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Community, the Environment and the “Nonsexist City“

(Image: Democracy Collaborative)

Part of the Series

This “Chapter Thirteen” is part seventeen of Truthout’s continuing series of excerpts from Gar Alperovitz’s “America beyond Capitalism.”

This is an exclusive Truthout series from political economist and author Gar Alperovitz. We are publishing weekly installments of the new edition of “America Beyond Capitalism,” a visionary book first published in 2005, whose time has come. Donate to Truthout and receive a free copy.

In this chapter, Gar Alperovitz charts the varied interconnections between community economic and environmental stability, gender-friendly community design and land ownership institutions.

Americans concerned with the environment, on the one hand, and gender-related issues, on the other, are also slowly coming to realize they now face systemically rooted challenges that are fundamentally different from those they once thought might easily be overcome. One clear requirement of a longer-run solution for both directly intersects with, and is likely to bolster, the strategic logic of the economically stable communities of the Pluralist Commonwealth vision.

Despite more than thirty years of modern achievement, the fact is many of the most important environmental trends – always allowing for exceptions that prove the rule – continue to move in a negative direction. We may distinguish between three quite different types of progress with regard to the environment.

First are what may be termed “Type A” gains – absolute breakthroughs in connection with discrete problems – like the near total elimination of DDT and lead. These are important but limited in number and in overall impact. Second, “Type B,” are a range of policies, programs, and regulatory efforts that serve to “do something about” a major environmental problem; but often their positive effect, like the effect of many efforts to deal with inequality, is insufficient to reverse (as opposed to slow down) a major trend. Thus, without various national and international strategies to curb global warming, things would clearly be worse – but the destructive negative trends continue nonetheless. Again, the rate at which wetlands have been lost has slowed – yet net losses in the 1990s continued at over fifty thousand acres a year. Gains have been made in average passenger car fuel mileage, but these have been overwhelmed by a rise in the numbers of cars, a shift to less efficient light trucks and SUVs, and a doubling of miles driven since 1970.

Third are “Type C” achievements that actually reverse the direction of destructive long-term environmental trends – including those involving certain components of air and water pollution, and the cleanup of Lake Erie. Reductions in U.S. emissions of volatile organic compounds, sulfur dioxide, and carbon monoxide since 1970, for instance, range between 15 and 40 percent.

The reality is that, despite several significant “Type A” breakthroughs and a very few important “Type C” trend reversals, most environmental gains have been in the “Type B” category. They have done useful things, but the positive achievements have not been adequate to reverse long-term negative trends. A recent study of quarter-century patterns by the National Center for Economic and Security Alternatives demonstrates a general worsening of ecological outcomes in twenty-one key environmental factors. (Exceptions are certain aspects of air and water pollution.) Similarly, research covering the 1970 to 2000 period by Redefining Progress found improvement in air pollution, but negative trends in overall water pollution, noise pollution, loss of wetlands, loss of farmlands, depletion of nonrenewable resources, and ozone depletion. (The estimated magnitude of the worsening trends was roughly thirty-five times the improvement in positive trends.)

The bottom line on many, many fronts is that the battle for ecological sustainability is being lost – despite positive “activity.” The late Donnella Meadows put the situation succinctly in the title of one of her last essays: “Things Getting Worse at a Slower Rate.”

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Environmentalists continue to organize in support of various regulations, and to express anger at major corporate and other polluters. However, the fundamental issue, like that which is increasingly obvious in other areas – is that many traditional strategies seem increasingly unable to achieve important defined goals. Yes, certain gains can be made, but unless some major shift occurs, the likelihood is that, no, many critical negative trends will not be reversed.

The development of a systematic capacity to achieve greater community economic stability, together with other features of Pluralist Commonwealth democratic reconstruction, offers a logically coherent strategic approach to moving beyond the impasse suggested by this reality (and accordingly, too, ultimately the possibility of additional political support for the policies and institutional changes it requires).

A basic reason environmental pollution is often difficult to deal with at the local level is that citizens and political leaders alike fear the loss of jobs that a challenge to corporate polluters might produce. The citizens of Pigeon River, Tennessee, for instance, chose to risk potentially carcinogenic emissions by North Carolina’s Champion International paper mill because of fear they might otherwise lose a thousand jobs. A fifty-one-year-old worker who, despite the danger, supported keeping the plant open spoke for many: “What do you do when you’re my age and faced with the prospect of being thrown out on the street?”

