Sunday, December 11, 2016

Reflections on Oil Dependent Economies and Gender: A Trip to Saudi Arabia

I published this OpEd in the Anchorage Press on December 7, 2016 after a trip I took to Saudi Arabia last month. Reprinting below:
Five days after the presidential election I was on a plane to Riyadh, the capital of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, one of the most conservative and religious Muslim countries in the world. The trip was a welcome reprieve from the stress and media overdose of the election. Driving in from the airport in Riyadh late at night felt a bit like being in Las Vegas—a glittering oasis of high-rises surrounded by brown desert—only without the alcohol or pools. Bentleys and Maseratis slid past ritzy shopping malls full of stores like Gucci, Saks Fifth Avenue and Givenchy. According to OPEC, the prolific Saudi oil and gas sector accounts for about 50 percent of gross domestic product, and about 85 percent of export earnings fueling this extravagant economy.
I’d been invited to attend a conference for 1,500 young leaders from 65 countries focused on economic diversification and entrepreneurship—part of the Saudi Arabia’s new Vision 2030, a plan focused on sweeping public sector reforms and ambitious goals for the oil-dependent economy, spearheaded largely by 31-year-old Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. At its heart, the plan is trying to increase the contribution of the private sector from 40 percent to 65 percent of GDP and raise non-oil revenue from $43 billion to $266 billion. When Vision 2030 was unveiled in April, Prince bin Salman said: “We will not allow our country ever to be at the mercy of commodity price volatility or external markets.” As an Alaskan, that intrigued me. What could our state learn from the Kingdom about shifting away from economic dependence on petro-dollars? I also gained powerful insight into gender on the trip, glimpsing into a country where the rights of women are curtailed and their contributions—economic and otherwise—are discounted.
The need to create jobs in Saudi Arabia is crucial. Though wealthy, the country—and the Arab region more broadly—is struggling to confront a rising bubble of youth; 70 percent of Saudis are under 30 years old—and high unemployment. Economic diversification in the Arab States of the Persian Gulf is more than a buzzword, it’s an imperative. I heard the Arabic word for youth, shabaab, time and time again throughout the conference. The youth of the Arab region are increasingly tech-savvy, ambitious, and through conversations at the conference I heard a lot about young people yearning for more opportunities. Every attendee I spoke with at the conference had a smartphone. Snapchat and Instagram were a ubiquitous presence.  
Throughout my time in Saudi, the role of gender made a significant impression. At the conference I looked around at Saudi women on “our side” of the segregated seating area and didn’t see much individual empowerment or networking occurring. The entrances to the conference were separated for men and women, as was the seating. Dozens of cameras and even a drone filmed the conference proceedings, but only the men’s faces. The majority of conference participants were Saudi, and we were told the segregation was mainly to appease the conservatives among them. Western women were required to wear an abaya (long sleeved, black gown), and it was strongly recommended we wear a hijab (head scarf) when in public. I had never covered myself like this before, and at first found it strange and suffocating. But after the newness wore off, I started to enjoy it. I’ve lived abroad before, and as a blonde American woman I’m familiar with the awkward feeling of being stared out. Here I felt anonymous, left alone, peeping out at the world unobserved. Plus, I didn’t have to put much thought into my outfit each day.
Me in Riyadh
Surprises and incongruities abounded. During a break in the conference, I wandered into one of Riyadh’s many luxury malls and spotted a Victoria’s Secret. Curious, I peeked in. The women who worked there wore the niqab—a full-face veil with an opening for the eyes. Like most Saudi women, they were drenched in perfume. The visual effect was stunning: scantily clad mannequins wearing bright red bras and pink thongs beside flowing black fabric holding women inside.  
On day two of the conference, a few American women and I ventured to the men’s side to sit (we had been assured by conference organizers that this was permissible). We felt hundreds of male eyes moving to avoid seeing us. Arab men wouldn’t sit within a couple rows of us. There was minimal interaction or networking between Arab men and women at the conference, and when it did occur, it was virtual with participants using the conference’s app to message one another.  
At one of the coffee breaks, I forced some interaction with a Saudi man. He’d lived in the U.S. for 14 years and had moved back to Saudi Arabia six months earlier to work on Vision 2030. At one point, as he tried to convince me of Saudi’s liberalness and progress. “Look, a Saudi woman one meter from me!” he exclaimed, pointing to a woman in full burqa (a full body covering with mesh over the eyes) close to him speaking to two other women. “Look how far Saudi has come!” he was saying. For me, the point fell short: Two-thirds of Arab women are looking for a job and they are still unable to drive vehicles or travel without permission from a male guardian.  
I’ve been to many global conferences like this one, and the content wasn’t anything monumental or transformational. It was flashy, with high-profile speakers like Bill Gates and the CEO of British Petroleum. But it was light on clear action items. However, the fact that the Saudi royal family was prioritizing the challenge of economic diversification was in itself breaking with tradition and admirable.  
