Is the Livability Movement Doomed to Homogeneity? The CDC Says No.

The first time Adolfo Hernandez went to the National Bike Summit, he got a sense of just how monochromatic the livability movement can be.

Chicago's Active Transportation Alliance serves as a model of how to integrate communities of color into livability programming. Photo courtesy of ##activetrans.org##Active Transportation Alliance##

Chicago's Active Transportation Alliance serves as a model of how to integrate communities of color into livability programming. Photo courtesy of Active Transportation Alliance

“I think there were about 300 or 400 people,” he said. “And really, I could count on one hand people I thought were people of color.”

Hernandez is the director of outreach and advocacy for the Active Transportation Alliance in Chicago. His own organization has a predominantly white, affluent membership, he says, but that’s changing. And a new study by the Centers for Disease Control highlights the urgent need for smart-growth and livability organizations to diversify and include the full range of people who care about these issues.

The CDC asked people how “street-scale urban design policies” (read: sidewalks, lighting) affect their level of physical activity. Overall, about 57 percent of adults said these neighborhood features were “moderately” or “very” important – but people of color placed far greater importance on those factors in the built environment than the white people surveyed.

In fact, 50.5 percent of black respondents and 40.6 percent of Hispanic respondents said neighborhood features were “very important” in determining their level of physical activity. Only 26.9 percent of the white people surveyed gave that answer. A quarter of the white respondents said it wasn’t important at all, while only 12 and 13 percent of Hispanics and blacks, respectively, said that.

Hernandez says that low-income communities and communities of color “get” issues of walkability, though they may feel alienated by the jargon livability advocates use. “People want to be able to walk and feel safe; they want their kids to be able to play outside,” he said. “The instant you start talking to people about what they like and don’t like about their block, they might say, ‘I hate that it’s hard for my kids to walk to school’, or ‘It’s hard for my kids to play outside.’ ‘We’re worried about how fast the cars are going.’”

He said Chicago residents often say their block party is their favorite event of the year. “You ask them, What happens at your block parties?” he said. “‘Well, the instant all the cars move, all the kids go out and play. It’s one of the only times we really talk to all our neighbors.’”

Laura Barrett, director of the Transportation Equity Network, laments the “segregation” between community organizations and some transportation advocacy groups. “Some people pursue walking and biking as a ‘white’ issue,” she said, “but low-income people who are stuck in these neighborhoods and have to walk and bike everywhere are incredibly impacted” by neighborhood features like high-traffic streets, abandoned buildings, and lack of green space.

According to the CDC’s survey, people of color are also more willing than white people to take civic action on neighborhood issues. It found that 58.8 percent of blacks said they were willing to write letters to elected officials about neighborhood livability issues, as well as 47.8 percent of Hispanics. Only 36.7 percent of whites were willing to write letters, though more of them were willing to pay more property taxes for better neighborhood design. Blacks were less willing to do that – but 6.3 percent of them (and 5.8 percent of Hispanics) were interested in running for office to support neighborhood improvements. Only 3.2 percent of whites were willing to go that far.

So if people of color are ready and willing to take action, why aren’t they prominent actors in most livability-focused organizations?

“We targeted five communities along Chicago’s west side,” Hernandez says. “And when we started this work, they were all pretty hesitant. At the time, we were the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation, so it sounded like some cycling club.”

But it wasn’t just the name change that helped build trust and partnership with these groups. Active Trans went to community members where they were – at PTA meetings and block parties – and engaged them on the issues that were important to them. They realized that violence, or the perception of violence, was at least as significant a barrier as traffic in encouraging community members to use parks and go outside. They partnered with them on issues like housing access and jobs. And they linked all of these issues back to changes in the built environment that would improve their quality of life. “Now we have African-American and Latino community-based organizations going to their councilmen and alderman and asking for bicycle and pedestrian improvements,” says Hernandez.

The CDC study is an interesting document, but more than that, it’s a wake-up call for livability advocates who need to do a better job of reaching out to people of color.