Community Development: Reflecting on What Works
The community development sector's traditional tools and relationships are outdated and insufficient to address current problems.
By so many measures—whether it’s the number of affordable housing units built, amount of private capital invested, or degree of federal commitment—the community development sector has been incredibly successful. However, there is a growing sentiment that the sector's traditional tools and relationships are outdated and insufficient to address current problems. This idea is the basis of a new book sponsored by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco and the Low Income Investment Fund (LIIF), entitled Investing in What Works for America’s Communities. The book is a compilation of 28 essays, written by a wide array of thought leaders, including the secretaries of the US Departments of Housing and Urban Development, Health and Human Services, and Education; leading academics such as Georgetown’s Peter Edelman and MIT’s Xavier de Souza Briggs; and many practitioners and funders. (I contributed an essay to the book, as well.) LIIF and the Fed hosted two days of discussion to launch the book earlier this week in Washington, DC. The following are themes that emerged from the essays and that were subsequently much discussed during the event.
We need new approaches, because poverty hasn’t gone away and the world has changed. Despite decades of hard work, the percentage of people living in poverty in the US has barely changed—in fact, the sheer numbers have gone up alongside population growth. Given this difficult reality, we know that we cannot keep fighting poverty the same way. Edelman remarked that in an increasingly networked and globalized world, people’s relationship to “place” has changed, and solutions must “go beyond the four corners of the neighborhood.” The Brookings Institution’s Alan Berube added that with most crucial decision-making happening at the state and local—rather than at the neighborhood—level, neighborhood-only efforts simply won't be enough.
Despite the fact that for decades the field focused almost exclusively on neighborhoods, and the real estate development therein, the book and the discussions highlighted many current examples that are successfully expanding their impact and influence. In describing the growing network of cities that are adopting the Purpose Built Communities model, which strives to address the array of issues that trap families in intergenerational poverty, former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin said that places are “marrying external and internal community forces committed to solving big problems … and getting them to all hang in there long enough to bring about change.” Angela Blanchard of Houston-based Neighborhood Centers Inc. spoke about providing low-income families with access to what they need to thrive—not just affordable housing but also health care and job opportunities. There is, she noted, a high demand for a comprehensive approach to services throughout Texas. Reconnecting America's John Robert Smith noted that many regions are successfully harnessing the power of transit to connect people to opportunities.
I spoke of our experience at Living Cities and our growing realization that we would do better to focus primarily on results, rather than on place. While place can be a basis for action, inevitably we must be held accountable for the results. Our Integration Initiative, for example, is a multi-faceted, long-term effort to learn how best to braid together strategies for people, place, and opportunities. The initiative acknowledges both the power and limitations of the neighborhood as a lever for change, and seeks to drive a broader perspective that recognizes the role that systems and regions must play in securing economic opportunity for low-income people.
Small is not beautiful. Scale matters if we aspire to get to the kind of population-level results that can really move the needle on poverty. Authors and speakers stressed the need to shift away from continually funding the “shiny new object,” projects that are often years away from becoming an effective tool for large-scale change. Citi Community Capital’s Andrew Ditton stated that it is far better to invest in organizations that have a strong track record and proven capacity. Berube asserted that the scale of community development must be done differently if it is going to have material impact on the regional economy. Blanchard spoke of the benefits and efficiencies that Neighborhood Centers Inc. can achieve because of its size and age (over 100 years old)—it is able to serve 300,000 people each year.
There is power and necessity in cross sector collaboration: $1.20 of value must be wrung out of $0.80. Urban Institute's Sarah Wartell spoke of a sobering reality in light of diminishing federal resources: "Our $1 will turn into $0.80, but instead of scaling back, we need to figure out how to get $1.20 of value from $0.80." Speaker after speaker (including many of the book’s authors) concluded that the only way to achieve that efficiency is through unprecedented collaboration. Edelman stated: “We need to harness all the actors ... for collective impact.” Many speakers emphasized the importance of supporting backbone organizations that facilitate collaboration. Urban Institute's Sarah Wartell referred to these organizations as the “orchestra conductors." David Erikson dubbed them the “quarterbacks,” and at Living Cities, we call these platforms for collaboration the “new civic infrastructure.” But we are all describing essentially the same thing: institutions that have a birds-eye-view and the ability to poke holes in the silos that limit our work.
Data can be destiny. Many essays and speakers referred to the critical role of data, both in supporting what works and in driving decisions. Wartell, Franklin, and Harvard pediatrician Jack Shonkoff all highlighted how 21st-century data and measurement tools enable a fundamentally different and more effective way to work. The previously unimaginable wealth of data now at our fingertips can and must help us better understand the people whose lives we work to improve, as well as the places they live.
There is still a lot of work to do. The event highlighted the incredible challenges we face in fighting poverty, and in evolving from established and often obsolete ways of working. The “old dog is learning new tricks,” and maybe more importantly, learning to play with different dogs: city and state leaders, health professionals, data wonks, and others. There is also hope that the sector has accepted that it is at a strategic inflection point, and many leaders are acting on this reality. But we need to do a better job at enabling the public sector, engaging the private sector, and supporting leaders and their institutions, because ultimately leadership tends to trump almost everything else. Wartell summed it best when she said, ''We have to turn this into a catalytic moment for fighting poverty and improving communities."