For similar reasons, as the Nobel laureate economist Kenneth Arrow and others have observed, low-income nations typically have higher proportions of dangerous polluting industries. Conversely, several studies have found that economically successful states and localities have stronger and/or more effective environmental regulations.

Strategies that bolster local economic stability offer a response to a common and critical dilemma: if community stability can be achieved through policies like those discussed in Chapter 12, then the fear of loss that a challenge to pollution may entail can be reduced – even, in principle, eliminated. Undercutting this source of strategic environmental weakness is thus a fundamental, not superficial, long-term requirement of significant change.

In this chapter, Gar Alperovitz charts the varied interconnections between community economic and environmental stability, gender-friendly community design and land ownership institutions.

An additional foundational factor involves the inherent “embeddedness” of many new local economic institutions. Most of the growing numbers of worker-owned firms, nonprofits-in-business, municipal enterprises, community-owned corporations, and the like that we have reviewed are enmeshed in, and deeply tied to, the community. Not only is it difficult for such entities to leave when challenged by local environmental regulation, but they are institutions with a stake in maintaining the general support of the community of which they are a part. Further, the people involved are themselves members of the community. All three reasons serve to increase the responsiveness of such enterprises to local environmental concerns.

Several firms in which workers have significant ownership are also on the cutting edge of specific environmental sustainability efforts: Cranston Print Works in Rhode Island has regularly won awards for reducing its use of toxic materials; Herman Miller, Inc., has been recognized by the National Wildlife Federation and the state of California for outstanding reductions in material waste; Kolbe and Kolbe has dramatically reduced its hazardous waste output as a result of suggestions by employee-owners.

Environmentally oriented “civil society” associational development is also related to community economic stability. Local activism has produced a rich and broad grassroots tradition of environmental problem-solving – of efforts devoted to recycling, to encouraging community-supported agriculture, to challenging local pollution dangers, to organizing new forms of community transportation planning, to developing solar and other renewable energy projects, and the like. Instability obviously weakens all forms of civil society network-building. On the other hand, strategies that help achieve local stability produce a more supportive context for civil society associations in general – and for citizen organizations concerned with the environment in particular.

The longer-term involved citizen trend has also given rise to what is termed “civic environmentalism.” Traditional regulatory methods have been applied to only a limited group of environmental problems – mainly those amenable to relatively easy compliance monitoring. The Clean Water Act, for instance, has focused largely on limiting concentrated dumping, but it has done far less to regulate the more difficult problem of “nonpoint source” pollution – that is, releases from widely dispersed locations. In contrast, flexible environmental agreements have been achieved in several areas by organized citizen groups that have negotiated directly with corporations in connection with such matters as habitat preservation, forestry, toxic release control, and green space preservation. Although there have been questionable compromises in some settings, the most interesting “civic environmental” experiments now provide sustained, rather than sporadic, citizen input into local corporate decision making.

Beyond any particular project or strategy, what is ultimately at stake at the community level is the transformation over time of local culture in the direction of greater ecological consciousness – and this in turn is important for reasons that extend beyond the locality. Research by Giovanna Di Chiro and others has shown how the agendas of grassroots groups commonly evolve from defending a localized “place” orientation to supporting broader, more universal concepts of environmental justice. Similarly, Raymond DeYoung, Stefan Vogel, Stephen Kaplan, and others have demonstrated the diverse ways that direct local participation builds stronger environmentally oriented attitudes in general. The resulting changes in consciousness – and in “acceptable” standards and norms of environmental management – are critical, in turn, to establishing support for larger, longer-term national and regional policy change.

We are back by another route to the Tocqueville-Mill axiom that direct local community experience is formative and essential – and to the question of whether local political and especially economic conditions provide a supportive context for such experience.

Sociologist Ronald Inglehart and others have traced the dramatic evolution of greater environmental consciousness at the national level throughout the Western world over the last four decades. Systematic support for the economic conditions that nurture the local sources of environmental norms may be understood as a way to add to and accelerate the longer-term developmental process – and thus also for consciously working to bolster the underlying society-wide cultural changes ultimately required for a renewal of support for environmentally important policies.

