We talk a lot about what makes urban public spaces vibrant — but what makes them just?
This was the question for our City Lobby conversation on April 16, 2019 at PhillyCAM, where Philadelphians gathered for an interactive dialogue led by Erica D. Atwood, Veronica O. Davis and Andrew Stober, advisors to the Just Spaces Initiative in Philadelphia.
Watch the video livestream of their presentation here:
JUST SPACES FRAMEWORK:
When Stober joined University City District over three years ago, they started thinking about public space and collecting data around equity.
“What felt clear to me was that no one really knew what they talked about when they talked about equity in public space.”
They had data on users, but what they didn't have was non-users. “Who is absent from public spaces, and why aren’t they here?”
To analyze this question, the Just Spaces Initiative, led by a large advisory committee, started with three axes of justice conceptualized by anthropologist Setha M. Low, director of the Public Space Research Group at the City University of New York:
Distributional Justice — Who has physical proximity to space assets?
Procedural Justice — Who is listened to and how are they listened to in the planning, design and operations of a public space?
Interactional Justice — What makes people feel welcome or unwanted in a public space?
Plus two additional elements:
Representation — What does it mean to see yourself and your history in a space?
Ethic of Care — How do people care for each other and the space that they’re in?
To illustrate the difference between equality, equity & justice, Davis shared three images:
Equality shows everyone getting the same size box to peer over the fence
Equity shows everyone getting the size box they need to see over the fence
Justice asks: Why is there a fence?
“The idea of justice is: Break the whole fence down,” said Davis. “Why are we fighting to see over the fence, when there shouldn’t be a fence in the first place? This is where we’re coming from—let’s remove the fence in order to have more just public spaces.”
Added Stober: “Often one of the problems is that we don’t even see the fence.”
“What’s really interesting,” said Davis, “is when you start having conversations about equity, everyone agrees: ‘Yes, everyone should have what they need.’ But the minute you put money on the table, then it’s like ‘Welll, maybe they can have some of what they need,’ and the other stuff goes away…”
“What makes you feel welcome and gives you a sense of belonging in a space?”
—Erica D. Atwood
“One of the biggest fears in a rapidly changing city is cultural erasure—what was once familiar to me is no longer there.”
—Veronica O. Davis
Some examples of what could make you feel unwanted or unwelcome in public space:
How far do I have to walk around a fence to get in?
Where is the closest bathroom?
How is the space policed?
How much do I have to pay for ice cream?
Speaking of ice cream—when monetizing spaces with concession sales, park operators must be transparent. Dilworth Park, for example, offers tremendous public programming. Revenue is needed to produce this, the costs must be made more transparent to the community. On the other hand, could vendors also consider: if you’re selling ice cream for $5, could you also offer something for $1?
“People get so caught up in the design of public space, that they don't think about the people who will use them.”
—Veronica O. Davis
“It’s important for whomever is designing a park, to really be working with the community,” said Davis. For design and planning professionals, “It’s about going to where people are, while they’re doing the thing they’re already doing, engaging them in the process, and designing space that can be flexible for multiple users.”
“It’s also about being very deliberate about whose voices are being amplified in a discussion,” added Stober. “Especially voices that aren’t showing up through traditional means of public engagement.”
ETHIC OF CARE:
“Public space can serve as a refuge from society’s ills, it can also serve as reflection of those very same ills. You often see that expressed in how people are cared for.”
People — How do we care for people using public space who are the most marginalized?
Maintenance — How does the party responsible for maintaining a space (municipal or other) maintain it or not, and what message does this send to people who are using the space? How can this be interpreted differently by people from different backgrounds?
Volunteerism — How do people step up for events like “Love Your Park Day” to take care of spaces in an informal or organized way?
On the issue of maintenance, Stober shared an example:
When a public water fountain in the city was shut down, local focus groups interpreted it differently. People of color read it as discouraging use of the space, while white residents assumed it was because the city didn’t have budget to maintain many public amenities, not just this one.
“Neither is the specific reason why that water fountain isn’t working,” said Stober, “but they both speak to systematic reasons” for disinvestment and disparity in public space.
“The only two public statues of women in Philadelphia are martyrs— and they’re white martyrs. What does that say?”
—Erica D. Atwood
“What about large public spaces that serve an entire city or region? How do you keep space flexible for users from everywhere?”
Davis shared the National Mall in Washington D.C. as an example. “It is just grass. But if you go there any day of the week, it is always full of people.”
“How do you have this space that is for the world, but is also where locals go to toss a frisbee or fly a kite? It’s because it’s literally nothing, and everyone can make it whatever they want. You take your corner, and you define your space for the time that you’re there.”
Comparing parks in America and Europe, Atwood added: “There is not enough opportunity for adults to play in parks. In thinking about your space, think about how you remove restrictions and allow opportunity for grown folk and children and everyone to have an equitable space to play.”
“We’re so worried about liability and safety,” added Atwood. “What’s more important is to have a space that is open and dynamic and available to everyone.”
To get the conversation started, guests were asked to share their favorite public spaces growing up:
“I spent most of my time on the city sidewalks, and we congregated on a big hill in the neighborhood.”
“My space was the Mt. Airy playground. It was my first introduction to public spaces and the recreation department.”
“My public spaces were indoor spaces. I was from an immigrant family, so I went to the library and the public schools.”
To put the Just Spaces framework into practice, guests were asked to consider three case studies from public spaces across the country:
Case 1: Don’t Mute DC (Washington, D.C.)
Case 2: Homeless Surge at San Francisco Airport (San Francisco, CA)
Case 3: Recreational Leagues vs. Pick-up Games (Washington, D.C.)
What are the elements of justice that apply to your case?
Put yourself in the shoes of a policymaker, an operational manager or an advocate: How does the Just Spaces framework apply?
What will you do to make public spaces more just in the next 10 minutes, 10 days, 1 year?
THANKS TO OUR PARTNERS:
City Lobby: Just Spaces was hosted by Urban Consulate at Philadelphia Community Access Media and made possible thanks to support from Knight Foundation and Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia. For future Consulate events, follow us on Facebook, Instagram & Twitter.