While the outspoken, American feminist in me felt muffled by the formless, anonymizing cloak and my inability to speak openly to men—the abaya and hijab made me feel protected, and I felt respected and watched out for by the Saudi men around me. Of course, you could chalk this up to the fact that I was an American woman who had the luxury of different treatment, but I got a glimpse of how Saudi women had their sacred, safe spaces, and strong bonds. I met outspoken ladies at the conference who seemed unphased by their lack of equal status with men. At one point when the conference broke out into small groups to brainstorm entrepreneurial activities, a group of women named their team “Women are Better than Men.” The declaration was as bold as it was excited, in an environment where small inroads are being made. Women recently gained the right to vote and run for local office in Saudi Arabia, and the Saudi royal family is said, anecdotally, to have more liberal views on gender. When women eventually rise up to claim more space beside Saudi men, I think the latter will be surprised by the strength and talent they possess.  
I left Riyadh on a plane bound for Paris still wearing my abaya and hijab, shedding them mid-flight. As I deplaned in the Charles De Gaulle airport, I couldn’t stop staring at all the exposed female skin around me. It was the realization how normalized it is in the West to unabashedly look at the female form, which is so often on display. Tank tops and even exposed necks surprised me. I had covered myself in black for just three days, and it left me with a respect and acknowledgement of the agency that can come with covering; the option to chose how much of you can be publicly known.  
In spite of all the millions being spent on Vision 2030—the grand conferences, consultant fees, studies, and flashy press conferences—the Saudi government has a long way to go. There remain significant barriers to entry for entrepreneurs, problems in accessing capital and challenges with bringing women into the workforce. I’m not convinced a modern economy is possible where dogma and tradition still relegate half the population to the far-side of the conference barrier. However, what drew me to travel 10,000 miles to Riyadh was the idea of a comprehensive plan. I greatly admire the fact that they’ve developed a broad-ranging roadmap with goals and a vision for the future. This is unprecedented in the region, and something that in Alaska our elected officials have not yet come around to: Developing a plan that sees beyond the next election cycle to diversify Alaska’s oil-based economy and inspire and empower young Alaskans.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Anchorage Neighborhoods' Identity Crises

I co-wrote this blog with my friend Eric Van Oss, whose blog, The Arctic Urbanophile, is a great read on urban planning and development in Alaska. 

Q: What is a city?
A: A collection of identifiable, individual neighborhoods that make up pieces of a greater community.
When people talk about cities, they often refer specifically to the neighborhood in which they reside, like Seattle’s Capitol Hill or Washington DC’s Georgetown. These neighborhoods have iconic attractions, well-defined borders, and a shared common identity.
While Anchorage does have a few easily-identifiable neighborhoods with their own personalities and cultures, these are (unfortunately) exceptions to the rule. What dominates instead is a sense of confusion in our neighborhoods’ identities, which discourages community engagement, ownership, and pride. In contrast, a sense of belonging to the community and the physical location in which one lives encourages residents to put down roots and invest in their shared space. Anchorage’s Westchester Lagoon or Government Hill neighborhoods are such examples, each having engaged communities with a long-term perspective on their neighborhood’s development.
Anchorage is relatively new city that developed due to a mix of automobile dependency, lax zoning, and rapid growth. This mix has contributed to the blandness that many commercial and residential developments in town are known for. To illustrate this lack of identity, when asking for directions in Anchorage, people often refer to cross streets or proximity to the highway, as opposed to naming their specific neighborhood. Too often referencing a neighborhood triggers nothing more than the image of a site condo or drab duplex with T-1 siding opposed to an actual destination with character. Too many neighborhoods in Anchorage are simply places to dwell; and not a place to “Live. Work. Play.
There are several solutions that will move us toward more defined and cohesive neighborhoods, and a more connected community in general:
1. Agreement on Geographic Boundaries and Names for Neighborhoods. Anchorage is riddled with neighborhoods that have multiple monikers. There is a mismatch between the names and borders of community council districts, historic districts and colloquial names, and other prominent landmark names that come from parks, trails, and lakes. For example, Valley of the Moon is both the name of a park and a colloquial neighborhood, but is split between two community council districts (South Addition and North Star). North Star has no symbolic or literal meaning to residents apart from being a community council district. This dichotomy creates an undefined sense of place and makes coherent planning for the Valley of the Moon area difficult. A city-wide effort between community councils, businesses, residents, community groups, and the Municipality to address these naming and border discrepancies would help create more definitive neighborhoods.
