By Dr. Bill McKinney, Executive Director
A version of this essay was originally published in AIA Context.
To our incoming Mayor:
What a big job is ahead of you! In a city that is so rich, yet so inequitable in its distribution of resources, equitable development is just one of the many issues that you will face. But while it is one of many, it is also intertwined with all the challenges that you will be asked to face.
I write to you from the perspective of a resident of Kensington, of an urban anthropologist, and as the executive director of a community development corporation in Kensington whose mission is to advance social equity & economic empowerment by nurturing and creating opportunities for residents to live in, and actively shape, their neighborhoods of choice.
We would like you to be a partner in helping us to achieve that mission, and to do so, we need you to approach development from a new perspective.
Where should recommendations related to development lead? What is the goal?
I would argue that the goal is co-creating communities where those who have suffered the most benefit from the positive change you can lead. That communities have their needs met through an equitable and comprehensive approach to reducing disparities through the function of development, rather than being told to swallow the bitter pills of a profit-first approach.
Even though the Philadelphia communities facing the greatest disparities are also the least likely to vote or contribute to campaigns, that does not mean that these areas should be overlooked. They should be seen as essential to the overall progress of Philadelphia.
SO WHAT WOULD I SUGGEST YOU FOCUS ON?
I could list very specific items, such as the need for not using regional Area Median Income (AMI) as a tool to measure affordability in neighborhoods whose average household income is a third of the regional AMI. Very few current residents in these neighborhoods can afford “affordable housing” at 80% AMI. We need the mayor to lead a change where we stop connecting resources to strategies that don’t support Philadelphia’s existing residents.
We could focus on specific failed development strategies of the past that centered policing, lacked authentic community engagement, and treated residents as problems rather than addressing the systemic and intentional damage done to their communities.
But instead, I want to focus on four broader concepts as values that should be driving an equitable development approach that I think should be guiding Philadelphia.
- Comprehensive vision. We need the new mayor to recognize that equitable development does not happen in a vacuum; that for development to be successful it must be integrated into a holistic plan that addresses poverty, workforce development, health, education, racism, classism, and more.
- Community-driven action. We need you to start not only with a comprehensive approach, but also a community-driven one, which recognizes the strengths within our communities and shares power with residents in co-creating solutions. Community-led solutions are more sustainable because they are owned by those most affected by the outcome.
- Trauma-informed understanding. We need you to enter into your position of leadership recognizing the trauma within communities as a result of both intentional damage and failed strategies to fix that damage.
- People-centered focus. I ask that you always begin with people—and humanity—over profits. I ask that you shift from a scarcity mindset that believes the only way forward is to trade humanity for resources, toward an abundance mindset that recognizes Philadelphia’s most valuable assets are our residents.
I ask you to start your term by grounding yourself in these concepts before proposing any solutions so that these values are cooked into any movement you take.
WHAT DOES EQUITABLE DEVELOPMENT LOOK LIKE?
One of the greatest tools of inequitable development is devaluing communities until they can be exploited. Amazingly, these same neighborhoods gain incredible value when they’re out of the hands of their long-term residents. Devalued, and then incredibly valuable the next week.
We must shift from a scarcity to an abundance mindset. While these neighborhoods may be lacking in resources under our control, we are rich in people. Let the economic value in communities be controlled by those that currently live in the community. Keep people in their homes and communities by investing in programs that focus on home repairs and fighting evictions and foreclosures, and use those moments to support small-scale landlords to be better landlords, and to help local BIPOC and women-owned businesses make the necessary repairs to homes.
When you begin with an approach that centers the people most affected in design and planning, it leads to a transfer of resources with the primary beneficiaries in the community you’re trying to serve because they are at the table when designing strategies for the allocation of resources. Implementation and management of the work should also be locally led, and assessment of success or failure should use community-based, participatory practices.
In a neighborhood like Kensington the cause of our challenges goes well beyond our community.
We need the next mayor to be a leader working with all surrounding cities, counties, and states on solutions to problems that impact our development. The drugs sold on our streets are not manufactured here, and most of the people who buy them are not from our community. The empty lots and neglected buildings on our commercial corridors are largely owned by absentee real estate speculators. The contractors who dump trash on our sidewalks don’t live next door. The policies and budgets for our schools, police, or justice system, which continue to make selling drugs an attractive option for many young people, are not set in Kensington. All of these issues are barriers to development, so we need you to be a leader throughout Philadelphia and beyond in building a regional approach to Kensington’s challenges.
After years of many stakeholders operating in roles that are not their strengths, we need you to help people find their proper seats at the table so that we can address the problems that prevent us from achieving our equitable development goals. For example, we need you to make clear that the city will not abdicate its role in development to developers whose mission is profit, not people. Yes, for-profit developers have a role, but if their bottom line is anything but achieving equity, they cannot lead the process. We have seen how it turns out. You have the power to help people get to the right seats and in the right roles.
Rather than succumbing to a trickle-down approach to development often pushed by those that will profit the most, I hope you will shift to an approach that recognizes “the true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members,” as Gandhi said, and that a rising tide should lift all boats. Philadelphia is only as good as it treats its most vulnerable, and this reality should drive all policy decisions.
I started with values and theories of change because you have the opportunity to set the tone for the city and the region, and I think that role is critical. You have the opportunity to empower individuals with a shared set of values, the opportunity to fund projects that align with those values, the position to end relationships that reify failed strategies, and the means to start and grow new ones.
I ask that you put in the work it takes to bring more residents with new voices to the table, so that they can share both their vision and their expertise for what development in their communities should look like. Allow their passion to lead to their commitment to processes moving forward. With new people at the table and their priorities defined, listen—and ask nonprofits, developers, and others to listen—before setting plans for future projects.
Be a leader in co-creating communities. Be the partner that people so desperately need right now.
I live and work in one of the most challenging areas of city, but I have hope and I believe that, through grounded, values-based leadership, we can spur innovation and seize opportunities to reshape Philadelphia for the better.
Read more advice for the future mayor in the current issue of AIA Context magazine, Building a Resilient Philly
For practical ideas to spur equitable development in Philadelphia, check out the Equitable Development Policy Platform from the Philadelphia Association of Community Development Corporations.