G-Sync: A Just, Equitable City

Many of us want to believe Grand Rapids, or any city we call home, is a just and equitable place. The only way to prove such a theory is to dive head first into research. Grand Rapids may soon have the answer.

Chris Benner, an associate professor in Human and Community Development at the University of California Davis, will be in our city to deliver a lecture on Just Growth at the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce's annual Diversity Visionary Award ceremony.

Benner co-authored the mind-shifting book Just Growth with Professor Manuel Pastor, professor of Geography and America Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California. Their research posed the question, "If inequity got us in the mess we are today, what would happen if we leveled out this imbalance to achieve a recovery?"

If you think this book is simply another business blueprint for only one person to follow, then think again; the data and case studies contained within clearly indicate that for just growth to take place, it must be a collective effort, and Benner is most powerful in his findings when we shares clear examples of this growth in cities around the country.   

The research at the core of this project comes from the data collected from the United States Census (1980 and 1990). The authors also examine other depositories of facts sometimes overlooked by others. For example, when seeking a clearer snapshot of income, sites like the Internal Revenue Service provide a much clearer picture than someone just checking a box on a form as we do with the Census.

But their research also went to the doorsteps, as all good on-the-ground investigations do, as they studied seven U.S. cities identified as places where just growth has happened, is happening, or could potentially happen in the future.   

The result of this research unearths a series of steps other cities have taken -- a set of factors or a formula, if you will, that helps individual cities correct these equitable imbalances and thrive in a healthy fashion, but more importantly, do so in a time of volatile growth in an ever-changing world.

When Benner presents this material, it is hard not to feel like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz when she discovers all she really needed was right there at her feet.

Benner discovers in his work that equitable cities grow faster. But what is really important is that most city's roles often intersect on an international scale, and as a result, this new approach to growth where social justice and inclusion are given a priority in a society is important. We are a community that plays in an international arena more and more, so regional policies are flowing up the "food chain" of governing and policy.

If a city or a region is to remain viable moving into the future, then we will need more than just growth to bring us around during the coming economic challenges that are a given in a volatile marketplace. We will need to place our focus on social justice to help us better navigate the decades ahead.

"This is really about a simple model of not just knowing together," says Benner, referring to the cities’ representatives who have figured out they need to do more than just talk. "If we are to be successful in the future, we will need to grow together."

Benner points out that with each of the three major economic turnarounds of the last 50 years, we have seen less and less return on the numbers as it relates to our jobless growth each time. At the current recovery, we are looking at only a two percent growth rate as compared to the post-1950s rate of four percent.

For just growth to occur, the authors conclude that "a framework in which imperatives of equity have been coupled with strategies to shore up the macro-economy, spur new industrial development, and re-regulate the financial system" must be built.  

One of the most fascinating aspects to their research is that the cities that were doing the best in the area of just growth were those places where they had the highest percentage of the workforce in the public sector. According to Benner, this figure is often seen as counterintuitive to people.

"So often it gets portrayed that growth is what happens in the economy and the government's (role is to) take resources from the economy as they invest in the public good," says Benner. "And this is the wrong way to think about it. The private sector is an integrated part of an economic ecosystem. Part of the public sector is about investing in the physical, social structure that we need in society to create a functioning economy."

An upside presented in this book is that a healthy balance of public and private actually helps buffer a region when a downturn in the economy happens.

A key indicator of a 'just growth' city is that they are not boom or bust places, but ones very deliberate in their pursuit of equity as evident in a variety of programs and practices. This is why in the book, the cities are not the ones that typically come to mind or grab the headlines.

Another key component is that cities with this level of attention tend to foster wages at a better rate than those who lack the just growth focus. This philosophy almost always benefits the minority cultures of the community, thus providing a greater stake in the city’s equity for all people.   

In case you think this is going to delve into a conversation on the level of the Occupy Movement, it is worth noting out of these seven cities studied, four of these cities -- Kansas City, Nashville, Jacksonville, and Columbus -- have all taken the proper steps to ensure many members of the community benefit from such policies. And some have had these practices in place often as early as the 1970s. These models at our feet are something that has intrigued Benner.  

And a lot has happened since this book was published, too.

"When I arrive in Grand Rapids, I will be presenting an update on the research for the very first time," says Benner. "This update is attributed to the fact that since we published our book, the latest census data has been released on the cities we studied and will provide an exciting update to our research."

While on this trip to Grand Rapids, Benner will have the opportunity to interview many key individuals as he preps for a follow up book on the topic of "Just Growth." Grand Rapids will become a part of a new case study. 

The core of all just growth success appears to be attributed to a process we should have learned when we were younger. Benner shares that learning to listen to each other is a critical first step in this process.

True, I may not be a mathematician or someone who typically pours over such data-rich books devoted to the social science of a city, however, it is worth noting that over the course of one hour, Benner handled such heady academic material and distilled it to a palpable level.

The Future Needs All of Us.

Tommy Allen
Lifestyle Editor
[email protected]

The best of the city is here at G-Sync Events.

For more nformation about Chris Benner's March 20, 5:30 p.m. keynote address at the Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park, please visit the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce site for details.

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