The Search for a Theory of Cities

In the first article in this series, I argued that cities are complex, urban ecosystems that exist at multiple spatial and temporal scales and that do not permit the kinds of decomposition or systems engineering on which technology is based. Because of this, until we have a deeper understanding of what really makes the city a living entity, our progress on smart cities will be inherently superficial and of limited impact. In this article I ask: if we want to develop an understanding of how cities work, how would we go about this?

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Navigator: Cities in Fiction

Experiences with place are sometimes so subjective, so complicated, that they can be hard to explain. But a good fiction writer can take the reader along for a visit.

So this week, instead of the usual round-up of articles and essays from CityLab and beyond, we’re bringing you some short and long pieces of fiction that explore themes of geography. This list is by no means comprehensive—it’s culled from recommendations by folks on staff and Twitter—but we think you’ll like it. If you’ve got your own favorites, send ‘em in! We might include some in the next edition of this newsletter.

For now, happy reading!

Fiction on CityLab:

CityLab’s Gracie McKenzie spoke with Tommy Orange, the author of There There. The title of his novel references a famous quote by Gertrude Stein describing changes in her hometown of Oakland, which is also Orange’s hometown:

… one of the first things that struck me about that Gertrude Stein quote, more so than the modern-day experiences of gentrification: The idea of having a place that is yours—land that you have a relationship to—then being removed and what that does to you, as a Native experience.

Read the rest of the interview ) ¤ “Everyone in [Tanwi Nandani Islam’s] , four classmates return to their (fictional) hometown of New Canaan, Ohio, a decade after high school. Though New Canaan is small, it has suffered from the biggest forces at play in 21st century America: Friends and neighbors have been injured or killed in war, gutted by an unforgiving economy, swept up in the opioid crisis, or otherwise trapped in the hopelessness that surrounds them. The individual tragedies, told through the lens of the four classmates, converge on revelations that should have shaken the town to its core a long time ago, but instead lingered for years as rumor, folklore, or indifference. The result is a powerful portrait of anger and desperation in a certain kind of small-town America—or, depending on your experience, America itself. — Adam Sneed

In 10:04, Ben Lerner’s unnamed narrator has a lot in common with the author himself at the time of writing: enormous critical success with his first novel, the prospect of fatherhood, and an apartment in Brooklyn. But the through line of this novel is the dread that inflects any thinking person’s experience of the 21st century city: the knowledge that our climate change future will upturn society as we know it. But how much, and for whom? And how do we face it? If you’ve ever felt alienated from your present by the ghosts of the future, read Lerner—not for comfort, but for comradeship. — Laura Bliss

View from the ground:

@chellenayrenae photographed the aptly designed Kansas Public Library. @a_zarker shot the ship at Copenhagen’s waterfront. @vickophoto showed that train station floors deserve publicity, too. @susietrexler captured where sky meets waves in Chicago.

Tag us on Instagram with the hashtag #citylabontheground!

Over and out,


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The Personal is Professional When it Comes to Closing Racial Income and Wealth Gaps

This blog post is originally posted at Compass Point

Living Cities is an organization that is working to close the racial income and wealth gaps in America’s cities. Racism is at the root of so many of the problems we are trying to solve, so addressing racism must be squarely at the center of how we work. But, it hasn’t always been. For the majority of our 27-year history, we worked in a largely race-neutral way. We didn’t explicitly name race in our mission or vision and we didn’t intentionally seek to hire staff with deep racial equity and inclusion competencies. That began to change in 2012.

Igniting the Spark for Radical Change

On February 26, 2012, a seventeen-year-old Black teenager named Trayvon Martin was shot and killed in Sanford, Florida, by George Zimmerman. Martin’s death ignited a national debate about racism and justice. It was on the nightly news and in the editorial pages. We heard from legal and criminal justice experts, historians, artists, Martin’s parents, and President Obama. And, across the country, people were having their own conversations. They were having them at dinner tables and at real and metaphorical water coolers. They were having them on social media and in the streets as a protest movement took hold. At Living Cities, we were having them, too. The days following the Zimmerman verdict were particularly tense at our office, as staff members found themselves in informal but reflective and sometimes emotional conversations about Martin’s death, Zimmerman’s acquittal, and the pervasiveness of racism in America. Several staff members felt that a robust interrogation of the impact of racial inequity on cities was noticeably absent from Living Cities’ work. These conversations eventually set us on a course to radically reconfigure the way the organization works around race.

