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The Inclusive City: On Homelessness and Urban Design

In the summertime, I’m an early morning runner. As I pass through the streets, the city is still and quiet, making any activity stand out. One recent Saturday morning was oppressively hot. Passing through Ezio Farone Park the first time, I spotted a man sleeping on the park bench. An hour later, I made a loop back through the same spot. The man sleeping on the bench had moved too, 10 feet from the bench, now sleeping underneath a small bush, where he could escape from the run.

While walking to work, I pass a convenience store where most days, an elderly bearded man sits on a bench next to a shopping cart of belongings. I nod and say hi, and he reciprocates.

I notice these interactions ever since I started working in the housing and homelessness sector. I once took a vacation to Portland to combat burnout at work, only to find myself obsessed about the street homelessness you see everywhere in the city’s core. Similarly, while I seek to clear my head when out running, I’m always snapped back to reality by signs of homelessness or otherwise marginalized individuals.

My community has made great strides towards ending homelessness in a short period of time. As I think about the people I come across, I wonder if public spaces and urban design, among other things, can play a greater role in making this happen faster and more effectively.

You can hardly open a paper (or an iPad in my case) without seeing a case study of what not to do. While there are good news stories like Rhode Island’s Homeless Bill of Rights, and Denver’s efforts to use transit to connect affordable housing to jobs, good schools, and quality services, the bad can seem to outweigh the good. A restaurant owner in Montreal wants to chase homeless youth from the area (where will they go that is safe and appropriate, one might wonder?) Seattle debates whether to make a homeless encampment permanent (as if to say, this is the best we’ll ever do for you). A city in Florida removed all the benches in a park to discourage homeless people from gathering (can they not co-exist with others?), and other cities have installed benches with arm-rests in the middle or that are u-shaped, in order to discourage sleeping on them.

It’s becoming more common to talk about designing cities in a manner that promotes better public health, for one, which I strongly support. But I think we also need to talk about designing better for inclusivity, especially for the most marginalized among us.

Most important in this is talking about how we design not just to serve marginalized people, but to support changing their circumstances for the better.

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Why FDR Still Matters

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 32nd President of the United States, was born 130 years ago on Monday. He was inaugurated in early 1933, while the Great Depression was still near his depth. He died in office 12 years later, with the Second World War still underway, early in his unprecedented (and now impossible) 4th consecutive term.

(Though there was no rule against it, it was a convention that no one would seek a third term as president, stemming from George Washington’s farewell address where he cautioned that no president should serve more than two terms. The unrest in Europe, then the United States’ effort in World War II served as FDR’s justification for his third and fourth terms. Congress later passed the 22nd amendment, formally limiting a president to two terms).

FDR

It goes without saying that, due to the events that transpired throughout his presidency, FDR is one of the most important presidents. It’s also my estimation that he is the greatest president of the post-reconstruction era (1865-present). While he was by no means perfect, and his administration had several notable failings, he is a historical figure I look up to, and find inspiration from several of his words and deeds.

While the great recession hasn’t reached the depths of the great depression, the economic struggles and instability make the lessons even more relevant today. Here are some of the things I think we can all learn from the 32nd President of the United States:

One of a Leader’s First Tasks is to Install Confidence
Taking office at the nadir of the Great Depression, one of FDR’s great tasks was to restore hope, and belief that things would get better. His fireside chats, and his famous words that there is “nothing to fear but fear itself” were critical steps, if not tangible, steps forward.

Don’t Be Afraid to Innovate, and Push for Change
The early years of FDR’s tenure were notable for several innovate social support and economic programs as part of the New Deal. This ranged from supporting large infrastructure works such as the Tennessee Valley Authority, to more targeted projects through the Works Progress Administration, to policy such as the Glass-Steagall Act. His administration demonstrated that government isn’t inherently a problem, and can be a force for good.

If You’re in a Privileged Position, Do Good
FDR was part of America’s upper class, and while that background and standing no doubt helped him achieve the positions of authority he did, he used his office to help the less fortunate, in many ways creating the modern welfare state in America.

It’s a lesson I think about every day in some small way. Whatever privilege I have, be it economic, social, intellectual, or otherwise, I should be doing something in some way to use the advantages I have to help others.

Great Depression
One of my favourite parts of the FDR memorial in Washington: a powerful statue of men waiting in line outside (what I remember to be) a soup kitchen.

130 years after his birth, and nearly 67 years after his death, America’s longest serving president is still an inspiration.