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A Twenty-First Century Approach to Community ChangePartnering to Improve Life Outcomes for Youth and Families in Under-Served Neighborhoods$

Paula Allen-Meares, Tina R. Shanks, Larry M. Gant, Leslie Hollingsworth, and Patricia L. Miller

Print publication date: 2017

Print ISBN-13: 9780190463311

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: July 2017

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780190463311.001.0001

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Community Development and Place-Based Neighborhood Change

Community Development and Place-Based Neighborhood Change

(p.44) 3 Community Development and Place-Based Neighborhood Change
A Twenty-First Century Approach to Community Change

Larry M. Gant

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

Abstract: This chapter describes the model of community development used by the University of Michigan School of Social Work’s Technical Assistance Center (UMSSW/TAC). The chapter presents a definition and description of community development as a distinct model of community practice. The chapter discusses the goals of community development, core values and principles of community development. The chapter summarizes the role of place based initiatives in community development. The limits and challenges of discerning the evidence base of the effectiveness of community development are reviewed, and an emerging perspective of possibilities of evidence based community development is outlined. The chapter ends with thoughtful considerations about the tactical use of community development within municipal communities during Detroit’s more recent times of turbulent economic, financial and political change.

Keywords:   community development, place-based community development, urban planning, university-community partnerships, evaluation of urban community development programs, Detroit neighborhoods

This work has made that possible by giving people the confidence, and the resources, and the opportunities to grow their capacity and do this work better as equal partners.

— L. LEVERETTE, personal communication, April 6, 2016 (Community Connections Grant Program & Lower Eastside Grant Program, Program Director, 2016)

Community Development as a Distinct Model of Community Practice

Working Definition of Community Development

Community development has been characterized as:

Citizens from all walks of life learning new skills and engaging in [a]‌ cooperative self-help process to achieve a wide variety of community improvements. It implies a condition of limited resources and effort to increase and expand such resources for mutual benefit. (Checkoway, 1995)

Community development is a planned approach to improving the standard of living and general well-being of people. Two concepts are reflected in community development. Development connotes positive change in living conditions through planned improvement. As a planned activity, development is a conscious and deliberate process in which residents analyze the situation, articulate goals and objectives, and implement programs to achieve them. Community connotes a collection of people who interact and share common characteristics such as interest, culture, activities, or spatial location.

Solving community problems requires the active involvement of local people, organization, and institutions. Four assumptions underlie the perceived problem and community solution set implicit in community development: (1) grass roots or “bottom-up” organization is critical; (2) broad resident participation in decision-making spheres of (p.45) community life is not only desirable but necessary; (3) the community needs to be reconstructed as a meaningful integration of various member perspectives and competencies—that is, as a “union of meaningful social and moral relationships,” which implies fraternal attitudes and cooperative relationships among citizens (Spergel, 1978); and (4) there must be an effort to bring about an increase in individual efficacy, confidence, and self-esteem as well as collaborative problem-solving and community-based structures.

The Goals of Community Development

Because community development is usually practiced in communities with high poverty rates and a high percentage of vulnerable persons, efforts typically focus on economic development and community empowerment. Working from the assumption that lack of employment opportunities is a major cause of poverty and vulnerability, economic development improves material well-being by creating economic opportunities through investment in education, business enterprises, and other employment- and income-generating activities (Ansari, Munir, & Gregg, 2012). Community empowerment includes community organizing and community building to create community-driven development, which enables members of a community to direct or control development as opposed to experiencing control or development by external institutions or experts. In the community-development context, broad-based resident participation builds local leadership, provides essential skills and knowledge for undertaking development activities, and strengthens community institutions and organizations (Butterfield & Chisanga, 2013; Rothman, 1999).

The Core Values and Principles of Community Development

In a classic work, Campfens (1997) identifies five mutually reinforcing core values and principles of community development: community participation, community integration, self-help development, and community capacity-building.

