Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Tortured Calls for Civic Unity

I ran into an interesting blog post from the good folks at globalurbanist.com by Daniel London. Now I have read other pieces by London on globalurbanist and find his calls for a better historicized study of cities and activism to be refreshing and incredibly necessary. He has a clear passion and deep understanding for the role that good historical analysis and study has in speaking to the concerns of our urban areas today. This is unambiguously a good message.

However, I must take exception with his most recent post calling for a broader "civic unity" using the settlement house and social center movements as inspiration. I fully agree with him that we need to work on creating effective, diverse urban coalitions that can collectively act to address greater urban issues. But I would caution that commentators should be very careful in drawing out historical examples of "progressive" intervention, especially from US history.

The settlement house movement was certainly a grand example of US urban progressivism from the late 19th century to the early 20th century, but we should be honest about the rhetoric its proponents engaged in, the techniques it used, and the people it purported to serve.

While London highlights that settlement house workers lived among the poor of many urban cities and worked with them, we should remember that the mission of settlement houses was largely that of assimilation and this assimilation was largely a project of whitening new European immigrant populations. Khalil Gibran Muhammad in "The Condemnation of Blackness" speaks about how settlement house pioneers like Jane Addams explicitly critiqued the abuses and inequities of industrial capitalism and how it exploited new immigrants. The problem, according to these early activists, was not that the Irish, Italians, or Jews were naturally inferior or criminal but that social and economic inequality were dehumanizing and forced people into squalor and crime. Simply, settlement house activists advocated that the full humanity of these new immigrants be recognized, and that they be accorded every opportunity to improve themselves. Muhammad points out, though, that while activists in the settlement house movement like Addams made calls for the common humanity of immigrants and "traditional" Americans they either ignored or contributed to pathological arguments around black Americans. So, while immigrants were embraced and called to be full citizens, African-Americans were highlighted as culturally deficient and segregation was recommended as a preferred policy choice.

Such differences were made even more stark when we compare the treatment of potential African-American settlement house workers. Black social work organizations and settlement houses were continually under funded and those that were well-funded often had to contend with the racist assumptions of the white philanthropists that controlled their purse-strings.

My point here is not to say that London is wrong or a racist, but that if you are going to call for a historically-contextual approach to current urban problems, then you should try and take as holistic an approach as possible. This is not to say that we should not see the positive in the settlement house movement or their progressive mission, but it is HIGHLY selective to not point towards the greater historical context in which the movement arose. It's suspect to me that London is comfortable talking about the plights of new immigrants but ignores the racist anti-black politics that was central to the assimilation project lead by progressive organizations like Hull House and other settlement houses.

Why bring this up? Is it not unfair to point to the racist policies of these groups when we know that current activists are (supposedly) beyond issues regarding segregation? Am I saying the entire enterprise is bankrupt? Of course not. But I think that selectively highlighting such programs as an example of "civic unity" and using them as a model is not sound because it refuses to recognize legitimate conflict. The call for trying to move beyond diversity and create a united "civic unity" often erases legitimate political conflict. There are legitimate reasons why we see conflict between different racial and ethnic groups within urban areas. There are historical reasons why we still have intense spatial segregation, poverty that is disproportionately racialized, and an urban politics that pits these groups against each other. We can celebrate OWS neighborhood groups that are now encouraging dialogue, but that also ignores the hard work of community development groups and community organizers that have been trying to do such work for DECADES but historical issues of mistrust, racism, and conflict limited such efforts and they remain.

Succinctly, I'm not impressed by calls for "civic unity", especially those using historical institutions like settlement houses as an example, that do not take seriously a fuller examination of historical and current politics regarding social movement or organization. It's telling that the National Urban League and NAACP spent much of their early years refuting and attacking the racist assumptions and policies pushed by white progressive organizations. Not talking about these tensions or efforts to bridge them leaves us with an empty call for unity that renders existing struggle and conflict illegitimate. Ultimately, seeking to erase diversity in such a context is profoundly ahistorical because it seeks to erase differences that are much real and current.   Embrace the conflict.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Urban Agriculture and the Local Trap

I ran into this interesting article from the Sustainable Business Forum discussing the grand potential of urban agriculture as a way to social change. From increasing social capital, offering commercial opportunities, and limiting food travel miles, urban agriculture is presented as a strategy that is capable of addressing many of the ills of our unsustainable society and the answer to urban redevelopment. This is all well and good, but this piece falls into a well-worn path: that of the local trap.

