The City Space

Cultivating Urban Understanding


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Rock Your Assets

Lake Michigan Rainbow

This post is about cherishing and celebrating whatever is good in your city. In activist lingo, that goes by the name of “asset-based community development.” Put simply, it’s the idea that when you’re trying to improve your neighborhood, you don’t start out by listing all of its problems–trash in the streets, few local businesses, speeding cars, etc.–but instead, you begin from a place of plenty. You consider what your neighborhood does have going for it right now and build from that. For example, you might have trash in some of your streets, but you might also have a great park that kids love to play in down the block. You might have an active faith community, or families that have been in the neighborhood for decades, or a great art museum… When you start by highlighting your community’s assets, you can build your plan to make it better from those good things. You can rally the faith community to help clean up the streets. You can advertise that museum and get more bike or foot traffic from the surrounding neighborhoods. You can encourage food trucks to hang out at the park.

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One thing I have loved about my new community in Milwaukee is the way we really utilize one of our biggest assets: water. The city sits against miles of Lake Michigan shoreline and it also has a network of rivers running through it. Summer time means thousands of people are creatively enjoying the water in a myriad of ways. Continue reading


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Old is New: Inside a Brewery Turned Office Park

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Few urban features make my heart beat faster than a really well-done repurposement project. It’s not so much because I like old-style buildings (although I do), but because I value the positive environmental, cultural and social impact that repurposement has on cities. By transforming a former factory, church, or even gas station* into a new space you cut down on the amount of materials that you would normally need to create a completely new building and you often also undergo the important process of getting an old, potentially dangerous or toxic building up to health and safety codes. Renovation can also preserve iconic spaces and the designs of generations past. This is particularly valuable since historic methods of building often create more lasting, resilient structures which can still benefit us today. Finally, renovation is an important method for creating value and vibrance in an area that might previously have been empty or abandoned.

Thankfully, warehouses transformed into condos or offices are practically a normal feature in most American cities nowadays. Drive through any historic downtown and you’ll find trendy lofts built inside old printing presses or granaries. But there’s so much more you can do with an old building no longer being used for its original purpose. I shared some ideas in this post regarding an empty community center/church down the block from my apartment. The sky (or ceiling) is really the limit when it comes to transforming historic spaces. I’ve seen homes inside old churches, accordion shops inside old White Castles, and elementary schools inside old strip malls.

I want to share a particularly beautiful and well executed repurposement project today. Milwaukee has been the “Brew City” for more than 150 years. Many famous, global beers like Miller, Schlitz and Pabst Blue Ribbon got their start here, paving the way for many more craft breweries to dominate the scene today (including Lakefront, Milwaukee Brewing Company and more). While a few of the large beer producers still have their headquarters here, most have moved on to bigger facilities or transferred ownership, leaving large factories behind. In other cities, perhaps these factories would be knocked down or left to become gigantic racoon palaces, but not here.

When the Schlitz factory closed its doors in 1982 after being sold to the Stroh Brewing Company, a decision had to be made. Wanting to preserve this historic structure but undoubtedly struggling with how to convert such a massive space (40 acres) into something functional, developers eventually settled on an office park to fill the campus anew. Continue reading


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A Recipe for Success

Brady Street 2015

Milwaukee, WI has made more frequent appearances on this blog, now that I live here, but usually I write about it in something of a critical light. I walk its streets every day, so I see the good and bad that goes on here, and it’s usually more productive to write about the bad, and constructively brainstorm ways to make it better. However, today I want to talk about Milwaukee in a wholly positive light.