Community participation is the active involvement of residents in community development activities. Rooted in human rights theory, the principle of community participation asserts that people have a right to participate in making decisions that affect their lives. Resident participation is also a means of creating community capacity to implement development programs.

Community integration involves creating social inclusion by promoting harmonious social relationships among diverse groups of residents. Since a community consists of individuals and groups with competing interests and limited resources, efforts are needed to reduce conflict, exploitation, and the marginalization of some groups by others.

Self-help development refers to promoting community self-reliance. As much as possible, a community should rely on its human, material, and financial resources as the basis for improving living conditions. External resources available through partnerships with (p.46) government, private institutions, and organizations should supplement the community’s own resources.

Community capacity-building refers to creating conditions that enable the community to rely on the capacity and initiative of its residents to define problems and plan and execute courses of action to reduce dependence on external professional interventions. The objective is to develop community confidence, competence, and leadership.

Social empowerment is the process of helping socially excluded or oppressed individuals and groups to increase their personal, interpersonal, socioeconomic, and political strength. Community development practice often includes helping individuals and groups access social and economic resources (Christens, 2012a, 2012b; Christens, Collura, & Tahir, 2013; Phillips & Pittman, 2008).

The Role of Placed-Based Initiatives in Community Development

Beginning with President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society initiative, place-based funding has been used to concentrate investments in a specific location to achieve measurable community revitalization (Ferguson & Dickens, 2011). The most ambitious initiatives concentrate multiple investments in infrastructure and human capital in a single neighborhood. Large and small private foundations have played important roles in community development initiatives, including the Ford, Hewlett, Annie E. Casey, MacAurthur, and Kellogg Foundations. Although philanthropic funders, financial institutions, federal and state agencies, nonprofits, and local community-development agencies differ considerably in how they structure and operate place-based investments, for the most part they have tried to support the initiatives in partnership with community stakeholders. Building on lessons learned from decades of practice, several recent place-based initiatives involve multiple public and private partners, each playing different roles at different times, all coordinated by a strong local entity. The Bridgespan Group (2011) emphasizes the risk and fragility of such efforts:

When we look at the long history of urban redevelopment and, more recently, community change strategies, especially those focused on economically vulnerable and ethnically marginal populations, we have to acknowledge that they represent abundant evidence of failure … the long shadow cast by the past tends to be especially problematic in neighborhoods where the failure to deliver on ambitious promises, the divide between residents and reformers, and the top-down, non-inclusive way in which change initiatives were introduced and executed have left a wake of distrust with which new efforts have to contend. Distrust can be overcome. … But it takes time (often more time than initiative horizons or an impatient society are willing to allow), as well as superb leadership skills and a genuine commitment to authentic community engagement. (pp. 10–11)

(p.47) It is important to note that the Skillman Foundation’s community initiative appears innovative and distinctive in committing substantial time, staff, and financial resources over an (very likely) unprecedented 10-year period (Allen-Meares, Gant, & Shanks, 2011).

The Emerging Evaluation Base for Community Development

In the early 1980s, the Reagan administration shifted fiscal resources for community support services to locally controlled and administered block grants, and the availability of funds for these services has been declining ever since. The “flat funding” approach currently favored by both Republican and Democratic presidential administrations neither eliminates nor increases program resources. But their budgets decline because they are not adjusted for inflation and cost-of-living increases. A push for accountability and funding for the most effective programs possible increases the use of benchmark programs, outcome studies, and best practices. These renewed calls for “research-based practice” or “evidence-based practice” require program providers to demonstrate significant change beyond chance (the purview of clinical research) or, at the very least, provide evidence that answers the question, “does it work or not?” with or (more likely) without use of randomized large-scale trials or design sensitivity analysis (the purview of evaluation). Calls for time-limited interventions underscore the emphasis on funding “effective” programs. There continues to be little evidence to suggest community program funders will return to the practice of funding programs that “should” and “ought” to work. Programs—at least those without champions and public advocates— need to demonstrate effectiveness or go without funding.

