When it comes to community development projects in poor urban neighborhoods, practitioners and scholars often ask a seemingly simple question: what does the community want? Since the 1960s and the War on Poverty, the community development field has embraced (to at least some extent) the idea of “community control.” Rooted in the Black Power Movement, community control originally referred to Black people reclaiming control over schools, businesses, and other institutions that affect Black neighborhoods. Today, community control is a normative idea that the community—broadly defined—should have a say and determine neighborhood priorities. While developers sometimes agree to formal contractual obligations like community benefits agreements (CBAs), no mechanism of achieving community control has been more common than the public meeting.
Critiques of participatory processes abound. Political scientists Katherine Einstein, David Glick, and Maxwell Palmer find that public meeting participants tend to be white homeowners—meaning public meetings will disproportionately serve white homeowners’ interests. Sociologist Michael McQuarrie argues that community-based organizations, motivated by organizational survival, use participation and consensus organizing to establish legitimacy and curry favor with funders. As a result, participation tends to support elite authority rather than challenge it. Focusing on affordable housing debates in the Bay Area, New York Times journalist Conor Dougherty shows how public meetings are in effect veto points that can block new development. New projects generally require community agreement in order to move forward, and so all it takes is a handful of opponents to signal a lack of consensus. By design, then, public meetings give the people who say “no” a much louder voice than the people who say “yes.”
For most observers, the solutions are technical. More meetings. Better attended meetings. Differently designed meetings. In short, the challenge is to fine-tune public meeting practices in ways that elevate the authentic voice of the community.
While conducting research for my book, tentatively titled Constructing Community and forthcoming with Princeton University Press, I came to question these and other assumptions. I spent four years conducting fieldwork in some of Boston’s highly segregated and disadvantaged neighborhoods. I wanted to understand who made important decisions about affordable housing, public transit, economic development, and open recreational space. I was particularly interested in the relationship between public participation and community control.
I argue that no participatory process can accurately reflect the voice of the community, no matter how well run. The reason is fundamental: there is no such thing as “the” community. As sociologists Mary Pattillo and Monica Bell persuasively show in separate studies, opinions and experiences with institutions vary, even in demographically segregated neighborhoods. To say that “the community” is in support of anything is a misnomer.
Community development practitioners, by contrast, generally assume there is in fact a community that has a voice; community control requires the community to control development, after all. When those in power circumvent participating community members, it is clear community control has not been achieved. But how do we evaluate community control when some community members might oppose a project that others pursue—did the community control the project in those cases? Or when community members pursue projects that would ultimately harm rather than help the urban poor—did community control lead to more equitable outcomes?
The Community Replaces an Abandoned Factory
In 2009, the City of Boston foreclosed on an abandoned warehouse in the ethnically diverse, low-income neighborhood of Upham’s Corner. The building sat vacant until 2013 when the City announced plans to replace it with a street lighting storage facility. A group of mostly Cape Verdean residents from the streets adjacent to the building heard about the proposed facility and were outraged. They unequivocally opposed the City’s plans, though they were not necessarily in agreement about an alternative use of the space. “The community process has been short-circuited in a major, major way,” one nonprofit leader explained.
After hearing concerns from the community—that is, the people who showed up to public meetings—city officials abandoned their plans for a storage facility and pledged a new community-driven process to guide the site’s redevelopment.
What, then, should replace the factory? In September, officials presented draft guidelines for a new mixed-used development. Yet some residents pushed back at what they saw as top-down decision-making. Organizers from a local nonprofit, nationally recognized for its community organizing expertise, offered to conduct a participatory process. The following month, they held a meeting with 33 participants, including about a dozen white, Asian, Cape Verdean, and Black residents. Organizers divided everyone into three groups to discuss development priorities as city officials listened in.
Each recommendation directly contradicted another. One resident requested a park; another objected and said the neighborhood already had plenty of parks. One wanted an industrial facility for local jobs and absolutely no housing; another wanted only housing and no commercial uses. Some wanted only affordable housing. Others pointed to the concentration of poverty in the neighborhood and recommended only market-rate condos. And still, others suggested a mix of uses, such as a ground-floor commercial development below two floors of apartments.
As the meeting ended, City officials looked dejected; the contradictory information did not reveal any clear priority. Reflecting the lack of consensus, the final guidelines, unveiled in March 2014, were practically indistinguishable from officials’ initial draft. That didn’t stop the City’s head of property disposition from telling a local reporter, “The community in Upham’s Corner has been a wonderful partner to help us envision what they’d like to see in this space . . . Their opinion and input will be critical to our analysis.”
