In the United States, people of color are disproportionally more likely to live in environments with poor air quality, in close proximity to toxic waste, and in locations more vulnerable to climate change and extreme weather events. In many vulnerable neighborhoods, structural racism and classism prevent residents from having a seat at the table when decisions are made about their community. In an effort to overcome power imbalances and ensure local knowledge informs decision-making, a new approach to community engagement is essential. In Resilience for All, Barbara Brown Wilson looks at less conventional, but often more effective methods to make communities more resilient. She takes an in-depth look at what equitable, positive change through community-driven design looks like in four communitiesEast Biloxi, Mississippi; the Lower East Side of Manhattan; the Denby neighborhood in Detroit, Michigan; and the Cully neighborhood in Portland, Oregon. These vulnerable communities have prevailed in spite of serious urban stressors such as climate change, gentrification, and disinvestment. Wilson looks at how the lessons in the case studies and other examples might more broadly inform future practice. She shows how community-driven design projects in underserved neighborhoods can not only change the built world, but also provide opportunities for residents to build their own capacities.
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About the Author
Barbara is assistant professor of urban and environmental planning at the University of Virginia and co-founder of Design Futures. She is a founding member of the Equity Collective.
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Introduction: Resilience or Resistance?
"Inclusion" doesn't undo existing injustices. In particular, viewing place as "common denominator" runs the risk of erasing major differences in the ways people experience place and public spaces. In the United States, these major differences cleave along racial and class lines. ... Persistent inequalities and decades of discrimination mean a code of ethics isn't going to cut it. We need an actual politics of placemaking. — Annette Koh, Urban Planning Researcher
Many traditional methods of community engagement are useless to vulnerable communities. They attract outspoken residents who rarely represent greater neighborhood interests, and they reduce decision-making power to a series of sticky-dot votes instead of privileging the substantive power of collective conversation. Residents in lower-income neighborhoods often do not trust they will be heard by municipalities or speculative developers in a town hall setting because the meeting experience often includes imbalanced power dynamics, inconvenient locations, unclear marketing, and culturally inappropriate agendas; thus many residents do not see these meetings as the best use of their time. Low levels of participation and low-quality feedback absolve designers and planners of seriously considering any community input. The result is irrelevant public infrastructure at best, and resident displacement at worst. And yet, these presentation-heavy meetings remain one of the most common methods used to involve residents in the process of improving their neighborhoods.
Resilience planning and urban design all strive to transform urban form in the name of social values like human thriving and walkability. But in places with low socioeconomic status, structural racism and classism prevent many residents from exercising their full rights in the collective work of citymaking. What does that mean in practice? This book contributes to the discourse around the politics of placemaking, holding up less conventional, but often more effective, methods to make communities more resilient. Through a collective case study of eight of the most successful community-driven design projects in the country, each prevailing in spite of serious urban stressors (e.g., climate change, gentrification, disinvestment), this book seeks to clarify what equitable, positive change looks like in vulnerable urban communities. This case study suggests that consultation in a design process does not necessarily help create more equitable communities. Indeed, consensus is not the goal; designing for equitable, systemic change in vulnerable communities involves fusing the local knowledge of residents with the technical knowledge of professionals in small, nimble, public projects.
Tactical urbanism, also known as urban acupuncture, DIY, pop-up or guerilla urbanism, is touted as a vehicle for propelling change in the built world, and for generating new platforms for civic discourse, and it does. This strategy for placemaking is typically conceived of and implemented by residents, often outside the bounds of government-approved processes, as a means of creating prototypes of particular public spaces and how they might look and function differently. But leaders of this movement acknowledge that this method of civic engagement with the built world works better for affluent, white communities, and can result in penalization, and even unwarranted criminalization, when poor people of color attempt guerilla urban design tactics in their own neighborhoods. It is well documented that people of color often experience disproportionate impacts of overpolicing. The Washington Post received a Pulitzer Prize for its reporting on police shootings, which found that in 2016 "34 percent of the unarmed people killed were black males, although they are 6 percent of the population." This statistic alone could hinder the enthusiasm of a person of color to participate in guerilla urbanism. Further, parklets and yarnbombs almost never address the more acute needs of residents with low socioeconomic status.
Socioeconomically vulnerable communities around the country are developing their own, increasingly sophisticated, methods for influencing local decision making, often with designers serving as resource allies. These strategies tend to be beautiful, provocative, and extragovernmental, like their more affluent "tactical urbanist" counterparts, and socially impactful. As is discussed in chapter 2, efforts to make design relevant to complex social challenges and to the lives of vulnerable communities operate under many names. This book uses the language of community-driven design because the projects described herein take pains to move away from an approach where designs are crafted exclusively by professionals with the public interest in mind; instead, these projects are crafted with or by vulnerable community residents with social equity as a central tenet.
