Five Ways São Paulo Can Improve Urban Mobility (without Building More Bike Lanes)

As I’ve been studying in São Paulo on exchange, I haven’t been able to resist continuing to write on urban issues. While some of the issues and solutions might be different in nature, the basic struggle for better urban mobility is the same. This article was previously published in the Brazilian blog, Brazil Talk.

São Paulo is undergoing a transportation revolution that some have begun to call the “São Paulo Spring”.[i] Since taking office in 2013, Mayor Fernando Haddad has applied what he calls “Shock Therapy” to get residents of the largest City in South America out of their cars. Identifying cars as the problem, Mr. Haddad has done everything from reducing the speed limit on highways, to taking lanes away from cars for exclusive use by buses; but no measure has been as controversial as the installation of bike lanes.

Within the past year alone the Haddad Administration has installed over 150 miles (240 km) of bike lanes, with a goal of reaching approximately 250 miles (400km) by the year’s end.[ii] The speed at which this has happened has shaken up the status quo producing both praise and sharp criticism. While, São Paulo residents overwhelmingly approve bike lanes (80%) and exclusive bus lanes (91%), according to a 2014 survey by the Datafolha polling agency, only 4% of respondents said they bike daily.[iii] While it will take time to change the culture of the city towards cycling, this article suggests that Haddad could have an even greater cultural impact with even broader political support if he focuses his energy on a mode of transportation that cyclists and car drivers alike engage in: walking. Haddad has said that he wants to “humanize” the city, and what mode of transportation is more human than walking. While this article does not purport to speak with transportation engineering expertise, it does highlight the daily experience of pedestrians, and makes recommendations on fixes that could both significantly “humanize” the city, and gain political support.

1. Install more pedestrian signals

While many of the main streets have pedestrian signals, the side streets often lack them. This leaves pedestrians to use their own judgment on when it is safe to cross, which increases risk of accidents. Safety should not involve guesswork; let’s install pedestrian signals at all intersections that have traffic lights.


One of many intersections without pedestrian signal. (Credit: Anthony Scott)

2. Make signals longer 

Once you install pedestrian signals, they have to be long enough for “grandma” to cross safely. Because pedestrian signals can be notoriously short, and crosswalks are not always straight, I often see pedestrians running to make it across on time. On more than one occasion I’ve seen an elderly person simply not make it across in time, and guess what? Traffic has to wait for her anyway. This is hardly a “humanizing” way to navigate the city, and reinforces the car-centric notion that the pedestrian is the problem.

A young man crosses the crosswalk to the median strip only to have to run up the median strip to catch the next one. (Credit: Anthony Scott)

A young man crosses the crosswalk to the median strip only to have to run up the median strip to catch the next one. (Credit: Anthony Scott)

3. Better coordinate pedestrian signals

On Paulista Avenue, the most prominent street in the city, pedestrians have to cross eight (8) lanes of traffic going in different directions. Thankfully, when the pedestrian signal turns green, both sides of the Avenue are stopped. This does not happen everywhere in the city, and needs to. Lack of coordination doubles pedestrian waiting time, and consequently tempts people to cross against the signal.

In the foreground the light is green, while after the median strip it is red. (Credit: Anthony Scott)

In the foreground the light is green, while after the median strip it is red. (Credit: Anthony Scott)

4. Use “Faixa Viva”

In more residential areas with less traffic make crosswalks secure for pedestrians, by giving them the legal right to cross at crosswalks whenever they want. Other cities in the state of São Paulo have been implementing this for years with significant success in reducing accidents. [iv]

“Faixa Viva” in Santos, São Paulo. (Credit: Ronalda Andrade/PMS)

“Faixa Viva” in Santos, São Paulo. (Credit: Ronaldo Andrade/PMS)

5. Fix the sidewalks

São Paulo overall has some of the best-paved roads in all of Brazil, but some of the worst sidewalks. This fact alone speaks volumes about the challenge Haddad faces. This general lack of walkability, especially as you get away from the city center, is especially taxing on the handicapped and people with baby strollers. While there are many legal and fiscal reasons why this might be more challenging than paving new bike lanes, for example, what better way to “humanize” pedestrians than to repave and expand sidewalks? To be fair, Mayor Haddad has included “widening” sidewalks as part of his overall strategy, but if he truly wants to make a difference, he should pursue improving sidewalk accessibility with greater zeal than installing bike lanes.

