Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Saturday, July 25, 2020

Equity planning: an update

No, I haven't revised my post, "An outline for integrated equity planning: concepts and programs," from 2017.  I do continue to add items that I come across in the comments thread.

There was a discussion on the pro-urb list that I argued against.  Basically, a planning professor stated that categorically, placemaking investments like bike lanes and trees automatically brought about gentrification, and she implied therefore we shouldn't be making these kinds of investments in community.

I reacted, especially because right now I am reading Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life which is about the importance of "social infrastructure" to community development and health generally but specifically in otherwise less well resourced communities.

The point isn't to invest less, it's to invest more, while also instituting initiatives to limit displacement. And in fact, I came up with my own use of the term "social infrastructure" for this kind of investment c. 2014-2015.

But placemaking investments in "nicer communities" often are denigrated by equity advocates too, as over-investing in the better off.

My response is twofold. First, we need to be making these investments everywhere, but such investments need to be prioritized in impoverished communities.

Second, at the same time, we need to retain higher income residents too, otherwise we won't generate the property tax revenue necessary to fund the operations of the city.  (This was recognized by Hennepin County, Minnesota and justified their community investment program for Minneapolis, the county's largest source of property tax revenue.  See "A County and Its Cities: the Impact of Hennepin Community Works," Journal of Urban Affairs 30:3, 2008).)

This was especially true during the many decades when trends and preferences didn't favor urban living.

For example, while historic preservation is derided in many quarters, the fact is that it was a cheap strategy for a city as it only required some personnel, staff time and a set of laws and regulations. Otherwise the costs were borne by the homeowners. And by improving neighborhoods, it staunched the outmigration of residents, attracted new residents, and stabilized neighborhoods when otherwise the city was declining.

Anyway, especially in the face of the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests, questions of equity and urban planning are being raised more frequently.

1. Louisville police killing as a result of gentrification?  The family of Breonna Taylor' argue that her death in Louisville was the result of gentrification ("Breonna Taylor warrant was part of larger gentrification scheme," New York Daily News).

While I think that's somewhat of a facile argument, it is true that in demographically changing neighborhoods, policing patterns do change, as newer, better connected, higher income residents call the police more and demand public safety improvements.  Yes, people call in complaints on "drug houses."  The tragedy is that Louisville police went to the wrong house.

Pittsburgh.  In Pittsburgh, the neighborhood community development organization East Liberty Development Inc. developed a program targeting nuisance properties, and their successful "curing" of these nuisances led to significant public safety improvements, which in turn spurred economic and community revitalization.  Is that gentrification, or investing in the community and its social infrastructure?

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported ("How did East Liberty become safer? Buying out homes that housed criminals") on this, referencing a study of the program (East Liberty Crime Data Analysis). From the article:
A map of East Liberty in 2008 shows Negley Avenue running down the length of a curious red blotch between Penn Avenue and East Liberty Boulevard.  By 2012, the red blotch had dimmed to yellow. The change signified a 49 percent drop in the incidence of crime. 
The blotch had covered much of the old residential neighborhood, including Hays, North St. Clair, Mellon and Euclid streets. In the mid-2000s, Eric Jester, then the housing development manager for East Liberty Development Inc., said his and nearby streets were “a steady drumbeat of nonsense. Not just gunfire but street fights, people screaming, hookers propositioning your dinner guests.” He said an identifiable number of properties had reduced quality of life to “an existential threat.” 
“We called the police, but as soon as the police left it started up again,” he said. “We tried code enforcement, we tried yelling, we tried shaming. 
“We finally decided it’s probably better if we owned the properties.” The result of ELDI’s strategic purchase of 200 units from slumlords between 2008 and 2012 is the subject of a 23-page report, released recently by the data analysis firm Numeritics, that reframes East Liberty’s narrative of transformation. ... 
Through the 2000s, ELDI was buying, renovating and replacing properties for mixed-income buyers, but it intensified its efforts in 2008, going after property owners who allowed criminal behavior as long as tenants didn’t complain about lax maintenance.
ELDI’s acquisition of both large and small apartment buildings led to renovations and the hiring of effective property managers and off-duty police officers. At the same time, ELDI kept the same racial composition and low rents, Numeritics reported
According to the report, ELDI acquired about 3% of the residential properties, and according to crime hot spot theory, in problem neighborhoods 3% of properties generate 50% of the crime. While the neighborhood is experiencing rising demand for residential properties and increased prices, there is still plenty of affordable housing.

