Connecting Community Building to Metropolitan Solutions

This issue is dedicated to one of the most important challenges facing community institutions today: how to connect their work to the metropolitan marketplace and the emergence of new political alliances that focus on curbing sprawl and promoting reinvestment in cities and older suburbs.America’s metropolitan areas are experiencing remarkably similar development patterns – explosive growth at the exurban fringe coupled with decline and disinvestment in older established communities. Throughout the country, upper-income, residentially exclusive suburbs are capturing a disproportionate share of regional infrastructure spending and economic growth. At the same time, trends generally associated with inner-city neighborhoods – concentrated poverty, pervasive joblessness, failing schools, racial and social isolation – are becoming the norm in older suburbs surrounding the urban core.

These metropolitan growth and development patterns amount to a fundamental decentralization of American economic and residential life. They create, as the Clinton Administration’s own “State of the Cities” report acknowledged last summer, three significant challenges for all those interested in the future of our cities and older established communities.

First, the suburbs (particularly the outer suburbs) are the centers of job creation and growth in the new economy. Second, the central cities continue to hemorrhage not only jobs but middle class families as well. Finally, the exodus of jobs and middle class families is making the cities, and increasingly the older suburbs, the domain of concentrated poverty.

In regions across the country, these demographic and market trends – facilitated largely by government spending, tax, and regulatory actions – are creating a strong foundation for diverse coalitions of elected officials, downtown business leaders, environmentalists, farmland preservation advocates, and civic and religious groups in the central cities and older suburbs. These coalitions are forcing federal, state, and metropolitan consideration of an eclectic mix of solutions – enhanced metropolitan governance, labor and residential mobility, regional tax equity, land-use reform, and the targeted investment of government subsidies.

Community institutions have a large stake in the success of these policy conversations. The rise in concentrated urban poverty and the exodus of middle-class families and low-skilled jobs to the outer fringes of metropolitan areas are destabilizing the cities and neighborhoods in which many community institutions operate. These forces threaten, unless checked, to eviscerate the ability of community institutions to create healthy and sustainable neighborhoods.

The articles on the following pages represent contributions by some of the leading thinkers and practitioners in the metropolitan movement. The articles reveal how community institutions have begun to engage on many aspects of the regional agenda. Together, the articles outline an ambitious call to community institutions to link their neighborhood work to the regional economy, and help build multi-jurisdictional and multi-disciplinary coalitions that strive for change at the metropolitan, state, and federal levels.

Jeremy Nowak and Robert Zdenek focus on the first challenge and write about the need for community institutions to help connect residents of their distressed neighborhoods to employment opportunities in the metropolitan area. They describe their organizations’ efforts to identify regional economic sectors that are experiencing labor shortages (healthcare in Philadelphia, automotive repair in New Jersey) and then devise innovative worker recruitment and job placement strategies that meet the needs of metropolitan employers as well as neighborhood residents. They also describe creative strategies to help grow regionally-based, for-profit enterprises that link directly to neighborhood workforce development efforts. Manuel Pastor and colleagues approach the regional development issue from the opposite perspective and make the case that regions benefit from linking economic development with inner-city poverty alleviation efforts.

Myron Orfield, and David Rusk principally focus on the second challenge: the need for community institutions to engage politically and help affect major legislative and administrative reforms. To be meaningful and complete, reform will need to occur at the metropolitan, state, and federal levels. At the metropolitan level, community institutions should, at minimum, work to ensure that public transportation and infrastructure resources are allocated in a fair and equitable manner. The shift toward metropolitan governance in federal environmental and transportation laws dramatically increases the potential for community-based organizations to make their voices heard.

Community institutions must also pay increasing attention to state governments, which, with their power over land use, housing and tax policy, and local governance, hold the keys to meaningful change. Several progressive states are pursuing complementary strategies that may be replicated elsewhere. Oregon continues to preserve its landmark land-use law, which requires that urban growth boundaries be drawn around cities throughout the state. Portland, Oregon, has the only elected metropolitan government in the country and is the nation’s model for compact, transit-oriented development.

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Maryland recently enacted “smart growth” laws in an effort to steer road, sewer, and school money away from farms and open spaces to existing areas targeted for concentrated growth. And Minnesota, under Orfield’s leadership, has moved in recent years to upgrade metropolitan governance in the Twin Cities area and expand suburban obligations for affordable housing. The Twin Cities metropolitan area also follows an innovative tax-base sharing scheme that greatly reduces fiscal inequities between disparate jurisdictions.

Finally, community institutions must engage at the federal level. Despite the enactment of recent transportation and environmental laws, federal policies, on balance, continue to facilitate exurban expansion. A preliminary agenda for federal reforms includes: (1) expanding federal “right-to-know” laws to include disclosure of public expenditures on transportation and infrastructure; (2) enhancing and coordinating metropolitan governance in the transportation, environmental, housing, economic development, welfare, and employment training arenas; (3) providing incentives for parochial political jurisdictions to use existing or new federal funds in ways that promote metropolitan solutions; and (4) increasing efforts to break down suburban barriers to affordable housing and give low- and moderate-income families greater housing choice.

Community institutions, of course, cannot be expected to carry the entire metropolitan agenda. They need to pick and choose their fights carefully at all levels of government and engage in issues tailored to their strengths and expertise. Church-based groups in Cleveland, St. Louis, and elsewhere, for example, have decided to focus initially on ensuring that public transportation and infrastructure decisions are fully disclosed and reflect the needs of all parts of a metropolitan area.

Community institutions, in short, need to connect their agenda to the realities of metropolitan economies and the new promise of metropolitan reform. That may require them to expand their areas of focus beyond affordable housing and beyond their neighborhoods. It clearly calls for broader and more concerted political and policy engagement on their part. In both cases, these will be efforts well spent.

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