Tag Archives: Economy

Why Detroit matters? Taking lessons from the motor city.

This is the sixth of six blogs written as part of the assessment for North American Cities, a second year undergraduate course in Geography at the University of Manchester. Required to write a blog of 1500 words on an issue of their choosing, Jacob Morris-Davies chose to write about Detroit …

Consider this, in 1940 you show Henry Ford this picture of Michigan Central Station, you say, “This is 2013, what do you think caused such a thing to happen?” To be frank his response would probably be along the lines of “the bomb”, “the apocalypse” or “the collapse of civilization”. Back then Detroit seemed indestructible, a freight train with unlimited momentum, but a train can only keep moving with tracks laid in front of it.

The transformation of Detroit over the last half century has been, to say the least, radical. What was once an industrial giant, the great manifestation of the American Dream, is now but a shell of its former self. Murder rates at ten times the national average(1), an alarming population decrease (it has halved since the 1960s)(2) and to top this all off on the 18th of July 2013 the city filed for chapter 9 bankruptcy(3). Why has this happened? Well that’s a complicated question, but an important one none the less. However, the question that should be on every economist, political scientist, sociologist and geographer’s lips is this. What happens next? Why? Because, if you think what’s happening to Detroit is unique, you’re wrong. At present, it may be exactly what’s around the corner for cities all over. If that’s to change, well, we better start paying attention.

How on earth did this happen?!?!

There are multiple possible explanations for the decline of Detroit, none of which are sufficient in themselves, here are just three of the main contributing factors.

Globalisation

Just as we saw the shift from city based economies to a national economy in the United States in the 19th century, the 20th century saw the rise of the global economy. Lower wages in East Asia have led to the decline of American industries across the country. Detroit is no exception.

Corruption

In the past 80 years five Detroit mayors and four country executives have either been sent to prison, were subject to federal probes, or were removed from office.(4) Giving out contracts to family members and creaming off taxpayer dollars are just the tip of iceberg. The political class in Detroit have contributed to the debt the city now sees itself in through irresponsible governance and outright Al Capone style tactics, yes that has even included the occasional murder.

Urban planning

Detroit is too big to function in without a car and contains too few people to justify such a massive land area. This is a map from the early 2000s(5), Detroit’s population has fallen even more since then but the point still stands. It is too spread out to function as a city. You cannot function in Detroit on foot, it’s impossible. But doesn’t everybody have a car? No, not in the Motor City. This has reduced social mobility, fuelled racial segregation and divided the city’s population geographically and socially.

But, whats going to happen now?

Here are three possible futures for Detroit, although we may not see these changes for many years, it is the actions of today that will determine the path the city takes.

It will be saved

The optimist in me believes that with the right intervention Detroit can be saved. By this I mean the city revitalised and re-populated. For jobs to be created and its crime rates reduced. For its image to be restored, to become a city in which people want to live again.

The 2009 auto industry bailouts were just the beginning, getting Detroit back on its feet is not just a matter of economics. No matter how many jobs are created its image and structure will not fundamentally change. The way working, living and moving interact in Detroit would have to be flipped on its head completely. People need to live in the city, at present over half of Detroit’s police force live outside of the city limits!(6) If the police force don’t want to live in their city, why would small business owners, young professionals or entrepreneurs? It would be a massive project, but not out of the question, large-scale top-down lead redevelopment would be the answer, the city is too far gone for private revitalisation such as gentrification to work.

Ruralisation

This is happening as we speak. Locals are turning huge areas of abandoned and unused land into farms, to grow food for themselves and for selling on. It is conceivable in the near future the city limits could become a sort of rural/urban hybrid.

In fact this is nothing new, only to a large urban area. Regions such as County Durham in the UK have transformed in a similar fashion since the decline of the coal industry in the UK. Small villages centred around mines are slowly changing into rural commuter villages, who is to say this will not be the future of Detroit?

Collapse 

There is of course the third option, complete and utter collapse. This may seem extreme, something to far in the future to be taken seriously right now, but isn’t that the arrogance of all civilizations that have fallen? Not to sound overly dramatic but why do we think we are any different, maybe this is the death of the industrial city?

We are already seeing people tour the derelict areas of Detroit, calling themselves urban explorers and place hackers.(7) This too is also not new, think about Rome, Athens, Giza; human beings seem to have a fascination with exploring the ruins of past civilizations. That is not to say it has not made its mark in history through its industry, music and culture but the physical place of Detroit may in the 21st century cease to be.

Why does it matter?

You may ask why does this matter in the whole scheme of things, isn’t Detroit a one off case? Maybe, but probably not, it’s more likely the first of many. It’s not the only city out there with issues in planning, corruption, social division and industrial decline. Detroit should be taken as a lesson of what can and will happen unless city authorities, governments and businesses act now to ensure the long term prosperity of the urban areas they inhabit. Just as Urbanization and Suburbanization defined past generations it is conceivable that ruralization or the process of collapse will define the next. Detroit is the perfect case study for the future, whatever that may be.

What happens to Detroit is not just of consequence for Americans, urban decline such as this is a global problem and somewhat ironically one of the main regions that may be affected is East Asia. In recent years China for example has been organising its various provinces into specialised economic zones each centered around cities based on certain types of industry.(8) At the moment, it’s working well for them to say the least. However, in 20-50 or 100 years when Africa becomes a competitor, what then? Will they have the exact same problem on their hands as Detroit? Cities with one purpose in mind cannot last and adapt.

What is being urban anyway? What makes a great city? Why do we live in cities in the first place? Are cities not more than a group of people centered around one purpose? Detroit raises the questions, should cities be more holistic? Should they always serve multiple functions? Do they need a purpose other than just being?

Detroit was defined by its auto industry, why are we defining the places we call home, where we live and die in service of a single economic function? Should cities not be places we would live regardless of the work available? Many think so, many think cities can bring out the greatest and most beautiful elements of humanity. Because cities can have their own function which cannot be defined by any one factor, cities can have a purpose of there own, just by being.

Have a look at Richard Rodgers master plan for Shanghai(9), it approaches how cities are organised in an entirely different fashion. He suggests the overlapping pathways, connections and intersections of people, ideas and events make cities what they are. Not its icons, its industry or its history, but instead the way in which its inhabitants interact.