Or so goes the thematic narrative. Yet were this narrative reality in community development—if community workers, universities, and foundations were indeed being required to demonstrate efficacy (or be defunded)—this urgency should be accompanied by (1) a substantial increase in evaluation studies of community development as well as (2) an increased number of systematic reviews of community development efficacy. Clear and emerging systematic reviews of community development outcomes are emerging that focus on a specific, tangible, deliverable outcome. These include community-based conservation projects (Brooks, Waylen, & Borgerhoff-Mulder, 2013), community-based teen pregnancy programs (Goesling, Colman, Trenholm, Terzian, & Moore, 2014), and time-limited, directly focused education assistance initiatives (e.g., Fryer, 2014; Hoxby & Avery, 2013; Hoxby, Turner, et al., 2013). The International Initiative for Impact Evaluation has an impressive number of systematic reviews and impact evaluations (more than 300) on the effectiveness of social and economic interventions in low- and middle- income countries (e.g., Snilstveit et al., 2015). In comparison, general efforts to build neighborhood capacity appear to be more thoughtful, yet more descriptive (e.g., Brown & Fiester, 2015; Christens, 2013; Christens & Peterson, 2012; Christens, Speer, & Peterson, 2011). This comparative difference may have less to do with tangible effect and (p.48) more with the challenges of operationalizing community development activities: these are largely, if not exclusively, the purview of small-group processes (Garvin, Tolman, & MacGowan, 2016). The connection between small-group processes and tangible community based-outcomes continues to be an effortful work in progress.

Earlier in this chapter, we reviewed the definitions, critical concepts, core assumptions, and core values and principles and values of community development. Determining the effectiveness of these tasks is almost completely context-dependent; it varies with the demographic composition of the group, how the problem is operationalized, where the community is located and what resources it possesses, what solution set is identified, and how able the group is to implement change (Smock, 2004). This context dependence renders the canons of randomized clinical trials extremely difficult to navigate, fund, and deploy in community development undertakings (Klein, 2015; Mullen, 2009; Ornish, 2015).

Thoughts About Future Evaluation of Placed-Based Community Change Initiatives

Despite substantial economic investment and enthusiastic multisector community support, many foundation community initiatives are less than optimally successful in community regeneration efforts (Brown & Fiester, 2007). Although several factors account for the absence of profound change, bringing the disparate pieces of community development work together without a strong strategic framework for the initiative is perhaps the biggest stumbling block (Brown & Fiester, 2007, p. 15).

Neighborhoods can have significant effects on the outcomes of youth and families. It is essential that evaluations accurately define, assess, and analyze neighborhood effects. Strengths-focused discussions in understanding communities establish that in some communities —despite risk factors such as poverty, crime, and unemployment—children and families are experiencing positive outcomes. Sometimes these communities are presented as “resilient communities” (Davis, 2016). However, focusing on communities’ resilience does not obviate the need for ongoing structural change and advocacy efforts (Swanepoel & DeBeer, 2012; Watts, Diemer, & Voight, 2011). Neighborhoods and communities are not municipalities and ought not be able, expected, or required to assume all the responsibilities and capacities of the municipalities in which they are located (Richards, 2014).

One primary problem in studying neighborhood-level effects is selection bias—that is, the observed effects of neighborhoods on individual-level outcomes may be confounded by the presence of unmeasured variables correlated with individuals’ decisions to live in particular neighborhoods (Pavlish & Pharris, 2011). In an important article examining the size of neighborhood effects on a number of youth outcomes, Ginther, Haveman, and Wolfe (2000) found that the size of neighborhood effects was substantially reduced as the characteristics of families and youth were more fully specified in their statistical models. Collecting family-level data in a study of neighborhood effects is an obvious, but not (p.49) necessarily practical, solution. To include such variables requires surveying households—an undertaking that is costly in terms of time and resources. In addition, the literature is not entirely clear about what family/individual characteristics do predict choice of neighborhoods, or, in fact, the extent to which choice is involved in where families live. There is a long-standing concern with selection bias in the social sciences (e.g., Berk, 1983), and researchers have developed several models to address its presence (Winship & Mare, 1992). However, relatively few studies to date have employed these models to address the existence of selection bias when examining neighborhood effects (for an example of such a study, see Grogan-Kaylor, 2005). Given the more sophisticated contemporary research on neighborhood effects, scholars will adapt and improve these models.