Although the logic of such considerations – and the importance of local economic stability – is increasingly understood by many concerned with environmental matters, a key question is whether (when?) significant numbers might begin to confront the need to embrace a broader political-economic agenda aimed not only at immediate environmental threats, but explicitly at establishing the necessary foundations for longer-range change. Clearly, this is not a simple task; a great deal of energy is (and must be) absorbed in important day-to-day battles.

If the experience of other groups is any guide, however, the logic of failure here, too, may ultimately force a rethinking process, and perhaps one day may also help catalyze significant political alliances with others concerned with related political and economic matters – and with community economic stability in particular. Changes in the way sprawl issues have been conceived and addressed in recent years, in fact, already offer an example of how a greatly expanded environmental political agenda – and unexpected new alliances – can develop as the situational logic facing diverse groups forces them to confront new issues over time.

The American Farmland Trust calculates that almost a million acres of farm and open land are lost to sprawl each year. Chicago’s expansion is illustrative: its metropolitan population grew only 4 percent between 1970 and 1990, but its urban land area increased 35 percent. In the same period Pittsburgh’s population declined 9 percent, but its urban area continued to grow by 30 percent (180 square miles). Outward land expansion has, in fact, outpaced population growth in 94 percent of U.S. metropolitan areas in recent years.

A particularly worrisome longer-range consequence of sprawl is the loss of biological diversity due to habitat destruction, especially wetlands. Water runoff problems are also exacerbated. In highly developed areas (with many buildings, parking lots, roads, etc.), the natural absorption of rainwater is greatly reduced, encouraging greater soil erosion, increased water pollution, and lower water tables. Again, sprawl increases reliance on the automobile – a primary source of air pollution and greenhouse emissions. A recent HUD study estimates that suburban families drive 30 percent more than city residents.

Many of the outward-moving pressures that contribute to sprawl are derivative – in significant part the result of an absence of systematic job creation and economic development in central cities. Myron Orfield’s study of the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area, for instance, found that “social decline and local fiscal stress ‘push’ people and businesses out of older declining communities,” creating pressures on middle-class areas. Bruce Katz of the Brookings Institution puts it this way: the “flip side of the rise in concentrated urban poverty is the surge in suburban and exurban sprawl.”

Mass transit can help reduce commuting, but ultimately the provision of stable jobs near homes and schools – not only in the central city but in suburban communities as well – is the only way to undercut the forces producing the waste of ever greater expansion, commuting, and ever lower densities. For many years environmentalists mainly stressed policies to constrain the external sprawling thrust of metropolitan growth. During the last two decades, however, a number of groups have come to realize that it is important to deal with the deeper driving forces as well. Many have added community economic strategies to their once narrowly “environmental” agendas – and at the same time have formed new and previously unexpected alliances.

Maryland’s Smart Growth & Neighborhood Conservation Initiative, for instance, is attempting both to limit sprawl and to develop communities (“conserving neighborhoods”). State infrastructure funding has been explicitly restricted to “designated growth areas,” and efforts are under way to support brownfield redevelopment. Miami’s Eastward Ho! Brownfields Partnership is a collaboration of government agencies, community organizations, and private groups working to redirect development in southeast Florida. A key strategy here involves “infill” development to revitalize Miami’s urban core and other coastal communities. An explicit goal is to thereby reduce development pressures on the Everglades to the west.

The sprawl issue offers a further lesson in political possibilities – and how change can occur even in times of long-term frustration and seeming stalemate. In the fall of 1998, suddenly and unexpectedly, more than 70 percent of 240 state and local antisprawl ballot measures were approved by voters around the nation. The 240 proposals were more than double the number reported just two years earlier in a similar survey. Taxpayers set aside a combined total of $7.5 billion to purchase land or development rights for preservation. In addition, they enacted numerous limits on suburban expansion.

Both sides of the aisle got involved. Then Republican governor Christine Todd Whitman of New Jersey offered a plan to invest $1 billion to protect half the state’s remaining 2 million acres of undeveloped land. Forty-three cities and six counties approved tax increases to finance the proposal. The liberal Democratic governor of Maryland, Parris Glendening, won passage of several antisprawl proposals – including the Smart Growth Areas Act, which “restricts state funding for road and sewer projects to those in older communities and areas already slated for growth.”

