The City At Night Essay Ideas
... In Elie Wiesel’s memoir, Night, holocaust survivor Eliezer suffers from one of the most painful events in human history: the Jewish Holocaust. As a result of his suffering, he is radically changed from a devout Jew, to a devout cynic. His religious fervor is lost, and little hope is provided for its salvation. The definition of holocaust is mass destruction; this is usually associated with the mass destruction of human life. Another definition, although horribly ironic, is a burnt offering. Perhaps ‘burnt offering’ is an accurate definition because this is exactly what happens to many Jews: they are thrown in a crematorium. Before Eliezer is violently shoved into the destruction, he lives a normal Jewish life in the town of Sighet. Like many, he has an interest in the religious aspect of his life. He states, “By day I studied the Talmud and by night I would run to the synagogue to weep over the destruction of the Temple” (3). He asks his father to find him a master that could guide him in the studies of Kabbalah. Kabbalah is a form of Jewish mysticism. His father does not help him find a master, and tells Eliezer that there are no Kabbalists in Sighet. But nevertheless, he succeeds in finding a master on his own, Moishe the Beadle. Moishe the Beadle is a poor man, yet an insightful person. “Man comes closer to God through the questions he asks Him,” he liked to say. “Man asks and God replies. But we do not understand His replies. We cannot...
Over the past decade, there have been numerous conversations about the “livable city,” the “green city,” the “sustainable city” and, most recently, the “resilient city.” At the same time, today’s headlines—from Ferguson to Baltimore, Paris to Johannesburg—resound with the need for frank dialogue about the structures and processes that affect the quality of life and livelihoods of urban residents. Issues of equity, inclusion, race, participation, access and ownership remain unresolved in many communities around the world, even as we begin to address the challenges of affordability, climate change adaptation and resilience. The persistence of injustice in the world’s cities—dramatic inequality, unequal environmental burdens and risks, and uneven access to opportunity—demands a continued and reinvigorated search for ideas and solutions.
Our organizations, The J. Max Bond Center on Design for the Just City at the City College of New York,The Nature of Cities, and Next City, have built our respective missions around creating and disseminating knowledge, reporting and analysis of the contemporary city. All three organizations offer platforms for thought leaders and grassroots activists who are working to identify both aspirational and practical strategies for building livable, sustainable, resilient and just cities. Our shared values brought us together to produce the first volume of The Just City Essays.
The outreach to our invited 24 authors began with two straightforward questions: what would a just city look like, and what could be strategies to get there? We raised these questions to architects, mayors, artists, doctors, designers, scholars, philanthropists, ecologists, urban planners, and community activists. Their responses came to us from 22 cities across five continents and myriad vantages. Each offers a distinct perspective rooted in a particular place or practice. Each is meant as a provocation—a call to action. You will notice common threads as well as notes of dissonance. Just like any urban fabric, heterogeneity reigns.
Here we’ve published six of the 26 essays included in our Just City Essays ebook. To read essays from five of our international contributors, please visit The Nature of Cities. Both Next City and The Nature of Cities will continue to release essays throughout the week, in advance of the Oct. 23 launch of the full volume in ebook form.
Remember, this project began with questions, not answers. We hope this collection will inspire, and also be read as an invitation to imagine a city where urban justice may still be still unrealized, yet is urgently desired in the dreams of so many. The dialogue is only beginning, and much work remains to be done in cities across the world.
The full ebook is now available. To join the conversation, please weigh in on our comment section at the bottom of this page, on Twitter, or on Facebook using the hashtag #justcity.
Urban Spaces and the Mattering of Black Lives
By Darnell L. Moore
It was close to midnight. A youngish, jovial-looking white woman with russet colored hair ran by me with ostensive ease. She donned earphones and dark, body-fitting jogging attire. I was walking home from the A train stop and along Lewis Avenue, which is a moderately busy thoroughfare that runs through the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood in central Brooklyn, where I live.
Lewis runs parallel to Marcus Garvey. Black. Two avenues to the right is Malcolm X Boulevard. It’s Black. Fulton Street. Atlantic Avenue. The B15 bus. Bedford Avenue. Marcy Projects. Brownstoners. The C train. Working class renters. Peaches Restaurant. June Jordan. Livery taxis. Restoration Plaza. Jay-Z. Bed-Stuy is quite black. I am, too.
Encountering the strange sight of a white woman running without care on a street in a section of our borough once considered an unredeemable “hood” terrified me. She ran past the new eateries and grocery shops that sell organic and specialty foods. Within a span of a few blocks, residents and visitors now have their choice of premium Mexican eats, brick oven pizza or freshly baked scones with artisan coffee. Citi Bike racks and skateboard riding hipsters adorn the now buzzing thoroughfare. To many, our part of BedStuy may appear safer, cleaner, and whiter.
And, yet, I was still terrified. It was midnight. Black boys and men have been killed throughout the history of the U.S. for being less close to and observant of white women’s bodies as I was that late evening.
Shortly after I passed by with the white woman jogger, my close friend, Marcus, who lives in walking distance from me—closer to a densely populated public housing development—lamented about the lingering tremors of gentrification. Citing the presumed changes in racial demographics, renovated housing options, and increased business development efforts, Marcus hinted at the frustration of black communities undergoing rapid and contested transformation.
He came upon a flier that was fastened to a tree. According to Marcus, the New York Police Department (NYPD) precinct near his building created a “wanted” sign that was posted not too far from where he lived. The “wanted” were a few black men who allegedly robbed a neighbor. The neighbor was white.
Never before, in the several years Marcus had lived in Bed-Stuy, had he seen anything similar. There were no signs made after black teens were shot or robbed. There were no cries for the “wanted” after black women and girls were sexually assaulted or followed home by a predator. There was no indication of concern for black people besides the ever-present anxiety black bodies seem to cause both to the state and to white people when they dwell en masse in the hood. A cursory review of NYPD’s data on the disproportionate and deleterious impact of stop, question and frisk procedures and broken windows policing on black communities is but one example. Marcus’s critique resonated because it illuminated the ways the state and its citizenry afford value to white lives.
Hence, the reason for selecting the vignettes I’ve opened with here. In both scenes, white bodies signify worth and, therefore, are always centered in our collective imagination. They are esteemed commodities, especially in black spaces—that is, neighborhoods and other publics mostly inhabited and culturally shaped by a majority black populace. Thus, any dreamed and invented “just city” that is structured by a set of race ideologies that do not factor in the hyper-mattering of white lives and the perceived worthlessness of black and brown lives is not “just” at all. That is why catch phrases like “community development” or “urban planning and design” can be counterproductive if, in fact, one’s praxis is not guided by a commitment to a type of transformative work grounded in the belief that black lives actually matter.