A challenging conceptual issue in neighborhood effects research and community development work is that of distinguishing indicators from outcomes. That is, in some analyses, a variable may be a predictor (like crime rates predicting youth outcomes in school); in other analyses, that same indicator may be the outcome being predicted (e.g., unemployment rates or infrastructure maintenance predicting crime rates). As in any social science research, the choice of predictors and outcome indicators depends on the theory being tested and/or the social problem being studied.

Another quandary is the operationalization of geographical areas. A neighborhood is usually determined historically, politically, or administratively (e.g., by government entities). Thus, neighborhoods and communities may have a strong influence on their residents, but that influence may not be captured in our data. Similarly, although a resource is geographically located in a particular community, it is not necessarily a resource for that community. Resources may be placed in certain communities primarily because a suitable or affordable facility is available, not because they actively serve residents in their geographic proximity.

Sampson, Morenoff, and Gannon-Rowley (2002) noted another concern with neighborhoods effects research: matching a single geocoded address with a census tract to determine the neighborhood in which study participants reside. However, as Sampson and colleagues correctly observe, it is quite possible that an individual might live in one neighborhood, work in a second, send his or her children to school in a third neighborhood, and have friends in many different neighborhoods. Many individuals conduct their activities and access resources based on complex geographical ties. Future research on neighborhood and community effects should try to account for the fact that, in the contemporary United States, individuals’ lives are lived in multiple geographical settings.

Finally, tests of a community resilience model would ideally take into account the dynamic nature of relationships and neighborhoods over time. Neighborhoods change over time, improving with economic development and new housing construction or worsening due to increased crime, housing abandonment, or lack of infrastructure maintenance. Individuals and families also change over time, and neighborhood and family changes can interact (Gilster, 2012). Being able to capture data accurately to identify community-level risk and protective factors (at one point in time and in (p.50) changes over time), may be a distant goal, but certainly one worth attaining (Green & Haines, 2015).

A Novel Approach to Evaluation of Placed-Based Community Development Initiatives

This section suggests a very different approach to community development evaluation. It suggests locating evidence-based practice not in the context of randomized clinical trials, but in a consultative process approach between a practitioner and client, group, or population (Grinnell & Unrau, 2011; Mullen, 2009; Soydan & Palinkas, 2014). Mullen (2009) efficiently titles this approach evidence-based social work practice (EBSWP), suggesting that it is:

Defined as a professional decision-making process in which social workers and their clients systematically make intervention choices using practitioner expertise to identify (1) client conditions, needs, circumstances, preferences and values; (2) best evidence about intervention options, including potential risk and benefit likelihoods; and (3) contextual resources and constraints bearing on intervention options. Intervention choices refer to action options about how to assess client conditions and circumstances, how to provide services, and how to evaluate the process and outcomes of services. Clients can be individuals, families, groups, communities, or large populations. Best evidence includes findings from scientific studies as well as from other reliable sources considered to be of highest quality, strength, and relevance. (Mullen, 2009)

Social work scholars have begun to address the challenges associated with evaluating community development interventions (Jenson & Howard, 2016; Soska & Johnson-Butterfield, 2004). For some authors, the pace of evaluation research in community development is slower than expected; for others, it continues to evolve and accelerate. The reality of community development evaluation is that the expected “gold-standard” evaluation methodology is expensive and requires expertise not typically available in community-based organizations or agencies. Deploying randomized clinical trials in natural community and organizational settings is difficult, time-consuming, and expensive. It requires trained personnel and demands a high level of continuous oversight and monitoring. High-quality evaluations are thus possible but expensive and resource-intensive (Ornish, 2015). Funders and other audiences demanding clinical research designs need to understand the personnel and financial costs, and they need to fund the types of evaluations that they demand. There are no short cuts to quality evaluation. However, the funding commitments do not appear to be consistent with the call and demands for these types of evaluation designs.

