Quality of Life Beyond Downtown

12.11.2012 | Years of cut-backs are ahead for the nation’s metro areas. “Doing more with less” will be the new mantra for city leaders–that was the message at the opening sessions of the 2012 Urban Forum on metropolitan resilience held at the University of Illinois, Chicago last week. Opening speakers talked of the need for new regional partnerships, of no more politics as usual, of the need to deal now with the stifling legacy of prior, free-spending, fiscally irresponsible administrations. The tone was sobering.

There was also, however, an underlying message of  optimism. Mayors of some of the most hard-hit cities of recent years–Columbus, Pittsburgh, Las Vegas–talked of meeting the day of reckoning and moving beyond it to rebuild vibrant cities that will attract young people and innovators.

But amid all the cheering and huzzahs about vibrant downtowns from people like Mayor Coleman of Columbus and Mayor Ravenstahl of Pittsburgh, one couldn’t quite shake the poignant video short produced by WBEZ, Chicago’s public radio station. The voices in that video and the voices on the stage could not have been farther apart. That gap speaks volumes.

In the video, residents of some of the most overlooked, nay forgotten, neighborhoods far beyond the glistening downtown talked about what they thought of the current state of affairs. As one might imagine, their view is a bit more hardened. As one man put it, ”I’m not trying to get ahead, I’m just trying to get somewhere.”

That “somewhere” starts with getting free of the tidal pull of poverty.  In 2011, 15% of Americans lived in poverty, according to the Census Bureau, or 46.2 million people.  The rate is considerably higher for blacks and Latinos. Among African Americans, fully 27.6% lived in poverty, as did 25.3% of Hispanics.  While poverty leaves its imprint, concentrated poverty is particularly pernicious–and urban neighborhoods are the site of concentrated poverty.

The Census Bureau defines concentrated poverty as census tracts (similar to neighborhoods) in which the poverty rate is 13% or higher. They measure it in three categories: 13-20%, 20-39%, and above 40%.  Concentrated poverty is not only more common in principal cities than other areas, but it is also much more common among African Americans and Hispanics. Among blacks between 2006 and 2010, according to the Census Bureau, 10.8% lived in neighborhoods in which 40% or more of their neighbors were also poor. Among whites, fewer than 2% did.

It was those voices we heard on the WBEZ video.

In this era of fiscal cliffs and legacy budgets, the safety net is under assault. Poor families in overlooked neighborhoods risk drowning if the lifeline is decimated further. While mayors focus on revitalizing downtowns, refurbishing waterfronts, and adding bike lanes, it would do them well to remember that quality of life should apply to all residents of a metro area, not just those in the downtowns.

Mayor Coleman’s story of Columbus’ day of reckoning offered some sage advice. Columbus has been through the best of times and the worst of times. During the recent recession, neighborhoods in Columbus saw unemployment and hardship rates that matched those in the Great Depression. “Poverty and misery” were a constant, Coleman said.

Columbus is required to balance its budget each year, and during the recession, they faced hard decisions. They closed recreation centers. They reduced yard waste pickup. They contemplated reducing garbage collection. They began to lay off firefighters and police. But it was at that point that Mayor Coleman stopped and asked, “what kind of city do we want to be? Quality of life, he said, must weigh in these decisions or we will never grow into the city we want to be.

He cut all the government services he could and then he did the unthinkable. He raised taxes. He worried that businesses would leave. But the business community, he said, “stepped up and supported the tax increase” at the height of the recession even. The result was eventually the addition of 92,000 jobs.

Living wages, affordable housing, good transportation that take low-income people to good jobs– these must also be on the agenda in rebuilding cities, as the panelists in an afternoon session argued. Cities cannot overlook their existing residents when courting “wealth builders.” The panelists urged cities and nonprofit groups to think afresh about coalition-building: labor and nonprofits, housing advocates and social service advocates, other innovative combinations must break out of their advocacy silos and come together to form new allies with access to different funding streams and clout. Above all, these new coalitions should pay attention to the evidence and support programs with proven track records. The fiscal constraints demand it. In that respect, researchers must work harder to get their evaluations and evidence into the hands of those who can use the information, in forms that can be acted on.

So while walkability, a vibrant downtown, restaurants, bike lanes are all elements of economic vitality, and while downtowns can be the engine that sparks revitalization by drawing the elixer of economic rebirth, youth (the average age in Columbus is 31), we can’t forget the neighborhoods and the people in them.  Livability and quality of life are indeed key–but for everyone. As an afternoon panelist said, austerity cannot become the justification for disenfranchising even more families.


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