By Edgar Reyna-Estrada
From Venice to Amsterdam, from London to New York City, metropolitan areas have been breeding grounds for the accumulation and reproduction of capital for many centuries. Throughout this process of urban growth, the idea of an urban society has been distinguished from that of the rural life as one that holds the opportunity for financial security.
Governments were created to help provide resources for those that rule cities, and stakeholders have always made sure to push for the infrastructure they needed to generate more wealth. This model is quite simple and has been used through numerous civilizations, but took a more familiar look to what we see now as the global economic model during the 15th century with feudalism coming to an end. This economic model is one that flows into any structure necessary for it to continue growing and has changed every social structure in its path. Although what I am describing seems quite abstract, it is something that is overwhelmingly perceptible throughout everyday life.
The continued growth and development of Fresno is intrinsically tied to the global economic processes that have led to the empowerment and disenfranchisement of many groups in regions around the world. While many issues in Fresno are not prevalent in every community within the city or the region, it is still important to understand how it has been possible for different communities, cities, regions or nations to build on their own mechanisms to further empower themselves economically, socially and politically, so we can find a way to improve the conditions around us. Just as going from neighborhood to neighborhood to learn more about our communities’ needs is integral in the process of social change, it is equally important to identify and understand how our localities linked to a larger process of development.
The creation of real distinctions and differences from abstract ideas has become a clear sign of the development of this global economic model since before non-native peoples settled in the Fresno area. The history of creation of the city of Fresno is part of a long process that has altered and destroyed communities throughout its course of development. While analyzing the issues associated with the global economic model of capitalism, many problems may come to seem as a natural part of the development process. Simple differences between one group and the rest of society can create deeply rooted issues that lead to larger problems.
For example, the action of dividing land and creating boundaries that distinguishes a group inside and another outside of the lines is a simple, but concrete, example of a division created through the development of political regions. This is not intended to point out or ignore the issues associated with the division of land but rather to provide an example of how such a basic distinction/ division between two or more groups can lead to many more problems in order to uphold the boundaries created through the global economic processes. The creation and function of financial, cultural and political institutions (e.g., governments, banks and media outlets) have been controlled by groups of actors in the private sector in order to further their accumulation of wealth throughout the world.
A local example of how governmental institutions are platforms for economic growth in the capitalist model is the currently debated issue of land-use regulation in Fresno. Regulating the use of land can be seen as an impediment to economic growth, but it can also be understood as a tool for economic growth. Both views are distinct from one another, and both of them hold an abundance of possibilities when it comes to their different effects.
Allowing for a free-for-all in economic development through speculative land use can lead to the disparities largely visible in cities like New Delhi or Rio de Janeiro, where it is highly likely to have a skyscraper just a few blocks away from a shanty town. But by seeing it as a tool for economic growth and deciding what sorts of uses the land can be appropriated for can lead to the development of places like Utrecht or Copenhagen, where sustainability isn’t simply environmental, but economic and social as well. Those are simply two examples that highlight how differences in policy management strategies can lead to diverse results.
Unfortunately, the deregulation of land use has usually led to social, economic and environmental disparities around the world. Wealth has been accumulated through land-use policies, but many groups have been denied the opportunity of obtaining such wealth through the same process. The appropriation of land and the extraction of natural resources (e.g., gold mining on native land in California), redlining (legal in the United States until 1968) and gentrification (currently ongoing)—these are all examples of changes in land use that are part of a larger process of structural changes that still affect development processes in Fresno.
Many developers see Fresno as a place of opportunity for large-scale economic growth because the region holds thousands of acres of “undeveloped land,” and they wish to use political controls (e.g., the City Council’s vote on the General Plan) to further the development of the global-economic model through deregulation. There are too many examples from around the world (e.g., loss of natural space in Santiago, Chile; economic disparities in the suburbs of Paris, France; the gentrification of Oakland, Calif.) to accept a free-market model of land use in Fresno.
To create a healthier community, we need to understand that the policies implemented in this city are not stand-alone actions. They have deep-seeded roots in a global process in which financial, political and cultural institutions are bent and manipulated for none other than the model’s own benefit of further reproduction. It is necessary to organize and identify what systems are generating changes at a local level in order to reimagine how we can use local financial, political and cultural institutions to improve the quality of life in our communities.
Edgar Reyna-Estrada is an urban studies graduate student at Universidad Autónoma de México, focusing on processes for regional development. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.