(p.51) At present, quantitative methods have priority in empirical determinations of program effectiveness. However, appropriate methods continue to be the focus of passionate discussion, and scholars and practitioners are offering compelling and thoughtful challenges to the use of statistical significance (Seife, 2015), evidence-based medicine (Klein, 2015), multiple regression as a means of discovering causality (Nisbett, 2015), and large randomized controlled studies (Ornish, 2015). Increasingly, qualitative methodologies can be quantified, analyzed, and incorporated as quantitative variables in analysis (Corbin & Strauss, 2014; Cresswell, 2013). It is beyond the scope of this chapter to demonstrate the value of qualitative information and the merits of quantifying it (Corbin & Strauss, 2014; Cresswell 2013). Nevertheless, quasi-experimental designs—the hallmark of most program evaluations (Rossi, Lipsey, & Freeman, 2003)—have extraordinary merit, value, and worth. They should continue to be used extensively and supplemented with sophisticated statistical analysis and good, solid evaluation questions (Patton, 2011).

The evaluation of community development research continues, perhaps with fewer studies than might be desirable, but with studies nonetheless. The number of studies grows somewhat more slowly than desired, but there is growth. The evaluation approaches for community development range from formative to summative and exploratory to confirmative (e.g., Johnson, Keisler, Solak, Turcotte, Bayram, & Drew, 2015; Komro, Tobler, Delisle, O’Mara, & Wagenaar, 2013; Lennie & Tacchi, 2013). In the first two decades of the 21st century, approaches to evaluating community development continue to develop, with findings closely derived from analyses and context. The effect of community development approaches is increasingly well demonstrated, and the current level of analysis of community development evaluations offers a sufficient (if qualified) “yes” to the question, “is community development intervention effective?” Community development in general awaits better answers—and better thinking—to the follow-up question, “effective compared to what?” Perhaps an initial response can be found in a paraphrase of Kosko’s (2015) recommendation to science and scientists: “Is community development effective—and compared to what? Perhaps social work—and social community development—needs to take seriously a favored answer: It depends” (p. 540).

Community Development: Place-Based Neighborhood Change in Detroit During the Great Recession

Demographic trends between the 1920s and 1960s included increased migration to cities, which were then the location of industry, jobs, and employment. Prompted by these forces, the federal government spearheaded urban initiatives to strengthen the capacity and resources of cities to serve increasingly growing urban populations. As populations shifted away from urban to suburban areas, the federal impetus for coordinated city and urban planning diminished dramatically. These impacts are felt in clusters of smaller cities around the United States. In the current case, the “steel belt” cities of the Midwest—once (p.52) the locations of heavy industries such as steel, iron, and automobile production—are now the “rust belt” cities, reflecting dramatic depopulation, poverty concentration, and structural unemployment.

In communities such as these, community development—comprised of intermediaries, private foundations, social entrepreneurs, faith-based organizations, and colleges/universities—have engaged in a continuum of strategies designed to promote community stabilization and citizen participation. Typically targeted toward a specific set of outcomes (including the movement of social indicators), these community-development initiatives have focused on single or multiple communities and neighborhoods. In the Technical Assistance Center (TAC)’s work with the Skillman Foundation, the goal was to deploy a variety of neighborhood-level strategies and interventions designed to “change the odds for youth” (youth operationally defined with “soft” boundaries between 11 and 24 years of age). For the better, the TAC was successful at helping the six Good Neighborhoods communities keep residents at decision-making tables in the communities while mitigating and moderating some of the power dominance of community organizations and institutions.

