I’m Working for a Healthy City


I focus my skills and time on making my city a healthy city, playing a supporting role to the countless others also doing that work.

So what does that mean?

I offered a preview of my future work in my previous sabbatical post. As I hinted there, my work will be local, it will explicitly foster “equity,” it will focus on practial and specific goals, and I will use a network approach.

But what do I mean when I say “healthy city?” And given all that needs doing, what principles will I use to choose where to pitch in?

A healthy city works for every person in it, particularly those with less access to resources. Image credit: Ethan Cherin

A healthy city works for every person in it, particularly those with less access to resources.
Image credit: Ethan Cherin

Defining a Healthy City

I have something specific in mind when I say “healthy city.” It is not the Minneapolis and St. Paul that exists today, although we have some bright spots we can grow.

A healthy city works for every person in it, particularly people with less access to resources.

To work for everyone, it must respect each person’s self-defined identity and support each person’s self-determination.

That means each person, whatever their identity, feels respected in the design of spaces, in interactions, and in having access to the benefits of living in the city. It also means each person feels respected as they work toward personal and community goals and in voicing their own needs.

No individual’s self-defined identity or self-determination can disrespect that of others. The city can’t work for me or for us if it doesn’t work for everyone.

Only in this healthy city can each person contribute to the city to their fullest, in their own unique way.

We don’t have this city today. Systemic oppression of Native and Black people is a fact, documented through our “worst in nation” racial disparities ranking. It’s a fact for all people of color, doubly so for women and queer people of color. While my work spans all sorts of power and inclusion, I see race as a fundamental issue that has to be integrated into everything.

Three Principles for Achieving a Healthy City

These principles guide how I invest my time and focus my work. I’m sharing a bright spot that illustrates each one, something we can learn from and borrow from.

Rectifying Historical Imbalances of Power

To address historical imbalances, we must first name them. Then, we can work to rebalance them and redress the compound interest that has accumulated over centuries.

A resilient, self-regulating web of institutions reinforces these imbalances. They exist in economic incentives, social norms, policies, and cultural habits. Political power, access to capital, the education and justice systems, personal social networks, control of the media, and a host of other examples illustrate these imbalances.

One local effort to rectify a long-standing imbalance is the Minneapolis Complete Streets policy. This quote from the policy names the historical imbalance of power. It also states how it will redress the inequity we have today, prioritizing what we have historically neglected:

The Minneapolis "modal priority framework" graphic.

The Minneapolis “modal priority framework” graphic.

In the 20th century, transportation planning and infrastructure investments in Minneapolis – as in most US cities – became skewed towards providing more efficient movement for motorized travel. Minneapolis is committed to rebalancing its transportation network by clearly prioritizing walking, taking transit, and biking over driving motorized vehicles, in a manner that provides for acceptable levels of service for all modes.

Aligning Actions with Values

To change our culture and to heal the historical trauma many of our communities live with, we must align our actions with our values. In our work, we must act with integrity, patiently and consistently. That integrity must be present in every interaction, every meeting, every campaign, and every outcome. If it is not, we are simply trading one wrong for another. Only patience and consistency can create a healthy city occupied by respected people.

One amazing local example is Grease Rag’s work to provide safer spaces. Grease Rag encourages and empowers women/ trans/ femme (WTF) cyclists in a collaborative and fun learning environment through rides, discussions, shop nights and educational seminars in a safer space.

GR is attentive to the details that make their space safer. They have a pinned post at the top of their Facebook page naming behavior expectations in their space. Group moderators post reminders of the expectations and group members respectfully call out those not meeting them. There is similar info on their website, and fliers that they hand out at events. And, they practice what they preach at EVERY gathering, event, and online space. This follow-through has created a supportive community where a different, safer culture aligns actions with values.

Knitting Community Together

We must reconnect our communities across racial, geographic, linguistic, and other gaps.

Our cities have divided communities with physical barriers like freeways and railroad tracks, often intentionally using them to reinforce racial and class differences. A healthy city must see itself as interdependent and whole. A healthy city is a place that thrives thanks to connections across racial, physical, and linguistic gaps.

One local example of bridging a physical barrier is work to reconnect parts of the Rondo neighborhood. Intentionally separated during freeway construction, today local and institutional partners are working to design a new bridge covering I-94 at Dale Street. This bridge will hopefully shield those who cross it from the hostile traffic noise and reconnect the neighborhood.

Capitol Pathways 2016 Interns

Capitol Pathways 2016 Interns.   Image credit Capitol Pathways program/Citizens League

A relationship-based example is the Capital Pathways program. The internship program places students of color with organizations working at the state Capital. It strengthens Minnesota’s government by giving overwhelmingly white advocates and state leadership access to young people more representative of the state’s population.

My Work Moving Forward

This is my personal, ambitious vision for the healthy city I want to live in, a city that works for every person in it, a city where each individual feels respected. It’s a vision which challenges White Minnesotans’ mythology about our state and our cities. It requires cultural change and a willingness to confront discomfort.

My understanding of a healthy city will shift as I engage with others who share pieces of my vision. As we work together, their perspectives will show me new ways our city respects and fails to respect those who need it most.

This vision inspires me to reach out to people I don’t know and to put myself in situations were I’m uncomfortable. It reminds me to listen to those already addressing problems and to volunteer my support when called. It insists I engage people willing to listen and learn and compromise, people who are undermining systemic oppression and power imbalances that exist.

Achieving this vision is my work. I’m looking for those addressing power imbalances and knitting communities together, where I can offer my skills. I’m looking for partners who align their actions with their values.

Are you working on things that connect to this, too? May I join you?