Over the past half century a variety of strategies have been designed in search of solutions to the multiple and deeply rooted problems of America’s central cities.
“The expansion of social services, reorientation of city development policies in progressive directions, the rapid proliferation and growth of community development corporations, the enhancement of human capital investments, especially urban school reform, have all had their (urban) moment.” – David Imbroscio, Urban America Reconsidered
I had a professor in graduate school describe the myriad of strategies used to solve urban problems as “great solutions to the wrong problem”. Granted each of the above approaches has had positive impacts, some greater than others, as a whole many of the communities where these strategies have been used remain isolated and poor.
Today, a new approach and way of thinking is becoming popularized, based on the idea that central cities are too isolated (socially, economically, politically, fiscally, etc.) from the broader region. Proponents of this “new regionalism” argue that the local scale is too small and too limited to do much good. The answer, they say, is to expand the boundaries of the local, “crossing city lines”, to connect inner city communities to the broader region.
I should start by saying, I mostly agree with the framework of this theory. The broken and ineffective way we have constructed many of our communities, has essentially isolated low-income people and people of color from opportunity. Connecting communities like mine, North Minneapolis, to broader economic, housing and social opportunities would be beneficial to the overall health and well being of my neighborhood and its residents.
Here though are some of my main concerns with the new regionalism framework:
It essentially looks beyond the local to solve urban problems. Rather than being focused on finding solutions that come from inside a community or neighborhood, energy and resources are shifted to solutions more distant and external from community.
It privileges individual mobility over local community development. While enhancing individual mobility is a good thing, we must not sacrifice building the economic, political, human and social capital inside communities. We need strong regional connections and strong local neighborhoods, together.
Not everyone benefits. The universal approaches used to increase individual mobility tend flow to those most advantaged in disadvantaged neighborhoods, exacerbating rather than ameliorating place based inequalities. If we are going to ensure greater benefit to residents of poor communities, more targeted approaches must be put in place.
My concern is that if not implemented wisely, a new regionalist approach to addressing urban poverty issues will leaving us measuring success at the regional level, ignoring inequities at the local level. The region will boast an unemployment rate of 8%, while the unemployment rate of a local community within that region might be 45%. The region will boast a high school graduation rate of 80%, while the graduation rate of a local community within that region might be less than 50%.
I want to see us build up healthy local neighborhoods that are strong socially, economically and politically, and with strong connections to the broader region. I want to make sure our strategies are valuing local community and their residents and not just the region. I don’t want to see us shift our resources and energy into building a strong region at the expense of building strong local communities in all parts of that region. I don’t want to see us lift up “re-location” as the way to address urban poverty issues.
I don’t want us to sacrifice the inside for the outside.
Building a strong Twin Cities region, a strong city like Minneapolis and a strong local community like North Minneapolis, should be complementary not conflicting goals. Now granted, I’m not an expert on new regionalism, but I have to believe that there is a way where we can develop the strength and vitality of the local neighborhood and its residents while simultaneously making connections to the assets of the broader region.