Is urbanism only for white people (and other musings)?

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A few weeks ago, I came across Daniel Hertz’s blog post on “Why is Urbanism So White?” And it is a topic I have been thinking about a lot lately, considering our Bay Area housing crisis and what I noticed in the Plan Bay Area meetings I went to. A lot of us aren’t getting heard, and I don’t know why.

I commented on the post, and I’ll excerpt a bit here:

I realized a couple of things (about the lack of diversity in urbanism):
1. People like me didn’t even know there was an urbanist party
2. We don’t even know if we are invited to the party
3. Things are intersectional for us, sometimes.
4. The urbanist movement is terrible at framing things in a way that will resonate with multiple audiences
5. Many people can’t see beyond their own perspective

It is like everything else. Most people only know people like them. We might care about the same things, but we aren’t having these conversations together because we aren’t traveling in the same circles.

The short answer is:

Urbanism comes packaged with gentrification and displacement and that invokes complicated feelings.

The long answer is a bit more nuanced.

Disclaimer: I’m not an urban planner, I did not study urban studies, my point of view is influenced from my own black middle class world view, and if I moved to certain neighborhoods, I would be a gentrifier.  Oh and this is all opinion and conjecture.

Before drilling into the reasons I think urbanism isn’t diverse, it is good to note why many black people are trying to get out of the city. We (as black people) are only about 40 years into having “full” choice in housing and neighborhoods, forced segregation only ended in the 60s. And segregation lingered well into the 70s.

Today this choice is still hamstrung by systemic racism, the wealth gap and predatory lending.  But many of the worst polices were finally ended in the 70s (redlining, etc).  And this choice in housing was limited to people with the right sort of privilege and experience to choose (and afford) to live in any neighborhood.

So after generations of being forced to live in rural areas, or in the “inner city,” black people could finally pick any neighborhood, and experience the suburban American dream without too many consequences. After watching the turmoil in many American cities in the 60s, the divestment in our urban areas, and the “redevelopment” and “urban renewal” projects, is it really a surprise, that people with choice decided to look for white picket fences? Good schools and large lots awaited.

As a result, we also lost some of the connectedness and community that came from consolidated black neighborhoods, with all classes and income levels and community service and support in the same place.  And there is a whole other set of issues that came up, but that’s off topic for this post. For those with “choice,” it was possible to mitigate some of those challenges, and come up with your own strategy to build community and identity.

Mindsets are really different, when you choose your environment versus being forced into a particular environment. No matter how great that location is on paper. Choice in itself is a big form of privilege. For communities that were displaced due to gentrification or urban renewal, they didn’t only lose their homes, but the lost their sense of community, connection and history.  Root Shock is a great book on this topic, and how it can lead to PTSD-like symptoms.

I think the academic, and mainstream perspective on urbanism is one based on privilege. You can choose to give up your car, you can choose to live in an urban neighborhood (but the other neighborhood types are open to you as well). And generally it attracts people with the freedom and privilege to choose. Most of those people are white, middle-class and educated.

Not back to my five key points, on why I think urbanism is particularly white. Urbanism is a fairly new field of study.  Well at least from my perspective, it is not like we see a lot of urban planners in pop culture, so it is like the great unknown.

1. People like me didn’t even know there was an urbanist party

I did not know that “urban planning” was an option of study until I was late in my college years. When I had a few friends who minored in “urban stuff” (planning or studies or similar). At that point, I thought it sounded pretty interesting, but was well on my way studying something else, and didn’t really think much about it.  It didn’t exactly seem like something you could get a job in. And for many people with my background or similar, one of the key goals of college is to study something that will help you get a job. I remember as a child wanting to be an interior decorator.  When I told my grandma, she thought that was hilarious.  She said, there is no way anyone will pay you to decorate their home.

So I didn’t realize that this was a job or concern.

2. We don’t even know if we are invited to the party

So now that I finally know there is “urbanism” and it is a “movement” it still feels like a pretty exclusive club.  It is mostly inhabited by people who are architects, engineers and other people directly employed in the practice. And city leaders. We all know about the lack of diversity in both STEM and architecture.  Only very recently, has urban planning started to approach things more holistically, from a health, transportation and social equity lens. This offers a good opportunity to both add more voices and more perspectives to the movement.