Why are these flows of interaction important? Well, because the cities of the future are being designed today. Cities must be economically and ecologically sustainable if they are to, but should they not also be socially sustainable? Detroit is at present none of these things, but why this is, where it’s going and what will works to fix it are questions that need answering to help plan our cities of the future.

What happens next? Collapse or re-birth, adaptation or abandonment, consolidation or ruralization, I do not know. But I do know this, understanding what is happening in Detroit now is essential to understanding how we should plan cities of the future. I will be watching; so should you.

References

(1)   – http://www.neighborhoodscout.com/mi/detroit/crime/

(2) – http://www.freep.com/interactive/article/20130723/NEWS01/130721003/detroit-city-population

(3) – http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-23369573

(4) – http://www.myfoxdetroit.com/story/23652333/from-then-until-now-a-look-at-detroits-80-year-corruption

(5) – http://growingcities.blogspot.co.uk/2010/10/detroit-reassembled.html

(6) – http://tcf.org/blog/detail/reinventing-detroit

(7) – http://detroiturbex.com

(8) –  Wei Ge, (1999) Special Economic Zones and the Opening of the Chinese Economy: Some Lessons for Economic Liberalization, World Development Vol. 27, No. 7, pp. 1267 – 1285,

 (9) http://www.richardrogers.co.uk/Asp/uploadedFiles/Image/1950_Shanghai%20Masterplan/RSHP_A_JS_1950_L_E_MP.pdf]

* http://zfein.com

** http://www.survivefrance.com/profiles/blogs/panic-in-detroit

Vancouver: Harbouring Their Drug Problem by Feeding the Addiction?

This is the fifth of six blogs written as part of the assessment for North American Cities, a second year undergraduate course in Geography at the University of Manchester. Required to write a blog of 1500 words on an issue of their choosing, Alice Kiernan chose to write about Vancouver …

In 2010, Vancouver hosted the Winter Olympics. I remember seeing an article on the news about the social problems the city was facing running up to the games, but as a naïve and disinterested 16 year old whose preservation of ‘street cred’ was at the forefront of her mind, I turned a blind eye.

Street cred in mind, I am reluctant to admit that I am a self-confessed fan of American TV series, Glee. Last year, the world, and I, was baffled, shocked and sorrowed at the news of young Glee actor, Cory Monteith’s tragic death.

Monteith battled with a history of drug abuse and was visiting Vancouver at the time of his death. Not a wise choice for a man with such a background.

When I looked into this more, it soon became apparent that the problems I briefly heard about back in 2010 had not resolved themselves.

Vancouver, on the surface, seems like a clean-cut city, but beneath this exterior are a hidden myriad of social problems – drugs being the main one. Along with the drug problem comes its two ugly sisters – health problems and homelessness – but this is far from a fairy-tale.

Of course this trio of troubles isn’t unique to Vancouver, but they are more visible. The city has battled for years with a severe drug problem, mostly in the DTES (Downtown Eastside), where drug dealers line the streets in broad daylight, often in the presence of police.

There are an estimated 1,600 homeless in Vancouver – something the mayor pledged to eradicate by 2015 – with 46% revealing they suffer from mental health problems. Of course, this percentage may be unrepresentative of the actual number of people suffering with mental illness, since respondents self-identified as mentally ill – i.e. some may have not disclosed information accurately and/or based their diagnosis on personal beliefs/experiences rather than medical diagnosis.

Many believe these problems have stemmed from the closure of Vancouver’s only mental health institute and the explosion of the drug trade (for more on this, click here). Surely these three must be linked and tackling one would help to alleviate the others?

Given its close proximity to the border and harbours, Vancouver has a hard time regulating what’s coming in and out of the city. The drug trade thrives in Vancouver and it is often reported that cocaine is brought into Canada, finding its way to Vancouver’s DTES. In 2002, substance abuse cost Canada a staggering $39.8 billion.

However, although the regulation of drugs entering the city is difficult, Vancouver is pretty revolutionary in its approach to the problems they face surrounding drugs. They receive a lot of opposition on these unconventional methods.

But let’s face it; in a city where it’s quicker to have drugs delivered than it is a pizza and for around the same price or less (it’s around $10 for heroin – which is about £6), a radical approach is probably what’s needed.

The City of Vancouver has devised a ‘four pillars’ drug strategy which focuses on harm reduction, prevention, treatment and enforcement. They have implemented this programme learning from other developed cities such as Zurich and Sydney who have managed to reduce the numbers of users consuming drugs on the streets, overdose-related deaths and HIV incidence in users.

Vancouver pumps the bulk of its budget surrounding this strategy into the harm prevention pillar. I’m talking about InSite; Vancouver’s revolutionary approach to drug users.

This is a centre (est. September 2003) open to all drug users to access as and when it suits them and provides them with free equipment such as needles and equipment for them to mix the chemicals to pump around their bodies. All of this takes place in a sterile and well-lit environment, overseen by two medically trained nurses.

It’s a place users can go in with their drugs (that’s the only bit that isn’t free), shoot up, and leave as high as a kite with no legal battles to fight. In essence, it’s a legal crack den.

It sounds, in theory, ridiculous; a free centre with operational costs of around $3 million for people to go and shoot up legally, funded by tax payers money? Absurd, you might be thinking. I jumped to that conclusion at first as well.

But when you delve a little deeper into the benefits of InSite, it’s actually not all that bad.

In a hefty report published by B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS it can be seen that the four pillar strategy has helped reduce cocaine use over a fifteen year span, from 38.1% in 1996 to just 6.9% in 2011 – a whopping 31.2% reduction. It also states that access to treatment has improved by 14.9% in the same time period.

They’re clearly doing something right with changes like that.

At one point in Vancouver’s past, they had the highest prevalence and incidence of HIV/AIDS outside of Sub-Saharan Africa. This is largely down to the sharing of needles amongst drug users. The average lifetime cost of treating a HIV infection per person is estimated by the B.C. Centre for Excellence as $250,000.

So when you sit and do the maths, it works out as quite cost-effective.

A centre which serves 12,000 drug users at a cost of $3 million is the equivalent cost of treating 12 drug users who have picked up HIV from unhygienic methods.

Alright, it’s still a lot of money we’re talking about here – but surely that’s more sensible than letting the percentage of the population affected by HIV creep up to an alarming level again?

