Space, Place, and Regionalism

(Upper left) from RP&E  Vol. 15, No. 1: Who Owns Our Cities

Then 2004“Urban renewal” projects...devastated historically working class, poor neighborhoods around downtown San Francisco, such as the Western Addition, South of Market, and North Beach, driving out many of the poor and people of color. Th[e] process of internal conquest continues to this day, as in the dot-com explosion that made over South of Market, chipped away at the Tenderloin, and encroached on the Inner Mission, leaving many more homeless. A similar process leveled much of central and west Oakland after the war—with a comparable targeting of black neighborhoods—and continues through Mayor Jerry Brown’s campaign to gentrify the central city. —R.A. Walker (“Local Dimensions of Imperial Economic and Development Policy” page 49)

THen 2008

[T]he 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 (“Who Takes Ownership of the City?” page 62)

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john a. powell: Regionalism and Race

john a. powell is the executive director of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University. He also holds the Williams Chair in Civil Rights and Civil Liberties at the Moritz College of Law. This article is an edited excerpt of a speech given at Urban Habitat’s Social Equity Caucus State of the Region Convening on January 15, 2010.

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I grew up in Detroit, in a very large, very loving family. My family was from the South, where my parents were sharecroppers. Which meant, for the most part, they didn’t deal in the cash economy. They dealt in barter. If any of you don’t know about Mississippi and sharecroppers, it’s poorer than poor. Although, I didn’t realize we were poor until I left to go to college at Stanford.

Growing up on the east side of Detroit, I used to hear about all these white people but I couldn’t see very many of them. So I thought it was a myth, until I got to Stanford. Then I started getting a perspective of the community that I had lived in.

In my childhood neighborhood you now see a lot of vacant lots. They are not parks or “open space.” In Detroit, about one-third of the lots—and the houses—are vacant. Today, the average cost of a house is $6,000. Needless to say, the tax base has completely eroded. The people who have left are the people with resources who would help the tax base. They’ve left behind an infrastructure built for two million people that is serving less than a million. The school system has recently been given the dubious honor of being the worst in the country. So, I would say that I grew up in a place where there was declining opportunity—where the chance of succeeding was constantly moving further and further away.

My family had moved to Detroit from the South for the opportunity, but opportunity moved away. Not arbitrarily, but through planning, and the use of public resources to redistribute opportunity in such a way that once again, many families like mine were living in a situation of declining and low opportunity.

I think that the language of opportunity actually is a nuanced way of talking about regionalism—regional equity. How is opportunity distributed throughout a region spatially, socially, and racially? What are the opportunities for low-income communities and communities of color?
First of all, we know that opportunity actually includes a number of things: health care, employment, education, services, healthy environment. If any of them are missing, opportunity is ripped out of the community. But when those things are truly available and accessible—spatially, socially and economically—you have a viable community.

Segregation by Any Other Name
In today’s discourse we don’t talk about segregation anymore. We talk about choice. But no one chooses to live in a low opportunity place. So another way of thinking about segregation is to think in terms of opportunity. Segregation is about isolating people from opportunity and creating situations where they have different access to real life chances.

One way I like to explain this is: imagine some people standing on an escalator going up. Assuming that opportunity is on the third floor, most of the people standing on the escalator (yes, there are always a few knuckle-heads that will fall off!) doing nothing will eventually arrive at the third floor. That’s how our opportunity structure works.

Now imagine some other people on an escalator that is going down. They have to run up the down escalator to get to the third floor. There will always be a few extraordinary people who will do it. However, most of the people on the down escalator will not arrive at the third floor. But we point to the few people who got up the down escalator and say, “Well, what’s wrong with the escalator? It worked for them!” We actually use that phenomenon to justify a system that’s structured in a very unfair way and end up blaming people who don’t go up a down escalator. Not surprisingly, many of the people on the escalator going down are people from poor communities and communities of color.

The Intersection of Poverty and Life Chances
A recent study by Pew Charitable Trusts, Neighborhoods and the Black-White Mobility Gap by Patrick Sharkey, found that in terms of life chances, living in a high poverty neighborhood has more negative impacts than any other single factor. Whether you have two parents in a household or one is significant, but just living in a poor neighborhood has more negative impacts than just being poor. It depresses the life chances of not only poor families but also middle-income families living there.

And the kicker, which won’t surprise you, is that whether you live in a poor neighborhood or not is determined by your race. So, poor whites are less likely to live in a poor neighborhood than middle class blacks. And about 96 percent of people who live in extreme poverty in urban areas are African American.

I am not saying that poor whites or Latinos don’t have it hard. And we all know that Native Americans get kicked in the teeth coming and going. But African Americans are situated differently in relationship to these structures, which we only understand when we look at how the various factors—income, family status, and the environment that we live in—interact.

Any sociologist will tell you it is hard being poor. But it’s harder being poor in a poor neighborhood. And harder still being poor in a poor neighborhood in a poor city. And yes, it’s hell to be a poor family, in a poor neighborhood, in a poor city, in a poor state! But that’s Detroit with its high school graduation rate of 25 percent—less than 20 percent for African American males.

The rate of incarceration for African American males is over 60 percent at present. So, if you are an African American male living in Detroit, you are three times more likely to go to jail than graduate from high school.
Now that’s an escalator not just going down, but going down fast!

Finding a Way Out
We need to really understand relationships, not just things in isolation. We cannot focus on transportation or housing, but need to look at the relationship between transportation and housing. Or even between transportation, housing, jobs, and schools.

We have to think of the levers that actually move the system and be very deliberate about making sure that these systems actually benefit marginalized communities. To do that you have to make sure that marginalized communities have a voice and an input.

I’m not talking about redistribution or handouts but about bringing folks into the system in a healthy way, so that they contribute to the health of the system. It is crucial to growing and sustaining opportunity for the entire community.

