The Role of Place-Based Initiatives in Community Development

Philanthropic funders, financial institutions, federal and state agencies, nonprofits, and local community development agencies have, over the past 50 or more years, engaged in a variety of place-based funding initiatives as a way to concentrate investments in a specific location to achieve measurable community revitalization results. The most ambitious initiatives have aimed to concentrate multiple investments in both infrastructure and human capital in a single neighborhood (see a Community Investment article by Naomi Cytron Adobe PDF file formatOff-site link). While funders differ considerably in the ways they structure and operate place-based investments, for the most part they have tried to support the initiatives as a partner with community stakeholders.

Historically, place-based initiatives have taken many forms, including Community Reinvestment Act–motivated grants and loans, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Empowerment ZonesOff-site link and HOPE VIOff-site link housing redevelopment, and foundation-led comprehensive community initiatives (see a Shelterforce article by Anne C. KubischOff-site link). According to a 2011 report, Next Generation Community Revitalization: A Work in ProgressOff-site link, the Bridgespan Group emphasizes the risk and fragility of such efforts:

"When we look at the long history of urban redevelopment and, more recently, community change strategies, especially those focused on economically vulnerable and ethnically marginal populations, we have to acknowledge that they represent abundant evidence of failure...the long shadow cast by the past tends to be especially problematic in neighborhoods where the failure to deliver on ambitious promises, the divide between residents and reformers, and the top-down, non-inclusive way in which change initiatives were introduced and executed have left a wake of distrust with which new efforts have to contend. Distrust can be overcome...But it takes time (often more time than initiative horizons or an impatient society are willing to allow), as well as superb leadership skills and a genuine commitment to authentic community engagement."

Building on lessons learned from decades of practice, several recent place-based initiatives involve multiple public and private partners, each playing different roles at different times, all coordinated by a strong local entity (or "quarterback"):

Through research and case studies, many best practices about place-based initiatives have been recognized (see hereOff-site link, here Adobe PDF file formatOff-site link, here Adobe PDF file formatOff-site link, and hereOff-site link):

  • Start with a carefully conceived plan. Build on what has been proven to work elsewhere, and start with a strong theory of change describing the steps necessary and partnerships required to achieve desired outcomes.
  • Bricks and mortar is necessary but not sufficient. Link people and place-based strategies within a master vision. Promising practices lean toward provision of funds for education, social services, health care, and other community services to promote upward mobility and improved quality of life for neighborhood residents.
  • Work with strong local partners. Support local partners with the proven capacity to deliver results. Share responsibility for learning and results with grantees and partners. Like any partnership, the clearer the terms and the more consistently they are implemented, the more successful the enterprise will likely be.
  • Pay close attention to civic infrastructure. Community engagement, collaborative partnerships across sectors and geographies, and explicitly connecting a given community to the larger systems that surround it are vital. A neighborhood's trajectory is often shaped more by its regional context than by local interventions, and place-based efforts should help connect community leaders with networks outside the community where decisions or levers of change rest.
  • Engage the community. Community outreach and organizing, structured community planning, and early action investments are critical. Allow time to build deep understanding of the neighborhood that can shape the pace and nature of engagement. Specify clearly what is meant by terms like "community ownership" and "resident driven." Respectfully engage issues of race, class, and culture.
  • Develop a governance structure. Define clearly the rules of engagement from the start. Be clear about long-term expectations for the governance group. Be prepared for the time and sustained capacity building it takes to build a strong governance group, which can be a two- to three-year process itself.
  • Build community capacity for implementation. Reach clarity about the various roles and responsibilities related to technical assistance. Determine when investments in developing strategic capacity for implementation make sense and provide needed time and resources. Align leadership development strategies with the initiative's goals.
  • Manage toward measureable goals. Lasting community revitalization will ultimately require change along multiple dimensions. Initiatives must be clear about the goals that will define success and metrics for assessing progress.

The literature also highlights the most common challenges facing place-based initiatives, including:

  • Short-term funding for long-term work: According to community development experts at all levels, challenges facing distressed communities that have been decades in the making will take a decade or more to unwind. There is a fundamental disconnect between the traditional horizons of public and private funding (and public will) and the needs of most communities targeted with place-based initiatives.
  • Community-based management: The literature suggests that the pragmatic challenge of management in place-based initiatives continues. This includes managing accountable partnerships and collaborations; identifying, collecting, and using data to manage and improve performance; building strong backbone organizations; strategically and practically sequencing activities and programs; and authentically incorporating community engagement, resident voice, and the dynamics of race and power in the initiative's strategy and work.
  • Resident engagement: This is one of the thorniest issues in community revitalization. According to the Bridgespan Group's research, resistance from within the community has often been a key dynamic when an initiative falters. And resistance, not surprisingly, tends to crystallize the more neighborhood residents perceive themselves to be excluded from decision making.

For most people it will come as no surprise that historically entrenched problems in an economically distressed neighborhood, often exacerbated by conditions outside the immediate community, are very difficult to solve and take time. Changing the dynamics between people, the places where they live, and the power structures that affect their outcomes is complex. But place-based approaches do offer reason for hope.

According to Shirley Franklin, chief executive officer of Purpose Built CommunitiesOff-site link and former mayor of Atlanta, the organization has achieved transformational results podcast through its place-based initiative in Atlanta's East Lake neighborhood, including:

  • Crime is down 95 percent, 50 percent lower than the city overall
  • Employment among public housing-assisted families rose from 13 percent to 70 percent, with additional residents in job training
  • Fifth graders in the local school who read at grade level increased from 5 percent to 99 percent
  • Graduation rates for neighborhood students increased from 30 percent to 78 percent
  • Home values increased 3.8 times relative to the citywide average
  • An area that had attracted zero commercial or residential investment in more than 30 years attracted $123 million capital investment, which leveraged an additional $175 million in new residential and commercial development
  • A new grocery store, bank branches, gas stations, and other businesses serve the community.

Although these results took 20 years of focused effort to achieve, they speak to the possibilities when funders, community-based organizations, and other local advocates rally around a comprehensive strategy and remain committed to achieving outcomes.

By community and economic development senior adviser Will Lambe