In this Issue, Who Owns Our Cities

In this issue of Race, Poverty, and the Environment we take a look at the fundamental power relationships that shape life in the urban United States. Who owns and who controls our public resources and how has the dividing line between public and private shifted over the last century?

Union and community members unite at a demonstration in downtown Oakland.  © 2008 Marc Caswell

Roads, ports, parks, schools, libraries, community centers, public housing, government buildings, military bases, and digital rights of way are all nominally controlled by democratically elected bodies that are mandated to act in the public interest. But across the nation, a pattern of economic exploitation of public resources for private gain has undermined public control of these resources and increased the divide between rich and poor.

In this issue, Rick Cole, city manager of Ventura, California opens with a look at just what populist and progressive local politicians can accomplish and issues a clarion call for renewed citizen involvement. Carl Anthony, cofounder of Urban Habitat, spells out a vision for a livable city, and Amanda Witherell gives us a look at how privatizers are pulling profits out of public services. In Oakland, Jesse Douglas Allen-Taylor shares a textbook example of how democracy can still work to stop politically connected developers from appropriating public resources. James Tracy investigates the origins of spatial deconcentration as it applies to the poor, and how urban renewal becomes “urban removal.” Fred Blackwell offers ideas about how redevelopment can actually help reverse the black exodus from our cities. And Eloise Lee presents a case study from East Palo Alto, California where the city, working with nonprofit organizations, built a digital infrastructure that is truly accessible to the community.

The Starving Beast
“Starve the beast,” has been a right-wing prescription for reducing social spending since the mid 1980s. The formula calls for creating unbalanced budgets through huge tax cuts leading to anemic funding levels for public institutions, such as public education and public housing, which consequently appear ineffective in addressing their missions. Seth Miller shows us how this policy has played out in California since the passage of the infamous Proposition 13, which blocks local jurisdictions from raising property taxes. The Western Regional Advocacy Project details how, on a national level, similar funding restrictions have destroyed public housing and led to the national epidemic in homelessness.

Rather than analyze the real causes of homelessness, poverty, unemployment, or even traffic congestion, the right wing has argued that the substitution of corporate contractors for government employees is the path to greater efficiency and social progress. Hence, when cities are confronted with the challenges of urban development, the almost universal prescription has been to turn to private developers who clearly hold the initiative when it comes to designing and building—even on public lands.
Nowhere has this been more evident than in the rebuilding of New Orleans where public funds have been used to tear down public housing and subsidize casinos and hotels. Bill Quigley gives us a frontline report on the public housing debacle and Dr. Beverly Wright tells us just how determined the white elite is to retake the South—or at least, New Orleans. In these situations, large amounts of public money are placed in private hands, and of course, a certain percentage of it comes back to the political class as campaign contributions, or all too often, outright bribery. (The resignation of the head of Housing and Urban Development under a cloud is just one of many such examples.)

Of course, progressive forces in the United States haven’t simply capitulated to the ever-increasing power of corporate-government control of the public sphere. In city after city, we are fighting the good fight to build equity and justice into tax policy, planning processes, community benefits agreements, and public spending.

In this issue, we share with you the stories of the many organizations who are working on alternatives, such as land trusts, cooperatives, community gardens, base conversion agreements, and joint-use public school buildings. We also share stories of old-fashioned political activism on zoning and land-use, where municipalities do have the power to shape our cities’ futures.

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From The Director's Desk

This issue of Race, Poverty, and the Environment—Who Owns Our Cities—is particularly close to my heart. While not a professionally trained planner, I am a planning enthusiast and see land use and planning processes as important levers for change. Too often land use and planning are seen as irrelevant exercises designed for participation by the elite. But this should not be the case. It is time for low-income communities of color to take back their communities, one plan at a time.

Urban centers, made up mostly of low-income communities of color, have been subject to systematic and far-reaching disinvestment for decades. The result is reflected in the community’s housing stock, employment rates, school quality, infrastructure, transportation systems, crime rates, open space, and amenities.

Over the last 10 years there has been a growing “rediscovery” of cities. It is now “cool” to live in urban centers. Unfortunately, it’s resulting in wide-spread gentrification and displacement. And without deliberate interventions by existing community residents, organizations, and allies this rediscovery will not benefit everyone. As cities re-develop, basic infrastructure spending on roads, public transportation, parks, and schools go through planning processes that should be open to public participation. Unfortunately, all too often, the most impacted communities are unaware of opportunities to participate.

