Equity: A Natural Next Step in City Evolution*

Back to Winter 2019: Volume 107, Number 4

By Henry Cisneros

Over the past 40 years, I have had the privilege of observing the evolution of U.S. cities from a range of perspectives. I have seen cities become more capable and sophisticated in nurturing both a healthy regional economy and the economic and social capacity of their residents. While there is more they can do to accelerate the trend, cities increasingly are working to foster the conditions that lead to economic mobility, a vital component of broader efforts to create a more equitable society.

The concerted effort to promote economic mobility that we recommend in this volume is consistent with this trend—a logical next step in the evolution of cities.

Of course, U.S. cities have been evolving throughout the history of our country. In this preface, I provide a brief overview of cities’ progression and show how promoting economic mobility and other components of the equity agenda are a natural and important role for cities in the 21st century.

The Historic Progression of U.S. Cities toward Equity Goals

Cities and their municipal governments have been an integral part of American progress since the founding of our nation. Early in American history, cities such as Boston and New York City assumed important roles as centers of commerce, ports of trade, and staging areas for the immigrant populations that swelled the nation’s population. From the early to mid-1800’s, city governments incorporated and organized themselves to provide basic municipal services such as police and fire security, street maintenance, sanitation, and water distribution.

As the number and scale of cities grew and new mechanical devices could be applied to the urban quality of life, city governments offered or supervised the establishment of electric utilities to generate and distribute power for street lighting and for the use of households and businesses. By the latter years of the 19th century, city governments were using the latest engineering techniques to design flood control projects, construct ports and levees, plan parks and public auditoriums, establish libraries, and build educational institutions, including public schools and colleges.

In the early years of the 20th century, city governments directly addressed a new range of issues related to their increasing populations. Many were spurred by reformers such as Jacob Riis, who described the squalor of urban living conditions, to build quality housing to replace the poorly built and unhealthy tenements that crowded many city neighbor- hoods. And with the advent of the New Deal and its strategy of stimulating the economy through public investment in massive public improvements, city governments joined the federal government to provide public housing and build large-scale public works such as dams and urban water reservoirs, green spaces and recreation areas, and thruways to facilitate the movement of motorized traffic.

While the most urgent intent of the Franklin Roosevelt administration was to increase employment, the crisis of the Great Depression uncovered the dire conditions of poverty, hunger, illness, and aged frailty that affected millions of Americans. During the Depression, cities be- came full partners with the federal government in the nation’s first equity agenda and became the tip of the spear for programs to generate employment, ensure new social safety nets, and create a legacy of lasting public improvements. The immensity of the economic crisis and the shock to the nation’s conscience embedded concepts of equality, fairness, and opportunity in the fabric of the nation’s social, political, and economic institutions for generations thereafter.

In the years following World War II, city governments participated in the growth of the American economy through innovations in local economic development. City governments invested in massive convention centers, collaborated to provide sports stadiums for the expanding public interest in professional football and baseball, and assumed catalytic roles in the strengthening of urban downtowns. City leaders led the way in clearing spaces for corporate office headquarters, extending mass transit via rail and subway systems, and explicitly spurring urban development using tax abatements and urban renewal.

As the nation’s economy began to deindustrialize in the 1960s and manufacturing plants left urban core areas, city populations increasingly moved to the suburbs. Policy makers, scholars, and the media declared an “urban crisis.” Social commentators, such as Michael Harrington in his 1962 book The Other America: Poverty in the United States, painted a stark picture of inequality and human suffering. The civil rights movement drew attention to the racial dimensions of the urban transformation as poverty became more concentrated, neighborhoods were segregated by race, and jobs and wages in the cities declined.

President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society initiatives committed to a wide range of human services programs that, though they were initiated and funded at the federal level, required city governments and nonprofit organizations in the cities to deliver the programs at the local level.

The Johnson administration updated the Roosevelt equity agenda and declared a War on Poverty in urban and rural communities. The scope of its human services programs was broad, including early child development, job training, K–12 education assistance, health clinics, and senior programs. Neighborhood antipoverty efforts and organizations such as the Model Cities Program and the community development corporations sponsored by the Office of Economic Opportunity built on and expanded human services traditionally offered by churches and settlement houses. Those human capital investments and the accompanying mobilization of community participation harnessed the momentum of civil rights–era laws, such as the Voting Rights Act, and of numerous Great Society initiatives in education, health services, and income security.

Channels of Funding for Equity Programs

In the 50 years since the rollout of the Great Society programs, significant change has taken place in the funding channels for programs with equity objectives.