There are ways in which you can rebuild the built environment so that it does not serve the people. Consider Hunters Point in San Francisco. The percentage of people of color—particularly blacks and Latinos—in San Francisco has been on the decline. As San Francisco goes up the escalator, people of color have been going down, pushed further and further away from opportunity—from jobs, good schools, and transportation.

Regionalist Pitfalls and Opportunities
So, what are some positive examples of regionalism focused on equity and opportunity? People talk about Portland, Seattle, and Minneapolis. All those cities are doing great things but they have three people of color in the whole city! Can you do this in Detroit? Or Oakland? Or Cleveland? It is much harder because race has played such an important part in land-use planning in these regions. I do some work in Portland but I don’t think it’s instructive as to what you would do in Cleveland. Because part of doing this right means you have to have a racial analysis, which is much less important in a place like Portland.

In Cleveland, we got folks to invest in the central city. We have 18 mayors cooperating in increased tax-base sharing. They have created a 100+ million dollar equity fund that helps minority businesses and we’ve got them to build a regional school. Cleveland is the only metropolitan area that I know of where a metropolitan effort in regionalism has been led by the inner city and the black community.

When we started this work five years ago, people were saying it’s not possible because the racial tensions were too great and a relationship between the city and the suburbs couldn’t happen. But it’s happening and now Detroit is asking our help to come up with a platform that will replicate Cleveland. It can be done, but it has to be embraced in a very deliberate way. Cleveland is the only metropolitan area that I know of where a metropolitan effort in terms of regionalism has been led by the inner city and the black community.

A Story for the Future (and How to Tell it)
So what is our vision for the future and how do we get there? We have to apply strategies that open up opportunity in very deliberate ways to families. We must bring opportunities to communities, and take communities to opportunity. We have to have an approach that’s universal but also targeted towards marginalized populations.

If you have a plan to fix the region but you don’t look at how particular populations are situated within the region, they will get left out. It’s not enough to fix a region but ignore marginalized populations. And if you are part of the marginalized populations, don’t wait for the people who are making the decisions to invite you into the conversation. Most of these conversations are public and you are part of the public. Just make sure you are involved in more than name only. And tell a good story. Part of this fight is about what’s the dominant story.

The dominant story right now around subprime lending is that some not very sophisticated African Americans and Latinos took out bad loans they couldn’t afford and almost brought down the whole global economy. Doesn’t matter that it doesn’t comport with facts. That’s the story everyone tells and it’s the story that propels policies.

If you look at what’s happening in refinancing and mortgages, the black community is now actually getting further behind than it was before the crisis. There is no strategy to get appropriate credit to those communities because the strategies are being driven by the stories being told. So we have to participate in telling good stories.

Building Coalitions
No community is powerful enough to work by itself. But how do we build linkages and coalitions across racial and sector groups to make something happen? That something, of course, has to benefit not just your community but the whole region. Otherwise it sounds like a special pleader. If we are concerned about the environment, the earth, the whales, but you are only concerned about the black people in east Oakland, you sound parochial. So, you have to have a story that’s inclusive but also targeted.

Right now the rules of the game are being changed across the country. We are redoing mortgages, credit, education, employment, and transportation. At this time of re-doing, we can write rules that actually deliver. There’s some complexity in that but there are a lot of smart people in the country that you could work with.

Working Upstream to Keep the Jobs Home
We have to participate upstream when rules are being made. When you look at SB375, think about what will be the actual impact of that very important legislation on communities that you serve.

Green jobs, for example, are place-specific in many ways. You have to be in place to install a solar panel. How do we make sure that opportunities deliver? It doesn’t happen automatically, as we learned from New Orleans. They had a lot of jobs in New Orleans but the residents didn’t get them because they brought new people in. Then they made the black community look like they were sitting on the side crying.

How do we structure things to ensure that if they are going to put solar panels on buildings, the people in the neighborhoods actually get the training and the jobs? We need to think about that upstream before the jobs get taken out of the community.

Keeping Race in the Conversation
The dominant discourse in this country is “you don’t talk about race because it’s divisive and truly progressive people don’t even notice race.” It’s based on polling data from the 1980s and ’90s. We need to move beyond polling data and talk about how the mind actually works, taking into account the phenomenon we call implicit bias.

Only two percent of our emotional and cognitive processes are directly accessible to us. When we poll people, we ask what’s in that two percent. But we have seen that the unconscious 98 percent recognizes race very fast. We think about race a lot in this country and it affects the way we design institutions. I talked about this at the Democratic Convention and people thought I was crazy.

I also wrote a piece called “The Race Class of the ‘90s” because in the United States we say, “It’s not race, it’s class,” not understanding that here the two concepts are radically linked because class was formed in an extremely racialized way. In fact, there’s a book by David Roediger, Wages of Whiteness, which talks about the formation of the white working class in opposition to the black slave class. So, it’s already racialized even though it’s talking about class. I don’t think, at least in the short term, we can expect the president to really lead on this issue. We have to find a way of leading it and pushing him on this issue. It’s not “if” we talk about race. It’s “how.” 


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My family had moved to Detroit from the South for the opportunity, but opportunity moved away. Not arbitrarily, but through planning...

Local Dimensions of Imperial Economic and Development Policy

Then 2004Volume 11, No. 1, Reclaiming our Resources; Imperialism and 
Environmental Justice LARGE IMAGEReprinted from RP&E Volume 11, No. 1: Reclaiming Our Resources—Imperialism and Environmental Justice 

The word “imperialism” is back on the radar of political discourse, after lying dormant for many years, thanks to the Bush administration’s willingness to throw the weight of the United States around with abandon. Imperialism is a useful word. Just as the concept of “internal colonialism” was helpful to people thinking about power and injustice in the 1960s, imperialism can be brought home to good effect for today’s activists and movement leaders. But as an analytical term, it needs to be deepened beyond sweeping statements like, “U.S. imperialism is ravaging the globe”—which are so broad as to be mere slogans—if we are to apply it to conditions of race, poverty, and the environment in California and nationwide.

