Community Development Field

The Assumptions Behind Place-Based Programs Can Hinder Their Success

Examining eight common assumptions underlying place-based work shows that even when avoiding the pitfalls of no change or gentrification, the work is challenging.

Photo by Flickr user Elfi, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

aerial photo of an ocean whirlpool, illustrating an article about the pitfalls of common assumptions underlying place-based work.

Photo by Flickr user Elfi, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

On Odysseus’ long journey home in Homer’s Odyssey, he must cross the Strait of Messina, making his way between two dangerous sea monsters, Scylla and Charybdis. Venture too close to Scylla and the multi-headed beast will eat Odysseus’ men; stray too close to Charybdis and the whirlpool will sink the ship.

Place-based revitalization work also faces two opposing pitfalls. If initiatives do too little to alter the status quo, neighborhoods are left as impoverished as when the initiatives began, with the added insult of broken promises and a sense of intractability. But if initiatives have too much of an effect, increased market interest leads to the crowding out of households with low or moderate incomes that have lived in the area for years.

In seeking to transform distressed communities, placed-based initiatives have taken a long list of approaches to promote the physical and social health of neighborhoods. Many initiatives recognize that a history of racialized oppression and exclusion has resulted in particular challenges for communities of color.

With so many place-based programs—everything from the Harlem Children’s Zone to Opportunity Zones—one might expect the efforts to have a clear theory of change, but that is largely not the case.

After a detailed review of the documents, activities, and initial announcements of multiple programs and initiatives, I have found that place-based revitalization programs tend to rest upon eight assumptions, though typically not all are voiced. Below, I review the empiric evidence or lack thereof behind these assumptions.

Assumption 1: Distressed Communities Are Adversely Affecting Residents

The idea: Neighborhoods with concentrated disadvantage, low-performing institutions, inadequate housing, crime, and other indicators of distress have negative effects on the well-being of residents.

The evidence: There’s a lot of support for the idea that place matters to residents, but exactly how and to what extent varies by age and place. For example, the Moving to Opportunity experiment found income gains for children whose families received housing vouchers that required them to move to low-poverty neighborhoods, but did not find similar improvements for teens or adults.

Ultimately, growing up in distressed neighborhoods can have deleterious effects, but the careful study of the outcomes and populations is useful. Younger children appear affected differently from teens, and evidence about adults is inconsistent.

Assumption 2: One-Size-Fits-All Solutions Don’t Work, Given Neighborhood Heterogeneity

The idea: Differences in geography, race, age, political groups, institutions, and policies across pockets of poverty mean that even though distressed communities share that label, they may share little else. As a result place-based initiatives should be locally contextualized.

The evidence: Top-down approaches to community development do have a poor track record. However, the focus on localized approaches has meant that we have underinvested in building insights about what program elements work best, which elements really don’t work, and what level of resources is needed to effect change. There may be elements in common across communities we are missing.

Place-based work does not emerge from a uniform, prescribed, nationalized approach. Even federal programs such as Choice Neighborhoods and Promise Neighborhoods rely on local design and control. And networks like Purpose Built Communities have different activities across sites.

Assumption 3: Local Control and Accountability Lead to Better Outcomes

The idea: Giving local residents control over their neighborhood’s future and cultivating active resident involvement in place-based initiatives will achieve better outcomes.

The evidence: Resident voice in local development can be justified on moral grounds, but the research is ambiguous about whether this leads to quicker, larger, or more sustained gains for residents. Of course, the history of top-down community development in the U.S.—for example, the urban renewal program—cannot be divorced from underlying motivations of entrenching segregation. But today’s debate is not as simple as choosing between Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses—top-down and bottom-up design elements can be used in combination.

Further complicating matters, local accountability is not easy to achieve, and is often merely symbolic. And initiatives may operate from a simplistic position that a community is unified in its desires. Where residents lack the time or inclination to be involved, place-based efforts may engage with only a few nonrepresentative residents.

Assumption 4: Solutions to Local Distress Do Not Lie in a Single Outcome, Approach, or Policy

The idea: Even within neighborhoods, needs are multifaceted and connected to one another. As such, place-based efforts must cut across outcome, funding, organizational, and sectoral silos. Because communities are complex, so too must be the solution.