Living Cities had been on our racial equity journey for a few years already by the time we were invited to be part of CompassPoint’s Organizational Equity Leadership Development Program (OELDP), sponsored by the Kresge Foundation, two years ago. At that point, we had done some important work but—in retrospect—we were still tinkering on the edges of what it means to really embed racial equity into ourselves and our organization. Over the course of the last 18 months—with the help of CompassPoint, the honesty and vulnerability of our colleagues in the OELDP cohort the mentorship and support of other partners along the way, and significant risk-taking on behalf of our own staff members— we have come to realize just how much the interpersonal and institutional are intertwined and symbiotic in racial equity work. What we now know with certainty is that we cannot do our jobs with any real accountability, let alone make progress towards our north star results of closing racial income and wealth gaps, if we aren’t grounded in the deep understanding that personal growth, individual journeys and, especially, the self-reflection and commitment by those at the leadership level with positional authority, are critical components of our potential for success.

Beyond a “Race-Neutral” Approach

By 2016, Living Cities had already moved past being race neutral in our external communications and had done an “audit” of all our programs to see if/how to embed equity in our work. We had also done some initial staff training and a series of activities to build staff competencies. But, our work to that point remained predominantly in the intellectual space; we had yet to dig much deeper. That lack of introspection and hesitance to hold a mirror up to ourselves, and to approach the work from a deeper emotional place, created significant dissonance between our words and our actions. We were asking our staff and grantees to do things out in the world that we weren’t yet ready or willing to do “back home.” Our participation in the OELDP cohort helped to reinforce for us just how much we needed to start from the inside out and how we had to bring humanity back into our day-to-day work. Over the course of the program, with coaching and support from CompassPoint, we acknowledged that organizations can change people, and—if you give them the space and the opportunity—people can also change organizations.

Up until then, we had certainly long been a diverse organization (which we prided ourselves on), but we weren’t yet a culture where everyone could thrive. We weren’t yet fully leveraging the voices and perspectives of our very diverse staff, nor the amazing wealth of experiences, exposure, and expertise they could all bring in service of closing the gaps, which was a huge missed opportunity. We had many staff that were ready, competent, and hungry to work on issues of racial equity and inclusion. But—despite all our best intentions and notions of how diverse and inclusive we were as an organization—the risk for them was too high, the environment too scary and unsupportive for them to do so in earnest or to name the truths that needed to be spoken.

Building a Shared Language and Embracing Difficult Conversations

Our staff needed to see leadership leaning in, actively committing to doing the personal work and willing to show vulnerability and admit what we didn’t know. As a starting point, within leadership and across the organization, we needed to build a shared language and analysis about race and racism in America past and present. As a 27-year-old organization working to improve outcomes for low income people in American cities, we had work to do to deepen our understanding of why people were poor in the first place. In doing so, no matter what issue or system we started with, it was consistently clear that racism was the root cause that maintained systems of inequity. In order to achieve our mission and support our colleagues in this work, we had to get comfortable talking about race. We needed to normalize difficult conversations and intentionally build up our tolerance for navigating through, rather than around, the conflict that would inevitably emerge from doing so.

Far too often, when staff members, particularly people of color, named how racism showed up in our own relationships and work, they were told that it was not the “right time or place” for it. Rather than addressing the problems, those brave staff members were seen as the problem. And, when the very real issues they raised were discussed, it was most frequently through an academic data-filled exercise. Recently, we have sought to change this by intentionally organizing time for the conversations. We know that we must welcome hard truths and conflict as a crucial part of our work. CompassPoint helped us recognize that conflict is “change trying to happen.” The ability to engage in conflict and to share personal experiences of structural, institutional, and interpersonal racism broke down a white institutional norm of politeness and silence. It also helped us to name existing power dynamics and structures that were, even if unintentionally, preserving such norms and perpetuating oppression within our own walls. And, speaking honestly about racism has opened the door for staff to bring more of themselves to the work and to speak honestly about issues beyond race and racism as well. More and more, we are pushing ourselves to approach our work through the lens of intersectionality, and to view meaningful relationships among colleagues as vital to our organizational success.

We intentionally dedicated time and space to reflecting on what it means to embed racial equity in everything we do and to treat it as a competency and daily practice that we needed to invest in to build, nurture, and grow. Along the way, CompassPoint shared with us that feedback is a gift. We maintained this value while talking about race, acknowledging that these conversations were often difficult. Rather than speaking about race in the exclusive context of data, we started discussing how race contributes to our lived experience and perception. We uplifted individual stories and validated feelings around race.