Some programs have relied on local governmental budgets principally from city and county governments, school districts, and community colleges. State governments have been participants in equity programs, particularly through their departments of health and education. The federal government has remained a major source of funding for human services programs through the specific channels, or silos, of the cabinet departments. Examples include Community Development Block Grants and the HOME Program from the Department of Housing and Urban

Development, Economic Development Administration initiatives from the Department of Commerce, health clinic initiatives from the Department of Health and Human Services, school lunch programs from the Department of Education, funding for manpower training from the Department of Labor, and rural development programs from the Department of Agriculture.

In addition to government agencies, philanthropic foundations have played major roles over the years in supporting new approaches to delivery of human services. The Ford Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Annie E. Casey Foundation, for example, along with area foundations in many metropolitan regions, have contributed a steady stream of resources to human services over many decades. Corporate partnerships and contributions in areas such as child care, youth programs, and educational interventions have expanded the funds available for needed human services in communities. Detroit’s steady comeback has required a combination of engaged leadership and financial resources from the Kresge Foundation, JPMorgan Chase, and Quicken Loans. Many cities have raised funds broadly through United Way campaigns and benefited from local civic involvement by volunteers working at the grassroots level. The combination of these massive commitments represents financial resources and human energies available for local equity programs coming through many channels of distribution and focusing on specific neighborhoods, organizations, and needs.

Local Delivery Capacities for Equity Programs

On the receiving end of these resource channels is an equally wide array of delivery and execution entities. The range of government and non- profit organizations committed to enhancing opportunity and equality is wide.

It includes church initiatives such as Catholic Charities, various Protestant ministries, Jewish community centers, and other church commitments to child care, homeless services, and senior services. Nonprofit organizations of many kinds are in the field. Some are community-based organizations with strong advocacy commitments, such as the Industrial Areas Foundation. In most metropolitan areas, there are strong and experienced community development corporations and more recently community development financial institutions; both types of organization have received funding from the federal level to work in designated subareas of cities or in rural communities but augment those funds with local resources.

Most municipal governments have extensive human services departments that operate senior nutrition programs and various forms of training initiatives. In the education arena, school districts offer not just traditional K–12 programs, but also after-school programs, literacy initiatives, compensatory education, and increasingly early pre-K instruction. They are joined in the education space by community colleges, four- year colleges, and universities in access-to-college programs, including scholarships. In most communities, small, neighborhood-level, even block-level, volunteer programs work with youths, assist senior citizens, feed the homeless, repair deteriorated homes, and provide street patrols, surviving on minimal budgets funded locally.

Cities as Leaders in Efforts to Promote Economic Mobility

There are many reasons why cities can be effective leaders of efforts to promote economic mobility and other equity initiatives. Cities can frame appropriate responses because they are close to the problem. City leaders are in the best position to understand the makeup of poverty in their respective communities. City governments can be coordinators, in the sense of orchestra conductors, of the disparate capabilities and resources that exist at the local level to combat poverty. They need not be the initiator in every case or the sole provider of resources, but they can frame the local context and create a network of action to engage existing organizations and streams of funding and weave them into a coherent response. The task is to match the delivery capabilities, traditions, specializations, and resources of organizations with the spectrum of needs identified within the community. Cities are institutions of permanence and therefore have the capability to set up long-term arrangements. They also can respond to the scale of the effort in that they have responsibility for every neighborhood and every district of the city and can make sure that the entire geography of the city is covered.

Though cities are well positioned to help residents move up the economic ladder, and many are actively engaged in doing so, there is more that cities could and should be doing. In this volume, we have compiled a range of recommendations for how cities and their partners can use place-based and people-based approaches to promote economic mobility. We hope that these ideas will be helpful both as guidance and inspiration for cities interested in more actively promoting an equity agenda.

In addition to this practical guidance on how to promote economic mobility, we also provide suggestions in our final chapter for how cities can develop a strategic plan for promoting this mobility as part of a broader equity agenda along with the operational infrastructure need- ed to advance that plan. While a growing number of cities are focusing explicitly on an equity agenda and some have appointed chief equity officers, no city government in the United States today has created an overarching equity umbrella and assembled under it the myriad governmental and independent efforts involved in equity programs. It is a city leadership task that can be achieved. It would apply the necessary scale and coordination of effort to combat the widespread, persistent, and accelerating growth of inequality as it manifests itself in America today.

Engaging cities as leaders in a national strategy of combatting inequality is America’s best hope for ensuring that our historic experience of progressively building a more fair society continues and that our ongoing quest for a more equitable society will drive our future.

Henry Cisneros, a former U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development and mayor of San Antonio, is a founder and chairman of CityView. He served as Chairman of the National Civic League Board of Directors from 1989 until 1992, and is a Co-Chair of the League’s 125th Anniversary Celebration Committee.

* This article was adapted from the preface of Building Equitable Cities: How to Drive Economic Mobility and Regional Growth, written by Janis Bowdler, Henry Cisneros and Jeffrey Lubell and published by the Urban Land Institute.

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