Photo Credit: Heather McBride Photography
On the first day of spring, at the historic Eastern Market in Detroit, Urban Consulate co-hosted The Better Arguments Project—a national initiative of The Aspen Institute Citizenship and American Identity Program, Facing History and Ourselves and Allstate to invite Americans to reach across political, cultural and economic divides for more productive dialogue.
The Better Arguments Project is inspired by the idea that America doesn’t need fewer arguments—just less stupid ones. (An idea we can get behind!)
Take winning off the table
Prioritize relationships & listen passionately
Pay attention to context
Make room to transform
To read more, check out this piece in The Atlantic.
In Detroit, we practiced these principles in conversations between city longtimers and newcomers, who at times have been pitted against one another (even unwittingly or unwillingly) about changes happening in the city.
Some took issue that this is not an “argument” but a conversation — a perspective we deeply appreciated. Many agreed we need to have better dialogue across generational, geographic, racial & economic difference, and came eager to learn & practice skills to do that.
To start off the morning right, Detroit writer & storyteller Marsha Music opened with a reading of her poem, Just Say Hi: The Gentrification Blues. When moderator Lauren Hood asked the audience of 200 community members, “Who here has had their consciousness shifted by Marsha?” a sea of hands went up.
Then breakout conversations were led by Jennifer Jones Clark of Facing History and Ourselves, who grew up on Detroit’s Eastside, and shared her own ambivalence about how the city is changing.
So did it work? Did the principles foster productive dialogue?
Of course conversations at each table varied, but the ones we participated in and overheard were beautiful and powerful—with many tablemates trading contacts and making plans to keep in touch after the event.
Just to give you an idea, here is a small sampling of “I Will” pledge cards that participants left behind:
On Thursday, December 13, 2018 at the historic Scarab Club in Detroit, we invited three tried & true Detroiters to offer some urban wisdom: What’s their advice to next generation city builders?
Consulate host Orlando Bailey welcomed Detroit Innovation Fellow Beverly Frederick of North Rosedale Park and writer & historian Marsha Music for a fireside chat with a full room of wisdom seekers. (Sadly, Phillis Judkins of the North End neighborhood was not feeling well and sent her regrets. Feel better, Phillis!)
Watch the video here:
A must-listen short interview with Krista Tippett for On Being, after the Kavanaugh Supreme Court hearings & discourse, about the need for better conversation in public life:
“The point of speaking together differently is learning to live together differently. I’m not interested in talking for talking’s sake, ever. And yet, [laughs] it’s our capacity as humans — in fact, our compulsion as humans — to share space with each other, to put words, which are very often inadequate, but to struggle to put words around our deepest thoughts and our deepest longings and our most difficult subjects — to do that with each other, with strangers, with those closest to us.”
“A long time ago, I interviewed [philosopher] Anthony Appiah… One of the things he offered me that has been a gift of that conversation I’ve carried forward ever since is the original meaning of the word “conversation.” It is not just about words passing between mouths and ears. It’s about shared life. I’ve been thinking, ever since: Listening is about bringing our lives into conversation.”
“Right now we have work to do to create the spaces and the trust to even have the kinds of conversations I’m talking about. The work is bigger. A conversation begins before any words are spoken. The tone is set. What is possible is framed. So that’s what I think of, also, when I think of conversation. I think of the fact that conversation done well strengthens relationship, and we certainly need relationship.”
“I think if we could create some better spaces for conversation, just people starting where they are, and model that that is an interesting place, a robust place; that that, in fact, is the heart of our life together… then we start to build out a much more interesting and vital place that is the middle, the heart of our life together.”
“All of the important social change and moral change that we can see — certainly the civil rights movement, anything you could name… there is the time between a way we’ve been living is revealed to be horrendous, that the practices that were not just condoned, but moral, that our eyes are opened to the fact that it is repugnant and that we must live differently. In every case when that happens in history, there are some people who see it first, and there’s a long period of gestation. Movements do come along and uproot structures, but there’s critical mass, and then there’s this period of what John Paul Lederach, our friend, calls “critical yeast,” where small groups of people in an unlikely quality of relationship start to create new possibilities, and then that becomes infectious. It always takes longer than it should, but it can start in some places immediately.”
Read the full transcript here.
There are approximately 300,000 parcels of land in Detroit, and 670,000 residents with ideas to improve their city. That’s a lot of room to dream.
So we asked three Detroit Innovation Fellows to share their dream spaces—and how they are making them come true.
On October 4, against the backdrop of a frought national discourse on how we value women’s voices and experiences, three visionary Detroit women—Mama Shu Harris of The Avalon Village, Samoy Smith of Creating Space Detroit, and Bucky Willis of Bleeding Heart Design—presented their neighborhood placemaking projects to a full room of city lovers & dreamers.
The energy was powerful.
“This is the dream space,” said Consulate host Orlando Bailey.
“That was food, medicine, love, and all the good things,” said Bucky.
“That was the coolest!” said Mama Shu.
Why was the evening so magical?
For starters, the creative community projects they shared were all Black women-led, rooted in their own neighborhoods, designed for and with the communities they serve.
Houses for learning, parks for playing & gathering—all small-scale projects to create more beautiful & healing places for neighbors to come together. Sanctuaries in the city.
"We want to make sure that people who are using the space are really part of the process,” said Bucky, an architectural designer who works with Detroit Collaborative Design Center and also started her own organization to promote altruism through design.
For her new project, the Unlearning House, Bucky envisions a space for people of color, especially Black, to come together to unlearn the stereotypes, myths and negative things people are told about themselves. She wants a place to be yourself and know your true value, she said. “How can we celebrate African-American culture instead of squashing it?”
Mama Shu, who started The Avalon Village with one lot in Highland Park and now owns 35, said she finally calls herself a land developer. She’s also a teacher: “We take kids around the block. We look at blight, we talk about things we can do. I show the children that they can make their space beautiful, too.”
With all three women at different stages in their journeys—from concept to construction to expansion—they shared moving exchanges about the power of sisterhood, motherhood & neighborhood to bring these ideas to life.
“There is a reason people call Mama Shu ‘Mama,’” said Bucky. “That’s a term of endearment.”
“You need a support system,” added Samoy, herself a young mother, also home-schooling her children. She teamed with fellow volunteers Joe Marra & Victoria Sahami to transform a vacant lot into a pocket park and community house in their Bagley neighborhood—not without moments of doubt.
