Tag Archives: urban issues

A people’s Latfundia

I’m not sure why I’m attracted to stories of turning blighted urban areas into areas designed to help the residents more self sufficient but I am a sucker for them.

Mother Jones has a photo essay about efforts in Chicago to turn abandoned properties into various agricultural pursuits.  There’s been a great deal of talk about the need to address the issue of ‘food deserts’ but the authors argue for urban farming for other reasons:  building a sense of community and dignity within the neighborhood and crime reduction.

In 2000, Philadelphia had 54,000 vacant lots, and so the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society reclaimed 4,400 of them, mowing lands, providing upkeep, planting trees and gardens, and erecting three-foot-high fences that served no purpose other than as a kind of statement that this land now belonged to someone…Over the course of 10 years, it reduced shootings in the areas surrounding these renewed lots.

Calls from neighbors complaining of nuisance crimes—acts like loitering or public urination or excessive noise—went up significantly in the immediate vicinity of the newly greened land. At first, Branas worried the land had attracted ne’er-do-wells, but what he came to realize is that it had emboldened neighbors to call the police for minor disturbances, something they hadn’t done in the past.

And this is where I see commonalities between COIN and crime reduction.  Call it social exclusion or a lack of legitimacy or not having ‘skin in the game’ but it doesn’t really matter if we’re talking about a village in Afghanistan or the projects in Chicago. People who have some ownership, stability and predictability in their environment and future will work to preserve/improve it.  Those who don’t will (at ‘best’) disengage and, at worst, work to spread the decay and rot.

Sudhir Venkatesh described in his most excellent book ‘Gang Leader for a Day‘ which I recommend highly.  It seems this is what the Philadelphia Horticultural Society tapped into.

And on that note, David Kilcullen seems to be looking at similar issues through his new company Caerus Associates.

“We can say to open developers and to communities, in the next 20 years, with a very high degree of confidence, this is where the supermarkets need to go, this is where the population’s going to be, this is where the roads need to go. There’s actually an ability to understand what’s coming down the track.” Beyond the commercial benefits of anticipating where to build businesses and infrastructure, handing local populations the tools to map their own lands also carries importance from a social justice perspective. Kilcullen says this empowers civilians to stand up to governments and international corporations that collude to grab land rightfully belonging to the community.

Sounds like a project worth keeping an eye on.

There may be a dumber idea…but I'm not sure I can think of it.

I totally get the fact that we’re a sensation craving, superficial society (how else to explain the Double Down?) but I still get surprised by some of the more wild ideas out there.

The latest (h/t boingboing) is something called ‘L.A. Gang Tours‘.  Yes for the low, low price of $65 (usually $100!) you get:

…a true first-hand encounter of the history and origin of high profile gang areas and the top crime scene locations in South Central, Los Angeles. Each tour bus for LA GANG TOURS will have a guide from the South Central areas who has gained hands-on knowledge and experience of the inner city lifestyle.

So, in other words, you get to ride around in a bus while somebody tells you that some dude got shot here over some bullshit grudge or over there because some other dude tried to sell some bad weed…

Is this something America and the rest of the world is really calling out for?

Now, I will say that it appears the motivation of the organizer is quite good.  He states the goal is to:

…create jobs for the residents of South Central, Los Angeles; to give profits from the tours back to these areas for economic growth and development, provide job/entrepreneur training, micro-financing opportunities and to specialize in educating people from around the world about the Los Angeles inner city lifestyle, gang involvement and solutions.

Hey, I’m all for that but this is a bit exploitative of the community and does have some risk.  I can only imagine the subtle forces that could create all sorts of problems.  Will headline grabbing news of violence or gang activity attract pathetic thrill seekers and gawkers?  Might that drive more outrageous activity, especially if any of the money ends up going to some of these gang members?  I suspect it might, directly or indirectly based on this statement from their website:

Your participation allows the success of a cease-fire agreement between three of the largest and most notorious gangs in L.A. history. This agreement will allow young people and children safe passage (gun fire free safety zones).

