My Birthday Wish for Chicago: Desegregation

5 03 2012

Chicago is huge. Geographically, very, very big for an old city. At 225 or so square miles, it could fit four Bostons inside it. New York is only 75 square miles larger, despite being almost three times as populous. Excepting Alaska, there are only three cities north of the Mason-Dixon line that are larger. I don’t take seriously critiques of Chicagoans’ parochialism; we live in a city of neighborhoods and Chicago’s sheer scale makes comprehensive circulation throughout the city prohibitive. Besides; New Yorkers tend to stick to their boroughs.

But the city turned 175 this past week, and there is one wish I’d make as we blow out the candles: to make a serious commitment to desegregating the city.

chicago-segregation-map.jpgChicago’s desegregation is stubborn. It persists for a variety of reasons, as many invisible as visible, and not all attributable to official political policy or market pressures. But the fact is somewhat inescapable that 44 years since the passage of the Fair Housing Act, almost 50 years since the passage of the Civil Rights Act, there is an easily identifiable white Chicago, Latino Chicago, and Black Chicago.

Polls show that Black Chicagoans in particular are willing and in fact desirous of living in more integrated communities. The lip service our politicians pay to diversity suggests there is at least superficial political support for diverse neighborhoods. But the segregation problem seems intractable. Why?

For one thing, it may be because in our public rhetoric segregation is not seen as a problem. This was particularly conspicuous during the ward remapping debate; the fact that it is still so easy to draw lines around massive areas of the city with homogeneous racial populations didn’t seem to raise any questions about our supposedly progressive city.

My little enclave of Noble Square is somewhat integrated. There are still “white ethnic” families, and Mexican and black families despite the strong lacing of white professionals and college students that usually augurs turbo gentrification. Taking my inexhaustible puppy for a long walk around our neighborhood this weekend, one reason for this island of diversity occurred to me: at either end of the neighborhood are large low-income housing developments, with a senior public housing high rise smack in the middle. In between are two high schools and at least two elementary schools, a park, and two- and three-flats with only a smattering of single-family homes and condo blocks.

Could it be that Chicago’s segregation problem is a zoning problem?

The problem of segregation is two-way. Not only are black and brown residents unable and/or unwilling to move into white neighborhoods, white residents are similarly unable, or perhaps more likely unwilling, to move into black and brown neighborhoods. If we assume that there needs to be an internal migration–that the city’s extant population needs to move in order to integrate it, rather than relying on an influx from outside the city–then we can start to see the problem a little more clearly.

This is part of the uncomfortable problem of even talking about desegregation. Once we start talking about the mechanics of encouraging integration, we’re talking about policies that encourage people of different races to move in predictable ways which is a little creepy.

Chicago’s minority neighborhoods are, in the median, lower income than white neighborhoods. Any integrative migration can’t be merely unidirectional–people moving from minority neighborhoods into white neighborhoods–because the resulting market pressure would be to significantly increase housing prices that are already by definition too high. That is, unless housing density significantly increased in white neighborhoods on the North and Northwest Sides, increasing the supply of housing, influxes of new buyers and renters would just drive up prices. But even an increase in housing supply would be problematic, since it would mean that median to above-median income families from minority neighborhoods would be leaving neighborhoods, contributing to population and wealth loss from neighborhoods that are already struggling.

So a policy of inclusionary, large-scale zoning changes would need to start in border neighborhoods that are already somewhat mixed racially, accompanied by secure amenities and integrative social services (parks and libraries, community health clinics, and legal aid clinics, and so forth). Neighborhoods like East Garfield Park, Kenwood, Washington Park, Chicago Lawn, Cragin, and Ashburn are immediately obvious sites. The idea would be that as borders bleed, capillary attraction would pull people in opposite directions, eventually easing price pressure in exclusive white neighborhoods while introducing capital and services into neighborhoods that badly need them. The inherent value of exclusion in white neighborhoods would drop precipitously.

Inclusionary zoning would be comprehensive zoning changes and incentives that require not just “low-income set-asides” but density bonuses, elimination of exclusionary lot size and floor area ratio requirements, and land use planning that discourages congestion by clearing roads for buses.

