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July 31, 2006

Regional equity movement is the civil rights issue of the 21st century, say authors of Ford Foundation report

By Jennifer McNulty

Across the country, many urban neighborhoods and entire regions are segregated as surely as if there were “whites only” signs posted.


The Ford Foundation report outlines an ambitious action plan.

"But leaders of the new “regional equity” movement are organizing to break down the divisions of race, income, education, and employment that cut off opportunity and polarize Americans.

A new Ford Foundation report outlines an ambitious action plan for social change from Los Angeles to Detroit and Atlanta. The report, “Edging Toward Equity: Creating Shared Opportunity in America’s Regions,” is issued as a call to action by a team of academics, community activists, labor organizers, and foundation representatives brought together by the Center for Justice, Tolerance, and Community (CJTC) at UCSC.

Far more than a planning tool, regional equity has emerged over the past decade as a framework that combines economic competitiveness and fairness to rethink the landscape of cities and metropolitan areas.

“Regional equity represents new promise for the nation as a whole,” said project coordinator Manuel Pastor, director of the CJTC and a professor of Latin American and Latino studies at UCSC. “Regional equity isn’t just about being fair. It’s about building a better America.”

Just as the 1992 civil unrest in Los Angeles exposed that city’s racial and economic fault lines, Hurricane Katrina laid bare the depths of concentrated poverty, racial segregation, and isolation experienced by many residents of New Orleans and the greater Gulf Coast. Without private vehicles or access to public transit, Katrina’s most impoverished victims were effectively trapped in their devastated city while millions watched the suffering on television.

Proponents of regional equity blame widespread spacial inequality on a combination of public policy and market forces, and they call on policy makers, elected officials, and community activists to take a regional approach to economic growth so that all residents will benefit.

Pragmatic strategies include innovations such as Community Benefits Agreements (CBAs), which ensure that residents of neighborhoods slated for major regional attractions receive specific benefits. Developers of the Staples Center arena in Los Angeles, for example, negotiated with community organizers, who agreed not to oppose the project in exchange for benefits such as hiring preferences for neighborhood residents, development of a job-training academy at a local community college, and creation of a housing fund to help residents cope with the pressures of increased demand that accompany new development. Similar agreements were struck during the planning of the Los Angeles International Airport expansion, noted Pastor. “The idea is to bring the costs and benefits of development into alignment,” he explained.

In another example of an equitable approach to urban planning issues, the “Fix it First” road program in Detroit diverted funds from building new roads to repairing old ones in an attempt to improve the city’s infrastructure rather than enhance the suburban experience.

The fates of poor inner-city areas are increasingly intertwined with older outer suburbs that face similar problems of disinvestment and decline: in the 1990s, poverty rates in central cities actually declined while they rose in the nation’s suburbs. Although cities and housing markets remain racially segregated, more African Americans and Latinos are living in suburbs than ever before, according to the report.

Regional equity strategies focus on addressing inequality in transportation, employment, housing, and environmental protection, but it is not just about helping the poor. Unbalanced and sprawling growth undermines economic efficiency and competitiveness, said Pastor, an economist who cited numerous studies that indicate that regions addressing such inequalities--from San Jose to Boston--are experiencing greater prosperity than those that ignore the problems. In Charlotte, North Carolina, city leaders recognized that their dream of becoming the “center of the New South” would never become reality if they didn’t address the needs of the city’s poor black population, noted Pastor. “The business community is embracing regional equity because workers in the new economy care tremendously about quality of life, and they don’t want to live in cities with large populations of disenfranchised residents,” he said.

The regional equity movement has “taken off” around the country in part because people respond to its core value of fairness, said Pastor. “People know polarization is wrong,” he said. “They know it feels hurtful, and they are tired of growing apart. Regional equity promotes an idealistic vision of America’s promise.”

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