I’m not sure why you couldn’t look for other ways to get small business opportunities to residents of South Central.  The fair trade movement could be a goal but it would require a shift in thinking that everyone can jump into the high skill, education reliant economy in one jump.  If we could get cities to quit building all these moronic mega-projects in the hopes of ‘revitalizing’ their cities (it’s like they went to the Stalin and Chairman Mao school of the Great Leap Forward) and instead accept the fact that many of their cities are going to get smaller, not have a significant manufacturing base or a pool of highly skilled workers and deal with it.  Identify land which can go to pasture and encourage small scale (boutique) farming to feed the booming organic/local food markets.  How about manufacturing of handicrafts and small cooperatives for light manufacturing or semi-skilled labor?

Look, I’m neither an economist or an urban planner and I shouldn’t knock somebody for trying to improve the community.  If this is the best we can do, however, I think we’re in some trouble.

God has left Detroit

The NY Times has this photo slide show of Detroit which gives you a view of what other cities might look like after some sort of calamity (either natural or man-made).

Detroit's Mad Max transformation

Kotare has linked to a couple of stories about the decay of Detroit and the city’s plans to conduct some triage and save what it can.  The city has been in a tailspin for years.  Currently:

The population of Detroit is now 81.6% African-American and almost two-thirds down on its overall peak in the early 50s. The city has lost its tax base and cannot afford to cut the grass or light its streets, let alone educate or feed its citizens.

Law and order has completely broken down in the inner city, drugs and prostitution are rampant and unless you actually murder someone the police will leave you alone.

The only growth industry is the gangs of armed scrappers, who plunder copper and steel from the ruins.

Unemployment has reached 30%; 33.8% of Detroit’s population and 48.5% of its children live below the poverty line. Forty-seven per cent of adults in Detroit are functionally illiterate; 29 Detroit schools closed in 2009 alone.

So, what does the population do?  Our much vaunted ability to pick up and move to greener pastures really only applies if you have some minimal resources to finance the move and skills which can be used where ever you move to.  Otherwise you’re just sliding the problem around.

The current plan would demolish about 10,000 houses and empty buildings in three years and pump new investment into stronger neighborhoods. In the neighborhoods that would be cleared, the city would offer to relocate residents or buy them out.

I wonder if this is ambitious enough however.  Rather than collect all the existing residents and herd them to new neighborhoods, why not take advantage of the huge tracks of abandoned land the city should soon have and start homesteading.  Instead of warehousing the nearly 50% of people who are functionally illiterate (really let’s not fool ourselves into thinking we’ll be able to get them into the high-tech/green/next big thing job revolution that’s coming down the pike.  It’s unlikely that Detroit is going to be able to (leaving aside the question of if it would want to) attract the types of businesses  that would hire large numbers of untrained, uneducated people and so what’s it going to do with them?

How about, provide them training in farming (possibly animal husbandry), give them a plot of land under the condition that if they live on it and produce they get to keep it after a certain amount of time.

I have to admit Jefferson isn’t my favorite founding father (I’m more partial to Hamilton) but can you get more ‘agrarian republic‘ than this?  You could sell it to the right as promoting bedrock ‘conservative’ values (self-reliance, family values derived from hard, manual labor, small business, getting people off the government dole, etc.), and to the left on social justice arguments (giving wealth to the most disenfranchised, improved living conditions, etc.).

Of course, Detroit isn’t the only city that would benefit from large scale urban ‘terraforming’.  We’ve got a lot of old, industrial cities that have withered in the face of globalization and are kept on life support through bizarre schemes to build sports stadiums and other gimmicks in the hopes of drawing in huge numbers of tourists who will all crawl over themselves in their mad attempt to spend every last penny they have on the surrounding community.

