Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Envision CR II: Including the poor



If affordable housing is far from jobs, it creates as many problems as it solves(from Google Street View)
The word "poverty" does not appear at all in Envision CR, the comprehensive plan for the City of Cedar Rapids. (The word "poor" appears several times, but always to refer to the physical condition of facilities.) That doesn't mean that the poor won't benefit from fulfillment of some of the city's initiatives therein. But it does leave a concern that those who most need to benefit from the city's growth may not be positioned to do so, and the city may not be prepared to bring them along.

Poverty is a problem of long standing and great complexity, the subject of much research which has been published on a lot of paper. So you'll have to forgive a great deal of oversimplification when I say that, in a dynamic market-oriented economic system, today's American poor are thwarted by lack of access to two key things: economic opportunity and social structures of support. The obstacles are not completely removable, but cities can at least do some things to mitigate them.

In saying this, I am not unmindful that individual factors also affect poverty. There's not much a city or state can do to protect someone from the consequences of their bad choices. But--admittedly arguing here without data--surely some individual factors are exacerbated by systemic ones. In other words, lack of economic opportunity and/or access to social structures of support make it more likely that an individual will encounter stress, poor health, depression, alienation, and so forth, and so will make poor life choices. They also reduce the margin of error and increase the consequences of those poor individual choices.

The city could try to ignore the poor in its midst, and Lord knows, many have tried. But that means foregoing human resources, trying to go forward with portions of the city seriously under-productive, and tolerating a high level of potential instability. It seems prudent, not to mention moral, to be as inclusive as possible as the city charts its future.

US poverty rate over time; data from US Census Bureau, chart from topforeignstocks.com
The poverty rate is a highly flawed indicator, but it's the best we've got. The chart above shows that since the early 1970s, when the U.S. economy began to shift away from manufacturing employment, the poverty rate has stayed stubbornly around 15 percent. While recent decades have seen the rise of fields that were unimaginable fifty years ago, there have not been remunerative career opportunities on a mass scale to replace those lost manufacturing jobs. This has not only affected the 15 percent at the bottom, but many of those in the middle as well.

Cities can't bring back Joe Lunchpail, but all are trying to develop their economies by "creating" jobs. I argue that it's not only important that they do it, it's important how they do it. Cedar Rapids would, for example, like to take advantage of existing concentrations of tech and medical professionals by attracting more. Do it. Bringing more money into a city can benefit all its residents when that money circulates to support public facilities (the library, swimming pools, &c.) and local businesses. The city can make this happen (or not) by:
  • encouraging compact development (as opposed to sprawl): the closer people are to the action the more they are likely to benefit
  • encouraging local entrepreneurship (as opposed to colonization by out-of-town franchises and in particular big box stores): the more money that stays in the city the more likely it is that everyone benefits
  • connecting areas of concentrated poverty to the rest of the city: ghettos are the result of design, and can only be overcome by design.
Envision CR has a number of encouraging elements along these lines. In the "Strengthen CR" chapter, Goal 3 is "Adopt policies that create choices in housing types and prices throughout the city." This mainly involves ensuring a mix of different types of houses--including townhouses and multi-family units--and avoiding exclusionary zoning in the new developments the city anticipates at what are now the outskirts of town. Goal 4 is "Create a city that is affordable and accessible to all members of the community." Currently the city administers several affordable housing programs, including Section 8 Housing vouchers, Rebuilding Ownership Opportunities Together, and subsidies for senior and low-income housing projects; other potential initiatives are also listed.

Poverty may be most closely associated with core neighborhoods, but there are pockets in other parts of town that are inconvenient to pretty much everything. People will choose where they live for all kinds of reasons, but if the only apartment I can afford is at 34th and Pioneer far from everything, or at Cedarwood Hills which is up a steep hill in an unwalkable part of town, that's a problem the city needs to address.

In the "Grow CR" chapter, Goal 3 is "Connect growing areas to existing neighborhoods." This mainly is to ensure there aren't barriers between developments at the periphery and the rest of the city. But the principle could also be used to address existing neighborhoods where there are pockets of poverty. Development in downtown and MedQuarter (as well as Kingston Village and New Bohemia) can create economic opportunity in adjacent core neighborhoods, if they're designed to be connected rather than separated.

Finally, the business-oriented "Invest CR" chapter has four goals, all with potential to improve the lives of the poor.
  1. Expand economic development efforts to support business and workforce growth, market Cedar Rapids, and engage regional partners.
  2. Cultivate a skilled workforce by providing cutting-edge training and recruiting talented workers.
  3. Reinvest in the city’s business corridors and districts.
  4. Grow a sustainable, diverse economy by supporting existing businesses, fostering entrepreneurism [sic], and targeting industry specific growth.
The emphases on entrepreneurship and existing businesses and industries are particularly encouraging. Chasing after franchises (including casino franchises) would have been a less productive approach. (See Johnny, "Big Box Urbanism," Granola Shotgun, 12 March 2015.)

Cedar Rapids has big plans for development. Of course, every other city probably does, too; there's a gulf between having plans and realizing them. Envision CR anticipates that quite a lot of this development will occur at the periphery of the current city, albeit in the form of mixed-use neighborhoods and complete streets. Can Cedar Rapids sprawl intelligently? And if they do, could they do so in a way that improves economic opportunity for the poor? Keep in mind, too, that not everyone is going to possess the specific job skills in high demand at the moment.

Along with economic opportunities, the poor need social structures of support. Families, neighborhoods and civic institutions support individuals as they navigate the ups and downs of their lives. These structures are created in the private sector, of course, but government can help. They can partner with non-profit agencies, as Cedar Rapids has with Matthew 25's Block-by-Block home restoration program, to encourage their efforts. More importantly, traditional neighborhood development is more likely to engender these sorts of connections than suburban sprawl.

For many people in American society, the poor are simply invisible. Auto-oriented development, notes Eric O. Jacobsen (The Space Between, Baker Academic, 2012, p. 42), "has increased the distances at which we encounter one another.... And because of the large parking lots and wider streets that are needed to accommodate all of those cars even when we are engaged in the same activity in the same place, the distance between us has increased significantly." A more atomized society harms us all in some way or other, but has especially negative impacts on the lives of those at the margins.

Poor people obviously can't have access to economic opportunities if such opportunities don't exist. It does not, of course, follow that where economic opportunities exist, poor people will have access to them. Including the poor probably will require intentional action on the part of city government. Can they provide incentives to locate jobs that pay well near low-income areas, and discourage large campuses in remote locations? Or to encourage developers to build affordable housing near areas of economic growth? Can people reach out to help poor people access opportunities which they may not know about, or assume are out of reach?

There's a danger that the poor will remain as invisible in this unfolding process as they are in Envision CR.

Envision CR plan: http://www.cedar-rapids.org/government/departments/community-development/city_planning/Pages/default.aspx

Earlier post: Envisioning CR I: A 24-hour downtown

Next: Improving public transportation.

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