Diverse, Green, Beautiful Cities: an interview with Carl Anthony

A multi-cultural coalition can lead the way to greener and more vibrant cities that work for all residents, says Carl Anthony in this interview with YES! executive editor, Sarah van Gelder
tom rumble diverse green beautiful.jpg

Image by Tom Rumble / Unsplash

Carl Anthony is founder and executive director of Urban Habitat Program, convenor of the Bay Area Alliance for Sustainable Development, and former president of the Earth Island Institute.

Sarah van Gelder: Tell me about your background. You are an architect and you were also a civil rights activist. What was the connection?

Carl Anthony: Originally, my focus was on certain rundown, inner-city neighborhoods. These were places where you'd see miles and miles of commercial strips, but even something as simple as a place to buy decent food was missing.

It struck me that although these inner city neighborhoods were showing obvious signs of neglect, many of them were originally quite beautiful. So I was very much inspired to try to visualize alternatives. I had visions of rebuilding communities to meet the basic needs of the people who live there with parks, day care centers, and new employment centers that people could walk to.

Sarah: You've talked about sprawl having a negative impact not only on farmland and open space but on life in urban areas. How did this pattern of sprawl we're seeing now develop? And who wins and loses?

Carl: A turning point for cities came after World War II when money became available to build freeways, and at the same time, through the Federal Housing Administration and other mortgage institutions, government began financing opportunities for people to buy houses in suburban areas. During much of this time, this housing was really available only to white families because of various discriminatory real estate practices. The result was an incredible metropolitan expansion that filtered certain populations - Black people and poor people - into the inner cities. And the middle class and working-class White people were moving out to the suburban fringe. Schools and other public services - swimming pools and parks and libraries - were newer and often of better quality in suburban communities than they were in the inner-city communities that were left behind.

So the kind of polarization developed that was underscored in the Kerner Report in 1968, which found that our society was becoming two separate societies, one Black and one White.

Sarah: Your report, What If We Shared, has a sentence I found especially intriguing. It says, As long as some parts of the region can exclude the costs and effects of social responsibilities, the region's resources will naturally flow there. Can you explain what dynamic is at work there?

Carl: Well, basically, there are some communities that get the lion's share of public and private investment. Investment in commercial and retail activity tends to go to those neighborhoods where people have more discretionary income. If you wanted to open up an ice cream parlor, for example, you would rather open it in a neighborhood where there is a lot of money. The result is an increasing pattern of concentration of wealth and resources in those places that are already advantaged.

These advantaged areas not only have more taxes to spend - which are invested in schools and other amenities - but they also have lower social needs. So with lower social needs and more taxes, these communities gain more privileges and that reinforces their sense of being different from the rest of society. The issue of race makes this sense of separation even worse.

Sarah: You say that there was disinvestment of both private and public money. I think most people assume that the government is spending public money in inner-city neighborhoods to compensate for the lack of private investment.

Carl: Well, take for example the National Highway Defense Act. Until very recently, every time you bought a dollars worth of gas, four cents would go into a highway trust fund designed to maintain and build freeways. This was a hidden cost we all paid that subsidized sprawl. Likewise, new sewer lines, schools, and other infrastructure that make it possible to build spread-out communities are all major public investments in the development of the city fringe.

There's an assumption that a lot of public monies have gone to support various kinds of empowerment zones and other initiatives in the inner city, but far more public dollars go to support suburban sprawl.

Sarah: You've talked about cities and land use as issues that bring together the interests of White blue-collar people from the inner suburbs, environmentalists, and inner-city residents. Could you talk about what interests those groups have in common and what the prospects are for them to come together?

Carl: First of all, current patterns of suburban sprawl and inner city abandonment are totally unsustainable. Land in our metropolitan regions is being squandered at a rate that is much faster than the population growth rate. For example, between 1970 and 1990, the population of metropolitan Los Angeles grew by 48 percent while the land area grew by 300 percent. In some cities - Cleveland and St. Louis for example - the population of the metropolitan region actually declined while the city was physically expanding.

This pattern of development requires more roads and clearing farm land. A lot of money is spent building new freeways, office parks, parking lots, and shopping malls on the suburban fringe - in places that you can't get to without a car - while the buildings and infrastructure that already exist in the inner city are being abandoned. In Philadelphia, for example, there are 20,000 vacant lots and 16,000 vacant buildings located in the center part of the city near to public transportation corridors.

This development pattern not only squanders land, buildings, and infrastructure, but also energy resources; 79 percent of the money spent in the petroleum economy is for transportation.

Sprawl depletes biodiversity, destroys open space on the metropolitan fringe, and lowers air quality because of increased automobile traffic. Increased use of automobiles also pollutes the water; 60 percent of the pollution in the San Francisco Bay comes from runoff from streets and highways. So environmentalists have a great interest in finding ways to rebuild our cities in balance with nature.

Sarah: I think a lot of people who live outside cities in houses with large yards and lots of trees around may think they are closer to nature and that they are therefore living more sustainable lives.

Carl: It's a real paradox because, in fact, your ecological footprint is much bigger if you live in one of those comfortable suburban communities; your consumption of water including the lawn, swimming pool, showers is about 500 gallons a day. If you live in north Oakland or in an inner-city neighborhood, you use about 40 gallons a day and if you're homeless, you use about 5-6 gallons a day [see Ecological Footprint, page 29]. People may feel like they're being more environmentally in tune outside the cities, but actually there's a lot more waste in these communities.

Sarah: If both environmentalists and inner-city residents have an interest in stopping sprawl, what's preventing them from working together?

