With what environmental organization are you affiliated?

I’m executive director of Urban Ecology, Inc.

What does your organization do?

The five-second elevator speech goes like this: “We offer pro-bono land-use planning and policy advocacy to help transform struggling, low-income neighborhoods into vibrant, healthy communities.”

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The longer explanation goes like this (and after you read this, you will see why we stick to a five-second elevator speech): Urban Ecology loves cities. They are good for people, and they are good for the environment. Yet bad things are happening to cities. Suburban sprawl is siphoning off people, money, resources, and political attention. Housing is being built farther from jobs, roads are becoming parking lots, more land is being used up per capita than ever before. And a whole generation of kids is growing up behind gated communities, or in crappy, unsafe urban neighborhoods.

These things are related.

Urban Ecology’s mission is to promote policy and planning techniques that prove it is possible to revitalize “abandoned” neighborhoods while building social capital and creating investment without displacement. We work at the neighborhood scale, using design, architecture, land-use planning, research, and lots and lots of listening and community outreach to help grassroots groups create a vision for change.

And because visions for change don’t alone create change, we advocate. For money, for policy change, for attention to be paid to overlooked communities, where open spaces always seem to be lacking, where pedestrian safety always seems to be worse, where neighborhood-serving businesses always seem to have left a long time ago. We find resources so the community’s goals can be brought to life.

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What long and winding road led you to your current position?

I started out as a newspaper reporter, following in my father’s footsteps. He wrote for a number of publications including Time magazine in the ’60s, where he covered the civil-rights movement. When you’re young and green, most of what you do is cover meetings. If you’re me, you start to really like (in a kind of masochistic way), planning-commission hearings because you start to see trends. You listen to NIMBYs scream about how they don’t want affordable housing anywhere near them. You watch as polluting industries get placed in or near neighborhoods where –surprise! — no one comes to the planning commission to protest. And — after you see enough of what happens in both suburbs and cities — you start to see this stuff is connected.

After witnessing this at a couple of papers (including one in the Duck Decoy Capital of the World — special prize for anyone who names the town!), I ended up covering politics for the Oakland Tribune, first City Hall and then Sacramento. I started to get really depressed about the impact journalism could actually have on changing anything (no offense, Grist), so I left to get a Masters in Public Administration at the Kennedy School of Government. From there, I became a grant maker at a private foundation in San Francisco before landing at Urban Ecology. I never, ever would have predicted that I would one day run a nonprofit. Yet learning how to distill politics, and how planning impacts everyday lives, and — best yet — how to give and get money has served me well.

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Who’s the biggest pain in the ass you have to deal with?

It’s a tie: City bureaucrats, who hold a lot of power yet see themselves as processors of information rather than advocates who can empower citizens. And foundation officers, who think they know how to do your job. I should know, I was one. (P.S.: That of course applies to none of my current funders.)

Who’s nicer than you would expect?

A lot of the very local neighborhood-based organizations in very poor communities who have every right to be cynical and frustrated but time and again prove to be some of the most optimistic and upbeat people I work with.

Where were you born? Where do you live now?

Born in Atlanta, live in Oakland, Calif. Oakland gets a bad rap with most people who don’t actually live here, but it’s an incredible place, one of the most beautiful and diverse places I know with very real problems that plague most urban areas. It’s a very East Coast city in a sea of otherwise precious Bay Area upscale communities. In his book Blues City, writer Ishmael Reed described it as “Buffalo without the weather.”

What do you consider your environmental coming-of-age moment or experience?

When I pretended to throw an empty can out of the car in front of an old boyfriend who was greener than a glass of wheatgrass. Unfortunately, I lost my grip on the can and it really did fly out the window. It was the end of that relationship but the beginning of my career as an environmentalist. Or at least someone who hates litter.

What environmental offense has pissed you off the most?

When someone I was driving behind threw a can out of the window. No, wait, that was me.

What’s your environmental vice?

I drive to work far too often, even though it is my husband’s mission in life to promote public transportation (please don’t tell him I drove today).

How do you get around?

Notwithstanding what I just said, I actually live in a great neighborhood in Oakland, where I can walk to a lake, a farmer’s market, restaurants, and not one but two beautiful art deco movie houses. It’s the definition of a walkable community.

What are you reading these days?

Just finished reading the biography of Frederick Law Olmstead, fabulous book. Amazing that he was never really trained as a landscape architect. In fact, he started as a journalist! There you go, great minds …

What’s your favorite meal?

Steamed brussel sprouts. Seriously.

Which stereotype about environmentalists most fits you?

