Monthly Archives: December 2009

Getting Urban Policy Out of the Silos?

Andrea Bernstein of WNYC in New York has done some interesting reporting about Adolfo Carrion Jr., who now directs the newly-created White House Office of Urban Affairs. One piece ran this morning on WAMU, a public radio affiliate here in the DC area. You can listen to the piece from WAMU here. The segment delves into some of the intersecting policy concerns that anyone dealing with urban revitalization will have to deal with.
Bernstein also has a longer piece up at WNYC here, where you can find audio and a transcript (well worth it). Besides capturing nicely some of the many kinds of concerns that the Shaping Our Towns & Cities project will explore, her piece also touches on an important aspect of how the project will approach these concerns. She notes how much of our national policy-making on urban revitalization or community development has been hampered by a piece meal approach, since there’s no real interactivity between the “silos” of the various federal agencies that each separately address only the kinds of issues within their purview:

The notion that the federal government operates in “silos” has been popularized by Bruce Katz, a Brookings Institution Vice President and the founding director of the Metropolitan Policy Program there. Katz has been promoting the idea that cities and their attached suburbs are–and will be–America’s economic engine. But he faults the federal government for looking at programs separately–for not seeing, for example, how Environmental Protection Agency policies that require brownfield clean-up, HUD programs that funnel funds to specific areas and USDA food stamp policies may all affect the same place.

The approach we’ll take in the Shaping Our Towns & Cities project is precisely to move out of that sort of a “silo” approach and to explore the intersections and interconnections among all these different kinds of concerns that affect the shape of our towns and cities. If you’re interested in that sort of a discussion experience, if you’d like to get out of the silos and think about a more multi-faceted approach, then drop me a line so we can talk about the project.

–Jeff Prudhomme

Where You Live and What’s For Dinner

When we think about public health and our towns and cities, we probably think first and foremost of environmental factors. But what about access to healthy and affordable food? Many urban neighborhoods lack grocery stores with options of fresh produce. The Philly Inquirer has a nice story about the opening of a supermarket in a North Philly neighborhood (hat tip to Atrios).

But for many of the customers who visited the Fresh Grocer that opened in Progress Plaza, on Broad Street near Jefferson, yesterday, it was the first time in 11 years they didn’t have to trek across the city to find fresh, affordable food.

Of course this isn’t just a public health matter. The opening of the supermarket doesn’t just mean access to healthier food options, it also means jobs.

Seventy-three percent of the store’s employees come from within a 2-mile radius of Progress Plaza – the nation’s oldest African-American owned and developed shopping center – said Carly Spross, Fresh Grocer’s director of marketing. […]

“It’s great,” new Fresh Grocer employee Andre Johnson said of the chance to work at the store.

“This is [going to be] the epicenter of North Philly,” he said before bustling off to help a customer with a cart.

Access to jobs, access to healthy food options, and the importance of “epicenters” for neighborhoods–these are all issues we’ll explore with the Shaping Our Towns & Cities project.

–Jeff Prudhomme

Toxic Titles, Zombie Homes, and Neighborhood Regeneration?

What happens to neighborhoods when titles turn toxic–when the value of a foreclosed property goes so low that the cost of completing the foreclosure is prohibitive to the lender? As Fed Governor Elizabeth Duke recently noted in a speech on Community Stabilization:

Many community organizations and homeowners have been frustrated by the difficulties of working with mortgage lenders and servicers, and these problems are even more exaggerated in weaker market cities. In the most devastated neighborhoods, some lenders do not even complete the foreclosure process or record the outcome of foreclosure sales because the cost of foreclosing exceeds the value of the property. Anecdotal evidence suggests that these “toxic titles” have placed significant numbers of properties in a difficult state of legal limbo.

Mary Kane at the Washington Independent wrote about toxic titles in an article on “walkaways” over a year ago:

Walkaways wind up with “toxic titles,’’ Lind says. The mortgage company retains a lien, or a charge, on the house, but the borrower still is considered the owner. The property sits in limbo, with the mortgage usually exceeding what it would sell for, because of its decline. If the city has to tear it down, it adds its own $8,000 to $10,000 demolition lien. Not surprisingly, potential buyers aren’t exactly lining up. Non-profit neighborhood groups that could fix up the property face long and expensive legal battles to claim it.