One of the better-paved sidewalks, but still inaccessible for many. (Credit: Anthony Scott)

One of the better-paved sidewalks, but still inaccessible for many. (Credit: Anthony Scott)

Mr. Haddad is a visionary and deserves a lot of credit for his political courage to tackle an issue that as stymied the city for decades. I would simply caution Mr. Haddad that in his zeal to fight for bike lanes, not to forget to prioritize the most vulnerable and fundamental mode of transportation in the city: walking.

[i] Romero, Simon. “Fighting Resistance, a Mayor Strives to Ease Gridlock in a Brazilian Megacity.” 04 Oct. 2015. <;.

[ii] Rodrigues, Artur. “Gestão Haddad prioriza centro e deixa ciclovia da periferia de SP na lama.” 08 July 2015. <;.

[iii] Johnson, Reed and Rogerio Jelmayer. “Mayor Fernando Haddad’s Pro-Bike Push Polarizes São Paulo.” 23 Sept. 2015 <;.

[iv] “Faixa Viva completa quatro anos com redução de mais de 60% nos acidentes.” 08 May 2015. <; .

Baltimore: Salvation isn’t coming from the County

From June to August, I had the honor to serve Baltimore City within their Finance Department. I was charged with evaluating economic development projects to see if the City was getting its money’s worth; consequently, I got to engage with a variety of stakeholders in the City’s economic development scene. These are a couple things that I learned:

1) Baltimore’s fiscal issues are partly structural. Most urban residents can point fingers at government corruption and mismanagement of funds, but Baltimore has a unique set of issues that also make its fiscal woes structural.

  • Baltimore is the largest independent city in the U.S.In the United States, most cities are legally and politically part of a larger county. This means that cities can acquire or “annex” unincorporated land from their County for residents or businesses that want access to City services or resources. Annexation also allows cities to recapture property tax revenue from residents, who move out into the suburbs of the City. Being part of a county also means that cities share the burden of basic service delivery—such as police, firefighters, and road maintenance. Baltimore, however, can’t annex new land. Baltimore City legally separated from Baltimore County on July 4, 1851, making Baltimore the largest independent City in America to-date. Baltimore also is not entitled to share services with Baltimore County, forcing the City to fund its basic infrastructure by itself with minimal State support. These fiscal constraints wouldn’t be a terrible burden, if the City continued to be a thriving economic engine, but unfortunately, Baltimore’s economy has deindustrialized dramatically since the 1960’s, precipitating a loss of one-third of its population measured from the 1950’s (from ~950,000 people to 620,000 today). The most basic, straightforward levers that Baltimore can pull in order to deal with the reduced tax base are to reduce city services to certain areas of the city, and relocate people to better-resourced areas (both politically contentious options).
  • Over 1/3 of Baltimore’s property value is nontaxable25% of which belongs to nonprofits (the rest belong to the government and other exempt properties). Since many hospitals and universities have nonprofit status, the land they are built on is nontaxable by the City. Millions of dollars are lost every year, because of this, and neither the federal nor state government responsible for nonprofit designation adequately repay the City for this tax revenue loss, if at all. Among the main culprits are Johns Hopkins Hospital, University of Maryland, and Johns Hopkins University. The best the City can do here, legally, is to negotiate Payments in Lieu of Taxes, where these institutions agree to give a nominal amount of money to deter political fights—although new models are being developed.

2) City leadership is wedded to “Trickle-down” Economics. Being a relatively poor city, means there is a natural inclination, regardless of who is in power, to rely more heavily on the private market to meet basic needs.