Imperialism is, above all, a geographic term: the power of one place over another. In the modern world, it came into use to describe the power of the great European countries over far-flung empires in Asia, Africa, and the Americas. That power was expressed most clearly through political control of territory, or colonization, but it pertained as well to the domination of trade, taxation of the people, land takeovers, and extraction of natural resource wealth. Such exploitation was economic in the broadest sense and not confined to the state and government power. The British Empire was created to advance the cause of capital accumulation, not simply to bring glory to queens and admirals.

Internal Conquests
But imperialism can operate at many scales (geographic areas) and need not be thought of only as external domination. The United States was formed as a continental empire by conquest, which devoured large pieces of the land across the center of North America and absorbed them into one nation-state. This still explains much of the misery of indigenous peoples, whose land was stolen and cultures nearly decimated in the process of Euro-American expansion. It pertains to the tension that underlies Mexican-Anglo relations to this day, due to the historic memory of U.S. conquest of one-third of Mexican territory in the war of 1844-46. That conquest was motivated in large part by the attraction of vast lands for agriculture, mining, and timber. California was the great prize of the Mexican war, yielding up its gold to fuel the appetite of the growing American economy for money in circulation.

California, and particularly San Francisco, then turned around and projected their economic might across a regional empire up and down the Pacific Coast and stretching across the Pacific. This constituted an urban imperialism that sucked the wealth out of the countryside in many forms: silver from Nevada, wood from the Northwest, beef from Southern California, sugar from Hawaii, and commercial and financial profits from every direction.

Cities are huge consumers of natural resources to this day. The tentacles of cities like Los Angeles and Denver reach out hundreds of miles to gather water, electricity, and building materials, and thousands of miles to garner their supplies of oil, gas, and food. When we speak of the United States gobbling up a quarter to a third of the world’s natural resources today to feed its vast appetite for materials and energy, we should remember that a state like California or a city like San Francisco has its own geography of extraction. The legacy of this has been the ruin of many distant places—from Nevada’s ghost towns to Chevron-Texaco’s oil wells in Ecuador—by mines, clear cuts, or oil spills.

This kind of imperial economic conquest and exploitation operates all the way down to the level of neighborhoods and municipalities within today’s huge metropolitan cities. We hardly notice it, but the urban landscape is littered with sites of resource extraction, like the sulphur mine in the Oakland hills, or New Almaden above San Jose, which still leaches mercury into the estuary and makes offshore tuna and crabs dangerous to public health. We also suffer Silicon Valley’s past leakage of cleaning fluids into the groundwater, a legacy of the conquest of Santa Clara County by the electronics industry. The people of Contra Costa County live with the deadly emissions of several refineries turning distant petroleum into locally-consumed gasoline.

Real estate is a critical dimension of internal imperialism, as well. When San Francisco and other Bay Area cities wanted to expand their business, industry, transportation, or housing, they eagerly conquered new space by such devices as filling in the bay, bulldozing hillsides, and even removing the dead outside the city limits to claim the cemeteries. After World War II, the downtown real estate operators looked to the surrounding neighborhoods for potential office and commercial space.

This development marked the era of “urban renewal” projects that devastated historically working class, poor neighborhoods around downtown San Francisco, such as the Western Addition, South of Market, and North Beach, driving out many of the poor and people of color. That process of internal conquest continues to this day, as in the dot-com explosion that made over South of Market, chipped away at the Tenderloin, and encroached on the Inner Mission, leaving many more homeless. A similar process leveled much of central and west Oakland after the war—with a comparable targeting of black neighborhoods—and continues through Mayor Jerry Brown’s campaign to gentrify the central city.

The People Behind Empire
Of course, these instances of local, internal imperialism are not just about places, but about people. Imperial powers are not just national or local governments, but the people behind them. Powerful people, rich people, and most often, in the American case, white people. The Bush Team is not the exception but the rule in that regard. We may think of California politics as more liberal, and the Bay Area as far more liberal than the nation, but when it comes to those at the top of the local business and political hierarchy, their command over space and place is just as fierce and unrelenting as any Bush incursion into Iraq.

The litany is long of business and political leaders  who have led the conquest of local real estate and urban supply lines for profit and prosperity. Among the most famous over the years are the Phelans, Hearsts, DeYoungs, Knowlands, Pardees, Swigs, Shorensteins, and McEnerys. This is not a matter of leading individuals or families, however, but of the leadership of a class. The bankers still need their gleaming skyscrapers, professionals their loft condos, electronics moguls their electricity supply, rich suburbanites their water, business travelers their expanded airport (by bay fill, of course). This class of people is not confined to downtown, by any means, but lives and works throughout the metro area. They guard their geography well, with gated communities like Blackhawk, mansions hidden in the woods in Marin, carefully drawn boundaries like Piedmont. Would that the poor had such privileged access to space and power over their homes and workplaces. They live within the empire but without it at the same time.

R. A. Walker is professor of geography at the University of California at Berkeley. He is the author of several articles about the San Francisco Bay Area. His book, The Conquest of Bread: 150 Years of California Agribusiness was published by The New Press in 2004.

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Energy Policy and Inner City Abandonment

Few people realize the price inner cities have paid for our national love affair with the automobile. But the evidence of devastation is not hard to find. White flight to the metropolitan fringe, driven in part by racism, is linked to destruction of human resources in the metropolitan core, to waste of petroleum energy, pollution of air and water, and degradation of urban biological resources. But older urban neighborhoods can help lead the way to more sustainable cities and suburbs...

The increasing concentration of poverty in the nation’s largest metropolitan areas is linked to the practice of investment in suburban sprawl, and divestment from energy-efficient, inner city communities where people of color live. 

