BCR's Daily Fishwrap Report for January 2, 2009
Shooting the Bull: Podcast for December 25, 2008

Charles Buki on class issues in urban planning

Charles Buki has an interesting post over at New Geography ("Class and the Future of Planning") that's worth a read. His thesis: the draw of suburbs, the Carys and Holly Springs of our world, has been largely drawn from the middle class, who're leaving cities behind to the clear haves and the clear have-nots -- and urban planning hasn't adjusted to try to address this.

It's an interesting and powerful argument, and one I think is of interest to thoughtful Durhamites. While the notion of suburbs as an escape valve in post-war America is by no means a new one, I think Buki has a good point in describing the neglect of the massive middle on these issues.

Heck, in Durham, neighborhoods like Trinity Park and Watts-Hillandale show up and get what they want. And downtrodden areas of the city still find means, directly or through proxies like the North-East Central Durham leadership council, to speak up their interests to City Council and others in power. Yet the voices between often aren't seen voicing their concerns.

The strong neighborhoods show up in force, working the system to their advantage. They often transform any land use or zoning issue into a referendum on the impacts on property values. The water treatment facility gets sited far away from such neighborhoods. Low-income housing becomes an articulated virtue, so long as its located elsewhere. This occurs in supposedly enlightened and ‘progressive’ neighborhoods like mine – Rosemont in Alexandria, Virginia – and places like Kensington near Berkeley, or in Fairfield County, Connecticut, where addressing homelessness is a rising priority – if it’s handled in Bridgeport and not Danbury or Shelton or Norwalk. Planning nearly always yields good results for neighborhoods like mine.

In contrast, residents of struggling areas are skeptical of processes that have not benefited them very much in the past. In places like low-income parts of Norfolk, Virginia, "planning" has come to mean either 1950s style urban renewal or 1990s style gentrification. New Urbanism in Norfolk has often meant the very opposite of practical economic inclusion for low-income working households. The very idea that real change could both come and be beneficial to them is laughable. Their issues are not about landscaping with native plants: their concerns are jobs, crime, services, and housing affordability. Astute (cynical) planners soon discover that "respect" is also in play in these neighborhoods; merely listening with sincerity becomes a stand in for actual change. Listening requires no real work, certainly not compared to the heavy lifting of actually improving these areas for their current residents. Planning rarely adds much to these places.

Middle-class neighborhoods want to preserve what they have. They don’t want their small claim on prosperity threatened by those from the troubled areas in town. They want nothing more than to preserve their safety and the small patch of grass they mow on the weekends. For families in these neighborhoods, the suburbs have for decades been a bastion from a changing urban setting that appears to always grant the rich a pass and provide unearned opportunity to the poor.

Unable to migrate into the ranks of the upper middle class and penetrate the neighborhoods of lawyers and accountants and physicians, middle neighborhood residents often simply leave and form a place of their own. Plumbers and carpenters dislodged from Del Ray (an old blue collar neighborhood in Alexandria, VA) drive their pick-up trucks to Springfield, where they have a mall and plenty of ranch houses, and where they can safely raise their family while holding a job that does not require a college education.



That last paragraph is the money shot. I live across from the three families in the McMansions that was the D.C. May House, and they refuse to join the TP listserv out of apathy and a desire to avoid the "crazies" (I proudly count myself among them).

Buki's point is that this middle doesn't show up to charettes or city council hearings because they're too busy getting on with life. They may not vote at the ballot box, but they vote with their dollars and their feet at every opportunity.