The connection between space and race became clearer to me after visiting Ferguson, MO, shortly after 18-year old Mike Brown, Jr. was fatally shot by police officerDarren Wilson. Standing in the same street where Brown’s bloodied body had been left uncovered for four hours—in view of his family and neighbors—forced me to question the extent to which ideas about race and space collude to create precarious lives for black and brown people. In an essay titled “The Price of Blackness: From Ferguson to Bed-Stuy” originally published at The Feminist Wire shortly after my return, I wrote, “Changes in the racial composition of towns precipitate changes in the ways black bodies are policed and valued in many neighborhoods.”
I was drawn to the horrific events unfolding in Ferguson because it occurred to me that Ferguson — like some neighborhoods in New York City, Chicago, Oakland and elsewhere —have not only experienced shifts in its racial composition, but also have undergone changes in government leadership, laws, policing practices and economics that inevitably impact black and poor people.
Mike Brown’s death was a unique tragedy that occurred within a specific place and time, but the conditions within which it took place are mundane and, seemingly, quintessential characteristics of gentrified black spaces. This led me to postulate, “Black lives and white lives are differently valued and are, therefore, differently impacted under the conditions of white racial supremacy across the country.” Thus, beyond the noticeable changes—such as the movement of more white people into otherwise black neighborhoods—the insidious aspect of gentrification is the seeming logic of white significance and black worthlessness that underwrites the process.
“My brief time in Ferguson prompted me to consider the many ways Mike Brown’s death, and life, was warped by the structural conditions mentioned above—all emanating from what scholar George Lipsitz aptly calls the ‘possessive investment in whiteness,’” I concluded upon my return from Ferguson. “Such investments in whiteness, which impact everything from access to housing markets to points of educational access for black people across the country, must also be considered alongside the mundane incidents of police violence and hyper criminalization in the U.S.”
But police violence is one lens through which we can assess the connection between race and space, whether in Ferguson or Brooklyn. 16-year old Kimani Gray was shot and killed by a member of NYPD in the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn in March 2013. Flatbush is not too far from Bed-Stuy. Like Bed-Stuy, it is a neighborhood that has experienced an increase in its white populace. While some may argue that the increased number of white people in black spaces is the singular problem, I contend the public should be concerned with the problematic ways whiteness functions as a signifier. As I’ve written elsewhere:
The more insidious problem is the belief that whiteness at all times and in all places signifies safety and bounty and, therefore, represents a site of investment: new stores selling expensive items begin emerging; the same stores stay open (the doors and not just side windows) twenty-four hours; realtors finally begin to take an interest in property sales; nameless and faceless ‘investors’ begin leaving cheap flyers on stoops or in mailboxes promising cash for homes. Safety becomes a relative experience when gentrification occurs. The presence of white people almost always guarantees the increased presence of resources, like police, which does not always guarantee safety for black people in those same spaces.
A “just city,” then, is a space where one’s hued flesh does not determine one’s full or limited access to equity and safety in communities where she or he lives and works. To vision and create the type of city that is not a built rendition of the biased ideologies we maintain requires a liberated imagination, but we can only free our minds from the chains of anti-blackness and classism when we first acknowledge each has its hold on us. An expanded public dialogue is necessary for us to arrive at this set of shared understandings.
The current movement for black lives is a perfect backdrop for a conversation on reimagined cities that needs to move from the halls of think tanks and municipal development offices to the streets and neighborhoods where all manner of black people dwell.
Imagine dialogues on neighborhood development and urban design occurring among protest participants. Imagine planned public talks hosted on neighbors’ stoops or in the foyers of housing projects. Imagine democratized approaches to urban planning that begins with the people,not the corporate class. Imagine the embedding of urban planners within movement collectives combatting anti-black racism and state sanctioned violence from Ferguson to Flatbush. That type of work is characteristic of the critical first steps needed to inform the creation of the “just” city.
We have reached a critical juncture in the U.S. Indeed, if the Black Lives Matter iteration of the long struggle for black liberation in this country has done nothing else, it has reminded us that the fight for a new, black-loving and just world is an ideological and material struggle. Our public ethos begets our public spaces. And we need unjust spaces no more.
Instead, we need neighborhoods where the value afforded to inhabitants is not based on the color of their skin, or presumed or actual gender expression and sexual identity. Integrated neighborhoods are beautiful expressions of community when, in fact, all members are seen as worthy of police protection or respect from business owners.
In my imagination, a safe and materially just black space is one where residents, whether homeowners or renters, are actually asked about the changes they’d like to see occur. Citi Bike representatives would knock on doors and assess residents’ levels of comfort and desires before placing hordes of bikes on street corners where car services would previously park in wait for residents en route to their jobs, the market, or doctors’ offices. I heard that particular complaint on my block.
In a “just city” residents can actually afford food at eateries and wares sold at businesses in their neighborhoods and, even more, they are provided access to services so they too can create businesses in the very locales they reside.
I want to live in a neighborhood where mostly white police officers do not see or treat me like a potential threat when walking home while my new white neighbors are offered respect regardless of their too loud parties or strong smell of marijuana coming from their direction. I’ve experienced or witnessed all of the above.
I imagine neighborhoods where my physically disabled friends can maneuver through with greater ease. My South African wheelchair-bound mentee could not visit me in New York City because it would have been hard for him to make it through most of the city, including my neighborhood, without encountering a range of obstacles.
A safe and equitable space is one that centers the needs and desires of all residents regardless of race, gender, ability, income, or sexual identity. And in the cases when design and redevelopment revolve around those typically centered in the public imagination—characteristically white, sometimes heterosexual, nearly always abled-bodied people with wealth or access to other forms capital—the work must be recalibrated. Yet the only way these forms of erasure can be assessed is by ensuring the group assembled at the planning table is as diverse as the communities it aims to reimagine and rebuild.
The public and private sectors will remain complicit in the creation of inequitable communities as long as both benefit from the structural inequities that surface as a result of race, class, and other forms of stratification. And that is not just.
Darnell L. Moore is Senior Editor at Mic. He is also a co-managing editor of The Feminist Wire and Writer-in-Residence at the Center on African American Religion, Sexual Politics and Social Justice at Columbia University. He is a member of the Black Lives Matter network and co-organized the BLM Freedom Ride to Ferguson in 2014.
An Antidote for the Unjust City: Planning to Stay
By Mindy Thompson Fullilove, MD, Hon AIANY
In 1993 or thereabouts I entered a contest for women to depict what they did on a particular day. That day, I went to meetings early in the morning at Harlem Hospital. I took photos of the abandoned buildings on West 136th, where I parked my car, and photos of a huge plastic bag in one of the stunted trees. Later, on my way back to my office on W. 166th Street, I stopped to take a photo of man who was selling nuts on the street in front of a burned-out building. He smiled with tremendous pride—when I took him a copy of the photo a few weeks later, he grinned and said he’d send it to his mother so she would know he was trying to make something of himself. There were photos of the Stuyvesant High School students that I was mentoring for the Westinghouse Science Competition, and photos at home in Hoboken with my daughter Molly and some chocolate chip cookies fresh out of the oven. We were reading Ian Frazier’s New Yorker article about plastic bags in trees. I didn’t win the contest, but the exercise etched what I saw in memory.