Transportation and energy issues are of critical concern to low income neighborhoods and practitioners of community-based economic development, but advocacy systems for energy and transportation issues are almost non-existent. These systems should be developed. Community development corporations in low-income and minority communities are well positioned to provide a new and potentially powerful national leadership in advocating energy- and transportation-efficient patterns for urban neighborhoods.

Suburban Sprawl and Inner City Decline
White flight to the suburbs has left a host of fiscal and social problems in the inner city. The changes in older neighborhoods started in the 1950s, when an extensive highway system, cheap gasoline, and reliable, and relatively inexpensive automobiles made possible dispersion of the population. White flight shifted the development of housing and jobs out of the cities, into the suburbs.

Housing. By the early years of the decade, the rate of national suburban growth was ten times that of the central cities. Characteristically, suburbs were designed and built as completely detached single family dwellings. Zoning and deed restrictions were used to enforce economic and racial homogeneity.

Industry. Between 1947 and 1972 the central cities of the 33 largest metropolitan areas (based on 1970 census figures) lost 880,000 jobs in manufacturing, at the same time that their suburbs gained 2.5 million manufacturing jobs. These same cities lost an additional 867,000 jobs in retail and wholesale trade, while millions of such jobs were added to the economies of their suburban areas.

Fiscal Impact. White flight also created fiscal problems. From 1970 to 1980, the largest 50 cities lost five percent of their populations, while populations in poverty increased by 20 percent. The result was declining tax bases for cities at precisely the moment when demands for services were increasing the need for more revenues. Out migration of families increased difficulties of sustaining basic urban institutions—churches, banks, stores, recreation facilities—in the face of growing joblessness. At the same time, the demise of these institutions cut off the traditional modes of social mobility and subjective perceptions of opportunity, resulting in a circular process of downwardly adjusted hopes and expectations, and increased isolation of poorer urban populations. Yet, spatial segregation in the metropolitan region cut off suburban populations from any feeling of responsibility for the less advantaged left behind in the cities.

However, past efforts at inner city revitalization have often brought in their wake gentrification and displacement. Economic development does not begin with goods. It begins with people, their education, organization and discipline. The same might be said for energy conservation. To avoid the problems of gentrification we must come to terms with the historical trend and to address the institutional needs of disadvantaged urban communities.

Transportation, Energy, and the Inner City
Transportation and energy consumption patterns of the urban poor are different from those typical of affluent suburban residents. Policies based upon the habits and resources of well-to-do suburbanites do not meet the needs of inner city residents, or address the opportunities for energy conservation in the inner city. In general, city dwellers consume less land, less energy, less water, and produce less pollution than their counterparts living at lower densities in the suburbs. Housing densities in suburbs range from four to six units per acre, while urban housing ranges from 20 units (rowhouses) to 80 units (midrise construction) per acre. Less land is therefore needed for each person. Compact buildings have more shared walls and less exterior surface, and therefore, smaller heating demands. The urban poor more often live in attached dwelling units, row houses, and multifamily housing than do middle- and upper-income whites. Their homes are more often rented. Studies show that although multifamily housing is more energy- efficient as a building type, poor and renting households consistently live in less weatherized units and spend a higher portion of their household income on home energy than the affluent. Cities require less travel distances and automobile use. High density and mixed use makes mass transit viable. Yet we continue to invest in suburban development and inner city abandonment with its concommitant waste of human and natural resources.

Black households tend to own fewer vehicles, use them more intensively, purchase fuel more frequently, and maintain smaller fuel inventories than do white households. They travel less than half the vehicle miles in private automobiles than the national average and use public transportation more frequently than do the affluent. They are thus less likely than suburban whites to benefit from policies which emphasize increased automobile efficiency. Market-based solutions to energy conservation are often unfair to poor people. Policy makers often suggest market-based solutions as a way to encourage energy conservation. Such policies are often unfair to poor people. They ignore the extent to which upper-income groups have benefited by government subsidies, such as the federal tax codes which encourage businesses to abandon old structures before their useful life is at an end. They ignore the influence of federal highway construction or the impact of reimbursement formulas for waterline and sewer construction on the decline of inner cities.

Low-income households pay a disproportionate amount for their energy, up to a third of their total budgets for basic energy services, and pay more for the same services than the average customer because they cannot afford energy investments. Though innter city residents are already suffering the most from the current wasteful energy system, they often bear the burden of policies that on the one hand attempt to account for environmental externalities by increasing the price of energy, but on the other ignore the economic externalities. Out of all population groups, poor families turned out to be the most responsive to price increases, and in some cases this led to more than minor inconveniences. “For some low income families, economizing on home heating meant living with temperatures well below comfort or health levels.”

Policies which would increase the cost of gasoline would hurt the elderly living on fixed income in neighborhoods without adequate public transportation, who have no way of shopping or getting to the hospital other than using their cars. On the other hand, policies which encourage and strengthen the convenience of public transportation and affordable, sustainable neighborhoods could reduce the number of abandoned buildings and the amount of vacant land located close to the existing urban energy infrastructure. Such policies would result in benefits to the urban poor. Increasing the number of people living in underutilized census tracts would strengthen the economic viability of neighborhood services, reducing the need for travel. Such policies would benefit fiscally strapped school boards and public agencies who need to install more energy-efficient furnaces and insulation in old schools and energy wasting public buildings.

A National Energy Policy for Inner City Communities
The Persian Gulf crisis has once again focused public attention on the need for a national energy policy. Inner city community-based organizations should develop strategies of active support of new legislation and policies as solutions to urban energy problems. A new national energy policy is an opportunity to reverse the pattern of urban abandonment.

