#166 Summer 2011 — 36th Anniversary

A Ground-Up Approach in a Top-Down World

Community development in the last 20 years has been hindered by the perpetuation of real estate as a vehicle for wealth creation.

Historically, post-industrial community development seems to have occurred in a dominoes-like fashion: businesses created jobs, creating a need for housing, and thus creating a need for retail stores, restaurants, and service providers. Often these evolutions took place in whatever space was available as these needs arose.

Now, rarely were all of these components considered beforehand as communities were “planned,” and I believe community development in the last 20 years has been hindered by the perpetuation of real estate as a vehicle for wealth creation. Communities seemed to quickly become enveloped in condominiums and housing developments. Obviously now, despite our previous national self-delusion, we have realized that real estate will not appreciate exponentially until the end of time. This realization has left many communities with vacant or unfinished projects occupying areas that could be used for any number of community development improvements.

This top-down mentality also seems to have been the model for job creation in the United States. Ensuring the economic success and financial stability of larger companies has been a priority for our government with the hopes that monies will trickle down to smaller businesses and communities. Corporate consolidation combined with a top-heavy economy has created a shift in this philosophy as major corporate failures have spider-cracked through our economy, demonstrating just how misplaced our faith in these organizations has been.

The good news appears to be that these difficult lessons have brought the importance of sustainable communities and local jobs to the forefront. Cities are looking more closely at the resources available to them and how they are being used, and community development leaders are engaging in 30-year planning instead of 5-year planning. The increased importance placed on green energy and locally grown foods is also enhancing regional pride and loyalty, and the government’s recent increased support of community development financial institutions for small business loans is an important acknowledgement of the benefit of jobs being created from the ground up.

It is an exciting time for community developers with an opportunity to take advantage of this momentum and implement necessary changes that have been neglected for so long in our communities. I would love to see vacant row houses repurposed with locally owned retailers and grocers incorporated into more spacious housing units and parks. I would love to see more business owners with mixed-use properties, living in the neighborhoods where they provide goods and services. I would love to see the term “renter” lose its reputation as a dirty word. As Joshua Rosner said, “A home without equity is a rental with debt.” Homeownership is an admirable goal, but it is not the only goal. I would love to see smarter transportation increase the flow of people, goods, and services in our communities. I would love to see more people embrace locally grown foods in their local grocers and retailers. Each of these objectives is a small piece of something much, much larger. In an age of limitless wireless information and infinite cyber landscapes, it becomes more and more important that our communities provide an increasingly stronger foundation upon which we can live, work, play, and grow.


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