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The ‘Just City’ — For America, Soon?

Neal Peirce / Jul 21 2011

For Release Sunday, July 24, 2011
© 2011 Washington Post Writers Group

Neal PeirceNEW YORK — For years debate about cities has focused on the economic side — steps they are urged to take to attract capital, recruit new businesses, lure creative professionals.

But what about justice?

Will our cities and metro areas, asks Ford Foundation president Luis Ubiñas, “live up to the aspirations of all residents, or just the privileged few?” Can we achieve “just cities, shaped by fairness, opportunity, a commitment to shared prosperity?”

It’s an appropriate point for the foundation whose dollars, starting in the 1960s, were critical in launching the community development movement with its boost for hundreds of grassroots housing groups in and for hard-pressed neighborhoods.

Again, the foundation seems to be moving ahead of the game, to important new ground. In the midst of uncertainty about the country’s future, our prevailing politics focus only tangentially on income disparities between our wealthiest income earners and the rest of America, and how those gaps have hit historic highs. And there’s a surfeit of anti-government rhetoric, even as poor and working-class Americans face exceedingly tough economic odds.

Can we then have a “Just City”? The Ford Foundation made this theme the center of a celebration this month marking the 75th anniversary of its founding. And its guests took up the challenge with gusto.

We need “to get comfortable,” said Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, “talking of poor and working class people together.” And why? “Nationally the discourse is just about the middle class and up — but we know the poor are getting killed.”

Mayors, Reed said, can’t afford to ignore fixing potholes or tough management issues such as trimming and reforming pensions. But the equity issue, he insisted, is vital. His message to people indifferent to the plight of the working classes: “You’re killing the model for the United States of America. The question is whether the U.S. will be the world leader for social justice. We need to argue and fight about this.”

Van Jones of the Center for American Progress followed Reed’s lead by lamenting “how many people are laid off — never to work again, sitting on a couch and getting angrier.” Why not, he said, “tax Wall Street and put some of the money to rebuild the country and reengage some of the laid off people?”

But the Ford conferees heard repeatedly that cities themselves — through their schools, tax and property rules — can make a major difference.

And some corporations can be active partners in change. Robin Willner, vice president of global community initiatives for IBM, reported how the company’s team in Austin, Texas, had worked on ways to to address deep and lingering disparities between less affluent East and more prosperous West Austin. The process involved transparency and citizen participation, including fairer ways for the city to allocate its infrastructure investments.

Ground urban strategies in inclusion and equity — that’s the secret, the Ford conferees heard. Manuel Pastor of the University of Southern California cited research showing that metro areas doing better at deconcentrating poverty, working at racial desegregation, are growing more rapidly and sustainably over time.

Clearly, multiracial will be the theme of cities from now on. The United States, noted civil rights scholar John Powell, will lose its white majority status by 2045; by 2100, there will be virtually no major major city in the entire world with a white majority.

Focus first on the human side of cities, Mayor Jean Quan of Oakland, Calif., counseled the Ford conference: “Put resources into poorest neighborhoods and their children.” Quan is trying to turn three schools into full community centers, with strong grassroots participation. “If I can give kids a decent education, then everything else will follow — businesses moving in, everyone a lot happier.”

But the center city working with all a metro area’s communities is key, said former Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, now Colorado’s governor. A culture of local cooperation made voter passage of Denver’s widely admired Fastracks regional metro light rail system possible, he noted. Regionwide “collaboration is like a muscle: the more you use it, the stronger it gets.” Among regions today, he noted, “collaboration is the new competition.”

The social justice case does require constant push. “We saw lots of broken people, destitution, environmental damage” in the San Pedro and Wilmington communities around the Port of Los Angeles, Madeline Janus, executive director of the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, told the Ford conference.

But a local coalition organized, brought pressure, and last fall won a $50 million port authority agreement to clean up pollution, reduce asthma rates, and create job training pipelines for local residents.

“We’ve been called communists. But Mayor (of Los Angeles) Antonio Villaraigosa stood behind us. This is patriotic — the government, the system, as ours,” said Janus.

Neal Peirce’s e-mail is

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  1. Posted July 23, 2011 at 4:46 am | Permalink

    Henry George offered the best key to distributive justice ever put forth: that the surplus yield of economic rent that flows through natural resources — what he called land — rightfully belongs to all of us, since it’s socially created. Taxing those resources to support public goods in lieu of revenues from wages and capital goods is sound both economically and morally.

  2. Posted July 23, 2011 at 8:56 am | Permalink

    Some suggestions:
    Expand our measurement of economy to prosperity and the meaning of Triple Bottom Line from People, Planet and Profit to People, Planet, and Prosperity. Migrate to the three “e’s” of 3BL – environment, economy and ethics. And, like here in Portland, Oregon:
    “Promote a sustainable future that meets today’s needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs, and accepts its responsibility to: 1) support a stable, diverse and equitable economy, 2) protect the quality of the air, water, land and other natural resources, 3) conserve native vegetation, fish, wildlife habitat and other ecosystems, and 4) minimize human impacts on local and worldwide ecosystems.”
    Now you’re talking.
    As to action equity innovation (fresh look by social entrepreneurs and government and the non-profit sector) becomes part of economic development plan addressing clusters not only of traditional innovative industries (e.g. clean tech) but health and wellness, food production, and culture and art.
    What we’ve been doing, how we have been acting, how we think about racial equity has not worked. Forty years ago the Ford Foundation gave a grant to the National Association for Community Development (NACD). I was there. And you know what? We privileged folks need to start with an apology (okay maybe just me?) to our citizens of color for allowing real estate development to trump community development, for allowing health insurers to dominate health caring providers in our communities, for allowing Corporations to own our food production systems, for the selling off hunks of our community assets, The Commons, and for practicing discrimination in jobs and housing. Put energy behind equity, especially racial equity, within our economic strategy and plans and make sustainability as the driver. Then maybe we’ll get someplace.