Advocates of a new national policy, however, should pay closer attention to the intersections between land- use patterns, energy consumption, and social justice. While efforts to increase fuel efficiency of automobiles are important, it is equally important to reduce the need for automobile transportation through intelligent urban design and rehabilitation of older neighborhoods, especially poor neighborhoods. We should redesign and rebuild such neighborhoods for access by proximity—bringing energy-efficient housing, amenities, and services into each community, rather than relying exclusively on vehicles.

One strategy would be developing guidelines to change bank lending practices, to provide additional credit to homeowners in efficient houses in neighborhoods with access to public transportation. An opportunity exists to bring the voice of communities of color and other inner city residents into the process of developing national energy and transportation policies. Community development corporations (CDCs) in low- income and minority communities are well positioned to provide a new and potentially powerful national leadership in advocating energy- and transportation- efficient patterns for urban neighborhoods. Neighborhood-based community development corporations were established in the 1960s to address issues of economic disenfranchisement of the nation’s poorest communities. The location of CDCs in poor, inner city neighborhoods, their ability to undertake educational programs, their knowledge of community needs, and their position in the core of metropolitan regions suggests an important role they may play in providing leadership to the metropolitan region in helping to make the transition away from wasteful, polluting practices to sustainable patterns of land use. CDCs are nonprofit corporations with neighborhood representatives sitting on their boards. Such corporations—many located in inner city neighborhoods—are able to acquire property, build housing, undertake economic development, and provide education and job training.

From 1970 through 1990, CDCs built more low- income housing than the federal government. During the 1980s, despite hostility from Washington, these groups thrived, and new ones were established. Today, there are 1500 to 2000 such organizations around the country, showing surprising vitality and strength. In the light of the need for urban energy transformation, new functions of CDCs could be: energy education and infomation; urban agriculture, canning, and other local food processing enterprises; businesses related to weatherization, heating, air conditioning; retraining; encouragement of energy-efficient new housing construction, including advocacy of compact urban land use, energy- efficient location decisions; diversifying recreational opportunities; using school buses rather than cars; and developing car and van pool systems.

Recognition of the connection between social justice and environmental issues can help us develop a sound national energy policy. It can also assist inner city communities to reclaim and restore forgotten urban neighborhoods. Advocates of social justice should pay more attention to the National Energy Policy debate. Strengthening our understanding of the connection between social justice, energy, and transportation issues may encourage effective collaboration between environmental and social justice movements, which all too often in the past found themselves at odds with each other.

In 1991 Carl Anthony was the director of the Urban Habitat Program at Earth Island Institute.

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1991 "White flight to the suburbs has left a host of fiscal and social problems in the inner city."

What We Are Doing is Illegal

We have been doing our Take Back The Land activities in Miami since the summer of 2006. Our work began in response to the gentrification of low-income housing. We recognized that we could no longer depend on the government to solve the problems with extreme gentrification and extreme housing prices in our community because they were an integral part of the problem. So, we decided to start a new organization and focus our attention on the internal capacities of our community, rather than figure out what the government can do for us.

Take Back The Land is a collective with a leadership of about five—myself and four women. There’s a larger group of about 20 that we can call on at any time. Given the nature of what we’re doing, it’s very difficult to build a mass organization because at its core, what we are doing is illegal. We can’t have public meetings to say that we’re going to break into this house on this date. There are just too many logistical and legal repercussions. Also, we did not want to seek funding. We got one grant, which we transferred to a nonprofit partner. So, there’s no staff and no budget to speak of.

In October 2006, we took over a vacant piece of land and built the Umoja Village shanty-town in Miami, Fla. It stood for six months before falling to a suspicious fire. We felt that we had built a model but it lacked long-term viability because we had no public policy component to what we were doing. In fact, we had explicitly taken an anti-public policy stance. So, when the Miami City Manager sent one of his minions over to say, “How can we resolve this?” I said, we’re going to give you our demands. When he took out his pen, we said, “We want you to get off our property!” That was our only demand. We felt then—and until recently—that we specifically did not want to have any engagement with the government. But we did not have a public policy piece or alternative institutions in place. You can’t build the movement or create social change that way.

Scenes from Umoja Village before its destruction. cc. 2007 Danny  
Hammontree 4The Opportunity of Crisis
Today, because of the economic and political crisis, we are at a historic point where people are willing to rethink their relationship to the land, the economic system, and the financial system in a way that they were unwilling or unable to do before. If we had tried to do land takeovers five or six years ago, we would have been kicked out by our own neighbors. Now we get great press and community support.
Things that seemed crazy and not possible five years ago suddenly are relevant and mainstream. Consequently, this opens up an opportunity for the social justice movement to offer viable alternatives.

In broad terms, our goal is to fundamentally transform land relationships—the way people, governments, and corporations relate to land and to one another in relation to land. We believe that it’s possible in our lifetime.

If we engage in a protracted, vigorous, and broad political campaign, we can win vast public policy changes, possibly even amendments to state constitutions, which would make housing a human right. A second major goal we can pursue is to introduce new political leadership—particularly people of color, low-income people of color, and specifically, black women.

Nationwide Strategy to Take Back the Land
We are now trying to build a national Take Back The Land movement, bigger and different from the one in Miami where we were able to take advantage of specific situations and benefit from them. We want to build something flexible enough for people to apply those principles in their own communities.

The U.S. Human Rights Network is coordinating the national effort. We have signed on 10 organizations in 10 cities focused on elevating housing to the level of a human right, and at least in the initial stages, on the path of direct action: housing defense and liberations.

Umoja Village

LeThe Umoja Village was founded on October 23, 2006 in the Liberty City section of Miami, Florida in response to gentrification and a lack of low-income housing. “Umoja” is Swahili for “unity.”

After months of planning, Take Back The Land seized control of a lot that had been vacant for about eight years after low-income housing there was demolished by the city. Take Back The Land erected tents and wood-frame shanties to provide housing for homeless people in the area.