With the recent financial market meltdown we’ve gotten used to terms like “toxic assets” and “zombie banks.” Will we add “zombie homes” and “zombie neighborhoods” along with “toxic titles” to our vocabulary? How can neighborhoods revive if vacant homes linger in limbo, like zombies, the living dead sucking the life and draining the value from the rest of a neighborhood?

Elizabeth Duke’s speech gives a number of indications of some ways forward. If you’re interested in these kinds of questions–and would like the chance to explore different approaches our society might take in responding to them, you might be interested in taking part in the Shaping Our Towns & Cities project.

–Jeff Prudhomme

Credit Policy and Who Gets to Live Where

How do our public policies about credit and financing impact the shape of our towns and cities? What happens when credit policies and other financial decisions intersect with racism and changing demographics? The historian Beryl Satter takes a look at these issues in her book, Family Properties, which tells the story of financial discrimination in the housing and financing markets that shaped the development of Chicago. Satter’s account of financial racism is told through the prism of her father’s work, as a Chicago lawyer, seeking to remedy these discriminatory practices.  You’ll find a review by David Garrow here, and you can listen to an interview with Satter on public radio’s Diane Rehm show here.

In the Shaping Our Towns and Cities project we’ll be looking at issues such as these as we explore different possible futures for the shape of our communities. We won’t be studying the past, but in light of the past we will explore the possible intersections of public policy, financing, racial attitudes, and demographic changes as we look to the future.

–Jeff Prudhomme

Aesthetics and Economics?

What role might aesthetics play in shaping our towns and cities? How might aesthetics and economics interact? We often think of the two as inversely related, like you can only have a concern for design if you’re flush. If economic times are bad, then concern for aesthetics goes out the window. But what if there are other possibilities? These are some of the issues we’ll explore in the Shaping our Towns and Cities project.

In our current economic downturn, aesthetic considerations for construction might seem irrelevant. Architectural design might be out of reach for most. But the downturn also means more material to work with at more accessible prices. Inga Saffron, the Philly Inquirer’s architecture critic, touched on some of these issues in a recent piece about the “Fertile Ground” exhibit in Philly. The firms in the show, she writes,

have taken inspiration from the city’s great tracts of vacant land and its wealth of hollowed-out factories. Their designs embrace cheap, tough materials […] They are determined to recycle cities by making buildings that are deeply sustainable, and that don’t merely collect points for the sake of a U.S. Green Building Council seal of approval […] It’s not unusual for these architects to pitch in with construction […] Becoming an architect/developer is a viable career path in Philadelphia because this is the land of cheap real estate. A North Philadelphia rowhouse lot can be picked up for almost nothing, allowing architects to work out new ideas …

Another piece that got me thinking is this segment the public radio show, Speaking of Faith, entitled An Architecture of Decency on Auburn’s School of Architecture Rural Studio project. The Rural Studio program involves undergrads in the design and construction of homes and public spaces in rural Alabama (you can check out the Rural Studio’s own site here). Krista Tippet, the host of Speaking of Faith, describes their approach as one that sees architecture as a “social art.” As Andrew Freear, the current director of the Rural Studio describes it:

It’s students and architects understanding the bigger, broader societal responsibilities that they can have and take on. I mean, we shape the environment. I mean, for west Alabama, we’re incredibly optimistic. We want people to dream about having a better world. And that’s — what better to have than a bunch of 22-year-olds who are just, you know, walk through walls to try and make it happen. And it becomes infectious. People love to be part of it.

These broader societal responsibilities include not only utilizing recycled and sustainable materials in their constructions, but also bringing a sense of how the design of our living spaces touches us as humans and influences our sense of community. You can listen to the whole show from the Speaking of Faith website. It’s really quite powerful.

–Jeff Prudhomme