Summer is often a time of adventure and exploration. This summer has been no different and MZ Strategies has been on the move, working with community leaders and public officials in Phoenix, Denver, Moline, Richmond, San Antonio, and Oklahoma City. In each place, infrastructure issues are at the heart of the work whether focused on making transit-oriented development happen in areas starting to invest in higher quality bus, light rail and streetcar service or looking to find new ways to finance green infrastructure projects including district energy, water and parking. A common thread across all this work is how to ensure that infrastructure investments lead to more equitable outcomes for existing and future community residents and business owners. These issues of inclusive development have been at the heart of my career for the last 20 years. But this summer brought a different urgency and shape to these discussions.
If the summer of 2016 has a theme, it may well be racial injustice. We have seen videos or experienced first-hand the tragedies in places like St. Anthony, MN; Baton Rouge, LA; Dallas, TX and Milwaukee, WI that expose the failures and racial biases that threaten our criminal justice system. Yet, this past summer I found myself on a professional journey of self-discovery as I realized the limits of my knowledge when it comes to how race and infrastructure are intricately linked. These linkages extend back for generations. Sometimes they are the result of intentional racism, as evidenced by Virginia’s first Jim Crow law passed in 1900 requiring separate cars for blacks and whites on railroads, and the federal “redlining” of neighborhoods that prevented loans, mortgages or other investments to those living in communities of color. At other times they maybe had less explicitly racist intentions but nonetheless were just as devastating to separating, isolating and disenfranchising minority communities. We have countless examples of this from the period of Urban Renewal and Interstate Highway construction which scrapped or ripped apart minority communities. Secretary Foxx has spoken eloquently about these issues as part of the Ladders of Opportunity Initiatives at USDOT.
The confluence of past and present racial injustice within infrastructure played out repeatedly for me this summer. In July, I joined with the City of Phoenix, Valley Metro and LISC-Phoenix to convene a group of stakeholders to envision a new light rail future for South Central and South Phoenix. For generations, these neighborhoods were one of the few places that Hispanic or African American families were allowed to buy a home or run a business. Chemical plants, landfills and other toxic uses exist adjacent to modest single family homes or open areas where children play. Despite a heavily-transit dependent population, the first light rail lines did not serve South Phoenix. Hopefully this will all change though as the City is seeking federal funds for a light rail extension to connect the downtown and regional rail network with South Phoenix bringing improved access to the region’s numerous universities, museums, hospitals, sports events, government services and thousands of jobs accessible by transit.
In envisioning the opportunities and challenges of equitable transit-oriented development (eTOD), community members gave voice to the need for “Restorative Justice.” This entails not only new investments in housing and transit, but also a process that meaningfully involves the community to shape its own future, and to address basic needs long overlooked here but not in other parts of the region. Things like trees and bus shelters to provide shade for those living in one of the country’s hottest cities, bike lanes and safe crosswalks to help seniors and students safely get to transit or other destinations, strategies to help small business entrepreneurs during and after light rail construction, and ensuring that new developments include community services like health care facilities and healthy foods while also incorporating the area’s rich heritage in the design of buildings and public spaces.
This concept of “Restorative Justice” runs throughout much of the eTOD work that MZ Strategies is engaging with city leaders and community advocates. It explicitly recognizes that past infrastructure investments and planning processes harmed low-income and minority communities. Restorative Justice requires a focus on both outcomes and process. It recognizes that neither the public nor the private sectors have all the answers but they have a responsibility, together with community voices, to ensure that new infrastructure investments provide an opportunity to heal and improve the quality of life and economic opportunity for the communities of color in which they are located.
As a further example of the need and opportunity, this past May, MZ Strategies joined a team working with the City in Richmond’s Greater Fulton Neighborhood to plan for new TOD. It is almost unbelievable to comprehend the reality that over a three-year period started in 1970, an entire 2,800-person multigenerational neighborhood was literally scrapped away -- erasing the Fulton Neighborhood from Richmond’s map. Almost 40 years later, the promise of bus rapid transit (BRT) service and renewed interest by developers in urban living and riverfront development is bringing new focus to redeveloping this once thriving, historic community. But will the future of Fulton bear witness to its past? Will future residents include the families or business owners of those who once called it home? How can BRT and the TOD process address Restorative Justice in a community that has still not healed, nor had its past acknowledged?
The City has initiated a conversation to re-imagine this new future with input from the community to help identify the necessary zoning, streetscape and circulation improvements, and place making elements that can restore Fulton. This was an amazing conversation to be part of, and yet the deeper challenges and racial injustices also surfaced and are not so easy to answer. The existing neighborhood lacks a grocery store and hospital; there are few jobs and those that do exist are low-paying; despite a large number of transit-dependents households transit service is extremely limited. For many, getting to the new BRT stations will require walking at least 15 minutes and crossing a busy 4-lane arterial road.
This fundamental lack of opportunity is not something that can be easily or quickly fixed, but it does need to be addressed. If TOD around the new BRT station is successful, the pressures of gentrification can easily swallow this community. Or, benefits will only accrue to those who are wealthy enough to live along the ribbon adjacent to the BRT and James River while the nearby lower-income, African American community will be cut off by the 4-lane highway (which may need to be widened to accommodate the growing suburban communities being planned just downstream). To its great credit, the City is aware of this threat. Yet, public resources are limited.
Community organizations must also become engaged and empowered. And this is something that I think the planning community is less able to fully embrace and activate. The few neighborhood advocacy organizations that do exist in Greater Fulton, and many other neighborhoods like it across the country are poorly resourced. A handful of staff are managing a variety of efforts from afterschool education, to ESL-classes, to food and nutrition training, to grassroots organizing and advocacy. Planners turn to these groups when we are seeking “community input” to authenticate the community engagement process but these are band-aid approaches, at best. We place a lot of value on the number of people involved, but not necessarily on the quality or length of public engagement.
Transportation projects, not to mention community development efforts like eTOD require years of planning and implementation. These are highly technical and expensive efforts that benefit from active community engagement to shape, to watchdog, and to celebrate. Most planners don’t consider the health and prevalence of community-based organizations when planning for transportation projects.
Cities will spend thousands, maybe even millions, of dollars on consultants to advise them during a transit project’s multi-year development process. Yet, few cities devote resources to community organizations who can be instrumental – when invited – to play a long-term role to shape transportation projects, garnish public support for necessary funding or regulatory changes, and ensure long-term benefits of projects. Conversely, the community can sink the best engineered project when they do not feel engaged, informed, or understood. Some regional transportation agencies like the Metropolitan Council in the Twin Cities, LA Metro in Los Angeles, and Puget Sound Regional Council in Seattle have begun providing community engagement grants to local organizations so that they have the resources to be partners with government in planning and implementing long-range transportation plans.
More places need to follow suit, and while this is a wonky and incremental strategy it can be profound to larger racial justice issues. We have seen this play out in the Twin Cities when the “Stops for All” campaign allowed neighborhood groups to successfully change federal rules that had prevented a proposed transit line from serving low-income, transit dependent communities and today the region is exploring “Affordable Fares” to make it more affordable for low-income riders to use transit.
What I have learned this summer -- and admittedly am still in the process of discovering -- is how planners and policy makers can be more intentional in using the power of infrastructure not only to meet its core functions such as improved mobility, or energy production, or wastewater treatment; but to also use the process and outcomes of these massive public investments to improve the lives and honor the legacies of low-income neighborhoods and communities of color.