A New Model for New Times

Cover of the East Garfield Park Quality of Life Plan, prepared by LISC through the New Communities Program.  Source: Garfield Park Community Council (gpcommunitycouncil.org)
How is it that so many of the recent theories or models on effective urban revitalization absolutely fail to connect with minorities, especially African-Americans? 
New Urbanists, Smart Growthers, Creative Class supporters and even advocates of the nascent Rust Belt Chic movement are bumping their heads against a low ceiling, trying to figure out how to achieve escape velocity and gain greater acceptance among the general public.  General support from the African-American community seems to elude them all.
Let’s look at a few examples.  Recently, the New Urbanist-oriented website Better Cities lamented the lack of support it has attained from minority communities for bike lanes and other measures that support pedestrianism and walkability.  In Cincinnati last week, mayor-elect John Cranley defeated former mayor Roxanne Qualls by running on a platform to halt construction of the city’s streetcar project – a project supported by Qualls and that enjoyed the support of many urbanists.  However, Cranley, a Democrat backed by many Republicans, enjoyed the support of a significant part of the African-American community.  In New York, the election of populist Bill de Blasio as Michael Bloomberg’s successor has caused some consternation among corporate-oriented New Yorkers who may wish to continue New York’s Creative Class-style of revitalization.
All in all, this is causing adherents of the various theories and models to reevaluate their inclusiveness.  In reality they need to reevaluate their mission, goals and message.  If you look at what each theory has to say, it’s pretty clear where they fall short.
New Urbanists, who broadly support the notion that better design can create better communities, have a message that was crafted with the sprawling post-WWII suburbs in mind, and intended for implementation there.  New Urbanists get their guidance from the pre-WWII urban development patterns of many of our nation’s cities, but often have little to say about how those cities should move forward today. 
Smart Growth supporters may share the design sentiment of New Urbanists, but their focus is often on revisiting the regulatory environment that creates the cities we have.  Similar to New Urbanism, Smart Growthers also get inspiration from pre-WWII cities, but have a message designed to appeal to suburban revitalization. 
Creative Class advocates come a little closer to addressing the needs of cities.  They broadly support the idea that establishing an environment for innovation and creativity in cities can drive urban revitalization.  Perhaps, but that message seems to neglect a huge segment of the population of cities that don’t fit the high-education, professional, tech-oriented label at the heart of the Creative Class.
Finally, the new Rust Belt Chic model is gaining notoriety and followers.  Supporters of this model believe that authenticity is key to urban revitalization.  Cities, particularly Rust Belt cities, are who they are; they will attract new residents who seek an alternative to homogenous suburbia or Sun Belt by becoming better, and often more ironic, versions of themselves. 
You can disagree with my characterization of the various models.  They’re overly broad, I admit.  What’s also overly broad is the role that African-Americans, and in fact other minorities, play in their formation and implementation.  How can we have models supporting urban revitalization without really including all members of the urban landscape?
Let’s be real.  The reason New Urbanists, Smart Growthers, Creative Classers and Rust Belt Chic-ers are looking into their appeal to minorities to go to the next level is that the Great Recession has changed everything.  Prior to the financial crisis none of these models needed minorities to move forward.  Whatever you think about the Occupy movement, it exposed growing income inequality in this country, and forced people who care about cities to consider inequality’s impact.  Being on the short side of the haves/have nots divide is something that blacks are quite familiar with. 
Touting bike lanes, streetcars, tech-led revitalization and amenity-rich areas has meant little to many blacks because they don’t deal with the structural inequities of our cities.  Otherwise, the strategies simply seem like so many relocation efforts, reminiscent of urban renewal efforts from a half-century ago.  For too long, the New Urbanism, Smart Growth and Creative Class models (Rust Belt Chic gets a pass for now) have all but neglected cities because they believed their strategies would indirectly improve cities – and they steadfastly avoided facing urban challenges directly.  Now that more of suburban and exurban America is as structurally alienated as urban minority America has been, they want to reevaluate their message.
Blacks and other minorities have been looking for an urbanist response to the challenges they face.  Our communities are plagued by rising violent crime, even as violent crime continues its steep decline at the national, metro and even city scale.  Our communities are not only lacking poor physical connections to metro job centers, but poor social connections as well.  The divide between challenged inner-city communities and all other parts of a metro area is reinforced by an inadequate educational system.
All our current urbanist models have been neglecting these challenges. 
Addressing these challenges requires a social as well as a physical or economic approach.  The best model that I’ve come across that unites these three is the comprehensive community development model, or quality-of-life planning.  The model can be viewed as an outgrowth of the community development model that got its start in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and has largely been supported by the philanthropic community.  Early community development efforts were geared toward alleviating poverty – providing affordable housing, connecting people to job opportunities, and stabilizing community decline.  But the model took a leap more than 10 years ago when the Local Initiative Support Corporation (LISC) launched its New Communities Program in 2003, and expanded it to more than 20 cities nationwide.  The model seeks to develop neighborhoods through five strategies:
  • Expanding investment in housing and other real estate
  • Increasing family income and wealth
  • Stimulating economic development
  • Improving access to quality education
  • Supporting healthy environments and lifestyles
The comprehensive community development model has succeeded where implemented, but has largely escaped attention from the general public.  Why?  It hasn’t exactly gained wide acceptance in political quarters, where politicos feel the spotlight on low-income residents and communities highlights deficiencies in their efforts.  CCD is resource-intensive.  The model operates in a social realm that few people who focus on physical or economic matters feel comfortable.  But I’ve found that the CCD model provides answers to questions that New Urbanists, Smart Growthers and Creative Classers are just now starting to ask themselves. 

Since the onset of the Great Recession Richard Florida has talked about this particular time in history being the Great Reset.  I agree.  Times have changed, and advocates of the earlier models may not fully understand the depths of the changes.  However, I’d encourage people to dig a little deeper – there are people who’ve been addressing these challenges – and developing solutions – for some time.

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