That’s one of the main arguments against InSite. Many contest the notion that the taxpayer should have to foot the bill for a social problem that is (mostly) self-inflicted. It’s a tough call. But when you weigh up the cost-effectiveness of the programme, it’s hard to dispute that it’s working a lot better than having no system in place.

The Mayor in Vancouver supports InSite given its higher quit-rates than any other official programme and the reduction of HIV infection. Opposing arguments claim that InSite merely condones drug use.

The main opposition comes from the Conservative party/government in Canada. The federal government have introduced the ‘Respect for Communities Act’, making it near-impossible for new centres like InSite to be built. Many policing bodies agree with this.

Conversely, Vancouver Police Department support InSite and other similar initiatives. I guess to them, it makes their job easier. They’re not bogged down with as many cases of abusive and difficult people to deal with (after all, drug addicts can get pretty violent).

The Drug Treatments Courts take a similar stance. They don’t demonise non-violent offenders and instead encourage and support them to access healthcare programmes. Again, at first, I was a little bit puzzled about this. My stance on it was: a crime is a crime and you should do your time.

But then I considered addiction as a health problem, a mental problem, rather than a social problem, and then it made sense.

Some believe that the money spent on prisons and trying to cut drug supplies would be better spent invested in rehab and outreach – and that’s exactly what InSite is. Maybe increasing the awareness of what it is InSite does to the tax-payer is the way forward.

Many think InSite is merely a promotion of drug use. I would disagree.

Drugs are such an uncontrollable part of society and I believe Vancouver have done a pretty good job of making an otherwise invisible problem more accountable and thus, controlled. Others argue, as do I, that regardless of where the consumption of drugs is taking place, it will always take place. So why not make the drug use within the city more accountable, safer and more cost-effective?

InSite (see image below) offer services to help people get clean, but maybe working on a compulsory ‘get clean’ basis would make the service even more effective in terms of cost and social benefit. The problem is: that’d only work if people wanted to be helped to get clean, not just assisted to shoot up.

Source: Maclean's 1

Source: Maclean’s 1

The question of legalisation is a split one, too. Walter McKay (former Vancouver Police Department officer) believes that no matter how many dealers are taken off the streets; more will be ready and waiting to replace them – so legalisation may be the way forward.

Dave Hamm (president of Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users) believes the federal government have taken a far too militant approach to drugs, but doesn’t want to see the same mistakes made with the privatisation of tobacco and alcohol.

Legal or not, Vancouver’s drug problem is a real big one, with no simple solution. But one thing’s for sure – they’re having a good crack at solving it in a (albeit) controversial, yet effective way. We can only wait and see if it proves to be a success in the long run with their on-going plans.

Vacant Lots Cost Philadelphia $90 Million a Year!

This is the fourth of six blogs written as part of the assessment for North American Cities, a second year undergraduate course in Geography at the University of Manchester. Required to write a blog of 1500 words on an issue of their choosing, Ceri-Ellis Kenyon chose Philadelphia …

If you’ve ever found yourself strolling through Lower North Philly (not that I’d recommend it!) you’ll have noticed that there’s not much to see – literally. The abundance of vacant land and boarded up property leaves you feeling thoroughly depressed. It’s a far cry from the booming 1950s when John McWhorter stumbled across and photographed this vacant lot, a rarity in those days but all too commonplace now.

Over the past 20 years, vacancy has spiralled out of control.  A recent study found that Philadelphia has the highest vacancy per capita of any US city.  Combatting the issue of vacant property has been at the forefront of government agendas for decades now. Why? Because these tracts of vacant land dispersed throughout the city cost Philadelphia an estimated $90 million a year in delinquent taxes and policing charges alone!

So, what have the politicians done to improve things? Well, they’ve thrown lots  of money at the problem but, as is often the case, they’ve mostly ignored the needs of the local people. No surprises then that, far from getting better, things have continued to decline.

‘Wastin’ away on the streets of Philadelphia…’

I’m sure Bruce (Springsteen, of course!) had something quite different  on his mind when he wrote this song back in the 1990s but his lyrics seem more relevant than ever in today’s downtown. The Philly streets are literally “wastin’ away” as the population plummets and vacancy and crime rates soar.

Vacant land reflects vacant soul

Philadelphians know which areas of town not to venture into at night, or even by day for that matter, but why? A bunch of empty houses? That surely seems crazy…

…But, empty houses and barren land lead to social issues; crime, poverty, gang warfare and drug use. A recent Forbes survey ranked Philadelphia as the 5th most miserable city in the USA. Any stats based on averages are going to paint a gloomy picture but Philly isn’t all bad. We’d love to argue with the ‘experts’ at Forbes but there is, in actual fact, overwhelming evidence that vacant land and crime go hand in hand. Ken Skinner’s “Clean and Seal” programme is the city’s latest attempt at tackling the social blight associated with vacancy. Skinner, Chief of The Department of Licences and Inspections, has joined forces with the City Redevelopment Authority to employ a 48 strong team to secure the entrances to empty property and deserted land, in an effort to keep out the thugs and keep the neighbourhoods clean.  This temporary measure is an uphill battle as 300+ properties and lots are added to the vacancy inventory each year!

Lower North Ghost town

Lower North is without doubt the most desolate area in Philly. In terms of land use (commercial, residential, recreational etc.)  “vacancy” is the third largest category in the district. At the beginning of the 20th Century, Lower North was home to a thriving community of Black African Americans, attracted to the area by an abundance of brick yards, coal yards, tobacco plants and textiles workshops along Glenwood Avenue. Economic crisis in the 1950s left many Lower Northerners permanently unemployed as manufacturing jobs became few and far between. This triggered an epidemic of vacant land, an increase in crime and a decrease in population, which has continued every year since. In the 1990s, Philadelphia experienced the 3rd largest population decline in the history of urban America.

Lower North is an urban graveyard; 47% of the Lower North population are living in poverty, 13% of property is vacant and the district has 45 so called ‘ghost parks’. The only remaining ‘assets’ in Lower North are Temple University, 19 bus routes, 2 regional rail stations and its proximity to the city centre. The fact that two of the four remaining assets are transport infrastructure says it all…

So far, the problem has only been exacerbated by those in high Philly society. Ex-mayor Ed Rendell promised to rejuvenate Lower North and was voted into office by a majority black vote, desperately hoping for change. But Lower Northerners suffered anguish and humiliation at the hands of Rendell, who focussed solely on the city centre, deeming Lower North a problem unworthy of  attention.