Community members at a Leadership Institute training in Richmond, California. © 2007 Marc Caswell
Transportation Justice
One of Urban Habitat’s first attempts at tackling one these planning processes was the 2006 update to the Regional Transportation Plan (RTP). In the Bay Area, this plan is overseen by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), which is itself composed of elected officials from cities and counties across the region. In 2006, they allocated $120 billion over 25 years to support transportation projects throughout the nine-county Bay Area.

Despite the critical importance of public transportation to low-income people and communities of color, there have been few public interest groups involved in these decisions.

However, working with many other community organizations across the region, Urban Habitat has advocated for more money for transportation resources to under-served communities. As a result, the MTC agreed to fund the Lifeline Program, which provides dedicated funds for transit projects serving the region’s low-income communities. Over the last two years, we have won allocations of over $359 million for the next 25 years. This funding is a small first step when compared to the depth of need or to the huge amount the Bay Area invests in rail expansion to the suburbs. But it showed that engaged communities can win a greater share of resources if they are at the table.

Urban Habitat continues our fight to equalize transportation investments. We’ve launched a two-year initiative for the upcoming RTP to advocate that low-income communities and communities of color receive an equitable share of transit funding and investments. For the first time, transportation justice advocates are targeting county-level transportation decision-making in an effort to have those transportation projects and priorities reflect the needs of transit dependent populations. So far, the Transportation Justice Equity Platform has been endorsed by 15 organizations, and both MTC and public officials have been receptive to the issue of equity principles.

Richmond General Plan
Since we began our involvement in planning via transportation justice work, we have now moved into land use planning. Each jurisdiction in California is required to update its General Plan (a comprehensive blueprint for land use and development) at regular intervals. Over the past 18 months, Urban Habitat and our partner organizations in the Richmond Equitable Development Initiative have been working to influence the General Plan update in Richmond, California. When we first considered engaging in a campaign around the General Plan we were skeptical.

We went into the process with many questions:

* Can this type of process result in concrete equitable development policies and implementation measures?

* Will local community groups sustain their engagement in this long-term “process heavy” effort, which seems counter-intuitive compared to traditional organizing campaigns that have obvious targets and short-term wins along the way?

* How will we build our capacity so that we can craft our own policies and implementation steps for inclusion into the final General Plan?

* Will the General Plan just sit on a shelf or will it guide future development for the city?

Fast forward to today and we are in the thick of the campaign. We have been able to present concrete policies and implementation efforts and mobilize the community to support them. We are hopeful that many of our recommendations will be supported by the city council. But the jury is still out on the big question: Will the plan determine future city development policy?
Our goal is to build a coalition that will be in it for the long haul but it will be years before the verdict is actually in. Meantime, working on this over the past year and a half has given me renewed excitement about planning. One of the most important things I have found is that planning allows you to be proactive.

Organizations like Urban Habitat are too often put in the position of being on the defensive and reacting to something that we do not want. While this is often out of necessity, it is also exhausting and can crush the spirit. Land use and community planning processes allows us to articulate a vision, think wholistically about our communities, move outside of our issue silos, and get to scale.

This work has the potential of being the next evolution of community benefits work, which previously has focused on individual developers—one developer at a time. Targeting planning processes takes us upstream where we can change the rules of the game at the front end before a developer even comes to town.

The articles in this issue reflect the experiences of dozens of organizations across the country that are similarly trying to engage their communities to channel public resources toward the public good. While we may yet be short of the status of a full-fledged movement, the move toward equitable development as another tool in the progressive arsenal is well underway.
As always, we thank you for your support of our work and look forward to seeing you in person—whether at the planning commission or on the picket lines!

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Who Owns Our Cities? | Vol. 15, No. 1 | Spring 2008 | Credits

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Who Takes Ownership of the City?

Forty years ago, as America’s inner cities imploded, the New Yorker ran a sardonic cartoon. It portrayed a smug tower dweller overlooking a vista of tenements. “Ghettoes aren’t a problem, my dear,” he blithely informs his wife. “Ghettoes are a solution.”

Cleveland Mayor Tom Johnson, 1901 Today, the “urban crisis” is metastasizing across the planet. More than half of the world’s 6.5 billion people now dwell in cities—and more than a billion of them survive in desperate slums. This gives global resonance to the environmental, economic, and social equity struggles of American cities. If we are to heed the words of Gandhi and “be the change we want to see in the world,” thinking globally means acting locally. Creating a sustainable planet starts in our own hometowns.

