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Elegant Densities

These remarks are drawn from Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown's breakfast speech on Sustainable Development at the General Assembly of the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) in April. He's confronted by post-industrial AmericaŚcrumbling schools, neighborhoods with crime and double-digit unemployment rates, and a suspect police force. He wants to create construction jobs and stimulate the retail and entertainment sectors. He's trying to bring 10,000 people to live downtown. He's trying not to overwhelm these areas with too much new traffic or turn downtown Oakland into a gentrified hub at the expense of low-income residents. Hardcore sustain-ability trying to navigate between ideals and the zen of nitty-gritty practice.

From a market point of view, one of the most dangerous possibilities in contemporary cities would be if the majority of people had deeply satisfying relationships. If people actually enjoyed one another's company, that would be devastating to shopping. So one of the driving forces here is the increasing neurosis that pushes the market to ever-higher levels. Marshall McLuhan once explained this to me: he said the bad news of reality paves the way for the good news of advertising. You look at the newspaper today and you see all the bad news of reality, and you look at the advertisements, and they're good. They make you feel warm and fuzzy, a very pleasant experience compared to the news. All that underwear stuff they put in the San Francisco Chronicle . The white sale. It's designed that way. And it's not sustainable.

So what we're looking at is not only a technical fix but an attitudinal shift. That shift is not going to come from meetings like this. And if you think that politics is some way to change that, you have to understand that politics is inside the market. At the moment, there's no ringing alternative to the fundamental principle of "return on investment." In fact, President Clinton was quoted after his first year in office as saying, "If I could come back and be reincarnated, I'd like to come back as the bond market." He had had to back off on invest-in-people projects, because the bond market didn't like that. When the G-7 nations get together, they don't talk about political philosophy, they don't talk about social justice, and they don't talk about sustainability in any honest way. They talk about opening up markets and reducing various barriers to the accelerated flow of stuff across national borders.

That's the big picture on sustainability, and it's the reason why I don't like to use the word any more, because I think it's not very honest.

Potholes and Conviviality

Now, down in Oakland, where we're practical, we're dealing with potholes. I want to tell you why I'm so focused on potholes. They're small, they're physical, people don't like them. And you can eliminate them in a short period of time. They're much easier to deal with than what I was just talking about. That's why I've become the biggest champion of pothole removal. I am interested in down-to-earth stuff, like more policemen on the streets, fewer potholes to drive over.

I'm trying to do things that will, at least indirectly, deal with the issue of sustainability. That's why I've said let's have some density. Instead of having a vision of Pleasanton [a local suburb], we could have a vision of Manhattan. In fact, at one meeting, I said, "Think Hong Kong." That's come back to me with some derision.

People don't like that, because they like space. So I've tried to create an image that would make it more acceptable. I call it "elegant density." Have you ever tried to go from one side of Manhattan to another? That's "elegant density." People are close to one another. You have time in your car. You're not going to get there in five minutes, so you can enjoy having a conversation with the person with you. You have to enjoy where you are. It is a lot of people, and it is alive and there is culture and art, and yes, there is money and investment. It's a hell of a civilization. I don't know how sustainable it is, but it is active.

My vision of downtown Oakland is to go beyond the bureaucratic monoculture. We have a tremendous investment in the federal, state, county, and city buildings and we have a wonderful, beautiful plaza. Now we've got to get some people there. After six o'clock, everyone's on the road. Our City Center is a great place, but on Saturday and Sunday, there are more pigeons and seagulls than people. I want to convert some of those office buildings and get more people living there.

Then you get cafes. We have a nice brick building next to City Hall. We just came through a hell of a fight because the person taking the building wanted to have all offices; finally I got the first floor reserved for an Italian cafe. So when they put some tables out there, we can have a glass of wine in the afternoon when this worrying about sustainability becomes too intense, and we can trade some conviviality. And that is root central to sustainability. The most important thing you can do for sustainability is to improve the quality of your relationships. So you don't spend so much time creating pollution. Create love. Create joy.

We are looking to the private sector to invest downtown. So we have to reduce crime. People aren't going to put up their good money if they feel they're going to get mugged or their cars are going to get broken into. If you're going to have a real city, you need people of all ages. If you need people with families, you need good schools.

The suburbs are cheaper, cleaner, safer, and they have better schools. The city has to trump that, and it can do so with culture, accessibility, and a flow of human activity that is ultimately more satisfying and fulfilling. And I believe that having people live closer to where they work will begin to illustrate a different form of development. The problem is, of course, even that development is opposed by everybody. There is no project in Oakland that hasn't been opposed.

I believe revivifying, restoring life to the core areas of our cities, is crucial. And of course, the final part of that is people getting along together. Division by race and ethnicity and tradition and income level is very powerful. I would say the social, human barriers are even greater than the ecological. They're all implicated in urban living, and that's why the city is such an exciting place to be and why, whatever is going on in Washington or Sacramento, it's the urban space that determines where America and the world are going.

Bringing it Home

[An audience member asks whether it's possible to focus on local problems without losing sight of issues such as global warming and the militarization of the national budget.]

Well, tell me how you're going to impact the global climate, because I'd really like to know that. A lot of people think that if they listen to KPFA [a Berkeley progressive radio station], they can affect the global climate. People read the New York Times , which basically prints news over which we have no control, but it still appears to be more interesting than the Oakland Tribune . I canceled my subscription to the New York Times when I started running for mayor, and started subscribing to the Tribune.

It's very satisfying to read about stuff that's five thousand miles away. It's a hell of a lot harder to deal with the fact that in McClymonds High School, the reading performance is miserable. Dealing with racial division, school improvement, friendly streets, and a beautiful, interesting downtown and an interesting cityŚthat is big stuff. It's not that easyŚmaking an urban school district improve, dealing with welfare-to-work. But we can have some impact on that. If you want to have study groups about Serbia, I think that's good. But I don't think you can have an impact. The big leverage point for us as human beings is to deal with what is within our grasp, and that is what's closest in hand. So I think ABAG is more important than NATO right now.

So I will conclude with this: sustainability is a serious thought, but you have to dissect it to understandits full ramifications. There is no plan of sustainabilityon the table at ABAG, or probably anywhere else in political circles.

You're not going to escape from "sustainability," but we're making very little impact at this point. We need some ABAG indicators. Pick ten things. How many miles are driven in the Bay Area? We ought to know that. Then could we say let's move it down 3 percent? How many pollutants are there? Kids living near the freeway have more incidents of asthma. That's real; and most of it's low-income. Could we have a collective indicator that says that we in Oakland, or Alameda, San Francisco, Sonoma, or wherever, are driving this much; next year we want to hold it steady or reduce it by a half point? That's not happening. We're just expanding and we have no benchmarks to judge how we're doing. I think ABAG has a very important role.