This is gonna get messy

Power relationships determine how communities are shaped and can vary significantly depending on various contexts. The readings this week were undoubtedly arguing for the contextual consideration of plans prior to implementation. By observing the varying relationships between local communities and how they can either be supported or opposed by industry, governments, and interest groups, I got the message that we as planners should be careful to apply theory where practice may be needed. How perfect for this class!

In Evans’ comparative assessment of communities, the complexities of city planning appeared vast as we looked to the broader world stage. From Vietnam to Mexico City, this piece demonstrated how the effectiveness of change was subject to so many different relationships (or lack there of) with the local community. However, the one consistent trend was the supremacy of the community. Evans found that livability and sustainability initiatives often hinged on the way in which local community members were able to frame the issue. I say “were able to frame the issue” because above all, Evans identified accurately that the multitude of stakeholders directly influencing the framing of the issue extended much farther than just the community actors.

For example, the way communities fight to keep companies in their town despite pollution or living wage concerns is due often to media spun by associations such as Chambers of Commerce who can paint industry at odds with environmental conservation. Why is cleaning up the river the thing that causes jobs to run? Why not help clean up the river and make your business practice more sustainable and safe for the community that serves you?

It doesn’t have to be this way. Evans astutely points out that communities can leverage political capital in favor of sustainability or livability. Mounting political pressure takes numbers and the more effectively local communities can utilize the airwaves, the more effective their message.

Take for example the civil rights movements in the United States. How was a minority group of protestors able to convince an historically racist country that racism was oppressing a class of people? They painted their message across TV screens and radio waves. Reporters couldn’t help but cover the stories of extreme hatred that was not just taking place in the southern United States, but across the country. Efforts by groups such as Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee or the black churches across the south were seminole in making their cause not only heard, but palateable to a primarily white country. Had it not been for the sympathy of the Democratic Party (that had traditionally been the southern, pro Jim-Crow party) led by Lyndon Johnson, the civil rights act would have never been enacted, the local resistance would have been wasted.

Applied to urban planning, local resistance is effective, in so far as the cause is one hospitable to groups who could be in opposition. We see this played out in a lot of our DC communities that are experiencing gentrification.

Take for instance the Shaw/U-Street gentrification story: (10 second version) Historically black community, considered dangerous in the 70’s and 80’s, begins to attract residents in the early 2000’s. The black community was faced with several problems: one, the demographic moving into the community was wealthy, and young, attracting ammenities (i.e. Dog parks, bike lanes, etc) that were taking the public space of which they had previously been the sole proprietor.

As many of the proposed changes to the community were blocked, newcomers sought positions in the seat of power. Local community boards became filled with young, white and gay/lesbian representation and votes became contentious. The goal of each group became; how can we impede what they want to do and preserve our way of life?

In the end, we all know how the story goes. The poor locals loose and the wealthy win. But it didn’t have to be this way… I think if we can be more respectful of opposition in the pursuit of our goals, we can find a way to create bike lanes while preserving street parking for church services. I believe we can keep jobs and a clean river at the same time. However, we should be keen to recognize that this type of reconciliation will not come easily. It will require compromise and leveraging. Maybe urban planning isn’t as clean as I thought it would be, but its realizations like these that help us plan more effectively.


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