The blog of the Urban Institute
September 25, 2012

What does "community development" mean to you?

September 25, 2012

When you hear the term “community development,” what do you see? I expect lots of people imagine efforts to fix up poor, run-down neighborhoods: renovating substandard homes, building a new community center or a subsidized apartment building, maybe even opening up a grocery store or pharmacy that employs neighborhood residents. A couple of decades ago, this would have been a pretty accurate summary of the community development field.

But these days, “community development” means a lot more and offers the potential for much greater impact. A new book, Investing in What Works for America's Communities, produced jointly by the Low Income Investment Fund and the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, assembles the most current and creative thinking about community development. It includes essays from innovative on-the-ground practitioners (like Angela Blanchard of Neighborhood Centers, Inc.), federal policymakers (Shaun Donovan, Arne Duncan, and Kathleen Sebelius), and engaged scholars (like MIT’s Xav Briggs).

At its best, community development today isn’t just about the built environment or about investments within the borders of a distressed neighborhood, although both are important. It’s also about citywide (or metro-wide) policies that help poor people build skills, work experience, savings, and security for their families. It’s about breaking down the barriers of prejudice that exclude low-income families from neighborhoods with great schools, safe streets, affordable grocery stores, and healthy places to play. And it’s about connecting poor neighborhoods to larger networks of services and opportunities so that poor families can move up and out if they want to.

Urban policy wonks used to waste a lot of time arguing about the relative merits of place-based versus people-based strategies. In her foreword to this new book, Elizabeth Duke of the Federal Reserve’s Board of Governors, rightly declares that this “debate is over and both sides won.”


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Poverty exists on American Indian reservations, where there are limited job opportunities, lack of educational/training choices, and social problems. I work to promote economic development, which is entrepreneurship and tribal enterprises. We have hosted financial literacy workshops, and recently got funded for the CDFI TA grant to begin setting up a small business loan program. The communities do need a plan to address all people and place problems. We have coordinated on our own to address financial literacy; but this is still not enough, until people feel that they do have options. Thank you.