  • Problem with Theory. This is not a bad thing, if it leads to public-private partnerships that better leverage and target resources to strengthen long-term community assets, such as schools, neighborhood and business associations, and community-based and controlled programming. What I found, however, was a targeting of resources to political priorities—such as growing the City by 10,000 families—that have no direct guarantee of community benefit. The unspoken logic supporting this political priority is that giving tax breaks to developers will result in new investment (new residents + amenities) that will (“trickle down to”) benefit the overall economy, including the poor. There are a couple concerns with this idea:
    • 1. It implies that investment in poor communities and expanding the tax base are separate goals—first we must expand our tax base by getting new (wealthier) residents, and then we can give more money to “social programs.” Why can’t “social programs” also be economic development programs that increase the wealth of the poor and subsequently increase the tax base?
    • 2. It assumes that new tax revenue from attracting development will necessarily be used for development in poorer communities. Will politicians, who have defended developer tax breaks under the pretense of job creation and new tax revenue for “poverty programs,” actually remember to increase funding for community development, once the new tax revenue starts flowing?

If we truly want to help the poor, are tax breaks to attract wealthier residents really better than investments in education, affordable housing, or public transportation?”

  • Problem with Application. Nonetheless, for the past 10-15 years Baltimore has applied this “trickle-down” framework as it tried to follow the U.S. trend of attracting young professionals (“millenials”) who want urban convenience without the burden of ownership. Consequently, we have foregone and will forego millions of dollars in tax revenue converting old office buildings and factories into market-rate luxury apartments, or middle-class commercial amenities, and yet we are losing almost as many millennials as we are gaining. Now, there is nothing wrong with the City subsidizing development that wouldn’t happen otherwise (a tough calculation to make), but there is something wrong with thinking that new construction is somehow a good indicator of helping the poor (as the recent social unrest made clear). The problem is not the City incentivizing development; the problem is development for whom? If we truly want to help the poor, are tax breaks to attract wealthier residents really better than investments in education, affordable housing, or public transportation? What is the return on investment? These are other areas that we know also contribute to long-term sustainable economic growth. In a City with constrained resources, this is an important question to at least attempt to answer with proper monitoring and evaluation of economic development programs.
City subsidies have been critical to Harbor East development

City subsidies have been critical to Harbor East development

My point is this: The cart is before the horse. We must stop using the dominant frame that we need wealthy people from the County to save the City. If the City invests in what is important to current residents, we will make the City a more attractive place for families to move to and stay, and for developers to invest. That doesn’t mean we don’t want the wealthy to relocate or that we should stop giving out tax breaks, but that our frame is wrong. The frame dictates how we make our investment priorities. For example, instead of giving away tax breaks based on what we think wealthier people in the County want, let’s instead ensure that:

  • Tax breaks are better structured upfront to benefit the least advantaged in the City (in terms of development cluster location, employment requirements/preference, etc.);
  • Tax breaks are better coordinated with other City and State initiatives to help the poor be better qualified for, and have reliable transportation and housing access to those developments; and
  • A portion of new tax revenues that we gain from tax breaks are automatically set aside specifically for reinvestment in the social, economic, and political institutions of poor communities.

We don’t need new handouts; we need targeted investment in community-controlled institutions that will produce community-controlled wealth—wealth that cannot be taken away by the whims of any politician or private company that moves to China. Will it take longer to do, yes. Will it demand more frequent and better communication and coordination between the government and the people, yes. But if the cost of strengthening community assets that can better address community needs tomorrow means fewer shiny, luxury apartments downtown today, then I believe it is worth the sacrifice. We must stop looking to others for salvation; real lasting change begins within.