Double duped as Street turns his back too…

Hot on the heels of Rendell; came Street and his ambitious plan to commandeer The Neighbourhood Transformation Initiative. His ingenious idea, to simply demolish 1400 vacant properties in Lower North was supposed to attract private investment. Instead, as most of us  could have predicted, it transformed vacant property into nothing more than vacant land! His typically political heavy handed approach caused nothing but backlash among the surprisingly tight knit community of Strawberry Mansion (which is hardly surprising when you consider Street’s plan to demolish their entire century old neighbourhood!). His  approach meant he ‘succeeded’ in demolishing a mere 800 of the planned properties at a  cost of $81 million and more importantly, he demolished the trust and vote of an entire community.

The Master plan, change may be just around the corner!

A committee of Philadelphian planners, community leaders, business owners, non-profit organisations and elected officials are currently working to piece together a blueprint for the redevelopment of the neglected Lower North. The PlanPhiladelphia2035 scheme hopes to pull together the expertise needed bring about change and rescue Lower North once and for all. David Fecteau, the brains behind the idea, chaired community meetings throughout July and August to gauge public opinion. What did he want to know? “Who’s happy?”… Seems nice!

Fecteau claims that unused industrial land could create up to 200 jobs and that ex residential areas could be re-moulded into community gardens and green space. Maybe! Of course, as a development tycoon he would say that, wouldn’t he Could this be just another example of the all too familiar pattern of planning betrayal in Lower North? If so, it has not weakened the residents of Strawberry Mansion’s burning desire for something to be done…finally. Community leader Judith Robinson announced that ‘redevelopment which avoids gentrification and subsequent displacement is welcomed’. The agenda for PlanPhiladelphia2035 is definitely optimistic and so far so good. The community meetings have established hotspot areas of unhappiness and have fuelled ideas and debates about the future land use. Could this be the answer to Lower North’s prayers? Watch this space…

Sowing the seeds of change

Clearly these large-scale, top-down approaches to redevelopment in Philly have largely failed. The PlanPhiladelphia2035 project is the first integrated approach and therefore the most likely to succeed. Hallelujah!

In typical Philadelphian fashion, small scale initiatives to decrease vacancy abound in many neighbourhoods throughout the city. Urban farms have sprung up on ex industrial sites all over the place, the most popular of which, GreensGrow, is in Kensington. The area reaps the social and economic benefits of urban farming and GreensGrow puts the vacant land to good use. Could the land in Lower North be suitable for an urban farm? Could it reduce the levels of crime and antisocial behaviour experienced there?

We’re constantly bombarded by green action group lobbying about transformation of urban land into green community space, but is this what Lower North needs? Research from The University of Pennsylvania found that over a period of ten years, the area surrounding a fenced public garden experienced a significant reduction in crime. Apparently, fences and neatly mown lawns deter criminals in these areas. Could this work in Lower North?

Is it naïve to assume that the introduction of green space will solve all social and economic issues in Lower North? Green space alone is not enough. Redevelopment needs to take place and must happen now! The work of PlanPhiladelphia2035 is a step in the right direction, but to succeed we need real commitment from those in power and enthusiasm for the project from the communities themselves. Appearances can be deceiving and there is still a strong community spirit beneath the desolate face of the Lower North. The residents deserve better and we must learn from past failures and work together to rejuvenate Lower North and turn it back into the thriving community it once was.

Here are some useful links if you’d like to find out more…

PlanPhiladelphia2035 Lower North plans: http://phila2035.org/home-page/district/lower-north/

An Accessible news bog site for Philadelphia: http://philly.curbed.com/tags/top

An Academic article evaluating Street’s Neighbourhood Transformation Initative:

http://www.seas.upenn.edu/~sys502/arcview/Projects/Phil_Housing/Phil_Nbhd_Initiative.pdf

Lower North District’s Wikipedia page: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/North_Philadelphia#Neighborhoods

A news article expressing concern around Fecteau’s ulterior motives: http://philly.curbed.com/archives/2013/08/05/consultant-to-major-developers-advocates-clearcut-strategy-for-city-planning.php

Information about Ken Skinner’s clean and seal programme: http://articles.philly.com/1993-09-30/news/25985242_1_houses-seal-tin

A news article about the reduction of crime in ‘greened’ areas: http://grist.org/list/2011-11-23-turning-vacant-lots-into-parks-reduces-violent-crime/

Is Breaking Really That Bad? How it’s Heroin, Not Meth, that’s Albuquerque’s Vice.

This is the second of six blogs written as part of the assessment for North American Cities, a second year undergraduate course in Geography at the University of Manchester. Required to write a blog of 1500 words on an issue of their choosing, Nicola Carter chose to write about Albuquerque …

Albuquerque, New Mexico, has been pushed into the spotlight thanks to a certain bald meth dealer hitting our screens in early 2008. If you haven’t seen AMC’s Breaking Bad, I suggest you do so. Lock the door, take the phone off the hook and clear a week in your calendar. Shot and based in Albuquerque and chronicling the life and crimes of chemistry-teacher-turned-meth-dealer (Bryan Cranston, below right) and his petulant protégé (Aaron Paul, below left), Breaking Bad paints an altogether grim picture of drug use in the United States. Prostitution, murder, gang mentality and violence all feature heavily in the show – officially named the most streamed (both illegally and legally) show in the world. What is really interesting though, is the city behind the story – a real life city faced with a real life drug problem.

The term “Breaking Bad” itself is a southern colloquialism, meaning to stray from the straight and narrow; in Albuquerque’s case, a move towards drug usage. Methamphetamine, Breaking Bad’s primary drug of choice, is arguably not the drug which causes the most problems in Albuquerque – Albuquerque in fact has fewer patient admittances for methamphetamine abuse than both the state and the national average. Government figures show that Albuquerque only really stands out as a “problem” city in terms of heroin usage and abuse of prescription painkillers (you can check out the 2008 report here). There’s a problem with these official figures, though. Whilst there may be less patient admittances, how does that translate to actual figures of users? No-one is naïve enough to think that every drug user goes into a rehab program – nor that every user is even on any kind of radar. Many people can (and do) keep their addictions secret, from family, friends and colleagues.