Ellen Ciompi

If there is a perception, as stated above, that "neighborhoods like Trinity Park and Watts-Hillandale show up and get what they want", let me do what I can to dispel it. Anyone who thinks that Tom Miller (our most knowledgeable and persuasive neighborhood advocate), Meredith Emmett (our neighborhood assoc. president), or any of the dozens of devoutly committed volunteers who advocate for the collective good of residents just "shows up", should come to just a few of the hundreds of hours of meetings which precede the public appearance at which they supposedly waltz in, place demands on the City Council's desk, and collect the booty as they exit. These folks navigate a minefield of conflicting interests with great skill in order to facilitate a neighborhood consensus on issues which are frequently divisive. I'd also like to point out that they are constantly consulted by representatives and residents of other 'hoods in Durham, and give unstintingly of their time to help organize and incorporate new neighborhood associations. Plus there's all the time they spend working for INC (Inter-Neighborhood Council) and Durham CAN (Congregations, Associations, & Neighborhoods). Hell, for years, Watts-Hillandale was the ONLY neighborhood which was a dues paying member of CAN! I was on the board of the Watts-Hillandale NA for many years so I speak from much experience.

Defensive? Not a bit. Proud? You bet. Just "show up and get what [we] want", indeed. Hmmph.

Kevin Davis

Hi Ellen,

I didn't mean to cast aspersions on W-H, OWD, etc. or the work of folks like Tom, Meredith, or John. I've watched them and their colleagues at many a neighborhood meetings, and there's no doubt that it's more than "showing up." (FWIW, I serve as treasurer of one of these urban neighborhood associations that's historically had a fair amount of sway, though I'm far less involved than folks like the above are.)

I think the point Buki is making, and which I inelegantly made into a shorthand, is that -- easy or not -- these neighborhoods do manage (through hard work) to get their priorities met, as do (in Durham sometimes) places like NECD.

There are many neighborhoods whose representatives I never see at City Council. Tom, John, Victoria Peterson, etc. are there almost every meeting. That generally makes a difference.

I think the intriguing idea I'm carrying away from the Buki article is the import of the neighborhoods that don't show up. And the larger point that -- while my values and goals for Durham (as an urban neighborhood dweller) may not always mesh with the "middle-of-the-road" neighborhoods, the issue of keeping those families in Durham -- as opposed to seeing a rush out the door to Hillsborough, Mebane, Morrisville, etc. -- is a key to the health of the city.


Ellen - i live in one of the neighborhoods that some people think have a bit of sway with our elected leaders, but when i compare the Duke Park renovations with the Oval Drive Park projects, or even better the wonderful traffic calming projects along Club Blvd. at Oval Drive Park with the crosswalk and 7 year old "temporary" Rhino walls that pass for "traffic calming" along the Roxboro/Mangum corridor, it's not hard to understand Kevin's point. I don't think he was inelegant about it at all.

The larger point is that it shouldn't be necessary to have neighborhood residents who make it a full time job to lobby the city council for improvements. The whole reason, for example, that i spent over a year on the "Durham Walks!" pedestrian plan project was to make sure that the city had a blueprint for pedestrian projects citywide, and neighborhoods that don't have, for instance, a Tom Miller living in them, would still have pedestrian projects prioritized according to some other criteria than lobbying.

Two years later, i see i basically wasted my time.

This isn't a criticism of WHHNA, or TPNA, or any group that successfully lobbies the city for projects that benefit their neighborhood. But it is a criticism of the process that the city government encourages, which some neighborhood associations are better at than others.


Barry - Well said. The quality of services a neighborhood receives from the City should not depend on the effectiveness of neighborhood associations.

The City has a tendency to cave into the neighborhoods that yell the loudest. A good example is the apparent plan for rec centers with indoor pools on Trinity Ave and in Walltown when there is already one a short distance away on Murray Ave.

Whether it is rec centers, parks, traffic calming, sidewalks, libraries, or other public amenities, politics plays too great a role, while actual public need and geographic balance are often ignored.


There's nothing wrong with the city only listening to those neighborhoods that yell the loudest. This is public choice economics 101, and I don't have a problem with it. In the absence of market mechanisms, a market for citizen activism forms.

Perhaps what Buki is saying is that the city should listen to the "silent majority" by measuring the outflow of the middle class (along with the number of activists).

Seth Vidal

So, the city council should listen to people who are not talking and who are leaving the city (and the tax base)? Is that the premise we're working on here? I thought the adage about gov't was "decisions are made by those who show up". How is that any less true here?