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I’m going to talk about one specific street here—Brady Street—because I think it is a fantastic model for a thriving, positive neighborhood street. Brady Street is one block from my house and it serves as a commercial anchor for the East Side of Milwaukee. The businesses here range from a hardware store to an STD clinic, from a Waldorf school to a Catholic church, from a Mediterranean nightclub to a popular sushi café, and from a dingy sports bar to one of the best wine bars in the city. It would take days to explore every storefront on this lively avenue. The street runs parallel to the river and it’s tucked in something of a residential area, yet it’s a busy, bustling thoroughfare with so much to offer. This is due to several important factors that I hope to see in more neighborhoods around the country: Continue reading


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The College Campus: A Pedestrian Paradise

Pedestrian Bridge University of MN

Last weekend I went home to Minneapolis to visit my parents and also meet with a professor in the University of Minnesota’s Urban & Regional Planning department (where I’m exploring potential graduate school options). Stepping onto the University’s campus (which I admittedly, didn’t spend any time on growing up, despite the fact that it’s in my hometown), I was immediately struck by how wonderfully pedestrian friendly it is. This is true for most college campuses, but it’s been a while since I’ve had reason to go to one, and my own alma mater was so tiny that it didn’t feel particularly remarkable that it was walkable. It was basically one big square block. But this, the University of Minnesota, home to 40,000 students, is a mini-metropolis completely accessible on foot. I’ve heard other urbanists talk about what a great model college campuses are for walkability and good city design, and seeing it in person really brought that point home. Here are a few photos and observations to showcase this. Continue reading


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The Car Conundrum

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I’ve never owned a car in my life. For the first time though, I have actually started to consider it as an option. Part of me is so committed to the car-free movement that I can’t imagine letting go of my stance, but part of me wonders about the practicality of car ownership in certain regards.

I didn’t have a car as a teenager (my parents were kind enough to let me use theirs if I needed it) or during my college years so I have been holding off on this moment for a long time, not wanting to make that big purchase or shift my lifestyle in such a drastic manner. Previously I convinced myself I didn’t want the headache of constantly hunting for a parking spot, and I didn’t want to have to think about the price of gas or allocating part of my paycheck toward car insurance. But now I’m mulling over some other factors in my mind. So, let me walk you through the line of reasoning that began to point me in the direction of car ownership. Then I’ll reveal whether I ultimately decided to go for it or not.

First, I’ll lay the scene: I live in an apartment close to several bus lines in downtown Milwaukee, a mid-size city with adequate, but not great, public transit. I take the bus to work every day. I also take the bus to various activities around town, but a lot of what I do to get places is walk. I walk to my volunteer shift at the homeless shelter nearby. I walk to the grocery store every week. I walk to the commercial strip a few blocks away for food and drinks. I walk because I enjoy it. I also walk because the exercise is beneficial, because I get to experience the city in a personal way and because walking is free.

I like this lifestyle, and so far, my schedule can afford the extra time it takes me to get places in this manner. However, there are a few factors that have been weighing on me and making me rethink my decision to own a car.

Here are the factors that are making me reconsider:

  1. Winter is fast approaching and suddenly my pleasant strolls through downtown Milwaukee look more like bundling in five layers and hunching my body against the freezing wind while I dodge ice patches. Standing at an uncovered, unheated bus stop for several minutes each day looks equally unappealing. The idea of being able to cruise toward my destination in a warm pod sounds pretty darn nice right now.
  2. As a young woman, I have had various well-intentioned people tell me it is unsafe to be out walking or waiting for the bus by myself after dark. These people want me to get a car. I think I would feel safer traveling by car instead of walking.
  3. My back hurts from carrying bags of groceries. On the one hand, having a grocery store within walking distance is an incredible blessing. On the other hand, walking home from the grocery store with bags full of food is one of my least favorite activities. I have to plan my purchases based on what weighs the least and stagger my heavier purchases in multiple trips. It’s a pain.
  4. A car might not actually be that much more expensive than my current modes of transportation. I get by on a mix of bus trips, walks and Lyft rides. My unlimited bus pass costs $64 a month and my Lyft rides (which amount to maybe 2 or 3 a week when I don’t feel like taking the bus or don’t have the time to do so for whatever reason) add up to around $80-100 a month. Surely the price of gas, insurance and even a car loan or lease would be around that, right? Especially if I split those costs with my boyfriend, who is also carless.

