Triptych Tuesday: A Legacy of Inequitable Infrastructure

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Triptych Tuesday: A Legacy of Inequitable Infrastructure

If the people centered-transportation movement can become a champion for racial and economic equity, it will play a direct an important counter-point to 20th century infrastructure decisions.

A major feature in Slate last month, the past and present of auto-centric infrastructure pockmarks nearly all U.S. cities with the brunt of the externalized consequences being shouldered by communities of color. Unfortunately, Buffalo is no exception.

As described in the One Region Forward Fair Housing Equity Assessment, from Interstate 190 to NYS Route 33 and NYS Route 198, in green lighting these highways:

“Public officials leveraged massive public works projects aimed to facilitate the rise of the automobile and expedite suburban commuting to additional end: the construction of highways through urban neighborhoods served to displace and disconnect emerging bases of African-American political power. At the same time these interventions undercut economic opportunities and activity within neighborhoods by allowing traffic (and customers) to quickly bypass city neighborhoods for new auto- centric commercial development. The legacy of these roadways has further created communities of environmental justice concerns where low-income and minority populations are now subjected to high volumes of car and truck emissions. 

Nowhere in Buffalo was the intrusion of highways on neighborhoods more apparent than the construction of Route 33. Also known as the [Kensington] Expressway, this highway was named after the grand Olmsted-designed Humboldt Parkway that was torn out for its construction. Humboldt Parkway was the spine of emerging black middle- class neighborhood of Hamlin Park and its link to the great public spaces of The Parade (now MLK Park) and Delaware Park. However, the local (white) power elite welcomed the destruction as a sign of progress. In fact, as New York State footed the lion’s share of the bill for the project, Buffalo’s then-mayor Steven Pankow reportedly proclaimed, “Never has Buffalo been offered so much for so little”.

humboldt pkwy with trees

humboldt pkwy trees cut  Streets_Humboldt_Mudpit_construction_1960s_B.jpg__320x259_q85

The Restore Our Community Coalition was formed in 2010 with a vision for restoring the grand parkway that was once the central defining and unifying element of this neighborhood. They are building a strong cohort of organizational and individual stakeholders to rally momentum for beginning to right the wrong done to this neighborhood. More information about this important work and more back story about the Parkway and ways to get involved can be found on their website.


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Today It’s All About You

PB March-25th-postcardIf you’re in Buffalo, then hopefully you know about the great work that Clean Air Coalition and the Common Council’s Participatory Budget Committee have been doing to bring direct democratic control to the people of this city.

For those of you who have been following this exciting progress, tonight’s open house is a great opportunity to learn more. And to those of you that participatory budgeting a new concept, tonight is a great chance to get acquainted.

From the Clean Air website:

Community Control Over Public Dollar$ is an informational Exposition on Participatory Budgeting in Buffalo. Participatory Budgeting (PB) is a fairly new way to make decisions about publicly funded projects. Participatory Budgeting gives ordinary people decision-making power over real money. PB is already working in over 1,500 municipalities around the world. It includes everyone in the community – especially those who are often excluded from the political process or feel disillusioned with current political structures and institutions.

Participatory Budgeting began in Brazil in the late 1980s and has spread to communities worldwide, helping to determine allocation of municipal and agency capital budgets, special funds, and legislative discretionary funds. In New York City, several Council Members have disbursed millions of dollars in discretionary spending through a broad based Participatory Budgeting process – gaining notoriety from the White House as a leading Open Government “Champions of Change” initiative. The White House has also included Participatory Budgeting in the 2014 Open Government National Action Plan, specifically citing HUD Community Development funds as a potential funding source.

The Participatory Budgeting Project, a New York city based 501(c)(3), has provided assistance to various projects throughout the continent, including local partners. Participatory Budgeting’s highest local profile to date has been Clean Air’s large scale public process and voting to gauge community support for the distribution of funds from the Tonawanda Coke environmental violations settlement.

Participatory Budgeting follows five basic steps:

1) rule setting

2) public ideation

3) project refinement and evaluation

4) public prioritization

5) award allocation

In a pure Participatory Budgeting process, the amount of funding available is established and communicated at the outset and projects are funded in the order of priority assigned by the community through the voting process until the funding is exhausted. On many occasions, though, by raising the profile of and interest in community needs and opportunities, even projects not funded through the Participatory Budgeting process have been taken on by other funding sources.

Traditional planning processes disconnected from the budget process can often create “planning fatigue” particularly in low-income communities where residents may succeed in having their knowledge and vision reflected in planning documents, but these have rarely resulted in direct, tangible neighborhood investment. This cycle has created distrust, suppressed engagement – particularly among low-income families and people of color – and produced a cadre of “usual suspects” that tend to dominate public process.

