The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
May 16, 2011

Neighborhoods as Launchpads

May 16, 2011

I’ve argued before that, although we’ve got plenty of evidence that living in profoundly poor neighborhoods hurts people, we know a lot less about how to fix these neighborhoods.

For decades, governments and foundations have tried to heal and revitalize distressed neighborhoods by investing in economic development, community centers, housing, family supports, schools, and youth services.  These efforts implicitly assume that a neighborhood can be a long-term “incubator” for its low-income residents, boosting their employment, income, and education so that the neighborhood as a whole gradually recovers.

But what about an alternative vision -- neighborhoods that serve not as incubators but as launch pads for their residents? Like an incubator neighborhood, a launch pad would offer poor residents the services and supports they need to get ahead. But as residents grew more economically secure, they’d move on to more desirable (and expensive) neighborhoods, to be replaced by a new wave of needy families.  The neighborhood itself wouldn’t show gains in employment, income, or wealth, but those it launches would.

Some neighborhoods that have historically been entry points for successive waves of immigrants may already perform in this way. But most poor neighborhoods today function more like traps, perpetuating poverty and social isolation.

Looking ahead, let’s add launch pads to our definition of what success looks like when we invest in neighborhood revitalization. I welcome your examples of neighborhoods that are playing this role now and your thoughts on what can be done to preserve and expand this vital “up and out” function.  

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