Laying the Groundwork for Urban Mobility and Social Connectivity
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There are a few ways to think about connecting residents to economic opportunity. At the most literal level, this means providing city residents equitable access to economic centers, in other words providing public transportation. Thinking about how to improve upon this is difficult for local governments with constrained budgets. There is a tension between maintaining current infrastructure and investing in innovation for the future.
One innovative concept, which is a component of Smart Growth, is called Transit Oriented Development, or TOD. The Victoria Transport Policy Institute (VTPI) provides a deep dive on how TOD maximizes access between residential and commercial centers. This accomplished by creating dense development around rail or bus lines and then decreasing density in concentric circles of .25 to .5 miles outwards, on a pedestrian scale. While having enough population density is usually a concern for investing in transit, TOD utilizes a diverse ridership base, including lower-income riders, students, seniors, and disabled populations. These riders use public transit more frequently and reduce the population density requirements for traditional public transit to be viable. This model of development is dependent on connecting a diverse demographic between home and the workplace.
Additionally, transit-oriented development can stimulate economic growth. A great example of this is Portland Oregon’s light rail system, constructed in 2005, which applied TOD in the greater Portland area. In a report published by TriMet, Portland’s public transit agency, the TOD model generated more than $8B of new development in areas around light rail stations. That development included 350 affordable housing units, creating a link between Portland’s low-income residents and the economic centers.
In a world where getting a job is all about who you know, the true question to providing job opportunities might be, how can cities better foster social connectivity between residents? Moving beyond transporting residents from home to office, there is the question of building more interconnected urban social networks. A few innovative Bay Area projects come to mind as models for building social connective tissue.
The Neighborhood Postcard Project was started in San Francisco in 2013 to change stereotypes of rough neighborhoods. The project “collects personal positive stories from residents in marginalized neighborhoods and sends them out to random people in the same city to change perception and build community.” Since its inception, the project has sent 334 personal positive stories, has been started in cities around the globe, and has created a toolkit for residents of any city to start their own Postcard Project. While it is difficult to quantify the impact this project has on creating economic opportunity, providing human connection between previously disparate neighborhoods changes perceptions of the people who reside in “bad” neighborhoods.
Another organization focused on fostering social connection in San Francisco is Soup SF, a reoccurring dinner in which attendees donate money for food, listen to presentations on positive community projects that need funding, and then vote on where they want their donation to go. It is a civic engagement opportunity that connects artists, social entrepreneurs, educators, and neighbors. Soup SF directly links residents who are trying to create community projects with the people who want to support them, using a simple peer-to-peer funding model. Soup SF’s blog shares the stories of the people and organizations who received funding and the impact it has had on their lives.
Connecting residents to economic opportunity must occur both on a transportation level and on a social network level. City governments need to invest in proven methods of transit-oriented development that create more sustainable cities and connect residents to economic centers. At the same time, social connectivity within cities needs to be cultivated. While there are many innovative methods for strengthening a city’s social connective tissue, a few existing methods like the Neighborhood Postcard Project and Soup SF are easily replicable models to foster community and social connections.
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This article was originally published on September 8, 2020.
Update for April 20, 2021:
After the murder of George Floyd we wrote this article as a kind of blueprint, a beginning to a new way of working with equitable resilience in our cities and beyond. Now, as the trial of Derek Chauvin comes to a guilty verdict in Minneapolis and the whole country reflects on the legacy of that verdict, we have to remember another senseless murder – another young Black man, Daunte Wright, at the hands of law enforcement, just miles from the courthouse. Again, Minneapolis is all of us. We have protested, we have voted. We stood up, we spoke out, we have raged about the anti-Black racism. We have seen people come together, we can feel a shift in this country. But there is so much more to do. No equity, no resilience.
-Ron & Stewart
Housing that is affordable to low-income residents is often substandard and suffering from deferred maintenance, exposing residents to poor air quality and high energy bills. This situation can exacerbate asthma and other respiratory health issues, and siphon scarce dollars from higher value items like more nutritious food, health care, or education. Providing safe, decent, affordable, and healthy housing is one way to address historic inequities in community investment. Engaging with affordable housing and other types of community benefit projects is an important first step toward fully integrating equity into the green building process. In creating a framework for going deeper on equity, our new book, the Blueprint for Affordable Housing (Island Press 2020), starts with the Convention on Human Rights and the fundamental right to housing.
Since the Great Recession of 2008, the housing wealth gap has expanded to include not just Black and Brown Americans, but younger White Americans as well. Millennials and Generation Z Whites are now joining their Black and Brown peers in facing untenable housing precarity and blocked access to wealth. With wages stuck at 1980 levels and housing prices at least double (in inflation adjusted terms) what they were 40 years ago, many younger Americans, most with college degrees, are giving up on buying a home and even struggle to rent apartments suitable for raising a family.
What makes it hard for policy people and citizens to accept this truth is that we have not seen this problem in a very long time. Back in the 1920s of course, but not really since then. But this is actually an old problem that has come back to haunt us; a problem first articulated by Adam Smith in the 1700s.