Of course, tying your community to something as fickle as the tourist industry is a dicey proposition fraught with peril.  Whereas, build an agrarian society that’s self sustaining and the tourism might just take care of itself.

Please indulge me – COIN and failed cities redux

I’m intending on taking a break from this subject because I’m afraid I’m just repeating myself, so this’ll be my last word on the matter for a bit unless something that really alters the landscape comes around (or, my fickle nature being what it is, I find myself unable to resist the latest shiny object dangled in front of me).

As I was reading General McChrystal’s Assessment of Afghanistan several items struck me as being equally relevant to any serious attempt to regain control of lawless areas.  I put them under the heading of ‘failed cities’ here since they’re the most stereotypical examples here in the states but I imagine there are rural areas that may fit the bill and certainly other countries may have their own lawless areas.

One final caveat before I go on, which I may have mentioned before but it’s worth repeating.

While I think COIN has some interesting things to say about how we might become more effective at addressing organized criminal activity in areas where government control is weak to non-existent I am most definitely NOT advocating a further militarization of our law enforcement agencies, tactics or judicial system.  I think we’ve gone quite far enough in that direction and rather, it’s the underlying principles (a population-centric focus), non-military practices (establishing rule of law, confidence building, quality of life improvements) and long term focus that I think has been woefully unexamined or applied.

So, that being said here are some passages I think could equally apply to many ‘failed cities’.  Which leads me to another caveat:

I am not making any claims about the equivalency of an insurgency and criminal activity in terms of intent or severity of activity.  Make no mistake about it, the Taliban and other insurgent groups in Afghanistan are much more brutal than any criminal group we currently face in the U.S. (on a comparable scale) and are politically motivated which very few of our criminal groups are.  That being said, my argument is that while their intent may differ the net result on the community is similar:  erosion of the rule of law, a climate of fear and intimidation, and decay of social/cultural/economic life.

“The relative level of civilian resources must be balanced with security forces, lest gains in security outpace civilian capacity for governance and economic improvements.  In particular, ensuring alignment of resources for immediate and rapid expansion into newly secured areas will require integrated civil-military planning teams that establish mechanisms for rapid response.”

Very few initiatives involving lawless areas involve a robust civilian component.  There are numerous financial, institutional and political reasons for that but one worth noting is that an attempt at what we consider to be ‘nation building’ here at home would be highly unpopular among suburban tax payers who already consider cities to be a big money pit from which their tax dollars provide no tangible benefits.  While we hear nary a peep from people about the massive waste and fraud spent in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan be rest assured, attempts to spend money to in inner cities will be met with screams of protest and warnings about ‘redistribution of wealth’.  Those people would have a point, however.  Most money spent wasn’t tied to measurable goals and so very often could be lost in a whirlpool of corruption, mismanagement or lack of sufficient coordination.  So…

ISAF’s tendency to measure the enemy prodominately by kinetic events masks the true extent of insurgent activity and prevents an accurate assessment of the insurgents’ intentions, progress, and level of control of the population.

That goes double when we’re talking about crime here in the states.  We count crime statistics.  Usually, law enforcement is prompted to act in significant ways only when there is a media grabbing event (a child shot in a drive by, a particularly violent attack, etc.).  Where are the assessments that a neighborhood is poised for an outburst of violence?  Where is the analysis looking at other factors to measure risk to a community?  Where are the proactive initiatives to prevent that sort of activity?  It’s just not there in any sort of systematic way.  You just have to hope that the right people are hearing the right things, transmitting them to a receptive leadership and getting the right response.  I call that the George Michael strategy.

HQ ISAF must understand and adapt to the immediacy of the contemporary information environment through the employment of new/social media…

Apart from a public affairs office, the COPS TV show and (if you’re lucky) a some sort of rudimentary sports outreach how does the government and its security forces get its message out there?  I understand government institutions (particularly law enforcement) are conservative in their culture but they really can’t afford to be if we expect significant changes in the crime environment.  Initiative and experimentation must not only be allowed but be encouraged.  We need to invest in information operations and shouldn’t shy away from trying new things.