“Having ride-or-die ‘aunties’ in the neighborhood is really important,” said Samoy. “Find those people who can say, ‘You're doing good work, keep doing it.’”
With nine years of experience and a builder’s license now under her belt, Mama Shu offered great practical advice on the nuts & bolts of placemaking, from property acquisition to media to fundraising.
Through an ambitious Kickstarter campaign, she raised over $240,000—and shared the nail-biting story of last-minute help from a high-profile angel to meet their goal.
Support for her work has come from all over the world, thanks to friends, fans and national media love, including a memorable appearance on the Ellen Degeneres Show.
But Shu didn’t start there—she began with what she had, buying a lot for $300 here, and another for $3,000 there, assembling the land and acquiring construction management skills over time.
“I don’t concentrate on the money,” said Shu. “You just concentrate on the thing—the thing you want to bring about. The rest will come, if it is supposed to be.”
As Shu, Samoy & Bucky shared their work, it did not go unnoticed that multiple generations were present in the room—not always the case for urban forums.
With Samoy’s children playing at her feet, and Marsha Music sharing city history while little ones wiggled on her lap, guests underscored that this placemaking and city-building work must be cross-generational and communal.
“I love moms who are unapologetic about bringing kids into spaces,” said Bucky. “I commend you for that. My mom took us everywhere, too.”
Perhaps the best moment of the evening was when Orlando asked for a show of hands: “Who has their own dream space for the city? Would anyone like to share?”
A few guests volunteered and were invited up to the front.
One guest raised her hand reluctantly. “I’ve been pregnant with an idea for years. What is the first step to give it birth?” Bucky asked whether she would be willing to share the concept out loud.
At first, she demurred—“Maybe I can tell you privately?” But with some gentle coaxing, she accepted and Orlando passed her the mic.
The room responded with applause.
“See,” said Bucky, “you just took the first step!”
“This is the village. This is the dream. To have spaces to be real, to share resources and time and love. This space now, this is it.”
To watch the video, click here.
To view the presenters’ slides, click below:
This summer, we took our conversations outside—popping up our #MobileConsulate parlor at neighborhood festivals around Philadelphia. The goal? To slow down and talk with locals & visitors about the city. At the Philadelphia United Jazz Festival, photographer Heather McBride captured portraits & quotes from a few of our guests. Click here to read more—
On April 4, we gathered back at Pipeline Philly in Philadelphia with REC Philly & Witty Gritty to debrief. How did it go? What are other ways we can practice urban diplomacy & share Philadelphia stories around the world?
Some takeaways from City Lobby with Amplify Philly:
1. Keeping efforts like Amplify Philly collective & communal are key to include more voices and a truer representation of what Philly is and looks like.
2. There is definitely some "special sauce" in Philly — an organic feeling of community and family that can't be fabricated.
3. We need to better support and lift what is already happening in the city. We don't necessarily need a SXSW here.
Watch the video of the conversation here:
Entrepreneur & data analyst Alok Sharma is concerned Detroit is missing an opportunity with artificial intelligence. "We're going to master the defining technology of the 21st Century—and use it to sell cars?"
Are there higher, better uses for A.I. than moving metal from point A to B? Healthcare? Education? What else should Detroit be developing?
On March 21, Sharma joined us in the parlor to share Detroit's bizarre & fascinating history of innovating new industries—and then reverting to cars. (See some examples in his presentation below.)
"We have a history of birthing an industry, and then it disappears," said Sharma. "We always keep going back to auto manufacturing. I'm not sure why—might be capital?"
"A.I. is the electricity of our generation. Whether we like it or not, it will be ubiquitous. And we are singularly focused on auto, with a track record of missing out."
Watch the video by MILO Digital here:
About Our Guest
Alok Sharma is founder of Sharma Analytics, a technology management consultancy based at TechTown that uses data to rationalize, select, plan and manage technology projects for small to mid-size organizations. As a longtime city booster, trend trafficker & political wonk, Sharma has contributed to a number of civic campaigns & initiatives, including Council by Districts, National Day of Civic Hacking, Detroit Startup Drinks, Detroit Synergy & more.
About the Consulate
Urban Consulate is a network of parlors for urban exchange. A winner of the Knight Cities Challenge, the Consulate has hosted over 150 conversations in Detroit, Philadelphia & New Orleans to bring people together and share ideas for better cities. Join us on Facebook, Twitter & Instagram @urbanconsulate.
On February 1, 2018, Michael O'Bryan (@misticquest) of the Village of Arts & Humanities in Philadelphia joined us at the Urban Consulate in Detroit for a parlor talk titled “Community Building in the 21st Century: Exploring Trauma, Healing, and Inclusive Growth." Hosted by Orlando Bailey of Eastside Community Network & Kayana Sessums of Osborn Neighborhood Alliance, O'Bryan presented his work and research on youth & community development.
Afterwards, several guests inquired about the studies & scholars cited, so Michael generously shared his research and we compiled in the syllabus below.
