Smart Growth and Gentrification

For as long as I’ve been involved in understanding the dimensions of urban disinvestment, as well as the solutions, one more civic concern has always lurked in the shadows. That’s gentrification, the process by which wealthier people interested in moving back into a city use buying power and sway to push the poor out of their homes.

As a journalist, public policy specialist, and citizen of America I’ve personally experienced almost every side of this issue. I was raised in a New York City suburb during New York’s worst post-war period, the decades of the 1970s and 1980s when disinvestment, decline, crime, and deterioration chased the middle class and their employers to the suburbs and to other states. In 1980, New York City was home to 7.1 million people, 810,000 less than in 1970. That, of course, left room for the less fortunate, including some of my artistic friends, to find affordable housing in Manhattan.

A generation later, after massive investment in New York’s police and infrastructure — roads, bridges, rail, parks, water, schools — Manhattan and New York’s other borough became hot places to live again. It helped that Wall Street also boomed in the 1990s. The wealthy and middle class moved back in, increasing competition for housing. New York responded by building more places to live, which made it possible for the rich and the less rich to live in the city. New York City’s population, 8.14 million in 2005, grew 14 percent in a generation.

For a time in the mid-1980s I lived in Manhattan. I’ve also lived in Boston, Washington, Philadelphia, Sacramento, and Charleston, S.C. Frankly, the fact that cities are becoming great places to live is a singular achievement made possible by effective business and governing strategies that improved basic civic equipment and services. States that have big exciting cities are prospering. States that don’t, like Michigan, end up sending their best young people to the states that do. In the contest between slums and decent housing, I’ll take the good housing and safe neighborhoods any time.

In the last 15 years the Smart Growth and New Urbanist movements have been at the head of the pack in developing even more refined steps to make American cities more environmentally sensitive, energy efficient, and architecturally beautiful. You’d expect their work to be hailed as evidence of the nation’s ability to find solutions to real problems. Yet even as cities improve, a persistent chorus of critics find in Smart Growth and New Urbanism seeds of inequity. They blame the two movements for promoting economic development that favors the wealthy over the poor, and displaces people from their urban homes.

A good exploration of this critique is Holly Pearson’s new piece on gentrification for, which was just voted by as one of the 10 best Web sites for land use planning and design. “Even if new development patterns bring about positive physical changes to an urban landscape, like better access to public transportation and greater energy efficiency, if factors like ethnic diversity and affordability are sacrificed, then has sustainability really been achieved?” asks Pearson.

San Francisco, it turns out, is solving the issue with some adept public policy designed to leverage the economic gains provided by the wealthy to encourage more investment in affordable housing. Very schmart. It’s one approach to making sure that cities of the future are capable of welcoming all kinds of people. And if they do, it’s possible to slow the ever outward movement of America’s built environment, which is how this nation will conserve land, fuel, resources, and the sense of neighborhood security that will keep this nation a decent place to be.


Flip: Online Race for the White House

The Center for American Progress, a centrist left policy think tank in Washington, prepared this very useful and nifty online compendium of how 2008 presidential campaigns are using the Web. The NetTrends  ’08 matrix is a one stop shop for Republicans and Democrats, and anybody else for that matter, to stay abreast of trends in online campaigning. NetTrends ’08 also is the best example I’ve found of how politics, communications technology, and the Internet have converged to make it much simpler for people to be aware of what’s happening in the various presidential campaigns. Smart Growth advocates need to be video, text, audio, and multi-media content providers and compel these campaigns to embrace their message.

The pace of evolution in American presidential campaign strategy is significantly accelerating as candidates vie with the mainstream and new media for influence. The candidates know the mainstream media’s ability to determine message and messenger is waning, though the mainstream media remain a very significant force multiplier for deciding who’s not going to make it to the final round. The traditional media, particularly television, have drained so much vitality out of their reporting staffs that they are largely confined at this point to talking about who’s up and who’s down.