Over time, grounding ourselves in a shared language enabled us to be explicit about our goals and use clarity to take action. Speaking about white institutional culture gave us the tools we needed to begin to dismantle it within our own organization. Minding that an organization is comprised of individuals, every member of Living Cities staff was asked to actively engage and reflect. Each of us—on our own journeys and in our ways–began to address our individual biases, preferences, and habits and consider how they may be contributing to inequitable systems.

We were able to see the impacts of normalizing conversations about race relatively quickly. We continued to develop our new understanding of peer accountability by implementing ideas that would maintain an environment that welcomes conversations about race. We developed a new team called CORE (Colleagues Operationalizing for Racial Equity) to support staff in continuing to build competencies around racial equity and hold other teams accountable. Coaching was made available for all staff to grow in their personal racial equity journeys. We started hosting affinity groups and book clubs for staff to share their experiences and offer feedback and solidarity to one another. Ultimately, all of these internal support structures have contributed to Living Cities’ organizational growth and capacity for external impact.

Putting Racial Equity in the Center

Our growth started with listening to and really hearing our staff as they raised major concerns they were grappling with. It continued, eventually, with a fundamental recognition that we could not be fully equipped to support others to do this work as individual staff and as an organization if we weren’t doing it ourselves. As our competencies increased, it quickly became clear that this racial equity work couldn’t be a “side initiative” or a “nice to have,” but rather that it had to be the work. This doesn’t mean navel gazing. It does mean living our values. It means articulating what that means and holding ourselves collectively and individually accountable. It means being willing to change as people and as an organization so that we can be better partners to those we work with in the field, better partners to the communities we serve. It means doing the work of questioning how decisions get made about where our money goes and who it goes to. For example, we now have a procurement policy that privileges awarding contracts to companies owned by people of color. We have shifted the focus of our impact investing fund from “improving the lives of low-income people” to “closing racial income and wealth gaps.” We are working to articulate a policy to ensure that organizations we partner with go through anti-racism training, and we are sponsoring those trainings around the country.

Over time, with the help of incredible partners, mentors, coaches, and peers, we came to understand that this inside work of holding the mirror up and considering how we were each building our racial equity practice at a personal, role-based, and systemic level was, in fact, MISSION CRITICAL to closing racial income and wealth gaps. We are ever a work in progress, but what we know and live very deeply every day is that the impact of our programmatic work, our communications, our influence, is only as good as the depth of our own competencies and our common alignment around a shared result.

For more details on our journey, with themes adapted from CompassPoint’s materials, check out our annual report.

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Giving an Underrepresented Community and City a Place in Literature

Tommy Orange’s novel There There jumps through time and among the voices of 12 narrators, but its sense of place is constant and intentional. From the first chapter, you’re dropped into Oakland, California, biking from the Coliseum BART station to “Deep East Oakland, off Seventy-Third, across from where the Eastmont Mall used to be, until things got so bad there they turned it into a police station.” Over the course of the novel, the characters’ stories weave together, until they are all in one building for an emotional, chaotic powwow in the Oakland Coliseum.

“I love Oakland and Oakland is my home,” Orange told CityLab over the phone from Angels Camp, California, where he lives now. “It’s not very well presented in novels. I don’t even know if I could name one, where somebody from Oakland wrote a novel about [it].” (Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue “has more of a Berkeley feel to it,” he says.)

Another experience that’s underrepresented in literature is that of urban Native Americans. Orange, who worked in Oakland’s Native community for a decade before writing There There, told The New York Times earlier this year that he wanted his characters to “struggle in the way that I struggled, and the way that I see other Native people struggle, with identity and with authenticity.”

The book’s title comes from a much-debated passage in Gertrude Stein’s Everybody’s Biography, in which she wrote, upon visiting the site of her childhood home in Oakland and finding it different than she remembered: “There is no there there.” Since its release in June, There There has made The New York Times bestseller list, and Orange is working on a new novel, about what happens after the Big Oakland Powwow. He spoke to CityLab about writing about his home, and being displaced from it; why he thinks about cities as a part of the environment; and the importance of reckoning with American history. The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.


Gertrude Stein’s passage refers to how much Oakland had changed since her youth. The characters in your book are dealing with later iterations of similar, more rapid changes. How have you seen the city change?

It’s changed in waves. It was one way when I was a kid, and there was this first wave of gentrification that wasn’t as extreme as the second one, when I was living in West Oakland.

We moved away in 2014, for financial reasons and for other reasons. And eventually, when we decided we wanted to move back, we couldn’t afford it. We can now, and we might be doing it next summer. But the difference between 2014 and 2018 was a lot more extreme.

