Economic segregation may be a foregone conclusion, as studies have long suggested. For one thing, our first tendency is to buy the best place we can afford, intentionally locating to those parts of a region that appeal to others with similar buying power. Secondly, we tend to buy something most suitable to our tastes, which steers us into areas populated by those with similar viewpoints.
The implications for contemporary planning processes are profound, especially since current best practices revolve so much around form and style and take so little measure of economics, choice, and consequence. It troubles me that my own decisions purchasing houses in the past – made after careful scrutiny of what evidence I could gather about the people living in the neighborhood – showed me that even a planner aware of attempts to integrate could choose segregation.
But if planning is anything, surely it is the idea that what seemed inevitable can be bypassed with careful consideration, sequencing, and reorganization of inputs. Why plan for a different future if the results are the same as when you started? The idea of inevitable segregation narrows the planning options considerably.
As a result, planners and community developers have focused not on enlarging the pie, but on figuring out how to appeal to those residents who show up for meetings. Whether these groups are affluent NIMBYs or poor advocates for low-cost housing, the status quo remains completely undisturbed.
There are two main ways I've seen this occur. First is through the comprehensive planning process. The comprehensive planning process attempts to bring together connected but distinct elements – housing, transportation, the environment, the economy – and reassemble them into a cohesive, publicly vetted whole. But what really happens during such efforts?
Planning staff assembles data. The contours of the process get articulation. Citizens get to describe their vision of their community. Flavor of the day ingredients dominate the discussion – pedestrian malls, node development, open space, wetlands preservation, smart growth, and now green collar jobs, sustainability, and social equity (whatever that is).
The strong neighborhoods show up in force, working the system to their advantage. They often transform any land use or zoning issue into a referendum on the impacts on property values. The water treatment facility gets sited far away from such neighborhoods. Low-income housing becomes an articulated virtue, so long as its located elsewhere. This occurs in supposedly enlightened and ‘progressive’ neighborhoods like mine – Rosemont in Alexandria, Virginia – and places like Kensington near Berkeley, or in Fairfield County, Connecticut, where addressing homelessness is a rising priority – if it’s handled in Bridgeport and not Danbury or Shelton or Norwalk. Planning nearly always yields good results for neighborhoods like mine.
In contrast, residents of struggling areas are skeptical of processes that have not benefited them very much in the past. In places like low-income parts of Norfolk, Virginia, "planning" has come to mean either 1950s style urban renewal or 1990s style gentrification. New Urbanism in Norfolk has often meant the very opposite of practical economic inclusion for low-income working households. The very idea that real change could both come and be beneficial to them is laughable. Their issues are not about landscaping with native plants: their concerns are jobs, crime, services, and housing affordability. Astute (cynical) planners soon discover that "respect" is also in play in these neighborhoods; merely listening with sincerity becomes a stand in for actual change. Listening requires no real work, certainly not compared to the heavy lifting of actually improving these areas for their current residents. Planning rarely adds much to these places.
Middle-class neighborhoods want to preserve what they have. They don’t want their small claim on prosperity threatened by those from the troubled areas in town. They want nothing more than to preserve their safety and the small patch of grass they mow on the weekends. For families in these neighborhoods, the suburbs have for decades been a bastion from a changing urban setting that appears to always grant the rich a pass and provide unearned opportunity to the poor.
Unable to migrate into the ranks of the upper middle class and penetrate the neighborhoods of lawyers and accountants and physicians, middle neighborhood residents often simply leave and form a place of their own. Plumbers and carpenters dislodged from Del Ray (an old blue collar neighborhood in Alexandria, VA) drive their pick-up trucks to Springfield, where they have a mall and plenty of ranch houses, and where they can safely raise their family while holding a job that does not require a college education.
Planners generally dismiss these areas since they often come from the upper echelons and maintain a theoretical concern for the poor. But there are consequences when these middle income residents leave. Indeed the migration of these households out of the urban core and inner ring suburbs may be the most pressing social challenge facing planners. Unsexy as the housing concerns of the plumber may be, they are often the critical ones in terms of maintaining strong neighborhoods.
Take a look at what has happened in the City of Geneva, New York, which is emblematic of so many communities in the middle of a city-county struggle for the middle class. The City’s pre-war manufacturing and agricultural history was sufficient to build a sophisticated infrastructure going into World War II. The arrival of the Depot and Naval Base in nearby Seneca brought overcrowding and congestion and triggered something of a building boom to Geneva. When the base closed, the city’s middle class left for newer housing and retail outside the city.
As middle income residents have fled, the city itself has become a place of many have-nots and a few haves. Rather than invest to engender pride, safety, and a sense of community in the city’s neighborhoods – the small unstylish work of organizing – the doctrine sought to make downtown attractive, livable and appealing by applying the “edifice complex” or the “Field of Dreams theory”: if you build it they will come. Then the planners and developers get to stand around and wonder why downtown still feels empty.
Along the way the city opened its doors to a raft of social service providers, inviting them to locate their business and clients downtown. The middle class watched, grew frustrated, and left for the periphery. Despite some of the most glorious – and reasonably priced – architecture in America, the middle class has left, taking with them much of the urban tax base. This creates a hole out from which few cities emerge.
This is not at all unique to Geneva, as any planner and community developer knows. Its the case in my hometown of Alexandria, Virginia and in neighboring Arlington where programs do an admirable job of enabling some of the working poor to remain, while the middle has found greater comfort in leaving for other counties.
There may be a way out of this dilemma. The central aim of community development should be to work the system in ways that generate wealth-building probabilities – both for individual households and for neighborhoods. The central aim of our work should be to expand the zone of acceptable and livable neighborhoods: to make more places more worthy of affection, not some extremely worthy and others barely so.
Planning efforts must concern themselves less with process and more with outcome. Every block in every city can be objectively scored in terms of livability, as defined locally. In this approach, the community development process may be judged a failure if in service of a few individuals concentrated poverty and economic segregation grows. Marin County would no longer be able to balance its affordable housing ledger on the backs of Marin City and a few parts of San Rafael. Montgomery County, Maryland would no longer be able to use Prince George's County as its de facto affordable housing policy. And genuinely struggling places like Ontario County, NY would not be able to look to the City of Geneva as their repositories of poor families and the hub of the area’s social service network.
In the last thirty years, planners have reduced our field of vision. We have fostered an exodus of our middle class and focused on creating environments for the rich and poor. If we really want social equity, growing the middle is the best place to start.
This means we have to change our priorities. We should stop trying to reinforce concentrations of wealth. Poor neighborhoods should not be defined solely as places and people who primarily "need" and never exercise choice. Instead our priority should be to help plan for an expanding middle class – even if it ruffles the feathers of some gatekeepers in both poor and affluent neighborhoods.