ISAF does not sufficiently appreciate the dynamics in local communities, nor how the insurgency, corruption, incompetent officials, power-brokers, and criminality all combine to affect the Afghan population.  A focus by ISAF intelligence on kinetic targeting and a failure to bring together what is known about the political and social realm have hindered ISAF’s comprehension of the critical aspects of Afghan society.

Again, that’s even more true domestically where strategic intelligence is generally regarded as namby-pamby academic stuff with no real value.  Instead, everyone want to jump in with both feet to get the bad guy.  Madcap hilarity then ensues as either its discovered that we only succeeded in getting the stupid bad guy who hadn’t figured out how to keep a low profile or we get the right guy but business is so good that two new bad guys immediately jump up to take the old guy’s place.

Another revolution in Philadelphia?

Peter linked to this story which recommends transforming Philadelphia’s “food production, energy generation, land use and transportation”.  This struck me because I recently wrote about Camden, NJ and recommended a similar (but in a much less detailed fashion) plan of action.  Now, you may not know this but Camden is right across the Delaware river from Philadelphia (Literally).  If I may be allowed to dream, how great would it be to take Mr. McDonald’s ideas and create a combined plan for Camden and Philadelphia?

As I was reading Peter Kalm’s travels in and around the Philadelphia area in the mid-18th century (uh, that’s when he wrote it not when I read it) he frequently remarked how productive the land was.  I’m sure if we could get planners and residents to stop thinking about cities in mid-20th century ways and embrace new models we could end up with self-sustaining engines for economic growth (ugh, that sounds like some consulting firm pitching a multi-million dollar boondoggle of a revitalization plan).  So here’s how MacDonald sums it up:

We need to see Philadelphia with fresh eyes, and recognize that in a world of soaring costs to build new infrastructure, the City of Brotherly Love is a treasure trove of land, housing stock, and commercial architecture all tied together by a massive rail network and a waterway. What’s not to like? As usual, the artists know a good thing when they see it, and they move in early to make their score. If Philadelphia would adopt FEW as its core strategy, it could potentially leap-frog ahead of other cities. Some of those cities will waste years and capital trying to retain alot of systems that are naturally ebbing away. Other US cities are either not on waterways, or face a topography almost barren of rail transport

Project Green

A couple of weeks ago I cited some stories about the urban wasteland troubled city of Camden, NJ as an example of plans for an urban renewal gone wrong and proposed it as a candidate for a ‘civilianized’ version of COIN.

In the comments Adrian recommended taking a look at Rochester, NY is doing in the face of a fleeing population.   Now, it’s important to note that there are vast differences between Rochester and Camden.  Rochester is bigger, appears to have a much more robust economy than Camden and while it’s crime rate is twice the national average, it’s half of Camden’s.  While Rochester was listed as one of the best cities to live in Camden is regularly rated as one of the most dangerous in the country.

Still Rochester seems to be avoiding the siren song of massive projects in the hopes of transforming their city into the next megalopolis and rather is considering a strategy of ‘right sizing’ the city.

An emerging city strategy, dubbed “Project Green,” proposes just that — reconfigure 40 blighted blocks over 20 years, creating consolidated but more connected neighborhoods by removing vacant houses and empty streets and even relocating residents.

Rochester’s vacancy rate is 12 percent to 14 percent — the highest in city history. And Project Green might be the most integrated and comprehensive undertaking of any city so far. The goal: Shrink the city to fit the footprint of its smaller population, thus reducing the city’s vacancy to a healthy 5 percent.

Right-sizing and greening the city should reduce the cost of city services, make the city more vibrant, raise property values and the tax base, and attract investment.