That I drive too much. No wait, that’s not a stereotype.

If you could institute by fiat one environmental reform, what would it be?

That environmental impact assessments for new development would go easier on affordable housing and urban revitalization projects. Right now, in California anyway, the environmental review process makes it easier to build far away from current population centers than in the middle of dense urban areas. That’s a great recipe for sprawl and is far worse for the environment.

Who do you think (not hope) is going to be elected president in November?

I’m not really that political at the national level, but if the current clown stays in office we’re all going to hell in a handbasket. Whatever a handbasket is.

Would you label yourself an environmentalist?

I do, although I think it’s far too easy to label yourself as an environmentalist these days and much more difficult to actually define what it means.

What’s one thing the environmental movement is doing badly, and how could they do it better?

We have issues with some (not all) enviros who seem to oppose development no matter where it is. Urban Ecology is in the business of promoting better cities, walkable communities, and greener neighborhoods. To achieve those kinds of neighborhoods, we need more (and more thoughtfully designed) development — something to which many enviros just say no. We really need environmentalists and the major enviro organizations to get behind a new vision for cities, more affordable housing, and more urban development.

What was your favorite band when you were 18? How about now?

Elvis Costello and Suzanne Vega. Lately I’ve been listening to a great band called Hem, and some smaller singer/songwriters I got to know in Boston during graduate school. Namely, Dab Talan — really, really amazing.

What’s your favorite TV show? Movie?

I’ve been a Sopranos addict for a while now. I confess I’m way into chick flicks — Bridget Jones’ Diary is one of my favorites.

What are you happy about right now?

That we’re beginning to engage kids in helping to redesign their neighborhoods in Oakland. Kids have an intuitive sense of what works in terms of streets, parks, waterfronts, and public space.

If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?

Being on the nonprofit side of the ledger now, I’d definitely say donate to more of your local community-based organizations. Some of the more national environmental organizations can survive on national members and what’s left of the major foundations, but a lot of truly local nonprofits can only survive on donations if they’re going to be around at all. Whatever you feel comfortable donating to local nonprofits, double it (and our address is www.urbanecology.org).

What’s Urban Ecology’s stance on gentrification? This word has such a negative connotation but the processes involved in gentrification — such as the promotion of home ownership and public-private ventures in housing/mixed-use developments — have gone a long way to revitalize some of the most blighted communities in cities like New York, where I work. How do you approach a development problem where the community vision is at odds with a more market-based development strategy?   — Jean S., New York, N.Y.

Diana Williams,
executive director of Urban Ecology.

Greetings, New York! Alas, there is no silver bullet for gentrification. As you point out, parts of gentrification are good (money!) and parts are bad (displacement). Strategies we recommend include partnerships with community land trusts, ensuring community members have access to banking services that connect them to the financial mainstream (so they can secure loans and capital), and preserving and expanding the supply of affordable housing and home-ownership opportunities. Bottom line: Urban Ecology believes development does not have to price out existing families, merchants, and nonprofits — especially if anti-displacement efforts begin at the outset of revitalization efforts. The best strategy is to start thinking about this before land values start to really heat up. A great resource on anti-gentrification is PolicyLink, located here in Oakland.

I’m concerned about the way many in the environmental movement continue to feed the Cartesian monster that says, “Cities bad; country good.” This only increases the divide between humans and the rest of nature. We decry the fact that the majority of humans live in an urban setting and praise our agrarian roots, which strikes a discord with the ideas of groups like Urban Ecology.

Until we view cities as ecosystems and “nature” as a human construct (as much as “wilderness” and “city”), we in the movement will never understand that cities are important human habitats. What would you say to help foster the idea that livable cities can be part of the solution, to help relieve the pressures of sprawl, for instance?   — Scott Edward Anderson, Philadelphia, Penn.

How are livable cities good for the environment? Look at the numbers. Between 1982 and 1997, the population of metropolitan regions in the United States grew by 17 percent, while the percentage of land those folks used increased by 47 percent! Think bigger yards and four-car garages. Think developments named “Remington Estates” plopped in the middle of greenfields. Think hordes of SUVs toting kids to every single errand, because there are no sidewalks and, if there are, there is nothing to walk to.

A livable city, on the other hand, has stores and jobs nearer to homes, so you can get outside and walk to something. A livable city, bluntly put, packs in more people per acre than a suburb. A lot of folks think of “density” as a bad word, but we think it’s a good thing — as long as it’s designed well. Density means you get to see your neighbors more, it means there is a hum to a place. All of this, in turn, is good for the environment — more efficient use of land, less development on greenfields, and less pollution from constant driving.