Two years later, in 2000, voters approved just under 80 percent of a record 257 similar measures on the ballot – something that would have seemed all but impossible even to the most optimistic in the politically difficult years only a short time before.

“The most striking aspects of modern U.S. city spatial structure,” University of Minnesota professor Ann Markusen points out, “are the significant spatial segregation of residence from the capitalist workplace, the increasing low-density settlement, and the predominant single-family form of residential housing. . . . [The] current forms . . . reinforce women’s roles as household workers and as members of the secondary labor force.”

Many of the most commonly discussed issues of concern to American women can be traced to discriminatory attitudes and high levels of income inequality. In recent years, however, it has also become clear that critical matters of community economic stability, jobs, and land use planning must be addressed if fundamental goals of male-female equality are ever to be realized. The longer-term trajectory of learning and change here, too, points in the direction of the community-building Pluralist Commonwealth paradigm – and again, opens questions of how (whether) over time those concerned with gender issues might also begin to orient their efforts to foundational political-economic issues and principles, and to the alliances these suggest.

Markusen and others now forcefully argue that the spatial organization of the city must be addressed directly. What is needed (in Betty Friedan’s formulation) is a “new kind of space for living that would be more human and less impersonal . . . and not so separated from the workplace, not so isolated as the suburbs.” Friedan concludes: “We have to take new control . . . with not only new sharing of roles by women and men, but physical, spatial design of new kinds of housing and neighborhoods.” The question for the future, Yale’s Dolores Hayden declares, is, “What Would a Non-Sexist City Be Like?”

One obvious requirement is a form of community planning and land use that brings men, women, and children into closer proximity throughout the workday. This is not simply a matter of reducing the commute to work and improving community ties; a change in proximity is also necessary if more meaningful shared male-female child-rearing is ever to be achieved. If one or both parents must leave home early in the morning to get to work “downtown” – and return late in the day – the possibility of rearranging roles and tasks is limited, to say the least.

Even a preliminary approach to such planning, however, requires a systematic capacity to target stable jobs to both urban and suburban communities in a manner that brings home and work closer together. Although the logic of a gender-related form of community planning, which takes gender issues seriously, has become increasingly obvious – and, too, its relationship to the key policy elements of a general approach to achieving community economic stability clear – very few feminists have as yet embraced a foundational political-economic agenda that systematically addresses the underlying issues.

Partial movement in the direction of a new approach has, however, begun to emerge from a different quarter. City planners concerned with “New Urbanist” themes have begun to develop “village” groupings that attempt to bring work, home, school, and various community facilities closer together. Often such regrouping strategies are linked to new mass transit access points in so-called transit-oriented development designed to reduce automobile use. The issue goes well beyond city planning per se, and even beyond matters of gender equality. Ultimately, it involves questions of civic life and democratic participation, which are central to the Pluralist Commonwealth vision. New Urbanist leader Peter Calthorpe is devastating in his critique:

Today the public world is shrunken and fractured. Parks, schools, libraries, post offices, town halls, and civic centers are dispersed, underutilized, and underfunded. Yet these civic elements determine the quality of our shared world and express the value we assign to community. The traditional Commons, which once centered our communities with convivial gathering and meeting places, is increasingly displaced by an exaggerated private domain: shopping malls, private clubs, and gated communities. Our basic public space, the street, is given over to the car and its accommodation, while our private world becomes more and more isolated behind garage doors and walled compounds. Our public space lacks identity and is largely anonymous, while our private space strains toward a narcissistic autonomy. Our communities are zoned black and white, private or public, my space or nobody’s.

Calthorpe urges that we “need communities that are occupied full time and that provide a world of opportunity for kids, communities that support women (and men) in their efforts to weave together an ever more complex life of home and work.”

New Urbanists Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck point out that “we have rebuilt our nation every fifty to sixty years.” We are likely to do so again, one way or the other, more than once over the course of the new century. As they observe: “The choice is ours: either a society of homogenous pieces, isolated from one another in often fortified enclaves, or a society of diverse and memorable neighborhoods, organized into mutually supportive towns, cities, and regions.”

