshore waterfront. But the initial aftermath of that effort showed that even where communities take affirmative steps to set aside open space parkland and waterways, the attempts to subvert that set-aside to private, commercial use can be both enormous and insidious.

Lake Merritt empties into the San Francisco Bay waters through the 3,000 foot long Lake Merritt Channel, a lovely but poorly-named little creek, much-loved by ducks and other waterfowl, bordered along some of its stretches by grassy banks and shadetrees. But many decades ago the channel was cut off from the lake by a high-speed throughway, so that only a spelunking adventure through an underground passage of uncertain safety makes it possible to walk from the lake to the channel.

Public Money from a Public Vote Expands Park Access
In 2002, in a $198 million municipal bond measure called DD, Oakland residents decided to correct that problem, voting to spend $80 million of the bond money in large part to dismantle the throughway, connect the lake to the channel through a series of bridges and pedestrian walkways, and landscape the channel banks into a more parklike atmosphere.

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