Police were unable to evict the residents or organizers because of a 1996 settlement with the ACLU that forbids the arrest of homeless people on public land when there are no beds for them in city shelters.

By December, Umoja Village housed approximately 50 homeless people who ran the village democratically. The village enjoyed broad support in the community, so was able to successfully repel numerous attempts by government officials to tear it down.
On April 23, 2007, Umoja Village celebrated its six-month milestone with the following actions: the replacement of wood shanties with more durable structures; the building of a water well; participation in local anti-gentrification and pro-housing campaigns; a demand for legal rights to the land from the city; and plans to acquire land and build low-income housing.

On April 26, 2007—the day that the first new structures were scheduled to be built—Umoja Village burned to the ground in a mysterious fire. There were no casualties or injuries but Miami police took the opportunity to arrest 11 residents and activists for attempting to remain on the land and the city erected a barbed wire fence around the property that same day.

To ward off more protests, the city initially offered the property to Take Back The Land to build low-income housing, but later reneged on its offer under pressure from local power brokers and lobbyists. —Ed.

We think it extremely important to use direct action to challenge the prevailing paradigm around land and land relationships. Consequently, breaking the laws that support the paradigm is a critical part of our model. It’s a tactic designed to reach something bigger, which is to advance public policy initiatives that elevate housing to the level of a human right.

Our position is that progressive public policy in the United States is effectively dead because we cannot move it. And the reason for that is that we have no real leverage; meaning, we have no money to give to public officials. What we do have is our labor and this sense that we should be able to stay in the buildings, and in the homes. Since we have no viable leverage to advance progressive public policy, we have to go on a hard, direct action binge.

Ultimately, our objective is bigger social change through public policy, but I don’t think we can get to that without the direct action. But first, we need a plan. What do we do after we win? In Miami, we were unprepared to cope with victory. In fact, that happened with the home of the Trody family, which was featured in the Michael Moore film, Capitalism: A Love Story.

The bank sent the Trodys a second eviction notice a few months ago, and of course, the next day we were there, ready to take arrests, defending the family’s right to stay. One of our leaders called the bank—U.S. Bank, which got $6.6 billion in bailout funds from the federal government—and after a couple of negotiating sessions, the bank offered us the house for $1. But we had no way to accept the house. Not only did we not have an organization that could deal with victory, we weren’t even clear about what that organization or model should look like. So now, as we build the movement to the point where we have those victories, we need to concurrently build the alternative institutions that can sustain those victories.

Direct Action to Affect Banks

To bring about this kind of social transformation, we have to make it affect the economic self-interests of the financial sector and the government, which also controls large amounts of properties.

We can start by focusing on one bank—Citibank or Bank of America. Say they own $10 billion worth of toxic assets. First they spend money to do a foreclosure, then they spend money to do an eviction, then they spend more money to board the house up, and some more money on upkeep and blight abatement. Then somebody moves into the vacant house and they have to spend on evicting them and boarding up the place all over again.

If we can occupy 10,000 of these homes, the cost of repossessing all of them will be prohibitive. At some point the banks will recognize that it is in their financial interest to just hand the places over to nonprofits. By taking the $10 billion in tax write-offs they will actually come out ahead, financially.

Our direct action has to make it so the banks have a clear financial interest in giving away the foreclosed homes rather than continuing to spend money on getting back properties they supposedly own.

Direct Action to Affect GovernmentScenes from Umoja Village before its destruction. cc. 2007 Danny  
Hammontree 1
It used to be that when they put a 24-hour eviction notice on someone’s door in Miami, it meant that the police would come the next day or the day after. Now it takes the police seven to 14 business days to follow up on an eviction notice. That’s how backlogged they are.
The Trody family was evicted on a Friday, they spent the weekend in their truck, and we moved them back into the same house on Monday. Seven police cars and eight police showed up in response and stayed for about two hours, but then left without doing an eviction. That happened on February 23, 2009 and the family is still in the house.

If we can mount this kind of action even 10 percent of the time—where they will have to bring in seven police cars—it will back up the foreclosure/eviction process even more.Scenes from Umoja Village before its destruction.  cc. 2007 Danny 
Hammontree 2


If we're able to force the police to do mass turn  arrests, or leave, the municipalities would be incapable of executing the evictions and they would fail. The municipalities and counties would then be motivated to support turning the properties over.

Our Vision for the Future
If we had a whole new world, what would it look like? We need alternative structures for control (what people normally call ownership). Land trusts and co-ops are a good base to build from. But we need to go further. If we’re going to fundamentally transform the economy as a whole so that housing is de-commodified, we will need to develop alternative financial structures, such as community-controlled credit unions.
At present, we think about land and land ownership in two ways: private and public. We would like to establish a third method of ownership where the community would have some level of control over the land without government involvement.

So, we are asking organizations to join us by amplifying the work that they are already doing and encouraging them to take it up to the next level.
In May 2010, we want to have organizations doing liberations or defenses in several areas. Our goal is to help 100 families in a nationwide campaign where we either move them into places that were previously vacant, or defend them against eviction.
If we don’t do this in a real way, by this time next year we will have missed our chance. 

Max Rameau, a founding member of Take Back The Land, is a Miami-based activist working for land rights and housing. This article is based on a presentation he gave in Oakland in February 2010. Background on Umoja Village is from Take Back The Land’s website: 

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Hope VI Mixed-Income Housing Projects Displace Poor People

THen 2008Bop City was a popular jazz club in the the Fillmore. Courtesy of San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public LibraryReprinted from RP&E Vol. 15, No. 1: Who Owns Our Cities?

If you have ever lived in or around a public housing development you would probably agree with the stated aim of the federal Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere (HOPE VI) program: Drastic measures are needed to improve the dilapidated buildings and uplift the lives of the people who live in them.