New Mexico as a state doesn’t have the best reputation for drug usage. New Mexico had the highest rate of drug overdose deaths in 2008 and in 2011 – that equates to more people dying from overdoses than from all road traffic accidents per year. Española, just 85 miles South West of Albuquerque, has a level of drug related deaths roughly 6-7 times the national average (that’s 42.5 drug related deaths per 100,000 In Española, compared to the US average of just 6).  Whilst Albuquerque isn’t perhaps as bad in terms of statistics, try this interesting test. Internet search “Albuquerque drugs”. Yep, you find this delightful fellow as the first result.

Ouch. Now a bit of a comparison – do the same with “Baltimore drugs”. Supposedly the heroin capital of the US, but no self-professed drug dealer posting his home address on the internet. Do the same with Chicago, or Tucson, which has approximately the same population as Albuquerque. This poses a more interesting question about the culture of Albuquerque, perhaps. What kind of city would facilitate such brazen illicit activity on the internet and more importantly, perhaps, why is there a need for such a thing?

I read an interesting article recently written by a born and bred Albequerquean in Time magazine recently that really opened my eyes. There’s no aspiration, the piece argues – no hunger and no means of escaping the “city of mediocrity”. Apathy is what really rings true with this piece – low income families, poverty, a culture of brazen lawlessness (remember our friendly neighbourhood drug dealer, just a Google search away?) and a wild sense of isolation. The piece, any many more that you can find all over the internet also highlight the use of prescription drugs as gateways to harder substances, like heroin. One small scale study, on a group of seven high school students, found that every single one of them knew someone who’d abused prescription drugs, and every person interviewed for a news story said that the route to heroin started with prescription drugs. Teens in New Mexico are twice as likely to experiment with heroin than in any other state, resulting in $300,000 worth of heroin being sold in Albuquerque every day. Taking into consideration that heroin is now the cheaper alternative to prescription drugs (80-mg of Oxycontin, a prescription opiate based painkiller, costs $40-$60, compared with $20 for a bag of longer lasting heroin) that could be the equivalent of 15,000 users per day. Of the 13 high schools in Albuquerque, 9 have full time drug counsellors.

So what does this mean for the city? The drugs abuse stories that hit the media are usually extreme cases or based on sweeping generalisations – like this story from 2012 where a two year old child tested positive for methamphetamine. Albuquerque has a crime rate 53% higher than the US average. Since 1999, Albuquerque has had consistently higher levels of arson, theft, assault, murder, auto theft, robbery and rape than the U.S average. That’s staggering for a city of just over half a million. Maybe not surprising though, in a city where 22% of the residents live below the poverty line. This online map is awesome for tracking areas of the city. Areas of the city such as Trumbull Village, popularly and infamously known as the War Zone, is plagued by drug related shootings and crime – and 30.3% of the population live below the poverty line. Areas like Santa Fe show just how much drug policing can impact an area; a 20% decline in property crime (including burglaries) is largely attributed to an increase in drug related arrests.

The relationship between poverty and crime (read more here) has been the subject of numerous  academic studies over the years.  Put simply: high crime rates are considered by both the UN and World Bank to be a barrier to development. Albuquerque has both high crime rates and high poverty rates, perhaps both helped along by the high rates of drug abuse and usage? Figures from 2011 state that almost half of all US prison inmates were incarcerated for drug offences. The Albuquerque Journal publishes arrest records for the city, and a substantial number of these are for drug related offences. There are countless reports and testimonials from ex-addicts who explain the lengths they went to for a fix; burglary, prostitution, muggings or even kidnapping. Many others may have been committing crimes to pay for their drug habit. Heroin is cheap, yes, but expensive enough that many users are forced to steal to feed their addiction. The sheer cost of the law and order associated with the drug trade is staggering – police officers, judges, courts, prison services, lawyers. Drug enforcement cost the American Government as a whole billions of dollars (a recent estimate is $41.3 billion) a year – not including the cost of crime indirectly caused by drugs.

It seems Albuquerque’s problems with drugs are actually quite well exemplified by Breaking Bad; the ease with which Walt accesses drugs, and how easily he finds buyers for his meth, Jesse’s using of drugs to escape a painful childhood, and the murders that seem to occur in every episode. If only ending Albuquerque’s relationship with drugs was as easy as ending Breaking Bad

Albuquerque has a heroin problem; a problem that’s debilitating and demobilising for the city. A drug problem that exacerbates the other problems in the city; that drives and maintains poverty, which increases crime and reduces aspiration. The infiltration of heroin into high schools and the young age at which addiction is starting is crippling the city, breeding another generation of addicts and perpetuating a culture of lawlessness. The amount of money being poured into drug policing in the city clearly isn’t enough: in 2010, a 16 year old girl overdosed on heroin and died, following a two year struggle with addiction. Based on a state average life expectancy of just over 78 years, that’s 62 potential working, childbearing, tax paying, life enjoying years lost. And overdose and drug related deaths are on the increase. Reducing this number will be a hard slog, but kicking the heroin habit might just be what Albuquerque needs.

Detroiters: Back in the Driving Seat

This is the first of six blogs written as part of the assessment for North American Cities, a second year undergraduate course in Geography at the University of Manchester. Required to write a blog of 1500 words on an issue of their choosing, Amy Barron chose to write about Detroit …

Detroit is the focus of a stereotype. After years of decline, together with the repetitious drip feed of negative media attention; riots, white flight, dereliction and deserted neighbourhoods have become emblematic of the city. Today as the city faces rejection from government and global press, Detroiters have taken matters into their own hands, nurturing innovation, initiative and creativity.

Detroit; the city that put the world on wheels; the throbbing heart of American culture, soul and industry; the sprawling metropolis; the epitome of the American Dream. During its 1950s heyday, the ‘motorcity’ thrived, providing an accommodating, dynamic and cohesive urban hub; a centrifugal force for the global automobile trade whilst functioning as a magnet attracting social and economic capital that saw the population rocket. So, what went wrong? I hear you cry.

