Why planners should be talking about Ferguson

By Chanell Fletcher, Carey Knecht, and Richard Raya

On Monday, a grand jury failed to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the Ferguson, Missouri shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American teenager. Since this verdict, protests have erupted in cities around the country.

And all of us at ClimatePlan have been unable to stop thinking about it.


The policy connection

“When we overlook the role of public policy explicitly designed to promote segregation and inequality, we not only whitewash our own history but avoid considering whether new policies might instead promote an integrated community.”
The Making of Ferguson: Public Policies at the Roots of Its Troubles

Though this event has sparked a national conversation, we’ve seen little about how land-use and housing policies laid the groundwork for what happened. As ClimatePlan advocates for more equitable communities in California, we want to bring to light some of the complex history of poverty and race in American cities, and how our work seeks to address these issues.

We’ve pulled together some analysis from journalists and experts on these issues as they relate to the events in Ferguson. We ourselves are not experts on St. Louis, or on these academic fields of study. We found this context helpful and informative, and hope you will too. We welcome your additions in the comments section below.

We’d also like to point readers to the excellent commentary by our partners at Urban Habitat: “Confronting Urban Injustice

St. Louis County: Small towns stratified by race and income

To understand Ferguson, it helps to understand St. Louis County. In Peter Coy’s excellent Businessweek article, “The County Map That Explains Ferguson’s Tragic Discord,” he points out that St. Louis County has fragmented into an astonishing 91 municipalities [see map here]: cities or towns with corporate status and powers to self-govern. Towns have incorporated to gain control of tax revenue from local businesses, and avoid paying taxes to support poorer neighbors.

It has become a vicious circle.

“As blacks move into a town, whites move out. The tax base shrinks, and blacks feel cheated that the amenities they came for quickly disappear, says Clarence Lang, a University of Kansas historian who has studied St. Louis. Ferguson flipped from majority white to majority black so quickly that the complexion of the government and police force doesn’t match that of the population. That mismatch was a key factor in the tense race relations that contributed to the riots and, perhaps, the shooting itself.”

According to Coy, St. Louis County’s fragmentation created tiny communities highly stratified by race and income. Businesses then intensify inequities when they decide where to locate by playing municipalities off against one another for tax incentives. These actions create a race to the bottom that robs everyone of desperately needed revenue.

Discriminatory housing policies led to further segregation and poverty

As we discuss land use and Ferguson, we can’t ignore the history of segregationist housing policies.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, journalist for The Atlantic Cities, has written a number of articles on this topic. We encourage folks to read his amazing article, “The Racist Housing Policies That Built Ferguson,” which lays out this history and connects it to Ferguson. Coates explains how housing policy and markets created segregated enclaves like Ferguson, worsened poverty, and inflamed other social conditions for communities of color.

Coates also references “The Making of Ferguson: Public Policies at the Roots of Its Troubles,” a report by the Economic Policy Institute, which we quote at the top of this article.

The Economic Policy Institute connects the dots between discriminatory housing policies and its effects on our present. One telling quote highlights this often-forgotten history:

“Government policies turned black neighborhoods into overcrowded slums and white families came to associate African Americans with slum characteristics. White homeowners then fled when African Americans moved nearby, fearing their new neighbors would bring slum conditions with them. A federal appeals court declared 40 years ago that ‘segregated housing in the St. Louis metropolitan area was … in large measure the result of deliberate racial discrimination in the housing market by the real estate industry and by agencies of the federal, state, and local governments.’ Similar observations accurately describe every other large metropolitan area. This history, however, has now largely been forgotten.”

The report highlighted the need for the federal government to go beyond treating Ferguson as an isolated issue, and see it as reflection of the nation that was built upon housing policies that discrimination and segregation.

The changing geography of race

One of the fastest-growing trends we’ve seen in the last fifty years is the changing geography of race. As the articles above reference, the discriminatory housing practices of the 1960s led to “white flight” – a massive movement of whites fleeing the cities and moving to suburbs, leaving the urban cores to communities of color.

In Steven Conn’s Huffington Post piece, “Ferguson, Philadelphia, and the Changing Geography of Race”, he compares the events of Ferguson to the race riots in North Philadelphia almost fifty years ago, to highlight the shifting geography. While the race riots of the 1960s were urban, the events in Ferguson happened in an inner-ring suburb of a major city. Conn labels it as “White Flight 2.0” – as African Americans were finally able to move into the inner-ring suburbs, whites fled further out. He explains:

“Many inner-ring suburbs — outside of Chicago, Philadelphia and elsewhere — have experienced population loss and economic distress. East Cleveland, Ohio, once home to John D. Rockefeller and his fellow robber barons on “millionaire’s row,” lost over half its population between 1970 and 2010…. This inner suburb is now almost entirely African-American and nearly one-third of its residents live below the poverty line.”

Zooming in on Ferguson, a Bloomberg article by Toluse Olorunnipa and Elizabeth Campbell entitled, “Ferguson Unrest Shows Poverty Growing Fastest in Suburbs” support Conn’s findings. They note the fast speed of these demographic shifts, explaining that Ferguson’s poverty rate doubled since 2000. They conclude that this “has bred animosity over racial segregation and economic inequality” and that the protests “have drawn international attention to the St. Louis suburb’s growing underclass.”

We’re also starting to see another geographical shift: communities of color moving outward while whites move inward. From a transportation perspective, this is particularly difficult, as people with fewer resources can be left stranded by minimal or nonexistent public transportation outside cities.

The work ahead

We know there are many issues contributing to the events in Ferguson. But it is important for us – as a community, a partnership, and individuals – to see how these events came about, and how we can change the conditions that led to them.

Land-use policies have separated people by race and income. Discriminatory housing policies have excluded people. A shifting geography of race has led to disinvestment.

Policies have the power to harm. We believe they can also help.

Our work on climate change reminds us of the words of Martin Luther King, Jr: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

When ClimatePlan and our partners work on land-use policy that will help fight climate change, we are also working on issues of access, income, and race. These are closely interwoven into the main source of greenhouse gases — the need to drive long distances — because that, almost by definition, leaves people behind.

We are working together on public policy to enable everyone—everyone—to benefit from sustainable, healthy, and equitable communities. Now more than ever.

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