The past several weeks and months have made painfully apparent the ways in which structural racism destroys lives and livelihoods and holds us back as a nation. We have seen communities of color ravaged by both the health risks and economic fallout of the COVID-19 crisis and how police violence tracks stubborn patterns of segregation and disinvestment from Black and brown neighborhoods. If Americans of goodwill genuinely desire to tear down the systems and institutions that sustain racial injustice and inequity, we should start by reimagining the neighborhoods where we live.
Every family should be able to live in a neighborhood that supports their well-being and boosts their children’s chances to thrive and succeed. But today, too many families of color live in neighborhoods suffering from disinvestment, deprived of quality services and amenities, and endangered by overpolicing. And too many families of color are excluded from neighborhoods that offer safety, effective schools, healthy environments, and access to good jobs.
This didn’t happen by accident. And it’s not the “natural” result of unconstrained housing choices or freely functioning housing markets. Rather, over many decades, the United States built separate and unequal neighborhoods through public policy and institutional practices. Families of color have been blocked from areas rich in amenities and opportunities by housing discrimination and exclusionary zoning, while communities of color have been starved of capital and resources.
What should we do about it? We should invest in distressed neighborhoods so they become springboards for their residents. In neighborhoods experiencing revitalization, we should preserve affordable housing and protect against displacement. And we should expand housing options in opportunity-rich neighborhoods so families are no longer excluded based on their race or ethnicity, country of origin, or wealth and income.
Organizations across the country are already doing important work on all these imperatives. But they rarely work in tandem or across jurisdictional boundaries to achieve real scale. Incremental efforts—neighborhood by neighborhood or family by family—can’t achieve lasting impact when the underlying patterns of segregation, disinvestment, and exclusion persist.
A couple years ago, we offered a proposal to “go big” in a handful of metropolitan areas to reverse the 20th century’s legacy of segregation, disinvestment, and exclusion. Our proposal combines six key building blocks:
- Adopt a regional approach. Focusing on a single neighborhood or even a single city within a metropolitan region can’t overcome the larger market dynamics or the effects of policies, such as exclusionary zoning, in surrounding jurisdictions.
- Pursue “place-conscious” investments and reforms. Interventions should work in concert to restore well-being and opportunity to distressed neighborhoods, prevent displacement from revitalizing neighborhoods, and expand access to opportunity-rich neighborhoods.
- Support residents’ empowerment as leaders. Residents of neighborhoods suffering from disinvestment and distress must play a leading role in designing solutions and engaging their fellow community members.
- Strengthen effective organizations. Investments should build and capitalize on the capacities of local organizations already working to support justice, equity, and opportunity at the neighborhood, city, or regional scale.
- Evaluate and refine based on data. Strategies should include data collection and application to support evidence-based decisionmaking, community engagement, and continuous learning and program improvement.
- Confront racism. Lasting change can’t be achieved without dispelling racist narratives about the inferiority of Black people that drive people’s beliefs about who “belongs” in their neighborhood and who “deserves” to be a member of their community.
When we published this proposal, it was politely received but largely ignored—considered “too ambitious,” “unrealistic,” “politically infeasible.” We were convinced, however, that more modest, incremental, and politically palatable investments would prove inadequate to the challenge.
Today, we are seeing increasingly passionate—and actionable—demands to divert funding from policing and mass incarceration and reinvest those funds in the assets proven to make neighborhoods safer and more prosperous: quality schools, stable housing, affordable health care, thriving small businesses, community arts and cultural institutions, safe places to gather and play. We know this is possible; whiter and wealthier communities routinely spend more on schools and less on policing, and they are largely safer for it. But they also often establish exclusionary barriers that make safety, health, and opportunity closely guarded and unevenly shared assets.
Reversing these inequities requires more than recapturing funding from policing. We remain convinced that bold action is required to tear down the legacy of separate and unequal neighborhoods. Communities across the country need to dismantle exclusionary barriers and rebalance spending to invest more equitably across neighborhoods. Though these goals may be ambitious, they are essential to our nation’s democracy and shared prosperity, and they are long overdue.
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The Urban Institute podcast, Evidence in Action, inspires changemakers to lead with evidence and act with equity. Co-hosted by Urban President Sarah Rosen Wartell and Executive Vice President Kimberlyn Leary, every episode features in-depth discussions with experts and leaders on topics ranging from how to advance equity, to designing innovative solutions that achieve community impact, to what it means to practice evidence-based leadership.