Most Americans know that when you’re dealing with people from “Inside the Beltway,” you’re dealing with world-class masters of manipulation and rhetoric. This area in the vicinity of Washington, DC encircled by Interstate 495 is a sleazy nest of lobbyists, political operatives, contractors and confidence artists whose expertly honed craft of bullshit-slinging is in a class all its own. It is from this fabled land of deception, in Alexandria, Virginia, that the City of Geneva has found the architects of their new and soon-to-be-adopted Comprehensive Plan.
So is this Comprehensive Plan truly an authentic roadmap that will reflect our community’s shared values and address the difficult issues that our city is facing, or is it just an instruction manual for gentrification that will create more inequality?
A Hundred Grand for a Grand Plan
In December of 2014, the city of Geneva selected the urban planning and neighborhood consulting firm czb, LLC to design and write (with assistance from a steering committee made up of Geneva residents) the city’s new fifteen-year Comprehensive Plan. czb, LLC was selected from among seven applicants, and had worked with the city in 2008 to create a neighborhood study in concert with the formation of the Geneva Neighborhood Resource Center and the identification of eleven distinct neighborhoods within the City, each to eventually have its own Neighborhood Association. The entire Comprehensive Plan effort will cost around $100,000 (much of which is paid for by grants).
So, who is czb, LLC, what are their core philosophies and why was it believed that they should be hired to craft this critical document that will guide and shape the next fifteen years of decision-making by the City? With Geneva’s increasing populations of people of color, its high poverty level, and its pressing issues around economic and racial isolation and division, is czb, LLC the right choice to design a blueprint for the City’s future?
According to the controversial (and some would say racially insensitive) head of czb, LLC, Charles Buki, the number one priority of the Comprehensive Plan should be to make the City ‘economically stronger,’ with the city’s core beliefs being of merely secondary concern.
My biggest advice is that everyone understand that decisions have filters and the key one must always be: how will the decision we are about to make measurably make us economically stronger? It is from such a position of strength that you can then do anything you want.
Concurrent filters to consider at the same time are: Is what we are about to do in keeping with our core beliefs?
While a Comprehensive Plan certainly can’t even begin to “solve” issues of economic and racial inequality, it’s disconcerting to know that the Plan’s steering committee is being instructed that the only way to approach our City’s challenges is to make money the primary driver of all decisions.
After realizing that specific examples of successes (and failures) by czb, LLC and their “Healthy Neighborhoods” philosophy of urban planning (primarily in terms of social and economic inequality) aren’t readily forthcoming on their website or otherwise, I decided to look a little more critically at their planning doctrine and how it might impact the future of Geneva.
Healthy Neighborhoods for
From the Geneva Comprehensive Plan:
“Healthy neighborhood programming builds on the strengths of a neighborhood to stimulate changes that restore and sustain neighborhood pride and confidence by working with residents, landlords, and tenants to focus on restoring confidence; encouraging reinvestment; and strengthening civic involvement. The approach works to have a ripple effect with positive change into areas needing more assistance.”
This certainly sounds like a forward-thinking and thoughtful planning method. However, among the core tenets of the “Healthy Neighborhoods” approach is the idea that a city should never invest its money into specific areas on a “worst-first” basis.
From czb, LLC’s 2008 study entitled “The Neighborhoods of Geneva, NY – A Report on Strategic Investments in Community Health and Strong Markets:”
“The City of Geneva will have to allocate its resources where a return is most likely. A favorable return is most likely in lower middle tier neighborhoods.
The investments the City makes not only must have a chance for success, but have a likely multiplier effect. A multiplier effect means an investment in a property at one location will have a chance of positively impacting investment behaviors on that same street.”
This would mean that the “Healthy Neighborhoods” approach means never investing directly in struggling neighborhoods. Rather, investing in other blocks and streets that are showing signs of distress, but are still stable, is the wiser choice, with the supposed outcome of those “lower middle tier” neighborhoods becoming stronger and creating a ripple effect that benefits nearby areas of greater need.
To some, this might sound dangerously counter-intuitive. It would seem that if you improve conditions in more stable neighborhoods in the hopes that any positive results will magically spread to the neighborhoods that need help the most, the result will be a rise in housing costs in those more stable neighborhoods, forcing those without the economic means to move to areas with more affordable housing…which would create isolated neighborhoods with greater populations of low-income residents and all the associated social woes.
The final draft of the new Comprehensive Plan says this in the section entitled “Geneva’s Planning Principles”:
“We will NOT make policies and take actions that deploy scarce resources on a “worst” first basis instead of strength-based approach, whether in catching up or keeping up with the challenges of managing Geneva.
“We WILL make policies and take actions that orient scarce resources toward rebuilding the middle market from both current and potential residents and towards preservation of our core assets: downtown, our colleges, our hospital, our lakefront, our rich architectural heritage.”