Harlem had been devastated by decades of policies of disinvestment. Walking the streets was a painful experience because so many of the buildings had been burned out, and garbage blew in the courtyards and rats ran in and out. Working people were struggling to control the neighborhood, but drugs and violence were the order of the day. Most of my research was focused on describing the problems in front of me—filling out our understanding of a terrible statistic reported in 1990 by Drs. Harold Freeman and Colin McCord: that a black man living in Harlem had a shorter life expectancy than a man in Bangalesh, at that time the poorest country on earth. Some of what I wanted to describe was the historical process that had stripped this neighborhood of its life-giving qualities. I was describing an unjust city.
The more I learned, the more I realized that urban policies were playing a critical role in the neighborhood’s collapse. From the stories people told us, I hypothesized that Harlem had collapsed from a series of blows, each one undermining and deforming the social structure, so that death and disorder replaced hope and social productivity. As my colleagues at the Cities Research Group and I deepened our explorations, we were able to name the terrible series of policies—urban renewal, deindustrialization, planned shrinkage, mass incarceration, HOPE VI, the foreclosure crisis and gentrification—that have and continue to undermine poor and minority communities.
We’ve grouped these policies together under the rubric “serial forced displacement.” Displacement traumatizes people and destroys wealth of all kinds. Repeated displacement takes even more of the wealth and integrity of the weakened population. As St. Matthew put it, “even what he has shall be taken away.” Through the lens of the agony of Harlem, I learned the somber fact that policies that destroy some communities and neighborhoods are catastrophic for the health of those in the direct path of the upheaval, but they also endanger the health of the whole of the US, and through us, the whole world.
Let us take one example, New York City’s implementation of the mid-1970s policy of “planned shrinkage.” This policy was designed to manage “shrinking population” in the city by “internal resettlement” of people from very poor neighborhoods and clearing the land for later use. Planned shrinkage was implemented by closing fire stations in those communities. This triggered a storm of fires: South Bronx neighborhoods lost as much as 80 percent of housing; Harlem lost 30 percent.
We can trace many lines of disruption that rippled out from these epicenters of destruction. The upheaval caused massive social disorder and a “synergism of plagues,” as Rodrick Wallace called it. What no one knew when the policy was implemented was that a new virus—which we now know as the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV)—was present in the very poor neighborhoods. HIV began to spread in the South Bronx and other NYC communities. The crack epidemic took hold, accompanied by massive violence, family disruption, and further spread of HIV infection. Mass incarceration was the federal response to the drug epidemic, unleashing an era of imprisonment that had horrific consequences for families and neighborhoods. By 2015, The New York Times reported “1.5 million missing black men,” many in prison and others who had died prematurely. Population fell, families fell apart, unemployment grew, church attendance declined, and trauma became a nearly universal experience.
Having hypothesized the downward spiral of community collapse, my team and I realized we had to start searching for ways to rebuild. We worked first with families, then neighborhoods. But we learned that the fate of neighborhoods rested in the hands of cities. A great deal of our attention has been directed at learning what actions cities could take to counter serial forced displacement and to rebuild the much-needed social bonds.
In 2007, I went to my hometown of Orange, NJ, for a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the fight against school desegregation. My parents, Ernest and Margaret Thompson, had led that fight. My father went on to organize for the political representation long denied to the African-American population, then 20 percent of the city. In 1958, he and others in Citizens for Representative Government created the “New Day Platform,” which advocated for education, youth recreation, representative government and a more beautiful city hall, among other issues. Their work led to a more inclusive democracy and better schools for all children.
While planning for the celebration of Orange’s desegregation, I learned that a local community development corporation, HANDS, Inc. was continuing the work my father had pioneered. It was fighting to protect local housing infrastructure and to rebuild community in the face of serial forced displacement. I became so interested in the city of Orange that in 2008 I co-founded the free people’s University of Orange along with Patrick Morrissy, Molly Rose Kaufman, Karen Wells and others.
The University of Orange has participated actively in planning efforts in the city. The UofO lead the development of the Heart of Orange Plan, which became an official plan in 2010, endorsed by the state of New Jersey Department of Community Affairs, making the area eligible for tax credit monies. We have also invited architects and urbanists from Columbia University, Parsons The New School for Design, Montclair State University and Pratt Institute to work with us to understand the city. We have slowly developed a sense of the city’s potentials and its vulnerabilities.
Orange grew at the foot of the Watchung Mountains, a crossroads of east-west and north-south movement, in the heart of the Lenapehoking. Its excellent water and good transportation made it a natural site for industry. Hat making boomed after the Civil War, reaching a peak of 4.2 million hats a year in 1892. The new bourgeoisie equipped the city with a Stanford White library on a busy Main Street, a Frederick Law Olmsted Park and housing enclave, dozens of churches and synagogues, two settlement houses and a park-like cemetery. The African-Americans and Irish and Italian immigrants were tucked into ghettoes, their children sent to inferior public schools, while the well-to-do created superb schools and tracks for their own children to prosper. The city is so packed with the best and worst of American urban accoutrements that the University of Orange has developed a signature tour, called “Everything You Want to Know About the American City You Can Learn in Orange, NJ.” Orange has the advantage of being a small city, so visitors can see all of this in 2.2 square miles.
But Orange now, like many other postindustrial cities, is worn-out. Sixty-five percent of the largely black population of 30,000 is poor and working poor. Many residents have immigrated from other countries and they speak a wide array of languages. Orange is a city in search of a future. In New Jersey, such places are being converted by “transit-oriented development,” which means the unskilled workers are being replaced by those who commute to Newark—or more likely New York—to work in finance, insurance and real estate, the FIRE industries post-industrial cities have come to rely on. Orange lies just a bit west of Hoboken, Jersey City and Harrison, FIRE cities already remodeled as dense bedroom communities.
For the people who live in Orange, transit-oriented development would be the next turn of the wheel of serial forced displacement. But it would also mean a loss of the complex vitality of people and institutions. Urban bedroom communities are monocultures, a variation on housing projects, albeit with better amenities.
At the University of Orange, we’ve posed the questions: Can’t we take a more interesting path? Can’t we develop new industries? Can’t we help the workforce acquire skills so that they can compete for higher paying jobs and therefore hold on to their homes when the gentry arrive? Couldn’t we combine of the idea of the civil rights movement’s Freedom Schools and Edison’s concept of the “Factory of Invention” to make a “post-industrial city reimaging lab”?
