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Inside The $90 Million Initiative To Reverse Urban Inequality

Bad urban design has disproportionately made cities inequitable. Can affirmative development flip the script?

At the inaugural conference for the Strong, Prosperous, and Resilient Communities Challenge (SPARCC)—a new $90 million investment initiative centered around making communities more equitable—Shelley Poticha, director of urban solutions at the Natural Resources Defense Council, cited a hard truth.

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“Your zip code is more important than your genetic code for your health outcomes,” she told an audience of 320 community organizers, planners, policymakers, and people with symbiotic relationships between urban design, health, and economics who gathered at the Schomburg Center, in Harlem, New York City.

[Graphic: SPARCC]
Launched in 2016, SPARCC is a coalition of public and private organizations at the national and local level. The coalition will spend $90 million in the next three years to help developments in the San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles, Denver, Chicago, Memphis, and Atlanta become more socially equitable.

But the first step to building more equitable communities begins with health, SPARCC argues.

“It’s difficult to have conversations about equity because there are complications about what racial equity means,” says Paul Aldretti, program coordinator with Mile High Connects, a Denver organization that’s working with SPARCC. “The conversations get stuck on defining it rather than moving forward. But health is different. There is a personal connection to it, which really opens doors to have a far different discussion.”

SPARCC argues that public health and poverty are directly related to urban design and that for cities to close the inequality gap, every development needs to be community driven and prioritize resiliency (both from an environmental and economic standpoint), health, and equity.

But that connection between health, development, and poverty really hit home later in the conference when Donald Schwarz, vice-president of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation–which supports SPARCC–recalled his experience as a pediatrician in Philadelphia.

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A 35-year-old grandmother came into his hospital with an infant who was malnourished, blue all over, and on the brink of life. It wasn’t the first time they’d seen the infant. It was born three months premature and the hospital had nurtured the child to full health.

“The hospital spent $1.5 million to ensure a six-month-old infant could make it out of the hospital, but they discharged it to a home that was infested, mold encrusted, with intermittent electricity, and no access to heat or air conditioning,” he said, noting that the hospital earned a 4% profit margin on caring for the infant. “Within the health care industry, we don’t think of responsibility once a patient is discharged. But maybe there is a responsibility there.”

To achieve its goals, SPARCC believes that much more collaboration between entities that are already tackling inequality issues separately–housing, health, economic mobility–needs to occur. Policymakers need to take the consideration of community members more seriously. And more community members need to become involved. It’s a tall order, but SPARCC’s founders and funders–a mix of public and private organizations–think it’s possible.

“The problems of poverty are seemingly intractable,” John Moon, district manager of community development at the Federal Reserve bank of San Francisco, says. “We see it growing, yet we are approaching this work in traditional ways hoping for a different result. The issues around poverty, economic mobility, and equity needed a more comprehensive approach since they’re interrelated.”

Here’s how SPARCC works: The organization identifies existing agencies and organizations in its target cities and brings them together to form a regional partnership. The regional partnership then becomes a mechanism to pool resources and create a unified front, which then influences local development and policy. SPARCC’s money helps amplify their platform and further their outreach initiatives. The developments that SPARCC hopes to influence—like transportation infrastructure, housing, and public spaces—are funded through different public and private sources.

Take Atlanta. The city ranks second in the nation for income inequality, a condition wrought by generations of legal and structural racism. Only 3.4% of jobs are accessible by a 45-minute commute. More than 328,000 households pay more than 50% of their income on housing and transportation.

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“Atlanta is really a tale of two cities,” says Deborah Scott, executive director of Georgia Stand-Up, a social justice nonprofit that has been working to close the gap in the city and a regional partner of SPARCC. “It’s race, it’s class. We’ve had 30 years of black elected officials, but the situation has gotten worse because of educational attainment, the way the city is broken up, and lack of investment on the south side for generations. We’re hoping with the SPARCC activation, if we work together, have a coalition, and include the community—people who are usually left out of the process—from the beginning, we can make something happen in the area.”

Atlanta recently approved $2.5 billion dollars to expand MARTA, the city’s public transportation system and a $300 million sales tax increase to expand parks and public space. Additionally, the city just approved a regional plan that allocates $12 billion for transit expansion projects.

