Monday, 17 July 2017

Why the Eco-City Needs to Be a Just City

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Why is it easier to imagine a green ecocity than a just city where everyone belongs? the yes man/flickr, CC BY
Stephen Healy, Western Sydney University
This is one of a series of articles to coincide with the 2017 Ecocity World Summit in Melbourne.

Why is it easier to imagine an ecocity – full of lush green spaces and buildings, footpaths and bike lanes, outdoor goat yoga and dog parks – than a just city where everyone belongs? Why is it difficult to imagine a city where there are no great disparities of income or of access to convivial life because these have been equitably distributed?

The prospects for rebuilding the city along ecological lines is enchanting. But ecocities, like smart cities, frequently devolve into a techno-fetishist fantasy, (un)wittingly abetting gentrification – from the sell-off of public housing in cities like Sydney to violent informal housing eradication in places like Jakarta.

Part of what’s required here is to connect the currents of imagination shaping the ecological future of cities with other conversations that are more focused on the future of employment and industry and the possibilities for greater equity. Thinking these disparate ideas together will take some work. Fortunately, it’s well under way in cities around Australia and the world.

The Centre For Future Work and the Australia Institute organised a summit last month at Parliament House to consider the future of manufacturing in Australia. Much of the day was spent exploring how targeted government procurement practices can help rebuild a sector that could play a vital role in building ecocities alongside new employment opportunities.

Co-operative ways to build community wealth

Non-profit institutions and the private sector can play a similar role. The Evergreen Cooperative Initiative in Cleveland, closing in on its tenth year, used the demand for services from hospitals and universities to start worker co-operatives.

These meet the need for green laundry services, food and energy while creating ownership opportunities for low-income residents. Guaranteed downstream markets increase business viability. This ensures easier access to start-up capital.

Dozens of US cities have developed similar initiatives in the past decade. Among these are union-supported initiatives in Cincinnati, Ohio, municipal initiatives in Richmond, California, and multi-stakeholder co-operatives in Springfield, Massachusetts.

In each instance the guiding principle is that worker co-operatives are tied to place by the people who work in and own them. They distribute profits in ways that benefit worker-owners, other local businesses and the broader community.

In Australia, Earthworker Coo-perative has tirelessly pursued a similar initiative. It aims to connect Australian manufacturing capacity, eco-friendly technologies, unions and the environmental movement as a basis for starting worker co-operatives ready to meet the demand for green technology.

Organisations like the Mercury Co-Operative and the Business Council of Co-operatives and Mutuals are working to support and spread co-operative ownership in Australia.

In September, a second New Economy Conference, open to the public, will consider what sort of legal and social changes are needed to support efforts like Earthworker.

More ambitiously, even the emergent disruptive technologies that are enabling the “gig economy” can be repurposed for co-operation and community wealth creation.

While new platform technologies concentrate wealth in companies like Uber and Airbnb, these could just as easily function on a co-operative basis, sustaining communities in the process. Such ideas are being actively considered in Melbourne and in Sydney at last year’s Vivid festival.

These efforts to encourage social procurement, build co-operatives and develop new forms of sharing work readily combine with the ecocity agenda. In themselves they are not sufficient to ensure that ecocities are also equitable cities. As Labor senator Kim Carr pointed out in last month’s summit, what ideas like this do is fully open the question of what an economy is for.

In Australia, this question is an eminently urban one. Continuing to ask this question, and keeping the answer open, is one way of ensuring that ecocities are not merely oases for the wealthy.



The ConversationYou can read other articles in the series here. The Ecocity World Summit is being hosted by the University of Melbourne, Western Sydney University, the Victorian government and the City of Melbourne in Melbourne from July 12-14.

