“Fault Lines” episode examines life in Detroit

A recent edition of “Fault Lines” on al Jazeera English explores life in Detroit for the city’s poor and working class and is definitely worth a watch. It’s hosted by journalist and filmmaker Avi Lewis, who made the excellent documentary The Take with his wife, activist and author Naomi Klein.

“Despair and Revival in Detroit” hits on the auto industry’s imminent collapse and the push for a declaration of bankruptcy, the decline of industry in general, gentrification and “urban renewal,” community gardening, and a number of other issues. Lewis’s focus on and interviews with poor and working class people provide a perspective of a decaying but hopeful city that we aren’t exposed to often.

Part I:

Part II:

Guerrilla Gardening: A Manualfesto

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If you are a gardener, it is that time of the year again where the bulk of your plants are probably in and you are hoping for some good rains before the dog days of summer. For many people, gardening is a form of therapy–a chance to get your hands in the soil and participate in the amazing cycle of the growing season. For others it is a way to save money and not support the toxic agri-business food model that is so difficult to escape in the United States. However, there are others who see gardening as a potential clandestine activity, a form of rebellion and a way to reclaim urban green space. If you have never heard of gardening as an act of rebellion, then a great resource would be a new book by David Tracey titled Guerrilla Gardening: A Manualfesto.

Tracey is a journalist who works for an organization called EcoUrbanist based out of Vancouver, Canada. He is also the Executive Director of Tree City Canada, which describes itself as an “ecological engagement group.” Tracey said he wrote Guerrilla Gardening based on his years of reporting on urban spaces around the globe. Tracey feels that gardening is one of the most human and radical things that people can do in the world today. The book itself not only provides great examples of how to engage in clandestine gardening, it also provides a great foundation on the importance of transforming cities. Tracey believes that if cities decided to garden more it would not only provide people with healthier foods options–it would improve the quality of life for people, plants and animals.

The author does acknowledge that this may be easier said than done, since most city government structures will not be open to an aggressive ecological transformation. However, Tracey does say that it is worth it to try going to the local governing authorities and make your proposal for transforming cities with vegetables, flowers, ground cover and trees. The author believes that municipalities will eventually be your allies once they see the benefits of what you are doing by reclaiming space to grow food, improve air quality and provide greater animal and bird habitat. If they don’t, the public will. Tracey believes that anytime you reclaim space for planting trees, growing food, or green beautification you will naturally gain support since most people are in favor of that kind of work.

A problem always arises when you are attempting to transform space that is designated as “private property.” Here Tracey even provides a list of talking points you can use if approached by law enforcement or other city officials. The author also states that his experience and the experience of others who are interviewed in the book is that rarely do people get confronted. Instead, what happens is that people transform a space into a vibrant garden, where more and more people become involved and eventually it becomes accepted as a “legitimate” project.

Once readers can get past the idea of guerrilla tactics being used for urban gardening, then you can digest the rest of the book, which provides great practical information on tools to use and what plants grow best where. One of the best ideas I read was the creation of “seed grenades” or “seed bombs,” an important resource for the guerrilla gardener. Seed grenades are seeds that are embedded in a mixture of soil and other composted material that you can pack into the size of a hand grenade. Once these seed grenades have hardened a bit, you can use them to throw into areas that are not easily accessible because of fencing or walls. The seed grenade will explode on the soil it lands on are distribute the seeds over an area still covered in composted material to minimize being consumed by birds. The seeds will germinate and take root without turning the soil over and before you know it, you have a clandestine garden in a space that was once neglected.

Tracey also provides readers with several examples of where guerrilla gardening has been practiced across the country. These examples are usually accompanied by interviews with people who are veterans of guerrilla gardening. Guerrilla Gardening: A Manualfesto is not only a great resource for people who want to transform cities, it is a delightful read that will inspire you to take action.

David Tracey, Guerrilla Gardening: A Manualfesto, (New Society Publishers, 2007).

State of the City Address and Economic Sustainability

At Saturday’s “State of the City” address, Mayor George Heartwell spoke on the theme of “economic sustainability” yet never really clarified what that term meant in a speech that discussed the need for a property tax increase and ways to support business in the city of Grand Rapids.

On Saturday, January 28, Mayor George Heartwell gave his 3rd State of the City address during a community breakfast at the DeVos Convention Center in downtown Grand Rapids. The focus of the talk was on what the Mayor referred to as “economic sustainability,” even though the term was never really clarified. News coverage of the Mayor’s speech primarily focused on just one of the main proposals, the possibility of raising property tax for residents of Grand Rapids. The Grand Rapids Press ran as it’s headline on the day of the speech, stating simply “Mayor: GR needs tax hike.”

With all the focus on a possible property tax increase, little attention was given to the issues of government efficiency and the increased corporate welfare in the form of tax abatements discussed in the speech. The Mayor said that there was a need to find more efficiency in terms of the City budget and cited the examples of cutting down on paper work and the purchase of 2 electric parking enforcement vehicles, which he claims will save the City $3,000 a year. There was no mention of evaluating the salaries of administrative positions, such as City Manager and his support staff. Heartwell did mention that 63% of the City budget deficit was due to the cuts in state revenue sharing and that Commissioner Roy Schmidt was involved in a regional campaign to reclaim those funds, even though no strategy was presented on how that would be achieved, nor how citizens could get involved. The Mayor also mentioned the need to cut city staff health and pension benefits to be “in line with the private sector.”

