By: Allison Sloto
At the Pace Land Use Law Center’s 30th Annual Conference on December 6, 2013, hundreds of lawyers, planners, and municipal officials gathered to listen as Majora Carter gave the Conference’s keynote speech on “Home(town) Security!” Majora is an internationally renowned urban revitalization strategy consultant, real estate developer, and Peabody Award winning broadcaster. She is responsible for the creation & successful implementation of numerous green-infrastructure projects, policies, and job training & placement systems. After establishing several local and national organizations to carry on that work, she built on this foundation with innovative ventures and insights into urban economic developments designed to help move Americans out of poverty.[AS1]
Majora’s charismatic personality and the immense enthusiasm she has for her work were evident from the moment she took to the stage. Her talk focused on turning project ideas into reality, supplementing her points with examples from her extensive work in the Bronx. She began by explaining the way she approaches a problem; to focus on giving people hope with projects aimed at making their lives better, and through this process simultaneously inform policy.
Majora’s 5 Steps For Taking Making An Idea Into A Reality:
1. Identify what the market needs- what do people want?
2. Design an attractive solution.
3. Obtain the funding needed through seed money, angel investments, and gathering influence.
4. Launch a beta version. Give people something to see so they don’t lose interest.
5. Learn from this beta version so you can improve and expand your project.
For example, in the Bronx, there was a market need for a park; people in the community wanted to have the type of nice spaces seen in other localities. She used an illegal garbage dump, now known as Hunts Point Riverside Park, as her beta test. She gathered influential people in support of the project, who raised $3 million in seed money. In order to make the project successful, she had to program a culture of park usage and find creative ways to get community members to use and enjoy the park.
Another market need in the Bronx is transportation planning and traffic calming. A lack of infrastructure for safe walking creates higher levels of health problems, such as diabetes and obesity. Through the Greenway project, Majora sought to improve community walkability while also harnessing the benefits of improved stormwater management. A greenway is a skinny strip of green infrastructure meant to connect larger, open spaces together. A $1.25 million federal transportation grant and “angel money,” funded the beta version: a fairly unassuming raised median for traffic calming. Later, $50 million in city, state, federal, and private funding amped up the project and made it more physically appealing.
Jobs are a third market need in the Bronx, which has a 30% unemployment rate. Majora established a green training program, which began with an expensive beta version but blossomed into a relatively inexpensive and quickly moving training program. It greatly improved residents’ employment prospects, especially those who were impoverished and/or had been in and out of the criminal justice system. She also paired up with M.I.T. in 2006 to bring mobile “fab lab” units to the Bronx, which contain a computer and fabrication machines. They can be used to manufacture virtually anything, including technology, haute couture, outdoor apparel, food products, and organs for human transplant. Understanding that we live in a multiplatform world and embracing technological literacy was the motivation for another job-related project. Majora believes the true technical divide in the country stems not from access to technology, but rather merely consuming the technology versus producing it. She created a startup in the Bronx focusing on technology, which went to schools and taught 14- and 15- year-olds how to create their own video games. She also cultivated a relationship with Nickelodeon, where young adults ages 18+ worked with Nick on quality assurance for video games- an excellent entry-level job in the field. Providing these types of jobs and training allows the community to feel like creators in their own right, and keeps money circulating within the local economy. Together, these have the effect of making the community a desirable place where people will choose to remain. As Majora put so well, “we are our own keys to economic recovery.”
Based on these successes, Majora sought to further improve the Bronx by figuring out how real estate development could be accomplished in low-income communities without the seemingly inevitable results of either maintaining poverty-level economics (e.g. liquor stores, loan places, high amounts of subsidized affordable housing), or gentrifying the community (pushing out those who had become too poor to afford to live in the improved area). Majora stressed that it is of tantamount importance to have not just mixed commercial and residential areas, but also communities with a mix of income levels. When the poor see a neighbor doing well, it gives them the hope that they can do better. When different economic levels are segregated, the poor can’t know any better that this isn’t just their lot in life; what you don’t see, you won’t know exists. Her beta project is a street in the Bronx known for prostitution. The question to be answered: “what happens when you change the game with pedestrian access and mixed retail/residential buildings?” The idea for the project is to raise the bar on what it means to develop in low-income communities, and to develop financing models for investors. She hired local kids to create a mural project, and is currently working with Amtrak to acquire one of their properties and convert it into a lifestyle destination, complete with a restaurant, café, and spa.
Majora concluded with a respectful reference to the memory of Nelson Mandela, whose message was about creating communities, being alive, and giving. Her parting words resonated powerfully throughout the auditorium: “Lack of collective action makes life worse for the least among us. When we relate opportunities for the least among us, we create hope and the possibility of a better place.”
For more information about Majora, please visit http://www.majoracartergroup.com/bioawards/. You can also follow Majora on Twitter on twitter at @MajoraCarter and on facebook.com/majoracarter.
To learn more about the Pace Land Use Law Center, visit their website at http://www.law.pace.edu/landuse. You can also follow the Pace Land Use Law Center on twitter at @LandUseLC and on https://www.facebook.com/pages/Land-Use-Law-Center/110040402197.