Skipping “Placed-Based” Work Leaves Cities Vulnerable to Climate Change

I remember it clearly. “The Myth of Community Development,” Nicholas Lemann’s 1994 New York Times Magazine article, cracked the foundation of the community development industry. He argued that no one wanted to live in ghettos; they were merely transition zones toward the ultimate suburban dream. [Editor's Note: Shelterforce published several critiques of Lemann's article, including one by then-vice president Al Gore. Read them here]. He even critiqued the community wealth creation benefits of community development, and cited the fact that the New Community Corporation CDC in Newark, New Jersey created over 2,000 jobs, attracted and started numerous community-owned businesses, and provided essential community services such as child care to an economically battered community, but failed to spur private sector enterprises.

The article shifted the social change environment from place-based initiatives to ‘income- mobility strategies.' Lemann critiqued the Clinton Administration’s proposed Enterprise Zone programs by suggesting that place-based schemes—including urban renewal, model cities, community development block grant programs and community economic development—never did and never would, work.
The retreat from the community development field was palpable. ‘Income mobility’ became the answer to the problems of crime, poverty, physical and social deterioration of inner cities. The logic followed that if people wanted out of the ghetto then it was up to us to help them. New foundation and government initiatives emerged, focused on the material needs of low-income families. Income mobility—income supports, cash grants, jobs, workforce and sector development opportunities—took center stage. Housing mobility strategies such as housing vouchers and HUD’s Title VI program helped some residents of low-income communities move.

Income mobility strategies became the tools of not only social reformers, but also social change advocates, and so, for the last two decades, we have been fighting for a bigger piece of the pie. Questions of equity and a fair share of the economic growth engines dominate our social policy and change efforts.

And while we have been winning community benefit agreements from public and private investments, local hire and procurement goals, mixed-income housing as part of mixed-use projects, and battles for family wages and minimum wage standards that address income-inequality, it is only clear now that we have also crippled the capacity of cities and communities to be climate resilient.

The tools of community development include many of the same foundational tools to both mitigate and adapt to climate change, widely considered a threat multiplier to already socially and economically vulnerable communities.

And so, this is not an argument against the legitimacy of various social and economic mobility strategies. Rather, it is a warning that income strategies are necessary but insufficient for addressing contemporary inner city challenges. Consider the following:

First, we now know that Nicholas Lehman was wrong. He was wrong about the significance of inner cities and he was wrong about the importance of community development because we are now struggling to stem widespread gentrification and displacement underway in every major inner city in the country. Clearly, community development is not dead, but I submit that we lost ground by not ensuring that a greater share of the urban economy stayed in the hands of local residents. Investing in place-based development projects that specifically focused on building community wealth through community control and ownership of land, housing, and the economy—as opposed to Enterprise Zones—would have helped.

Second, replacing the ethic of self-reliance and collective economics with economic and social uplift underdeveloped our ability to be climate resilient. We are just now taking up the fight to both mitigate and adapt to the consequences of climate change.

Of course, who knew twenty years ago what climate change was or its consequences, especially for low-income, communities of color? The fact is, we are paying for the environmental impact of an economy that relies on fossil fuel, deforestation, depletion of other natural resources, industrial obsolescence, and toxic materials. The cumulative effects of our extractive economy has been a global warming resulting in, among other things, increased frequency and intensity of hurricanes, floods, droughts, and heat waves. These climate conditions are now threatening our very survivability, including deaths from weather disasters, such as the 1,800 deaths from Hurricane Katrina just ten years ago, but also our food and water supplies. In fact, climate change is widely known as a threat multiplier for vulnerable communities already compromised by poverty, deteriorated housing, poor health, and other challenges.

Income mobility strategies do little to mitigate climate change. In fact, instead of dismantling the extractive economy, we are reinforcing it by asking for a greater share of it. Asking for greater access to jobs and income from industries that are polluting our communities, damaging our health, and destroying our environments while also producing great income inequality leaves standing an economy that is both fundamentally unjust and unsustainable.

Income mobility strategies also do not build climate resilience, nor do they provide the tools communities need to adapt to climate change. But there are important synergies between climate resilience and community development, including: (1) a focus on local solutions and capacities; (2) the creation of social capital to work together on problems; (3) emphasis on self-reliant and decentralized food, energy and transportation systems to respond to market failures, (4) local business capacity to provide commodities (and income) for residents during and after a disaster—21,000 businesses were dislocated during Katrina and few have returned; and (5) decent affordable, housing options. 

The greatest mistake we can make now is not recognizing the unique and complementary value of these various social change efforts. These three fields of practice—income mobility, climate change, and community development have much to learn from each other. We must decide how we will build one powerful movement with a unified vision of a just and sustainable economy . . . before it’s too late.

(Photo credit: Linda-Bissett via flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Denise Fairchild, Ph.D., is the inaugural president of Emerald Cities Collaborative, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C., that is a coalition of labor, business, and community-based organizations organized to accelerate the growth and distributive benefits of the emerging green economy.


  1. Access to quality schools is often a strong motivation for mobility, especially for those with the most initiative. Unfortunately, in most communities, schools are run by elected boards that don’t usually consider the community development impact of their decisions. This is an area community development activists and advocates need to tackle.

  2. The author says her post is “not an argument against the legitimacy of various social and economic mobility strategies” but on several points, it reads as though that is precisely the intent.

    First, this myth that housing mobility was seized upon by the federal government and funded could not be more false. Virtually the only funding for housing mobility has come when advocates forced the issue through litigation. No administration —- including the current one —- has actually provided material support to “help people out of the ghetto.”

    Second, The critique of HOPE VI is really a critique of the prevailing paradigm in place-based redevelopment, not mobility. HOPE VI and CHOICE Neighborhoods are by design place-based urban renewal programs. They include no requirements and little encouragement for housing mobility, along with disincentives for development off-site in opportunity areas. So it makes no sense at all to lump HOPE VI/Choice Neighborhoods in with housing mobility.

    Third, the community development sector may not have received the support that would be needed to transform disinvested neighborhoods. But it is certainly not because funding has been shifted to housing mobility as alleged here. Community development has always been and remains the dominant ideology and beneficiary of federal funds.

    Fourth, it is simply not true that “widespread gentrification and displacement [are] underway in every major inner city in the country.” That is the view from the relatively privileged perspective of rich cities, not those like Baltimore where we struggle with much bigger problems: poverty, segregation, lack of demand and disinvestment.

    If you want to argue the benefit of community development strategies I might even join you on many points —- although the connection to resiliency and climate change seems contrived, like stretching too far in an effort to jump on that bandwagon.

    But waging unprovoked and demonstrably false attacks like this on housing and other economic mobility strategies is unwarranted and divisive.


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