The Changes We Need to See: Aspirations for 2021 and Beyond

Cities remain economic engines and cultural hubs and density remains the best way to limit the impact of humans on the environment. – The New York Times, 5/11/20

The events of 2020 stripped away the pretense that our cities are just and equitable, revealing deep divides that have existed for decades and development that favors the wealthy, leading to displacement, health disparities, transit inequity, and lack of basic services.  The stresses on our social systems – healthcare, housing, infrastructure, education, environment, and the economy – require a deep rethinking of how we value and provide for our citizens. Repairing our cities and building just and equitable communities require new ways of thinking and new models and paradigms. We looked to examples of best practices; to innovations as simple as an online community engagement platform and as complex as land banks; and to the grassroots activists, practitioners, and storytellers who are leading the way for professionals of color. Here are the places to begin:

Overhaul Neighborhood Planning & Development Policy

It’s been decades since the bold and visionary work of urbanists like Jane Jacobs ushered in a revolution in urban planning. Instead, today’s focus is on market-led investments and large development deals that favor real estate over community development. Urban planning needs to be more holistic in the context of new challenges – displacement, racial justice, health equity, shrinking economic mobility, and climate change.  We must rebalance objectives and more compassionately and thoughtfully balance the needs of citizens with the need to show a profit.  

It’s time for a new municipal model that is built on a foundation of interdepartmental collaboration and explicitly calls for the creation of EcoDistricts with a commitment to place-based, neighborhood-scale solutions.  We need enabling policies to support the local community and economic development and robust neighborhood-scale planning that unlocks land in a different way, builds community ownership and wealth, and commits to promoting affordability, health, carbon reduction, and economic opportunity.  We need to improve critical infrastructure by linking neighborhood planning to wider regional planning.  Finally, we need to measure success by a yardstick other than the one that maximizes the value of real estate despite the human and social costs.  

Reimagine Place-Based Governance

After decades of watching community development corporations struggle to wrest basic benefit agreements from the developers holding the cards, it’s time for a new generation of CDCs and local governance organizations that are funded, staffed, and empowered to hold municipalities and developers accountable and enforce governance agreements. We need more muscular and capable organizations that can direct investments, own and manage assets, hold institutions accountable, and measure impact across a wider range of issues. The new CDCs must work alongside government agencies in an active, not merely advisory, capacity.

New financing mechanisms that provide early, dependable capital for planning, engagement, and local project development are critically needed to enable CDCs to engage proactively in community redevelopment from the outset. Funds for authentic engagement through community reinvestment act funds, land banks, CDBGs, and philanthropy must be redirected to ensure that equity, sustainability, and resilience are hard-wired into redevelopment projects and offer opportunities for ownership of assets and community wealth-building. 

Put Race Equity Front and Center

Our society has an equity challenge that is concentrated and most vividly expressed in our cities. Decades of opportunistic market-rate development, land speculation, and weak public policy have slowed economic mobility. Racial segregation codified through redlining and other regulations continue to deny generations of BIPOC and low-income communities the opportunity to build wealth and expand opportunity. The growing health and climate crisis put vulnerable communities further at risk. 

Current events have made abundantly clear the frustration among communities of color that their cities, communities, and neighborhoods are not designed with and for them. Homeownership rates for Black and Latino individuals fall far below the rate for white individuals, contributing to the racial wealth gap. The backlash and political forces against rapid and inequitable development are growing, with a call to prioritize the needs of historically marginalized communities to improve economic and social mobility and advance public and environmental health. 

Municipalities and CDCs are finding new methods of engagement through tools like Engage PGH, the City of Pittsburgh’s interactive online system that can be utilized day or night, anonymously if desired, with tools to encourage input and dialogue.  Prioritizing equity means ensuring that marginalized voices are actively sought, heard, and heeded. 

Prioritize Climate Resilience

“I want you to act as if the house is on fire because it is.” – Greta Thunberg, Davos, 2019

It’s time to rethink environmental sustainability from a systems approach and apply the lessons learned through the green building movement at the neighborhood or district scale.  Although cities are leading the charge in crafting ambitious climate action plans, many are stalled at implementation.   GHG reductions through district-scale utilities, renewable energy, water systems, transit, and construction are well within reach, with the political will and capital to drive implementation.

Equally important is for communities to be prepared for the increasing effects of climate change through upgrades to infrastructure and the built environment as well as through social systems. Those calling for retrofitting cities with a focus on disaster mitigation argue that it will not only save lives and neighborhoods — it will also save money.  Resilient communities not only withstand natural disasters, but they also help residents deal with subsequent challenges that can include financial, health, and housing hurdles as well as pervasive mental health and stress-related issues.  

Diversify the Field

The white-dominated design and planning fields must diversify in order to represent the urban communities they serve.  The Planners of Color Interest Group at the Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning found that 78% of faculty in accredited planning programs are white and that the shortage of people of color among faculty in turn negatively impacts the diversity of the student body. Professor Kofi Boone notes, “The educational experience of landscape architecture is devoid of the black experience. Landscape architecture texts do not reference any contributions by black landscape architects: no history, theories, case studies, or any other acknowledgments.”

Detroit Director of Engagement Orlando Bailey recently noted, “Black urbanists are expected to put their lived experiences aside to ‘fit in’ at their workspaces, thereby removing the personal knowledge necessary to help urban communities flourish.” The challenge is to develop a larger student body that will contribute to a greater number of professionals of color.

When city planners view the need to focus on equity and community engagement as a burden or speed bump, the seeds of mistrust between planners and the African-American and Latinx communities they are tasked to work with have already been sown. – StreetsBlog/Chicago

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