Born and Purcell give a series of warnings concerned with the tendency of some progressive planners and activists to equate localism (in the case of this particular paper they look explicitly at food systems planning) with progressive social outcomes. We hear varied manifestations of this thinking constantly. The assumption that buying "local" is inherently more sustainable (even though lifecycle and transportation costs are often misestimated), that local businesses are somehow more progressive (without examining actual labor practices of business), and that spending locally will "keep money in the region" (ignoring the distribution of said economic resources) are all "local trap" arguments that equate a particular scale of action (the local) with a set of desired political outcomes, such as GHG mitigation, fairer wage and labor practices, local economic development.

This urban agriculture piece follows in this proud tradition of equating a particular scale of operation, in this case looking at urban agriculture, with a series of political and economic goals that may not actually be addressed by focusing on local level intervention or, in this case, encouraging urban agriculture. For example, urban agriculture is supposed to strengthen social capital by reconnecting people with their food and strengthening community and also battle food insecurity by "lowering reliance of the market".  Besides the utter lack of proof or empirics to back these statements, the author does not offer any semblance of a causal chain between these results and increasing urban agriculture or offers even a tentative strategy as to how these things could occur. Not to mention the assumption that there is something inherently wrong with people not being directly involved in the growing and harvesting of their food (a HUGE normative assumption). These contradictions and gaps become even more evident when you see the second recommendation is to encourage commercial scale urban agriculture as a way to legitimate urban agriculture interventions. So, something that is somehow supposed to liberate people from the "market forces" that dominate food will be helped by...wait for it...opening up urban agriculture to the market by commercializing operations.

Look, I have no real issue with expanding urban agriculture. I think there are spaces and places where urban agriculture holds real opportunities for folks. A great example of this is Will Allen's Growing Power. Growing Power seeks to provide jobs to low-income folks, act as a land bank for re-use of currently vacant or blighted land, and open up opportunities for people to connect with food in a new way. But Growing Power is explicit in its mission. It stands as an organization dedicated to community re-development. Urban agriculture, in this sense, is a strategy for the purpose of community development goals. Urban agriculture itself is not the answer. An industrial scale urban agriculture operation can still reproduce all of the messed up ecological and social relations that we ascribe to non-local agricultural producers and distribution chains. Simply moving the operations from Smithfield, NC to Portland, OR doesn't really change anything if the practices remain polluting and exploitive.

I'm a believer in the potential of many sustainability strategies and schemes to fundamentally transform the relationship we have between ourselves and our surrounding environment and socioeconomic relations. But simply shouting,"Urban Agriculture!" or, "Buy Local!", or my all-time favorite, "Think Glocally" doesn't actually give us any particular strategy to actually transform these relations. If you find GHG emissions to be important, fair wages to be vital to a functioning city, and re-invigorating culinary practices as a way to better connect people, then we should pursue strategies that actually meet those goals and to figure out what scales are appropriate to act those out. It is entirely possible that reconnecting people to a culinary tradition or relationship with food may involve going to a national chain grocery store and holding cooking classes. Maybe we should advocate for national minimum wage reform to guarantee a fair wage for all of our workers. My point is this...if you want greater social equity, better labor relations, a more sustainable food system, then you should seriously look at strategies to reach those specific goals and recognizing that attacking these issues requires actions at multiple scales, not just the local.

As always, keep it surly. And please, please, please stop recommending "going local" as a strategy to solve societal ills. Free yourselves from the local trap.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Why Shouldn't Planners Go To Jail?