In contrast to equality, which connotes justice through fair access to resources, equity, in this context, measures justice through equal impacts. The language of disproportionate impacts frames the environmental justice movement and the policies inspired by it. For centuries, common land-use practices and policies have perpetuated systemic inequities in the built environment. In the United States, people of color are disproportionately more likely to live in environments with poor air quality, in close proximity to toxic waste, and in locations more vulnerable to climate change. This is not the result of poor choices, but of widespread racially unjust practices that continue to be codified into the built world through land-use policies. Practices such as red-lining, blockbusting, racial zoning, and nefarious land-use planning all have historical roots and have been rendered illegal, yet they continue in new forms today.
These practices lower property values and therefore reduce social mobility for families of color, which is significant enough to inspire dramatic change in our current system. They also have horrific health impacts that should move all of us to action. Although all poor, nonwhite communities are subject to discriminatory practices, African Americans suffer the most widespread discrimination in the United States. For instance, a 2002 study of exposure to environmentally hazardous sites (e.g., power plants, landfills, incinerators, and industrial facilities) in Massachusetts found that "high-minority communities face a cumulative exposure rate to environmentally hazardous facilities and sites that is nearly nine times greater than that for low-minority communities." A study of Portland, Oregon, and Seattle, Washington, found that poor and African American residents are 36 percent and 20 percent more likely to be exposed to harmful air pollution. In comparison with their white counterparts, African Americans are three times more likely to die from asthma; for African American children this ratio rises to eight times more likely. An analysis of lead exposure in children under the age of five between 1988 and 2002 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that, although exposure rates for all races have gone down dramatically, African American children are still roughly 60 percent more likely than white children to be exposed — from 11.2 percent and 2.3 percent of one- to five-year-old black and white children, respectively, in the early 1990s to 2.8 percent and 1.8 percent in the early 2000s. Heat waves are becoming more common with climate change, and heat-related deaths disproportionately impact African Americans.
To change this pattern of systemic inequity, society must alter its modes of decision making to incorporate a wider range of voices. It must also recalibrate its collective value system so that safety, health, and equity are just as important decision-making factors as financial return on investment. For urban development processes and products to contribute to community resilience, the residents who have consistently borne the burden of these unjust land-use patterns must be given space to process collective trauma and availed their full rights of self-determination, regardless of what stressors affect their neighborhood. The lived experiences of any place are important, but the situated experience of living in communities marked by structural classism and racism provides its residents with unique knowledge that cannot be understood from outside observation. Every community has assets, and building on the existing assets of a place and its people increases social capital and leads to greater community resilience.
Cities are complex; correcting these systemic injustices is also complex and requires time and effort. Many urban leaders are eager to help support resilience in lower-income communities. But the varying meanings of the word "resilience" in the context of vulnerable communities, even within a singular conversation between city leaders, renders the term problematic when neither fully defined nor explicitly connected to equitable impacts.
Resilience or Resistance in the Urban Context?
Modern theories of resilience originated in the field of ecology. C. S. Holling's 1973 paper "Resilience and Stability of Ecological Systems" established modern resilience theory, noting that ecosystems are not stable environments; they are strongest when they are dynamic and can persist despite change. As urbanists adopt these ecological notions of resilience, the term most commonly refers to responses to extreme climate events. Many practitioners employ the term through an ecological frame — the ability to absorb shock — while others see it through an engineering lens — the ability for a material to bounce back — after a storm, earthquake, or other stressor. But critics point out the problems with asking vulnerable communities to "bounce back" or "absorb shock" in order to be resilient. It seems outrageous to ask communities of residents with low socioeconomic status, who have been subject to generations of systemic inequities, to rebound after they suffer yet another injustice perpetuated by unfair land-use policies. Some advocates even put forth the notion of resistance, instead of resilience, as a way to express their displeasure with what they see as rhetoric without context. For vulnerable residents, the notions of resilience are often just another way to limit their rights to the city. But these communities are also the ones most at risk for future extreme climate events, so the relationship requires further consideration for resilience planners. I'm using the term here to engage with the current discourse on resilience planning to help make the practice of resilience-as-adaptive-capacity more robust, and more socially just.
Planning theorist Peter Marcuse suggests that employing terms without fully considering their implications is dangerous business. He points out that one-dimensional conceptions of terms typically serve to maintain the status quo. Further, American studies scholar George Lipsitz asserts that there is a white spatial imaginary that often guides land-use decisions and policing practices toward "exchange value over use value, selfishness over sociality, and exclusion over inclusion." Lipsitz challenges practitioners to more reflectively consider the myriad of assumptions built into the language and design decisions they make. Planning historian Leonie Sandercock argues for "insurgent histories" of urban planning that hold up the marginalized voices, telling the stories of urban interventions without privileging a white, male, professionalized approach to every project. This book attempts to follow the charges laid out by Marcuse, Lipsitz, and Sandercock: to reconsider the role that certain terms play in our urban discourse by learning from micro design projects that challenge the status quo, and by asserting the voices of community leaders from a variety of perspectives. The projects highlighted shed light on what resilience planning and design might include for vulnerable communities when conceptualized by local residents for their own neighborhoods.