The evidence: Although this assumption rests on solid ground as each neighborhood problem has its roots in a dozen other problems, it can result in muddled approaches. By trying to accomplish many things, placed-based work can fail to implement a clear theory of change.

Assumption 5: A Local Organization Can Coordinate Community Revitalization

The idea: Having a coordinator or quarterback is important for guiding strategy. A coordinator can bring needed organization to a long-term comprehensive initiative, allowing each organization to play to its strengths, and weaving disparate funding sources and agendas into a coherent strategy.

The evidence: Local coordinators can be a help in sustaining initiatives over the long time period it takes to grow local wealth, but they can struggle to remain in a coordinator role rather than becoming another interest group motivated by self-preservation.

Assumption 6: Local Efforts Can Overcome Global, National, Regional, and Systemic Challenges

The idea: Although national and global dynamics like trade, automation, labor laws, tax policy, and racialized exclusion establish the broad parameters of wealth holding, those dynamics do not dictate its spatial distribution. Locally focused will and resources can overcome systemic economic, social, and policy disadvantages that have coalesced—in combination with local factors—to create distressed communities.

The evidence: Not all conditions can be solved or addressed locally or even regionally—at least not without a mobilization of public resources unlike what we have seen before. Relatively few place-based efforts have thought carefully about which factors can and cannot be addressed locally. Even a robust place-based development strategy may fail in the face of a weakening regional economy or shrinking population. Neighborhoods are not islands. That said, neighborhood redevelopment is possible in declining regions, but doing so requires considerable resources.

Assumption 7: Neighborhoods Have Tipping Points

The idea: Small subsidy amounts can catalyze market investment, eventually hitting a neighborhood’s tipping point and creating a positive feedback loop.  

The evidence: Neighborhoods may have tipping points, but for severely disinvested areas they are at higher investment thresholds than most anticipate. My research finds that two of the nation’s largest comprehensive community initiatives, the City Heights Initiative in San Diego and the East Baltimore Development Initiative—which have invested hundreds of millions of dollars over decades—have had limited effects on local economic or demographic attributes. (They may have had other outcomes, including for people who moved away.)

Place-based investments can change places and some can catalyze market interest, such as the East Lake Initiative in Atlanta, which invested more than $600 million over 25 years. But this varied evidence calls into question efforts that invest only $10 million or even $50 million.

Assumption 8: Residents Stay in Place Long Enough to Benefit; Place-Based Efforts Do Not Lead to Displacement

The idea: Residents remain in place long enough to benefit from their neighborhood’s ascent through place-based investments.

The evidence: High mobility rates—whether because of relocation, gentrification, or ordinary dynamics—raise a question about who benefits from place-based initiatives. Some evidence exists that residential turnover is not necessarily higher in neighborhoods receiving place-based investments, but this is because mobility rates in low-income communities are already quite high. And even if mobility rates do not rise still higher, the neighborhood can change if initiatives make neighborhoods attractive to affluent households. Some place-based efforts, especially those with large physical redevelopment components such as HOPE VI, can reduce the number of residents who stay or return.

To finish his journey, Odysseus chose to thread a middle path between Scylla and Charybdis, but even that decision came with a cost. The strait was too narrow to completely avoid both terrors, and Scylla managed to take six of Odysseus’ men. The assumptions underlying place-based work show that even when avoiding the pitfalls of no change or gentrification, the work is challenging.

Are these eight assumptions so shaky that place-based approaches should be avoided? No, disadvantage is localized and the solutions to address it must be at least partially local. But we cannot let place-based initiatives off the hook: most are not designed in ways or with sufficient scale to accomplish the desired change.

To improve future place-based efforts’ design and reach, a critical look at the justifications for place-based initiatives must be taken. Not all communities are well positioned for a revitalization effort as the available commitment of time and money cannot sufficiently meet the need.

Where place-based initiatives do make sense, their funders must accept that change is hard and takes decades. Local philanthropy and anchor institutions can provide a backstop as public officials come and go, but vastly more federal resources will be needed. Initiatives must think carefully about their approach, including what unintended effects may arise, and do more to bolster resident input and control while maintaining a focus on outcomes. More than anything, a deepened commitment and thoughtful strategy are needed to ensure that place-based efforts contain the ingredients for success.

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