New Urbanist efforts offer practical precedents for community planning – and, too, a further trajectory of intersecting thought and developing experience that reinforces the logic of a community-building approach to both environmental and gender issues. There are also signs that such efforts are developing increasing support – and in so doing are adding to the possibilities of a longer-term foundationally oriented politics in general.

The broad direction that begins with community stability and sprawl issues and moves on to New Urbanism – both in general and, now, in ways that facilitate new gender roles and civic renewal – recalls themes that have been evolving over the last hundred years that culminate, logically, in community-focused strategies aimed at the development of new towns and population centers in areas away from mass conurbations.

“The re-animation and re-building of regions, as deliberate works of collective art,” Lewis Mumford wrote early in the twentieth century, “is the grand task of politics for the opening generation. . . . And as the new tasks of region-building imply shifts in population, migration into more favored areas, and the building up or reconstruction of a multitude of new urban complexes, the politics of regional development become of critical importance.”

The creation of new population centers – and the construction of new homes, shops, and public facilities in new cities or around smaller older ones – is likely to become a matter of increasing concern as the U.S. population moves toward 400 million by midcentury and in the direction of even greater numbers by century’s end. Either new community centers will be systematically encouraged, or the wasteful, ecologically destructive, traffic-congested and gendered development patterns of the last half-century will multiply, piling new cohort of population upon sprawling new cohort as time goes on.

Technological and other sectoral trends clearly permit far greater economically efficient dispersion of jobs. Numerous studies have also shown that smaller cities in the 100,000 to 200,000 range perform better than large cities with respect to a range of quality-of-life issues, including the environment, crime rates, and traffic management – and, too, that large majorities, if given a choice, would prefer living in smaller communities. Cities of smaller scale have also been shown to be more conducive to democratic participation than large cities. Ecologist David Orr suggests that the question is no longer “whether the urban tide will ebb, but when, how, how rapidly, and whether by foresight or happenstance.”

Many of the growing number of tax, loan, procurement, and institution-building policies aimed at bolstering community stability that we have reviewed could also obviously be used to help implement a coherent strategy to support new, more dispersed centers of population and economic activity. Precedents for using public job targeting to help stabilize and build up smaller towns are also well established in connection with the current placement of government offices and installations.

Clearly, the near-term political odds against developing a systematic and fully realized approach to job and population dispersion are long. It would nonetheless be a mistake to dismiss the possible unfolding of such a strategy over the course of the century out of hand – and the logic of this possibility suggests one final perspective on the potential gains that might be achieved by bringing some of the key elements of the Pluralist Commonwealth theory and experience together in a comprehensive approach.

When new population centers are developed on new land or around existing small towns, the value of that land increases enormously. One of the founders of modern city planning, Sir Ebenezer Howard, long ago proposed that if such land were owned by some form of community corporation or land trust, the increase in value associated with new economic development would redound to the benefit of the community as a whole (and could ultimately be sufficient, he calculated, to repay investment costs and eliminate most local taxes).

The key concept is essentially an expanded version of existing land trusts and value recapture efforts currently in common use in many parts of the nation. Moreover, as we have seen, precedents for integrating such an approach with public investment strategies can be found in numerous cities – including Washington, D.C.; Atlanta; Miami; Cedar Rapids, Iowa; Santa Clara, California; and San Francisco – that have established community ownership of development around transit entrances in order to capture increased land values produced by public investment.

A fully developed strategy aimed at helping create new population centers – one that brings together job-stabilizing policies and new land ownership institutions – offers dramatic opportunities not only for longer-term planning in general, but for capturing huge gains that might be plowed back into community development, housing, and other subsidies and even, perhaps, direct or indirect income supplements.

Intriguingly, Howard judged that the long-term possibilities suggested by the localist community-oriented ownership model he proposed might one day offer a way to bypass the difficulties of both historic political-economic “systems” through principles not unlike those at the very core of the Pluralist Commonwealth vision: “[O]n a small scale society may readily become more individualistic than now – if by Individualism is meant a society in which there is fuller and freer opportunity for its members to do and to produce what they will, and to form free associations, of the most varied kinds; while it may also become more socialistic – if by Socialism is meant a condition of life in which the well-being of the community is safeguarded, and in which the collective spirit is manifested by a wide extension of the area of municipal effort.”

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