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Well, I weighed all these significant factors. I even went back to that Venn diagram I concocted a few months back that details the advantages and disadvantages of biking, walking, driving and taking public transit. But in the end, I still came down solidly on the side of my current lifestyle, and I decided not to purchase a car at this point. Let me address each of the above issues and tell you why it still wasn’t enough to convince me to buy a car:

  1. To account for the cold factor, I had to think about my morning routine in the winter. Right now, a few minutes before I’m getting ready to leave for work, I’ll start checking the Milwaukee County Transit System “Real Time” website, and when I see that my bus is arriving in 6 or 7 minutes, I head out to the stop, wait a minute or two for my bus, then hop on it. Total time out in the cold: 6 or 7 minutes, and 5 of that is at a brisk walking pace. If I had a car, my routine would look more like this: Trudge out to my car, turn it on, start scraping snow and ice off it, start defrosting the windows, jump inside and begin driving to work. Unless I had a really top-notch heating system, I suspect it would take a solid 10 minutes or so for the car to heat up in the cold months of a Midwestern winter. Thus, my total time in the cold is around 10-15 minutes, depending on how far I had to walk to reach my car. So the verdict is: on a normal day, a car is actually the less warm option. Of course, in circumstances where I am taking the bus somewhere different and have to, say, wait for a transfer, or walk several extra blocks to a particular location because it is farther off the bus route, then the car is a warmer option. But on average, I’m not better off in a car than in a bus when it comes to weather.
  2. Now, to the question of safety. Once in a car, I am certainly safer than I would be walking outside alone. However, if I owned a car, I would still have to walk outside to and from that car multiple times a day because my apartment doesn’t have a parking lot. In my dense neighborhood, it’s not uncommon for residents to have to park several blocks away from their apartments. So, under my current circumstances, a car would not completely eliminate my time outside alone. Furthermore, in a way it creates even more of a risk for me. Currently, someone might see me as a small female, and therefore a great target for a robbery. However, if I had a car, that someone would see not only my physical features, but also my automobile asset, making me an even more desirable target. On the other end of my trips, I might be able to park closer to my destination and keep myself a little safer, but I’m still going to have to park in my neighborhood and walk home at some point. The bottom line is, I’m street smart and I do the best I can. If someone wants to rob me, then my having a car is unlikely to stop them, and may actually make them more interested in targeting me so they could get my car too.
  3. Addressing the third factor of carrying heavy groceries is not so easy. Carrying groceries is down right pain, and it would definitely go away if I had a car (for the most part). That being said, if this was such a bother to me, I could shell out $25 for one of those collapsible shopping carts and save myself thousands on a car. Case closed.
  4. Here’s the clincher: Price. Supposing I did get a car, and even supposing that I shared all related costs (loan payments, insurance and gas) with my significant other, I ultimately conclude that it’s still more expensive to make that investment. First, car loans are a rip-off. Second, having a car would not completely eliminate my need to purchase bus tickets or Lyft rides. No doubt, I would be taking the bus sometimes if my boyfriend needed the car, or taking a Lyft if I was planning on drinking that night. So, sure I might only spend a third or a quarter the amount of money on those that I currently spend, but the cost would still remain. Finally, and this is one of the most important hidden costs to consider, I have to factor in parking tickets. Milwaukee is notorious for its vicious parking cops. They will ticket you anywhere at any time for any infringement possible. So, even though parking is technically free near my apartment and by my office, I’d undoubtedly be swallowing the cost of a few parking tickets, or at least plugging parking meters, if I owned a car.

 
Finally, there’s the intangible deterrent to car ownership: stress. I like to be able to roll up to my destination and walk right in without having to factor in the unknown of hunting for a parking spot, much less paying for one. I don’t want to have to worry about whether my car door will be frozen shut on a -5 degree day, or whether it will start at all. I certainly don’t want the added stress of factoring in all these additional costs each month. In the end, this was a straightforward decision for me.