The first statement makes clear that as a matter of policy, the City will not “deploy scarce resources” (or “spend money”) on a “worst first” basis. The second statement bizarrely pledges to “orient scarce resources” (or “spend money”) “towards preservation” of “our colleges” and “our hospital.” The inclusion of these two multi-million dollar, non-taxpaying, non-profits on the list of recipients of Geneva’s “scarce resources” (or “money”) is thoroughly mystifying.
Proponents of the “Healthy Neighborhoods” approach may insist that “throwing money” at neglected housing stock and distressed neighborhoods has been shown to have no effect on the social and economic status of the families in those neighborhoods, and there certainly is some truth in that statement.
But issues of poverty made worse by urban planning that doesn’t address these issues are, sadly, the norm across America. This should mean that in Geneva, we ought to be searching for unique and novel approaches to these issues, newer ideas that are showing promise or have a measurable track record of success in other cities. If we instead choose to employ “solutions” that haven’t been shown to have a positive impact on inequality, how can we expect conditions to improve?
So, how does the “Healthy Neighborhoods” approach stack up in terms of success in addressing and mitigating poverty and related social isolation? Which cities have had this approach utilized for extended periods of time, and what kinds of conditions do their most economically challenged residents face today?
Meet David Boehlke
According to the czb, LLC website, Core Team member “David Boehlke is a nationally-recognized expert in neighborhood revitalization and the country’s leading authority on Healthy Neighborhoods. David has worked in more than 300 communities over his 35 year career…Boehlke’s philosophy was first used in the city of Battle Creek, Michigan in the early 1990s. Beginning in 1998, Healthy Neighborhoods, Inc. established a strong presence in the city of Baltimore, with the approach also being utilized extensively in Milwaukee and Hartford.”
Considering that Boehlke is the “country’s leading authority,” let’s take a closer look at the cities on his resume and see if any fears of increased social and economic isolation and inequality are merited.
- Battle Creek, Michigan
A May 2013 article on Legalnews.com spotlighted a traveling exhibit by the Michigan Roundtable for Diversity & Inclusion entitled “We Don’t Want Them: Race & Housing on Trial,” hosted by Woman’s Co-op at the Trinity Lutheran Church. Among the information shared:
“Census maps of Battle Creek show blacks in this city are almost exclusively confined to city center…Neighborhoods in that area are as much as 100 percent black, while bordering neighborhoods never top 30 percent black and our suburbs are 90-or-more percent white.
The maps show virtually no change from at least 1970, challenging any idea that we are part of a post-racial America.”
Additionally, Census data showed that in 2000, the poorest households were within the Battle Creek Public School system, and the richest within Harper Creek Community Schools. Ten years later, this inequality remained, except the income gap between the two had grown by 16%.
An article from the Battle Creek Enquirer in September of 2014 outlined poverty issues in greater Calhoun County, using a United Way methodology of measuring poverty called ALICE, an acronym that stands for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed. ALICE focuses on households that may have incomes above the poverty level, but still don’t have enough money to cover basic needs.
The state of Michigan has 40% of households below the ALICE level…and in Battle Creek, the number jumps to 47%.
It’s obvious that 18 years of Healthy Neighborhoods initiatives have not created a Battle Creek that is more equitable and ‘healthy.’
- Baltimore, Maryland
In April 2015, after the murder of 25-year old African American man Freddie Gray by the Baltimore Police Department, protests against the PD grew into civil unrest that resulted in a State of Emergency being declared. Thousands of National Guard and police troops were sent to the city, with hundreds of arrests, fires and injuries occurring. Along with police procedures and their relationship with the community, the role of urban renewal efforts in the city were examined at length in the aftermath.
Statistically, Baltimore’s economic state is either average, or better than many other large cities, according to a 2015 study by the Brookings Institute. Per capita incomes in the Baltimore region rose faster than in any other major metro area from 2000 to 2013, and the city’s level of concentrated poverty is about average, ranking 51st among the 100 largest metro areas.
However, many issues still exist.
– Baltimore ranks 12 in racial segregation among the 35 metro areas with the largest black population
– About 1 in 5 poor individuals in Baltimore lives in a neighborhood of extreme poverty
And there’s this:
“Within the city of Baltimore, deep divisions exist by race and place. Neighborhoods just to the west and east of downtown Baltimore, including Sandtown-Winchester and extending out into suburban Baltimore County, exhibit very high rates of poverty. Those neighborhoods are predominantly black, reflecting a long history of explicit and implicit policies in the region that yielded high levels of racial and economic segregation. This racial isolation and poverty concentration help account for stark differences between Baltimore’s black and white populations in key economic outcomes like education, employment, and child poverty.”
