Hope and Health Top Cities' Agenda -Newark Conference offers Integrated Urban Strategies

"The most important issue regarding cities is getting people to believe that things can be different," said Carol Coletta, Senior Fellow with the Kresge Foundation's American Cities Practice and luncheon keynote speaker for the second NJ Spotlight on Cities conference in Newark. Gazing at the audience of 200 urban activists, she added, "it’s a modest proposition!"

  Conference participants in NJPAC Lobby

Conference participants in NJPAC Lobby

Far from a modest affair, the full-day conference in the spacious New Jersey Performing Arts Center, presented by the online news site NJ Spotlight, featured 52 speakers in 19 different sessions. Topics ranged from environmental justice and comprehensive health care to community schools, transportation, corporate responsibility, and opioid recovery.  Five New Jersey mayors, three legislators, planners, developers, and a dozen nonprofit leaders in health, arts, and economic development participated as panelists. A late-afternoon session introduced four New Jersey gubernatorial candidates.

The conversations I heard were sobering yet upbeat, citing both systemic problems and heartening progress. In a panel on "Creating Healthy Urban Areas," Dr. Ana Baptista, Environmental Policy and Sustainability Management Program Chair at the New School, acknowledged the breakthrough ordinance passed in Newark on July 15 after seven years of sustained effort. Called the Environmental Justice and Cumulative Impacts Ordinance, the ruling requires full evaluation of "environmental benefits, impacts, and burdens" before development projects are approved. 

  Plenary session in NJPAC's Chase Room

Plenary session in NJPAC's Chase Room

 Bryan Morton (Parents for Great Camden Schools); Paul Smith (Rutgers University-Camden); Sean Brown (Media Mobilizing Project)

Bryan Morton (Parents for Great Camden Schools); Paul Smith (Rutgers University-Camden); Sean Brown (Media Mobilizing Project)

Dr. Nicky Sheats, Director of the Center for the Urban Environment at Thomas Edison State University's John S. Watson Institute, spoke about "disproportional air pollution in poorer urban neighborhoods" that's often caused by toxic particulate matter in diesel exhaust. He sees the EPA's clean power plan, which sets national standards for the reduction of carbon pollution from power plants, as an incentive for state legislation, and imagines a future with no diesel-powered cars or trucks allowed in cities.

Newark Mayor Ras Baraka called for "serious investment" in cities to counter the long trend of neglect that began with post World War II movements to suburbs. One shocking statistic of New Jersey inequality he cited was an average of 17% college attainment in Newark, versus 47% state-wide.  "We need an urban Marshall Plan," Baraka said, and the courage to "create a Great Society again”. 

A panel entitled "Integrated Health: New Hope For Complete Care?" emphasized the need to coordinate mental and physical health care, and to view access to healthy food, greenhouses, farmers markets, and even job-training programs as healthcare strategies. Barbara Mintz, Vice President of Healthy Living and Community Wellness for RWJBarnabas Health, cited a 14-year difference in average life expectancy between residents in certain Princeton and Trenton zip codes, though separated by only a few miles.

Though the conference was geared to policy goals and outcomes, several sessions raised issues of inclusion and flexibility in the urban planning process. Calling for a "proactive, creative process that builds bridges," designer Braden Crooks, founding partner of Designing the We, posed a string of questions: "What brings neighborhoods together; how to assess resources; how to engage citizens in planning?" We need "a sustained practice of community building that everyone can get involved in." 

 Barbara George Johnson (Thomas Edison State University); Braden Crooks (Designing the We); Lester Taylor (Mayor of East Orange); Paul Silverman (SILVERMAN) 

Barbara George Johnson (Thomas Edison State University); Braden Crooks (Designing the We); Lester Taylor (Mayor of East Orange); Paul Silverman (SILVERMAN) 

Afternoon sessions on "Individuality" and "Encouraging the Urban Student's Authentic Voice” answered that creative call, and featured recent graduates of Essex County Bloomfield Tech, as well as Sheikia Norris, aka "Purple Haze" of NJPAC's Hip-Hop Institute. 

An intriguing question about the role of nonprofits was asked by Marty Johnson, Founder and CEO of Isles, Inc. Johnson recounted Isles's 2014 assessment of over 31,000 vacant properties in Trenton, which resulted in a significant upward revision of Trenton's official residential vacancy rate to 21% from 13%. "Should Isles keep doing this," Johnson asked. "Whose job is it, and who are nonprofits accountable to?"   

The questions are salient, as more people are moving to cities and requiring more basic services, even as fewer government dollars are allocated. Given that one purpose of nonprofits is to "ease the burdens of government," and in view of the nonprofit affiliations of many conference participants, a look at the role of nonprofits in 21st century urban growth could be a panel of interest in a future "Cities" conference.