April 2012; Source: Urban Institute

Occasionally, the NPQ Newswire misses reports that don’t quite make it to the popular media but contain nuggets of information that Newswire readers might find useful. Such is the case with the “What Works Collaborative,” involving researchers from the Urban Institute, the Brookings Institution, and other think tanks, which released a report last month on the elements of successful strategies of building neighborhoods. Foundations such as the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Kresge Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Surdna Foundation, and the Open Society Institute supported the work.

The report is a relatively thorough review of some of the best thinking about community development strategies, albeit with an eye toward programs initiated by the Obama administration, such as Promise Neighborhoods, Choice Neighborhoods, and the overall Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative. The report emphasizes “research gaps” that could become “the basis for a new research agenda on neighborhood policy.” Despite the emphasis on missing research, there is a “what do we already know” component on the topics covered in the report that nonprofit human service providers and community developers should find interesting.  Among the observations the authors make are these:

  • “[A] very small fraction (only 14 percent) of all poor people in metropolitan areas lived in census tracts with poverty rates of 40 percent or more, whereas 36 percent lived in tracts in the 20 to 40 percent poverty rate range…[T]here is some evidence that the 20 to 40 percent poverty range is where change has the greatest impact…Investment to improve neighborhoods in the 20 to 40 percent poverty range might yield higher payoffs per dollar invested and prevent neighborhoods from falling into the 40 percent plus poverty range.”
  • “Sponsors and practitioners now stress the recognition that the problems of troubled neighborhoods are multidimensional and interrelated, and that work in any one field (e.g., housing improvement) will clearly be insufficient to deal with them. This recognition seems a strong reinforcement of the Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative’s emphasis on ‘alignment of resources to a unified and targeted impact strategy.’ The most expansive implementation of this approach at this point is that by the Local Initiative Support Corporation (LISC)…(whose) Building Sustainable Communities (BSC) initiative (is) now operating in almost 100 neighborhoods in 24 other metropolitan areas” (note that this is in addition to the 14 neighborhoods in LISC’s New Communities Program in Chicago, the model for the BSC).
  • “[S]preading investment dollars evenly block by block in a community is not likely to be a cost-effective method of inducing a broader market response that will enhance flows of investment into the neighborhood. Rather, targeting is called for: clustering investments in a few strategic locations so market successes in those locations will be strong, with effects that hopefully will ultimately spill-over to boost property values in the remainder of the project area.”
  • “Neighborhoods with no or distant grocery stores—areas known as ‘food deserts’—are also the subject of a growing body of research and action. .. [S]upermarkets were the one significant retail amenity consistently correlated with increased house prices…Responding to these concerns, community development efforts have increasingly recognized the importance of grocery stores in neighborhood revitalization plans.”
  • “Reintegrating ex-offenders may also require a community-level approach. …‘Reentry is also concentrated in certain neighborhoods, which are likely to be disadvantaged, disproportionately minority, and with low institutional investment, the very type of neighborhoods associated with returns to prison.’… It is particularly important to co-locate mental health, substance abuse, employment, housing and other supportive services within neighborhoods that receive high concentrations of ex-offenders, given their high level of need.”
  • “The first major research gap we identify in this section is inadequate knowledge of the adequacy of neighborhood-level institutional capacity to manage neighborhood revitalization…The second research gap we identify relates to what institutional forms within neighborhoods work best to manage change. No question is more central to the potential for community initiatives than how to deploy and enhance the capacity of neighborhood level institutions to carry them out.”

These are only a selection of some of the findings, none of which appear earth-shatteringly new, but all of which suggest that things that we ought to know about urban neighborhood development after decades of foundation-supported comprehensive community initiatives and federal government-supported community development programs remain frustratingly elusive.—Rick Cohen