The Just City

Posted by Miriam Axel-Lute on July 15, 2011

Yesterday was the second of three, day-long symposia being held this year by the Ford Foundation to celebrate its 75h anniversary. This one, subtitled “A New Geography of Opportunity,” was put on by Ford’s Economic Opportunities division and focused on the idea of a “just city” (or really a “just region”).

It was a very full day, and I hope they post the full videos of the panels soon, but in the meantime, you can get a gist from the extensive live micro-blogging and tweeting and short video interviews they’ve collected on their news page.

A few highlights for me that showed up across the five (!) panels:

  • There was an agreement that city and metropolitan leaders needed to have more of a voice in national policy discussions, and to shift those discussions in important ways. As recognition of what was jokingly referred to as the gospel of Bruce Katz (of Brookings, one of the panelists), that metropolitan areas drive the national economy, and indeed are how we interact directly with the global economy, grows, the respect accorded to mayors and metro leaders might grow, some suggested, and they should actively seek those roles.

  • Unsurprisingly, perhaps, for those who have followed this field for a long time, there was much back and forth about not only the need for, but the mechanics of, regional cooperation. Ben Hecht of Living Cities raised an interesting example from Cincinnati of civic leaders “creating a new table” to which they all came and held each other accountable for achieving goals related to serving children better, and how it survived the departure of its charismatic leader. Regional cooperation can happen in the face of fragmented governments, he said. “People are collaborating with whatever authority they have.” This prompted Miles Rapoport of Demos to caution from the audience that we not abandon the role of government as the way to bring equity and justice to cities and regions.
  • Especially after Bruce Katz’s pithy soundbite about needing to move to regional economies not based on “Starbucks, stadia, and stealing business” but on real innovation and “making things again,” I was thrilled to hear from Governor John Hickenlooper of Colorado about the “no poaching” contracts he set up with surrounding mayors during his time as mayor of Denver.
  • Relatedly, there were a number of conversations about changing the national conversation on the level of narrative and message rather than just policy. Atlanta mayor Kasim Reed said “We have to get comfortable talking about poor people and working people again. In the national dialogue, we can only talk about middle income people, even among progressives. We’ve got to reframe this conversation. We need to tell right wing folks they are killing the model of our country.”
  • john powell of the Kirwan Institute, after noting that no major city in the word will be majority white by the end of the 21st century, said that increasing diversity leads to increasing anxiety, which translates into a disinvestment in the public infrastructure, and a move to corporatism. This is not inevitable though, powell said, pointing to Toronto as an example. But we need to talk about it — the anxiety is unconscious and is going to be moved by stories that enable people to shift to a new identity, not by facts.
  • Van Jones, a fellow at the Center for American Progress who is leading the Rebuild the Dream campaign, offered this as the new story we should tell about the character of our nation: “America is a country where even its founders lamented that it began unequal, but it always had a dream of equality. Who we are is an imperfect people who struggle every year to bring our country closer to that dream.” There are those want to repeal the American Century, and all the gains we made during it, but we want to move forward.

Other favorite quotes:

Dan Kildee, Center for Community Progress: “It can’t be a just city where it is acceptable that an empty building can sit there for 10, 15, 20 years, and the rest of us are led to believe that was a market outcome. That’s saying the outcome of a baseball game is a market decision. There are a set of rules that determine these outcomes.”

Joan Clos i Matheu, director of UN-Habitat, responding to the question of with urban revitalization, where will we put the poor people?: “We in Europe have solved the question with social housing. It’s not a very difficult technical question. It’s really already solved. But you need the political contract.”

Shaun Donovan, HUD Secretary: Cross-silo work is hard, even though it’s so obviously necessary. People were saying after the Sustainable Communities Initiative that they didn’t know if they wanted to ever do this again, but they will. “It’s dependent on personal relationships. You have to make sure there is a personal bridge. But then how do you institutionalize it?”

Robin Willner, IBM: “We’re dreaming if we think we can improve life for one segment [of the population] without looking at the effects on everyone. . . Civic engagement can’t be three people have the power and you can all chat about it. It has to really have distributed decision-making.”

(Photo by the Ford Foundation, of Kasim Reed, mayor of Atlanta)

About the author more »

Miriam Axel-Lute is editor of Shelterforce and associate director of the National Housing Institute. Her email is miriam at nhi dot org.

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