Obviously, this would require a serious investment of capital–and the capital of the political kind might be even more difficult. Why should politicians bother sticking a thumb into the still tender wound of racial animus when the present set-up, allowing for the easy manipulation of voter blocs, is so beneficial? In the neoliberal city, the best answer would be an economic one; some mumbo-jumbo magical words about job creation, spontaneous order, or the like. But that can’t be the first step for such a major change in focus. It’s a moral question and we need, first, a moral argument. Segregation is Wrong, capital-w-wrong. It is bad in the abstract and the concrete. It undergirds political manipulation, social animus, it makes service imbalances more palatable for the powerful, severs natural communities of interest among the working classes, and robs future generations of the inherent value of diversity.

I’m heartened by the fact that social attitudes can change so quickly, as evidenced by the rapid turnaround of public attitudes towards gay marriage. The next generation are not zombified stooges fiddling on their phones; they’re nimble minds uniquely–because they’re all brand new–unburdened by the bigotries of past generations. If the older generation makes it a priority to articulate the moral argument, maybe the next generation of Chicagoans, celebrating the 200th birthday of their city, will be able to look back at us the way we look back at the redlining, blockbusting, white flight days today. And if I hear that comparison made on the nightly space news while drinking iced tea in my hover-recliner, I promise not to take offense.

Map source

Green Energy and Land Use: The Flip Side

29 08 2011

In my post about the resistance of locals to wind farms, I noted that the power locals can exert over these kinds of major planning initiatives is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it can give ill-informed or myopic ad-hoc groups significant power to derail what is a national economic objective.

On the other hand, consider the Longview. The Longview export facility, that is.

In that instance, it was local environmentalists, with help from larger regional and national organizations, fighting a export facility that was to handle millions of tons of coal a year. Their contention was that moving that much coal through the area and storing it at the facility in Longview would have deleterious public health effects, and also contribute generally to the (particularly Chinese) appetite for coal, contributing to global warming. The developer for their part insisted that the coal was cleaner coal from the Midwest and that intensive measures were being taken to ensure that transport and storage weren’t a problem–and that it was self-defeating to just sit back while Chinese factories burned dirtier coal from elsewhere.

These groups organized locally to pressure County and State officials, and (temporarily) won. They used local and state land use regulatory systems to engage with the developer.

It seems to me that most people reading this would look more favorably on what happened in the latter case than what landowners do to keep wind farms from being developed–but they are perfectly identical, at least as to process and democratic participation. Given the significant degree of discretion in such permitting situations–there are rarely hard thresholds that would automatically preclude a “bad” project versus a “good” one–I’m not certain what a structural fix to the this problem for green energy would be. Taking permitting power away from localities would impermissibly disenfranchise local communities.

Green Energy and Land Use

25 08 2011

If you’re like me, when you drive past a wind farm it’s a little cheery. They have a calming, old-timey look, they’re good for the Earth, they’re innovative but intuitive. A simple machine with huge potential.

But you may be surprised to find out that there are people who hate wind farms. Loathe them. And they are notoriously difficult to build. There are a bunch of reasons for this that touch on a variety of political and policy issues:

1. Permitting. You build wind farms in rural places. County governments dominate rural places because most of the land is not incorporated into municipal governments. County governments therefore have to promulgate regulations for building wind farms. Now, these farms are typically huge, and they have to be sited according to the performance of the wind–you can’t just plop them anywhere. These two facts together mean that you often have to deal with several counties at a time, which may have different rules–and different demands. The major regulations are the zoning permits–how do you zone for a wind farm, which is essentially a non-contiguous collection of 0.1 acre sites spread across miles? Well, you have to get either a conditional permit, conditional use permit, or special use permit (same thing, different names). Special use permits are a “higher” designation, and thus compel greater scrutiny–including quasi-judicial hearings–and usually allow governments to put conditions on passage–for example, they can require developers to dedicate money for road repairs, emergency response, and other public services. They can also limit site selection–for example proximity to property lines–and spacing, often to accommodate aerial pesticide planes. Obviously onerous conditions like these can kill a project.
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