Baltimore: From Consultation to Collaboration

This week I had the honor to have some of my lessons learned from my Opportunity Collaborative Fellowship experience posted by Legacy Cities. As a general matter, I strongly believe creating a Fellowship or any public engagement process is only as good as how much the public is allowed to take ownership of it, control it, and be part of its implementation. At a time when citizens are losing faith in government, this is a tool than can improve community-level communication of complex planning processes, help rebuild trust and share the burden of governance, so that we, citizens, can no longer toss up our hands and say, “The government is inept and there is nothing we can do about it outside of voting.” Let’s learn from this experience, and continue moving and pushing for more participatory models of local governance.

Please check out my article:

Open Letter to Baltimore Brew & Amtrak

A couple weeks ago, Gerald Neily wrote an article in the Baltimore Brew praising the draft report by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), in collaboration with the Maryland Department of Transportation and Amtrak, among others, which proposes to replace the Baltimore & Potomac Railroad Tunnel that now connects to the West Baltimore MARC Train station. FRA has reasonably decided to kill two birds with one stone by leveraging the fact that their existing tunnel is 100 years old, to push for creating a new tunnel that would also make for a faster train ride for commuters and freight alike. FRA had its second community engagement meeting on October 29, 2014, where it presumably showed its preferred alternative tunnels to replace the existing one. One tunnel, which the report calls, Alternative 3 or The Great Circle Passenger Tunnel, showed a loop north toward Druid Hill Park, and the second, called Alternative 11 or Robert Street South, showed a straighter path coming above ground through the West Baltimore neighborhood of Midtown-Edmondson. Both routes connect with the West Baltimore MARC train station, instead of bypassing it all together. The fact that Amtrak eliminated all the routes that didn’t go through the MARC train station seems to have been in response, in part, to wanting to use as much existing infrastructure as possible, and in response to community feedback that saw keeping the station as a potential economic anchor for ongoing revitalization in the area. While I laud FRA for prioritizing that criterion, the two proposed routes would have vastly different impacts on Midtown’s residential/commercial revitalization. Judging by the renderings provided in the proposal, one route would go directly through one of the most important community institutions, the Edmondson Community Organization (ECO) building. Building a freight and mass transit tunnel that would come above ground in an existing neighborhood is no way to encourage revitalization. As someone who lives in Midtown, I don’t want new train tracks cutting through my community.

Historical Context

The story goes that a little over 100 years ago, the Baltimore & Potomac Railroad put down train tracks in my community against the wishes of early estate owners and developers.  At the time, Gwynn Falls was the outskirts of the city limits and my community was largely country estate. But Baltimore was experiencing rapid population growth and the country estates that incorporated my current day neighborhood, Midtown-Edmondson (“Midtown”), were being parceled off to small developers and builders to accommodate the rising working-class families, who wanted to get away from the cramped, unhealthy living conditions around the port. Putting a railroad through the estate at a time of growth didn’t seem like a smart development strategy, but the Railroad had money and while development was on the cusp it was not fully realized. So the Railroad company got its way, completing the railroad with the opening of the Baltimore & Potomac Railroad Tunnel in 1873. Unfortunately for the country estate owners, 15 years later Baltimore expanded its boundaries past Gwynn Falls, making Edmondson Avenue the next “hot market” corridor for development; living next to train tracks were not desirable. Nonetheless, by 1900 an electric street car was already rolling down Edmondson Avenue (sound familiar) to help make the neighborhood a viable place to live during a time when not everyone could afford a car to get around, and when the port of Baltimore was still the major destination and job center for the region. Well, it seems that over 100 years later we are still fighting over the industrial versus residential use of my community.