It sounds pretty interesting although it would be nice to know if they considered more forward thinking proposals like converting that abandoned land to power generation or food production.  How about some allotment gardening (with the urban poor given priority for plots so that they could supplement their diets with freshly grown produce) or community gardening (with the produce being sold in farmers markets targeted primarily for areas that don’t have good access to fresh produce)?  The citizenry is then responsible for the land (and, in this case, the food it produces for them) as opposed to city workers or contractors giving them some material reasons to manage the land and keep it secure.

Check out the article here or the study it’s based upon here.

COIN in the cities

I’ve been of the opinion (as you surely know) that the principles of COIN doctrine can have real utility in areas of our country (including, but not exclusively, depressed urban areas) where the government is no longer able to exercise its basic functions of rule of law, social services, infrastructure maintenance, etc.  When the state does not fulfill its duty and creates a vacuum of authority and services, the spirit of Mr. Hobbes rises from the dead and a leviathan emerges, to assert some sort of order on the community.  That order may be brutal and slipshod but (as wonderfully described in Venkatesh’s book) is preferable by almost everyone to anarchy.  Generally, the state’s response has been to respond to the problems caused by this situation by focusing on those elements which organize the most and, therefore, appear most threatening to the state system.  As soon as a criminal organization is able to accrue enough power to exert its will geographically on a (semi) regular basis, law enforcement moves to crush it.  While that results in a tangible good (bringing to justice those who have preyed upon local inhabitants and broken laws) it creates a host of cascading consequences that are almost never dealt with (a return of anarchy, increased violence as previously supressed actors fight for control, etc.) until another network attracts the attention of the state.
The problem is crime and other undesirable manifestations of failed state control of areas have root causes which must be addressed if you want anything other than temporary improvement.  Hence, my desire to see a modified version of COIN applied to the lawless areas of our country.
So, it’s nice to see that at least one city out there is experimenting with the concept.  As reported in the Washington Post, Salinas, California had such a serious gang/crime problem that was clearly out of control of local authorities.  The mayor (perhaps given the budgetary problems in the state, they were told not to expect any assistance from Sacramento?) asked for help from the Naval Postgraduate Institute.  And what has the team from NPS discovered?
In Salinas, as in Iraq and Afghanistan, the uniformed forces patrolling “are still viewed as an occupying force,” said Police Chief Louis Fetherolf.
Gangs and police compete in the aftermath of gang shootings — witnesses in a position to see everything share nothing with police.

The distrust rises partly from differences of culture and language: Many Hispanics in the city have roots in nations where police are often viewed as predators.

I think that last sentence is a bit disingenuous.  While it may be true, it misses the fact that there are lots of people who are born and raised in this country who view police (and most government representatives for that matter) as predatory and a threat (and I’m not talking about tea-baggers).  The way this is written threatens to undermine the whole idea that the problem is one of failing government and allows it to be supplemented with one that blames those dang immigrants.  The solution to that problem is much easier than all this ‘root cause’ stuff and we can just throw more armed guards on the border and our cities will naturally get better.

But Fetherolf, who took office this year, also blamed a tradition of police officers who “love the chase. They get into this business to kick ass and take names, by and large. We’re at odds with ourselves because of the people we hire.”

Now, that’s a very interesting quote and it’d be interesting what the chief does to follow through with it.  Does this mean he’s going to implement new criteria to hire, train, and promote police officers.  Assuming that isn’t a throw away line it could indicate big changes.
Certain adjustments were required: “Commander’s Intent” became “Mayor’s Intent.”
I’d argue this is a HUGE development.  I’ve been involved with trying to get some agencies to adopt the idea of ‘intent’ in order to guide their collection and analytical process (success to date:  meh).  It’s really the first step of the Planning and Direction process, without which you really aren’t going to get very far in producing meaningful intelligence products.  The biggest problem is that very few are willing to explicitly identify their priorities either because:
  1. the don’t understand the various threats sufficiently to establish priorities
  2. fear of suffering political/professional repercussions for not establishing the ‘right’ priorities (and by ‘right’ I mean the ones that end up blowing up in their faces.  Nobody wants to have to explain why they were focusing on North Korea (or whatever) while 19 Islamists were busy flying airplanes into buildings.  Better to just not make any priorities and claim everything is a priority (ahem…I’m talking about you ‘All Crimes, All Hazards’).