The new media, and especially the important political blogs, are becoming the show. They are expert and nimble enough to go deeper, and have the journalistic freedom to simultaneously report and comment on breaking trends in real time,  and make those findings available on the Web to a global audience. The new media also have YouTube and other file-sharing sites that during this election cycle will be election-deciding forums for independent video that could elevate or decimate campaigns. 

In 2006, during the Virginia Senate race between the Republican incumbent, George Allen, and the Democratic newcomer Jim Webb, we witnessed just how powerful YouTube can be in a campaign. Mr. Allen promised a “campaign of positive constructive ideas.” But the senator’s campaign hit an online wall with the famous “macaca” video, shot by a student who worked for Webb. The video, broadcast on YouTube,  revealed a side of the Republican senator — a privileged southerner’s racial and class intolerance — that voters found so hypocritical that they threw him out of office and flipped control of both houses of Congress to the Democrats. 

The point is that grassroots advocates have the opportunity to influence candidates. The millions of voters involved in producing the energy efficient, transit-oriented, environmentally sensitive, land and resource conserving path to prosperity — the American Mode Shift –need to produce content and insert their message directly into the 2008 presidential campaign. The good folks at are making it easy to see who among the candidates is listening.   


Step It Up On Climate Change

Monica Evans, who co-founded and oversees the regional chapter of the Sierra Club in northwest Michigan, reminded us this week of the Step it Up rally to accelerate action on global climate change. She and her colleagues are hosting a regional event in downtown Traverse City on the afternoon of April 14, starting at 1:30 in the Chase Bank Courtyard across from Horizon Books downtown. There’s a parade and a potluck dinner afterward.

The Traverse City rally is part of a national day of action organized by environmental writer Bill McKibben, the author of the 1989 best seller on global warming, “The End of Nature,” and his students at Middlebury College in Vermont. The frame for the national action is to pressure Washington to begin aggressively cutting carbon emissions and protect America’s right to an optimistic future. The energy behind the campaign was drawn initially from Bill’s capacious mind and especially his expertise on global climate change.

But Step It Up also is a quintessential example of the power of social media. It’s grown into a national event due in large part because the communicating and organizing reach of the Internet is linking so many people together who care about the warming earth. Bill took a page out of’s playbook and deployed what are now routine online information and advocacy tools — email, digital photography, video, audio, YouTube, blogs, action alerts, and archives. He stayed on message, persisently sending focused appeals to gather on American street corners. People responded. One of those corners is the place where Front Street and Park intersect in downtown Traverse City.

For those of us who live along the northern coast of Lake Michigan this is personal. Lake levels have been low for several years and are dropping again. We just ended the warmest of the 15 winters I’ve been around this place. Crystal Mountain, where my wife works as a ski instructor, closed today, 10 days ahead of schedule. During the week between Christmas and New Years Day, traditionally the busiest ski days of the year — and the most economically important — there was no snow at all. My daughter and I ran the snowless cross-country ski trails in our shorts and tee-shirts. The resort laid off over 50 employees. Jim  MacInnes, Crystal Mountain’s general manager, says the ski season starts a week later and ends a week earlier than it did in the 1980s.

When President Bush and his fellow warming skeptics argue — there are a bunch of those folks sitting on county and township boards around here — that reducing global warming gases affects the economy I’ve always wondered whose economy is he talking about? The struggling snow sports industry of the Upper Midwest? The Colorado Plateau ranchers and farmers challenged by a nearly decade-long drought? The small stores and family businesses in New Orleans drowned by Hurricane Katrina?

Bill McKibben and his colleagues are performing a public service. Step It Up is a model for the kind of home-grown, street level campaign that online tools and techniques are able to turn into a mass movement.  Frankly, it’s essential. In a world with climbing energy prices, rising land and housing costs, declining incomes, record population growth, battled hardened political intransigence, and several potential environmental calamities converging at once, expecting leaders to do more than talk is folly.

A quick tour through the presidential campaign Web sites of Barack Obama (see yesterday’s post), Hillary Clinton and John McCain makes that point clear. All talk about the global climate, and all have proposed fixes — like promoting ethanol production and “clean” coal — that have no promise other than making favored constituencies richer and global conditions worse. 


