On Equity Planning in Cleveland, Segregation, CDCs and More — A Long Chat With Norman Krumholz, Former City Planner of Cleveland

On Equity Planning in Cleveland, Segregation, CDCs and More — A Long Chat With Norman Krumholz, Former City Planner of Cleveland
Norman Krumholz arrived in Cleveland in 1968 with a big idea: to build a more equitable city. Appointed City Planner by Cleveland Mayor Carl Stokes, Krumholz set out to “promote a wider range of choices for those who have few, if any, choices.” He and his office rejected traditional efficiency-first models of city planning, and instead prioritized transportation, housing, and recreational solutions for the city’s poorest residents, an innovative approach known as equity planning. City planners and elected officials around the country looked to Cleveland as a model for putting equity planning into practice.

Since leaving City Hall in the late 1970s, Krumholz, now 88 years old, has continued to promote equity planning as a faculty member at Cleveland State University and during a stint as President of the American Planning Association. While the influence of equity planning has waxed and waned during those decades, today equity planning is back on the center stage of urban planning and policy. Leading national organizations and academic journals, following the example Krumholz set nearly half a century ago, declare their focus on equity without reserve.

In Cleveland, where he has trained a generation and more of planners, much of Krumholz’s vision for a city of opportunity - including landbanks and a network of CDCs - has come into focus. He’s watched its progress closely, most recently as a member of the Cleveland City Planning Commission until Mayor Jackson removed him in 2014. In addition to teaching an introductory course on planning, he is editing a new book on equity planning.

In this interview, Krumholz reflects on his role in shaping the field of urban planning and policy, and reveals how Cleveland’s development measures up to his goals for a city that provides more choice to more residents.

JW: Equity planning, the approach to city planning you pioneered in Cleveland in the 1970s, has been getting a lot of national attention recently. Why do you think people are talking about equity in city planning again?

NK: The income disparity issue - the kind of things characterized by Occupy Wall Street a couple of years ago - has become a much more important issue over time. Income disparities are now the currency of common discussion. People are concerned about it. There’s no question the Democratic party is going to run on that as an important plank [of its campaign platform] in 2016.

For planners, sustainability has become the big schtick. It’s hard to say whether it’s going to become a fad or not, but so long as planners are concerned about sustainability, equity is one of the three legs of the sustainability stool. The other two are economics and environment.

And then there’s the change of population in the country. The country is becoming more diversified, more Latino and more Asian. I think that tends to modify and diminish more traditional political positions. I think that all adds up to what I hope is a greater focus on equity.

JW: While you were in City Hall, your work as a leading practitioner of equity planning attracted national attention. But you’ve since been very modest - maybe even pessimistic - about the influence of your work on the field of planning. Why is that?

NK: I was president of the American Planning Association in the 1980s, and there did not seem to be a hell of a lot of interest in equity planning in the field at that time.

[But it turns out] I’ve been looking in the wrong place.

Pierre Clavel [of Cornell University] and I wrote a book [called Reinventing Cities] in which we concentrated on equity planning in city hall. We documented the Cleveland experience and the Chicago experience. But our research was limited to city hall and public employees.

Now I broaden that, and what I find - partially to my surprise, although I shouldn’t be surprised - is that there’s much, much more equity planning going on among the nonprofit organizations, Community Development Corporations (CDCs), and outfits like that.

I’m more encouraged now than I had been. I think there’s more of it going on than I knew, and undoubtedly more than I’ve documented.

JW: While you were Cleveland City Planner, you had a lead role in preparing the legal framework for today’s Community Development Corporation (CDC) structure. What are CDCs in Cleveland doing well today?

NK: Well, I think one thing they’re doing well is engaging as many citizens as can be engaged in the political process, in the development and planning process. That’s all to the good.

But there are tangible successes to report with CDCs around the country. And the CDCs in Cleveland, particularly the development CDCs, like Detroit Shoreway, Tremont, Ohio City, University Circle, that demonstrated pretty well that they can produce. They’ve produced housing - a lot of it affordable, not all by any means, but a lot of it - and commercial activities and so on in neighborhoods that were completely redlined by the private market. So I think they have a good record.

JW: In what ways have CDCs fallen short of what you’d hoped for them?

NK: I think some of them have lost their focus on the lower-income population. Some of them are looking more and more for market-rate housing, and as their communities - Detroit Shoreway, Ohio City, maybe in particular Tremont - have become more of a private market operation, the CDCs have been aiding and abetting. And I don’t think we need the CDCs to do private market housing. That’s not what they’re there for, in my humble judgement.

CDCs working in Downtown, I couldn’t be less interested. In that case, they’re just supporting the Chamber of Commerce. You have to be true to your objective of representing equity. You have to do that from a professional perspective. You have to remember that one of the three Es is equity, it’s not just the economy or the environment.

JW: How about landbanks? If I understand correctly, your work in the 1960s allowed for landbanks to exist -

NK: [interrupts] In the ‘70s! I’m not that old! [laughs]

JW: Excuse me.

NK: Yes, I did spearhead the first statewide land bank law. I think the county land bank is a great thing, and I totally support it.

JW: Some Cleveland City Council Members have complained that the land bank is too predisposed to demolish vacant houses, as opposed to mothballing and rehabbing vacant homes.

NK: I think the county land bank is doing the best it can. The controversy as I see it is by one or two Councilmen who are concerned about demolitions, because they want to mothball and preserve some houses they’ve identified. Unfortunately, most of the people in the neighborhoods want those houses down for a variety of reasons. And it also costs a great deal of money to mothball and maintain.