To Gerald Neily: Midtown-Edmondson is Not Abandoned

Mr. Neily is right, Midtown-Edmondson has a high vacancy rate. About 50% of the housing stock is vacant according to the 2010 census, and there are many buildings that need to be demolished or are at various stages of disrepair. There are also decent blocks that are near to or fully occupied, with residents who sweep their blocks, children who frequent the playground, and small businesses that provide essential services. I’m not doubting that Mr. Neily knows this, but I take issue with the frame he is using that communicates to The Brew‘s wide readership, some of whom have never stepped foot in Midtown-Edmondson, that this neighborhood should be lucky to have train tracks cut through it. Here are the words he used to describe my community:

  • a community of abandoned rowhouses
  • decaying
  • at the end of the “Highway to Nowhere”
  • bleak
  • crumbling
  • unattractive
  • clutter of abandoned factories and forlorn housing

And then he went on to juxtapose that with the proposed plans by FRA that he framed as, “Promise for West Baltimore.” People in my community have read these words and find them disempowering at best, conspiratorial at worst, because they place “salvation” outside our realm of control. This is not a whiney post about being offended that someone is calling my neighborhood names; this is a critique to raise awareness of the asymmetric power dynamics created and reinforced by publishing an article that takes the lens of those who would rather justify destroying/ignoring my community than rebuilding/partnering with it. Mr. Neily rightly mentions the long history of public construction projects done/promised TO our community, instead of in partnership WITH our community (true partnership identifies community needs first to see what they actually want and need, and then empowers and works with those communities to meet those needs). What Mr. Neily seems to forget is that it is because of his way of framing of Midtown as “nowhere” and “abandoned” that outside powers are emboldened to think that someone or something must come “save” the community from the outside. Yes, Midtown needs investment, but the frame justifies, in the minds of the powerful, overriding or not even considering community wants and desires and imposing projects that they think would make the community “better.” If communities aren’t put at the center of determining their shape and development, the question necessarily becomes “better for whom”? This frame is the same one used in the conquest of indigenous people in the Americas, all the way to the imposition of the highway cut through my community back in the 70s. We must be careful not to feed into a frame that plays into our existing human tendency to think we can identify and solve other people’s problems FOR them. Midtown-Edmondson is not abandoned.

To FRA, Amtrak, et al.: Communicate Better

1) Why is there a discrepancy?

Firstly, I have an observation and question on the draft report. In Alternative 3 (the one that doesn’t go through our community), you include in your analysis that:

“Much of the tunnel alignment could be constructed using boring methodology, thereby minimizing environmental impacts. However, the alternative would travel beneath residences, minority and low-income populations, and historic districts” (23).

I’m assuming boring under minority and low-income populations is referenced here to acknowledge the historical baggage of public projects done TO these communities because of race and/or lack of economic/political clout. But then when you talk about my community in Alternative 11 you don’t say any of that at all in your analysis. You don’t even acknowledge that you will be boring under residences or that some of those communities, such as Harlem Park, are also historic districts (see pages 43 and 47). Again, why is there a discrepancy?

2) A note on community outreach

FRA community outreach has been lackluster, but certainly on par with attempts by other city and state agencies. The standard approach for outreach is to send a mailer via postal mail, but I can attest to the fact that whenever I’ve sent out mailers there were sometimes hundreds that got sent back, even when I knew that people lived in those homes. Maybe the postal workers assume that since a house looks “run-down” that no one lives there, I don’t know, but I do know from experience that sending out mailers about upcoming meetings by it self is not an effective way to engage neighborhoods like Midtown-Edmondson, if you truly want community input/buy-in as opposed to community reaction and resistance. Recommendations for community engagement:

A) Identify community organizations, such as churches, neighborhood associations, schools where people organize and share information. For starters, the city has a listing of community groups here:

B) Recruit volunteers to door-knock and flyer. I personally signed up to do this back in the first Amtrak meeting in July, and haven’t heard a thing yet. People are willing to help you spread the word, especially when it directly affects their community. If you reach out to community organizations, you can easily pass around a sign-up sheet to get volunteers to do the work. You save money and more effectively engage communities.

C) Use email. Sounds simple, but I have yet to receive one email notification from FRA about meetings. Thankfully I got (and paid attention to) the flyers in the mail, but email is a “low-hanging fruit” that increases the flow of information in my community. Not everyone uses or even checks email, but the ones who are most engaged in the community tend to check it more often, and are keen to spread the word after finding out.