- Trauma Theory Abbreviated
- Sandra L. Bloom, M.D., 1999
- Why Can't We All Just Get Along? The Uncertain Biological Basis of Morality
- Robert Wright, The Atlantic, November 2013
- The Biological Basis of Morality
- Edward O. Wilson, The Atlantic, April 1998
- The Fair Society: It's Time to Re-Write the Social Contract
- Peter A. Corning, Seattle Journal for Social Justice, July 2012
- Study: Oxytocin ('The Hormone of Love') Also Makes Us Conformists
- Lindsay Abrams, The Atlantic, September 2012
- Conversations About Historical Trauma: Part Two
- National Child Traumatic Stress Network, Summer 2013
- As Babies, We Knew Morality
- Emily Esfahani Smith, The Atlantic, November 2013
- Origin of the Mind
- Marc Hauser, Scientific American, September 2009
- Human Behavior: Brain Trust
- Antonio Damasio, June 2005
- How the Brain Creates the Mind
- Antonio Damasio, Scientific American, 2002
Children’s Emotional Development Is Built into the Architecture of Their Brains (National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, Harvard University, 2004)
Young Children Develop in an Environment of Relationships (National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, Harvard University, 2004)
The Posttraumatic Growth Inventory: Measuring the Positive Legacy of Trauma (Richard G. Tedeschi & Lawrence G. Calhoun, Journal of Traumatic Stress, 1996) [abstract]
Poverty & Race Through A Belonging Lens (John A. Powell, Policy Matters, Northwest Area Foundation, March 2012)
Summer Jobs Reduce Violence Among Disadvantaged Youth (Sara B. Heller, Science Magazine, 2014) [abstract]
An Integrated Scientific Framework for Child Survival and Early Childhood Development (Jack P. Shonkoff, Linda Richter, Jacques van der Gaag and Zulfiqar A. Bhutta, American Academy of Pediatrics, January 2012) [abstract]
Optimism, Social Support, and Coping Strategies As Factors Contributing to Posttraumatic Growth: A Meta-Analysis (Gabriel Prati, Journal of Loss & Trauma, August 2009) [abstract
Positive Affect and the Complex Dynamics of Human Flourishing (Barbara L. Fredrickson and Marcial F. Losada, June 2011)
Upward Spirals of Positive Emotions Counter Downward Spirals of Negativity: Insights from the Broaden-and-Build Theory and Affective Neuroscience on The Treatment of Emotion Dysfunctions and Deficits in Psychopathology (Eric L. Garland, Barbara L. Fredrickson, Ann M. Kring, David P. Johnson, Piper S. Meyer, David L. Penn, November 2010)
The Role of Positive Emotions in Positive Psychology: The Broaden-and-Build Theory of Positive Emotions (Barbara L. Fredrickson, March 2001)
Lacking Power Impairs Executive Functions (Smith PK, Jostmann NB, Galinksy AD, van Dijk WW, May 2008) [abstract]
The Development and Validation of the Children's Hope Scale (Journal of Pediatric Psychology, June 1996)
Effects of Socioeconomic Status on Brain Development, and How Cognitive Neuroscience May Contribute to Levelling the Playing Field (Rajeev D.S. Raizada and Mark M. Kishiyama, February 2010)
Economic, neurobiological, and behavioral perspectives on building America’s future workforce (Eric I. Knudsen, James J. Heckman, Judy L. Cameron and Jack P. Shonkoff, July 2006)
The Lifelong Effects of Early Childhood Adversity and Toxic Stress (Jack P. Shonkoff, Andrew S. Garner, American Academy of Pediatrics, January 2012)
Minding the Body (Antonio Damasio and Hanna Damasio, Daedalus, Summer 2006) [abstract]
How Firms Shape Income Inequality: Stakeholder Power, Executive Decision-Making & The Structuring of Employment Relationships (J. Adam Cobb, University of Pennsylvania, 2016
Childhood forecasting of a small segment of the population with large economic burden (Nature Human Behavior, December 2016)
The Cognitive and Emotional Effects of Amygdala Damage (C. Fine & R.J.R. Blair, 2000
Root Shock: The Consequences of African American Dispossession (Mindy Thompson Fullilove, March 2001) [abstract]
Helping Young Children Who Have Experienced Trauma (Jessica Dym Bartlett, Sheila Smith & Elizabeth Bringewatt, Child Trends, 2017)
As the world becomes trauma–informed, work to do (Kathryn A. Becker-Blease, Journal of Trauma & Dissociation, February 2017)
ABOUT OUR GUEST:
Michael O'Bryan is an Urban Innovation Fellow at Drexel University's Lindy Institute and Director of Youth Programs at Village of Arts & Humanities in Philadelphia. He consults locally and nationally, exploring the intersections of trauma-informed practice and community well-being. Much of O'Bryan's work has centered on amplifying the voices of marginalized populations, touching the worlds of performance art and public health.
In 2014, O'Bryan was awarded “Child Advocate of The Year” by the Pennsylvania Department of Education, and Innovator of the Week in 2016 by Urban Innovation Exchange. In 2017, he was selected as an Emerging City Champion by Knight Foundation & 880 Cities and named one of the People Changing Philly.
Urban Consulate is a network of parlors for urban exchange. A winner of the Knight Cities Challenge, the Consulate has hosted over 150 conversations in Detroit, Philadelphia & New Orleans to bring people together and share ideas for better cities. Follow @UrbanConsulate on Facebook, Twitter & Instagram.
"How can we make sure people designing cities are representative of the places they serve?"
The backstory: Earlier this year, the 400th African-American woman was licensed to be an architect in the United States. With over 110,000 registered architects, that makes just .03 percent.
Brown wants to change that. As an architectural designer born & raised in Detroit, she recently won a $50,000 Knight Arts grant to launch 400 Forward with Urban Arts Collective, which she co-founded with two fellow designers from Detroit.
The objective? To build a more accessible road for the next generation, through multi-point contact starting at K-12 levels through licensure.
Brown's resume is impressive. She works for SmithGroupJJR, one of the oldest firms in the U.S., with over a thousand employees and nearly a dozen locations in the U.S. and China. She is Vice President of NOMA Detroit and serves on the K-12 Working Group with The American Institute of Architects. She holds both an M.Arch and MBA from Lawrence Tech, where she is also an adjunct professor.
Working with school counselors, teachers & administrators, Brown is passionate about finding the next 400 Black women architects in the same urban public schools where she started. To do this, she needs all hands on deck—including help raising a match for her Knight Arts grant (so stay tuned for opportunities to contribute!)
To watch the Facebook Live video of her talk, click here.
To read our Twitter thread with notes & quotes, click here.
Suggested reading & viewing:
"Only .03% of Architects are Black Women... (Michigan Radio)
Michael Ford TEDx Talk on Hip Hop Architecture (TEDxMadison)
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Urban Consulate is a network of parlors for urban exchange. A 2016 Knight Cities winner, the Consulate has hosted over 150 conversations in Detroit, Philadelphia & New Orleans to bring people together and share ideas for better cities. Follow @UrbanConsulate on Facebook, Twitter & Instagram.
Photo: Orlando Bailey, Urban Consulate
"From 2016-17, I had the privilege of leading the Urban Consulate's weekly public conversations regarding the state of our city. More than 50 guest speakers and countless audience members expressed their views on Detroit’s history and its evolution. From police brutality in the era before Detroit’s 1967 rebellion to age-old stories of loss of life and land, their narratives were heavy with the weight of dispossession.