And if you go ahead and rehab some of those old units, particularly if you’re not careful, you end up putting an enormous amount of public resources into rehabilitation that you’ll never recover from the sale of the unit. It’s a difficult game, but obviously the political guys are guys that you need to listen to.

JW: In your book Making Planning Equity Work you make the case that although efficiency is often used as the definitive metric in policy discussions, efficiency is really only a means to an end, a tool for making a city more equitable for all its residents. Why do you think some planners and policy makers continue to place so much emphasis on efficiency?

NK: Well, efficiency is high-priority item. Cities have to pay their own way. Cities have to collect their taxes and spend their taxes in kind of a systematic way. So that’s an important consideration. But although you really want cities to be as efficient as possible, at the same time, you want them to be considerate of the needs of their citizens.

What is efficiency for? It’s to provide the kinds of goods and public services that the community needs. I’m not opposed to efficiency, I just want to broaden the context of efficiency to include equity. That’s got to be in the equation all the time.

JW: It’s hard to talk about equity without talking about power, and about who gets to make decisions.

NK: Yep, it’s highly political.

JW: To what extent does community organizing, building neighborhood coalitions that have the potential to translate into political power, fit into equity planning? Is there a role for organizing in equity planning?

NK: Absolutely. In spades. The most important part about it is organizing at the neighborhood level, and turning the neighborhood people into politically astute people who will vote their own interest, who will understand first of all how the system works, understand how they plan an important role in making the system work. And then vote in accordance with their own interests.

JW: Why is that so important in equity planning?

NK: It’s fundamental and essential for the neighborhoods to express their wishes, and not have a planner, even a planner with the best of intentions, impose his or her view of what the neighborhoods need on the neighborhoods.

JW: What advice do you have for organizations that are looking to do that, to activate political capacity in local neighborhoods?

NK: Get out and organize! Nobody ever willfully gave anybody any power, you sort of have to take it. And you take it through the political process.

JW: A recent report attempted ranked cities based on their racial segregation. Cleveland, disappointingly but not surprisingly, was near the top of that list.

NK: Cleveland has been part of the top 5 forever. That’s not part of the comeback city story. You won’t read it in the Plain Dealer.

JW: Why is segregation still so prevalent in Cleveland?

NK: A deep, ingrained American preference for segregated living. Not only in the South, it’s all over the place.

JW: Do you see reasons to be optimistic about reducing segregation in Cleveland?

NK: The Supreme Court made it explicit that the country is violating the 1969 Housing Act, and has been for a long time. Communities that receive federal grants for sewers, streets, highways, all kinds of federal money have closed their borders to affordable housing. That’s a violation of the 1968 Act. So HUD made a big case out of that. Obama mentioned that, and the Supreme Court reaffirmed that recently. What will happen I don’t know.

I remember when I first came to Cleveland, George Romney was Secretary of HUD, Mitt Romney’s father.

JW: He didn’t last that long.

NK: He didn’t last that long because he was trying to implement the law. The reality is consecutive presidents have been totally uninterested in implementing the law. Maybe somebody will do that now. Maybe. One lives in hope, you know.

JW: Today, many city leaders around the country seem to put more stock in quantitative analysis done by economists than reports by traditional planners.

NK: The reality is that the economists have pretty much crushed the planners. If there has been a professional discourse, I don’t think it exists anymore, the economists are triumphant everywhere. And it’s their ability to be able to roll the numbers that people find so impressive. At the same time, there are ways to quantify the public interest as well.

JW: Is that the approach you’d suggest to people who want to have that discourse, to quantify equity.

NK: If you can, then yes. If you can’t, simply recognize that it exists. The reality should be beyond discussion. Some people always get screwed. That’s just the way it goes. And you shouldn’t be able to just write it off.

We know that very well with all the information that’s been generated about the impact of bad neighborhoods, ghetto neighborhoods, on the people who have to live there. And that’s a result of discrimination and racial segregation. But we shouldn’t overlook it. That’s a reality. And it has enormous impacts on the lives and opportunities on the people that live there.

JW: When I was at policy school, most professors seemed to focus on maximizing for efficiency. What’s the case for maximizing instead for equity?

NK: It’s an obvious case. I’m not sure how you quantify the deleterious impact of ghetto neighborhoods, for example, on the lives of the people who live there. Some economists just a couple of week ago reported a study that said their findings were that the discrepancy between blacks and white is 25% attributable to the neighborhoods that the African Americans lived in. That should tell you a lot. That’s one way of quantifying the downside of that equation.

John Kain of Harvard, he died about 10 years ago, very interesting guy. He wrote extensively on the number of jobs lost due to racial discrimination, the number of jobs lost in the black community because of racial discrimination. The kind of income streams that would have been lost as a result of racial segregation. These articles go back to the '60s. I remember reading one of his seminal articles in The Public Interest in the '60s. You’ll find some interesting econometrics devoted to quantifying the impact of racial discrimination and racial segregation.

In the latest edition of the Journal of Education Planning and Research [which is about equity planning] there are a bunch of new voices there that are into it in a big way.

I’m more hopeful than I have been in a long time about the impact of the work. And if you take a look at this issue of the Journal, you’ll see a lot of new names. They are young people, academics, and that’s out there, and that’s very [encouraging].

Jonathan Welle is a recent graduate of the Harvard Kenney School of Government. He lives in Cleveland, Ohio.