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Aaron Bartley

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The Recovery Runs Through the City

Posted: 01/17/12 04:07 PM ET

Recent studies showing that about half of Americans are low income and are more likely to be stuck at lower rungs of the class ladder than Canadian and European peers are indicators of a larger, more vexing reality: the American working class is rapidly losing ground on nearly every front and there is no significant dialogue in national political circles about how to counter the trends.

The litany of ills is familiar to progressives: wages stagnant since 1973; unemployment and chronic underemployment hovering intractably above 15 percent; the foreclosure crisis still intensifying with a recent spike in default filings; and a chronically dysfunctional health care system with the ranks of uninsured now swelling past 50 million.

Right-wing economic policy and a broken political system underlie the crisis and have stunted efforts to confront it. Beginning in the mid-1960s, corporations -- cheered on by most economists and policymakers -- reduced industrial capital investment in the United States steadily. As a result, employment in the manufacturing sector, which had long been the ticket to stability and consumer class status for working Americans, has fallen by about 7 million jobs from its peak in the mid-1970s.

With the folly of relying on growth in the finance sector to compensate for losses in manufacturing now brought into focus by the financial crisis, the building blocks for economic recovery and job growth are more elusive than ever.

A toxic politics dominated by corporate money and contorted by culture wars has so far foreclosed any meaningful national dialogue about our fallen state. Instead of forward-looking and strategic investments in infrastructure and research designed to foster sustainable growth, both parties have treated us to a variant of a contrived austerity position, which says that by cutting public expenditure to the bone and accepting permanently higher unemployment, happy days will return at some time in the future , no matter the inefficiencies of our sprawling cities, rising poverty rates, ongoing corporate disinvestment and an intra-urban transportation system premised on $1 gas.

In the absence of national direction, leaders at the neighborhood, regional and state levels have put forward innovative and scalable development initiatives with triple-bottom-line impacts, meaning that they benefit people and the planet and generate sustainable economic growth.

New efforts to scale up the building retrofit sector; expand light-rail transportation; update aging urban sewers and water infrastructure; and foster growth in low-income neighborhoods are united in a vision of sustainable urbanism -- with building walkable commnities with, dynamic small business sectors, high-road labor standards and repaired farm-to-city food systems as the symbiotic objectives.

The building retrofit sector -- centered on energy-efficiency improvements such as insulation and furnace replacements in homes and small businesses -- has made great strides in recent years. With the passage of Green Jobs/Green NY, now being launched across New York State, property owners will be able to finance green retrofits on their buildings with no up-front capital. Through an "on-bill" program, loans taken out for qualifying efficiency improvements can be paid back directly on utility bills over a 15-year period. In most cases, the savings accrued in the form of reduced utility costs cover the loan costs. The New York program builds on successes at the municipal level in Portland, OR, and Washington D.C..

By requiring community-based implementation of the program, Green Jobs/Green NY builds in leverage for ensuring that jobs produced by the additional retrofit construction, which are projected to be as many as 28,000 over the next five years, are accessible to the people who need them the most and offer decent wages and working conditions.

With champions like Clinton's Global Initiative, the NYC-based Center for Working Families, the Laborers' International Union and Green For All, the retrofit sector has the backing to scale-up nationally, especially since the household economics underlying the program speak for themselves. Every dollar spent on qualifying green improvements equates with about one dollar saved on utility bills.

According to one university's estimate, extending retrofit access to all American homeowners would generate $1.3 trillion in construction and 1.3 million jobs. Going green would also mean lower utility bills for 130 million homeowners and reduced carbon emissions.

High-road transportation investment is another sector that offers the promise of building sustainable cities while creating decent jobs. In the Denver region, with oversight from the community organization FRESC, the Regional Transportation District has launched an ambitious light- and commuter-rail expansion plan that will connect the urban core with satellite cities in the vicinity. For the $8 billion renovation of Union Station, one piece of a comprehensive plan that includes the construction of 122 miles of rail, FRESC won commitments to a living wage for service workers in the completed development, green building standards, commercial space for local businesses and an apprenticeship program low-income workers.

FRESC is a member of the DC-based Partnership for Working Families, which through affiliates like LAANE in Los Angeles, has won commitments to high-road standards on infrastructure projects valued in the tens of billions.

In Pittsburgh, the city's sewer authority has launched a multi-faceted effort to invest in green infrastructure to combat the problem of combined sewer overflow, which contaminates rivers, lakes and streams near older industrial cities throughout the northeast and midwest. With a capital budget of about $40 million annually, the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority has begun to repair and replace ageing sewer lines while the city and community organizations have collaborated on an array of greening initiatives aimed at diverting rainwater from the sewer system, including the restoration of key watersheds like the Panther Hollow Watershed. The Nine Mile Run Watershed Association, which oversees this work, had installed more than 1,300 rain barrels since 2004 throughout the district. The efforts also include the scaling up of rain gardens on formerly vacant lots and reforestation of vacant land, both designed to absorb excess run-off.

The Pittsburgh Pipeline, a nonprofit organization, has teamed with institutional leaders to create a pathway to employment on the range of water improvement projects happening in the region.

At the neighborhood level, Green Zones have emerged in the low-income neighborhoods of cities such as Kansas City, Springfield, MA and Buffalo. The Zones integrate focused affordable housing development, weatherization, urban agriculture, vacant lot sustainability projects, community organizing and green job training to build momentum for community-controlled revitalization. The Zones have become national models of sustainability by becoming laboratories of green experimentation and generating economic activity at the grassroots, while preserving affordability and defending against forms of predatory speculation. By building power at the grassroots, groups like Alliance to Develop Power and PUSH, which I direct, have demonstrated that people know what they need where they live and have the capacity for self-determination, given some access to resources.

The imaginative solutions to systemic ills bubbling up at the regional, municipal and community-levels could jumpstart a national movement to build a new economy, one in which capital formation and developmental control are rooted in communities over the long term. This movement could build on the growing recognition -- thanks to the Occupy movement -- of the unstable and unjust inequities impacting American society and unite youth, the unemployed, and the working class around a real and achievable vision of sustainable and equitable growth in our urban areas.