Non-profits are the new “tool” of urban planning

Non-profits are increasingly being urban planners. With the ‘wonderful’ process of devolution in the 1980’s, we have seen a decline in the availabilty of social services provided by the state. Under Regan, support declined for federally supported social services and a burden was placed on states and cities to develop these programs. Cities now have unfunded mandates and they are forced to come up with “creative” solutions to fund these programs. These solutions include: urban renewal (where a low-income area is redeveloped to increase the tax base and the residents are pushed out), improving the downtown to make the city “more attractive” to increase the sales tax, or cutting services. Social services and programs that are targeted towards marganized groups are often the first to be cut because of their expense and their limited scope (they do not help as many people).
In Decatur, IL the city is spending $50 million on a park program (including 1.3 million for put-put golf and $.5 mil for the parking lot). This is while 33% of households make under $25,000. These community members are not going to benefit from the new put-put course, because they will not use it. Furthermore, it is unlikely that these investments will attract many new residents as the cities job base is declining . The city, however, is ignoring reality and hoping for a different future. The community has a 13% unemployment rate, and the majority of residents do not have the level of education required for the technical jobs which replaced the factory jobs. In this community, at least, it does not seem like the state is doing much to care for the majority of residents. In recent years the city/ county has cut: GED course funding, public transportation, and has laid off many municipal employees (and another round of cuts is expected before Christmas).
NGOs (non-governmental organizations)/ non-profits can help fill the void that is left by the state, and they are doing that in present.
(1) NGO’s can be based very locally, and thus can be very aware of the specefic needs of residents. Notice my language of CAN. I am thinking of neighborhood based organizations unlike NGOs like the Red Cross. Because of the scale of their work, small-scale NGOs know what the needs of the community are. They quickly become aware of issues like lack of education, changes in transportation, or the rising cost of gas. They become aware of these issues, because it is the story of the leadership as well as the story of the people whom they serve.

(2) Government will often view social service issues as “technical” issues, something that needs a technical fix. NGOs realize the political nature of these services, and will respond in a political way (Clark, 5). For example, in Decatur there are issues with education and test scores. The city government has determined the “technical” root of this is that children cannot read. Local organizations, however, view the issue as much deeper. They pin-point the causes of low-test scores on illiterate mothers, parents who spend significant portions of their days commuting to work, and school district boundaries which put students from the inner-city in suburban schools (meaning that their parents cannot be as active in their education).

(3) This replacement of the state does have its issues, and it can mean a lack of oversight for their programs. This is a different issue, and one that I will address at another point in time.

Given the dexterity of small NGOs, they can begin to deliver services that would often be neglected due to political or economic reasons. Small programs that an NGO implements CAN tremendously improve the lives of individuals. In our international planning course (which this blog is tied to) we have read countless examples of organizations taking planning into their own hands. From the Anti-Eviction campaign taking over homes to South Africans pouring concrete on water meters so that they cannot be shut off for failure to pay bills, there are a plethora of examples of this new style of urban planning and urban resistance.
I would like to share an example that I am currently involved in. This is just an idea that we are proposing, and I doubt that it will be implemented, however it illustrates the power than an NGO can have. As part of Dr. Andrew Greenlee’s UP 494 (Planning Without Growth) we have been working with the Old Kings Orchard Community Center (OKO CC) in Decatur. One issue that resident of the neighborhood have is getting to work. There are few jobs within the community that meet their skill-set, and the jobs that they can work at are father away. With over 50% of households not owning a car, and little public transportation this has limited residents ability to work. As a result, many of the residents are unemployed or underemployed. (The solution of moving closer to these jobs is not an option, as the housing located near them is more expensive).
One solution that I’m working with the community center to see if it is a possibility is to run a bus from the community center to 10 different job sites. The bus would take 35 mins to complete a route, and this could be done perhaps 4 times a day. Feedback that we have received on the idea is overwhelmingly positive. The cost to the community center is small, but the benefit to the community members is enormous! A job shuttle like this has been implemented in other US cities, and has worked as a private alternative to a public transit system that is ill-equipped to be used by low-skilled workers. (To see a map of the proposed route, please see the bottom of the post)

At the end of the day, I would still prefer to have a state (government) who is actively looking out for and respecting the needs of all members of the community. I would prefer it if the state was able to provide adequate transportation, education, and health care to everyone. I do not think that is going to happen. I do not think that it happened before the devolution revolution in the 1980’s.
I would rather have us do something, than idly wait for government to save the day. Perhaps this is where activist planners in cities are able to make impacts, as they work for the marganized and ensure that they receive services. As NGOs take on more responsibilities that were previously within the traditional realm of the state, urban planners should be involved. An urban planner with their knowledge of politics, power, and the decision making process can add insight to the workings of an NGO. Furthermore, planners can help create “plans” but on a localized level that will improve the quality of life for residents.

Like it or not, NGOs are the wave of the future.



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