Some exciting opportunities have opened up that are helping everyone in Orange explore these possibilities. The John S. Watson Center at Thomas Edison State College has helped a consortium of cities, including Orange, develop an economic development strategy that will entitle the cities to apply for new federal funds. The Board of Education, with the support of nearby Montclair State University, has been able to develop community schools, including adult education. The University of Orange helps to manage the Adult School, which includes courses for workforce development. The Worldwide Orphans Foundation is bringing its first US-based toy library to Orange, and will be training local people to be toy librarians. At the U of O, we are partnering with a local arts organization and a university to understand how the insertion of a highway in 1970 might be mitigated. This project is supported by Arts Place. What we are learning as we go is that building the just city takes all of us.
When I learned of a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation initiative focused on creating a culture of health in New Jersey, I convinced our local partners that we should apply for funding. The leaders of our “Healthy Orange” coalition will be expanding our connections to all sectors of business, industry and civic organizations and to all the ethnic and religious groups. Our leaders are insisting on engaging the current residents, which is critical in charting a path forward that is not another round of forced displacement. Instead of planning around this pattern of expulsion, we want to create a “plan to stay.”
This concept, first advanced by Catherine Brown and William Morrish, is the antidote to serial forced displacement. Groups planning to stay are asked to answer two questions:
- What brought you here?
- What would it take for you to be able to stay?
These simple questions lead to the kind of complex interventions that have a shot at helping Orange become a healthy place. In the year ahead, I look forward to the work of Healthy Orange, as it brings all voices to the table to create a blueprint for action, continuing the long struggle for equity and democracy in our city. This is how we get to the just city in Orange and everywhere.
But I worry. One night, in 2010, I was invited to speak in Harlem. I walked down St. Nicholas Avenue, and passed a brand new building. A gym occupied its first floor and little white girls in pink tutus were doing ballet. I stood there slack-jawed, too stunned to even take a photograph. The old Harlem was truly gone.
It is not simply that I want to feel at home in my hometown—of course I do. Rather, I fear for all of us. The extreme commodification of the land is leading to the destruction of human habitat. We are literally chopping the ground out from under our feet: it is inimical to public health to sell off our neighborhoods and displace our communities. The 1958 New Day Platform had it right. What we need for public health are ecologically-sensitive and equitable programs that support the whole city and give all of us a chance to live in a kind and beautiful place.
Mindy Thompson Fullilove, MD, is a research psychiatrist at New York State Psychiatric Institute and a professor of clinical psychiatry and public health at Columbia University. She was educated at Bryn Mawr College (AB, 1971) and Columbia University (MS, 1971; MD 1978). She is a board certified psychiatrist, having received her training at New York Hospital-Westchester Division (1978-1981) and Montefiore Hospital (1981-1982). She has conducted research on AIDS and other epidemics of poor communities, with a special interest in the relationship between the collapse of communities and decline in health. From her research, she has published Root Shock: How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America and What We Can Do About It, and The House of Joshua: Meditations on Family and Place. She has also published numerous articles, book chapters, and monographs. She has received many awards, including inclusion on “Best Doctors” lists and two honorary doctorates (Chatham College, 1999, and Bank Street College of Education, 2002). In December 2012 she was elected a Public Director on the board of the American Institute of Architects. Her most recent book, Urban Alchemy: Restoring Joy in America’s Sorted-Out Cities, was released by New Village Press in June 2013.
Up From the Basement: The Artist and the Making of the Just City
By Theaster Gates
Governance, despite its own hopes for a universality of exclusion, is for the inducted, for those who know how to articulate interests disinterestedly, those who vote and know why they vote (not because someone is black or female but because he or she is smart), who have opinions and want to be taken seriously by serious people. In the mean time, policy must still pursue the quotidian sphere of open secret plans. Policy posits curriculum against study, child development against play, human capital against work. It posits having a voice against hearing voices, networked friending against contractual friendship. Policy posits the public sphere, or the counter public sphere, or the black public sphere, against the illegal occupation of the illegitimately privatized. – Stephano Harney and Fred Moten, the Undercommons, Fugitive Planning and Black Study
0. I understand fully the role of planner and their potential to offer more to the city than ever before. The situation at the level of the city and state is such that insider information, a history of connections within the system and traditional “good old boy” engagements work somewhat effectively at shaping the city and are perceived as a status quo that can’t be changed. In many of our cities, the opportunity for certain kinds of ascension into leadership works to create a caste system of entitlement and apathy. Art adds the potential for a critique from within, a critique that exists as a para-institutional engagement harnessing similar power structures and potentially even mimicking structures in order to advance the possibilities that exist for our city’s futures.
1. A just city requires counter-balance. It requires clear knowing of how governance works with an understanding that power corrupts and power constantly needs to be checked by other powers (people power, political power, ethical persuasion, public outcry). A just city requires that those who do not understand their power and feel cheated out of the right to publicly demonstrate their power are given channels and platforms by which to engage. The constant non-engagement between classes, races, political camps and social structures and the intentional separations that happen in micro-units of cities—and, in some cases, whole cities—will not only work against the possibility of a just city, it will signify the concretization unjust, uneven, unethical city.
2. The possibility that artists would contribute in the substantial transformation of major cities throughout the world is not radical news. What feels radical is the level at which artists rarely benefit from their side.
3. The possibility of the city as form becomes more feasible when the artist has a sense of the possibility of direct engagement with the real — a sense of the value of other forms of production, in addition the forms that exist in museums, art forums, galleries and homes. The artists would have a chance to deeply embed him or herself in the complex politics of a place, the near impossible capacity to reconcile social expectancy from social engagements. The city waits with neutral need for its ramparts to be tended, nurtured and altogether revisited.
4. Never plan alone. Plans require idea engagement, public and inner-circle critique, and a way of ensuring that great ideas are great for as many as possible and tailored for communities that want and need planning. Plans grow out of a need to get things done. Getting things done requires lots of permission. Plans are ways of sharing ideas so that there’s consensus and sometimes rebuttal, but at least there’s awareness and hopefully, permission. Even though there are lots of ideas that seem perfect to me for projects that I want to do, I’ve found that the most successful ones are those that are inclusive of other values, opinions and leadership.
5. There was an abandoned building in the city about to be demolished. I, along with 17 developers, looked at the building over 20 years, none of us willing to invest in black space. None of us were willing to imagine new futures for the South Side, or able to imagine making an investment that might not yield a return. We weren’t willing to believe in a place that seemed not to believe in itself, or risk other people’s cash on a dream. We could not consider the possibility that this abandoned building might be the crucial link to the growth and redevelopment of a seemingly infertile land. In a way, the challenge was not the challenge of the building, it was a challenge of seeing—of imagination—on the ocular prescription one has. These days, I don’t see as well as I used to. I’ve learned that the blur sometimes makes things more beautiful; it may possibly even bring other things into greater focus. The impossibility of seeing is one of the major challenges of the built world.
