No solid ground – a good or a bad thing? Power from below and above.

Urban centres, and the communities within them, are built over time through the interplay between a range of actors, from individuals, to organizations, to governments.  The roles of the national and state (provincial) levels of government in both Canada and the United States in mitigating, directing, and participating in these interactions are formally and constitutionally entrenched.  However, at the city, or sub-regional level, the role of government does not have the same constitutional status and is, at times, blurred.  This presents an opportunity for different groups to exert power and influence in different ways in shaping the environment at the urban scale.  The ‘blurry’ urban scale is an opportunity to leverage power from below (grassroots/community) as well as from above (nation/state).

On day 2 of a visit to Seattle, students from Simon Fraser University’s Urban Studies program met with representatives from four very different organizations, all of whom had a vested interest in urban development.  Each emphasized different assets or resources that were leveraged to achieve their respective goals.  El Centro de la Raza is a non-profit organization that serves as an advocate and hub for the Latino community in King County, providing a range of services and programs for citizens of all races and backgrounds.  The organization obtained their current home through occupation in 1972, in opposition to the city council of the day that did not want to provide leaders of the community with access to the facility they desired – an abandoned elementary school in Beacon Hill.  

The occupation continues to inspire the organization’s work; fighting for equality and against oppression were recurrent themes throughout the tour.  A large mural within the old facility oozes with symbolism of a fight for justice against capitalism.  They are planning on a $42 million development project on Beacon Hill self-described as a “Community Inspired Transit-Oriented Development”.  The original concept for the development was met with neighborhood opposition, particularly with respect to the proposed density.  Any such disagreements had to be vetted, given the organization’s history and mission emphasizing ‘community inspired development’.  The organization found strength through the inclusion of a variety of community members from diverse backgrounds.  During one community consultation, a group of elderly asian residents suggested the density of the project should be doubled.  The current proposal seemed reasonable by comparison, which facilitated its gradual acceptance.

The organization also had to include a large open plaza as part of the development, described as a ‘dealbreaker’ for many local residents who opposed the project initially.  It is clear that despite the size of the organization, their ‘strength in numbers’ and community inclusion still serves as an important ‘lever’ to achieve desired outcomes.  Strength ‘from below’ will continue to shape their success moving forward.

The City of Seattle’s Department of Neighborhoods was the next visit, and, similar to El Centro de la Raza, was founded through community activism.  However, successful establishment of the department was contingent on garnering the support of a councillor at the time (1990), Jim Street, who championed the effort.  The Department came about through power exercised from below and above.  Bernie Matsuno, the current Director, emphasized that the department did not come about at the behest of any Mayor or city councillor.  Community advocates pushed for some kind of community outreach program.  As such, the department is the oldest of its kind in the United States.  Currently, the Department’s primary focus is to ensure neighborhood consultation for any major changes or development, and also to reach out to the most ‘underrepresented’ individuals (for example, the poor and ethnic minorities).  The Department of Neighborhoods also administers programs such as Historic Preservation, a Major Institutions program, and Neighborhood advisory committees. In the case of the Major Institutions program, whenever a major project is proposed, the Department will organize a Community Advisory Body to make recommendations to City Council regarding development approvals.

These efforts are no guarantee that there will be consensus or agreement surrounding neighborhood changes or developments.  The example of a neighborhood that opposed bike lanes because none of the local residents used bikes came up.  Biking was associated with gentrification, ie, attracting upper-middle class citizens.  As with El Centro de la Raza, extensive community consultation does not necessarily mean an absence of conflict.  This challenge is particularly evident for the Department of Neighborhoods, which must mitigate power exercised from above and below.

The next visit, Sound Regional Transit, was a stark example of forcing change and development through power exercised ‘from above’, ie, from the state level.  The Washington State Growth Management Act of 1990 mandated cities and counties to come up with comprehensive plans for growth management, which include transportation plans.  Together with the Puget Sound Regional Council, Sound Regional Transit attempts to deal with transportation, together with land-use, on a regional scale.  However, it was clear that each step of the way has been met with fierce opposition from cities and counties that want to maintain jurisdiction over their own transportation and neighborhoods that have been historically opposed to trains or rapid transit of any kind.  The Director of Media and Communications noted opposition in the past from residents who did not want to see Seattle become a ‘big city’ like New York, which translated as opposition to any kind of train system.  Many transportation initiatives in the region were only successful on the 2nd or 3rd round at the ballot box, and were only passed by a slim margin.  He also pointed out that he could think of four occasions when the Transit Authority themselves have been “on the chopping block”, demonstrating the challenges that come with a mandate and power exercised from ‘above’.

Puget Sound Sage was the last stop and, in some sense, summarized much of the conflict and tensions that came across from earlier presentations.  The organization focuses on building coalitions to rally support for clear, identifiable and, winnable campaigns.  They also put together academic research reports on a number of topics centred around economic justice.  The group has rallied support for workers who do not have unions, and is currently engaged in an effort to have port truck drivers classified correctly as ‘employees’ rather than ‘independent contractors’ in order to put an end to the Seattle port’s ‘sweatshop on wheels’.  Howard Greenwich, the Research and Policy Director, described the organization as ‘community-based advocacy’.  The biggest themes to emerge from this presentation were the economic inequality that has accompanied growth in Seattle, and the considerable displacement of neighborhoods and communities that has occurred.  Howard noted only one remaining ‘contiguous’ community of colour in Seattle – Rainier Valley – and feels that this is now being pushed upon by forces of gentrification.  Success at Puget Sound Sage comes from finding common ground across diverse groups and individuals in order to move forward.  The organization derives power from coalition building ‘on the ground’ in a very real sense, and is keenly aware of this in devising strategies and selecting campaigns.

Trying to navigate the landscape of decision-making or governance at the urban scale can prove to be an enormously complicated and challenging task due to the multi-level governance arrangements and the many community organizations that exert power at this level.  However, this ‘blurring’ and lack of clear-cut legal roles for government and organizations is an opportunity for individuals and organizations to access power in different ways, including both community activism/grassroots and official institutional structures.  In some sense, this lack of solid legal ground is an ongoing opportunity for the residents and organizations of Seattle, and should serve as inspiration for those looking to shape urban life elsewhere.


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