Stephen Healy, Senior Research Fellow, Institute for Culture and Society, Western Sydney University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Friday, 14 July 2017

How Cities Are Improving Low-Income Access to Parks: These five standout communities are working to make sure underprivileged communities have access to green spaces


If you live within a ten-minute walk of a public park, count yourself lucky. For millions of Americans, urban outdoor recreation spaces are few and far between and usually require a drive. As a result, it’s often hardest for those living in low-income neighborhoods to access parks. But cities are increasingly making an effort to distribute resources more fairly. “The whole issue of equity has become very important within just the last two to three years,” says Adrian Benepe, director of city parks development for the Trust for Public Land (TPL), which has scored cities annually on their parks since 2012.
To determine if cities are adequately serving their low-income communities, TPL’s ParkScore looks at spending, acreage, and household access—whether there is a park within a ten-minute walk for those who make less than 75 percent of a city’s median income. Of course, proximity doesn’t necessarily equate to a high-quality park. “One thing we don’t measure is: Is it safe? Clean? Beautiful?” says Benepe. But he notes that ParkScore is really just a way to begin a conversation about investment in parks. “We give them interactive tools that they can use in planning—where to locate new parks and where to optimize existing ones.”
In TPL’s most recent rankings, these five cities stood out for reaching low-income neighborhoods.

#5. Arlington, Virginia

Percentage of low-income residents within 10 minutes of a park:98
Arlington obtained top marks in parks-related spending, at $229.93 per resident (just ahead of Washington, D.C.), and was rated highly for its number of facilities, from dog parks to basketball hoops to recreation centers and playgrounds. In 2016, the county finished its Parks and Recreation Needs Assessment, setting open-space acquisition as a top priority to maintain its high ranking.

#4. Chicago, Illinois

Percentage of low-income residents within 10 minutes of a park: 98
A study of park spending between 2011 and 2014 found that more than half of the $500 million devoted to Chicago’s park improvements went to only ten of the city’s 77 neighborhoods (most of which were affluent). So, in 2016, volunteers organized in low-income neighborhoods to identify improvements. They sought hundreds of thousands of dollars of private funding and pushed elected officials to split the cost. The result: building a new soccer field and playground in Kelly Park and fixing run-down baseball diamonds—and ultimately buoying Chicago to a top spot.

#3. New York, New York

Percentage of low-income residents within 10 minutes of a park: 98
In 2014, the city launched its Community Parks Initiative to improve historically underfunded parks in neighborhoods with high concentrations of poverty. The initiative invested $285 million in more than 60 community parks that had gone decades without proper maintenance or upgrades.

#2. Boston, Massachusetts

Percentage of low-income residents within 10 minutes of a park: 99
With a 1,100-acre chain of nine parks linked by parkways and waterways, bordering some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods (like Fenway), Boston grabs the second spot for low-income access. Though the city received a lower grade for park spending—$111.59 per resident—it ranks near the top when it comes to parkland as a percentage of the city’s total area.

#1. San Francisco, California

Percentage of low-income residents within 10 minutes of a park: 100
San Francisco has done a stellar job across all income levels. The median park size is 1.6 acres, and parkland makes up 20 percent of the city’s total area. San Francisco also recently completed a review of its park system to assess whether money was being equally invested across all demographics. From there, the city highlighted the areas that were economically stressed and will incorporate those metrics into the parks department’s strategic plan.

Monday, 3 July 2017

Our Pets Strengthen Neighbourhood Ties

Lisa Wood, University of Western Australia, The Conversation: http://theconversation.com/our-pets-strengthen-neighbourhood-ties-79755

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When dog owners meet, it helps build a safe and connected community. Wrote/flickr, CC BY-NC

Talk to any pet owner and you are bound to invoke stories about the joy and companionship of having a pet. But evidence is mounting that the effect of pets extends beyond their owners and can help strengthen the social fabric of local neighbourhoods. Now a cross-national study involving Perth, Australia, and three US cities has lent weight to the observation that pets help build social capital.



This is not a frivolous notion, given the erosion of sense of community is often lamented. As Hugh Mackay recently observed, not knowing our neighbours has become a sad cliché of contemporary urban life.

I stumbled into pet-related research some 15 years ago when undertaking a PhD on neighbourhoods and sense of community. I was curious about the elements of a neighbourhood that might help people connect to one another, so I threw some in some survey questions about pets.