6. This moment is ripe for new ways of imagining the form, the materials through which we address the form and the situations through which the form is conceived, exhibited, made visible and legible. The moment is ripe to new ways of imagining who participates in the inception of the form. The city is form and raw material and the location of possibility and the consciousness of our age. The city needs sculpture and praxis; it needs wedging and heat. The city is in the difficult position of no longer knowing itself or its virtues. It has suitors who are not fashioning futures, but instead fashioning wealth generation. If the sculptor is absent from this work, what we will have instead of the beautiful is the most efficient, the cheapest and most extravagant, ideas generated by those who pay not those who feel. The sculptor and the policy expert and the planner together make great cities. They share agency and resource, and stand strong together with ideology and a willingness to have sympathy for the vocations. When our administrations realize the potency of artistic and policy based collaborations, truly transformative works will happen: works that go far beyond mural making and public art programs; the type of work that might allow for innovations in professional bureaucracy.
7. At my undergraduate university, the School of Architecture was on the 5th floor, the Planning Program on the 3rd floor, and the Arts Programming in the basement. We all used to joke that our placement was an announcement of caste, of where we stood in the world; a hierarchy had been made clear. As a result of the professionalization of our creative selves, we were never able to really see how we were all cut from similar cloth, and that if we were to share the same libraries, skill sets, rigor, and lunch rooms, that we could in fact explode any one of the vocations we had set ourselves to do.
8. There should be more female and queer leadership in the just city. We need leadership that has the potential to ask new questions of the status quo and demand a more complicated set of determinations and willingness to invest in non-hierarchal structures. Leadership that also expects more from the men we work for. By challenging their assumptions and biases, we make room for an open critique of systems of power and pathways for understanding sharing, empathy, public participation and inclusion alongside land use futures, zoning policy and fiscal allocations.
9. There will be no great future city without hacking the systems of power. Policy is simply a way of ensuring legal process around things that matter. Sometimes our ideas need to push the policy envelope a little. I always imagine that this is part of what policy should do: it should capture the needs of communities that change. Policy, like communities, has to be dynamic if it is to capture that possibility of a just city. It has to keep looking for the nuance with the systems of governance to make our cities work better.
Theaster Gates was born in 1973 in Chicago, where he lives and works. He exhibits widely, including group shows such as the Whitney Biennial, New York; dOCUMENTA (13), Kassel; ’The Spirit of Utopia’ at Whitechapel, London; and Studio Museum’s ‘When Stars Collide’ in New York. Solo exhibitions include ‘To Speculate Darkly: Theaster Gates and Dave, the Slave Potter’ at Milwaukee Art Museum; Seattle Art Museum; MCA Chicago; and ‘The Black Monastic’ residency at Museu Serralves, Porto. Gates was awarded the inaugural Vera List Center Prize for Art and Politics, and the Artes Mundi 6 prize. Gates is founder of the nonprofit Rebuild Foundation and Professor in the Department of Visual Arts, University of Chicago.
The Case for All-In Cities
By Angela Glover Blackwell
People of color are at the center of a demographic shift that will fundamentally change the global urban landscape. From the growing proportions of Latino, Asian, and African American residents in resurgent cities of the United States, to the diversifying capitals of Europe and the booming metropolises of Asia, Africa, and Latin America, cities populated by people of color are emerging as the new global centers of the 21st century.
Full inclusion is a challenge in nearly all of these urban communities, as local leaders struggle to both address the needs and harness the talents of their diversifying populations. The challenge may stem from rural to urban relocation, historical and continuing prejudice, migration within countries, or immigration. In the United States, this challenge is characterized most noticeably by race and ethnicity.
Before the middle of this century, the United States will become majority people of color; many American cities have already crossed that mark. This seismic shift requires a redefinition of the meaning of success for cities. How will cities reflect and advance the world we want to live in? How will they foster health and allow all residents to reach their full potential? Fundamental to these questions is the issue of inclusion: how will cities engage those who have traditionally been marginalized, excluded, ignored, or reviled because of race, religion, ethnicity, caste, gender, or national origin?
The guiding principle must be equity, which my organization, PolicyLink, defines as just and fair inclusion into a society in which all can participate, prosper, and reach their full potential. As the United States undergoes historic demographic change and urban renaissance, it has the opportunity—indeed, the obligation—to model equity in its cities. Half a century of suburbanization has stripped inner cities of employment and investment, leaving many urban communities of color stranded in areas of concentrated poverty that are devoid of the kind of resources —e.g. jobs and career pathways, good schools and healthy environments— that would allow them to thrive. At the same time, urban centers are becoming a magnet for a young workforce comprised of all racial and ethnic groups, driving urban population growth and injecting new life, energy, and investment into America’s cities.
With communities of color driving population growth throughout U.S. cities, it becomes essential that cities prepare people of color to take—and create—the jobs of the future. Faced with this opportunity for urban renaissance and the challenge of persistent racial, ethnic, and economic disparities that are undermining growth and prosperity for many urban communities, cities are recognizing that they must invest in infrastructure that fosters opportunity and connection: public transit systems, inspiring architecture, strong community institutions, diverse economies and flourishing cultural centers. Cities are also recognizing that those investments must produce jobs and other benefits for the communities that need them most. The United States cannot afford to leave our fastest-growing populations trapped behind racially-constructed barriers to opportunity and inclusion. Racial and ethnic diversity gives the nation a competitive edge in a world without borders, but only if we leverage the strengths, skills, and energy of all people, especially communities of color.
All-In Cities is a new initiative by my organization, PolicyLink, designed to seize this extraordinary moment to lay out a vision of equitable cities strong, viable urban centers wherein all people, including those who have historically often been marginalized, can find a place, reach their full potential, contribute, and thrive. The initiative seeks to embed a new aspiration for cities in our culture, structures, systems, and policies, developing a comprehensive policy agenda that will help local leaders create, support, and sustain efforts to build equity within their jurisdictions.
All-In Cities builds upon lessons learned from decades of community-driven efforts to create healthy, equitable communities of opportunity, the essence of an equitable city. Those efforts have shown us the building blocks: pathways for all to earn a decent livelihood; access to the essentials for health and well-being, including healthy food, clean water, health care and education; ample decent and affordable housing within reach of job centers, good schools, and reliable transportation, for example. Above all, equitable cities are guided by policies, planning, and investment that are intentional about ensuring that no one, and certainly no group, is left behind or pushed out, including people of color.
All-In Cities is not just about making sure that more jobs, apprenticeships, or affordable housing units are available to people of color. These are critical tasks, but insufficient goals. The initiative aims to fundamentally change the economy in ways that expand participation, opportunity, and power for communities of color, and to accelerate economic growth in cities, regions and the nation. To accomplish this, we must disrupt the structures, systems and policies that have perpetuated racial inequities and uneven growth in cities.