One important note: You’ll recognize that there are a few key elements that make my car-free lifestyle doable. One is the Real Time bus website. If your city doesn’t have this, you’re far more inconvenienced when it comes to taking the bus, and you could spend countless extra minutes at a stop if the bus is running late or you’re unfamiliar with the schedule. Another significant element is the availability of Lyft (or Uber, if that’s your thing). For those unfamiliar, Lyft and Uber are phone apps that allow you to request a ride from any number of certified, background-checked and highly-rated drivers in your area at pretty much any time, for a price that is often lower than cab fare. Lyft is pretty big in Milwaukee, which means that if I ever miss a bus, or feel unsafe taking a bus, or don’t have the option of a bus because it doesn’t go where I need to go, Lyft is there for me. If that was not the case, and I had to rely on rides from friends or cab rides or the bus alone, I’d be much more unwilling to undertake this car-free lifestyle. Finally, probably the single biggest factor that makes living without a car possible is my location. My apartment is close to four different bus lines, including one that takes me directly to my office in about 20 minutes. I have grocery stores, pharmacies, restaurants, and even hardware stores within walking distance of my house, so I never have to hop on a half-hour bus trip just to get toilet paper.

Geography is often the number one argument I hear from people defending their need to own a car. In one sense, I buy it. If your job is in a factory 10 miles south of town, surrounded by cornfields, and then you work another job right after your shift in a bar 20 miles north of that, the bus is probably not going to cut it. If you live in a suburban development that’s 25 miles from the downtown where you work and 3 miles from anything besides other houses, you’re going to feel like you need a car. My response to that is 1) jobs and living arrangements are somewhat based on choice, and 2) I know people who manage all that and still use public transit. And they don’t only exist in New York City.

I put this train of thought out there in the hopes that you’ll think through your own reasons for owning a car, besides just force of habit. Really walk through the pros and cons and the key arguments before you fritter away your time and money in an automobile.

Have you ever made the jump from owning a car to not owning a car, or vice versa? What influenced your decision?


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Toilet Talk

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Diving right into a decidedly unglamorous topic today, but one that matters to everyone on a daily basis, the bathroom. Who hasn’t had the experience of strolling around a city really needing to use the bathroom and being unable to find anywhere to go? It’s more than just an inconvenience. The unavailability of bathrooms can make people less interested in visiting and walking around cities, preferring to stay at home or stick to the malls and stores they know well where a bathroom is always within reach. They’re not enjoying their cities, interacting with their neighbors or contributing to local economic growth.

In particular, a lack of bathrooms limits pregnant women, parents with babies, people with certain medical conditions and children who aren’t always the best at holding it. And let’s be frank; for all of us it’s an annoyance and frustration when our afternoon plans are derailed by the hunt for a bathroom. We’re stuck feeling uncomfortable or being forced to pay for some beverage we don’t want, just to entitle us to use the coffee-shop bathroom. Besides the need to actually use the toilet, there are also a number of other reasons one might desire a bathroom—for instance, washing your hands for hygiene or religious practice or grabbing a tissue to blow your nose. So, truly, this is a universal problem.

If you’re stealthy like me, you handle the bathroom issue by mentally cataloging all the free restrooms you know of, or the ones you’re comfortable sneaking into: inside libraries, supermarkets, hotels, fast food joints and parks. But this only works if you know the city well. If you’re visiting a new city for the first time and your four-year-old suddenly asks for the restroom, you’ll most likely be faced with a row of restaurants whose hostile signs reading, “Bathrooms for paying customers only,” leave you with few options. As it currently stands, restrooms are largely the purvey of private businesses like cafes and bars, for which the use of the facilities is directly related to your purchase of goods at the business in question. However, as human beings, regardless of whether we eat lunch at the pizza joint or grab a pint at the pub, we will need to use the bathroom at some point during our day, even if all we’re doing is walking around. Thus, if cities want to encourage more use of their public spaces and their unique amenities, they ought to equip them with the appropriate restrooms.

Now, while a few cities do a top-notch job of providing commodes at easily accessible locations, most fail us. New York is particularly notorious for this—so much so that many restaurants don’t even offer bathrooms due to their small quarters. On the other hand, Washington DC—another popular tourist destination—provides more than enough restroom opportunities in highly trafficked areas through its free Smithsonian Museums, and other bathrooms at the national monuments. These options make it easy to take a quick pit-stop, maybe even see a famous statue while you’re at it, then be on your way.

