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Community and Economic Development: The Collaborative Conversation

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Deborah Bailey
August 12, 2016

In his essay, “A Community and Economic Development Section for ASPA,”, William Hatcher explored whether ASPA should include a focus on community and economic development. In this column, I want to consider reasons why ASPA should adopt community and economic development as a single, collaborative conversation.

What is community development?

Community development is an international phenomenon and process that is recognized universally by institutions broadly representative of populations, such as the United Nations, The World Health Organization, The World Bank and the European Union.

The Community Development Journal defines the discipline and process of community development as “policy, planning and action as they impact on the life of communities.” Policy, planning, action and the life of communities.” The journal’s definition includes the notion of citizen participation and stresses the priority of justice and equity in the development of communities. Can you hear the resonance with issues we are concerned about in ASPA as public service practitioners and academicians?

Why community development and economic development must be worked through together?

Let’s go further. Why must community development do its work alongside economic development?  Look around your own city, suburb or rural county and see the residents who are facing gaps in income that have significantly changed their lives and our communities?  The residue of the “Great Recession” of 2008 is still here for many Americans who lost jobs, homes and who continue readjusting to new levels of “more month than money.”

According to the Joint Center for Housing Studies (JCHS) at Harvard Kennedy School, more than 50 percent of Americans now pay in excess of 1/3 of our household incomes for housing. About 27 percent of us are paying more than half of our take-home pay just for housing. If half of us are spending more than 1/3 of our income on a place to live – what about food, clothing, transportation, child care and other basics needed to navigate life?  The cost of child care has become so exorbitant for even middle class working families that The White House created a major policy initiative in 2015 to ease the burden of child care expenses for low-wealth and working families.

A community development approach to the problems of housing, education, transportation, etc. means   that we include the people impacted by the problem in creating solutions. Some community development scholars and practitioners even argue that the impacted communities should create and be in charge of approving the solutions themselves. Others believe that a combination of community advocates and professionals need to work together to solve the problems impacting neighborhoods and cities.

Compare this view with pro-development, pro-growth advocates who argue that struggling inner-cities simply need to expand the base of tax paying residents to spur revitalization. Of course, we have to tear down abandoned housing, upgrade the neighborhood and put in appropriate transportation links so the new neighbors can get to their tax-paying jobs.

The standard approach in many American cities has been, and unfortunately is now, for city planning boards and other municipal officials to applaud without examination, the developer’s plan to transform a struggling community and reward him/her with tax breaks and incentives at the municipality’s expense and allow them to sell at the highest rate the market will bear. That approach yields glistening new coffee shops, high-rises and housing rates that the current community too often can’t afford. Long-term residents of communities who are the carriers of a neighborhood’s legacy and history are habitually displaced and disrespected. These pushed-out residents, often people- of-color, are then moved to concentrated pockets of poverty in nearby municipalities and, increasingly, the suburbs.

A community development approach would welcome new development, but require public administrators to seek the voice of residents at all income levels in the development plan for communities. When shiny new buildings and homes replace deteriorating structures, developers would be required to include a baseline number of low and moderate income housing units along with housing at current market rate. Moreover, a community development approach would require public administrators and developers to listen to residents’ concerns about the quality of schools and parks, recreation facilities and community centers. If something new is being developed – these amenities become part of the deal.

Can ASPA “be the change?”

Here is a real live opportunity for members of ASPA to jump in and disrupt the sad paradigm of development at the expense of communities and people. We can complete the survey Dr. Hatcher mentioned in his Aug. 2 column. Hopefully an ASPA proposal to include community development and economic development can be done in the spirit of a major principle of community development: “process is as important as product.”

Why can’t we have new American cities that are racially and economically diverse with public schools, parks and playgrounds that work for residents at all income levels?  Surely, the 7,500 plus members of ASPA can bring our expertise to this 21st century problem. Let’s get to work on creating livable, sustainable communities that are inclusive of all our neighbors.


Author: Deborah Bailey, PH.D. M.P.A. is a visiting research scholar at Johns Hopkins University where she is conducting a study on social capital in the Sandtown-Winchester area of West Baltimore.

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

One Response to Community and Economic Development: The Collaborative Conversation

  1. Barbara A Coe Reply

    August 12, 2016 at 1:23 pm

    Thanks, Deborah, for your thoughtful and accurate article. It is rather astounding that policy makers are for the most part still uninformed about these connections. I would like to add that although overused and often misunderstood, the term sustainable development, when used appropriately, captures the links between economic, social and environmental aspects of communities, links that have usually been ignored but now more than ever need to be recognized and honored. Communities are where everyone lives. Should this not be a major concern?

    Thank you again for raising this issue and for arguing in favor of an ASPA focus. Public policy and administration are essential to achieving quality community development.

    Barbara

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