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 ##http://www.activetrans.org/##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.

Photo courtesy of ##activetrans.org##Active Transportation Alliance##
Photo courtesy of ##http://www.activetrans.org/##Active Transportation Alliance##

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.

  • butters

    Great article, Tanya.

  • MRN

    Overall, about 57 percent of adults said these neighborhood features were 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.

    There’s a serious problem with the math here.

  • Tanya Snyder

    Oops! Good eye, MRN! I updated the post – 57% said “moderately” or “very” important. The CDC’s intro called that “highly” important, which I mis-translated as “very.”

  • Deb

    Super article, very important information here. I am going to share this with a lot of activist.

  • Adam

    As much as a lot of inner city community leaders scoff at stuff like this, part of our goal, in my opinion, is to create diverse middle class neighborhoods where people of all economic stripes can meet to discuss things.

  • Jacob

    Ehhh.

  • Ethan

    It sounds like the solution is to have more block parties. Is there a block party advocacy group?

  • Awesome article! The connection between race, class, social justice, and urban planning needs to be addressed more. Adolfo’s work in Chicago is kicking major butt and continues to inspire us here in LA @ City of Lights (we work with immigrant cyclists). This also brings to mind Sheryl Cashin’s book, “The Failures of Integration”, which takes a hard and absolutely necessary look at the way sprawl and poorly designed communities/divestment from inner-city communities has subsidized segregation. Check it out, folks!

    Congrats to Tanya and Streetsblog for highlighting these super important issues–hope to see more of this type of coverage in the future!

  • Vernon

    This is one reason inner-city communities have in recent years turned to Community Benefit Agreements as a way of working with developers to ensure their communities received what they knew were the really important needs of their communities….which includes more than just jobs, but also open space and public spaces, better street design that include bike lanes, streetscape greenery along with traffic calming devices.

    Residents in these communities fully understand walkability,street-scale urban design and how this all relates to safety, their level of physical activity, and just as importantly their social and cultural interactions.It is unfortunate that past planning policies in inner cities, along with dis-investment made many of these activities impossible, thus segregating them from not only the rest of the city, but from themselves as well….which has led to even more problems for their neighborhoods, including violence.

    All people must be part of the livability movement, especially those in the urban core if it is to be sustainable and inclusive, as well as being included in the planning process, where urban core voices have typically been absent. Otherwise Adams opinion (no disrespect meant) will continue to be that of the mainstream livability movement……more for middle class residents…..which is a huge part of the problem, not everyone is middle class, thus we will continue to promote segregation, economic, ethnic and environmental. What the livability movement must strive for is mixed-income communities, that are more inclusive and everyone can benefit from.

  • I didn’t quite understand the reference to middle-class neighbourhoods in this comment:

    “As much as a lot of inner city community leaders scoff at stuff like this, part of our goal, in my opinion, is to create diverse middle class neighborhoods where people of all economic stripes can meet to discuss things.”

    Middle class neighbourhoods aren’t necessarily always great middle ground meeting places –if that’s what you mean.

    Part of me has never liked the term “inner city” anyway. But I agree that cycling advocacy groups..do have tendency to be white dominated. And I believe it’s the language among advocates as well as the educational level…tendency that alot of them are articulate college or university grads. Advocacy means a willingness to express oneself …alot in complicated ways both verbally and in writing. Or at least, one has a natural flair to communicate well, because one reads alot and likes information in general.

  • Great article Tanya and fantastic work Adolfo and ATA. I’m forwarding this to several people who are working on this issue in Cleveland.

  • Rob

    Unfortunately, while the CDC is delegated from DHS a critical role in reviewing and commenting on environmental impacts statements, they are unable to carry-out the responsibility due to staffing constraints.

    As a consequence, their critical perspective is not being heard in the decision-making processes that culminate in major capital investments that can improve – or erode – community livability for decades.

    Unless and until CDC is capable of fulfilling its charge, a well-rounded Healthy Impact Assessment prepared by appropriate professionals – not transportation engineering or consulting firms – should be required to accompany each environmental impact statement.

  • Rob

    *Health Impact Assessment

ALSO ON STREETSBLOG

Rep. Earl Blumenauer: Announcing the Livable Communities Task Force

|
Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) (Photo: Airdye.com) With much excitement, today we are launching the Livable Communities Task Force — an official initiative of the House Democratic Caucus that will work to improve community livability and Americans’ quality of life. This means reducing the nation’s dependence on oil, protecting the environment, improving public health and investing […]

“Anti-Livability” Bills Threaten to Clip Arlington’s Wings

|
A pair of bills making their way through Virginia’s House of Delegates threaten to slam the brakes on smart growth and livability efforts in Arlington and throughout Northern Virginia. House Bills 1998 and 1999, put forward by Delegate Jim LeMunyon (R-Fairfax), have been dubbed the “Anti-Livability” bills by local transportation reformers. HB 1998 seeks to […]

Road Interests Crowd Reauthorization Panels in Indiana and Chicago

|
Road interests continued to dominate the discussion as members of Congress wound their way through Chicago and Indiana this weekend, gathering feedback for the six-year transportation reauthorization bill. While Streetsblog couldn’t be at every hearing, some of our dedicated Network bloggers were there to document discussions on state and regional transportation priorities, as expressed to […]

On Transpo Bill, Administration Wants Congress to Sort Out The Details

|
At a networking event for young transportation professionals yesterday, a member of the Department of Transportation’s policy team offered insight into the Obama administration’s strategy as it attempts to reset the nation’s transportation polices. Federal lawmakers usually set transportation policy by authorizing a major spending bill every five or six years.  The last of these […]

Rich People Love Sidewalks, And Other Livability Lessons From USDOT

|
When asking people what transportation options are important in their communities, why do poll-takers never ask them to choose between different options? Here comes another survey in which people say they want everything and are never asked to make the tradeoffs that come in the real world. USDOT’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics asked 1,000 households […]