I loved your sense of humor (unusual but necessary in these days of doom and gloom). And my question is: What U.S. cities do you feel are in the forefront, or at least not in the rear, for urban development and livable communities?   — Mamatha Gavini, Tampa, Fla.

At the risk of being annoyingly circumspect, my answer is that there is no single city that is most, or least, livable. Some cities are doing some things well, but none are doing everything well. More importantly, livability can be defined many, many ways. It can be about walkability, affordability, local parks, and street trees. It can be about a cool, creative music and arts scene, or about a river walk that replaced a decaying industrial landscape. So lots of cities are doing pieces of these things well; no one is doing it all perfectly.

Example: San Diego has done a great job of fostering distinct neighborhood identities and encouraging pedestrian-oriented development in their downtown. On the other hand, they have a real affordability issue, compounded by the fact that wages there are relatively low (for California, at least).

Now, if you really want a list, here are some choices: Portland, Ore.; Chattanooga, Tenn.; Norfolk, Va.; Delray Beach, Fla. And Tampa — I had a great Cuban dinner there once. That, too, is part of livability.

Please comment on the value of downtown bike lockers as a bike/pedestrian amenity. Since ’96, Rochester, N.Y., has had bike lockers in a dozen city garages and parking lots, but I’ve rarely seen bike lockers (a very secure coffin-like box, locked with your own lock) in other cities, even though their cost ($500) is funded from the federal gas tax via the TEA-21 Transportation allocation.   — Austin Paulnack, Syracuse, N.Y.

Bike lockers are a great thing. They encourage folks to use their bikes by giving them a safer place to park. Here in Northern California, we are perhaps a bit luckier on this front than other cities. We’ve got bike lockers on Amtrak trains, at ferry terminals, bus stations, and BART stations. Check out San Francisco’s Bicycle Program.

Does Urban Ecology have any plans for expanding into other cities? For instance, have you ever thought of doing a project in Minneapolis, Minn.? If this is too far away, do you have a close collaboration with other groups in other areas that do much of the same work that you are doing, just in other areas?   — Marc Chapman, Minneapolis, Minn.

If that $50 million grant comes through, we’ll be in Minneapolis tomorrow. Sadly, I’m not holding my breath. We’d suggest you try the Community Design Center of Minnesota, which is located in your city. Another place might be the Charrette Center Inc., also in your town. Finally, you might check with architecture and planning schools in your area, as they often have projects in which they adopt a neighborhood and work with residents to undertake a community plan.

Urban ecology often seems to suffer second-class citizenship when compared to more “traditional” environmental concerns such as endangered species, wilderness protection, and natural resources, for example. What is your strategy and advice for getting urban ecology a more prominent place at the table?   — David Mizejewski, Arlington, Va.

It’s easy to defend critters. They are so cute, so powerless against big, bad developers. And those beautiful hillsides — so pretty and bare — who would want to put ugly houses on them, and roads leading up to houses? This is why — as you point out — defending urban development, and urban ecology, is difficult. It’s just easier to say, “I stand for saving Bambi!” than to say, “I stand for balanced development that offers affordability and access to good jobs and that preserves important open spaces.”

I personally believe that being an “environmentalist” comes with a responsibility to also be an “urbanist.” Where do the houses, and roads, and people, go, if not on that pretty hillside? Answer: They should go in existing towns and cities, and/or in newly built towns and cities that are designed well and that use land wisely. (This is code for “density.”)

So, my strategy is to remind folks that saving open space is only one side of the coin; the other side is where development goes. Environmentalists need to step up to the plate and do a better job of supporting development where it is appropriate if they don’t want it where it’s inappropriate. (I sound like I’m on my high horse now, huh? Well, I am.)

Before I object outright to your claim that cities “are good for people, and they are good for the environment,” I should ask for clarification. Do you mean that cities as they are are good for people and the environment, or that well-planned and -managed cities have the potential to be better for people and the environment than they currently are? Because there have been numerous reports cited in Grist and elsewhere about the terrible health effects that pollution in major cities has on humans, specifically mothers and children, but also on the chemically injured and chemically sensitive. This seems to be at least one case that refutes your assertion, although I’m anxious to hear your point of view.   — Lukas Granger, Bozeman, Mont.

Bozeman, that was a very diplomatic way of asking, “What the hell are you saying!?” So let me clarify. My unarticulated assumption in saying that cities are good for people and that cities are good for the environment is that the alternative to cities is terrible for people AND even worse for the environment. See my answers to several questions above.