In practice, this means that cities must embed a commitment to racial equity throughout their operations and decision making. For example, Minneapolis is building equity into the DNA of its administrative offices, creating an Office of Equitable Outcomes that will assess how local government incorporates equity into its hiring, internal operations, and the regional partnerships it makes with businesses, non-profits, and philanthropic organizations. In Los Angeles, the city is using the construction of a $2.4 billion Crenshaw/LAX light rail line to connect neighborhoods—including the disinvested communities of color of South LA—to the airport, a major employment center. The city is ensuring that this project fosters job growth and economic security where it is needed most, not only by building a rail that will physically connect people to jobs, but by requiring that 40 percent of the estimated 23,000 construction jobs created by the project go to residents of very low- to moderate-income neighborhoods, with 10 percent of those jobs targeted at “disadvantaged” workers such as veterans, the long-term unemployed, and formerly incarcerated people. In Portland, the Inclusive Startup Fund, which provides capital, mentoring, and business advising to startups founded by underrepresented groups, is dismantling barriers to employment and business ownership.
These are just a few examples of cities modeling equity-driven development. Transforming low-wage jobs into good jobs with dignity, linking unemployed residents to jobs building vital infrastructure in their neighborhoods, ending police brutality, and ensuring poor children of color can access great public schools and the support they need to thrive from cradle to college to career—these are all integral aspects of a new kind of metropolitan development that builds equity into the business models, institutions, and policies that shape urban design, planning, investment, and growth.
PolicyLink is fully cognizant of the challenges facing such sweeping action. But reimagining cities without a front-and-center commitment to equity, including racial equity, is a recipe for failure. Unless equity is deeply held as a value and elevated as the primary driver of policy, it does not happen. Instead, America’s history of racial exclusion repeats and deepens itself as low-income people of color are displaced from newly chic neighborhoods, shut out of all but the lowest-wage jobs, and isolated in aging, disinvested communities—these days, in the suburbs. Rising income inequality and persistent racial inequity threaten to undermine the opportunities afforded by the urban renaissance and the diversity that draws and excites newcomers in the first place. These trends also jeopardize regional and national economic growth, as leading economists now recognize. If people of color are driving population growth, then it’s essential that people of color are equipped to take—and make— the jobs of the future
Growing diversity and urbanization are changing the nation and the world. People of all colors, nationalities, faiths, and incomes will share space, bump against one another, and rise or fall together. This heightens the need for all to join, as equal partners, in building equitable cities. The equity imperative illuminates the path to a stronger city — a thriving, resilient, just metropolis that works for all.
Angela Glover Blackwell is the founder and CEO of PolicyLink, a national research and action institute advancing economic and social equity by Lifting Up What Works.® PolicyLink promotes policy solutions to support building communities of opportunity where all persons, including people of color and residents of low-income communities, can participate, prosper and achieve their full potential. She is a frequent speaker to national audiences about equity and policy issues and the author of numerous articles, essays and opinion pieces making the connections between changing demographics, equity, the economy and the nation’s future.
How To Build a New Civic Infrastructure
By Ben Hecht
In the United States of America cities have long been gateways to opportunity. For centuries, people from all over the country and the world, including my own grandparents, came to our cities chasing the promise of a better life. America’s bargain with its citizens, rich and poor was, in many ways, a model for the world.
Today, U.S. cities produce 85 percent of the nation’s GDP, are home to more than 50 percent of the population, and spend billions of dollars annually to educate, house and protect their citizens. Meanwhile, American cities are undergoing a major demographic shift. By 2040, America will be a majority-minority nation. And, events in Ferguson and Baltimore have underscored the destructive nature of existing disparities of income, education and opportunity between whites and non-whites.
Addressing these disparities is one of the key social issues of our time. But our current trajectory is too slow, obsessed with short-term wins and incrementalism, where leaders are constantly reinventing the wheel instead of building on the work of those who came before them. We celebrate improvements in one school on one block while tiptoeing around the fact that it is the entire system that needs fixing. We tell heartwarming stories about 100 kids served or 100 young adults placed in good jobs while averting our eyes from the millions more who remain disconnected from opportunity. We talk about how far we have come since the civil rights movement, but are uncomfortable with discussing how far we still must go to achieve true racial equity. Unless we ferociously change course, the new American majority will be less educated, less prosperous and less free.
To build truly just cities, we need a new type of urban practice aimed at achieving dramatically better results for low-income people, faster. This new urban practice will require cities to get key public, private and philanthropic leaders to work together differently, to better harness impact investing dollars, and to leverage technology to engage all residents in solutions.
A New Civic Infrastructure
In this new urban practice, local leaders will need to come together to build a new, more resilient and sustainable civic infrastructure that is focused on getting results. In many places, like Cleveland and other older industrial cities, the old civic infrastructure disappeared when Fortune 500 companies moved away. Today, public, private, philanthropic and nonprofit leaders are distributing the leadership needed for change so their efforts can survive inevitable turnover and drive large-scale results.
There is no better example of this dynamic than Detroit. With the government in disarray, local philanthropic organizations and business leaders have shared the leadership for more than a decade, making investments that now position the city to take advantage of its fresh start. For example, The Kresge Foundation was the first investor in the city’s new public light rail line with a grant of $35 million. Quicken Loan’s Dan Gilbert has invested $1 billion of his own money in downtown Detroit and moved 7,000 employees there.
However, one of the most exciting emerging movements around the U.S. is around municipal innovation. From the Offices of New Urban Mechanics in Boston and Philadelphia and the rise of Innovation Teams in the U.S. and Israel, to the racial equity work spearheaded by the City of Seattle, local government is changing the way it works, looking at issues through a racial lens and adopting innovative practices, so that its institutions not only contribute to a new civic infrastructure but its money gets better results for low income people. For example, Boston’s Citizens Connect, a maintenance-request app for reporting problems from broken windows to potholes, has been downloaded tens of thousands of times and been replicated in more than 20 countries. Its Discover BPS product is a Boston public school search engine that helps low income parents understand where their children are eligible to go to school.
Better Harness the Impact Investor
There is an emerging, global movement around impact investing. From what we know so far, impact investors look much like the charitable giver—they want their dollars to make a difference. They invest in what they’re passionate about and privilege investing in places, like their hometowns or other communities they feel a connection with. To date, a majority of impact investing dollars have gone to the developing world. Now, as more and more people look to cities as units of change, we need to give investors reason to believe there are investable opportunities in U.S. cities. And leaders must come together and create mechanisms for those dollars to land in cities and communities that need them the most.