There was not only a change in who you see, but also countless more storefronts where places that would not have been able to thrive were now booming with business. It’s not all terrible. There’s like three bookstores in downtown Oakland where there was none before. But it’s sad when people who have grown up in a place can’t afford to live there anymore, and it becomes someone else’s.

Your book makes a connection between the displacement and the rootlessness that your Native characters are experiencing now in Oakland, and the history of being removed from land. In what ways are those experiences similar and different?

That was one of the first things that struck me about that Gertrude Stein quote, more so than the modern-day experiences of gentrification. The idea of having a place that is yours—land that you have a relationship to—then being removed and what that does to you, as a Native experience.

It’s a difference in extremes, though, because people aren’t being killed. There was an active genocidal campaign against Native people, and so it wasn’t just a “we have to move somewhere else” situation.

It’s hard to compare pain and oppression, you know what I mean? You don’t really want to get into that territory because there’s no reason to.

In an interview with Powell’s, you talked about how you’ve been working with the idea that cities should be seen as more than artificial. Can you explain that a little more?

I see cities as coming from the Earth in the same ways as, you know, the superstructure of an ant colony. We act like we’re aliens here, or like we’ve been given everything to dominate by God. Both of those philosophies of what our environment is and what we’re supposed to be doing here are damaging. I see environment and city as all being part of the Earth. People have developed through time into civilizations with cities as part of their environment.

It sounds so basic to say, but I think sometimes we unconsciously feel like we’re not supposed to be here, or we’re doing something wrong. You know, there’s pollution and things that are horrible for the Earth. I understand the damaging aspects of it, but I think it does us better to think that we belong where we are, and not like there’s something wrong with this.

How do you square that with environmental tumult in California, like fires, droughts, and the threat of oceans rising?

I don’t know that I have a good squaring. I wrestle with the ideas. It’s a slippery slope, and if you follow the logic to its end point, like, “We’re all natural, everything is part of the Earth, and it’s supposed to be happening,” then we can just continue to frack and steal land, and anything we do is excusable because it’s just the Earth Earthing. I don’t mean to do that.

There’s a balance of cooperation and free will and fate that’s intertwined in perfectly confusing ways. So I don’t have any good squaring for climate change and the idea of us humans as part of the Earth in macro. It’s a conflicting point of view.

In the prologue, you write that, for Native Americans throughout history, coming to cities was supposed to be sort of a “final step of assimilation.” Yet at the same time, cities have been places for Native communities to come together, like the one you write about in Oakland. How can we work our way out of that paradox?

Sometimes when you bring up history to people who have benefited from it and haven’t been damaged by it, they get defensive and ask, “What are you expecting: Reparations? An apology?” I think there is a way to acknowledge how we got to where we are, and move on together with just the acknowledgement.

Looking back at history can make you want to be transgressive. I don’t know exactly what the answer is, how to live with those contradictions. I think you have to live with all kinds of contradictions all the time; each one of us has to do our best to bring more harmony and less discord.

You put specific details about Oakland into the narrative, like neighborhoods, street names, and BART stations. What was behind that decision?

It’s for people who live in Oakland. When you read New York novels, there’s all these references to things that, if you have never been there, you don’t know what they’re talking about. But New York writers don’t care.

It was this sense of pride and place. I knew if anybody from Oakland ever read it they would appreciate it.

Have you gotten responses to the book from people in Oakland?

I didn’t know it was going to have such a mass appeal. That’s been kind of a big surprise.

But it’s most important to me for Native people from Oakland to connect to it and I’ve seen that happen. One woman came to two of my readings and said to me and to the audience just how important and powerful the book is for Native people. I actually cried in public both times that she did it.

Want to know about the reading that inspired this novel, and the one Orange is working on now? Sign up for the Navigator newsletter—we’ll include his two urban fiction recommendations.

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    Why Affordable Housing Isn’t More Affordable

    The low-slung apartment buildings that line the streets of Houston, Fort Worth, and other Lone Star cities are some of the cheapest affordable housing projects to build anywhere. Two-story jobbers in Texas cost a whole lot less to build with housing tax credits than affordable mid-rises in California or New England. Where land prices are higher, it’s more expensive to build affordable housing.

    These are a few of the not-exactly-earth-shattering conclusions of a long-awaited report on the Low Income Housing Tax Credit program, the country’s main engine for generating new affordable housing. Released this week by the reports that a group called Union Market Neighbors appealed the zoning board’s approval, citing “displacement, environmental issues and general neighborhood changes.”