But time and again, I found that Detroiters felt a sense of release at being able to freely share their stories with other Detroiters. Far too often, however, they remarked on how unique such an informal space was in Detroit.
Creating more spaces for frank dialogue recognizes that those closest to the problem are closest to the solution. Providing Detroiters most affected by trauma outlets to share their stories and ideas not only fosters relationships and solidarity but also restores a sense of agency to the most marginalized."
WHAT'S THE STATE OF BLACK LIFE IN DETROIT?
Stephen Henderson, Detroit Today, WDET—
"In his final State of the State speech Gov. Rick Snyder used Detroit as an example of the success of his two terms in office. 'Detroit’s transformation has been incredible,' he said. “Remember what Detroit was like 10 years ago, or maybe you may not want to. The progress has been incredible.”
But not everyone has seen and felt the progress in Detroit.
So what is the state of the city of Detroit? Specifically, what is the state of the city for black Detroiters, who make up more than 80 percent of Detroit’s population?
Chase Cantrell, executive director of Building Community Value and host emeritus of Urban Consulate in Detroit asked himself, and attempted to answer, this question in a recent parlor talk at the Urban Consulate: 'What role should Detroit play as a national model for black culture, investment, development & thought?'"
"What role should Detroit play as a national model for Black culture, investment, development, and thought?"
This was Chase L. Cantrell's question after hosting over 50 conversations at the Urban Consulate in Detroit. On January 17, 2018, he delivered his own capstone parlor talk to reflect on what he's learned over the last year—and where to go from here. (To watch the full Facebook Live video, click here.)
To a packed house, Cantrell started with some city history — and ended with recommendations for the future. In between, he wove in memorable quotes, stats and insights he'd heard from Consulate guest speakers, including Lauren Hood, Marsha Music, Nancy Kaffer, Jerry Paffendorf, and Dr. Joneigh S. Khaldun.
As Cantrell traced the long history of dispossession of Black property and collective trauma, he quoted Malcolm X (who lived and worked in Detroit for a time, in 1953):
"Land is the basis of all independence. Land is the basis of freedom, justice and equality."
To this end, Cantrell started his own nonprofit Building Community Value, which won a Knight Cities grant earlier this year to offer more real estate classes for Detroit residents to grow local property ownership.
With a high city poverty rate of 36-40%, Cantrell underscored that this is 200,000 people — 35,000 of whom receive an eviction notice each year. Imagine "the trauma of not knowing," he said.
Cantrell noted that the word "gentrification" comes up over & over again in Consulate conversations — but Detroit gentrification doesn't look like other cities, such as New York or San Francisco. It looks like a different kind: "We are seeing an astronomical level of displacement due to evictions, foreclosures and water shut-offs."
For this reason and more, "The state of our city is not strong," admitted Cantrell. "But it is resilient. The first thing that makes me hopeful is cooperation."
Some more key quotes:
"I want us to learn from the past, not long for the past. It was a community that was stressed and traumatized."
"Without talking about where we've been, how can we be aspirational for the future?"
"As our communities are fractured, how do we transfer knowledge to the next generation? In informal spaces, like the Consulate."
"Detroiters need to know that development is not a bad word. WE can also be developers."
To these points, Cantrell offered four ways to move the city forward:
- Cooperative economics — encouraging & empowering Detroit residents to pool resources to establish & enhance business & development projects (Examples: Cooperative Capital, Century Partners)
- Space equity — focusing not only on preservation of black cultural spaces, but the intentional ownership and development of land as a method to build and reinvest wealth locally (Example: Building Community Value)
- System collaboration — ensuring that leaders across domains (eg, governance, business, education, technology) are actively collaborating toward defined community goals (Example: New Detroit, Inc.)
- Knowledge sharing — building platforms that permit dialogue, training or mentorship across domains and across generations (Example: Urban Consulate)
In his parting words, Cantrell suggested five everyday action steps for Detroiters who are passionate about creating a more just and equitable future:
- Learn all you can
- Raise your voice
- Reach out to others
- Activate collectively
- Don’t wait for government
Urban Consulate is a network of parlors for urban exchange. A 2016 Knight Cities winner, the Consulate has hosted over 150 conversations in Detroit, Philadelphia & New Orleans to bring people together and share ideas for better cities. Follow @UrbanConsulateon Facebook, Twitter & Instagram for future events.
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"We have more parking now than we've ever had in the history of downtown Detroit. EVER," says urbanist and public policymaker Francis Grunow. "And it's still not enough."
Herein lies the problem: The combination of surface parking lots, and insufficient transportation alternatives, has created a downtown full of holes and gaps that undermine the walkability and density the city needs to compete globally (not to mention improve public health & environmental quality).
So on a January night in the Motor City, on the eve of the North American International Auto Show, Grunow challenged a full room to think differently.
The inspiration? Donald Shoup's 2011 book The High Cost of Free Parking—which Grunow donated to the Urban Consulate library and promised to buy for any guests who pledged to read. (He swears it's less wonky & more enjoyable than it sounds!)
Grunow himself has a long history of advocating for transit, walkability and historic preservation in his native city. As former Director of Preservation Detroit, past board member for Transportation Riders United, drafter of the Detroit Declaration and co-founder of the Corridors Alliance (among other initiatives), Grunow is well-known for nudging his hometown toward greater sustainability and a healthier relationship with its chief export, the automobile.
This is personal for Grunow, who believes that cities are society's best hope for figuring out how to best live together in the age of climate change. He shared how he has experienced both wins & losses on this front—including a 2005 lawsuit against the City of Detroit to stop the demolition of the historic Madison-Lenox Hotel.
He lost that fight, and the site remains a surface parking lot to this day.
"The right to have access to every building in the city by private motorcar in an age when everyone possesses such a vehicle is the right to destroy the city."
—Lewis Mumford, "The Highway and the City" (1964)
So we invited Grunow to speak on Detroit's progress on this front—and where we can push further. His parlor talk was peppered with data, including these alarming superlatives teased in Curbed Detroit:
- Metro-Detroiters drive further to work than their compatriots in any other American city
- 40% of land in Downtown Detroit is devoted to parking
- Downtown has 60,000+ parking spaces—and growing
To put this in context: Grunow points out that 60,000 spaces is almost 7 Empire State Buildings worth of space. What more could Detroit do with that land if we changed our commuting habits?