Luckily, an exciting amount of place-based investment opportunities and approaches have emerged over the past few years, including pay for success, crowd-funding, peer-to-peer lending and locally funded venture capital. For example, Living Cities and other private and philanthropic funders have invested $27 billion in the Massachusetts Juvenile Justice Social Innovation Financing (SIF) Project, a pay for success initiative. The effort focuses on reducing recidivism and increasing employment for more than 1,000 at-risk, formerly incarcerated young men in the three Massachusettes cities: Boston, Chelsea and Springfield. As private investors, we assume the risk by financing the services up front, getting repaid only if agreed-upon measurable social impacts are achieved. In exchange for taking the risk, the investors receive a financial return. This means that precious government resources are spent only in the event of proven success and government savings.
Institutions like Living Cities and others committed to building this field must figure out how to promote, aggregate and form these options into market so people can more easily invest in the local context. We need to accelerate their growth everywhere.
Civic Engagement with a Focus on Technology
America has long had a unique brand of civic participation—a combination of individual commitment and group action. Unfortunately, trends over the past few decades show that both are in decline. The 2014 midterm election had an individual voter turnout of 36 percent—the lowest in any election cycle since World War II.
Encouragingly, the work we are actively engaged in at Living Cities is providing us with evidence of a nation that is actively confronting these trends. Now, we have the opportunity to once again be a model for the rest of the world. We must embrace civic engagement not just as a ‘town-hall,’ but as a tool for cities to co-create solutions with their residents. We must use all the power of modern technologies to engage people and communities who have been historically left out of the processes.
We’ve already seen this idea taking seed in New York City, where a participatory budgeting experiment that began in 2011 with four Council Districts has now grown to 24 Districts. The city harnessed digital technologies to open budgeting decisions to community members. “So far, I love feeling like we have some say in what is done,” said Maggie Tobin, a participant from Kensington, Brooklyn, in Council District 39, to the New York Times. But as the ideas pass to the city agencies involved, she said, “I find myself already being distrustful.” The process has resulted in better budgeting decisions and arguably better results. In addition, more people of color turned out to vote, and Hispanics, in particular, voted at twice the usual rate. More needs to be done to ensure that those who participate, like Maggie Tobin, have faith that the process will result in meaningful change.
Ultimately just cities are built when leaders are committed to justice as a fundamental, long-term priority. . As former Bogota, Colombia Mayor Antans Mockus recently said, “Change isn’t the biggest political challenge, sustaining it is.” Change happens when leaders decide they want to make it happen. I have made that commitment as the leader of Living Cities. I am also committed to supporting public and private leaders to do the same nationwide. These three elements—a new civic infrastructure, impact investing and civic engagement—will drive that change. But ultimately, leaders must have the motivation to build resilient structures, practices and solutions to sustain it. Only then will we have built a just city.
Ben Hecht has been the President & CEO of Living Cities since 2007. Since then, the organization has adopted an integrative agenda that harnesses the knowledge of its 22 member institutions to benefit low-income people and the cities where they live. Prior to joining Living Cities, Hecht co-founded One Economy Corporation, an organization that leverages the power of technology and information to connect low-income people to the economic mainstream. Before One Economy, Mr. Hecht was Senior Vice President at the Enterprise Foundation. Hecht received his JD from Georgetown University Law Center and his CPA from the State of Maryland.
Defining the Just City Beyond Black and White
By Toni L. Griffin
When I think about the just city, it’s always black and white.
I was born in Chicago the evening before President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law. Growing up on the south side of Chicago meant that on an average day, I rarely saw or interacted with a person who didn’t look like me. All of my basic needs were met on the south side of Chicago—schooling, shopping, summer jobs, recreation and entertainment. My teachers were predominately black, and my classmates were 98 percent black. This environment did not make me feel isolated, segregated or unusual—I just felt normal.
Television was my only reminder that I was a “minority”. While I did not regularly see people who looked like me on TV, this didn’t stop me from deciding at the age of 14 that I wanted to be an architect—just like Mike Brady, patriarch of “The Brady Bunch.” By the time I entered college at the University of Notre Dame—and the field of architecture—my context became the exact opposite. For the first time in my life, I actually felt like a minority. And today, professionally, I remain a minority in my chosen field. I am the only African-American full-time faculty member at the City College of New York’s School of Architecture, and one of less than 300 African-American women to be licensed in the United States.
My just city is black and white because I grew up in a racially segregated city.
I certainly did not realize how much of an impact Chicago’s urban form and spatial patterns would have on my perspective about cities. Nor was I aware of the profound impact that Chicago would have on my interactions with fellow urbanites and the work to which I would come to devote my career.
My work in architecture, urban design and urban planning spans several cities in the U.S., including Chicago, New York, Washington, Newark, Detroit and Memphis. All of these cities have similar racial patterns of segregation, and all have similar urban conditions, thanks to the impact of segregation on people and place. I would eventually come to know these urban conditions as the environments of social and spatial injustice. I now simply call them the conditions of urban injustice or justice. I define urban justice as the factors that contribute to our economic, human health, civic and cultural well-being, as well as the factors that contribute to the environmental and aesthetic health of the built environment.
There are three conditions of urban injustice that I always seem to confront in my work in cities—conditions that began to reach the height of national awareness at the time of my birth in 1960s Chicago.
The first urban injustice condition is concentrated poverty.
On the ground, spatial segregation has created pockets of concentrated poverty in our cities that, in turn, have created spatial and social isolation of those cities’ residents. Over multiple generations, this isolation has had a devastating impact on family structures, social networks, educational systems and access to economic opportunity.
For example, in Newark, N.J., where I served as the director of planning and community development for newly elected Mayor Cory Booker between 2007 and 2009, nearly 50 percent of all the people living in the central ward of the city lived in poverty, a condition that has persisted since a federal slum clearance boundary was drawn around the same area in 1961 and which suggests multiple generations of concentrated poverty.
The second urban injustice condition is disinvestment, crime and the architecture of fear.
In the mid-1960s, attempts were made to revitalize the center city through programs such as Model Cities, a federal program that brought funding for redevelopment into communities with the greatest social and physical deterioration. However, the civil unrest of 1967 deepened disinvestment, and the city’s reputation for high crime and political corruption limited its ability to attract widespread capital investment for many decades.
At the height of disinvestment and the federal programs designed to reverse this trend, including Model Cities and Urban Renewal, developers and institutions that felt unable to control the disinvested and crime-ridden environments around their land holdings directed architects to protect them from the adjacent urban decay via windowless recreation centers to keep children safe, elevated and enclosed skywalks from Newark Penn Station to the Gateway Center office campus that removed people from the dangerous streets, and a public community college constructed with uninviting, barrier-like building materials that created a fortress, protecting knowledge from the very public it was situated to serve.
And the third urban injustice condition is socio-economic division.