Tom, Meredith, Ned, Steve and many others show up from Watts-Hillandale. John Schelp shows up from Old West Durham. They get to be involved in the decisions b/c they show up.

Frank Hyman

1) Squeaky wheels get the grease.

2) Wheels that don't squeak, but have the money, can move to the suburbs.

3) Wheels that don't squeak and don't have the money, stay where they are and watch conditions deteriorate.

Basically, elected officials use "squeaky wheels" as a proxy for the votes they'll need at election time. That's a hard one to get around.

The missing element that separates group #3 from group #1 above is leadership skills. The kind of know-how that the good folks mentioned in other posts possess. Teaching leadership skills is mainly what Durham CAN is about. (FYI, CAN organizers are trained by the same people that trained Barack Obama in Chicago.) Take a few people with some energy, teach them some leadership skills (such as identifying and teaching other new leaders) and even low income neighborhoods can regularly be successful squeaky wheels.

Another place where this differential in leadership skills plays out, is in how we address crime and its root causes.

Middle class neighborhoods routinely complain when we get poor services such as police patrols, garbage pickup, housing violations, etc. and we read about this in the paper and wonder why city government doesn't do a better job. Interestingly, addressing the root causes of crime would mean lots better services in mental health, public health, social services, etc. These are things managed by county government that are almost totally provided to low income neighborhoods that aren't very skilled at complaining/lobbying/advocating, etc. That's why you don't read about weaknesses in those areas unless the N&O does a statewide investigation.

Yes, jobs make a difference with crime, but with 30 years of growth in jobs in RTP, Duke, Treyburn, etc. our poverty level has been pretty constant at about 12 or 13 % over that period.

A large minority of poor people in Durham (and anywhere else) are too poorly educated, have undiagnosed mental health problems, untreated physical health problems, have poor work habits, poor family relationships, etc. that lead them either to self-medicate with illegal drugs or to join the criminal economy--or just to be poor role models for neighborhood children. More cops, more prisons, more Barne's avenues, may all have some valuel, but they don't really reduce the number of potential addicts or criminals that are choking the system.

Or present practices for dealing with crime are not unlike coming home to a flooded house and buying more mops instead of calling a plumber.

Several years ago during good economic times, county government cut the tax rate by several cents. So instead of investing millions of dollars annually in reducing the number of local drug addicts, middle class homewoners and others received annual tax breaks worth $30 or $40 or so. I don't think that was good public policy.

But because folks in middle class and low income neighborhoods don't perceive the county commissioners as having a major role in crime prevention, they haven't put major resources into building stronger citizens in low income neighborhoods.

Frank Hyman

Joshua Allen

I don't think Durham has a problem here. Watts Hillandale and Trinity Park are far from the only neighborhoods that show up to City Council or get money for projects. If you look at Northeast Central Durham, you'll find that it's been getting a lot of money from the City and the Feds lately. Just take a drive down E. Main Street past the Hope VI project and then down past the Old Few Gardens where a bunch of new homes have been built and then over to the new Vo-Tech school and community center that is being renovated. If you want to compare dollars, I would suggest that some of the "poor" neighborhoods are seeing a lot more City dollars than the middle-class neighborhoods. I don't think this unfair. I think it's terrific because those neighborhoods need a lot of government dollars, but please don't demonize the middle class neighborhoods for getting some money too.

Joshua Allen

As for the traffic calming at Oval Park, I was involved with that project and the reason it turned out well is because it did have a lot of neighborhood involvement. And I might mentioned that it took almost a decade to happen. So I will agree that the city processes are slow and unfortunately, they do require citizens to followup constantly. That could absolutely be improved, but I don't know how the City would have ever implemented it without the neighborhood asking for it and being involved throughout the process of designing it. If you don't ask for something, there's no way you're gonna get it. Fortunately, Durham does have organizations like CAN to help neighborhoods that might not have the skills to approach City hall on their own, but I seriously do not see that as a problem in Durham.


I think Frank is missing a fourth category: wheels that don't squeak and don't leave. A lot of Republicans fall in this category. They want their tax money returned so that they can hire the underclass rather than waste it on some corrupt city program.