More affordable housing? Parks & gardens? Other higher, better uses?
After all, when we talk about parking, what we're really talking about is auto storage. "Cars sit 95% of the time," shared Grunow. "How much are we spending for that?"
"Do we think of parking as a privilege or a right? 99% of Americans who drive to work have free parking all day long. That's how much we subsidize parking."
People always complain there's not enough parking—but that happens everywhere, in every city. Grunow shared a study that shows people complain about cars more than anything:
Nation’s Top Consumer Complaints
- Home Improvement/Construction
- Retail Sales
(Source: Consumer Federation of America)
Distance is another deterrent. As a general rule, "people won't walk more than 800 feet from a parking space," explained Grunow, who once worked for the NYC Department of City Planning.
But this is not even close to a problem in Detroit.
To illustrate how Detroit's parking proximity and availability compares to other major cities, Grunow made maps of Urban Consulate event locations in Philadelphia and New Orleans, and counted how many parking spots were within 800 feet. Surprise, surprise—Detroit took the cake.
So what are the culprits?
- Excessive off-street parking requirements, written into zoning, which Grunow calls "a figment of planners' imaginations."
- No economic disincentive to curb the dependency.
In fact, the morning after Grunow's talk, the Detroit Free Press delivered a perfect illustration of this in an investigative report on the Ilitches' favorable parking rulings and revenues near the stadiums.
"When we say we want walkable cities, but we continue current policy, there's a high level of cognitive dissonance."
So what can Detroiters do to tip the scales in favor of higher, better land-use?
- "A lot of this is education about existing transit & mobility options," says Grunow. "It would cost zero for downtown companies to just pull together & promote what we already have."
- "Be mindful about how you get around everyday. Using different modes [walking, biking, bus] will help you understand what we have and what we need."
In closing, host Chase Cantrell asked Grunow to describe the "feeling of freedom" he said he experienced living in New York City for a decade without a car.
Grunow said one day it clicked to him: "I could move FORWARD through the city without ever going back. I didn't have to double back to retrieve a car." He was lighter, freer, unencumbered.
To watch the Facebook Live videos of Grunow's parlor talk:
To read more notes & quotes, click here for Twitter thread.
To download his Powerpoint presentations, click the images below:
Additional suggested reading & viewing:
- VIDEO: The High Cost of Free Parking (Vox, 2017)
- BOOK: The High Cost of Free Parking (Donald Shoup, 2011)
- ARTICLE: The Case for the Subway (The New York Times, 2018)
- ARTICLE: Ilitches Parking Lots Got a Break from the City (Detroit Free Press, 2018)
- ARTICLE: Don't Demolish Detroit Buildings for Parking (Detroit Free Press, 2018)
- ARTICLE: Dear Ilitches, Nobody Moves to Detroit for the Parking Lots (DailyDetroit, 2018)
Urban Consulate is a network of parlors for urban exchange. A 2016 Knight Cities winner, the Consulate has hosted over 150 conversations in Detroit, Philadelphia & New Orleans to bring people together and share ideas for better cities. Follow @UrbanConsulate on Facebook, Twitter & Instagram for future events.
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Orlando will work with founder Claire Nelson to bring people together & share ideas for better cities, thanks to support from Knight Foundation.
We couldn't be more grateful for Chase's smart & thoughtful leadership over the last year, and we will continue being big champions of his work with Building Community Value. For more reflections on Chase's tenure, read on below.
We are delighted to welcome Orlando Bailey of Eastside Community Network as the Consulate's new host in Detroit. Orlando will continue his work at ECN while leading Consulate events in the evening.
Chase will deliver a special farewell talk, "State of Our Black City," on Wednesday, January 17, 2018 from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Urban Consulate, 4735 Cass Avenue in Midtown Detroit. Reflecting on ideas he has explored in the parlor over the last year, as well as his own evolution in thinking about the city, he will share some personal observations & offer recommendations for the future.
The talk is free & open to the public. Locals & travelers welcome.
Thank you, Chase Cantrell
A Note from Consulate founder Claire Nelson—
I had never met Chase before he was a guest in our parlor in Detroit. He came to one of our first talks, and soon became a regular — inviting new guests and posting smart takeaways & insights from Consulate conversations on social media.
In the summer of 2016 he led his own parlor talk titled "Disparate Narratives and the Power of Storytelling." That fall, he became our host.
There are many things I love about Chase, but perhaps most is that he possesses a beautiful mix of local pride & global curiosity. His heart is deeply rooted in Detroit, but he soaks up ideas, writing, research & perspectives from everywhere.
Also great about Chase: He's not just a thinker & talker, but a doer — committing his energy to support emerging leaders, candidates & entrepreneurs who share his passion for creating more equitable communities. He truly wants to see both his peers and his city succeed.
When Chase won his own Knight Cities Challenge grant in 2017 to help more Detroiters become real estate investors, we couldn't be more excited. Ditto when he was selected for a Salzburg Global fellowship in Austria. With more leaders like Chase, Detroit's future is bright.
Even through a year of heightened political & social anxiety in America, it has been an absolute joy working with Chase to amplify Detroit voices and push the envelope to ask hard questions & share daring ideas for the city. Chase has brought great intelligence & care to his role as host & diplomat and left an indelible mark on the Consulate's mission & vision for the future.
Thank you, Chase.
Welcome, Orlando Bailey
Meet our new host of the Urban Consulate in Detroit —
Born & raised in Detroit, Orlando grew up just down the road from where he now works.
As Director of Community Partnerships for the Eastside Community Network, he is passionate about civic engagement and youth development to shape the city's future.
In 2015, Orlando was selected by 880 Cities and Knight Foundation as an Emerging City Champion, traveling to Toronto to learn & exchange. In 2017, he joined the Detroit Delegation of PlaceLab Chicago's Ethical Redevelopment Salon Series with Theaster Gates.
When the Consulate hosted visiting guests from Philadelphia in the fall of 2017, Orlando was a generous tour guide & great ambassador. He also gave his own Consulate parlor talk in April with Ezekial Harris. The topic? Letting new leaders have a seat at the table. Indeed.