Perhaps one of the best examples of how this can work well would be Mountain View. The geographical boundaries, community identity, and unique features are very clearly encompassed within a generally accepted area. In stark contrast is a neighborhood in East Dowling. At one time the intersection at Jewel Lake and Raspberry Roads, commonly referred to as “Four Corners,” was poised to be developed as a Town Center. The area includes a promising mix of commercial and public space with nearby residential development, but it suffers from a generally nondescript aesthetic and is lacking in public infrastructure such as appropriate sidewalks, crosswalks, and lighting. Despite its potential, this areas sits in a planning no man’s land, lumped in the geographically expansive Sand Lake Community Council. More targeted branding and investment could facilitate the growth of Four Corners as a distinct sub-community with unique amenities. As the gateway to Kincaid Park, the area could be transformed into a destination in its own right opposed to an area to simply drive through. Resuscitating the Town Center concept from the original Anchorage 2020 Comprehensive Plan would do wonders for refocusing community activity in smaller subareas of Anchorage and encourage neighborhood-oriented commercial hubs.
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On the flipside, these borders and identities cannot be arbitrarily assigned, such as the “SoNo”(South of Nordstrom) debacle, where in 2005 local businesses and the Municipality tried to unsuccessfully (in our opinions) brand a district of downtown. Downtown is one of the few well-defined and accepted neighborhoods in Anchorage; the failure of SoNo and the district concept in general was due to lack of meaning or buy-in from residents.
2. Prioritization of Multi-Use Zoning. One of the best ways to create unique neighborhoods is to incentivize connection and community through self-contained, walkable places. Zoning in Anchorage often creates strict lines between residential, commercial, and recreational areas that often do not overlap. It is difficult to create a community identity in an area that is solely comprised of duplexes or is just an expanse of mini-malls. Mixed use development through zoning should be prioritized. The Wisconsin Street area, split between Turnagain and Spenard neighborhoods, is a largely unremarkable residential development. The Rustic Goat restaurant, which opened in 2013, challenged these assumptions by creating a small commercial area that encouraged social interaction within the neighborhood, provided a landmark, and encouraged economic development. Although the neighborhood still lacks key infrastructure like sidewalks, adequate lighting, and bike lanes, this mixed use zoning (albeit limited), has made it a more attractive place to live and put down long-term roots. The removal of a playground to install increased parking for Rustic Goat may have upset some residents, but with the proximity of the Coastal Trail, Barbara Street Park, Muriel Park, and Fish Creek Park, the loss of this streetside playground is more palatable.
3. Lack of Neighborhood Identity Does Not Facilitate “Live. Work. Play.” Related to multi-use zoning is the issue of comprehensive placemaking. Anchorage’s neighborhoods today essentially forces residents to own a vehicle. Like many U.S. cities, we have been built around (non-public) motorized transport and there seems to be little appetite to change the paradigm. For example, “Ms. Aurora Borealis” lives in the Bayshore/Klatt neighborhood. She works in at the University, shops downtown, goes to the gym in Spenard, eats at restaurants in midtown, and skis at Bicentennial Park. She has accepted the fact that her Bayshore/Klatt individual neighborhood cannot provide her with the amenities she desires to fully “Live. Work. Play.” in a walkable distance from her home.
This reality has hampered neighborhood development throughout our city. Having both lived in cities where our favorite bar, restaurant, coffee shop, gym, pharmacy and grocery store were within a 15-minute walk (or a shorter bus ride) from our homes, we know there is an alternative. Unlike the sprawling metropolis of Houston, Texas, Anchorage could realistically be a bikeable and walkable city with effective public transport and amenities located closer to homes. As residents, we have the power to change this by demanding comprehensive planning from our Community Councils, Assembly Members and Mayor that incorporates multi-use zoning and neighborhood planning. Neighborhood residents should not simply be complacent and accept a sub-par built environment. Instead, they need to change the neighborhood-wide culture to one that promotes placemaking.
Perhaps one of the most identifiable features in our city is our robust park and trail system. Increasing awareness and access to link up with these mini-highways, as the Anchorage Park Foundation is trying to do through their Signage and Wayfinding Plan, would go a long way toward facilitating living, working, and playing near one’s home. However, the Park Foundation’s naming efforts, including unique signage for individual neighborhoods, only adds another layer onto an already confusing amalgam of neighborhood names. This further demonstrates our first point: the need for communities, nonprofits, businesses, and the municipality to partner together to rebrand and name our neighborhoods.
As young residents of this city who both live in relatively undefined neighborhoods, we become frustrated as we are forced to make up names for the places we live when explaining their locations to others. Penny lives in “Spenardigan,” the unnamed space in between Spenard and Turnagain, while Eric lives near Sullivan Arena, an area he affectionately is trying to rebrand as “The Arena District.” We understand that as a young city, Anchorage’s lack of history posits a challenge to the creation of these ingrained identities. But on the other hand, this also presents an opportunity for us to co-create our neighborhoods’ identities, increasing citizen engagement, ownership, and city pride.