From 2000 to 2006, while serving as deputy planning director under Washington Mayor Anthony A. Williams, I saw that spatial segregation sharply divided the city along the north-south axis marked by Rock Creek Park and the Potomac River, separating rich and poor residents by employment status, income and educational attainment. Fifteen years later, residents of color see that this dividing line is pushing swiftly eastward; they fear they will be pushed across the Anacostia River and, ultimately, outside the city limits.
My just city is also for women, children and people of color (or what the PolicyLink CEO, Angela Blackwell Glover, calls “the least not”).
At the center of these environments of urban injustice, I find an increasing number of women, children, immigrants and people of color struggling to stake their claim in the just city. National trends report that women are poorer than men in all racial and ethnic categories. Some 75 percent of all women in poverty are single, with over a quarter of these women being single mothers, according to the Center for American Progress. Nearly a third of all children in this country live in poverty, giving the U.S. the sixth highest poverty rate for children out of the forty-one wealthiest countries worldwide, according to UNICEF.
Since the start of the 2008 recession, more millennials and a widening spectrum of working folks previously perceived as middle-class are finding it harder to maintain the things we have always associated with a middle-class lifestyle: a decent salary that enabled access to affordable housing in a livable community and to services and amenities in proximity to one’s home or work. In 1967, 53 percent of Americans were in the middle class, classified as earning between $35,000-$100,000, but by 2013, only 43 percent of Americans fit this category, The New York Times reported in 2015.
And more recently, the televised exposure of the unspoken, underestimated, often disbelieved struggle for civil rights by a cohort of people based on their gender, sexuality and/or race reminds us that the good intentions put into law the day after my birth, and those since, have not yet been fully realized and/or continue to be challenged. Many people in this cohort do not have confidence in their right to ownership, inclusion and belonging to the public spaces of the city because of the frequent reminders expressed by those who presume to judge and challenge those rights.
But I am optimistic about cities—American cities, in particular—and our collective ability to facilitate and create greater urban justice for all.
I don’t want my just city to be just black and white.
I am optimistic and, once again, inspired by television and pop culture. I watch the new show “Blackish” and enjoy how brilliantly it exposes the generational gaps between the parents, who are my age, and their children, as well as between the children and their grandparents. It reveals how middle-class African-American parents can afford to expose their children to a world that in many cases is broader, with greater global access to opportunity and diversity than our own upbringing, and without the baggage of racial limitations. However, at the same time, the parents—and especially the father—hold tightly to the racial lenses through which they grew up viewing the world, as well as the cultural self-identities we of this generation still desperately want acknowledged and integrated into the American cultural normative.
I am also optimistic because of my work as the founding director of the J. Max Bond Center on Design for the Just City at the Spitzer School of Architecture, The City College of New York. The Center is named after famed African-American architect, J. Max Bond, who was the cousin of civil rights activist Julian Bond, who recently passed away. Max Bond viewed architecture as a social art, one with a responsibility to design the built environment in a manner that expresses the cultural traditions, needs and aspirations of our society.
Inspired by his position and my own belief that design can have an impact on urban justice, both the Center and a graduate seminar course I developed of the same name aim to examine the unresolved issues of race, equity, inclusion, ownership and participation in urban communities; to create a clear definition of the just city; and to develop a set of evaluation metrics that assess the effectiveness of design tactics in facilitating urban justice. I have taught the class over four semesters with 45 students in total (five African-Americans, 10 foreign-born students, four openly LGBTQ students, 19 women and 26 men). Each semester, the students’ observations and discussions remind me of the black-white lenses through which I view the world, and have awakened my desire and need to broaden the prescription of those lenses and widen my view of the just city to incorporate other racial, ethnic, gender and generational perspectives.
In the end, I want more than a livable city, more than a sustainable city, more than a resilient city. I want more than equality, which doesn’t always account for the limitations, disadvantages, or, in some cases, the privileges that render the positions of some in the city unequal.
I want a just city where all people, but especially “the least not,” are included, have equitable and inclusive access to the opportunities and tools that allow them to be productive, to thrive, to excel and to advance through the ranks of social and economic mobility.
Within my work as a practitioner, educator and researcher, I believe I have tried to create places and spaces that promote greater urban justice. Over my career, I have worked on the redevelopment of the Anacostia Waterfront in Washington, where our aim was to direct the city’s growth in a manner that would include existing Washingtonians; I have changed land use and zoning regulations to support higher quality infill housing design standards; and I have created a comprehensive and integrated citywide framework for new neighborhood typologies and reconfigured infrastructure systems to support shifting demographics of Detroit. I believe my intention was to create a more just city, even though I would not have used this term to describe my intentions.
As a reflect on the impacts of these and other design and planning efforts with which I have been involved, I feel the pressing need to become more articulate about the specific impacts of my design work on facilitating my vision for the just city. To do this, I realized that I must first create a clear definition of what it means to have this just city. So, as I look to assess the impact of my past projects, and to work with greater clarity to continue my quest for equitable and inclusive access for all, I offer these ten values as my initial metrics for designing for the just city.
1. Equity – The distribution of material and non-material goods in a manner that brings the greatest benefit required to any particular community.
2. Choice – The ability for any and all communities to make selections among a variety of options including places, programs, amenities and decisions.
3. Access – Convenient proximity to, presence of, and/or connectivity to basic needs, quality amenities, choices, opportunities and decisions.
4. Connectivity – A social or spatial network tying people and places together, providing access and opportunity for all.
5. Ownership – The ability to have a stake in a process, outcome or material good, such as property.
6. Diversity – Acceptance of different programs, people and cultural norms in the built environment and decision-making processes.
7. Participation – The requirement and acceptance of different voices and the active engagement of both Individuals and communities in matters affecting social and spatial well-being.
8. Inclusion and Belonging – The acceptance of difference, the intention to involve diverse opinions, attitudes and behaviors, and the ability of spaces to engender integration, fellowship and safety.
9. Beauty – Everyone’s right to well-made, well-designed environments.
10. Creative innovation – Nurturing ingenuity in problem solving and interventions that improve place.
By offering these values, I know I run the risk of communicating a top-down proclamation, implying a city is not just unless it succeeds at these specific values. Quite the contrary—I believe it is imperative that each city or community decide for itself what values is should assign to become more just. I only insist that there be clear intention, expressed through a clear and collectively developed definition, so that when we achieve the just city, we will know it when we see it.
Toni L. Griffin is Professor of Architecture and Director, J. Max Bond Center on Design for the Just City at the Spitzer School of Architecture, City College of New York, and is founder of Urban Planning for the American City, an urban planning consultant practice. She has worked in both the public and private sectors, combining the practice of architecture, urban design and planning with the execution of innovative, large-scale, mixed-use urban redevelopment projects, and citywide and neighborhood planning strategies, including most recently completing the innovative citywide plan, Detroit Future City. She holds a Bachelor’s of Architecture degree from the University of Notre Dame and a Loeb Fellow from the Harvard Graduate School of Design.