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Realizing Mayor Lumumba's Promise

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When Chokwe Lumumba, Mayor of Jackson, Mississippi, passed away in February, he left behind a blueprint for combating poverty and promoting sustainability in America's post-industrial cities.

In his brief tenure as the mayor of a red state capital, Lumumba projected a vision that drew on green futurism, urban resilience planning, the co-op rich Mondragon region of Spain and the tradition of participatory democracy. Lumumba rooted his plan for Jackson in the same radical democratic analysis that guided his decades of activism. He was determined to build a city with clean water, community-owned renewable energy, racial justice, a transparent budgeting process and a wealth of green jobs.

Lumumba's vision, summarized in a document called Jackson Rising: Building the City of the Future Today , elevated unglamorous sectors with huge potential to impact the economic realities of the urban poor and working classes, like sewer infrastructure, energy efficiency and food. For Lumumba, economic growth was a process of creative experimentation in which rare corporate forms like worker cooperatives were combined with staid sectors like public works to create a political-economic reality that departed from the norm.

In Jackson Rising, Lumumba stated his commitments unequivocally, promising that his administration "would govern in accordance with human rights principles and standards... to create equity for all." He cited a litany of ills underlying the urban condition, including, "decades of economic divestment, deindustrialization, suburban flight, a declining tax base, chronic under and unemployment, poorly performing schools, and an antiquated and decaying infrastructure."

Repairing the city's decaying infrastructure, and in particular its failing sewage treatment system, was the centerpiece of Lumumba's action plan. Such investments often get second billing from leaders who see stadiums, convention centers and other bright, shiny objects as their salvation. With a calm yet forceful delivery and a laser-like focus on meeting the needs of his impoverished constituents, Lumumba gave sewers a new cache.

With Jackson, like many cities, operating under an EPA consent decree signed in November, 2012 aimed at bringing its aging combined-sewer infrastructure in compliance with the Clean Water Act, Lumumba seized the day, advancing a plan to train unemployed residents to complete green infrastructure projects that divert water from the storm drain while beautifying the city's landscape with rain gardens.

A report by the nonprofit Green for All estimates the total economic impact of addressing the crisis of water infrastructure, which has an outsized impact on older industrial cities with aging stormwater management systems, at $265 billion and finds that the sector could create 1.9 million jobs.

Lumumba's clarion call for justice in the city came at a time when many post-industrial cities trapped in destitution for decades are seeing new investment and population growth, part of a return-to-the-city trend dubbed the "Great Inversion" whereby middle-class hipsters raised in the suburbs and their empty-nest parents flock to the grittier, realer environs of downtowns once left for dead. Meanwhile, the suburbs they've departed see increasing numbers of poor residents fleeing the inner city because of declining services or rising rents.

The return of the middle class to cities devastated by white flight and corporate disinvestment was facilitated in part by the New Urbanist movement, which brought the fundamentals of good urban planning -- walkability, density, mixed-use districts -- to policymakers and the masses. Cities experiencing new waves of growth after decades of decline now take New Urbanist planning principles as articles of faith. In creative class hotbeds like Portland and Pittsburgh, replacing waterfront highways with promenades and repurposing warehouse districts as live/work/shop playgrounds for the creative class is all the rage.

But even as Detroit's downtown attracts young professionals and Cleveland's theater district booms with high-end housing, the poverty and structural racism that have long plagued America's former industrial capitals continue to fester. While loft construction booms in once-forgotten downtowns, the child poverty rate has increased in 44 of the largest 50 cities, reaching epidemic levels in struggling manufacturing centers. More than half the children in Detroit and Cleveland now live below the poverty line.

Mayor Lumumba refused to accept growing inequality in our cities as a given. If place-making was the touchstone of New Urbanism, people-making anchored Lumumba's New Economy movement.

Lumumba's particular brand of populism -- rooted in a New Economy vision of community -- controlled enterprise growing up at the grassroots in sectors that promote the health of the planet and the resilience and self-sufficiency of the people -- is building momentum. In many cities under consent orders from the EPA to clean up their waterways, next-generation infrastructure initiatives employing residents from low-income neighborhoods are gaining steam.

A recent report issued by the Buffalo-based think-tank Partnership for the Public Good and PUSH Buffalo, the organization I direct, details best practices for launching community-controlled social enterprises in the green infrastructure sector. The report reviews the progress of groups like the Onondaga Earth Corps in Syracuse, a workforce development program whose crew members build urban forestry projects, stormwater management projects, private property and community environmental education and outreach, and Verde, which approaches its work with an environmental justice lens and offers stormwater management installation and maintenance services to an array of public and private clients while paying family sustaining wages and incorporating an advocacy agenda.

A new and robust model of urbanism that promotes the vitality of places and the social health of people living in them is emerging in cities large and small. When the history of the New Economy movement is written, it will show that Mayor Chokwe Lumumba was the spark. His legacy lives on through the Jackson Rising movement, which will convene a national New Economies conference this May.