Another alternative is the European angle—“50p to pee”—as we liked to say when I lived in Ireland (“p” meaning “pence,” the Irish equivalent of cents). For Americans who are used to free bathroom access, it can seem absurd to pay money to use the toilet in a mall or public square, but at least it’s available when you need it. I bet we can all remember a time when we would have gladly paid someone 50 cents for the use of their restroom.

I think any city that wants to get serious about welcoming tourists into its walkable areas and encouraging its residents to spend more of their time downtown, needs to implement a public restroom strategy, examining highly trafficked areas and equipping them with the proper facilities. If the city needs to charge 50 cents for each restroom visit, that’s fine by me, but however they manage it, bathrooms should be a priority as much as clean streets or garbage cans. They don’t have to be fancy, or large, or perfectly clean — they just have to be there when you need them.


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3 Half-Assed Attempts at Walkability

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I made it to Milwaukee, WI, my new home! (Although that photo is not what it looks like now. Not for a couple months at least.) During my first few days here I saw the apartment we’re moving into soon, cooked and baked more than I have in weeks, and adjusted to a new freelance schedule. So far the biggest shocks to my system after moving from NYC have not been the lack of skyscrapers, the Midwestern accents, or the quiet atmosphere (praise the Lord for this). No, the biggest change has been the drastic shift in my transportation options.

Milwaukee is definitely a car-centric city, but I do not have a car (nor do I have plans to procure one)—just my feet and a bus pass. I was prepared for this, but it’s still a huge change coming from New York, which is the land of quick, cheap and easy public transit.

One thing I noticed upon my preliminary attempts at traveling by foot was the half-assed nature of walkability in this place. The city is chipping away at it’s auto-oriented streets with sidewalks, crosswalks and more, but none of these are quite accomplishing what they’re supposed to because they weren’t invested with the proper amount of forethought and intention in the beginning. This is not unique to Milwaukee by any means. It’s also not a bad thing at face value: better to have some sidewalks than none at all, right? However, as someone who is always looking for ways to improve cities, I have to take them to task when they half-ass their walkable places. Here are three of those half-assed attempts, and ideas for how to make them better:

1.  The sidewalk that suddenly terminates. Here’s what it looks like: You’ve charted your course to the grocery store and you’re making good time on the sidewalk. You can see the store two blocks ahead of you when all of a sudden, you realize that the sidewalk is about to end and only way forward is in the road. We usually encounter these interruptions near busy, multilane streets where the focus is obviously on the driver, so much so that it appears the engineers forgot that there might be pedestrians around.

Solution: It’s probably not doable for most towns to interconnect every one of their sidewalks, but at the very least, Continue reading


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Milwaukee, WI: The City That Contradicts Itself

Milwaukee's Third Ward in Winter

My boyfriend and I have this debate about his hometown. He’s tired of it, ready to get out soon, disgruntled by the vast majority of its bro-y residents, and skeptical about its insurmountable segregation. Meanwhile I relish every opportunity I can to adventure in Milwaukee (and not just because he’s there). I’ve visited enough times now to have a favorite breakfast spot, a favorite neighborhood, a favorite park and a favorite corned beef sandwich (of course!), but I think what fascinates me most about Milwaukee is that it is a city of urban contradictions. It’s established and exciting enough to draw a national audience, and yet the population is mostly Wisconsinites. It’s an attractive, inviting city in many regards, and yet it’s still widely affordable to live in. It’s got a progressive sensibility and a fairly successful economy, and yet it’s the most segregated metro-area in the nation. These contradictions make Milwaukee a captivating case study and an important city to pay attention to as other Midwestern cities rise and fall (here’s looking to you Detroit). It’s a hidden gem, with some dark secrets.

First, what’s attractive about this place? Milwaukee has incredible assets: a gorgeous lakefront, high-quality public transit, hundreds of affordable and delicious local food options, proximity to other important cities like Chicago and Madison (and rail transit to these as well), plus local industries to be proud of like world-famous beer factories and incredible cheese companies. Talk about products that we’ll always have a demand for! Moreover, Milwaukee does all this with not an ounce of pretension or snob. It’s the friendly guy from down the block that your parents will definitely approve of when you bring him over for dinner (but he secretly has a motorcycle).