Well listen up America, there’s a lesson to be learnt. After the initial auto-industrial success, it was the failure of the American government to recognise that the Asian auto-manufacturing expansion was upon them and America was effectually bitten on the ass by its competitor. This ultimately caused the start of the cardio-collapse of the heart of American auto-industries, unable to stay ahead of their efficient Asian opponents. This slow death of the motor giants eventually caused the inner-city commuter highway vestals to become clogged with poverty as the rich fled and suburban arteries were drained of talent as the skilled relocated elsewhere. The eventual outcome was a population plummet, leading to a lower tax base. Crime rates spiked and public service networks crumbled. The rust belt of the American mid-west was rapidly corroding and Detroit was the ‘buckle’. The media willingly jumped on the bandwagon and the drip feed of negativity began to infest the city. Events reached their pinnacle when Detroit hit the headlines as it became the largest city in the US to file for bankruptcy. Investment was deterred and the endless cycle of decline had seemingly begun.

So, how do you remake a city and perhaps see it prosper once more? Seemingly an impossible task? Well, providing there is more to life than generalised statistics and headline-grabbing  quotes, I-and Detroit-argue ‘hope is not lost’. Believe it or not media, through the dereliction and destitution; human nature prevails, inter-connections are materialising, and community clusters are beginning to form. Whilst the data presented may well hold elements of truth, surely daily community interaction, cohesion and a dense urban texture are equally important qualities which define urban life. The Detroiters are innovating their way out of this problem, so why should the very real, happening, positive efforts be brushed under the carpet?

All too often the city is portrayed in a negative light. Rarely reported is the surviving stock; the green sprouts of hope emerging at grass roots level. The winds of change are blowing through the streets of Detroit with more force than ever as ‘a neighbour helping neighbour’ ethos is spreading generating a strong ‘shared responsibility for a shared place’ attitude. Like a phoenix rising from the ashes; revitalised and ready for flight, young maverick entrepreneurs are surfacing, thrusting forth new innovative ideas which will regenerate, renew and rejuvenate.

Although Detroit may, in some respects be teetering on the precipice, it still has the safety harness of ‘community strength’ to hold onto, pulling it back from the brink. Realising the difficulties they are facing, many residents are calling on inner resources and imagination, taking issues into their own hands. All sectors of society-young, old, groups, and individuals-are pioneering positivity impacting across the social, economic and environmental spectrum. Could Detroit be a leading beacon in showing the rest of the urban world the path to overcoming these universally experienced problems? With progress in green transportation, sustainability, business incubation and community cohesion; the future looks promising. Detroit is moving forward, starting where it matters; at the heart and with the people.

Sixty four year old John Ratov is only one of the thousands of people across Detroit who have become self-appointed community activists. A former inmate, Ratov now spends his time serving others by giving rides, delivering lunches and visiting the pitiably lonely. Not only is Ratov actively improving the lives of his fellow citizens but his ‘community spirit’ is rubbing off onto others such as 52 year old Renee Miler who met Ratov at a local soup kitchen and now also helps saying; ‘’it’s just the right thing to do’’. Together they continue building an ever expanding human life support machine for the city.

Not only is this ingenuity occurring on an individual level, but also at a collective level. Organised by several local charities, with ‘booming dance music, flaming BBQ grills, and a stocked food tent for thousands of homeless’ Detroit hosted it’s ‘Red carpet backyard surprise BBQ!’ The idea was simply to give struggling Detroiters a holiday meal like the rest of America would be eating that day. The party was a huge success with the food line snaking through the park as far as the eye could see. Instead of the streets feeling bare and cold, they were full of life, laughter and love with thousands of homeless folk uniting in celebration as the festive mood set in and spread through the crowd with a shared sense of place and belonging. This is the precise way a community should unite, by helping one another. It engenders the reconnection of the fragmented city scape and improves Detroit for the greater good.

Have you too been fooled into believing Detroit has being deserted by the young? Well, think again. ‘I am Young Detroit’ is a social venture initiative promoting and publishing positive change occurring in Detroit. Social entrepreneur, Andy Didorosi is one of many who are determined to make a difference.  After reading ‘Detroit’s light rail is dead’ Andy bought a bunch of buses and founded ‘The Detroit Bus Company’. This was a huge success. Not only are the buses environmentally sustainable hybrids but Andy added his quirky artistic edge making them ‘public party buses ‘reinforcing the young imaginative flair so many Detroiters possess. With service hours rapidly expanding, cool areas in the downtown are valuably reconnecting. I am captivated and amused by Andy and found myself continually impressed by his ambitious nature when reading more. The world could really use a few more Andys ready to give it a shot!

Bailing on Detroit

Jamie Peck, Department of Geograpy, UBC and Honorary Professor at SEED, University of Manchester, continues his analysis of the on-going restructuring of Detroit and its wider significance for the future of US cities.

Detroit is about to enter a new phase, in its protracted state of financial emergency.  The city’s Emergency Manager, Kevyn Orr—who was appointed by Michigan’s Republican Governor in March 2013, following the breakdown of a so-called “consent agreement” with the state, en route to a long-anticipated declaration of municipal bankruptcy—will soon publish his “plan of adjustment.”  This will spell out the details of what will be tantamount to a court-administered structural adjustment of Detroit, implemented by an unelected financial technocrat whose far-reaching powers trump practically all of those of the city’s elected officials, including the Mayor.  It will set the Motor City on a new path, doubtless based on some inventive (but at the same time familiar) combination of lean administration, triaged public services, privatization, and restructured debt and pension obligations.

There is (literally) no need to recount the litany of metropolitan woes that are associated with this unprecedented situation.  Detroit has its very own history of urban crises, and crisis narratives, which for decades now have been married with aspirational visions for the city’s rebirth.  This was the place where Henry Ford II famously declared, on the occasion of the opening of the Renaissance Center, a glitzy downtown corporate complex, that “Detroit has reached the bottom and is on its way back up.”  That was 1977.  And Detroit has hit the bottom in several different ways since.  There may be no better précis of the current situation than that offered by the city’s preeminent historian, Thomas J. Sugrue:  “Good news: a few hipsters are rediscovering Detroit.  Bad news: everything else.”[1]

In the years since the Wall Street crash of 2008, Detroit’s crisis has become its own kind of urban spectacle.  The city’s long, overdetermined slide into bankruptcy has been accompanied, in the wake of the crash and the state and local government fiscal collapse that followed, by a pervasive and consequential neoliberal narrative:  what began as a banking crisis was translated first into a state crisis and then into an urban crisis.[2]  How could we have not seen it?  The underlying cause of the crash, and the Great Recession that followed, really had nothing to do with the reckless acts of unsupervised financial elites, or the paradigm of speculative, unequal growth; all along, the roots of the problem were the pension entitlements of firefighters and schoolteachers!