HOPE VI provides grant money from the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to local housing authorities to demolish and reconstruct “distressed” projects. Tenants receive relocation assistance and a portable Section 8 voucher to subsidize their rent in the private market while their public housing developments are demolished—entirely or in part—and reconstructed as mixed-income housing complexes in an attempt to deconcentrate pockets of intense poverty.

In theory, the original tenants are then able to return to their refurbished homes and enjoy a wide range of social and economic programs designed to ease the transition from welfare to work. In reality, what often happens is that the reconstruction is delayed or abandoned altogether, or the “mixed income” residency requirements causes the poorest of the tenants—those most in need of subsidies—to lose their homes.

A Brief History of HOPE that Isn’t

Since 1992, HUD has awarded 446 HOPE VI grants in 166 cities. As of 2006, 78,100 public housing units had been demolished and an additional 10,400 units were slated for redevelopment.[1]

However, a 2004 study by the Urban Institute found that only 21,000 units had been built to replace the 49,828 demolished units. In other words, roughly 42 percent of the demolished public housing had been replaced.[2]

In 1940, President Roosevelt stood in front of Atlanta’s Techwood Housing Project, the first completed federally funded public housing, and said, “Within a very short time people who never before could get a decent roof over their heads will live here in reasonable comfort and healthful, worthwhile surroundings.”[3]

In 1996, despite its special place in history, the Techwood Project was the first to be demolished under HOPE VI to make room for the Olympic village. However, visitors to the Olympics were still able to walk through a virtual reality exhibit of Techwood, but without the annoying presence of its displaced tenants. The original Techwood contained 1100 units—all of them for public housing. Today, only 300 units are available for public housing.
Fillmore before redevelopment.Courtesy of San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library.

A HOPE Based on Punishment

Under the Clinton and Bush administrations, Republicans and Democrats have colluded to systematically dismantle what was left of the social welfare system ushered in by the New Deal. Throughout the 1990s, the rhetoric of welfare reform blamed “cultures of poverty” and “concentrations of poverty” for poverty itself. Instead of getting tough on corporate layoffs of thousands of people during peak profit time, Clinton decided to show “tough love” to those most likely to be at the receiving end of structural unemployment.

Of course, it would be a grave mistake to stereotype all public housing residents as welfare recipients because public housing tenants are often some of the hardest working but poorest paid people. In 1999, the median income of families living in public housing was $6,500, well below a living wage by any standard. In their essay “Failing, but not Fooling, Public Housing Residents,”[4] authors Jacqueline Leavitt and Mary Ochs point out that both “welfare reform” and “public housing reform,” take a punitive approach to public policy and make false assumptions about the availability of decent-paying jobs and adequate job training. Interestingly, punishment and privatization often seem to go hand-in-hand.

In 1996, President Clinton signed into law a bill designed to accelerate evictions in public housing. Dubbed “One Strike and You’re Out,” it was touted as a way to stop drug trafficking and violent crimes in public housing developments. Since One Strike was a civil procedure, tenants could be evicted even if they were acquitted of criminal charges. In effect, what One Strike did was provide an excuse for eviction based solely on innuendo and allegations of criminal activity. Thankfully, in January 2001, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals eliminated those provisions of “One Strike” which allowed evictions of those who were both innocent and ignorant of the crime for which they were being evicted.

Fighting HOPE with Resistance

In 1996, a small group of residents at a North Beach public housing facility in San Francisco who were concerned about being displaced by HOPE VI decided to fight back. They sought the help of the Eviction Defense Network (EDN), which had previously led a successful campaign to prevent evictions of undocumented residents.

There followed a three-year, door-to-door campaign of organizing and educating the tenants about the dangers of relocating for HOPE VI upgrades without a firm promise of a home to return to. Consequently, more than 60 percent of the tenants signed pledges not to move until they had received real guarantees. The San Francisco Housing Authority (SFHA), fearing that delays and a failure to comply with HUD mandates would cause them to lose $23 million in HOPE VI money, relented. The tenants were offered an “Exit Contract” with legally binding guarantees, most significant among them: one-for-one replacement of all demolished low-income units and a limited number of reasons for disqualifying a tenant from re-occupancy.

Charged by this modest victory, the tenant activists of North Beach drafted a Public Housing Tenant Protection Act (PHTPA) as a citywide ordinance. Although supported by San Francisco Board Of Supervisors President Tom Ammiano, and passed by the Finance and Labor Committee, the measure was eventually killed by Supervisor Amos Brown.
Fillmore district housing  removed. Courtesy of San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public  Library

QHWRA: No Hope for the Homeless
The Quality Housing and Work Responsibility Act (QHWRA) of 1998 mandates that all public housing developments should become “mixed income,” meaning, all new housing units are for those making 30 to 80 percent of the median income. In effect, this makes it virtually impossible to exit homelessness via the public housing system.

Partnerships with the private sector are key in reducing federal government costs for low-income housing. According to HOPE VI proponents, the average annual direct costs are reduced by $3.9 million for public housing units redeveloped as mixed-income housing.5 But urban land being at a premium, the HOPE VI process usually results in the privatization of many developments as developers contracted to do the reconstruction generally gain partial ownership (currently estimated at around one billion dollars) of the new housing. So, the poor continue to lose, as corporations, such as McCormack Baron, Sun America, and Bridge Housing Developers make immense profit.

Nationwide, there are now over one million families awaiting subsidized housing (as acknowledged by HUD’s own research) but the federal government continues to cut back on available units.

Spatial Deconcentration as Political Diffusion
The United States Code of Federal Regulations has identified “the growth of population in metropolitan and other urban areas, and the concentration of persons of lower income in central cities” and set a goal to “develop new centers of population growth and economic activity.” Its apparent objective is “the reduction of the isolation of income groups within communities and geographical areas and the promotion and increase in the diversity and vitality of neighborhoods through the spatial deconcentration of housing opportunities of persons of lower income and the revitalization of deteriorating neighborhoods.”[6]

In other words, poverty is a result of poor people living in close proximity to each other—rather than of structural unemployment or the persistence of racism—and “economic integration,” or living close to employed people, will set a good example for the poor.