But most urbanism conversations are still confined to City Hall, the classroom, and for real estate developers. [Great book on why it is really hard to build urban projects these days.]

3. Things are intersectional for us, sometimes.

Intersectional is like the key academic buzzword in the “social justice” circles. I think it is something good to look at in the terms of urbanism as well. To grossly generalize, for white urbanists, the center city neighborhoods are like a new frontier. Not only are most “urbanists” younger, they don’t have the history or experience of watching their popular downtowns crumble and decay, they have always ben seen as a dead zone waiting for renewal/reuse. Younger people are also, in some ways, more likely to not be intentionally segregationist.

But, the approach today is still a lot like Columbus discovering America. “There is stuff here, but not stuff I care about, so I’ll just claim this territory it for myself and change it.” And sure enough the development follows. After ignoring downtown for decades, the well-to-do white people move in and the city starts picking up the trash, cleaning up the “blight” and worrying about school quality. Meanwhile the existing residents had to tough it out through neglect and decay. Lots of other more educated people have covered gentrification, and I don’t want to rehash anyone else’s research.

We here in the US make a conscious connection between “black,” “urban,” and “poor.” These 3 things are all euphemisms and synonyms (and I am not including all 2000 other more negative code words). Anyone black who doesn’t meet that description is one of those “exceptions,” and we find ways to not lump them into the bucket of “regular” black people. So things can be twofold, someone like me should not take transit, or live in the “inner city” because I have enough privilege to do something else (drive a nice car or get a big house), and on the flip side, according to the stereotypes, my only choice is to take the bus (and never commuter rail) and live in the hood. So on some level, choosing urbanism is both not recognizing that I have choices and feeding into the stereotypes of black people.

But I grew up in the ‘burbs.

All of my transit experiences growing up were (mostly) pleasant or in the form of a vacation. When I was 11 I took a field trip on the newly opened San Jose light rail. It was shiny, new and air conditioned. In middle school, I took the Amtrak to DC for a field trip. It was a blast, surrounded by friends and classmates and enjoying the scenery. In high school I went to Montreal and marveled at the subway stops with huge underground malls.

The few times I took the transit, outside of a field trip, during childhood was when I visited my aunt. It was just part of the experience, my aunt was “eccentric” and always did interesting things.  So taking the bus was another one of those interesting things.  Another time we took the Greyhound cross country (and that is an experience for another blog post).  But overall, I spent my childhood being carted around in the backseat or fighting over shotgun with my sister.  We were a 2 (and later 3) car family.

As an adult, after experiencing car-free life in college, and low desire to learn to drive, I haven’t really been so keen on a similar 2-car suburban existence for myself. But in the back of my mind, thinking about our society, and our attitudes, I know that some people will see me as a gentrifier and other people with have problems with me identifying as such (since the idea of a black middle or upper class makes their head explode).

4. The urbanist movement is terrible at framing things in a way that will resonate with multiple audiences

Right now the urbanist movement is becoming synonymous with the hipsters. So based on the typical framing, all “urbanists” want craft beer, parklets, 3rd wave coffee and bike lanes. It is a vaguely white, upper class, liberal, college-educated-ish point of view.  These people can choose to live in up and coming neighborhoods, but have the option to fall back onto generational wealth, high paying jobs and other things that give you more choice.

This leaves out a ton of people: people who believe mobility choices lead to individual economic freedom, people concerned with climate change, those who want oil independence, libertarians who want to build stronger local economies, people looking for development without displacement and dozens of other issues that aren’t coming to mind right now.

Our definition of urbanism at the moment is one that is pitching a lifestyle for liberal middle to upper middle class people.  People kinda like those who travel to Europe, and want to recreate the “idyllic” walkable environment at home with baguettes, cheese shops, cobblestone streets and old world charm.