    Pending further negotiations or a court decision, the $200 million project may still resolve in the developer’s favor. Time is money, though. (Foulger-Pratt did not return an email asking for an estimate of what this delay might mean in terms of project costs.)

    What does it cost when neighbors object to building low-income housing, period? This striking quote from a community member speaking out against a proposed housing project in Cupertino, California, one of several pricey Silicon Valley cities struggling with runaway housing prices, may offer some perspective.

    When homeowners fight affordable housing tooth and nail, it makes low-income developments harder and more expensive to build. That’s a real cost—and maybe a very high one.

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    The Black Communities That Have Fought for Their Right to Exist in the Carolinas

    For more coverage of environmental justice in the Carolinas, see “. “Their existence in this space was not a matter of chance or choice, but instead the discarded and unwanted space was what former slaveholders allowed them to occupy.”

    For Princeville and many of the other disaster-prone communities listed above, these were not necessarily the places where people wanted to live, but where they were forced to settle because of rabid racism. And those areas happened to be in swampy, low-lying lands that were vulnerable to flooding, or terrains that were made vulnerable by the placement of toxic pollution-spreading facilities around it. For these towns and cities, the discussion around environmental justice is not based on place, but rather where these African Americans were placed.

    Today, the proportion of people of color living within three miles of a swine farm is 1.5 times higher than for whites in the state, according to a Title VI Civil Rights Act complaint filed in 2014 by Earthjustice and several local environmental organizations. The complaint notes that African Americans alone are 1.54 times more likely to live within three miles of a swine facility than white North Carolinians are.


    The hog farms that have been ordered to shell out for negatively impacting black communities’ health in Duplin County have argued that these families could simply move somewhere else. And maybe they’d have a point if those families arrived in Duplin County after the farms and lagoons were already set up. But those families owned and settled the land well before the first hogs got there. The black families have a multi-generational vested interest in remaining there—desiring not to break up their friend and family networks, which many of them depend on to survive. Their ancestors may not have had a choice about where they located to, but the hog farms did. And those farmers chose to locate near black communities, with the state’s permission.

    The history of environmental justice is paved with stories just like Duplin County’s, where government officials at some level permitted the placement of a toxic site near a black, Latino, or Native American residential area. The same goes for government officials who made policy decisions that unnecessarily but tragically imperiled communities of color—think the Flint water crisis. The question today is: What obligation do government agencies have to environmental-justice communities, considering that history? This question is especially critical in the climate change era, when hurricanes and floods are promised to occur more frequently and furiously.

    There have been attempts to answer this question lately through legislation and litigation, as exemplified by the string of lawsuits against the swine companies in Duplin County. However, Devon Hall, program manager for the Rural Empowerment Association for Community Help (REACH) told Scalawag that he doesn’t believe that those lawsuits will be enough to change the behavior of the hog industry, nor the climate-change-denying North Carolina state legislature. He’s hoping that the federal Title VI civil rights complaint will serve as a better enforcer. Others are hoping lawsuits will also lead to better caps and linings on coal-ash waste ponds, to protect cities like Belews Creek. However, Adam Colette, program director for the North Carolina-based Dogwood Alliance, says the state seems to keep coming up with even more ways to invite environmental devastation to over-burdened communities.

    “Coal-ash ponds, hog farms, and industrial logging are all concentrated in the same communities, so when we see the impacts of climate change, like Hurricane Florence, those communities are much slower to recover because of the extraction industries that already exist,” said Colette. “But also, from the biomass industry we’ve had a massive increase in clear cutting of wetlands, which are natural flood protections for these communities, and that’s making it even more difficult to rebound and be more resilient.”

    Meanwhile, they’re fighting those battles as they fight their way out of the slog of recovery from Hurricane Florence. Many of these places had barely recovered from Hurricane Matthew in 2016. Muhammad of the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network said that the state’s relief efforts for Matthew were so “disrespectful” that she and other grassroots activists had to assemble their own squads to build a recovery apparatus for black families living in the most heavily impacted areas.

    “When [recovery/relief agencies] distributed goods to the people impacted by the storm, they didn’t do it in respectful ways,” said Muhammad. “They just brought it and dumped it in piles and made people sift through it. So we set up distribution centers to sort the materials out and grouped it in categories so that people could easily access what they needed without feeling like scavengers.”