Is spatial deconcentration a progressive solution to poverty or a hideous experiment in social engineering? One obvious effect of spatial deconcentration is the dilution of the political power wielded by concentrated voting blocks. The other is that it makes more difficult any political organizing for the common economic interests of a community.

Author Yolanda Ward traces the theoretical roots of spatial deconcentration to when President Lyndon Johnson established the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders commonly known as the Kerner Commission.7 Inner City riots were frequent in the 1960s. (San Francisco’s largest was in 1966—a community response to the police killing of Matthew Johnson, a 16-year-old African American youth from the Bayview.) The Commision was set up to investigate the origins of 160 disorders in 128 cities in the first nine months of 1967.

The Kerner Commission report, released in 1968, recommended traditional liberal solutions to poverty, such as strengthening the social safety net and increasing job opportunities for inner-city citizens. It also suggested spatial deconcentration as a viable strategy to deter urban uprisings.
Whatever the intentions of its promoters, the end result of spatial deconcentration (supported by the Nixon, Reagan, Bush Sr. and Jr., and Clinton administrations) has been the political demobilization of the oppressed as poor residents are scattered to the suburbs.

Pushing the Poor Out of Town

Urban Habitat studies published in the 1990s track the deconcentration process in the Bay Area where displaced low-income residents generally are dispersed to the rim cities of Antioch, Vallejo, San Pablo, Dixon, El Cerrito, and Vacaville. In each of these areas, the number of available jobs exceeds the population. Some, like Vallejo and Alameda, have suffered high unemployment rates as a result of military base closures. So, public housing transplants to these areas often have to commute to the metropolitan areas to find low-wage work.

Overt political racism is another issue that gentrification refugees have to face in the rim cities. A case in point is the early morning raid conducted by a Vallejo city taskforce on the federally subsidized but privately owned Marina Green development in 1997. Over 60 families were rousted from their beds and forced to watch as officers ransacked their apartments for no apparent reason other than that they all received welfare.

The irony of federal housing policy “reform” is that it uses a progressive critique to accomplish completely conservative aims. The HOPE VI program argues against warehousing the poor in substandard areas and many housing authorities actually have self-sufficiency programs for their residents to prepare for gainful employment. However, by abolishing the requirement that demolished public housing units be replaced on a one-for-one basis and cutting funding, Congress has effectively given the federal government an exit strategy out of the public housing business.
As the nationwide housing crisis intensifies and the nation teeters on the brink of a recession, we are faced with the type of economic and political conditions that existed during the Great Depression. We can only hope that they will lead to a re-ermergence of some of the more enlightened and progressive social programs of that era.

Urban Removal: Legacy of Destruction

The term “urban removal” refers explicitly to the government-financed-and-facilitated destruction of inner-city housing. In the case of HOPE VI, the destruction is of government-owned developments but in some cases, the government also seized private property and removed entire communities.

The Western Addition or Fillmore District of San Francisco is ground zero in the history of urban removal. The first removal in that area occurred with the internment of Japanese American citizens during World War II. The area was then populated by blacks who were aggressively recruited from the southern states to work in the Bay Area building war machines. During the war years, blacks not only enjoyed a degree of economic prosperity, the neighborhood became a center for jazz, blues, and the arts. But when the war ended, the government started a propaganda campaign against the Fillmore, branding it “blighted.” Given the relative prosperity of the Fillmore at the time, the notion of “blight” had little to do with decrepit conditions, but everything to do with racist assumptions and developer profit.

The urban renewal legislation passed by Congress in 1949 and 1954 conferred Redevelopment Agencies with the power to condemn entire city blocks and evict residents, be they renters or owners. The process of eminent domain proved devastating to the roughly 17,000 people displaced during both phases of the project.

Before urban removal, a large portion of blacks owned their own homes. Joyce Miller was nine years old when her family was forced to leave their home under the threat of eminent domain. “They offered the families some money, usually less than what the place was worth,” Miller recalls. “They told you that if you didn’t accept, they would take your home anyhow.”

Although Miller’s family found housing not far from their former home, other residents were not as lucky. “The realtors made sure that if you stayed in San Francisco, you went only to the Ingleside District or the Bayview,” she says. “Everyone else was pushed out of the city.” n


1.    Turner, et al. Estimating the Public Costs and Benefits of HOPE VI Investments: Methodological Report. The Urban Institute. June 2007.
2.    Popkin, et al. A Decade of HOPE VI: Research Findings and Policy Challenges. The Urban Institute and The Brookings Institution. May, 2004.
3.    Dedication of Techwood Homes. Archives of Carl Vinson Institute of Government, University of Georgia, Atlanta. Nov. 29, 1935.
4.    Leavitt, Jacqueline and Ochs, Mary. “Failing, but not Fooling, Public Housing Residents.” The Ralph and Goldy Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies Working Paper Series, University of California, Los Angeles. 1998.
5.    Turner, et al. Estimating the Public Costs and Benefits of HOPE VI Investments: Methodological Report. The Urban Institute. June 2007.
6.    Title 42, Chapter 69, Sec. 5301. Congressional findings and declaration of purpose.  Section 101 of the Act.
7.     Ward, Yolanda. Spatial Deconcentration. /text/ward.htm

James Tracy is a freelance writer, longtime housing activist, and president of the San Francisco Community Land Trust. 

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Who Takes Ownership of the City?

THen 2008Reprinted from RP&E Vol. 15, No.1: Who Takes Ownership of Our Cities?

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.”

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
Cityscape. © 2010 Ali 
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.

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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