The Common Good
December 2007

From Survival to Prosperity

by Angela Glover Blackwell | December 2007

Taking a regional approach, "equitable development" aims to lift people out of poverty - and into opportunity.

Bevelynn Bravo is a 35-year-old wife and mother of four. She’s lived in the Diamond neighborhoods of San Diego for most of her life. “A few years ago, I was a girl with a chip on her shoulder,” she said. “I didn’t have anything to look forward to. There wasn’t anything around my community, no opportunities at all. Now I can really say I’m a woman with a future.”

This change came through Bravo’s active partnership with the Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation, beginning in 1999, when she took part in a community-wide survey the center conducted to help shape a 10-acre commercial real estate project, Market Creek Plaza, to meet local residents’ needs.

Eventually Bravo joined the Neighborhood Coordinators, a program to help people in the area come together, plan, and collectively take action for their community. She learned how to do house visits and surveys to build relationships with neighbors, received classroom training in facilitation methods and organizing, and made site visits to governmental offices and other community resources. Bravo has been instrumental in projects that include tree plantings, graffiti removal, cultural appreciation events, and petitioning the city to install streetlights or stop signs at dangerous intersections. She also took a stand against gun advertising on billboards in her community.

A team of residents that included Bravo planned a groundbreaking community-development initial public offering that transferred partial ownership of Market Creek Plaza to the community. She was one of 416 local residents who invested.

“It’s something I can leave for my kids,” she said of her investment.

“I used to live day by day,” adds Bravo. “Now I’m back to school. I have hope again. My kids are participating in everything that is going on, and I’m teaching them to value their community.”

Bevelynn Bravo demonstrates the power of an integrated method of planning that a diverse and growing collection of advocates, nonprofit organizations, faith leaders, and public officials are using to reinvigorate the movement to end poverty in America. This comprehensive approach, called equitable development, harnesses the power of public policy, community engagement, and market forces to not merely boost incomes above a poverty floor but to create inclusion and access to opportunity for people in poverty. Equitable development holds that low-income families deserve not just to survive but to thrive—to take advantage of opportunity, engage in their communities and the democratic process, and build assets to ensure a brighter future.

The cornerstone of equitable development is the idea that where we live has become a proxy for opportunity. Entrenched regional disparities mean that the neighborhoods we call home determine the affordability of our housing, the quality of our public schools, our access to jobs, and the availability of public transportation.

Our address even affects our health. Bus depots and other facilities that contribute to poor air quality are disproportionately sited in low-income neighborhoods; aging schools with maintenance problems and poorly maintained housing stock in disinvested communities are also frequent sources of mold, lead, and vermin, exacerbating asthma and environmental allergies, especially in children. Neighborhood amenities such as parks and supermarkets also affect health. The “grocery gap” in many low-income communities of color means that residents lack convenient access to fresh produce and other healthy foods and are forced to rely on an oversupply of convenience stores, liquor outlets stocking snack foods, and fast food restaurants. Communities with few parks or recreation centers—and crime rates that keep residents indoors—offer few options for physical activity. Lack of exercise and nutritious foods, in turn, increases the risk of obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, and other chronic health conditions that significantly contribute to mortality disparities in the United States. Obesity and related conditions sometimes dismissed as “lifestyle” consequences are often in fact a reflection of low-income communities’ scarcity of resources for healthy living.

Equitable development seeks to make all neighborhoods “communities of opportunity” by connecting the quest for full racial inclusion and participation to local, metropolitan, and regional planning and development. This approach asks “who benefits?” from policy and development decisions and seeks to ensure that low-income communities and communities of color reap their fair share. Equitable development is grounded in four guiding principles:

1. Integrate “people” and “place” strategies.

Sustainable revitalization requires a combination of the people-focused programs that support community residents and strengthen families (such as job training, asset-building, and health education) and place-focused efforts that stabilize and improve the neighborhood environment (such as affordable housing, supermarket development, local job creation, and public transportation improvements).

2. Reduce local and regional disparities.

Federal, state, and local policy solutions should focus on simultaneously improving outcomes for low-income communities and building healthy metropolitan regions. Metropolitan areas that pay systemic attention to both regional growth and central city, suburban, and rural poverty issues are more likely to be competitive for national and international economic opportunities.

3. Promote “double bottom line” investments.

The business community can and should collaborate with policymakers, planners, and anti-poverty advocates to advance equitable development. Public and private investments that produce a “double bottom line”—fair financial returns for investors and community benefits for residents (for example, jobs, affordable housing, and businesses) are a win-win strategy to achieve regional equity.