It surprises me, then, that more people haven’t figured out how cool this place is and driven the prices up for the rest of us. I think it’s the Midwest curse—if you’ve never actually stopped in the “flyover states,” you have no idea what you’re missing out on. Outsiders think the Midwest is just mountains of snow, plates of hotdish* and caricatured accents, but the truth is, it is far more nuanced and diverse. Then again, maybe people aren’t moving to Milwaukee because its industries aren’t flashy enough; it is not home to any health care conglomerates, famous nonprofits or big banks—just the Harley Davidson factory, a slew of beer companies and the small bits-and-pieces manufacturing that this nation is built on.

Yet another possible reason for why Milwaukee isn’t quite as popular as it could be is that it’s got serious competition in nearby cities like Chicago, Madison, and even Minneapolis. Why would you move to Milwaukee—a town of 600,000—when you could live in Chicago—a metropolis of 2.7 million? Answer: Because you might actually be able to afford it. It’s utterly strange to walk through a pleasant neighborhood with lovely, old houses in close proximity to a downtown and find out that they aren’t all $1 million. It’s equally strange to see a handful of warehouses converted into trendy condos, but dozens of warehouses still being used for their original purpose.

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What’s more, Milwaukee isn’t gentrifying—or at least, not nearly to the degree of other similar metro areas. You hear rumblings about this or that development, but for the most part, the transitions are happening to vacant buildings and empty lots. A revitalization of the city is good news and I think gentrification here is minor enough that it can be stopped before it prices anyone out of their neighborhoods. Sure, a few people are starting to move into neighborhoods where they hadn’t formerly lived, and new businesses are cropping up in previously exclusively-residential areas, but that should be heralded as good news. Continue reading


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The Promise Zones Initiative

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“A child’s zip code should never determine her destiny.” So reads the webpage for President Obama’s “Promise Zones” initiative, which concentrates financial and community-based resources in five select cities and regions around the country in hopes that it will dramatically invigorate their economies and transform the lives of children who grow up in them. Announced in January of this year (and slated to grow over the next ten years), the initiative targets such varying regions as the Choctaw nation of Oklahoma, several neighborhoods in Los Angeles and the Kentucky highlands. This diversity, combined with its place-based focus, is reason to pay attention to the Promise Zones Initiative, but there are also concerns about its leadership model and the different community entities it aims to unite. I’m going to outline a bit of the history of the “Zones” concept and talk about why it’s such a promising project (forgive the pun).

Promise Zones are modeled after the Harlem Children’s Zone, which was originated in the 1990s by Geoffrey Canada, an activist from the Bronx. As Amanda Erickson at CityLab explains, “Now spread over 90 blocks in Harlem, it takes an intensive and comprehensive approach to child development. At its most basic, the idea is to support children in the neighborhood from the minute they’re born until they leave for college. […] In Harlem, it’s been a wild success.” (Fun fact, I ride through the Harlem Children’s Zone on the bus all the time.) The problem, Erickson argues, is that, “For this model to work in other cities, it would need a similarly passionate, visionary leader.” I think most people can agree President Obama is pretty passionate, but he is not the one leading this initiative on the grassroots level. That will fall to individuals in each of the regions, and time will tell whether their charisma and vision are able to propel their cities toward similar success.

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Now, it’s important to note that similar anti-poverty initiatives have also been created by past presidents. However, Obama’s is different in a couple significant ways. First, and most intriguing in my opinion, is that it concentrates on a handful of significant, yet diverse areas. This is such an important direction to be moving in; it acknowledges that our nation has a long way to go before we can eliminate inequality and economic injustice, yet it makes a concerted effort to determine how we can achieve that goal on a small scale. If it works (and even if it doesn’t), we can learn from the model and figure out how to apply it in other places based on their needs.