But even those who recognize this responsibility seldom focus on the fundamentally public nature of this endeavor. Unique challenges of organizing city life gave birth to both the democratic and republican variants of self-rule. The very word “politics” is derived from the Greek word for shared urban space.

Moving Beyond Individualized Solutions
No matter how laudable personal and small-scale endeavors may be, planting trees, carrying canvas shopping bags, tending community gardens, and installing solar collectors will not collectively transform America’s cities into models of sustainability. The sheer scale and complexity of the task will require public will, public resources, public policy, and public action.
While “all politics is local,” there are some commonly shared misconceptions that deter us from fully recognizing the public sector’s vital role in reshaping our cities.

The most pervasive is the mindset that takes for granted that local government primarily exists to provide specific services. Of course, the traditional municipal functions we now take for granted (such as police, fire, parks, libraries, sewers, roads, and land use regulation) were all originally forged out of social upheaval and political struggle. Those who pioneered these services were crusaders, not functionaries. Today, however, the institutions organized to deliver these services have ossified into underfunded and self-perpetuating bureaucracies. Propping up these inherited structures takes precedence over the bold innovation needed to meet today’s needs. If we were starting from scratch (as Sir Robert Peele did in passing the Metropolitan Police Act in Britain in 1829), would we safeguard peace and order primarily through an armed and insulated caste of uniformed officers? If we were looking to eliminate waste, would we construct elaborate sewage systems and provide weekly collection of garbage? That we have grafted elaborate adaptations onto our entrenched structures (from “community policing” to “recycling”) only underscores their anachronism.

This investment in the past in turn reinforces the myth that the public sector is inherently inefficient and ineffective. There was a time when the burning passion of public service could put a man on the moon. Now we wonder whether it can fill potholes.
Another self-limiting mindset is our deep disdain for politics, which has become a shallow, petty, and self-interested game for insiders. The absence of real people in the debate and struggle over the concerns that affect their lives has robbed the public sector of both legitimacy and leverage. A professional political class has gradually supplanted the sphere of citizenship, relegating popular participation to mere voting in elections—and on rare occasions banding together for single-issue self-interest, such as protesting a highway extension, affordable housing project, or tax increase. Without robust and broad-based social and political associations, urban public life is privatized and segregated—and governance becomes an arena for mercenaries. Passivity perpetuates the self-fulfilling prophecy that political activity is futile—leaving politics to private interest lobbying.

A less pernicious, but equally misguided attitude, is the notion that public life is unimportant or simply boring. Whether it is the excuse that “people are busy” or the inescapable distractions of so-called “popular culture” (a euphemism for corporate entertainment), public life is neither compelling nor cool to most people. This is quite convenient for perpetuating the status quo. Our cities and our citizens face such tangible and significant questions as:

* How will we get around in the age of peak oil and global warming?

* How do we best utilize urban land to avoid sprawling onto farmland and sensitive habitat?

* Where should public resources be directed—and what investments should we make in our shared future?

Unfortunately, questions like these are avoided by politicians, neglected by the media, translated into bloodless administrative jargon by bureaucrats, overlooked by well-meaning single-issue activists, and end up being virtually ignored by the people whose lives are directly affected by them.

Civic Leadership in the Early 20th Century

Tom Johnson, (called “the best mayor of the best run city in America” by “muckraker” Lincoln Steffans) won the 1901 mayoral election supported by progressive reformers and immigrant voters fed up with the crooked monopolies controlling street cars and power lines of Cleveland, Ohio. The vote came just three days before the expiration of a court order Johnson had obtained forbidding the incumbent mayor from giving away publicly-owned prime lakefront property to the railroad barons. Johnson and his supporters burst into City Hall to insist on his prompt swearing into office, which came just 37 minutes before the protective order expired.

That tumultuous beginning was just the first skirmish between public resolve and private greed. Mayor Johnson immediately launched efforts to demolish unsafe structures, tear down illegal billboards, establish farmer’s markets, pave muddy streets, and construct playgrounds for children. He installed able administrators without regard to party affiliation, who in turn fired placeholders who failed to perform actual work. But these remarkable achievements were nothing compared to the titanic struggle he waged to create a municipal street car network and “Municipal Light,” a public power alternative to the Edison power monopoly. Although it cost him his political career, the broad-based reform coalition he forged eventually triumphed, leaving a national legacy of public enterprise—and a sobering warning to his successors: “I believe in municipal ownership of all public service monopolies… because if you do not own them, they will in time own you, they will rule your politics, corrupt your institutions and finally destroy your liberties.