Public safety is key to center city success.  People don't want to live in unsafe places. 

Murder is bad. Getting mugged/robbed sucks. Assault and rape is a really bad thing. Getting your house broken into sucks. Getting your bike or car stolen sucks. (Most of this happened to me/my household at one time or another while living in Washington, DC.)

Yes, crime is a function of social determinants, poverty, bad circumstances. But that is an explanation, not a justification.

This is the conundrum when it comes to "defunding the police" arguments.  The overall point ought to be to refocus community priorities and spending away from "warrior policing" and towards social infrastructure and more appropriate ways to respond to various social problems where police officers generally are not well positioned to be effective.

This recent Post article ("The worst case scenario") seems to be held up to show the value of officers being trained to deal with mental health matters.  Reading the article carefully, it seems more like a fluke that the lady in mental distress was not killed by the police.

2. Flood control measures in Houston/Harris County, Texas.  The New York Time reports in "A Climate Plan in Texas Focuses on Minorities. Not Everyone Likes It.," about how Harris County is changing how it prioritizes new flood control projects.

Graphic: Christine Walsh, Rice University Speed Center.

In response to massive damage resulting from Hurricane Harvey, the County passed a bond issue for these projects, in advance of the 2018 election.

But the election brought a Democratic majority to the County Commission and a progressive "County Judge" (what other places term the political leader of a county the County Executive or County Mayor, in Texas they are called "Judges"), the 29 year old (!!) Hispanic Lina Hidalgo (profile: "Top Houston-area official: 'We've got to fundamentally rethink strategy' in dealing with coronavirus," The Hill), and among the changes was to direct flood control infrastructure to the most vulnerable defined not just in terms of physical threat, but in social and economic terms as well, rather than the previous method that only considered property value--which ended up prioritizing wealthy communities.

From the article:
In Harris County, like elsewhere, the emphasis on prioritizing higher-value property led to different levels of protection not just from big federally funded flood projects, but also basic infrastructure.

Wealthy neighborhoods got sidewalks and curbs with gutters and underground drainage, while poorer areas still rely on open ditches in front of their houses, according to Tracy Stephens, a former project inspector for Houston’s public works department who now works with Ms. Murray at a community development group called Achieving Community Tasks Successfully.

Mr. Stephens recalled crews being sent to upgrade gutters in upscale neighborhoods simply to accommodate the extra runoff as more people installed backyard swimming pools. “That money could have been spent doing jobs everywhere else,” he said.

Environmental policy experts say it makes no sense to decide which people get protection based on which property is more valuable. That approach reinforces historical discrimination, which contributed to minority neighborhoods having lower property values in the first place. And it doesn’t address the deeper question of who needs the most help, or why.
Increasingly, GIS tools are being used to map poverty and infrastructure needs in interesting ways, such as vulnerable areas within watersheds in Harris County.  Also see, "Can a $2.5 Billion Bond Deal Fix Harris County's Inequitable Flood Control," Texas Observer, 2019.

3. Elected officials in Boston call for a equity lens being applied to planning and other government-related decision making on development ("Boston needs to adopt a planning equity standard" and "Amid push for systemic change, city councilor wants equity proof from BPDA," Boston Globe). From the second article:
Amid the push to dismantle systems that have perpetuated racial inequality, a Boston city councilor is demanding proof from the city’s powerful planning agency that it prioritizes racial and economic equity as it shapes the city’s neighborhoods through housing and commercial development.

Councilor Lydia Edwards is asking for documents that show whether staff at the Boston Planning & Development Agency focus on things like equitable development, racial justice, and planning that prevents residents from being displaced by new building projects. She wants to see if the agency conducts an analysis of ethnic impact and racial disparities of proposals before it.

“This is basically a moment in time for BPDA to show the receipts, and that’s what I’m asking for,” said Edwards at this week’s City Council meeting. “This is a time when we need to plan differently and we need to look at how they have been planning.”
I haven't looked into this more deeply. I don't know the extent of the city's "community benefits" requirements in development planning.

Typically, most cities have "matter of right zoning" which sets up what is allowable. Projects that are matter of right have zero community benefits requirements. And that covers the majority of development projects.

But when zoning considerations are required (exceptions, variances, density increases) usually community benefits are triggered.

