Economic development has traditionally been a tool for relatively well-off communities to improve their lot by attracting new jobs and increasing their tax base. Relatively well-off, that is, compared to low-income communities of color, and in particular, urban communities. For them, community development has been the primarily tool, working primarily through real estate development and social service programs. However, it turns out that real estate and social service programs have not sufficiently improved the lot of many of the poorest neighborhoods. In fact, one in six Americans now lives in poverty, the highest in half a century. Furthermore, it turns out that all communities, regardless of class or color, need more than just jobs. Therefore, at Fourth Economy, we are interested in continually pushing for a more integrated approach to community and economic development.
What an integrated approach looks like is a question that many are currently working to answer. Like our peers across the country, folks in Pittsburgh have been discussing this question quite a bit lately. For instance, I recently attended a lecture by Majora Carter (sponsored by our friends at the Green Building Alliance and Phipps), who is piloting new ways of using real estate as a tool to create economic diversity in the South Bronx, as opposed to gentrification. This sparked some good conversation afterwards about finding more effective ways to attract investment to largely-vacant neighborhoods in Pittsburgh, while also ensuring that existing residents aren’t priced out and are served by new businesses. I also recently facilitated a panel on the topic of social enterprise for the SBA’s Office of Advocacy featuring Abe Taleb, Justine Kaszinca, and Roi Ben-Itzhak, three leaders among our burgeoning social enterprise sector. One question many in the sector are trying to answer is, as social enterprise attempts to solve social problems through innovation and for-profit models, how to do we encourage social entrepreneurship among and for the urban poor? And finally, I am organizing a panel for the upcoming PCRG Community Development Summit featuring The Living Cities’ Integration Initiative. Their approach aims to move away from program delivery to transforming systems; build a civic infrastructure that bring people from across sectors together to address common problems; redirect funds away from ineffective approaches towards innovative approaches; and drive the private market to work on behalf of low-income people. I am really looking forward to being able to have this discussion with a room full of community and economic development practitioners from around our region.
Of course ultimately what an integrated approach to community and economic development looks like is going to be different in every community. When we work with communities to create economic development strategies, we always start with developing an understanding of the unique nature of that community, both through qualitative and quantitative data, and then work with stakeholders through an iterative process in order to craft a strategy. Two recent projects highlight this approach. The first was a project in the Mahoning Valley of Ohio, where we used the collective impact model to help a group of community stakeholders identify a common priority and road map to collaboratively addressing that priority. The other was the economic development analysis that we conducted as part of Rhode Island’s Sustainable Communities planning. For both of these projects, we crafted a process that was totally unique to meet the needs of those communities, while still utilizing our underlying approach of combining quantitative and qualitative information and engaging stakeholders throughout the process. Though lots of pieces of an integrated approach are being tested throughout the country (many featured in this fantastic collection of essays) every community will need its own approach, definitely informed by experiences across the nation, but also by voices of the people who call that community home.
Moving forward, we are excited about helping to further the discussion around what an integrated approach to community and economic development looks like, and to working with communities to help them answer the question for themselves. Ultimately, we believe that such an approach will not only help address persistent poverty, but will also lead to more sustainable local economies.