4. Prioritize meaningful community voice, participation, and leadership.

Community residents need access to the tools, knowledge, and resources that can guarantee their meaningful participation and full engagement in development decisions. Policymaking must move beyond a top-down process to instead involve local communities and local wisdom in policy development.

Across the United States, public, private, nonprofit, and neighborhood leaders are working together to alleviate poverty and create stronger communities and regions through equitable development. In Los Angeles, the Staples Center and the LAX airport redevelopment were at the forefront of a growing movement for Community Benefits Agreements in large-scale commercial development projects. CBAs (typically negotiated among developers, local officials, community advocates, and unions) are based on the premise that public investments should produce public benefits such as good jobs, affordable housing, green space, and child care for the surrounding neighborhood.

As Bevelynn Bravo’s story affirms, San Diego’s Market Creek Plaza illustrates the transformative power of community, business, and philanthropic collaboration. Residents of the city’s formerly disinvested Diamond neighborhoods led the planning and development (in partnership with the Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation) of a vibrant, mixed-use commercial and cultural center that is anchored by a much-needed supermarket and includes space for nonprofit organizations and small business development opportunities.

Common ground is key to advancing equitable development. In Massachusetts, a coalition of 20 organizations has united across issue areas, racial lines, and urban-suburban divides to address the state’s critical development challenges. Action for Regional Equity (“Action!”) recognizes that cities, suburbs, and towns across the region share a linked fate and works to address continuing disparities in affordable housing, transportation investment, and environmental justice.

Transit-oriented development (TOD) is another promising equitable development strategy. TODs are typically high-density, mixed-use (residential and commercial), pedestrian-friendly developments located within a quarter mile of shops, housing, and office space around transit hubs. TODs reduce dependence on cars while linking residents to resources throughout the region; developments that include affordable housing can give low-income residents access to a bustling, vibrant neighborhood as well as the public transportation to connect to employment and educational opportunities. Faith-based community development corporation Bethel New Life led the creation of a Chicago TOD that includes six storefronts, 50 affordable new homes (with more in the works) within walking distance of the transit stop, a community technology center, and child care and employment services.

Inclusionary zoning that creates and preserves affordable housing in mixed-income communities, living wage provisions, transit enhancements that connect low-income neighborhoods to job-rich neighborhoods (including suburb to suburb and city to suburb “reverse commute” routes), and infrastructure improvements that both revitalize disinvested communities and provide local jobs are just a few of the equitable development strategies that can make great strides toward ending poverty.

IN THE YEARS after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans has begun serving as a laboratory for equitable development and the potential for inclusive, community-focused planning to right some of the most egregious and discriminatory policy wrongs of past decades. Shortly after the storms and flooding, my organization, PolicyLink, drafted “Ten Points to Guide Rebuilding in the Gulf Coast Region,” a set of guidelines for equitable redevelopment, and began working at both the state and community levels to help local partners advocate for affordable housing, neighborhood amenities such as parks and supermarkets, local job creation, and a racially and economically inclusive rebuilding process.

New Orleans’ renewal has been fraught with challenges—inadequate federal resources, competing interests, bureaucratic hurdles, disproportionate recovery in higher-income neighborhoods, low-income residents scattered across the country and still struggling to return home, to name a few—and change is incremental. But the city has also experienced unprecedented levels of civic engagement, and more than 100 local and state organizations joined together to form a strong advocacy network for affordable housing, both in New Orleans and in opportunity-rich suburban communities throughout the region. True and full renewal in New Orleans is years, perhaps decades, away. However, with continued advocacy, community engagement, government commitment to invest the necessary resources, and an equitable development approach, there is tremendous opportunity to chart a brighter course for New Orleans, its residents, and the displaced Katrina survivors still hoping to return home.

Federal and state governments, businesses, and neighborhood leaders need to implement innovative anti-poverty strategies in communities across the nation. Whether in a region rebuilding from natural disaster, an older inner-ring suburb facing exurban flight and increasing poverty, or a former manufacturing community struggling to find its way in a post-industrial economy, this kind of civic engagement, when combined with equitable development principles, is essential not simply to end poverty but to build a society in which everyone can participate and prosper.

Angela Glover Blackwell, a Sojourners board member, is founder and CEO of PolicyLink, a national research and action institute advancing economic and social equity by Lifting Up What Works®. For more on equitable development, including a toolkit for applying it to your community, visit “Resources” at www.policylink.org.

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