Conservative and mainstream narrations of the crisis, in as far as they have sustained and rationalized this kind of austere, anti-urban and anti-public sector commonsense, have consequently been far from innocent.  These are stories that effectively repoliticize the crisis, serving the ends of spatial containment and social targeting.  (Every failure, the script goes, is homemade, typically at the hands of bad actors like corrupt local politicians, superannuated bureaucrats, belligerent public-sector unions, and the feckless underclass.)  These are stories that discursively (re)distribute the costs and burdens of “adjustment,” for the most part regressively.  And they are stories that endogenize and localize the both the supposedly underlying causes of the crisis and the scope for politically acceptable remedies.

Language matters here, especially when it is language fashioned to travel along with, legitimate, and enable the panoply of neoliberal restructuring strategies—legal, fiscal, and administrative—that is being put to work in what is taking shape as a  new mode of (urban) crisis management.  Amongst the most important of the currently circulating discursive keyword is this:  bailout.[3]  This term is now being liberally applied—or rather, neoliberally applied—as a means of undermining, delegitimating, and besmirching each and every form of fiscal transfer or financial redistribution, along with every invocation of extralocal causality or responsibility.  Detroit is on its own, as indeed are other American cities.  Any form of financial assistance from outside, be this in the shape of federal redevelopment grants for Detroit or backfilling of the city’s pension fund by the state, is met with cries of “bailout!”

In places like Detroit, these words really bite.  Here, the arch-conservative narrative is dependably delivered by Michigan’s leading free-market think tank, the Mackinac Center, which repeatedly proclaims that a “bailout” of Detroit is a “terrible idea.”  Their Tieboutesque argument, as articulated by director of fiscal policy, Michael D. LaFaive, goes like this: “People in Ishpeming, Bad Axe and Traverse City who already are paying to support their own local governments shouldn’t also have to support Detroit’s bad policy choices, mismanagement and corruption … The bottom line is that Detroit has fouled its own nest and should be responsible for cleaning it up.”[4]  As a city that allegedly “emblematizes un-entrepreneurial America,” Ed Glaeser has written in the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal, Detroit apparently has only itself to blame for its fiscal crisis.[5]  A “victim of its own political vices” is how the Wall Street Journal portrays Motown, the poster child for a new generation of “deadbeat cities,” which must now be saved from itself.[6]  Tea-party solutions are perhaps the most brutal:  “Dissolve Detroit,” and replace it with a tax-free opportunity zone, the City of New Detroit.[7]

These arguments are perfectly consistent with the conservative legal doctrine of fiscal federalism, where not only “each level of government,” but in effect each unit of government, must “internalize both the costs and the benefits of its activities.”[8]  This is the antithesis, effectively, of Keynesian redistribution, with its compensatory fiscal transfers and anti-cyclical stabilizers.  In contrast, the neoliberal version of fiscal federalism holds that cities, suburbs, and local-government entities must always be free to opt out, as in the logic of small-government suburbanism,[9] but they must never, in any circumstances, be “bailed out.”  This disaggregated, go-it-alone world is a world ruled by fiscal discipline, imposed across different tiers of government and between neighbors; (in)solvency duly becomes, rightfully, a local matter.  The new fiscal landscape can be crudely divided between free-riding, low-tax suburbs on the one hand, and indebted (or even bankrupt) cities on the other.  In the morality plays of austerity urbanism,[10] “irresponsibility” is perversely conferred on the latter, not the former.

Detroit’s curse—and in the circumstances that may not be too strong a word—is to have become practically synonymous with bankruptcy, not just as a passing legal status but as an entrenched urban condition.  The cold, hard logic of fiscal federalism dictates that the accompanying pain must be regressively redistributed; it must be localized, compressed, and tagged to endogenous causes—hence the singular intensity of Detroit’s impending structural adjustment.  Building alternatives to fiscal federalism and urban scapegoating, it should go without saying, must be more than a local matter.  But given the dysfunctions of federal politics in the United States at the moment, it would seem that the long-haul task of constructing a new kind of social compact around cities, fiscal justice, and metropolitan policy will have to begin from below, not above.

 


[1] Sugrue T J (2013) Notown. Democracy 28: 116-123.

[2] Peck J (2014) Pushing austerity: state failure, municipal bankruptcy and the crises of fiscal federalism in the USA. Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society 7, available at http://cjres.oxfordjournals.org/content/early/2013/07/29/cjres.rst018.short?rss=1.

[3] “Bailout” joins the lexicon of conservative keywords that perform the work of political framing, along with welfare “dependency,” devolved “responsibility,” and the transmutation of citizens into “taxpayers” and corporations into “job creators.”

[4] LaFaive M D (2014) Don’t bail out Detroit with state tax dollars. Capitol Confidential, January 15, available at http://www.mackinac.org/19559.

[5] Glaeser E L (2011) Unleash the entrepreneurs. City Journal 21(4): 34-41.

[6] Wall Street Journal (2013) Saving Detroit from itself. Wall Street Journal July 27: A14.

[7] Phillips J (2013) Defeat socialism and save Detroit, all in one move. Washington Times, July 28, accessed at http://communities.washingtontimes.com/neighborhood/judson-phillips-cold-hard-truth/2013/jul/28/defeat-socialism-and-save-detroit-all-one-move/.

[8] Gillette C P (2012) Fiscal federalism, political will, and strategic use of municipal bankruptcy. University of Chicago Law Review 79(1): 281–330.

[9] Peck J (2011) Neoliberal suburbanism: frontier space. Urban Geography 32(6): 884-919.

[10] Blyth M (2013) Austerity. New York: Oxford University Press; Peck J (2013) Austere reason, and the eschatology of neoliberalism’s End Times. Comparative European Politics 11(6): 713-721.

Enacting equality through insurgent housing practices in Spain

By Melissa García Lamarca, PhD candidate in Geography

 

Spain’s growth has always been intimately connected to the expansion of the built environment. (1) During the country’s third and most extensive real estate boom from 1997 to 2007, over five million units of housing were built – more than the UK, France, Italy and Germany combined – as housing prices increased over 200%. Even though real average wages fell 10% during this period, financial entities granted over 800,000 mortgages each year as the public administration, real estate sector and media actively promoted housing as a sound investment whose value would never decrease. Homeownership rates reached almost 85% of the Spanish population during this period, one of the highest rates in Europe.