Through Orlando's studies in media & journalism, he understands the value of being a great question-asker & active listener — qualities we cherish at the Consulate. We look forward to the conversations he will host!
About The Consulate
Urban Consulate is a network of parlors for urban exchange. A winner of the Knight Cities Challenge, the Consulate has hosted over 150 conversations in Detroit, Philadelphia & New Orleans to bring people together and share ideas for better cities.
For more about who we are, what we do & why, read more here.
Bradford Frost was our dear friend & comrade in community development in Detroit. Friends Jake Byl & Jessica Santillo have created a new scholarship fund to honor Bradford’s lifelong commitment to connecting with people—whether in his Detroit neighborhood or on the other side of the world. To read more, click here.
Reading up for our December 13th conversation about Race & Public Space in Philadelphia, we came upon these quotes. Food for thought:
- "How Urban Design Perpetuates Racial Inequality" (Isis Ferguson, July 2016)
- "Urban Spaces and The Mattering of Black Lives" (Darnell Moore, October 2015)
- "Intersection of Race & History in Public Spaces" (Mabel O. Wilson, August 2017)
- "Black Lives and the (Broken) Promise of Public Space" (Mindy Thompson Fullilove, 2016)
"How can white people assimilate into Black communities with respect & honor?"
A daughter of Detroit and respected community leader, Mesfin Johnson is a passionate advocate for equity and access for people of color.
But stepping back for a second, in case you're unfamiliar with the city:
Detroit is a majority Black city. Not just by a hair, by a wide margin—82%. And not just for a minute, for nearly a half century.
If you're new & white in Detroit, one of the first things you will learn—if you listen—is that you need to start right here: Understanding the city's demographics & history. How did Detroit come to be a Black city?
Read about Jim Crow laws and the Great Migration. Read about decades of white flight & investment. Read about redlining and housing segregation in the city & suburbs. Also read the current news, including the very real economic data—dollars & cents—of racial inequity, both locally & nationally.
Why does this matter? Because if you are entering a new community—any community, really—it is your responsibility to know the story of the place.
Many newcomers understand this; still many are learning. If you are a white American, it's quite possible you have never experienced being a minority before. This may be a new experience for you? That's okay. Welcome.
So this is where we begin.
The question for Mesfin Johnson's talk, she said, was inspired by Ms. Davis, a longtime resident of Detroit's North End.
The North End neighborhood is now seeing a new wave of interest due to its proximity to the greater downtown area—locally known as the 7.2—which has received the lionshare of new Detroit investment & development in recent years.
In her conversation with Ms. Davis, Mesfin Johnson heard something that moved her:
"Baby, we've always welcomed folk in our neighborhoods. It's not THAT they're coming, but HOW they're coming."
"In her statement I heard something different," said Mesfin Johnson. "Not analysis, research or academic views of gentrification. I heard a different perspective on the prevailing 'us and them' discourse and I latched on. I heard wisdom and history and courage and power. Resilience and love. A challenge to our generation to grab hold and do better. To challenge change and call it what it is. Not big systems change, but everyday just do a little effing better change."
So Mesfin Johnson posed this question on Facebook, which turned into a parlor talk. The response was overwhelming, with nearly 600 responses for a space that can hold 60.
"How can we resist oppression while simultaneously extending grace?"
Extending grace is exactly what Mesfin Johnson did, generously sharing her time & perspective on her changing hometown, weaving in anecdotes from elders, statistics from recent studies, input from the audience, and some recommendations for newcomers, too.
"About gentrification," she said, "the things we are doing to solve for it—the kinds of things we talk about at Mackinac—those are TACTICS. I want to talk about root causes."
"What does respect mean to you?"
To start the conversation, Mesfin Johnson invited the room to turn to their neighbors to answer this question. After huddling for a few minutes, guests shared out:
- "Listening before talking."
- "Looking people in the eyes and saying hello."
- "Appreciating difference, even when you don’t agree."
Seem simple? They are. As has been noted in past Consulate talks, these are basic, universal ideas that we all seem to learn when we are young, but sometimes forget when it comes to "adult" matters of urban revitalization and community change.
"I worry we use community engagement as an insurance policy, not as a central tenet of design."
Alongside happy memories of popular Black places & spaces past, Mesfin Johnson also shared concerns—including this one that has been echoed in many Consulate talks.
No doubt, we have seen the design & planning community awake to the need for greater stakeholder engagement & participation to make places successful. But are their projects really driven by the communities they serve?
As R. Steven Lewis, Kimberly Dowdell, Lauren Hood, Tya Winn & other Consulate guests have asked in both Detroit & Philadelphia: "Who is it built by? Who is it built for?"
These are questions worth asking—not just once, but ongoing, for any & every new community project.
"So what's the right way to enter black space?"
Mesfin Johnson made clear she does not speak for everyone, but shared four thoughts:
- You have to be willing to share power & resources—recognizing that systemic racism and privilege have robbed people of color and our communities of both.
- You have to acknowledge oppression—and not just name it, but act upon dismantling it. The realities of oppression and exclusion are real and inherent in the DNA of our society, as well as what's happening today in urban neighborhoods throughout America, not just Detroit.
- You have to check your entitlement—recognizing the deep impact that being systematically locked out of power tables, opportunity, resource, investment, housing and jobs has had on people of color. Pause before acting out of your power to deeply consider and understand the lived experience of people in the communities you are entering. "To whom much is given, much is required."
- You have to be intentional about being in relationship with one another—not just 8-5 at work, but in life. Where do you spend your money, your time? Who is in your vendor pool, your hiring? If everyone at the table (decision-making, design or otherwise) looks like you, you're missing key and important stakeholders. Transform your "Trusted 10." This is head, heart and hand work—so if you want to make a difference, it begins not with doing, but being in right relationship with your neighbors.
Mesfin Johnson concluded the evening by opening the floor to questions & answers—including an exchange about the call for "inclusion" and why it's not as simple as it may seem. (Again, who's including whom?)
"Hope is a passion for the possible," said Maya Wiley, quoting Søren Kierkegaard. "That's our charge in dark times—to be passionate about the fact we can have light."
A nationally renowned expert on racial justice and equity, Wiley has had a remarkable and diverse career advocating for social change, both inside and outside of government.