What can systems thinking contribute to a redefinition of resiliency with equity in mind? Ecologists and planners are actively engaged in debates about what social resilience might entail if we are to go beyond simply bouncing back after a crisis (e.g., a flood-resistant material) or absorbing an ecological shock (e.g., barrier wetlands along a coastline). Urban resilience literature frames social and ecological systems as inseparably coupled, and understands adaptive capacity and inclusivity as critical aspects of resilience planning. A resilient city would be one that plans collectively for and responds well to disaster, but is also powered by renewable energy, including nature, food production, and cooperative economies. Many scholars are interested in how socioeconomically vulnerable communities, in the face of outside stressors, might enhance their adaptive capacity through increased political agency and improved quality of life.
Urban cityscapes are complex adaptive systems, consisting of many diverse and autonomous but interrelated and interdependent parts. They include countless social, ecological, technological, and economic flows, which all function within an interconnected system. In Resilience Thinking, Brian Walker and David Salt describe the typical dynamics of complex adaptive systems in which human and nonhuman actors continuously remake the world in four phases. Drawing again from environmental ecology, the four phases of adaptive cycles are rapid growth (a time of innovation), conservation (a time of increasing standardization), release (creative destruction), and reorganization (regeneration) (fig. 1.1).,
No two systems are completely alike, but they do follow particular patterns. This model espouses that adaptive cycles often begin with a period of rapid growth. The growth phase is marked by the exploitation of resources — in ecological systems the protagonist in this phase might be a rapidly growing weed; in economic systems, opportunistic entrepreneurs. Then incremental change shifts the system into a conservation phase that is more judicious with its resources. These phases are marked by efficiency over flexibility, and the system becomes less resilient to outside stressors. As Walker and Salt describe it, "Increasing dependence on existing structures and processes renders the system increasingly vulnerable to disturbance. Such a system is increasingly stable, but over a decreasing range of conditions." In other words, in the conservation phase powerful interests become entrenched in a certain way of doing things, and reliability is valued over creative problem solving. This phase is marked by inequities, often in the name of efficiency.
When a stressor challenges those "stable" conditions, a system can be thrown into a release phase if its web of reinforcing interactions breaks down. This phase is often short-lived and chaotic. The system releases tightly held capital — allowing the natural, economic, and/or social assets to reorganize. This moment of "creative destruction" can lead to regeneration of the system where many new pathways become possible. The final phase is one of reorganization, wherein system dynamics become less chaotic again and form new identities or regain lost ones.
Although phases in this back loop are times of creativity and new possibilities, these phases generate no capital and can be traumatic times for actors in the system. But as a system moves from the shorter back loop phases through the longer fore loop growth phase toward conservation, opportunities for innovation shrink, and capital growth eventually slows down as well. Resilience theorists also understand systems to be linked across many scales, continuously informing one another. Gunderson and Holling coined the term panarchy to describe the cross-scalar relationships between linked adaptive cycles. This characteristic lends greater import to microscale changes. When executed properly, these changes can have ripple effects through the bigger systems to which they are connected.
The projects highlighted in this book often demonstrate the urban applications of Gunderson and Holling's panarchy model. They occur in resource-strained environments, when an outside stressor incited chaos. Capital generation is often low, but creative potential is high. As one respondent put it, the cityscape so often seen by residents as an unchangeable "behemoth" becomes malleable. And in every case, the microprojects piloted in a small patch of urban infrastructure are designed with equitable systems change in mind. These projects illustrate the importance of creativity as a way of altering the conversation toward hopeful, productive collaborations, instead of generating fear or frustration in vulnerable neighborhoods. These projects highlight the importance of valuing the time and knowledge of lower-income people when seeking their participation. And above all, these projects convey the value of working with vulnerable residents to co-design civic infrastructure projects that build equitable futures, instead of passively allowing for their displacement. If placemaking projects aspire to contribute to positive change in vulnerable communities, the assets, needs, and wisdom of community residents must be a driving factor in the design and implementation processes. Structural racism cannot be eradicated by one small design intervention, but not considering existing and potential inequities when changing the urban fabric of lower-income communities implicitly perpetuates systems of oppression.
Excerpted from "Resilience for All"
Copyright © 2018 Barbara Brown Wilson.
Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
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Table of Contents
Preface: On #Charlottesville Acknowledgments Chapter 1: Introduction: Resilience or Resistance? Chapter 2: A Short History of Community-Driven Design Chapter 3: East Biloxi: Bayou Restoration as Environmental Justice Vignette #1: Fargo: Playing in the Sandbox in The Fargo Project Chapter 4: Lower East Side, Manhattan: Tactical Urbanism Holding Space for the People's Waterfront Vignette #2: San Francisco: Reconsidering Parklets in Ciencia Pública: Agua Chapter 5: Denby, Detroit: Schools, and Their Students, as Anchors Vignette #3: The Cochella Valley: Reimagining the Banks of the Salton Sea in the North Shore Productive Public Space Project Chapter 6: Cully, Portland: Green Infrastructure as an Antipoverty Strategy Vignette #4: Philadelphia: The “Makerspace” Revisited in The Tiny WPA Chapter 7: Conclusion: Toward Design Justice Notes Bibliography Index