Profits don’t make a city green

Urban Animal

Sometimes I feel like our cities are stuck in the dark ages.

Business owners blame the homeless for the demise of society, while cities give tax breaks to “retain” businesses. Well-to-do cities enjoy being surrounded by nature, such as the sea breeze in Berkeley, while others suffer the effects of industry. I don’t have to look any further than the Bay Area to find examples of such problems.

Remember when the city of San Francisco gave Twitter an estimated $55 million in tax breaks on new hires in order to keep the company’s offices in the city? Or when the 2012 Chevron Richmond Refinery fire hospitalized 15,000 people due to respiratory problems?

In Berkeley, one finds the prioritization of profits over people in major policies. For example, the city does not require all businesses to pay employees a living wage — only businesses contracted by the city are required to do so. One finds this prioritization even in publicly oriented projects. Several community groups have recently teamed up to build an archway decorated with white lights and multicolored disks to comfort pedestrians and discourage drifters on Telegraph Avenue.

The archway project is an example of a common practice in the Telegraph area. Local businesses do whatever they can to ward off loiterers who drag down profits by making shoppers uncomfortable. Amoeba Music posts signs begging the unwanted company to leave. The cafe Sweet Leaf set up a tent for customers to eat on the sidewalk unbothered. The baristas at Cafe Mediterraneum hose down the sidewalk nightly to prevent crowds from blocking the storefront. Like these interventions, the proposed archway will be ineffective because it does not fully address the needs of the community.

It won’t help the wandering youth who want to hitchhike all along the West Coast, the bookstore lovers or cafe-types who want a place in the city, the students who want to feel safe on the street, even the vehicular traffic that takes up more than half of the public space.

Instead, these revitalization efforts oversimplify the relationships and social problems on Telegraph by blaming homelessness and loitering instead of the deeper troubles underneath. The archway is a benign example of a specific trend in urbanism — a “shop until you drop” mentality that attempts to forge community by increasing profits for businesses. This brand of urbanism patronizes billboards instead of murals, parking spots instead of plazas, streets instead of creeks and customers instead of locals.

There are ways to improve the urban experience for the business community on Telegraph without disenfranchising the general public.

If I were the master planner for Berkeley, I’d extend the south side of campus from Bancroft to Haste. I’d model this area after the Latin Quarter in Paris, optimized for students and families rather than tourists. I’d convert one lane on Telegraph and Bancroft for buses and allow one-lane car traffic during peak hours of the day. This would encourage staff to commute by car but discourage locals from doing so. Over the street, I’d build lecture halls and affordable and market-rate housing for families. This would establish a long-term community in the neighborhood, which would make the area safer and increase revenue for the city and local businesses. The space between buildings would be incorporated into People’s Park, planted with more coastal live oaks and perennials to promote community culture rather than consumer culture.

Are these projects far more costly than any “reasonable” budget could handle? Sure. I know that politically, these plans are impossible. But it’s a healthy exercise to reimagine cities from time to time, because our ideas, even if never realized, inform the strategies and decisions we use to implement change.

If I were king of northern California I’d zone the San Francisco Bay Area as one city. This would allow the government to tackle irresponsible and powerful businesses that disregard environmental regulations and treat workers poorly. This would also allow planners to develop efficient solutions for education, work and transit. It would allot a fairer share of the funding to lower- and middle-income residents by taxing those in Berkeley, Piedmont, Marin, San Francisco and Sonoma. I’d also eliminate tax breaks aimed at business retention because cities such as Oakland and San Francisco have proven over the past century that they can endure and prosper, regardless of monetary incentives.

These sorts of publicly minded plans are not new or impossible but can be found in cities throughout the world, such as Copenhagen, where districts let public transit be financed locally but planned regionally. As the Danes show, large-scale municipal reform that doesn’t require subsidizing tech giants or low-paying corporations isn’t out of reach.

We Americans think the gargantuan profits will trickle down to improve the quality of life for most Americans. The present state of most cities proves the opposite. It’s time we changed our policies to empower our values.

Josh Escobar writes the Monday column on the intersection of student and urban life. You can contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter: @urbananimale.