So, if, in fact, they are actually establishing priorities for operations and intelligence that would be a big step in the right direction.

If you’re interested in more on this, I’d recommend this thread on Small Wars Journal, although it gets off topic after the first page.  Here’s another that looks interesting as well.  In the past I’ve been dubious of authors with a SWJ pedigree in the past when they start talking about gangs and insurgencies but I think I may need to be a bit more discriminating in the future.

Failed cities

Part 1

The Philadelphia Inquirer continues its special report on the failed city of Camden, NJ and I keep finding parallels between that and attempts to stabilize failed states or assist developing nations improve their standards of living.

Many aid projects in the developed world (and, increasingly China which I’m not sure is ‘officially’ part of the developed world)  are big, expensive infrastructure projects like dams, roads, resource extraction plants and such.  Such projects are usually announced with much fanfare, proclaiming millions (or billions!) going to a particular country.  Yet most of the money doesn’t go into the local economy at all.  Outside companies plan and manage the project, consultants and labor is imported.  Revenue gets funneled to corrupt local politicians or is siphoned out to the company(ies) that ran the project.  Not surprisingly, the estimated boom in economic activity doesn’t pan out and the country ends with little to show for all the money except (usually) being on the wrong end of a bad business deal.  How does Camden stack up compared with that?

The landmark 2002 Municipal Rehabilitation and Economic Recovery Act that put Camden under state control set aside $175 million for dozens of city projects. And none was larger, or more emblematic, than the $25 million expansion of the 10-year-old, state-owned aquarium.

Camden’s residents were told the recovery would help to lift them out of poverty. The state’s “strategic revitalization plan,” the recovery’s guide, even listed jobs as the No. 1 goal.  But it didn’t turn out that way. Instead, most of the bailout money, $99 million, was allocated to the aquarium and other “anchor” institutions: tourist attractions, universities, hospitals, and government agencies…only 23 percent of [the aquarium's] employees – 28 percent during the summer – live in Camden. Before the recovery, the percentage of Camden residents employed there was 43 percent.

At Rutgers-Camden law school, the $11 million for an expansion project helped to increase the hours of free legal work students provide city residents from about 30,000 to 40,000 hours a year…But the school’s expansion led to only one new job for a Camden resident, a custodial position.

More than 40 percent of the population is living under the poverty line, and the tax base has shrunk.

Camden is the second most dangerous city in America and the poorest medium-sized city, according to national rankings. The city of 70,390 had 1,791 violent crimes in 2008, compared to 1,711 the year before the recovery began.

The central idea to the ‘revitalization’ scheme was to develop the waterfront area of Camden with tourist attractions, high cost condos and homes and perhaps some corporate headquarters.  All of which guarantee the residents of Camden nothing but low wage, service sector jobs.  The unspoken part of these revitalization plans is that if they can ‘gentrify’ the city they can then begin to squeeze existing residents out of the area.  Where they go is unimportant so long as it’s somewhere else.  At that point they become someone else’s problem and everyone can declare victory for ‘turning around’ a depressed city.

This story reminded me of a recent Planet Money podcast in which an author of a new book called The Aid Trap argues that aid based upon the Marshall Plan would be much better than our current system.  Specifically, focus on giving money directly to local, mid-sized businesses (from 1 to several dozen employees generally) which are the real generators of economic activity.  Of course, Camden also presents an opportunity to really think outside the box.  Why does it need to still be a city?  With over 1,500 properties abandoned and large tracts of land set aside  is there room to create a modern, self sufficient city-state?  Even if we don’t go that far, how about establishing a plan which will allow the citizens of Camden to take a greater role in their own urban regeneration?