Monday, February 5, 2018

Engagement Is Not Proof of Equity

Reappraising community engagement in the redevelopment process.

What Equity Means to Me

People want to own a reasonable, hopeful amount of the ‘stuff’ of life -- the things that make life stable, satisfying, and worth committing to. These things would be real estate, our homes, and the tools we need to pursue our occupations. I say ‘own’, but really we just want to have them, and to control them, or rather, to be free of any one else’s control over them. And in many cases we would happily choose to own or control them as a group, rather than as individuals. I say a reasonable and hopeful degree of control, because we don’t need to have this control immediately and in full -- for example, it is natural for a younger person to have achieved less personal agency over the economic conditions of their life than an older person has. What is important is to live in a society where a reasonable pathway to independence is accessible to everyone, is protected and maintained, and is actively imagined and defended in the culture.
A place where it is rational to harbor hope. For all its flaws, past and present, America is still such a place -- where all people can expect to expand their personal control over the material conditions of life.

The word Equity enters our discussion, not as an unachievable straw-man concept of perfect equality of property, but as an altruistic ideal of caring for each other, an ideal that all aware and benevolent persons would work to support. The root meaning of equity is ‘fairness’, but in modern usage, we have added another meaning, ‘ownership.’ At first glance we tend to think that fairness is the deeper meaning. But I would ask you to hazard a second glance. ‘Fairness’ is an elusive ideal. Some would argue that it is ‘fair’ for one person to get more than another, for instance, if they work longer or have a special skill. Others would point out that equal may not always be fair, if for instance the person has been deprived in the past. ‘Ownership’ is a much more pedestrian concept, but it seems we can build something with it. A conception of equity that focuses on the practical facts of who owns things may well be more useful to us that one that aims at fairness in a more absolute sense.

What is the Civic Realm?

When people of good will form a society together, or come of age in a society and recognize their obligations to it, they create and maintain a network of interpersonal relations, of customs and practices, and of spaces that embody their commitments to each other. The civic realm is most concretely defined as the sum of public places, the physical space of the city, but it encompasses all of the intangible elements of public life as well: the rule of law, customs, decency, mutual respect, and so forth.

The civic realm is where we exercise and maintain our freedoms to pursue the good life. It is built around the concept of equity, that is, it embodies and perpetuates a shared, inherited ethos of fair ownership and fair participation in the pursuit of the good life. It is a duty of people of good will to actively defend and maintain the civic realm. And indeed the civic realm supports our efforts to maintain it, whether through the ordinary exercise of the rule of law or through public protest outside of the ordinary routines of the system.

But Something Has Gone Awry

Large parts our cities have been removed from the civic realm. This is a problem that transcends the issue of who owns the land or how they imagine making money from it. Whether publicly or privately held, the impact is similar: land once used by the community, whether as residents, customers, or just passers-by, is now fenced off, cleared, boarded up or paved over. For instance, lands that were used for a public purpose, such as public housing, have now been cleared, emptied, and set aside, despite having a very large practical and visual impact on the surrounding community. And there are other kinds of exclusion: (automobile priority; specialized districts at an industrial scale; failures of imagination that leave places open only to people of means.)

The civic realm isn’t homogeneous: there are more human exchanges and interactions on one block downtown than there are on one block in a residential neighborhood. But each of those interactions are essential to someone’s life-thriving, and the diversity of interactions and places for interaction are an essential quality of a great city. The civic realm is contiguous. Proximity and connection is essential to its function. It can withstand a lot of irregularity and discontinuity, but at a cost; every pocket of exclusion increases the cost of participation and reduces the number of connections it can support. As the gaps in the civic realm expand, they put the integrity of the whole at risk.

And that’s not the worst thing

The kind of exclusion zone we are all talking about lately is where a large area within the city is occupied by people of one economic level to the exclusion of those from other levels. There are both natural and unnatural causes of this situation.On the one hand, many of these patterns of exclusion can be traced directly back to the discriminatory zoning practices of the ‘redlining’ era. Biases built into our city’s fabric in that era persist today, still impacting the destinies of young people. On the other hand, there are many harmless or habitual reasons for households of similar economic level to end up filling an entire district or neighborhood. So how do we know what degree and scale of mixing is desirable, and when the siloing of households has gone too far? What harms can we observe from this kind of segregation?

1. If economic segregation invites or perpetuates racial segregation of any kind, it is causing harm and impact.

2. If the scale of economic segregation puts a burden on working families by increasing their travel distances to work and essential services, it is causing harm. The presence of a strong or weak transportation system is a huge factor in assessing these impacts; there isn’t a universal measure for it based just on distance.

3. If the scale or degree of economic segregation leaves families segregated socially -- if they no longer share the same classrooms, schools, parks, and eateries. This kind of harm has a long, slow impact.