Carl: In the inner cities, the problem is that people have tended to see jobs and economic development as a social, political, and economic issue, and not as an environmental issue. And environmentalists tend to see their issues as being separate from the social and racial justice issues. But actually, they are operating in the same universe; in fact, they are two sides of the same coin.

All that is blocking a coalition between environmentalists and the inner city is the way that we think. I sometimes call it an "apartheid of consciousness." We have one set of issues on one side of our head, and another set on the other side of our head.

To the extent that we can begin to see that there is a strong relationship between protecting the natural world and bringing the beauty of nature back into cities, and developing healthier racial and social institutions and attitudes, then the two interests can be aligned.

Give YES! Gift Subscriptions

Sarah: There is another group that you have also included in your coalition building work.

Carl: That's right. The blue-collar, suburban communities have been left out of both the discourse of environmentalists and those advocating social justice. And yet, their communities are suffering both environmentally and economically.

In some of these communities, there has been a backlash against affirmative action and other progressive racial policies. However, many of these communities are also suffering from economic decline, and we can see that one of the reasons that they are upset is because their voices are not heard.

It is an obvious step to acknowledge their hardship, and instead of competing with working class European-Americans, it makes more sense to realize that everybody can have a better quality of life if we invest in some of these blue-collar suburban communities and maintain their attractiveness and their capacity to meet basic human needs

Sarah: It sounds like a very interesting political opportunity and also a huge challenge to bring those three groups together.

Carl: I guess from where I sit, there's nowhere else to go. We don't have the luxury of pretending we are not all connected.

We have no problem in the poorest communities explaining why we think it's necessary to adopt policies that basically are necessary to the survival of life on the planet.

There are also a lot of folks who are really concerned about protecting farmland. And, we have hungry people in the inner city who are taking over vacant land to create community gardens. Suddenly the language between the people who live in the inner city and the farmers is not the language of polarization - it's a shared language of seeds and soil quality.

Even the business community is finding that our current growth patterns are dysfunctional. An entry-level employee in Silicon Valley making $60,000 per year can't afford to buy a house within two hours of work. Business leaders are realizing that unless they do something about this, they're not going to be able to attract employees.

Sarah: How would you envision the land use patterns of the Bay Area evolving over time if things were to go as you would like them to?

Carl: I'd like to see a growth boundary around the metropolitan perimeters so that there is a sharp line between the land that is open space and farmland, and land that is built up.

I would like to see transit-oriented development, which means that around the public transit stations there is a nucleus of human activity, including employment centers, places for people to live, and retail and commercial activity that is pedestrian friendly.

I would like to see nature brought back into the city, which means uncovering the creeks and waterways that are now covered over. I would like to see reinvestment in parks and open spaces, particularly along areas like the Bay that belong to everybody.

I would like to see higher density, well-designed housing in strategic locations, but also a great deal more variety and choice in building types. For example, if houses were permitted to have granny-units or in-law units and rent out portions of their house or use parts as an office, you would have a more efficient use of the existing footprint and more options for affordable housing.

I'd like to see brownfields - abandoned toxic places - cleaned up and reused as parks and urban farms and sites for housing and commercial activity. There are 450,000 abandoned brownfield sites of all sizes in the US. I think the challenge is to recycle the urban land and to invest in those neighborhoods and in the people who live there.

Sarah: The policies that we've been discussing just now would tend to put more resources into the inner cities and could drive up prices and displace people who have long lived in these neighborhoods. What is your take on how you prevent gentrification?

Carl: Well, there's a whole history of dealing with this. Jane Jacobs says that there's a difference between gradual money and cataclysmic money. If you have cataclysmic projects that tear down the existing structures and replace them with something new, you tend to destroy the intimate relationship that people have with their surroundings. On the other hand, if the capital invested grows gradually, it tends to strengthen the incumbent communities and organizations.

There's a lot of experience around the country on gentrification. Certain local communities have enacted fees, so if you sell a house within five years of when you bought it, you have to pay a penalty.

But the gentrification issue is going to be a big one. It's already being felt in the Mission District. One of the reasons that people want to live in the Mission is that it has a high level of transportation access, wonderful restaurants, bookstores and cultural institutions, which a typical suburban community doesn't have. But some existing suburban communities could have those amenities. Rather than three or four neighborhoods like the Mission in the Bay Area, I'd like to see hundreds of them throughout the region. Some of the older suburban communities could be quite wonderful neighborhoods.

Sarah: If they were turned into more urban neighborhoods?

Carl: More urban, but also more wonderful. For example, Pacifica is located on the Pacific Ocean; it's kind of a blue-collar community that's very difficult to get to. It would be a wonderful place to live if there were better transportation access.

We have to try to organize these various communities to face these challenges, because we can't keep losing two acres of farmland a minute in the US, while racking up bills for new freeways, schools, sewers, and other infrastructure that we'll still be paying for a hundred years from now.

We can't just continue growing the economy and thinking the benefits will trickle down on the poorest communities. As the economy expands, people are getting poorer, and they actually end up taking on the burdens, the externalities, of the growth process. So we can't keep going in that direction.

We've had some luck with collaborative work in the Bay Area. Ten military bases closed with the last round of military base closures, and we've developed reuse plans for most of them through collaboration between many jurisdictions - so far, with no major lawsuits!

The only way to solve our problems is to have an enlightened citizenry that is able to sort through these issues and who are not at each other's throats. In some ways, necessity is the mother of invention. We need more racial and cultural harmony, more respect for nature, and more capacity to address these tough questions.


No Paywall. No Ads. Just Readers Like You.
You can help fund powerful stories to light the way forward.
Donate Now.