It was her work to expand digital access with Mayor Bill de Blasio in New York City that brought her to speak at the Knight Foundation's annual convening in Detroit earlier in the day. But it was her larger experience advancing civil and human rights, and expanding support for minority and women-owned businesses, that drew a standing-room crowd of community advocates & officials for her evening parlor talk at the Consulate.
As guest host for the evening, Hood came with questions—and dove right in:
- What does racial equity look like in practice?
- How do you measure & communicate the "lived experience" of urban residents?
- How does a socially-conscious practitioner push back while maintaining their place inside the system?
- How do you advocate for organizing in a space where government doesn't necessarily value community input?
- Given the challenges associated with "playing both sides" (inside/outside the system), what does self-care look like for you?
Wiley was generous with her time, sharing stories and lessons from her work—not just in New York, but in Louisiana and Arkansas, too.
Three key takeaways from the evening—
1. Listen to Residents—And Believe Them.
"Data is more than numbers," said Wiley. "There is not just quantitative data, but qualitative." When you hear the same concerns over and over again in a neighborhood or city, that is data—patterns of people expressing their lived experience. This means there is a "community-based" lived experience.
"Poverty is trauma," she continued. "People are angry for a reason. They have the right to be angry. If you're sitting in a civic leadership role, you have to de-personalize that anger if you're on the receiving end. You have to allow the expression of pain. You have to know 'this is not about me'—it's the system—and you have to get underneath the anger. Why is that? What is causing the pain?"
Wiley advised city officials to listen, acknowledge and be honest. "That is respect in communities—to be honest about your limitations." You can say: "I hear you, you have a legitimate concern. I can't do XYZ because XYZ limitations, but here's what I can do."
"Our communities have been disinvested, traumatized, ignored," said Wiley. "That experience is real."
2. Set Goals—And Track Them.
Working with Mayor Bill de Blasio, Wiley helped shift $1.6 billion of city spend to women and minority-owned businesses—a 62% increase.
She said they achieved that by setting goals, tracking goals, and holding people to them. Quarterly meetings with department heads helped create accountability.
"Models exist everywhere—but no city should be arrogant, no one has figured this all out," she said. "What mattered in New York City was there was a commitment to trying."
3. Find Your Allies—And Protect Them.
What do you do when city hall considers community organizing antagonistic? Wiley's advice to organizers: "Don't squander your human capital. Period."
Be strategic. Find your allies inside, and make sure they can't fail. "If you're not protecting your allies in government," said Wiley, "then you're undermining your own power."
In exchange, city officials must be honest and responsive to earn the trust of community members. If you're on the inside and fall short, accept responsibility. Keep the communication lines open—say "let's talk about it." Activists can still disrupt or call-out leadership for shortcomings, but have the conversation about why you need time and space to achieve your shared goals.
Wiley concluded with some bigger picture thoughts on the state of the national political landscape—including the frustrating paradox that many Americans vote against their own economic self-interest. Examples of solidarity among low-income white and black Americans are rare, she acknowledged—but they're there. Public education was one place she had seen common ground.
How does she stay strong and practice self-care in such challenging times? Through friends and allies, Wiley said, both inside and outside of work. She said she has spent a lot of time asking the simple question—"What do you need?"—and being ready to answer it back.
Interested to learn more about Wiley's work? Read here.
Thanks to Maya & Lauren for the conversation, and to Katy Locker at Knight Foundation for making the introduction.
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The Urban Consulate is a network of parlors for urban exchange, thanks to support from Knight Foundation. For more on who we are and what we do, read here.
We've been collecting toolkits & research for having better conversations, building community, and promoting civic engagement. We thought we'd put them in one place here to share with anyone looking to start a conversation or bring people together in your community:
- Civil Conversations Project (Source: On Being)
- Ask Three Questions (Source: On Being)
- Daring Discussions (Source: Womens March)
- The All-America Conversations Toolkit (Source: National Civic League)
Civic Engagement & Diplomacy:
- Renew Your Civic Vows (Source: Citizen University)
- How to Understand Power (Source: Citizen University)
- How to Turn Protest into Change (Source: Citizen University)
- Civic Saturday (Source: Citizen University) - in development
- Guide to Citizen Diplomacy (Source: U.S. State Dept)
- SOUP Micro-Granting Dinners (Source: Detroit SOUP)
- 500 Plates (Source: Creative Exchange)
- Refugees Welcome to Dinner (Source: UNICEF)
- People's State of the Union Story Circle (Source: U.S. Dept of Arts & Culture)
- Ben Franklin Circles (Source: Citizen University, Hoover Institution & 92Y)
Community Planning & Development:
- Principles for Ethical Redevelopment (Source: PlaceLab & Rebuild Foundation)
- All-In Cities (Source: PolicyLink)
- Tools for Measuring Public Life (Source: Gehl Institute)
- Mayors Guide to Public Life (Source: Gehl Institute)
- Tactical Urbanism Guide (Source: Street Plans)
- Open Streets Toolkit (Source: 880 Cities & Street Plans)
- How to Build A Better Block (Source: Better Block Foundation)
- Park(ing) Day Manual (Source: Rebar Group)
- Making Change in Public Space (Source: Center for Urban Pedagogy)
- Making Policy Public (Source: Center for Urban Pedagogy)
- What is Zoning? (Source: Center for Urban Pedagogy)
- What is Affordable Housing? (Source: Center for Urban Pedagogy)
Civil Rights & Racial Justice:
- Created Equal (Source: National Endowment for the Humanities)
- Showing Up for Racial Justice (Source: SURJ)
- House Party Kit (Source: Kentuckians For The Commonwealth)
- Living Room Convos (Source: Groundwork Madison, Wisconsin)
- Anti-Racism Resource Packet (Source: Catholic Worker Community, St. Louis)
- How We Gather (Author: Casper ter Kuile & Angie Thurston, 2015)
- Soul of the Community (Source: Knight Foundation, 2010)
- The Big Sort (Author: Bill Bishop, 2008)
- Bowling Alone (Author: Robert D. Putnam, 2000)
What are we missing? Any toolkits, curricula or guides you've found helpful? Let us know.
Also see our blog post: Why Conversations?