My Friend Harriet Tregoning

Harriet Tregoning, who’s one of the smartest and most capable Smart Growth advocates in the United States, just took command of Washington, D.C.’s Office of Planning, among the most visible planning jobs in the country. And as the better half of the uniquely well-positioned leading couple of Smart Growth — her husband of 17 months is Geoffrey Anderson, the director of the EPA’s development, community and environment division — Harriet brings her brain and moxie to positioning the nation’s capital to prosper in the 21st century. 

I first met Harriet in Toronto 10 years ago, during one of the early meetings of the Congress for the New Urbanism. She sat in the row ahead of me on a bus tour of Toronto’s New Urbanist developments. When I started talking about Michigan’s sprawling patterns of development in the late 1990s, she leaned around the seat and asked about the new group she’d heard about that had just gotten started in Michigan. “The Michigan Land Use Institute,” she said. “You’ve heard about them?”76140-400-0.jpg

I introduced myself as the Institute’s founder and executive director. She said she directed the EPA’s Smart Growth program, which started at the urging of Al Gore and Carol Browning, the EPA Administrator. We spent the next few hours engaged in animated conversation about Washington, the Clinton administration, and the potential for Smart Growth to become a new organizing principle for the nation’s economy. I found her much more knowledgeable than myself, so articulate, and possessing a surprising amount of idealism. She was fun to be around, and as I learned over the years Harriet just inspired confidence and attracted friends.

I’ve crossed Harriet’s path in many states since then, at Smart Growth national organizing meetings in San Francisco, Idaho, Chicago, and during a 3-day gathering in Seaside, Florida hosted by Maryland Governor Parris Glendening. I met with her and her staff at the EPA, where I also met Geoff, who was one of Harriet’s aides at the time. I learned last year that they’d wed in 2005 and I thought that makes sense. She’s a tiny woman, quick-witted and not all shy. He’s a big guy, earnest in his professional manner, committed to his division and its mission. He’s also a funny man who knows how to tell a joke, likes to laugh and doesn’t take himself too seriously.  

Harriet’s big break came in 2000 when she was hired by Governor Glendening to serve as the Secretary of Planning. When Glendening’s two terms ended, Harriet joined the former governor in starting the Washington-based Governors’ Institute on Community Design and the Smart Growth Leadership Institute, where she served as executive director. She was awarded a Loeb Fellowship at Harvard University in 2003 and 2004, where she studied real estate development, game theory, affordable housing, and drawing.  

What’s cool about the Smart Growth movement is how some of its leading figures are moving into positions of prominence around the nation. Robert Liberty, who served as the executive director of 1000 Friends of Oregon, is now an elected member of the Portland Metro Council. David Cieslewicz, who helped found 1000 Friends of Wisconsin, is the mayor of Madison, Wisconsin. Elaine Clegg, the co-director of Idaho Smart Growth, is the president of the Boise City Council. Here at home, Chris Bzdok, an environmental and land use attorney with Olson, Bzdok, and Howard, the Michigan Land Use Institute’s general counsel, is an elected member of the Traverse City city council. 

Throughout her influential career Harriet has advocated for the public policy steps that are producing the American Mode Shift. Her definition of what that looks like in Washington, where she’s owned a home for nearly two decades, looks a lot like my own. The Washington Business Journal put it this way:

“As the District’s new director of the Office of Planning, Tregoning hopes to carry out her vision of D.C. as a transit-based, walkable community with plenty of retail. A place, she says, where middle-income people can afford not only to live — but also to have enough spending money left over every month to prime the city’s economy. ‘The District needs to reframe itself as a sustainable, green city,’  she says. ‘We need to have the kind of growth and development in our city and region that benefits the environment, enhances our economy, makes it stronger and more robust and engages more of our city in the economy and in civic life. We want to be a place where quality of life and community is so attractive that everybody wants to be here.'”