June 27, 2018
The riddle of regeneration
The history of community regeneration is in many respects a troubled one. The challenge of breathing sustained new life into areas affected by severe social and economic disadvantage has resulted in a huge number of expensive failures and very few success stories. Perhaps it is because we have invested so much money over the years to such little effect, it has become almost too painful (or embarrassing) to learn the lessons from these failures. Interesting research from America into what factors might determine why investment in some communities seems to produce results and not in others.
What is the difference between communities that are able to recover from disinvestment and those that cannot? The answer, according to recent research from MDRC, are the presence of strong social networks.
To invest in a place—whether for profit or for public benefit, whether an urban neighborhood or a rural community—is to place a bet on the strength of that community’s economic and social fabric. It’s a bet on the community’s ability to absorb the capital, use it to attract more resources, recognize and make the most of latent opportunities, and persevere to create more opportunity and value. That ability is a direct function of the cohesion and collective determination of the community’s residents, organizations, and political support.
Not every community has what it takes to pay off that bet. And not all investors have a clear idea of how to cultivate the readiness, the absorptive potential, that makes for an investable place. This explains the many communities where public and private dollars poured in, and a building or two rose, or a new service was offered, some new organization hung out a shingle, people in suits cut ribbons and declared a new era, and then… not much changed.
The story is sad, but it’s not inevitable. Over the years, communities that had seemed to lack the wherewithal to make the most of investments have later turned around, seizing opportunity and remaking the landscape, piling value on value. In places that were once thought resistant to change, in sections of Newark, Indianapolis, Oakland, Houston, and Chicago, among many other places, certain neighborhoods have managed to shift the odds. They have fundamentally improved their ability to use capital effectively, transform their surroundings, and build confidence among both investors and residents. The result: visibly better communities—more street life, better schools, stronger commercial strips, better housing, a heightened sense of safety and possibility.
How does this happen? Years of thought and experience—including many influential articles in this publication—have persuasively argued that the key is cohesiveness. It’s more than an initiative or two; you can’t get there just by building a new school or repaving Main Street or opening a job-counselling office. The key is to form the social and strategic ligaments that bind whole neighborhoods and help their centers of strength and energy work in concert.
In stronger communities, local interests find ways to pull together, form networks, share information, take collective action on local issues, and forcefully promote their own understanding of local needs and opportunities to government and outside investors. An improved school is linked to the new clinic; the youth program and the merchants’ association work with police and the parks department; arts groups and economic development programs and housing associations find common cause.
If you find a way to forge these networks, many observers have counselled, you’ll cultivate fertile places for all kinds of capital, public and private.
At the Local Initiatives Support Corp. (LISC), the nation’s largest and oldest community development financial institution, we’ve never doubted that wisdom—in fact, it’s the driving force of everything we do. When we channelled corporate and philanthropic money, in partnership with public dollars, into well-organized communities, where we’ve worked with businesses and schools and block associations and human-service organizations to hammer out a shared agenda, the return was unmistakable: better education, safer streets, busier business districts, more desirable housing and public spaces. The improvements lasted and multiplied.
A focused partnership led by SWOP with school leadership has expanded community and parental engagement at the school and increased quality of educational performance.
Still, when a wary investor or a skeptical public policymaker said, “Show us the numbers, where are the charts?” we had to rely on persuasive storytelling. We could walk them around a neighborhood, and that often worked. But we didn’t have the quantifiable data that it was the social networks, the integrated efforts of multiple local forces acting in concert,that made the difference. We couldn’t always persuade them that forming those connections was the right place to start and the best way to maximize results.
Part of the reason was that the social science and evaluation field had yet to catch up with the effort in a way that truly measured the work of forging networks. This is because every place is unique; every story is a little different; every successful network has its own mixture of driving forces and moving parts. We didn’t feel that research was able to quantify how disparate patterns of interaction can be galvanized into functioning engines of collective effort. Nor could we point to hard evidence that, whatever the particular variations from place to place, it was the formation of these networks, harnessing the concerted energies of whole neighborhoods, that counts.
Now we can.
MDRC Research Shows Importance of Social Networks
The first instalment in an ongoing series of reports by MDRC, the preeminent social-policy research organization in the United States, has collected evidence from LISC’s decade-long New Communities Program in Chicago. Funded with more than $50 million in grants from the John D. and Catherine T.
MacArthur Foundation, plus hundreds of millions more in follow-on investments from other sources, New Communities Program has fostered just these kinds of whole-neighborhood connections in more than a dozen areas of the city.
MacArthur’s commitment represented one of the largest single-city community development efforts in the country, and their partnership with LISC helped spark a generation of comprehensive community initiatives, including LISC’s own Building Sustainable Communities effort and initiatives in the Obama White House. Focusing on seven of the New Communities sites and two other neighborhoods, MDRC used social network analysis to measure the structure and strength of local partnerships and then assess whether these connections could be associated directly with the success of neighborhood improvements.
Social network analysis is a way of mapping the relationships among people and organizations working in a given place or field. It provides a way of understanding where the strengths of the observed relationships lie and what they can accomplish. The analysis can tell us what becomes possible when the resources of several organizations are combined, in specific ways, compared with what any one of them could have achieved on its own.