Latest foe of sprawl: minorities in city core

Black civic leaders are joining forces with farmers and environmentalists to oppose development of 'exurbs.'

When a referendum was held here last fall on a proposed bridge and highway extension across wetlands and the Missouri River, the usual suspects showed up to argue both sides of the issue.

Developers and city officials held that the extension would ease traffic congestion and open up a new region for residential growth. Antisprawl forces - environmentalists, farmers, and suburban community organizations - responded that it would further diminish wildlife habitat and crop lands in favor of unsightly strip malls.

But another, more surprising coalition also showed up to oppose the referendum: black urban groups.

"We were very much opposed to the extension because it takes away funds we think should be spent on the inner core," says Pastor B.T. Rice of the New Horizons Seventh Day Christian Church. "It keeps taking the boundary farther and farther out and furthering racial polarization in the city. We should be looking inward and redeveloping the inner city."

Until recently, sprawl has largely been a pet issue of white environmentalists, suburbanites, and farmers. But consensus is growing among black scholars and civic leaders that the quality of life in the urban core is inextricably tied to what's happening far away on the exurban fringe.

And as the antisprawl movement focuses more and more on redeveloping city centers - since ringing metropolitan areas with greenfields or otherwise bounding them means growth must go somewhere else - black urban leaders are getting involved.

"For too long a lot of our organizations were focused just on issues of housing, education, and transportation. If we are to create a healthy and livable community, our groups must look at this issue holistically," says Robert Bullard, director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark University in Atlanta.

Trying to dovetail a black urban agenda with that of white farmers and environmentalists has made for strange political bedfellows, but Mr. Bullard believes the proliferation of freeways and strip malls in suburbia - not-so-distant cousins of urban blight - has tended to align interests.

"Sprawl has the potential of bringing groups together that ordinarily would not be in the same room, and with parity - as opposed to poor people from the city trying to negotiate with rich folks in the suburbs," he says.

The issue has also been linked to the problem of racial polarization in metropolitan areas.

Some academics argue that government policies of funding road construction at the expense of mass transit and giving tax breaks to suburban developers literally paved the way for white flight - the departure of whites from cities to suburbs. This, in turn, shrank the tax base of most cities and led to many of the ills commonly associated with struggling inner cities.

"The effects of sprawl and fragmentation are huge," says John Powell, executive director of the Institute on Race and Justice and a law professor at the University of Minnesota. "Many of the gains of the civil rights movement have been undermined by the racialization of space in metropolitan areas. Sprawl is central to that and so many other issues. I think it will be the civil rights issue of this century."

'Regionalism' a problem

Still, some proposed solutions give black leaders pause. One perception, for example, is that sprawl has been aided by developers exploiting the separate political entities of individual suburban communities, and that strong regional government is needed to defeat sprawl.

But many black leaders fear "regionalism" could encroach on one of the few secure voting blocs they have: large cities. On the other hand, allowing previously disparate suburbs to coalesce into regional government without them also poses the threat of exclusion.

Worse, some antisprawl measures have already had unintended consequences.

Portland, Ore., is generally viewed as a national model when it comes to "smart growth." The establishment there of an urban growth boundary, along with redevelopment tax incentives, led to a renaissance in several depressed inner-city neighborhoods as whites moved back in and restored dilapidated housing.

Yet even as such gentrification raised property values and the assets of black homeowners, it also drove some black renters out - to the city fringe and suburbs. Not only are there fewer social and city services in such areas, but the dispersal has tended to perpetuate the ills of sprawl, with relocated renters hopping into cars to drive back into the city to jobs, churches, and friends.

San Francisco model

One place where the minority community has not only inserted itself in a regional development model but is leading the effort is San Francisco. The Bay Area Alliance for Sustainable Development is co-chaired by the Urban Habitat Program, the Sierra Club, the Bay Area Council (which represents the 200 largest businesses in the region), and the Association of Bay Area Governments. The alliance has reached agreement on a draft compact with 10 major commitments.

"A number of factors are challenging the paradigm in which you think of the business community and suburban communities being lined up on one side and poor people of color in the inner city on the other," says Carl Anthony, executive director of the Urban Habitat Program.

"There's an alignment of interest now, a realization that there needs to be much more regional cooperation if a metropolitan area hopes to be competitive in a global sense," he says.

Support not universal

Still, antisprawl support in the black community is far from monolithic. The charge is led mainly by black academics at the national level and faith-based and civic leaders, such as Pastor Rice, at the local level. Conspicuously absent are traditional civil rights leaders. Some argue that regional antisprawl movements divert attention from the national legislative agenda of civil rights groups and otherwise challenges their power base.

Mr. Anthony, for one, is willing to accept the risk regionalism carries with it. "I don't see that we have a choice given what is happening on the global level, given the class split that exists within the African-American community, given the environmental issues. We're at a crossroads."

He compares current events with black migration out of the South in the '40s and '50s and the civil rights movement of the '60s. "The old way of doing things isn't working."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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