Former HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros engaged audience at October SPDC Guest Lecture, highlighted impact of urbanization on the U.S. and the growth of the Latino community

In celebration of National Hispanic Heritage Month, Henry Cisneros, the former U.S. Secretary of Housing and Development, was invited by the School of Planning, Design and Construction to give a lecture Oct. 11 at MSU.

November 21, 2017 - Author: Heidi Macwan

Photo of Henry Cisneros.
Henry Cisneros, the former U.S. Secretary of Housing and Development, and current co-chair of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Immigration Task Force.

In celebration of National Hispanic Heritage Month, Henry Cisneros, the former U.S. Secretary of Housing and Development, was invited by the School of Planning, Design and Construction (SPDC) to give a lecture Oct. 11 at Michigan State University.

As a four-time mayor of San Antonio, Texas, Cisneros is one of the first Hispanic Americans to have run a major city. The American Mayor named him one of the nation’s 15 best mayors of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Cisneros currently co-chairs the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Immigration Task Force, where he considers all aspects of immigration reform and encourages dialogue among interest groups and decision makers.

He spoke on three topics: Cities and the economy, smart growth and sustainability, and American Latinos and the nation’s future.

Cisneros began his presentation by talking about the importance of land grant institutions like Michigan State University and Texas A&M University, where he attended school and sat on the board, for which he has great respect for these institutions.   

He has a degree in urban planning from Texas A&M’s Department of Urban Planning, which is housed in the School of Architecture. He congratulated SPDC and its associated colleges for bringing together the building art disciplines under one roof, and for offering “multidisciplinary, cross-cutting courses that resemble what students will face in real life.”

“It is fitting that the School of Planning Design and Construction brought Dr. Cisneros to campus in celebration of National Hispanic Heritage Month. Although the impacts of the growth of the Latino population in America have begun to permeate all of American life, they are most evident in our urban spaces,” said SPDC Associate Professor Rene Rosenbaum.

Cisneros also discussed a demographic trend on the continuing urbanization of the country and what that means for America. “Today, in the world, more people live in cities than in rural areas for the first time in recorded history,” he said.

He shared that 65% of American people live in just the 100 largest cities, and they generate 75% of the country’s GDP, and they generate 78% of the country’s patents and research activities. He also touched on the importance of ports, airports and cargo facilities as important connectors of the world, which are driven by metro areas.

Factors that contribute to the primacy of urban areas, in the U.S. and around the world, where the economy has moved away from a manufacturing economy to a multitude of urban-friendly industries, such as professional and business services, international trade, anchor institutions like higher education and big medical centers, etc., which attract young entrepreneurs.

Cisneros commented that cities are becoming more entrepreneurial and partnering with public-private partnerships. That core cities are starting to collaborate with their suburbs in the metro at large, instead of operating as separate entities.

Then, he said there are the demographics that are working in favor of urban American, such as millennials, the young professionals, who want to live in urban places like a “24-hour city.” Then, there are empty nesters who are leaving the suburbs and going downtown, the minorities who are becoming the new middle class, and immigrants who seek out cities as places to get their start.

Cisneros emphasized the importance of higher density and mixed-income housing that are helping to transform places that were once off limits to investment into neighborhoods that are seamlessly integrated into the streetscape of the larger city. The role of technology and building materials, smart buildings, are important too, he said.

He believes that cities are becoming places of equity, “engines of the American economy, where lots of investment, development, square footage being built, business coming back in, and small businesses and entrepreneurs coming into the city.”

He said, “For cities to transform that role into a conscious role, into an intentional role is important, and I think that’s what we’re about to begin to see across the country.”

Cisneros continued, “Cities have a moment here, because they’re the crucible where many of these forces are going to play out, because it is where inequality will be the most start, because cities have the essential pre-condition for creating economic opportunity and that is a growing economy, a rising tide of opportunity.”  

Words like investment in human capital, neighborhoods, in community economic development, in career-oriented jobs are themes that are now playing out, he said.

Then, he discussed an aspect of demographic trends, the growth of the Hispanic population, in recognition of National Hispanic Heritage Month.

Cisneros stated that Latinos today are about 55 million in a country of about 320 million people; 17% of the population. But, that 55 million is growing to 100 million by 2040, while the country will grow to about 400 million.

He said this means that Latinos will be more than half of the growth that occurs in the U.S. That growth will not just be in the traditional places, but also in places that are smaller and growing fast, where people have gone in the migrant stream, where people go to work, in the New South, the heartland.

Several world populations that aren’t very immigrant-friendly are declining in population as they become more prosperous and are having fewer children. This results in an aging population that begins to decline and have a lack of manpower for various industries.

The U.S. conversely is a growing population, because of the Latino community. “Latino families tend to be larger than the average, and those children will go on to have families of their own. They will become the backbone of our new middle class, and they will become the backbone of our consumer capabilities and our workforce in the years to come,” he elaborated.

Cisneros pointed out that that Latinos have a major influence and role in the economy. “If the 55 million Latinos were counted as a nation, in terms of GDP, it would be the second most prosperous GDP of any Spanish-speaking group in the world after Spain,” he said.