    Similar grassroots recovery and relief efforts were also mobilized ahead of Hurricane Florence. Under the banner A Just Florence Recovery, a group of social justice organizations in North Carolina—among them, the North Carolina Climate Justice Collective, the NC Environmental Justice Network, and the Southern Vision Alliance—banded together to assist with evacuation and, now, recovery and relief efforts. They’ve partnered with veterans of prior coastal disasters to ensure that federal and philanthropic funding don’t get exclusively channeled to the usual relief NGOs, like Red Cross, that have let vulnerable populations down in the past. Just as important, they’ll be fighting to sustain the historically significant environmental justice communities across the Carolinas—making sure that they aren’t permanently taken off the map.  

    “What we’ve discovered from going door-to-door helping folks after hurricanes is that the recovery process is designed to shut out the most impacted communities: low-income and people of color,” said Muhammad. “Our community members just want to breathe clean air, drink clean water, and not be made sick when they step outside.”

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    Mapping Where Environmental Justice Is Most Threatened in the Carolinas

    For more coverage of environmental justice in the Carolinas and Hurricane Florence, see The Black Communities That Have Fought for Their Right to Exist in the Carolinas.”

    When it comes to the environmental justice movement in the U.S., few states can lay claim to as many origin sites, case studies, and defining landmarks as North and South Carolina. The historical narratives of African Americans across both urban and rural landscapes in these two states constitute much of the canon of the environmental justice movement.

    These communities and cities not only have endured racism of both the policy-driven and violence-driven variety, but many of them are also located deep in the most defenseless zones of the Carolina floodplains, or in regions that are inundated with toxic pollution sources: large industrial animal feeding operations, open-air lagoons where volumes of animal waste are kept, storage facilities for coal-ash waste, landfills and other massive garbage disposal stations.

    The guaranteed upheaval of climate change puts these communities in even more precarious positions. There are many communities of color that fit this description. Below is a list of eight of those places whose existences are threatened under the weight of environmental disasters past, present, and into the future:

    (David Montgomery/Citylab)

    Wilmington, North Carolina: African Americans have been fighting for their right to exist in the port city going back to at least the Wilmington Insurrection of 1898, when white authorities stripped away black people’s rights to vote and hold office through deadly force. This despite the role of African Americans in building most of the city’s major landmarks. In 1971, racial tensions over the lack of protection for African Americans in the face of hostile desegregation efforts led to a riot and the false arrests of several black activists who’d become known as the “Wilmington Ten.” One of those activists, Ben Chavis, would later become a pivotal figure in the birth of the modern environmental justice movement. Wilmington is usually one of the first cities hit by hurricanes off the Atlantic coast, and its environmental risks are increased by its proximity to hog farms, nuclear reactors, and coal-ash ponds—one of which has already spilled over due to Florence.

    Princeville, North Carolina: Founded by formerly enslaved black people after the Civil War, and one of the first cities in the country chartered by African Americans, this city was originally known as Freedom Hill. Because of its location in one of the deepest floodplains of the state, along the Tar River, it has withstood numerous major hurricanes and floods, each one making it more difficult to recover from. In 2016, Hurricane Matthew reportedly slashed Princeville’s population of 2,000 in half, and even more residents are vowing to leave after Florence. The exodus could be owed not just to the hurricanes, but to the state’s unwillingness to accept the science around rising seas, favoring more coastal development instead, which left places like Princeville more exposed to impending devastation.

    Royal Oak, North Carolina: Another place founded by formerly enslaved African Americans, Royal Oak sits today in perhaps one of the most parlous locations in the state. It is surrounded by waste facilities of virtually every genre, and what makes its location even more unstable is that it is an unincorporated community. Although it’s located within the city of Supply, Brunswick County refuses to extend water and sewer service to it. With the help of the University of North Carolina’s Center for Civil Rights, Royal Oak residents were able to sue to stop the county from expanding one of the landfills last year. Given its proximity to Wilmington, it’s vulnerable to many of the same hazards, including flooding, coal-ash spills, and nuclear-reactor discharges.

    (University of North Carolina Center for Civil Rights)

    Belews Creek, North Carolina: A predominantly black, unincorporated community that sits farther inland is currently the rallying base around the state’s failure to adequately contain coal-ash contamination of water. Last December, black residents there sued Duke Energy for dumping untreated coal ash in the creek that they depend on for drinking water. The small community has drawn high-profile activists such as Rev. William Barber and former Vice President Al Gore to advocate on its behalf. For Florence, Duke Energy had to lift flood gates to prevent an accident happening at its Belews Creek plant, but that shows that the hurricane impacts were not just contained to the state’s eastern shores.