Communities may have good processes for extracting benefits--Arlington County, Virginia is exemplary on this score when it comes to transportation and cultural benefits in particular; but most do not. I argue this is because as a "Growth Machine" matter, they want to limit the costs to developers.

-- "Community benefits agreements, revised (again)," 2008
-- "What community benefits are supposed to be versus what people think they are about," 2011
-- "(Over)Focusing on community benefits agreements does not substitute for economic revitalization planning: Atlanta; Chicago," 2017

Another way to address this is through "impact fees," although typically such fees cover infrastructure needs in response to increased demand, they don't cover equity-related issues.

Community benefits are tricky. I have come to realize they are more about "buying into a community" in a community ties/anthropological kind of way ("In lower income neighborhoods, are businesses supposed to be "community organizations" first?," 2012).

4.  Trailer parks as affordable housing.  Threats to convert the trailer park properties into higher value housing comes up from time to time.  As demand for housing rises in areas, trailer parks are vulnerable to conversion to higher value uses.

Trailer homes are a much cheaper way to have a home, and are a relatively efficient use of land.  But they are a hybrid form of ownership.  They own the trailer, but rent the land.  As a renter, they have no property rights, but as an owner of the trailer, they aren't treated as tenants in terms of landlord-tenant law, so they have no renters rights either.

A trailer park community in Centerville, Utah currently faces this threat ("Centerville residents facing eviction in the middle of a pandemic, but not without a fight," Salt Lake Tribune).

A similar threat in another community was averted ("A Murray mobile-home park once facing closure is now expanding," SLT) when a firm specializing in this type of property bought  the property with a commitment to continue the use.

I argue that housing plans for communities should address trailer parks, if they are present and the potential for conversion in a proactive manner, to be prepared especially if the community values affordable housing, rather than reactively in response to a threat.

5.  Predatory housing practices.  Other items that should be addressed systematically in housing planning, items which often differentially impact BIPOC include predatory mortgages, land contract house purchases,  ("Why a housing scheme founded in racism is making a resurgence today," Washington Post)  Land Installment Contracts: The Newest Wave of Predatory Home Lending Threatening Communities of Color, Boston Federal Reserve Bank) and underlying ground rent ("Sun series: On shaky ground," Baltimore Sun).

And reverse mortgages ("Seniors face foreclosure in retirement after failed reverse mortgages" and "Advocates push for reverse mortgage reform," USA Today).

6.  Equity in sustainable mobility planning.  Recent initiatives to convert street space to walking and biking uses in communities across the country often has been justified in terms of equity, such as in Oakland, California ("Cities Close Streets to Cars, Opening Space for Social Social Distancing," New York Times), even if more recently similar measures are more about 'increasing spaces of consumption" for restaurant patios.

A few years ago I came across some really pathbreaking analysis in trails planning for Cuyahoga County, Ohio.

They used GIS mapping to show how trails can  provide greater access to activity and employment centers, and parks, alongside equity goals ("County planners seek the public's help in designing Cuyahoga's proposed Eastside Greenway," Cleveland Plain Dealer).

The earlier initiative focused on a single (but long trail), the Eastside Greenway.

More recently, they extended this approach county-wide and regionally. The Cuyahoga Greenways plan proposes 240 miles of new trails, 151 miles of trails focused on eliminating gaps in the current system, and 571 miles of "local," supporting trails and multi-use paths providing connections to an expanded regional system.

-- presentation

It too laid out the proposals in terms of providing access to jobs and a larger proportion of the county's population, along with economic development elements, which I thought was pretty innovative.

They also promote the health aspect of bicycling, although that isn't a new approach (although health is one of the primary reasons I cycle).

While this type of analysis is more common to transit planning, it needs to be extended outward to sustainable mobility planning more generally.

This approach more widely applied could go a long way towards justifying investments in walking and biking infrastructure especially. 

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At 1:27 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

The House DC, program in Anacostia

Georgetown University Pivot Program, entrepreneurship program for the formerly incarcerated.

At 8:46 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

DC Families First centers

Good step. Although I wonder about the city's capacity in terms of vision and implementation (e.g., how they screwed up summer school for Title I students and then just junked it).

UK had/has a similar program, called Sure Start, focused on low income new families, but mostly junked it as part of austerity.

At 10:56 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Violence interruption.

At 2:45 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Value of the Harlem YMCA as a community hub, especially for the Harlem Renaissance.

Anthony Bowen YMCA had a comparable role in DC.



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