An urban advocate answers questions
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.”
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.
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.
How many emails are currently in your inbox?
154. 19 unread.
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).