As a population that knows how to both “think” and “do,” leaders in community development naturally take interest in tackling the various components of urban revitalization. From strategic planning to project management to implementation, community developers (as we are sometimes labeled) can often solely perform all functions.
But American culture has a tendency to thrust the immediate needs of society onto the community development field. Recent events and trends such as the growing interest in the concept of sustainability, continued advances in technology, and rising concerns about foreclosure have inundated the field with immediate obligations. Community development tends to be a catch-all, and community developers first and foremost need a filter that keeps them grounded in order to be thorough. Without this filter, they fail at meeting the mission at hand, and can lose community trust: one of the most difficult things to regain once damaged. At the same time, isolating a single effort for a period of time can lead to ineffectiveness and, very often, dwindling financial resources.
Through my role in neighborhood development and formerly as a consultant, I recognize the value in building and implementing a clear vision. Incremental planning that develops a clear, yet flexible set of strategies is likely to have the greatest impact in realizing a higher quality of life for the communities we serve. Communicating our intentions by sharing these place-based strategies allows the community at large to get on board and align strategies with financing options. The strategic plans I have developed serve as a filter through which projects can be considered.
So where are we headed with community development? Over the past 10 years, I have observed that Americans are only beginning to rediscover the opportunity that lies in balancing high-profile, site-specific development with the incremental change that tends to happen under the wing of a community developer. Global markets have slightly crippled the ideological shift toward more context-sensitive development, but the move toward balance is still evident — particularly in the Midwest. I hypothesize that the reason for this lies in our having tipped the scale too far in the opposite direction: we were quickly forgetting how to celebrate the human scale, and now we are realizing how hindered we might become by ignoring it. As such, I see community development regaining a momentum and broad support that the past 15 years have not afforded the field.
What appears to be lacking in cities like Milwaukee is the bridge between community development and other similarly focused disciplines operating at a different scale. I see this changing in the years to come. We must continue sharing best practices with colleagues through informal and formal collaborations — and not simply when a planning process or particular interest requires that conversation.
As an increasingly complex society, we require everything from large-scale, long-range urban planning processes to smaller site-specific investments, and a full range of planning activities — master planning, commitments to implementation, incremental improvements, and one-on-one education. This requires a substantial committed workforce that can oscillate between a passion for improving the physical environment and using sociological principles. We — the next generation to lead the field — must do nothing short of mastering this approach.
With a clear vision, shared knowledge of best practices, strategic funding, social capital, and creative, driven leaders, communities nationwide may find themselves redeveloping—or rather reinventing—the urban fabric in a way that truly works for the local community. As those leaders, we are the current and future architects of sustainable, resilient change.