We rarely look to Asia, Africa or Latin America for urban inspiration. Where a scrappier, DIY mentality has taken hold, with urbanism for the masses. Where in Latin and South America, city governments are making improvements in infrastructure and safety for poor people, so they will stay home and create opportunity instead of going abroad. Or cities in Africa that have an unofficial and well-organized system of vans and jitney buses to provide transportation without public funding. Or in Asia, where density is a policy, and in places like Hong Kong, the government profits by leasing land to developers and in Korea, where freeways or torn down to improve air quality and build parks and public spaces. Our urbanism is romanticized old-world or Danish modern.

Urbanism cannot diversify, without building a wider base of different perspectives, and looking at issues from more angles. Urbanism has the potential to help us solve micro and macro economic issues, environmental issues, civic participation and engagement issues, affordable housing issues, social justice issues and public health issues.

5. Many people can’t see beyond their own perspective

Over the past 20-30 years, society has undergone a monumental shift.  One of the biggest ones is related to a loss of “mass culture.” There were of course a ton of problems with “mass culture” since it was synonymous with “white culture” and wasn’t very inclusive to other groups. Now we are in the midst of a sort of “Long Tail” culture. No matter how niche your interests are, you can retreat into a world where only your stuff matters.  On the internet, via meet up groups or other social groups. And you can exist in a walled garden full of like-minded folks.

We have lost the idea of the collective good, and rarely interact with the “public” or people not like us anymore. In the old days when everyone went downtown, to the town square and the post office, there was an opportunity to interact with people of all stations in life. Now it is super easy to live in a world where the only people you interact on a regular with are like you: similar education, class and ethnicity. Income inequality has lead to separate everything by economic class from schools to jobs to neighborhoods to transportation.

This lack of collective spirit is reflected in Washington’s motto of ideology over logic, mass (and niche) media and pop culture. And this extends well into our planning decisions. The politicians and leaders deciding on transit do not ride or use transit.  Suburban-based governments are making decisions for city streets.

So why is urbanism so white? The real question is do we want urbanism for the masses or just the elites (or near-elites).

Where is our American brand of urbanism, built on true democratic process (not pay to play) and inclusivity?

Keynoted by Hilary Clinton + Bay Area Housing Crisis Explained

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Last week I spent a little time with the Marketing Nation, and reconnecting with former colleagues!  One of the highlights of Marketo’s Summit was the Hilary Clinton keynote. I had no idea what to expect, but she was engaging and hilarious.  I probably won’t be able to do her speech justice, but luckily the NYT beat me to it.

She spent considerable time on the increasing gap between the upper and middle classes, which has become a big issue in Silicon Valley because even teachers and police officers in the area find it difficult to find affordable housing.

“Inequality of the kind we are experiencing is bad for individuals, bad for society, bad for democracy,” she said. “If you look around the world, this is becoming a bigger issue everywhere.” Mrs. Clinton suggested possible fixes like changes in taxation, compensation and efforts by both government and business to subsidize housing.

“It’s particularly important for the trust that holds democracy together,” she said of the yawning income gulf, adding that the effect of failing to address it for many Americans mean “you dampen their ambition, you limit consumption, and you undermine trust in our society.”

Clinton spent a good amount of time talking about income inequality, which is particularly acute here in the Bay Area.  Housing is so expensive, even people with six-figure household incomes can’t find a place.  It is both a supply and a policy issue.  Techcrunch did an excellent, but out of character long piece covering the housing crisis.

The crisis we’re seeing is the result of decades of choices, and while the tech industry is a sexy, attention-grabbing target, it cannot shoulder blame for this alone.

Unless a new direction emerges, this will keep getting worse until the next economic crash, and then it will re-surface again eight years later. Or it will keep spilling over into Oakland, which is a whole other Pandora’s box of gentrification issues.

The high housing costs aren’t healthy for the city, nor are they healthy for the industry. Both thrive on a constant flow of ideas and people.

After the Occupy movement, and dozens of conversations about income inequality, I am just wondering when we will have the political will to solve the problem. At the moment, our politicians are too focused on being mortal enemies instead of the good of the country.  And we are all too busy worrying about the next paycheck, and paying for life, we don’t have time to focus on the big picture.

No light at the end of the tunnel yet.