Learning from History: Grasping the Big Picture
Lamenting these ingrained delusions is not the same as changing them. How can they be overcome?

Despite the seemingly unprecedented depth and scope of our urban challenges in the 21st century, we fool ourselves if we think we have nothing to learn from history. Americans are particularly prone to pre-occupation with the present, concocting excuses for why it’s so much harder to make change now than it was in the past. In reality, as abolitionist Frederick Douglass wrote, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has and never will.”

Our urban history overflows with insight and inspiration relevant to the dangers and opportunities of our own time. How about reviving the public discourse and public spirit that brought us public libraries at a time when education and access to knowledge was confined to the very wealthy? Why not rekindle the enlightened self-interest and open-mindedness that inaugurated public health protection when typhoid, cholera, and dysentery stalked our streets?

As we look past the waning days of the Bush Administration and confront the huge work ahead of us to create sustainable cities, we can’t help but also want to think small. It makes a difference whether we sustain a Head Start program in Albuquerque or improve public school scores in Philadelphia or reclaim a park in Richmond or install solar collectors on a public works facility in Ventura. But the answer to “who owns the city?” lies with who takes ownership of the whole city, not just our part of it. That is the lesson of the millions of citizen activists who have built community and make change by taking ownership beyond their homes, their neighborhoods, and their parochial concerns. It’s the public will behind the public resources, public policy, and public action needed to make great and sustainable cities.

Rick Cole has been city manager of Ventura, California since 2004. He previously served as city manager of Azusa and as mayor of Pasadena.

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Who Owns Our Cities? | Vol. 15, No. 1 | Spring 2008 | Credits


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Livable Communities

Peralta Community Garden in Berkeley, California. © 1999 David Dobereiner from Building Commons and Community by Karl Linn.

Imagine cities as places where working people can afford to live and raise their families, where there is concern for clean air, water, and land. Imagine vital exchanges across generations and beautiful places where people gather. Urban life is at its most vibrant when people from various parts of the world bring together their music, food, cultural systems, and religious expressions. All of these make for cities that manifest the strength and brilliance of the human garden.

Moving the Environmental Movement
For the better part of the last century, the conservation movement and its offspring, the environmental movement, have had a negative view of cities. It started with John Muir’s celebration of nature in reaction to the ugliness of industrial development, urban pollution, congestion, and noise. But this bias against cities is changing. Environmental groups now acknowledge that the way we live in cities is at the nexus of many environmental challenges.

Key to this shift has been the movement for environmental justice that exploded on the scene during the 1980s, as communities of color all across the United States fought to protect themselves against the unequal distribution of environmental hazards undermining the health of people forced to live in neighborhoods with locally unwanted land uses. This movement quickly expanded to confront a wide variety of hazards: pesticides, air pollution, lead poisoning, toxic waste production and disposal, and garbage dumps; and also occupational hazards.

In the early 1990s, beginning from an entirely different foundation, the Congress for New Urbanism formed to re-establish the relationship between the art of city building and the conservation of the natural environment. According to its founding charter, new urbanists view “the divestment in central cities, the spread of placeless sprawl, increasing separation by race and income, environmental deterioration, loss of agricultural lands, and the erosion of society’s built heritage as one inter-related community-building challenge.”

The pursuit of metropolitan, regional, and neighborhood equity is, in many ways, a fusion of these two social currents. It is a mobilization led by social justice advocates, civil rights organizations, and labor unions concerned with issues of fairness in the way metropolitan regions grow. It seeks to address not only what communities are against but also what they are for: healthy neighborhoods with convenient access to good schools, affordable housing, parks, and grocery stores; equitable public investments; and access to opportunity.

This new movement responds to two challenges that poor and marginalized communities and neighborhoods face as they seek to improve their quality of life. The first is that the larger patterns of metropolitan development have undermined past neighborhood-based efforts to remedy concentrated urban poverty, socioeconomic issues, and racial isolation. The second challenge is to find systemic ways to link poverty alleviation to the larger, society-wide patterns of social, economic, and environmental development.

A temporary commons organized by the People’s Convention in the South Bronx.
The advocates of regional and neighborhood equity recognize that public debate about smart growth and the new metropolitan agenda provides a political context to build new allies in the effort to address the unmet needs of poor people, working people, and people of color in ways that improve the quality of life for everyone.