In what has become my most-cited academic paper, we found that pet owners were more likely to have higher social capital. This is a concept that captures trust between people (including those we don’t know personally), networks of social support, the exchange of favours with neighbours and civic engagement.

Fast-forward a decade to a much larger study to look at the relationship between pets and social capital. Pet owners and non-owners were randomly surveyed in four cities (Perth, San Diego, Portland and Nashville – four cities reasonably comparable in size, urban density and climate).

In all four cities, we found owning a pet was significantly associated with higher social capital compared with not owning a pet. This held true after adjusting for a raft of demographic factors that might influence people’s connections in their neighbourhood.

How do pets help build social bonds?

It is often assumed that the social benefits of pets are confined to social interactions that occur when people are out walking their dogs. Lots of dog owner anecdotes support this. In this large sample study, however, levels of social capital were higher among pet owners across the board.

We did nonetheless find that social capital was higher among dog owners and those who walked their dogs in particular. Dog owners were five times more likely to have got to know people in their neighbourhood. This makes sense, as dogs are the most likely to get us outside the home.

Yet our survey data and qualitative responses show that a variety of pets can act as a social lubricant. Pets are a great leveller in society, owned and loved by people across social, age and racial strata.

Perhaps it is having something in common with other people that strikes a chord, regardless of the type of pet.

What does this mean for how we live?

That pets can help build social capital is not just a social nicety or quirky sociological observation. Hundreds of studies internationally show that social capital is a positive predictor for a raft of important social indicators, including mental health, education, crime deterrence, and community safety.

Given pets are entrenched in the lives and homes of many Australians, it makes sense to tap into this as a way to strengthen the social fabric of local communities.

Not everyone can or wants to own a pet. But two-thirds of the population does, so our cities and neighbourhoods need to be “pet friendly”.

Australian suburbs are generally pretty good for walkable parks and streets. In this study, we also found that having dog walkers out and about contributes to perceptions of community safety.


Given the broad social benefits of pet ownership, perhaps we need to rethink ‘no pets’ rules where possible. Ed Brey/Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

However, in Australia, pets have traditionally belonged to people living in detached housing with backyards. Many rental properties, apartment complexes, and retirement villages still default to a “no pets” policy.

Other countries, where renting and higher-density living is more the norm, seem more accepting of pets across the housing spectrum.

Given ageing populations, housing affordability and the need to curb urban sprawl are critical social trends in many countries (including Australia), maybe we need to recalibrate our notions of who can own a pet and where they can live. This is not to say that pets have to be allowed everywhere, but the default to “no pets allowed” is questionable.

My father-in-law in his 80s, for example, couldn’t downsize to a retirement complex because his extremely docile rescue greyhound exceeded the “10kg pet” rule. He couldn’t bear to part with Moby, a faithful companion through whom he met many local residents daily at the park nearby.

Constant companions in times of change

A lot of my current research is around homelessness. Chatting recently with a man who was homeless with his dog on the streets of Melbourne, he told me how his dog gets him up in the morning, keeps him safe at night, and gets them both walking daily.

His dog was one of the few stable things in his life, so he needed a public housing option that would allow pets.

People who are homeless also need crisis accommodation options that accept their pets. Hence it is great to see places such as Tom Fisher House in Perth, opening its doors to rough sleepers with pets needing a safe place to sleep.

Beyond the practical implications for pet-friendly cities, the potential for pets to enrich the social fabric of communities has strong appeal in an era of global uncertainty, frenetic “busyness” and technology-driven communications. As cultural analyst Sheryl Turkle has said, the ways people interact and forge relationships have undergone massive change and we can end up “connected, but alone”.


Sherry Turkle talks about why we expect more from technology and less from each other.

The ConversationBy contrast, humans have been drawn to companion animals since early civilisation. In many people’s lives, they remain a tangible constant that can yield enduring social capital benefits.

Lisa Wood, Associate Professor, Centre for Social Impact and School of Population Health, University of Western Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.