Why does redevelopment happen, and how is it different from new development?

The second time around, it’s not the frontier anymore. The base value of urban land comes from its surroundings, from the thriving of households around it, who will be its neighbors, its new residents, its customers. As buildings and urban environments age, they become functionally obsolete, sometimes for good reasons, sometimes for sad, cruel, or preventable reasons. But in any case, they come to require significant reinvestment. In most cases, they require investment that their current owners cannot afford to make. (If they could, they would have, and the ‘opportunity’ to redevelop wouldn’t have come up.)

Cities, neighborhoods, and individual houses require periodic reinvestment. This is not a surprising fact, it’s not something that should seem extraordinary, not something that should surprise us, that we should be unprepared for as a community. Its as predictable as any other form of maintenance. We should not tolerate real estate practices that drag out the reinvestment process, through decades of mothballed, zombified speculative property holding, causing harm to adjacent households, businesses, and communities along the way.

Ownership and initiative (control) in redevelopment

Redevelopment often involves the aggregation of land and the transfer of ownership of land. These actions facilitate reinvestment, and they also facilitate the repurposing of land, allowing land to respond to new needs and new conditions in the surrounding community. Ownership moves to the people who can implement the needed transformations, usually some combination of government and specialized private development companies. Upon completion, the land will usually be disaggregated, and pass back into the hands of people who will use it.

If it is likely that land will be in specialist hands during the redevelopment process, let us make sure that we can get the outcomes from this process that we hope for. Redevelopment serves the community; it is a metabolic function of the community, not a spontaneous, independent profit-making activity. It should be led by, and governed by, principles of community benefit. Those entities, public and private, who hold and redevelop urban land, should be challenged to live up to their responsibilities as specialists. They should be held responsible for beneficial outcomes, from the very beginning of the process. And they should be entrusted to exercise the initiative it takes to complete the process.

Consultation without equity is disingenuous, and it deals in fantasies on all sides

There are many redevelopment situations where consulting with community is the right course of action, is welcomed and acknowledged by the community, draws sustained and sincere participation, and has real outcomes for the community. But. We have lost the discernment, and the honesty, to identify, and to acknowledge, that some project ideas have the potential to increase equity and strengthen the civic realm, and some simply do not. It is painful, and causes harm, when the same procedures of community engagement are applied to both types of projects without open discussion or acknowledgement of the purposes the project serves. It facilitates the damage (perhaps unconscious) of the unproductive projects, and it poisons the effort and idealism that people of good faith bring to the productive projects. Let us pause the community engagement machine and take a more sincere and structural look at the ownership and initiative that animates each project. It is naive of us to expect that community engagement, attendance at a few required public meetings, will change the outcome of a project, if we have allowed it to be positioned, and initiated, in a way that brings no benefit to the community.

Clearly, we will not all agree up front what the benefit or merits of each project are. There will be many philosophies and competing points of view. And that is exactly the point -- let’s find the place for a genuine and timely conversation about principles and purposes. For every time that such a conversation slows down a project, there will be another project that is brought to life or streamlined by this kind of conversation. Let’s not deceive ourselves that hurried and heated debate at what is in reality nearly the end of the project inception process will have significant influence on outcomes, good or ill.

Addressing Equity

People who have aggregated land (governments or businesses), at a scale that can have impact on social outcomes, have a responsibility to restore the civic realm, and a responsibility to redistribute land in a way that leads to increased equity and reduces harmful exclusions. This is what it means to be a city. It’s not just a matter of scale: we are bigger than a cluster of houses at a crossroads, but we are also more purposeful. We have established institutions and processes that allow us to monitor and maintain our civic commitments, our promises to each other as fellow citizens, that we would thrive together.

What is needed is a new approach to the genesis of neighborhoods. It is time to stop looking for novel “community engagement” methods late in the project formation process. We need new strategies that lead directly to more equitable distribution of real estate assets. This is a structural issue -- meaning that it is inevitably an issue of the political realm, but equally that new ‘designs’ - new ways of imagining the outcomes - are required. We can hardly press for something politically if we do not know what it would look like, how it would come to be, how it would be maintained.

This goes far beyond the realm of ‘managing’ developers. Every dimension of our economy contributes to the straining or thriving of households and neighborhoods. Developers are motivated by profit and limited by practical considerations of cost, risk, and financing. But our employers, our lenders, our schools and hospitals, our transportation choices, our appetites and expectations all play into the dynamic that determines our housing opportunities. And developers actually come last, and need to fit the work of rebuilding cities into this matrix of other constraints. If we are to find meaningful ways to rebalance equity in the city, we must do most of it outside of, and prior to, the redevelopment process. Let’s spend our public meeting time imagining those futures, refining our governance of the process, and inspiring and reshaping development opportunities around a much more intentional and widely-shared vision of our thriving together.