All we want is to feel genuinely informed and consulted in things that directly impact the development of our community. FRA must understand that communities that have been hurt by government intervention done TO them, require a different strategy for engagement. Even though the government lives by the mantra of equality under the law, it cannot treat everyone the same when it comes to community engagement. Treating everyone the same must be reinterpreted from, “We do all the same things for one community as for another (mailers),” to “We take each case as unique, employing different techniques based on community culture and needs, with the common goal of ensuring everyone gets an equal opportunity to meaningfully participate in their community’s development.” After years of being “consulted” and seeing failed projects and broken promises, we no longer see mailers as real engagement; real engagement is coming to our community, talking face-to-face, and maintaining contact. We want to stop being made out to be victims or, even worse, treated as if we don’t exist, and start being treated as a real partner in our own development.

The Promise & Perils of Participation

As I sit here in Manhattan filling out my absentee ballot for next week’s Gubernatorial and Congressional midterm elections in Maryland, another form of public participation is well underway in the form of the Opportunity Collaborative Fellows Program. The Baltimore metropolitan area is in the process of creating a regional plan to better integrate and coordinate housing, transit and workforce development plans for the next 25 years. This planning process is managed by the Opportunity Collaborative, which is a consortium of local governments, state agencies, universities and nonprofit organizations, and is funded through a Sustainable Communities Regional Planning Grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Because the program is federally funded, it requires community involvement and input into the plan to ensure it reflects the most pressing needs and goals of those communities; this is where the Fellows Program comes in. The Fellows Program is meant to be an additional source of community input that also functions as the citizen implementation arm of the plan, as far as translating the finalized plans to our communities and providing a feedback loop on the undoubtedly numerous course corrections that will take place over the next 25 years.

Before I lunge into my initial impressions of the program, I first want to defend the idea of participation. In the U.S. we have a conception of representative Democracy that makes us lazy. My mom says, we elect politicians to do the work of governance for us, and if they fail we vote them out. While I’d like to believe it is that simple, it’s clearly not. Our politicians are corrupt, our city delivers lackluster public services, and our police kill with impunity. Obviously, I don’t mean all politicians, all services and all police officers, but public perception defines reality, and structurally there are no incentives for things to improve. The one mechanism that I so faithfully cling to, the vote, is merely a rubber stamp on a pre-selected democratic candidate. After 45 years of one-party rule, it’s safe to say that the democrat party has thoroughly consolidated its power in Baltimore City. So, I’m skeptical that my vote substantively matters in terms of systemic change. Nonetheless, I vote. Nonetheless, I participate and volunteer, even! Why? Because participation matters. I’m not one to simply complain, while attempting to do nothing to change what I see is wrong. If we all do what we can, we can still achieve great things. Democracy, like anything else that has been fought for, only stays alive if we continue to fight for it, and rouse and goad each other to action by remembering the sacrifices made for our privilege, and the ever-present proclivity of the human heart towards greed, power and exclusion. We must constantly fight to push down walls that our governments erect to exclude people from the democratic process, even at great personal sacrifice, because compared to our ancestors, for whom the idea of having any say in how their very own bodies were governed was foreign, volunteering for citizen committees and voting are a pittance!

Coming down from my soapbox…the Opportunity Collaborative Fellows Program (OCFP) is a great program that probably wouldn’t have happened without the federal government requiring the need for citizen engagement and input in the process of creating the regional plan. Over the next 8 months I and about 25-30 other citizens and local government officials will be both developing our own leadership skills, and pouring over the three parts of the regional plan, which include workforce development, affordable housing, and transportation. The program correctly identifies that true change and transformation begins with my own self-reflection as a leader. Religious beliefs aside on the source of power to change ourselves, this truth is integral to effective leadership. I have to be the change I want to see, and that can’t happen without serious evaluation and understanding of who I am as a person, and how do I continually improve myself. The program has also begun to knit together a network of powerful allies across the region that have the potential over time to transition the region to a more equitable and sustainable development path. This form of participation is beyond mere town halls to solicit input that may never get taken seriously, this is actually (attempting to) directly involve citizens in the shared burden of government. With all this said, I have to also comment on some structural issues I see with this inching toward participatory governance that will need to be addressed in future attempts:

1) Self-Selection Bias & Unequal Opportunity. I’m sitting at the table as a volunteer, while the bureaucrat across from me is getting paid…with my tax money! Now I’m happy that my city officials are engaging residents, because that’s what I pay them to do, but there’s something inherently unequal and discriminating about citizens volunteering for work that others are getting compensated for. Firstly, it limits my agency. I can only do so much, because I’m basically losing money each minute I volunteer (if you want to think in terms of opportunity costs). This money factor has a disparate effect on low-income people, who can’t afford to make that sacrifice. Consequently, the volunteers you have at the table are older and middle-upper class, now representing the views of everyone else.

RECOMMENDATIONS: 1) Compensate people like for jury duty (it’s not much, but its something)– I will say that OCFP at least feeds us. Will work for food!  2) Make meeting times and locations more conducive to those who work full-time and don’t have a car– I will say for OCFP that most meeting dates are either Thursday afternoons or Fridays, and that carpooling is a viable solution. 3) Canvas underrepresented communities better. You’d be surprised the sacrifices that people are willing to make, if you simply make the personal request. — OCFP was lacking on this leg as most people who were accepted only heard about it through already well-connected networks of influence.

2) Lack of Citizen Decision-Making. After participating in and hearing accounts from various public consultations, where citizens are asked to make decisions, I’ve come to find that at the end of the day its the steering committee that matters most. You can have all the public meetings you want, but if the deciding vote doesn’t belong to the citizens why even bother? Steering committees are created to ensure centralized control and oversight of a program so that it stays on course, but if the people on that committee are only the political and academic elites, it’s going to be skewed towards what they think is best for everyone else. I understand the real concerns with the unwieldiness of real, substantive participatory governance, speaking principally to the costs (in coordination especially), but there are concrete steps we can take to make the process a bit more equitable (and not merely token).

RECOMMENDATIONS: 1) Give citizens the deciding vote on steering committees. If we’re afraid of citizens making dumb choices, then educate us! If a jury of peers can decide if someone gets life imprisonment (or in other states the death penalty), then surely we can make decisions on how to best spend our tax dollars! Not only would doing this give public projects more legitimacy, but communities would take more ownership of public resources. — The Opportunity Collaborative steering committee does not have citizen representation in the form of actual citizens, particularly those from underrepresented communities. While it does include one local advocacy organization, it is mostly comprised of politicians, government technocrats, non-profit, private sector and academic elites.

OCFP is a good start, but more work is to be done. My earnest hope is that the more we engage people in participatory governance, the more they will demand. Upward and onward, Baltimore!

Toward a New Economic Relationship

Everyone talks about community revitalization and renewal, but my neighbors have seen very little change over the past few decades. The poverty rate in Midtown-Edmondson is now over 60% and vacancy rates are hovering around 50%. And even though various public officials have walked through our community and were appalled by collapsing rowhomes, vacant lots being used for dumping, and growing violence related to the drug trade, they still go back to their comfortable homes unchanged. What neither they nor the media see are the people who come out to sweep their block almost everyday; they do not see the residents who plant flowers and gardens in front of vacant homes and mow lawns that don’t belong to them, or the neighbors who keep the playground clean and safe for the children. Residents do this for free because they care about their community, despite how outsiders characterize the community. Still we pay high taxes so that the City can be lax about housing code violations. They do not see all the hardworking people in our community willing to  partner with the City, if it would only allow us to be part of our own development.