The way we build and live in cities has a profound impact on society’s use and misuse of natural resources. It also profoundly affects social, economic, and racial justice outcomes. It is important to realize that in a globalizing world, the real city is the whole metropolitan region, made up of many jurisdictions, including the central city, its suburbs, and the rural and wilderness areas under its influence. Private developers focus on the shape of individual projects within a particular jurisdiction. But the public sector must fairly represent the interests of populations both positively and negatively impacted by a given development. This is an especially critical responsibility when public subsidies are involved. Decisions made by one jurisdiction have spillover effects on neighborhoods and ecosystems throughout a region. Public actions that define land use must incorporate civic engagement for all affected residents, including communities of color throughout a whole region, in ways that shape the behavior of private market forces to achieve fair outcomes for all. Contrary to much discussion of the so-called free market, the forms, patterns, and potential benefits or burdens of a particular development are shaped as much by public policy as they are by the private sector.

Creating Working Neighborhoods
Many long-time residents of isolated, poorer neighborhoods welcome middle-income families to their neighborhoods as they become popular again due to new urban trends. They see the newcomers as making the neighborhood more attractive for grocery stores, banks, safe pubic parks, better schools, and inviting spaces. However, neighborhood organizers, housing advocates, and tenant groups worry that newcomers will displace older residents, driving up taxes and housing prices, making it impossible for poorer residents to remain. Such groups, organized to protect traditional constituencies, are joining the regional equity movement, to develop new strategies to capture some of the wealth from changing neighborhoods to benefit poor people.
Every community should have housing for the people who work there. A suburban neighborhood that has many stores, for example, should have places where cashiers and janitors can afford to live. And now that the nation has largely transformed to a service economy, and many industrial processes are less polluting, there is less need to separate places where people work and live. Having jobs closer to residential areas reduces over-reliance on automobiles, improves social integration, and reduces the ecological stresses associated with high traffic volumes.

Just, Green, and Beautiful Opportunities
For many urban and rural communities, the scale of abandonment has reached epidemic proportions.
There are 90,000 vacant properties in Detroit, 60,000 in Philadelphia. Once-prosperous cities like St Louis, Baltimore, and Cincinnati, and dozens of smaller cities are shrinking, while we continue to build auto-dependent suburban communities 50 miles away from the downtowns, on what was once farmland.

In recent years, though, cities like Richmond, Flint, and Philadelphia have launched ambitious initiatives to reclaim vacant properties. Others, such as San Diego and Las Vegas, have taken aggressive steps to prevent abandonment in the first place. A National Vacant Properties Campaign is attracting smart growth advocates—who see property reclamation as a way to offset urban sprawl—and affordable housing groups seeking to rehabilitate homes.

Building community gardens, or opening up and restoring creeks and watersheds, provides opportunities to bring people of different jurisdictions, neighborhoods, and social classes together.

The natural world is a resource for aesthetic appreciation, education, and recreation. Cities that are barren of trees suffer from the heat-island effect as pavement and roofs absorb and radiate heat. When soils are displaced with paving, water can’t percolate into the aquifers, and this, too, affects the microclimate.

Perhaps easiest to understand, relating directly to issues of economic justice, is the urgent need to reconstruct our food system.
When I was growing up in the 1940s in Philadelphia, much of our food came from nearby farms. When the season changed, the food changed, and people kept track. During World War II, virtually every household in our neighborhood had a victory garden as a way of contributing to the war effort.

Today, our food is grown, harvested, processed, packaged, distributed, shipped, and marketed by a small number of giant corporations. Folks in cities have no idea where their food comes from. The small family farm is no longer economically viable. Rural communities bear the brunt of noxious corporate farming practices. The money that urban populations spend for food increasingly pays for industrial farming monocultures, dependent on toxic pesticides, and transportation costs for shipping our food from countries all over the world to urban supermarkets.

Bringing nature back into the city means finding new ways to link small family farmers with consumers in the cities in a regional food system that provides healthy food to people who live in the city while keeping rural economies vibrant.
The movement toward just, livable cities—the regional equity movement—is working to recapture some of this lost vibrancy, envisioning a new pattern of development that incorporates all the ecological ideas to grow a more equitable society.
An authentic approach to urban sustainability incorporates ecological integrity, beauty—and social justice.

Carl Anthony is a Senior Ford Foundation Fellow at the University of California, Berkeley and former director of the Ford Foundation’s Sustainable Metropolitan Communities Initiative.

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Who Owns Our Cities? | Vol. 15, No. 1 | Spring 2008 | Credits