Most of the Mayor’s speech was focused on a variety of tactics to support business growth and business development. He proposed a knowledge-based tax abatement as one way to do this, with tax incentives given to industry in the areas of health care, life sciences and environmentally sound business practices. This would lead to a greater possibility of more environmental friendly products being produced in West Michigan, such as alternative fuel cells. Heartwell also mentioned the need to partner with regional municipalities to create what he calls “sustainable business industrial parks.” These environmentally friendly industrial parks would promote buildings that are LEED certified (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design). Here again, Heartwell provided no concrete examples, just possibilities.

Many of the ideas for this State of the City Speech came from a report put together by the Mayor’s New Economy Task Force. The report from this task force was released in December of 2005, with a number of recommendations that are reflected in Heartwell’s economic proposals. The report is extremely business friendly, which is not surprising when looking at who sits on the task force, as the majority of the members come from area corporations and development firms. Overall, the State of the City address clearly indicated that it is local corporations that matter the most in the economy, with president of the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce Jeanne Englehart introducing the Mayor and the event itself being underwritten by AT&T, 5/3 Bank, Alticor, Amway Grand Plaza, Macatawa and Mercantile Bank. In her introductory remarks, the Chamber of Commerce President said that the Mayor was a great advocate for the underserved, yet nowhere in his speech were working people, the poor, or poverty mentioned in Heartwell’s State of the City speech.

Cities and the Creative Class

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Richard Florida’s theory that a “creative class” made up of professionals involved in what he terms “creative” occupations is the main catalyst for the development of cities and regions has become one of the preeminent theories of urban development amongst planners, including those in the state of Michigan. Numerous states have launched projects like Michigan’s Cool Cities Initiative hoping to attract the fabled creative class Florida discusses in his books, 2002’s The Rise of the Creative Class and 2005’sCities and the Creative Class. Cities and the Creative Class is a companion book to The Rise of the Creative Class, compiling the empirical data used to make the conclusions presented in The Rise of the Creative Class.

Richard Florida’s Creative Class Theory is based on the idea that the creative sector of the economy is the driving force behind most new development and that those cities that have high percentages of people in the “creative class” are the fastest growing regions in the country. Florida defines the creative class as those people employed in science and engineering, research and development, technology-based industries, arts, music, culture, design work, or knowledge-based professions. People employed in these professions account for nearly half of the wage income earned in the United States and about a third of the total workforce. Florida grounds his theory in “the 3 T’s,” technology, talent, and tolerance, and uses copious amounts of data to prove that regions that blend these three areas are experiencing the most development. Moreover, Florida argues that his theory emphasizes the expansive role of culture, the limitless potential of humanity, and the importance of unleashing that potential to spur societal growth.

Florida’s theory of the creative class has garnered criticism, a fact that he cites in his book. Due to Florida’s use of his “gay index” to determine a city’s relative diversity, Florida has been accused of “eroding traditional family values, promoting a gay agenda, and that he is undermining the tenets of Judeo-Christian civilization”–not a particularly coherent critique, but one that would no doubt arise in the era of conservative culture wars. To this criticism, Florida responds that he is “straight” and is not promoting a “gay agenda;” a response that is inherently problematic and unenlightened. Unfortunately, this type of response, at least as far as this work is concerned, seems typical of the flippant nature by which Florida rejects criticism of his theory. A far more coherent critique could be made regarding the fact that Florida’s Creative Class is fairly exclusive, and while there is the theoretical possibility that some people may move from low-paying service industry jobs into his coveted Creative Class careers, the fact remains that only one-third of the United States workforce is a part of Florida’s class. Consequently, development designed to cater towards this minority population-who more likely than not has a high disposable income to fund a lifestyle in which they act like “tourists in their own cities” who treat themselves to a variety of luxuries-downplays the real needs of the majority of people in US cities. Florida briefly responds to this criticism, mentioning that critics on the left have accused him of wanting to make “cities yuppie-friendly”, yet he shies away from a serious discussion of the possibility of gentrification arising from the cities targeting the Creative Class. Florida’s so-called “bohemian” artists have long been the first wave of gentrification in cities across the United States and a failure to account for this remains one of the most serious flaws in the book, along with the fact that one of the barriers for entry into the Creative Class includes specialized education that is systematically denied to low-income populations in the United States.

Consequently, it is not surprising when Florida demonstrates little concern for the people who are most likely to be affected as a result of development based on his theory of the Creative Class. Rather than be concerned about the fact that all people suffer the effects of uneven regional development, Florida bemoans the fact that artists and creative people may be forced out-but demonstrates no genuine concern the low income people with or without homes that are forced out of city centers as they are redeveloped to satisfy the “needs” of the Creative Class. It is no surprise that Florida’s own numbers show that inequality is the worst in regions with a high-level of creative development. Moreover, while Florida shows little concern for people of low-income, he displays strikingly little concern for the gay population that he uses as a barometer for diversity. After praising the “progressive” nature of the gay population and their presence in urban centers, Florida says nothing about the importance of gay rights and instead refers to himself using the oppressive “straight” construct when explaining that he is not an advocate of “the gay agenda.”

Despite the flaws of the Creative Class theory, it remains one of the major influences on urban redevelopment, and as such, deserves the attention of those interested in development. Cities and the Creative Class provides the perfect starting point for those seeking to better understand the theory, as it provides the raw numbers used by Florida to arrive at the conclusions outlined in his The Rise of the Creative Class. For most people in the United States, Florida’s theory and suggestions offer nothing, but his book does provide an important information on current development patterns.

Richard Florida, Cities and the Creative Class, (Routledge, 2005).