Baltimore is certainly the “best” in terms of economic inequality of the cities in this article where Boehlke’s approach has been implemented, it’s clearly not exceptional in relation to the rest of the country.
- Hartford, Connecticut
An unsettling 2015 article from TrendCT.com spotlighting a study by DataHaven shows that the segregation between affluent and poor neighborhoods in Connecticut (including Hartford) is more starkly evident than almost anywhere else in the country.
“Poor residents in greater Hartford and greater New Haven are just as likely to live in an extremely poor, predominantly minority neighborhood as those in greater Detroit or greater Philadelphia.”
“The geographic concentration of wealth may direct resources to a small share of the population that lives there, which over time can further inequalities between rich and poor areas,” says sociologist Douglas S Massey. “The social worlds of the rich and poor will diverge … [divorcing] the interests of the rich from the welfare of the poor.”
It seems that if Mr. Boehlke would like to ease the fears of those who think that his “Healthy Neighborhoods” approach will either create or do nothing to curb further inequality, it might be in his best interest to scrub the city of Hartford off of his resume.
- Milwaukee, Wisconsin
A September 2015 article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel entitled “Poverty keeps tight grip on Milwaukee, new census figures show” shouldn’t be particularly comforting to Genevans who are putting all their eggs in the Healthy Neighborhoods basket, either.
Here are some sobering numbers for Milwaukee:
– Citywide poverty rate of 29%, nearly double the national rate of 14.8%
– 5th most impoverished city in America
– 42.1% poverty rate among children 18 and under
– 39.9% poverty rate among African-Americans
– 31.8% poverty rate among Hispanics
– 14.8% poverty rate among non-Hispanic whites (exactly the national average)
And these words should be of great concern to Geneva City residents:
“During the economic recovery, the city has undergone another boom in downtown housing and a burst of office building overlooking the lakefront.
But that economic uptick has apparently not seeped into the city’s impoverished neighborhoods.
“The city is home to the region’s poor and our poverty rate has stubbornly remained at 29%,” Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett said in a statement.”
According to a 2016 report from the Brookings Institute, Milwaukee has the 8th largest concentrated poverty rate in the nation, with a staggering 64.8% of the poor population living in a neighborhood with a 20%+ poverty rate.
If I’m David Boehlke, I wouldn’t be bragging about my work in Milwaukee, either.
What Does This Have to Do with G-Town?
It seems that if we are to measure the success of the Healthy Neighborhoods approach in terms of economic inequality and isolation in these specific cities, it appears that, with the exception of perhaps Baltimore, the approach is either having no effect, or conditions have worsened.
We all know that Geneva isn’t Battle Creek, Baltimore, Hartford or Milwaukee. Still, we are compelled to look at the cities that have employed the approach that we are adopting, and consider the potential impact for our community.
I hope we’ve haven’t been hoodwinked into gambling our city’s future on an approach that has no real concrete examples of improving conditions for low-income residents. I don’t want to imagine that we’re an unsophisticated lot who have been dazzled and romanced by some charismatic hotshot urban planners from inside The Beltway who charge quite a chunk of change for their services and will not provide the city with proven tools to navigate through the issues related to inequality.
Regardless, all the charts and graphs and feel-good language have been reviewed, and it seems that many of us are still pretty confident that the Comprehensive Plan represents a framework for our community to reflect its highest ideals and reach its fullest potential, and will be adopted in August 2016 by City Council.
Recently, after receiving public feedback requesting that the Plan do more to address economic inequality in Geneva, the Plan’s steering committee released a final draft of the Plan which now includes a fifth “Initiative” called the “Economic Opportunity Task Force.” However, even though the Task Force is ostensibly one of the five highest priorities for the City, the final Plan suggests a listed cost range of the lowest possible level of “C – Marginal Coordination Costs” and recommends a “Community Coalition” be tasked with the implementation and work of the Task Force. However, the current plan suggests that the City invest in creating a “green space” (or a park) on upper Castle Street, across the street from rows of $200,000+ historic mansions, and investing up to $250,000 in this project.
Investing actual taxpayer dollars in creating a park in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the City while investing zero dollars in an effort to address severe issues of poverty and inequality sends the message that the City of Geneva might say they care about tackling issues of inequality in the City, but they are unwilling to commit to any real action.
The mindset that makes this injustice possible is the philosophy behind czb, LLC and the “Healthy Neighborhoods Initiative.”
The Comprehensive Plan is most assuredly filled with exciting possibilities, sensible and deliberate actions and dynamic, inclusive language. There are many positive aspects to the Plan, and it may actually turn out to be a wonderful piece of work. Yet there’s also a chance that it’s just another garden-variety blueprint for gentrification draped in progressive buzzwords that will ignore our most distressed neighborhoods under the guise of “building on our strengths.”