SPARCC’s regional partnership in Atlanta with the Transformation Alliance, a group of 17 government agencies, nonprofits, and businesses, is working to make sure that the investments help improve, not reinforce, inequity. For example, developing affordable housing and clinics near new transit stations in south Atlanta, building transit lines in underserved areas, and ensuring that there are controls in place to curb gentrification near new development. The city doesn’t have a history of philanthropic funding associated with this type of work, and SPARCC’s money is mobilizing organizations that have minimal resources.

One of Transformation Alliance’s biggest initiatives was working with MARTA to create a transit-oriented development near the new King Memorial station in southern Atlanta, bringing housing, jobs, and resources close to a station in a transit-scarce area.

Meanwhile, there’s a municipal election this fall. SPARCC is taking the opportunity to speak with candidates before the election to get community priorities to become part of their platforms. Getting racial equity to become a political priority is the long-term goal of Atlanta’s SPARCC chapter. They’re achieving this by hosting receptions and town halls to bring candidates, incumbents, and voters face-to-face.

“There’s no silver bullet [to solving the problems],” says Chris Appleton, cofounder and executive director of Wonderroot, a socially engaged arts and culture nonprofit that organized community-designed murals at the new King Street MARTA station in south Atlanta. “We’re talking about centuries of structural inequities and power structures that exist to keep people of color out of positions of power. Undoing those inequities and addressing these injustices requires comprehensive community redevelopment that puts individuals’ lived experience at the heart of what needs to be done–putting racial equity at the tip of the spear as an outcome.”

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Like Atlanta, and many of the other cities participating in SPARCC, housing, transportation, and access to economic opportunity are primary concerns. But gentrification and displacement are two of the overarching problems that occur because the city’s booming economy doesn’t impact all residents equally. Since 2007, the city has experienced a 47% jump in the average rent prices but only a 16% increase in the average income. The city adds about 1,100 new residents every month, further impacting housing demand.

In 2004, Denver approved a $7.8 billion transit expansion plan, which is nearing completion, to add 122 miles of railway, 18 miles of bus rapid transit, and more. Mile High Connects, SPARCC’s regional partner in Denver, is working with the city to bring housing near the new transit infrastructure and to incorporate affordable housing provisions.

In addition to building new housing, Mile High Connects is also working to secure existing low-income housing through renter protections. (Colorado declared rent control unconstitutional, which exacerbates the problem.) For residents in mobile home parks, the organization is trying to create community land trusts so that the residents (who own their homes but not the land) won’t be displaced if a developer comes in with a deal the current, private landowner can’t refuse.

For example, the environmental groups in the Denver area weren’t concerned with what was happening inside the city with regard to transportation and housing because they were concerned with public land management. “Before I came to Mile High Connects, I was coordinator of one of HUD’s sustainability grants to the city,” Aldretti says. “Because of SPARCC’s climate resiliency piece, their connection is much stronger. They’re eager to get involved on the issues we’re dealing with in terms of environmental impacts and environmental justice related to accelerated growth.”

[Photo: courtesy SPARCC]
The eventual goal of SPARCC’s work is to make a stronger nation. And if the moral imperative to close the inequality gap isn’t compelling enough, John Moon from the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco–one of SPARCC’s founding organizations–argues that if cities, and the country, don’t act, it will weaken our economy.

“There’s a lot of data showing that growing inequality is bad for any economy, developing or fully developed,” he says. “It’s a concern for stability. For us at the Federal Reserve, we’re interested in maximum economic output, and there are pockets across the country that aren’t realizing their full potential, even though there are families and individuals who want to. The built environment can keep you from accessing jobs. If you have a difficult home environment and toxic stress, it can cause adverse childhood syndromes [preventing people from working].”

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While SPARCC’s $90 million endowment sounds like a large sum, it’s not when you think about the scale of urban development. Moreover, it’s only a three-year initiative, which is a short amount of time considering that infrastructure takes decades to plan, design, and build. It takes even more time—possibly generations—to see the health and economic mobility improvements materialize. But the coalition and its regional partners see it as a leg up to more work down the line.

“Forging relationships will sustain the work,” a speaker at SPARCC’s conference said. “The resources matter, and presumably there will be more resources, but the relationships are the critical pieces.”

About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.

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