However, during the formative years of University of Michigan School of Social Work’s Technical Assistance Center (UMSSW/TAC) work, Detroit underwent historic change and transformation (see Chapter 2). We close this chapter with a reflection on the challenges of community development during times of municipal transformation. Johnson’s questions about community development and urban planning are provocative:

In community redevelopment and many aspects of urban planning, however, the opportunity to capitalize on “big data” is much less clear. These domains tend to involve “wicked problems” that are often open-ended, multi-faceted and politically controversial. Such problems have complex social choice dimensions for which there is little agreement about values, beliefs, and desirable tradeoffs. How much public funding should be invested in revitalizing a neighborhood with high poverty rates? Can such a program be successful for a particular geography and population without addressing broader social policy issues such as unemployment, job training, family responsibility, etc.? Suppose, moreover, that a community-based program is “successful” in increasing economic activity and reducing blight and poverty rates. If residents are displaced and the neighborhood is gentrified, can the program still be considered a success? (Johnson et al., 2015, p. 2)

Detroit is the United States’ first postindustrial city and the largest to undergo bankruptcy. A number of sadly effective corporate and state government strategies changed the frame of social reform from a social-political process to a completely corporate strategy. The creation of Michigan’s Emergency Manager Act (Anderson, 2011) delegitimized publicly and legally elected political leaders and eliminated the democratic electoral powers of recall and public accountability. It transformed the city of Detroit from a societal (p.53) institution with legally binding mandates between municipal government and residents to a struggling corporate entity with a portfolio of economic securities and material assets. With the “corporatization” of the city complete, migration to bankruptcy consolidation was relatively straightforward. (Detroit’s appointed fiscal manager had been lead corporate counsel for the bankruptcy consolidation of General Motors a few years ago and a mile or so away from Detroit’s municipal offices.)

This transformation nullified any aspect of genuine public participation in the process, as well as any involvement by citizens, workers, and public unions. Detroit was recreated as an amazing investment opportunity for resourced residents and for businesses that desired a metropolitan experience but were priced out of larger, more expensive communities such as Chicago, New York City, San Francisco, and Washington DC. Skyrocketing rental and residential sales rates dislocated thousands of Detroit residents. Yet private ownership of media, markets, and banks effectively prevented the presentation of dissenting voices. In many respects, residents, unions, and community organizations were simply unprepared to counter the power of elites and capital as Detroit was appropriated for and repatriated by a new generation of relatively wealthy corporations and elites (Suarez-Balcazar, & Harper, 2014).

This “financialism” strategy (Mitchell, 2010) poses a critical problem for conventional progressive social action movements such as those embodied by community development and other progressive models of social work. Our models begin with the assumption that opposing forces (e.g., neoliberal models) presuppose the existence of government, governance, physical municipalities, and a set of contractual expectations between citizen/residents and municipalities, taxation for resource provision, and electoral participation and representation. Thus, the opposing groups interact, negotiate, and challenge with roughly a level playing field. However, financialism requires absolutely none of these expectations since the power base lies within legal and economic intricacies little known to lay audiences. What happens if the powerful opposition nullifies the one legal power—the power of the ballot—held by lay, working-class, and poor communities? What then is the recourse of community development? We suggest that, in Good Neighborhoods, the emergence and presence of strong community governance boards provided at least a mechanism for community self-determination and the ability to speak to power with at least one consistent voice for residents.

Discussion Questions

  1. 1. What community development roles could social workers play in communities where the only community constant appears to be change?

  2. 2. What are the risks, challenges, and opportunities for conceptualizing work in communities as developing “resilient” communities? When should resilient communities be the goal? When should they not be the goal? (p.54)

  3. 3. How can community development workers work with challenged communities to more quickly develop powerful responses to rapidly changing public, political, and municipal legal (and litigious) changes?

  4. 4. What is the future of community development in communities where the municipal government (e.g., city government) is undergoing or experiencing dramatic economic change?

  5. 5. What are new roles for organizations, institutions, and organizations in the development and emergence of community development programs?


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