That leads me to another fascinating aspect of the Initiative: it is “place-based,” meaning that it’s not attempting to insert a one-size-fits-all solution into every region but rather, targeting resources and allowing each community to direct them. Place-based actions are cropping up in all sorts of arenas, from education to urban development, and that angle makes perfect sense in the context of the Promise Zones, which will require strategies tailored to each location. For instance, Los Angeles, a major metropolis, wants to focus on developing more affordable housing and improving access to transit. On the other hand, rural Kentucky hopes to diversify its economy and build job training skills through local colleges. All of the Promise Zones incorporate education and economic advancement, but they approach these tasks in different, place-based ways that draw on their diverse needs and resources.

Part of what’s exciting about the Initiative is that it intends to draw on the faculties of businesses, housing authorities, schools, nonprofits and developers in order to collaboratively move an area out of poverty. But some people are skeptical about the effectiveness of these entities in tackling the issues. On the one hand, Susan Greenbaum, a professor emerita of Anthropology at the University of South Florida, questions whether private partners could ever be as accountable as public servants are. And on the other hand, Harvard sociologist, Robert Sampson states, “Nonprofits are important but we know from past research that sometimes local organizations get wrapped up in their own agendas and simply surviving as an organization. If so, the public good can fall to the wayside.” How will all these diverse entities work together with their potentially competing priorities? Will profit-driven businesses, funding-driven nonprofits, and process-driven local governments all be able to prioritize the wellbeing of a community over their own struggles? Aiming high is usually better than aiming low, so I applaud Obama’s effort into putting together a holistic, forward-thinking initiative, but we should be realistic about the challenges it might encounter when uniting so many different organizations.

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The final piece in the Promise Zones initiative is, of course, money. The Federal Government plans to support the initiative through tax breaks for local businesses, designated AmeriCorps positions and Federal government staff, and priority in accessing federal resources “where necessary to achieve […] goals.” Critics have argued that this isn’t enough funding to empower the Zones toward success. For one thing, investment per city is only 4% of what went into the wildly successful Harlem Children’s Zone. For another, the Initiative’s combination of tax breaks, staffing and Federal line-jumping, while no doubt innovative, is not the same as cold, hard cash. We’re talking about new housing developments, new education programs, and new public transportation plans in large regions. And none of those are cheap. A reliance on public interest and private investment may not be enough to lift these regions out of poverty.

Nonetheless, I hope it is. The Promise Zones initiative isn’t perfect, but it could help develop future models and it will undoubtedly have a positive impact on the communities it serves in some manner. I’ll be keeping an eye on these diverse areas and following their place-based strategies with an optimistic attitude. They’re a step in the right direction.


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Not in My Backyard

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Things might be a little slow around here for a few weeks because I split open my hand after I tripped during a run and now it’s all stitched up and in a cast. Luckily it wasn’t my writing hand, but it still makes typing a challenging endeavor. Today’s will be a short post.

I won’t name names, but there’s a plan to put in a new apartment complex near my office and some people in the neighborhood are livid. The grounds upon which the apartments will stand are currently an empty lot and the owners badly need the money in order to keep the doors of their other community operations open, but the complainers mention things like “sight-lines” to a historic building next door and vague notions of “preserving space” in their arguments against the development.

It’s as if they want the whole city to stand still and stay exactly the way it’s always been (yet magically find the money to keep those other community resources functioning). For what reason? I understand these arguments in circumstances where direct harm will come to a family or a community through the creation of a new development, but arguing against shadows on the sidewalk is just ridiculous.

This resistance to change falls loosely under the category of “NIMBYism.” N.I.M.B.Y. stands for “Not In My BackYard” [feel free to skip this paragraph if you’re already familiar with the concept] and NIMBYism is the attitude of citizens who raise objections to any sort of update or change in their neighborhood. They complain about the affordable housing that is proposed on their street. They attend community meetings in order to shoot down the new bar or restaurant that wants to move in. Their attitude is: “Sure, it might benefit another area of town, but not mine. Keep mine the way it is.”

I don’t think that labels are a solution in themselves (and they’re often actually a problem), but in this case, knowing how to call it when you see it can encourage critical questioning and awareness. What’s really at stake here? Why are some people so insistent on freezing a neighborhood or a city or a building in time? What are they afraid of?