More radical types want to address the root cause of crime by decriminalising marijuana possession.

Kevin Davis

@Seth: The concern I have with the idea of those who show up get what they want is that it's a long-standing principle in political science that time is every bit as much a currency as money when it comes to political influence. Some do not devote time to local politics out of a lack of interest; others because they have more compelling things to do; and still more because they literally can't afford the time, due to child care or work obligations.

The relative "have" neighborhoods have the time and the money. Low-income neighborhoods may not have either, but they do have on-the-ground organizers and, just as importantly, proxies and activists who presume to speak for these neighborhoods.

@Frank: I find your thoughts on investment in root causes of crime highly attractive in theory, and suspect this is where we need to focus. That said, are there examples of cities/counties in the U.S. where such investment has happened and has worked to lower rates of poverty and crime?

@Joshua: I agree that Durham's poorest neighborhoods have been getting this support and attention, and it's a good thing. I may be using a different definition of "middle class" neighborhoods than Frank. Though I would consider Duke Park, and much of TP, W-H, etc. to be middle class, in relative Durham terms and incorporating the value of time that these latter donate to politics, I would consider these to be upper-middle class neighborhoods in Durham political terms.

What I mean by middle class neighborhoods are, say, the area bounded by Carver, Stadium, Duke and Horton. Or the NC 55 corridor south of NCCU. What relative voice do these neighborhoods bring to local politics? And, are they proportionately represented in local government's considerations?

Ellen Ciompi

Of course they're "proportionately represented". Voting rules for City Council ensure that at least one member resides in each of the city's three wards. It's a public government. Any citizen, or group, can view public information, attend public meetings, advocate for their own interests, and lobby officials. It's a fact of life that some are going to be more experienced, motivated, savvy, driven, or whatever you want to call it, and therefore have better return for their efforts. Some students are better than others. Some sports teams are better than others. Does that make those that are not so gifted, or experienced, bad people? Of course not. But should we encourage those who excel to tone down their achievements so as not to skew the results? We don't do that in schools, we don't do it in sports, and we shouldn't do it anywhere else, either. That includes dealings with local government.

The City has tried to address the knowledge gap with the Neighborhood College concept. http://www.durhamnc.gov/departments/public/dnc.cfm
The fee for 10 classes is only $30, and scholarships are available. The tools are out there for those who feel their neighborhoods are not currently well served, and who have the itch to get more involved. Yes, time is currency, and like all currency it is not equally distributed. But you make time for what you believe in. Better to light a candle than curse the darkness, y'all.

Kevin Davis

@Ellen: No one's talking about restricting the time groups put in in the way that financial contributions are regulated for campaigns.

I think the point here is simply a reminder that if the "massive middle" isn't considered, you risk seeing these residents out-migrate from a city, which can lead to a declining tax base that's a burden on others in the city.

I'm not meaning to take anything away from those who choose to get involved -- I consider myself to be in that number in a small way. But it's in the interest of the activist neighborhoods to see broader considerations take place for the sake of preserving the broader community, in my opinion.

By way of example, at work I have many colleagues who are a generation or so older than me, and who moved to the Triangle during what I might consider Durham's "dark days" of the 1970s-80s. Of a dozen or so I can think of in this number, only one lives in Durham. The rest commute from Roxboro, Mebane, Hillsborough, Henderson, Creedmoor/Butner, Chatham Co., etc.

What is the impact on Durham of having such a number of people who could contribute to civic life, to the tax base, to stable neighborhoods -- all having chosen, during a different period in Durham's existence, to check out from the Bull City and to only use our highways to get to and from work?

Interestingly, among younger colleagues of mine, many more live in Durham. Few of them are what I would consider to be politically engaged. Yet our community benefits from them making their home here rather than in another community. They're active in their schools and churches. And it strikes me that keeping them in Durham is just as important as keeping the folks in "activist neighborhoods" here.