What does this expanse and influence of Latinos mean for the United States? Cisneros argues that it’s a lot. “It may be one of the fundamental dynamics that shapes, one could even say without exaggeration, saves the country’s economic future, because it depends on growth,” he said.

People ask him if he’s optimistic. In sober moments he said he phrases it this way: “We know that the Latino population is going to be large. But, is it going to be large, undereducated, underproductive, undercompensated, and therefore alienated in the American future. That’s one scenario.”

Cisneros continued, “Or, is it going to be large, but educated, included, productive, creative, a major source of energy for the nation’s future. That’s the swing. That’s what’s involved in making decisions about legislation, about policy, about budgets, about strategy going forward.”

He outlined key areas of strategy:

  • Wages: He said that Latinos tend to be younger on average that their white counterparts, which means they aren’t earning as much income or net worth. They don’t tend to have the same kind of savings, haven’t owned a home to help create wealth. This is happening at a time when the American economy is getting tougher for young people.
  • Education: He asked, are we as Americans going to have the patience to continue to invest in pre-K, K-12, college education in order that we can give this population the skills they need?
  • Health: He also said that Latinos are the most underinsured people in the country.
  • Housing: Cisneros stated that the national home-ownership rate is 64%, while the Latino home-ownership rate is down around 43%.
  • Immigration: He asked, why put so much emphasis on the undocumented? Because they live in our communities, they are family members, we know them in our neighborhoods, we go to church with them, people who are suffering, and they’re people who find themselves in vastly disadvantaged circumstances as their wages remain lower, and they live in the shadows.

“I take from Dr. Cisneros’ talk that if America is to leverage the current demographic trends for its benefit, our social institutions need to be strategic in their intent. Reacting to market forces will not suffice. Indeed, those places and institutions that fail to leverage this unprecedented social development are sure to risk their current standing,” said SPDC Associate Professor Rene Rosenbaum.

Cisneros wrapped up with session by answering some questions from the audience:

  • How do you combat gentrification that feeds the disenfranchisement of minorities?
    • “It is a real and serious problem. Example: Mayor Kasim Reed as pioneer on equity issues. He’s created a pilot program in Atlanta specifically to address these issues of gentrification. A portion of the property tax is set aside into a reserve fund to be used to offset the taxes of poor people who have been there a long time, and paid off their mortgage, but who can’t afford the increase of property taxes when the value of their property increases,” he said.
  • How to you create dense cities that don’t produce these problems related to growth and the density?
    • “Lots of architects and designers working on design answers to density. Smaller units less driven by parking, because they are linked to mass transit. Density aught not be an impediment to creating viable cities. A very important theme moving forward is mixed income. To create an opportunities where people who are poor can live near work, where workers live in mixed-income, mixed-used housing settings. Example: 80/20 program,” he responded.
  • How do you incentivize Latinos in high school and college, in addition to policy, to pursue careers in a leadership role, and how do you culturally offset the negativity that’s been happening recently to allow them to feel like they can pursue those roles?
    • “More places are electing Latinos to positions of local and state government. There is a lot of talent out there and interested. They are in the incubator, such as a school board member, a city council member, state representative and then a congressional seat opens up. That pattern is happening at a healthy pace across the country. Young Latinos and Latinas with professional degrees and good income capabilities are doing that.

      Regarding the negative, Latinos have been under assault like no other group that I can think of in recent history. But, when you look at the last year or so, and the litany of the wall (a proxy for “keep them out”), the actions on DACA, and on, from the highest levels of our government, it’s unprecedented. People now are angry and ready to engage, this is one of those times when it’s time to stand up and be counted just as African Americans were during the Civil Rights movement. I think the Latino community is at the same place. The Latino community is going to have to rise up, in the only forum we’ve got in a democracy, which is at the ballot box and say we’re not going to be treated this way,” he said.
  • What advice would you give MSU’s Chicano/Latino Studies Program to do, achieve or come close or approximate any of the things that you are telling us need to be done?
    • “I applaud MSU for having such a program. It’s important for the country at large and it’s important for an institution of this quality and this scale to understand the impact they can have on recruiting and training young Latinos.

      One way land grant institutions can update their missions to the present is to address opportunity among the new diversity of America. That’s the facts of life, that’s who we are, that’s what our future requires, and a land grant has a special mission/obligation to do that. So, recruiting is one piece I would answer your question.

      Another is to put together the most rigorous education, honors programs, etc. possible. Because the one things that’s not going to change about the rules of our country is we’re not going to promote people except on the basis of the contribution that they make, which means people need to be technically competent and rigorously prepared for the most challenging assignments in life. That is a second piece of what I would recommend to a university.

      Thirdly, try not to pigeon hole into things that have been thought of as stereotypically minority’s studies. While that’s important, our heritage, our history, respect for our values, etc. People have to know how to function in society in economics and business, in science and technology, as quality teachers and technical competence across disciplines is very important,” he responded.
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