For example, we have a trash problem. Instead of sending over a street cleaner, hire us to clean our streets! We can do it faster and cheaper! We have a dumping problem. Instead of sending a city employee to clean it up, hire one of our several guys with trucks who already provide dumping services. This goes for any new government investments as well: hire local. IF you really want to help us, stop asking about former drug abuse (a majority of people have tried something), or make drug abuse rehabilitation part of employment. You want to put a new street car in our neighborhood, re-pave our streets, fix our sidewalks? Train us (and give us hiring preference) to do it for you. It will require investment upfront, but it will provide the long-term skills needed to help residents in the workforce, while engendering a sense of community ownership of public infrastructure.

Residents understand that the city is overwhelmed by the magnitude of issues it faces, but they are rightly frustrated by the failure of the current framework; calling 311 and hoping enough people complain that a city official comes out within the next week or two is not a realistic solution to certain problems that we could fix ourselves. If you don’t want to deal with contracting issues, just create an agreement with the community association, whereby we are given a grant to take care of certain quality of life issues. Maybe you can embed a city official to assure proper accounting, if that’s a concern, but let’s be creative, proactive and solution-oriented. The City must be a true partner, and build a relationship with our community to solve our own problems. We can’t solve these problems without the City’s support, financial and technical, but we aren’t asking the City to solve them for us; we’re asking for them to empower us to fix them ourselves.

Keep Your Money! I’ll Do it Myself.

Sometimes grants don’t work because communities don’t step up to do the work, but many times grants don’t work because they make communities jump through too many hoops for $250! They substitute restrictions for relationship.

Part of my work this summer was helping West Baltimore communities beautify vacant lots. When I first heard about greening efforts, I didn’t see the immediate value, but study after study has shown that creating well-maintained green spaces reduces crime. More importantly, it builds relationships and trust between neighbors, who will hopefully collaborate on greater issues. So, I helped create a volunteer group and got to work helping my neighbors apply for greening grants. Now, though one or two folks had some experience with grant-writing, I was just learning. And this is what I found out: grants are not worth the trouble for low-income communities. Regardless of whether they are government or private sector funded, grants fail in two big ways for low-income communities: 1) they require a lot of administrative work for free 2) they don’t provide the technical support from start to finish that would strengthen a community’s ability to apply for and manage future grants. Now, I know I’m making a sweeping statement about all grants, based on little experience, but I’m channeling the frustrations of community members who have done this many times before. So please listen to the heart of the complaints:

1) Show Me the Money! I lot of people I know in Midtown-Edmondson have irregular work schedules; they usually include one or more part-time jobs, where the hours may change from week to week or even day to day. This is common for those who are retired, and those who have low-income. Working for free is for high schoolers getting Service Learning Hours (and apparently graduate students like me, trying to get “experience”). In my community, where upwards of 60% are below the poverty line, no one can afford the “luxury” of working for free. Some workforce development programs pay people just to come to training, because they know people’s time is valuable. Why can’t grants pay community members to learn how to apply for and manage grants? Or at least give someone a small stipend to manage all the paperwork and reporting requirements? Maybe give them some money upfront and the rest once the grant is submitted.

2) Restrictions instead of Relationship. If helping communities pay for grant training and staff is too much, then how about in-kind technical assistance? This is what federal programs like Promise Zones does, where HUD actually embeds federal workers with community organizations to help them apply for and manage grants. The only catch is that you have to be a very well-established organization with proven, well-documented results. Translation: struggling community groups need not apply. The point I’m trying to make is that instead of building direct relationships with a handful of high-need communities, providing technical specialists who work directly with community leaders from start to finish, grantors would rather open their grants to everyone and set up a labyrinth of restrictions to provide them “justification” to discriminate; the result is that the communities that need the most help don’t get it. Grant restrictions and requirements are a form of discrimination against communities that don’t have the needed support to comply, and never will. If you want to help communities, why not go out and meet with them face-to-face and have a conversation, instead of making them fill out a whole bunch of paperwork? Why not build a long-term relationship through direct person-to-person training and technical assistance that includes paying people for their time? Surely this is a better way to achieve accountability without so much bureaucracy.