Sustainabilities: Justice-oriented | Market-oriented

In 2011, Governor Jerry Brown called for the elimination of redevelopment agencies across California. Brown had relied on his own redevelopment agency as a vehicle for his personal vision of urban revival when he was mayor of Oakland. Even so, as governor he was moved by the pressures of the perennial state budget crisis. Calling on the easily available stories about redevelopment agencies gone awry, stories in which budgets were massaged to fuel political corruption, Brown demanded that the legislature shut down the network of super-agencies. After a year of debate, Brown’s wish became law, and a half-century experiment in state-managed urban remaking was gone.1

An anti-redevelopment agency cartoon from 2012 (California Political Review)

An anti-redevelopment agency cartoon from 2012 (California Political Review)

Today, California’s cities face a new era of development. Gone are the days of “negro removal,” when redevelopment’s enhanced taxation powers leveraged private developers’ dreams of clear-cutting through neighborhoods. Indeed, critics of the program from across the political spectrum—from anti-tax libertarians to anti-displacement activists—have celebrated this shift. At the same time, many have come to realize that the loss of redevelopment also represents the solidification of what some call “the neoliberal city,” a time and place in which private capital has increased power to shape urban spaces, no matter the collateral effects.2 Without public agencies managing development projects, communities have fewer options for participation, fewer points of leverage to weigh in on the proposals that may shape their futures in multiple ways. In the debate over redevelopment, then, the sustainability of communities is at stake.

Centrally, the redevelopment debate raises core questions about urban development: is it possible to sustain existing communities while allowing for growth and change? What policies will take us to a development vision that would sustain and nurture that delicate creature called “community”? How do we create a system of urban evolution that remains committed to eliminating the forceful displacements of people from their homes?

The forces of state-managed redevelopment rarely got this right. In the 1940s government-managed development was institutionalized with the creation of super-agencies mandated to clean-up and revive the failing neighborhoods in American cities. Although redevelopment was ostensibly focused on design and architecture—and on bringing investment to urban spaces that had been abandoned by capital—the human side of redevelopment was a site of contestation from the beginning. Developers and landlords had fled from central cities in the chaos of the Great Depression, yet urban spaces were inhabited by people; they were not empty places. As developers pressed for government support in remaking cities, whole communities of people stood between city planners and their vision for total reconstruction.3

American “urban renewal” began largely in the tradition of Haussman’s Paris, where state-leveraged development tore through centuries-old streets and alleyways and replaced them with grand boulevards. Though it lacked the Parisian aesthetic, U.S. redevelopment shared a methodological practice of viewing the city as a blank slate, ripe for total remaking. In this worldview, communities living in “blighted” neighborhoods could be shuttled around; displacement was seen as a necessary side effect to the larger public goal of urban renewal. Across the country people were forced from their homes to make way for a vision of modernity. By 1965 the number of evictees reached more than a million; in the years that followed that number grew as direct and indirect displacement hurtled working-class communities of color, primarily, to the urban edges, the suburbs, and beyond.4

In California there have been some examples, however, of communities that learned from the early stages of urban “removal” and took control of the public side of the public-private partnerships that roiled the landscape. In San Francisco, for example, community pressure forced ever-higher numbers of affordable housing units onto the development roster, and eventually removed eminent domain—essentially the state’s right to forcefully take private property—from the redevelopment menu.5,6 These were imperfect stories, but because of the public nature of redevelopment, there were what David Harvey talks about as “spaces of hope,” spaces in which communities could wrest at least a little power over their futures.

This hope is the biggest loss of the new system, where redevelopment agencies have been folded into city governments in a range of ways; the programmatic reconfiguration is still unfolding. It’s true that there is no longer an easily tapped set of funds for unscrupulous lawmakers and developers to draw on. At the same time, the path to public control over the fate of cities has a new roadblock. The choices for citizens as they angle for an ethical and material “right to the city” (in the words of Henri Lefebvre) are still uncertain .

In the decades since the 1978 passage of Proposition 13 localities have seen ever-shrinking budgets.7 At the same time, federal and state funds for urban development have continued to dwindle, leaving cities to rely on profit-driven change. With the further hollowing of local budgets that took place through the recent years of deep recession in the 2000s, and with the gutting of communities themselves that has taken place through years of foreclosure, it is indeed an essential moment to ask the central question of this project: What is to be sustained? If we are to sustain communities and people, we need to think beyond the ideal of “smart-growth” to a vision of development that brings communities along for the ride.

Rachel Brahinsky

Published June 1, 2015

1. Andrew K. Fogg, “The Demise of California Redevelopment, Abridged,” Planning & Environmental Law 64:6 (2012) 3–4.
2. Jason Hackworth, The Neoliberal City: Governance, Ideology and Development in American Urbanism, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2007).
3. John Mollenkopf, The Contested City, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983).
4. Rachel weber, “Extracting Value from the City: Neoliberalism and Urban Redevelopment” Antipode 34 (July, 2002): 519–40.
5. Rachel Brahinsky, “The Making and Unmaking of Southeast San Francisco, ” Ph.D Dissertation, Department of Geography: University of California, Berkeley (2012).
6. Ocean Howell, “In the Public Interest: Space, Ethnicity, and Authority in San Francisco’s Mission District, 1906-1973, ” Ph.D Dissertation, Department of Architecture: University of California, Berkeley (2009).
7. Peter Schrag, California: America’s High-Stakes Experiment, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006).