Posts about Social Capital
This summer, I convened a series of discussions about development, urban planning, and policy in New York City. Out of those discussions I wrote down some thoughts, but ended up putting them in a drawer as people got busy with the campaign, other jobs, and life... but better late than never, here is a draft.
The ImperativeToday, New York City is entering a new era of building. A wide variety of projects have been or will be proposed that would change the face of the city - Hudson Yards, Atlantic Yards, the Greenpoint/Williamsburg waterfront rezoning, the Bronx Terminal Market, retail in Red Hook, and on and on. The scale of these projects is greater than we have seen since the 1970s, a generation ago, and the activists of today are unaccustomed to it.
Because these projects are unprecedented in our generation, progressives don't know how to evaluate each one, and don't know how to talk about it. What makes a project good or bad? The West Side Stadium was a bad idea, on that many people agreed, but was the scale of commercial development proposed there good or bad? What about the housing? In Atlantic Yards? Greenpoint/Williamsburg?
Our goal is to create a set of principles that unite progressive groups involved in urban planning and development, for those inside the governmental apparatus and those outside. With these principles, we will be able to evaluate each project and clearly talk about its positive and negative effects on the community, suggesting those dimensions where the proposal could be improved and comparing the worth of different proposals. Instead of simply saying no, we can say why, and rather than a laundry list of every possible objection dredged up on opposition to a project, we can anchor our opposition or support on clear and consistent ideas. When speaking about the Hudson Yards Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff referred to a "moral imperative" to develop the area. What kind of moral imperative do progressive principles engender?
PrinciplesWe identified the following core principles:
Community. Society is stronger when people live and participate in communities. Our policy decisions should foster healthy communities where individuals form close cooperative bonds with each other.
Diversity. Interaction with other people with diverse racial, ethnic, religious, and economic backgrounds leads to better citizens, a more peaceful coexistence, generation of more creative ideas, and a stronger city.
Opportunity. Everyone, no matter what their income or background, should have the opportunity to live in our city. New York City represents the pinnacle of American society and all who wish should have the opportunity to be a part of it.
Dignity. People should be able to live and work without commuting great distances or living in excessively crowded, dirty, or unhealthy conditions.
Social Mobility. Any individual should be able to improve his or her socioeconomic standing through achievement and success, without being held down by structural barriers. The configuration of a city does much to strengthen or lessen these barriers and we should strive to minimize them.
Sustainability. We should leave future generations with a world where they can achieve these principles just as much, or more, as today, and live in a city as healthy, enjoyable, and vibrant, or more, as today.
GoalsFrom these principles emerge the following specific goals to which urban policy should aspire. This is a rough list and many more can be added.
Affordable housing. There should be sufficient supply of housing in the city to meet the demand without reducing the quality of the housing or the desirability of living in the city.
Demographic neighborhood stability. Groups of people living in a neighborhood should be able to continue to do so, if they wish, though other people may move in.
Individual stability. The specificl people living in a neighborhood should be able to continue to do so, if they wish.
Mixed use neighborhoods. Neighborhoods should include a combination of places to live and places to work; ideally, for the same people.
Income diversity. Neighborhoods should contain a combination of different income levels.
Ethnic diversity. Neighborhoods should contain a combination of people from different racial, religious, and cultural backgrounds.
Social capital. Neighborhoods should contain civic, cultural, recreational, and other organizations and opportunities which encourage groups of residents and/or workers to interact.
Public spaces. Neighborhoods should contain physical places where people can interact without requiring advance permission or planning.
Proximity of recreation. All residents and workers should have opportunities to engage in recreational activities easily and affordably, nearby to their homes and/or workplaces.
Equity of access to services. Everyone should have necessary services, both public (such as schools) and private (such as affordable grocery stores) in proximity to the places they live or work.
Environmental sustainability. The city should minimize its impact on the environment, so the quality of the air and water, the availability of energy and building materials, are as great as possible for future generations.
Environmental justice. Undesirable yet necessary uses, such as power plants, garbage transfer stations, or transportation infrastructure, should be sited in a way that impacts all residents equally.
Transit accessibility. Anyone should be able to live, work, and interact without requiring the use of an automobile.
Human scale. Structures should be designed and built in harmony with the human scale of a city, in ways that encourage rather than discourage use by pedestrians, such as street-level stores, benches, and other factors.
Robert Samuelson writes about the dangerous trend toward larger and larger homes. "By and large," he says, "the new American home is a residential SUV. It's big, gadget-loaded and slightly gaudy." Encouraged by tax breaks for mortgages, American families are buying larger and larger homes even as the prices soar.
To an individual family, each new room surely seems like a great addition. My house growing up, which my parents designed, had a small entry area. But as my brother and I were growing up, the number of shoes and coats quickly overwhelmed the available space. And the lack of a mud room created extra cleaning work when we would track snow into the kitchen before shedding our boots and coats.
One new trend in homes is the home theater room. Originally our house had a "great room", where the kitchen, dining room, and family room were all open to each other. It's great for a houseparent to keep an eye on the kids while doing something in the kitchen. But with more and more time spent watching TV and home movies, and the availability of great home theater sound equipment hastening the trend away from watching movies in theaters and toward home theater, an entire room devoted to the purpose becomes necessary.
This is one piece of a larger trend away from community in suburbia. When my dad was growing up in Lynbrook the kids would play hockey in the streets. Today kids are more likely to have their moms drive them five miles to a friend's house and spend the afternoon watching a movie in the home theater. Americans need larger houses because they are spending more time in their houses and less time in community spaces; meanwhile, the amount of community space is decreasing rapidly, and most new exurban developments allocate scarce if any space to community uses. We end up with a vicious cycle of fewer alternatives to home activities leading to more home activities, decreasing the demand for alternatives.
This article joins in the chorus of criticism of the Supreme Court's Kelo decision, which allowed the City of New London to condemn property for redevelopment even though the public value of that was fairly tenuous. But the article also thinks beyond the simple government power versus private property rights argument, by suggesting that the real issue is one of valuing the community that exists in an area, not just the market value of individual pieces of property. We might allow governments to take property, but require them to pay an additional premium for that community factor, for which a simple market payment does not adequately compensate. What's interesting to me is that the author suggests the added community payment could go to the occupant of the property, not the owner, since after all the occupant is the one creating the intangible value, while the owner is the one who is entitled to the value of the actual capital.
Thinking more broadly than Kelo, I wonder if there could be ways that other sales of property leading to development, beyond just government takings, could somehow benefit occupants of a neighborhood. Right now there is a struggle over gentrification, between the desire to make a neighborhood "nicer" and safer, but the consequence of displacing long-time residents. If we could somehow ensure that a portion of the profits from an area's land values increasing could accrue to the people of the neighborhood, then perhaps we could have things both ways, making areas more valuable while also raising up the economic fortunes of those already there so they can have more, rather than fewer, choices.
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