Ed Blakely has a recent column out on planetizen where he says that planners should be jailed for their management of urban development. Now, this is a bit of a tongue in cheek statement. I was in the roundtable last week at ACSP in Cincinatti when I first heard him say this as a joke in a discussion regarding planning and the black community. His basic question is entirely legit: why aren't planners held responsible for their actions?

He's clearly not advocating for the jailing of planners if you read the column, thus my confusion at some of the tepid responses I saw on the Planning and the Black Community Division facebook page. Blakely calls for the type of planning and cities that big-time urbanist folks call for constantly. He wants cities that are environmentally sustainable, socially just, and culturally diverse and he makes an explicit claim regarding the central role of planners within these processes. He just makes the extra step in saying that planners should be held responsible to the visions and standards they constantly espouse and celebrate and yet never seem to actually meet.

We celebrate Smart Growth as sprawl continues relatively unabated (at least until we have a major national recession that kills our housing market). We call for integrated, equitable cities and yet the APA or mainstream planning groups do nothing to decry travesties like the recent case of St. Bernard Parish in Louisiana trying their damnedest to keep affordable housing out of their community because they won't want to be around black people with the assistance of planners and a virulently racist city council. We discuss problems of mass unemployment and continued poverty and yet we celebrate real-estate development urban playgrounds as "economic development" even as we displace the poor and marginalized from our central cities. Let me make this abundantly clear: planners are entirely complicit in these cases. I recognize the very real limits imposed upon public planners, in particular, but if we purport to offer strong normative visions of what cities should be and if we claim we have an ethical obligation to preserve our natural resources and to encourage greater social equity and inclusive economic development, then we should be held to those ethical standards. Otherwise, we just get a free pass and when the same old stuff happens we just chalk it up to planners not having "real" power and move on. If that's the tact we're going to take as a field, fine, but stop pretending like your normative visions count for anything and just be honest that we're little more than glorified rubber-stampers that can make awesome graphics and run a population projection every few years.

We need to do more as a field/profession to demand more from us. Otherwise we'll continue to see urban development go down the negative, wasteful patterns that they have for the past 60 years and we'll constantly be waiting for the next hurricane, gas crisis, or economic collapse to do the work we should've been doing in the face.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Quick ACSP Reflection

So I spent the past 4 days in sunny Cincinatti, OH for ACSP's annual conference. I co-presented a paper with my adviser looking at whether climate action and sustainability plans incorporate economic development or equity into account. The presentation seemed to go well but what follows is just a quick listing of some observations and thoughts I collected over the past few days on a variety of notepads, bar napkins, and phone notes...

What resurgence?

The conference title was "The Resurgence of Planning in the 21st Century" yet in session after session presenters and discussants despaired at the inability of planners to really have substantive impacts. We still sprawl, have residential displacement through gentrification, suffer from catastrophic job loss, have not adequately prepared for the ravages of climate change, or broken through the inefficiencies of a highly fragmented governmental structure that inhibits cooperation and wide-range planning.

In light of this, what the hell were the organizers thinking with this title? What do they see that no one else at the conference saw? If this is truly the century of a resurgent planning influence, then I'd hate to see us in retreat.

What's your mission?

The Planners of Color Interest Group (POCIG) awarded the first ever Ed Blakely award for excellence in planning to Mel King. Mel's accomplishments are too many to go over here, but he's been a tireless champion of human rights, civil rights, and community activism for decades. In his acceptance speech he castigated all of us in the room, young scholars like myself to titans in the field like June Manning Thomas, for lacking a mission. He pointed out that ALL of the gains the black community were able to make over the past 50 years have been virtually erased. Unemployment remains stubbornly high, massive amounts of incarceration have decimated generations of black people, persistent poverty strangles our communities, and we have seen the re-segregation of the country when we look at how our cities and regions have ordered themselves. And he asks where are we? Where are planners? Where, in particular, are planners of color in trying to address these issues? We have spent the past 5 decades supervising the retreat of the civil rights movement.

It was a heavy trip. But the question is vital: What is your mission? If we can't answer that, then what the hell are we doing?