As president and CEO of Smart Growth America, Calvin Gladney is a key player in the smart-growth movement.
He has worked on projects around the country — in cities including Baton Rouge, Detroit and Washington, D.C. — and he says the link between all of them is the idea that you can improve lives by improving communities. Gladney says his “North Star” guiding his work is the notion of creating a country where no matter where you live or who you are, you can enjoy a place that's healthy, prosperous and resilient.
Gladney is one of the featured speakers for the 2018 Louisiana Smart Growth Summit, created by the Center for Planning Excellence. We talked to him about smart growth, about how the way we think about gentrification is wrong, and about what it will take to save Main Street.
Smart growth is both a movement and the name of your organization. How do you define smart growth?
We like to focus on outcomes rather than the term “smart growth.” We leverage the principles and tools and tactics of what people often call smart growth to try to get to those outcomes.
Whether you live in a small town in Indiana or you live in a big city like Los Angeles or you live in a place like Baton Rouge, the principles of smart growth should apply to you.
We try to implement these principles of smart growth in a way that creates equity, that combats inequity, and actually contributes to wealth building and the sharing of prosperity that happens when you build great places. And so that's what we're doing and why we're doing it.
Gentrification is often seen as inherently negative. What’s your take on that term?
We need to change our vocabulary. Gentrification is the increasing of incomes in a particular area by virtue of new people moving in. Which is not inherently bad. What we need to combat is not gentrification; it’s the displacement that's caused by gentrification.
We should be playing offense to make sure that the residents, small-business owners and people that live, work and play in a particular area get to benefit from all the new things and the new prosperity that comes from gentrifying a community.
I always say to folks, “If you are fighting gentrification and displacement at the moment when you see a guy with a beard and a plaid shirt open a coffee shop, it's already too late.”
That means there were already urban planning decisions made years ago. There were already strategies put together. There were already city financing tools given to different businesses. There was already property being bought and sold. All of those things happened way before you got to a point where somebody moves in with their Edison light bulb and their artisanal tea.
What role does data play in making decisions about smart growth?
One of the things that needs to be done more is making sure we have a common sense of the actual problem based on the data. So that when a municipality or someone in the private sector operates within a community, they’re working with the community on the same problem based on the data. They’re actually talking about the same reality. We can't have a discussion that can get to a solution if we don't believe the same baseline things.
Oftentimes when you unpack data, you find things that nobody thought about at all. Take, for example, a high unemployment rate in a certain part of the city. Sheer data analysis might help us to understand what the transportation access issues are when it comes to that community getting to the areas where job creation is happening. If you had a transportation solution, that might solve some of your workforce problems, but most of the time we think about those things separately.
What else should we think about in addition to transportation? What other areas of infrastructure are important?
Absolutely. We need to think about solutions for people, no matter where they live. Infrastructure is more than just transportation. We have a program called Cool & Connected, a national project that creates stronger broadband capabilities in rural communities as a method of workforce development and as a method of creating more sustainable lifestyles.
Part of our goal was to bridge the broadband gap between urban and rural areas as a strategy for driving economic growth, and, frankly, helping small business. Strategically, we could just abandon all small businesses in rural communities and small towns because there's just not going to be enough people to support those main streets. But if we can figure out a way to connect them to larger sets of customers, they would have the ability to sell to them. But that requires broadband.
And for me, it gets back to the need to think about solutions for people who are born in a particular place to figure out how to be successful and to live a prosperous, healthy life in that community.