    Warren County, North Carolina: This area helped launch the environmental justice movement when, in 1978, African Americans protested and laid down in the streets to stop trucks from delivering tons of poisonous PCB-contaminated materials in a landfill near their homes and farms. Among those activists was Ben Chavis from The Wilmington Ten, who coined the term environmental racism in describing how toxic-waste facilities were disproportionately placed near communities of color.

    Around the same time, several African-American urban planners, engineers, and architects were drawing up the plans for a black municipality called “Soul City.” The campaigns to stop the toxic dumping and to launch Soul City both failed, and landfills still dot the Warren County terrain today. Hurricane Florence did not bring significant flooding due to its last-second turn south. Yet this remains one of the more vulnerable locations in North Carolina due to the spread of waste and trash around it.

    Charleston, South Carolina: Gadsden’s Wharf was the entry point for nearly half of the enslaved Africans imported to America. While slave labor built the city and produced the wealth amassed in it, African Americans have since suffered from racial violence, government neglect, and continuing efforts to displace them to make room for new luxury housing. Charleston was spared by Florence, but the city has been pummelled several times over the last few decades—most recently by Hurricane Joaquin in 2015, which caused several billion dollars of damage.

    Spartanburg, South Carolina: Since the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency took up environmental justice as an official policy goal, it is has proudly spotlighted the city of Spartanburg, South Carolina, the pilot site for one of the federal agency’s most esteemed EJ programs. The EPA seeded it with a $20,000 grant almost 20 years ago, and helped the city leverage that into millions of dollars in new investments to help clean up some of its most blighted neighborhoods. The funding also helped the city set up new health centers, which helped people ailing from pollution from an old fertilizer plant and waste dump. In 2015, it won an award from the American Planning Association. Under Florence’s wrath, more than 2,300 people lost power in the city.

    Geechee/Gullah Nation: This is a population of African descendants who dwell along the barrier islands of the Carolinas and Georgia. That means they are typically on the frontlines of disaster when hurricanes strike. And yet they’ve been able to prove resilient by relying on traditional African methods of building and planning for inclement weather events. The larger challenge for the Geechee/Gullahs is perhaps the encroachment of beachfront luxury development on the lands that they’ve inhabited for hundreds of years now.

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    CityLab Daily: When a Hospital Plays Housing Developer

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    What We’re Following

    House calls: About a decade ago, Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, embarked on a project to treat a different kind of patient: the neighborhood. In 2008, the hospital came looking for tax incentives to improve its roads, sidewalks, and parking. The city agreed, with a condition: It required the hospital put money into stabilizing the nearby Southern Orchards neighborhood by fixing up its housing.

    That eventually got the hospital into the real estate development business itself. What began as holding up its end of a tax deal became an investment in 272 single-family homes and dozens of rental units around the South Side. As an emerging body of medical research shows, neighborhoods and housing can determine health, and this program stands out for its emphasis on low-income tenants and mitigating the possible side effects of displacement. Today, CityLab’s Laura Bliss reports on what happens when a hospital plays housing developer.

    Andrew Small

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    Park Yourself

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    If you notice some pop-up parklets around town today, that’s because it’s Park(ing) Day, the placemaking event where cities let residents turn parking spaces into miniature parks. The annual tradition started in San Francisco back in 2005, and last year CityLab detailed the history of how the urbanist holiday took off around the world. One of the originators of the idea describes the installations as “as the gateway drug for urban transformation.” Of course, parking is a hot topic in urbanism, but it’s remarkable how these little parklets are just the right size for sharing photos on social media. In fact, if you snap a parklet pic today, tag @citylab and check our Instagram story later today for a roundup of the festivities in cities around the world.

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    When a Hospital Plays Housing Developer

    Growing up on the South Side of Columbus, Ohio, in the 1970s, Carol Smith didn’t think much about the nearby children’s hospital, except when she went to see the doctor. Though the institution sat a few blocks from her family’s house in the Southern Orchards neighborhood, the people inside the stately brick building seldom interacted with blue-collar families living around it.

    ”It was just kind of an island,” said Smith, now a 55-year-old auditor for the city school district. “There wasn’t outreach or anything like that.”

    That’s changed. About a decade ago, Nationwide Children’s Hospital embarked on a project to transform the adjacent area. The medical institution pumped investments into housing improvements in the surrounding community as part of an audacious effort to create a healthier environment for residents. The idea, as a recent article in .