 

Real estate cycles 1970-2007 Naredo et al 2008

Real estate cycles 1970-2007 Naredo et al 2008

 

Image 1. Spanish real estate cycles, 1970-2007. Source: Naredo et. al. (2008:184) from National Statistics Institute (INE), Ministry of Development and Ministry of Housing

 

But since the bust of Spain’s boom, unemployment has skyrocketed to over 26% and more and more people are unable to pay their mortgages. A critical situation exists as the country’s Mortgage Act does not cancel the entire debt of a mortgaged household if the confiscation and sale of their house by the bank does not cover all outstanding costs. As banks are unable to sell the foreclosed houses they repossess, those evicted find themselves hugely in debt; including late payment interest and legal costs this can total up to hundreds of thousands of euros. As over 325,000 foreclosures and 200,000 evictions have occurred between 2007 and 2012 according to Spain’s justice department, hundreds of thousands are left with no place to live and a debt to pay for life. This is happening, paradoxically, as millions of homes stand empty, unsold or repossessed by banks upon developers’ bankruptcy, and banks have been bailed out with hundreds of billions of euros from public purses.

 

A vocal and highly mobilised anti-eviction platform has emerged in response to these dynamics. The Platform for Mortgage Affected People (PAH) was formed in Barcelona in 2009 to defend the constitutional right to housing, specifically focusing on three struggles: stopping evictions, retroactively forgiving the debt of evicted households through reforming the Mortgage Act and enacting social rent. (2) Now with over 160 branches in cities across Spain, the PAH has successfully blocked over 700 evictions through their Stop Evictions campaign and are constantly in the public eye through street protests, occupying banks to demand debt forgiveness for affected households as well as lobbying for legislative change. As the latter, culminating in a Popular Legislative Initiative with almost 1.5 million signatures presented to Congress in February 2013, has led to no substantive change, the PAH is enacting equality through its most controversial campaign: occupying vacant, unsold buildings owned by banks to house evicted families.

 

Terrassa bloc Unnim

Terrassa bloc Unnim

 

Image 2: A housing block owned by UNNIM occupied by the PAH and evicted households since mid 2011. Source: PAH.

 

Driven by the motto “no people without houses, no houses without people” and “we rescue people, not banks”, this campaign seeks to recuperate the right to housing through first rehousing evicted families in empty flats owned by banks that have been bailed out by public funds and then entering into negotiating with them for families to pay social rent. The campaign was founded in November 2010 and occupations have slowly but surely increased since, particularly in the Barcelona Metropolitan Region where there are close to a dozen buildings occupied by the PAH to date. One of the first buildings occupied, in Terrassa in December 2011, recently won a victory at the end of May 2013: after one and a half years of negotiations, Caixa Cataluyna – one of several financial entities bailed out with billions of euros through the Spanish Fund for Orderly Bank Restructuring (FROB) in 2009 and merged into Cataluyna Banc – agreed to rehouse those occupying the building under a 150 euro per month social rent. Perhaps in part spurred by this success, a handful of building occupations have followed in the Barcelona Metropolitan Region and in early July the PAH released a how-to manual laying out different phases plus legal and other considerations when organising individual and collective occupations of buildings, in an attempt to roll the campaign out across Spain.

 

Occupied housing block PAH Barcelona city centre source público.es

Occupied housing block PAH Barcelona city centre source público.es

 

Image 3: Housing block owned by Valencia Bank in Barcelona city centre occupied on 11 July, 2013 by the PAH to rehouse four evicted families. Source: Público.es

 

The PAH’s building occupation and recovery strategy is an insurgent practice that exemplifies a powerful enactment of equality. As lobbying for legislative change – in an attempt to create equality through government institutions – has failed, equality is instead being actively taken or enacted by the subjects of equality. (3) These insurgent practices are deeply political acts and, arguably, are the types that constitute politics; as Ranciére (1999: 11) would say, “politics exists when the natural order of domination is interrupted by the institution of a part of those who have no part.” (4) Those who constitute the anti-eviction platforms in Spain were people who allegedly “had a part”, who obtained the credential of “first-class citizens” through being property owners (5), but are now the part with no part as they have been evicted and indebted for life. Their building occupations rupture the police order – the structure, justification and legitimacy of a socio-economic hierarchy, or what we normally call politics – into a space for the appearance of a subject, making visible that which had no reason to be seen. (6) Such actions question and break with the current system, filling a critical gap left by the state, private sector and other institutions.

 

In Spain, as well as in many places across Europe and the world, the crisis has shown that the state and market have failed in their claim to provide a secure reproduction of our lives (7) – that is, a framework for us to provide ourselves with shelter, food and other basic needs fundamental to human life and flourishing. Yet the Platform for Mortgage Affected People’s anti-eviction struggles, in particular occupying buildings with/for evicted families, give hope for actively claiming equality in cities across Spain. The outcomes and larger transformative potential of these acts, of course, remain to be unfolded.

(1) Daniel Coq-Huelva. 2013. Urbanisation and Financialisation in the Context of a Rescaling State: The Case of Spain. Antipode, (April): 1-19.

David Harvey. 1978. The urban process under capitalism: a framework for analysis. International Journal for Urban and Regional Research, 2(1-4): 101-131.

David Harvey. 1985. The Urbanisation of Capital. Oxford: Basil Blackwell Ltd.

(2) Social rent is proposed by the PAH as a rent constituting no more than 30% of a family’s income.

(3) Todd May, 2008. The Political Thought of Jacques Rancière: Creating Equality. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

(4) Jacques Ranciére. 1999. Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy. Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press.

(5) Ada Colau & Adrià Alemany. 2012. Vidas hipotecadas: De la burbuja inmobilaria al derecho de la vivienda. Barcelona: Cuadrilátero de Libros.

(6) Jacques Rancière. 2001. Ten Theses on Politics. Theory and Event, 5(3): 1-11.

(7) Midnight Notes Collective. 2009. Promissory Notes: From Crisis to Commons.

 

Melissa García Lamarca is a second year Geography PhD student investigating the insurgent practices and forms of being-in-common of anti-eviction platforms within the context of the financialisation of housing in Spain. She is attempting to understand the role of these practices and forms in creating urban commons in Barcelona. Melissa is also a contributor to Polis, a collaborative blog on cit