So just to be clear, I'm not suggesting that activist neighborhoods should be less involved -- merely that there are real benefits, to us and the city, of considering the desires of those who aren't.

charles buki

A long time ago I was in school in Chapel Hill, and lived on 11th Street in Durham, and cooked at a place called Magnolia Grill. This was quite some time ago, in 86. That's besides the point.

The point of my essay on planning was not to come down one one side or the other, but to point out that in my work the top tier communities - having a range types of capital necessary to navigate the terrain of process and property - become involved to the point needed to protect their equity, while voicing their values, and that their values often are manifest in projects some place else. That bottom tier communities are often patronized by the top tier and the planning process itself, listened to but not really heard, and only listened to enough to ensure placation. The middle meanwhile, takes refuge in neither domain, sometimes for want of capacity and voice; and from frustration, for good or not, simply leaves. The middle buys distance from the poor. The top buys walls and proximity. The bottom buys what they can. Contemporary planning processes are not hardwired to cope with these exigencies. My clients are in every condition in all geographies. And what I see are municipalities not able to understand the middle.

Its not sexy to like the middle, but as they control so much square footage, eventually I believe sustainability hinges on at least understanding it. And the part of the middle that genuinely needs attention is the lower working middle, where assets exist to be leveraged, but where resources and planning gestalt are not generally aimed.

Is Another Thyme still there? 9th Street Bakery? I used to get the best bear claws there en route to work. And the Well Spring Grocery had just opened.


Anotherthyme is still around, though probably with a different menu than you remember. Ninth St bakery? Not on Ninth St. any more. Wellspring has moved a couple of times, and is now part of the Whole Foods chain.

Ellen & Joshua - i submit the Duke Park bathhouse for your approval. This building has been empty and left to rot in the middle of the Duke Park neighborhood by the city of Durham since 1994. I spent my two years as Neighborhood Association president trying to negotiate a lease with Durham Parks and Recreation so that we could attempt to rehab the building and turn it into a community center.

It wasn't until after my tenure was up that we even learned that the city could only enter into a lease agreement with a registered 501(c)3. It was not simply a matter of DPNA "not showing up." We showed up, and we were very clear on what it was that we needed. Nearly 2 1/2 years later we are still attempting to have something done with that building. As a former resident of Watts Hospital - Hillandale neighborhood, i cannot imagine that the city would abandon a building of that potential value their, especially while the NA was attempting to get a renovation process started.

I'll return to my earlier point about the pedestrian plan. We spent a lot of money developing the plan. (My recollection is that the amount budgeted for the plan was $313K, but Mike Woodard says it was less. I haven't tracked down the minutes from the meeting where the plan was authorized). A lot of the money went to pay for a survey of existing pedestrian facilities within the city, and the formulation of a set of criteria by which new facilities would be created and existing assets would be upgraded. Then, a priority listing was created to determine which projects would be done first. Community and neighborhood input was one of the criteria, but it was not the most important. Nor should it be. When it comes to spending tax dollars that are generated from all city residents, the self-perceived needs of any one neighborhood should not necessarily be given a higher priority than any other neighborhood.

That's what city government should be doing. Residents of Watts-Hillandale may think that pedestrian safety at Club and Oval is the highest priority, and turn out in numbers to request that Council fund that particular project. Duke Park residents may similarly feel that Markham and Mangum is the most important project in the city. As it turns out, the highest incidence of pedestrian accidents occur on Alston Ave, and on east Holloway Street, where, as i've documented on my blog, there are a huge number of poorly designed intersections lacking even the most basic painted crosswalk. Who's advocating for pedestrian safety projects over there? Why should city tax dollars be spent raising property values in Watts Hospital-Hillandale neighborhood by installing state of the art traffic calming there first, simply because the residents are better organized and able to fund their own traffic studies? The whole point of the pedestrian plan, as i saw it, was to develop objective, city wide criteria for which projects had the most urgent need.

I can guarantee you, once again, if you attend a Coffee with Council session during the upcoming budget cycle, requests for sidewalks "in my neighborhood" will still be the number one item you hear from the citizens. Because, once again, our elected leaders acted as though commissioning a study was the same as solving a problem.

The comments to this entry are closed.