Vision Zero and courtesy on the roads

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On my way to work the other morning, I got really irritated while I was waiting at the crosswalk.

The intersection, near my apartment is really annoying.  Particularly if you are using the crosswalk.  It takes for ever to cross the street because most cars speed by.  In the AM, you can wait for 10-15 cars to go by, before anyone stops.  Even though there is a light on the next block, and a good amount of congestion during commute hours.

So as I pulled out of my garage, I saw someone at the curb, and the light was red, I stopped for the pedestrian to cross.  I believe the official driving code says, all cars should stop if someone is in the crosswalk. The pedestrian was about 3/4s of the way through the crosswalk, and I continued to wait.  And the next thing I know, 2 cars nearly hit me speeding through the intersection and the crosswalk. They passed me really closely (think inches, not several feet), presumably to avoid hitting the person still in the crosswalk, but still bypassing me.  And of course, the light was red, so they had to stop 4 seconds later.

The pedestrian made it across pretty safely, but then I thought about all of the times that happens.  Cars speed over to the neighboring lane when a car is stopped, because they don’t want to stop or slow down.  This is pretty dangerous for everyone on the road, driving, walking or biking.  I know we have all done it, but I have tried to be a lot more cognizant about the whole thing, since it isn’t very safe.

So a few questions come up for me:

  • When did we all get to be too busy to stop or slow down?
  • Why are so many crosswalks (and streets) designed, so if you are driving you can’t see people waiting until it is too late?

KCBS posted a great interview talking about street design and pedestrian safety on the roads.  Lots to think about!

If your goal as a boss is to be friends with your employees, you are doing it wrong

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I was chatting with a friend the other day, who had an interesting discussion with his boss.  His boss was “mad” because they weren’t friends.  And that was impacting his boss’ ability to supervise him.

Why Can’t We Be Friends?

Well, I tried not to laugh too hard about that. It is completely illogical.

The most important thing about my relationship with a boss is both that we are “friendly” and I feel comfortable talking to my boss and bringing up my concerns.  Next up, I want my boss to advocate for me.

Way down on the priority list is having my boss become my new happy hour buddy.  Which is actually kinda defeats the purpose, since the goal of happy hour is to gripe about work. ;)  Having your boss there would make it pretty awkward.

I know, that as work spills over into your personal life, and work time and personal time segue into a grey land in between, it is tempting to think of work as a place for socialization too.  And it is perfectly reasonable to have fun with your colleagues and spend time after hours.  But the reason you are at work isn’t to make friends. It’s to make your company successful.  And priority one as a manager is to help your employees be more successful so the company is.  Not new friendships.

So if your boss is prioritizing friendship as a condition to boss-ship…it is probably time to get a new boss.

Stopping for Spring (#biking)

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Bike Signal in Germany

It was like summer in Oakland this weekend, and I biked over to my book club meeting.  And I learned an important lesson: on a nice day, biking near the lake, cyclists hate stoplights.

Grand Avenue has a lot of stoplights.  Many are traffic flow devices, with little risk for people on bikes if they ignore them, since there are no streets or driveways to cross.  The only worry is really those pesky pedestrians.  Technically, you probably won’t get hit by a car if you run the light.

I know it sucks to stop at the light on your bike.  You lose momentum, it can be hard to get up to speed if it is on a hill. But right now, the rules are stop at the light (and the sign)

On my way, I was stopped at a red light, looking around at the scenery. And then suddenly I am overtaken on all sides by other people on bikes blowing through the light at 15mph. The light turns green, and I start to pedal, and another 4 cyclists blow by me on both the left and the right.  One yells out “Oh *!*!*” as he blows past me on my right, and narrowly avoiding a collision.

I was thinking, after this near-miss….there is a reason we have traffic rules (pass on the left) and bike bells. It helps keep things more predictable. I am not expecting people to pass me on the right. Or people to blow past a red light.

But somehow the flexibility of being on a bike leads to being a loose with the traffic rules. Pedaling on the sidewalk when it is a shortcut. Or peddling in a crosswalk against the traffic light. And the unpredictability on the road leads to tensions.