At the same time, capital investment for community development has too often benefited private interests without fundamentally addressing the concerns or needs of a neighborhood or catalyzing spin-off investment and long-term improvement.

Participatory Budgeting is a clear and direct way to engage communities and live into a planning practice that puts local first and reflects that fact that communities members know their neighborhoods better than anyone else. And the direct link from community to on-the-ground change creates a snowball effect of increasing community pride and civic engagement.

Come out tonight and learn more…

Thanks to Clean Air and the Common Council PB Committee for leading this charge!

 

 


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Separate and Unequal in Buffalo Niagara

“The consequences of racial and ethnic segregation and discrimination directly impact individuals, neighborhoods and the region as a whole.”


In the 120 years since the case of Plessy v. Ferguson — which established the doctrine of separate but equal — morality, experience and, eventually, the law have proven time and again that separate can never be equal.

Yet in Buffalo Niagara we struggle, as do nearly all U.S. regions, with intense racial and ethnic segregation.

From the opportunity gaps that we experience, and that our research verifies, it is clear that Buffalo Niagara is also intensely unequal.

A Statistical Explanation of Segregation  SOURCE: Brown University US2010

A Statistical Explanation of Segregation
SOURCE: Brown University US2010

The stats can get complicated but simply reinforce what we have known to be true for too long. For instance, the Regional Index of Dissimilarity measures how one racial or ethnic group is distributed throughout the region as compared to another racial or demographic group. On a scale of 0-100, with 60 generally being considered a very high level of segregation, this measure conveys the percentage of one group that would need to move in order to achieve perfect integration with the other group. The divide between black and white is largest of any differential in Buffalo Niagara at a striking 71.

The “Main Street divide” is real, and it is stark. Nationally, the Buffalo Niagara Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) ranks high in segregation – as 6th most segregated on the White-Black index of the 102 largest metros, 21st in White- Hispanic segregation and as the most segregated on the White-Asian index.

Far from just dictating what sign of a geographic line people live on, the divide also greatly affects the access to opportunities and to services that people have on a daily basis. This unequal access leads to employment and achievement statistics that are skewed against people of color. The poverty rate of the white population in the region, then, is only 9.6%, but for African-Americans it is 36.1%, for Hispanic/Latino populations it is 35.8%, Asian/Pacific Islander 25.6% and Native Americans 23.5%.

An On-the-Ground Explanation of Segregation East Ferry (above) One Block East of Main Street West Ferry (below) One Block West of Main Street

An On-the-Ground Explanation of Segregation
ABOVE: East Ferry One Block East of Main Street; BELOW: West Ferry One Block West of Main Street via Google Maps

Because this inequality is widespread, pervasive and long standing, many of the factors contributing to segregation are buried under assumptions, stereotypes and misinformation so that the victims of an unequal system are too often blamed for its outcomes. Yet this imbalance continues to hold back individuals and region as a whole. As further described in the One Region Forward Equity Assessment:

…populations [of color] in the region suffer from reduced opportunity and outcomes in academic and occupational achievement, suffer poorer personal health and reduced quality of life.

The lack of economic vibrancy in poor neighborhoods reduces the municipal tax base making it more challenging for local governments to provide adequate levels of services, amenities and infrastructure throughout the region.

The inability to access employment, or additional challenges faced in accessing employment, in economically isolated neighborhoods means direct costs to government in the form of increased public assistance.

Concentrations of poverty and lack of mainstream economic opportunity have also led to higher areas of crime, reflecting an increased burden on the criminal justice system. However, disparities in law enforcement skewed against minority populations have also created huge familial and social strains within minority communities as a disproportionate number of families lose loved ones to incarceration.

Sanctioned and covert institutional financial policies and practices and the distorted economies of low-income neighborhoods further restrict access to the main stream economy and compound the difficulty of breaking the generational cycle of poverty.”

In short, there is a high universal cost of concentrated and racialized poverty. In fact, the The Equality of Opportunity Project has found that both whites and non-whites have lesser chances of escaping poverty and climbing the economic ladder in regions that are more highly segregated.

There is a distinct advantage to the region in addressing these issues and, as mentioned in an earlier post, a host of individuals and organization are working on these issues, growing a large and inclusive movement to achieve racial equity in Buffalo Niagara, but the work is far from complete.

In future posts, we’ll delve into both some of the root policy and practice causes of segregation and inequality in the region, as well as the recommendations coming out of the One Region Forward Equity Assessment.