    Whenever a large institution in a dense urban area tries to grow, some friction is inevitable, said Kimberly Zeuli, a senior fellow at the Institute for Competitive Inner Cities. But too often, she said, many such projects wind up paying little more than lip service to the notion of community investment as they clear out families and historic structures in their path. “Historically, most of these projects have gone wrong,” she said.


    Nationwide may provide a warmer, fuzzier model for hospital-as-developer. But it’s not immune to some of the same criticisms that have been leveled at other big medical institutions. Its profits are also booming, largely thank to the hospital’s work through its accountable-care organization, Partners for Kids. The hospital has recorded a revenue surplus on its spending on Medicaid patients in recent years, rather than a deficit, and according to a 2015 article by the Columbus Dispatch, it posted $285 million in total surplus from operations. Partners for Kids has slashed tens of millions of dollars in annual costs to the hospital, Nationwide’s chief financial officer Tim Robinson said at the time.

    Compared to those huge numbers, $6 million in paint jobs and home-flipping doesn’t seem like much. And what is far more obvious, and measurable, than the health effects of Nationwide’s neighborhood “treatment plan” are its effect on neighborhood property values. Southern Orchards is gentrifying, thanks to new homebuyers lured by the low-priced, recently rehabbed homes.

    That includes Dylan Grieshaber, a 32-year-old clerical assistant who works for the county, who bought a home through Healthy Homes, Healthy Neighborhoods in 2015. Growing up in Columbus, he’d had an impression of the neighborhood as a dangerous place. But as soon as he and his fiancée saw the two-story, prairie-style, downtown-adjacent house priced at a mere $118,000 in 2015, “we were sold,” Grieshaber said. Three years later, his home is worth about $170,000, according to Zillow. According to numbers provided by Community Development for All People, average property values in Southern Orchards have nearly doubled from the start of the initiative.

    Recent arrivals have brought a clutch of new restaurants, shops, and neighborhood amenities, which long-timers like Smith and Doody say are a plus. But rising home values have also put displacement pressure on some residents in the neighborhood. “I do have a concern about whether the people who’ve been there will manage to keep their home,” said Smith.

    Renters in particular can struggle to stay in place when home values are on the rise. Although the Healthy Homes, Healthy Neighborhoods initiative has boosted the number of rental units in the area, it hasn’t done much yet to help existing residents stay in the neighborhood as rents rise. And that’s a big gap, since by far it is tenants who are most vulnerable to issues related to housing instability. “In Columbus as a whole, our renters are very unstable,” said Reece. “We have lots of eviction. It’s a much tougher piece of the housing market to get your hands around.”

    To its credit, the hospital’s housing program is now trying to address this segment of the market with a forthcoming program called Healthy Rental Homes. It will flip properties into rental units for low-income tenants with the plan to add 15 units per year over the next five years.

    This component makes the program truly unique, according to Dr. Megan Sandel, a leader of a similar neighborhood housing program at Boston Medical Center who has advised Nationwide on their initiative. “This is one model where a hospital is literally owning and operating housing in partnership with other housing entities,” she told NPR.

    According to Kelleher, there are encouraging signs that displacement is not occurring among Southern Orchard’s most vulnerable potential patients. The rate of Medicaid births coming from the neighborhood around the hospital has not budged much since 2008. That implies families are not being pushed out of the area.

    Still, the side effects of the hospital’s prescription for this neighborhood remain to be fully understood. In a commentary on the article about Nationwide in Pediatrics, the medical researchers Irene Yen, Susan Neufeld, and Leslie Dubbin commended Nationwide’s practices but remarked that redevelopment may not be a complete course of treatment for a community defined by “structural dismemberment” of so many residents forced to leave their homes. Recognizing that traumatic history, they argued, would be a critical ingredient in any prescription written for the community.

    “[W]e strongly urge those in this collaborative to think
    strategically about ways of finding those who have been displaced and testing strategies that reestablish connections with them so that they may benefit from these efforts,” they wrote.

    Kelleher, Reece, and John Edgar, the Methodist pastor who directs Community Development for All People, admit there is much more to do in order to maintain safe and stable housing for all of Southern Orchard’s neighbors for the future. “It’s proven to be a lot easier to fix old properties than it’s been easy to ensure non-displacement,” Edgar said. “That is the major challenge.” But they contend that, so far, what the hospital has done in partnership with his organization has been effective. And now the focus is shifting from reducing vacancies to keeping the would-be recipients of the hospital’s health-focused investments in the neighborhood.

    “It took 80 years to end up with these neighborhood disparities,” said Kelleher. “Its going to take longer than eight years to fix it.”

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