In June 2016, the redevelopment authority approved a local community development corporation to build a mixed-use development at the site, including 80 apartments and 9 market-rate townhomes on top of light industrial and office commercial space.
Was this an example of community control in action? Put differently, did the community control the process and pursue the project it wanted? The answer was both yes and no: The handful of community members who wanted a mixed-used, mixed-income development got what they wanted, and the others who wanted only affordable housing (or only commercial development and no housing, or only housing and no commercial uses, or only a park, and so on) did not. Because the community did not agree—a completely understandable and common situation—there was no single voice from the community to control the development. After 3 years of community process, City officials approved exactly the kind of project they wanted from the beginning.
The Community Contests a Transit Station
In 2005, the state transportation authority agreed to build a new commuter rail station on Blue Hill Avenue, in the predominantly Black, low-income neighborhood of Mattapan. The new station would give residents a single-seat ride to jobs and other services in downtown Boston. Without the station, ride times were twice as long and required multiple bus and subway transfers.
Nonprofit organizers and transit advocates—including a mix of privileged nonprofit leaders, residents of nearby poor neighborhoods, and at least one Mattapan resident—pushed hard for the new station. But in 2009, vocal opposition emerged from a group of older Black middle-class homeowners whose homes abutted the proposed site. They believed the new station would damage their homes’ foundations, negatively impact their property values, and disrupt their quality of life. For years, they participated in public meetings and vocalized their disapproval.
Initially, the opposition appeared successful. Five years passed and plans for the station remained “in design.” Yet the nonprofit organizers continued their advocacy as well. Planning for the station continued behind the scenes, and in October 2014, Gov. Deval Patrick formally announced the new station’s construction schedule. At a public event, one of the Black middle-class residents expressed her frustration. “The opposition has fallen on deaf ears because the powers-that-be have decided that this is what is best for this community,” she said. The local press acknowledged her disapproval, but nevertheless concluded that “[c]ommunity members…praised the news.”
Even if some community members praised the new station, it would be a stretch to say that the process was community-controlled; a vocal, participating segment of the community did not want the station in their backyards. Transportation officials pushed through with their station plans despite opposition—but to the benefit of poor transit riders in Mattapan.
Coda: Rethinking Participation and Community Control
That seemingly simple question— “what does the community want?” —was not so simple in either case. In Upham’s Corner, the community wanted a park, didn’t want a park, wanted affordable housing, didn’t want affordable housing, and on and on—there was no single community position to juxtapose against the City or a potential developer. Similar scenarios are easy to imagine; in any neighborhood, opinions will vary. The Mattapan case is complicated for additional reasons. The community simultaneously “won” and “lost”: Middle-class residents were unable to block the new station, while low-income residents gained greater access to public transit. Supporting the community did not necessarily mean supporting poor urban residents.
No additional meeting, alternative community organizing strategy, or clever urban planning activity would have made a difference. Community control was elusive because there was no singular voice of the community.
If there is no bounded, unified community to control development, does that mean we should abandon resident participation and rely exclusively on top-down expertise? Absolutely not. Instead, we should rethink the problem participation can solve: not uncovering community consensus, but amplifying the political voice of marginalized residents. Poor urban residents face intersecting inequalities that prevent local knowledge from breaking through into political debates. Our focus should be on dismantling these inequalities rather than pursuing what is often a farce of “community” consensus.
What if instead of public meetings—constrained by both time and space, where the optimal outcome is consensus and therefore “no” has more power than “yes”—we invested more in low cost, ongoing exercises that produce a high volume of information, persist even after particular projects are completed, make priorities transparent, and neither seek nor assume a singular position from “the community”? Take the abandoned factory in Upham’s Corner. A few residents spent a couple of hours brainstorming ideas, but officials reverted to their original plans when consensus did not emerge—all while justifying the decision as influenced by “the community.” The contradictory recommendations represented a failure to reach consensus. Contrast this with the work of Design Studio for Social Intervention (DS4SI), a nonprofit in Boston. DS4SI develops creative public art exercises to generate and catalogue public space priorities—activities that are far more engaging and accessible than any 2-hour meeting. Or consider pairwise wiki surveys. These surveys are like a game where people choose between two answers to a question—like, “What should replace the abandoned factory?”—and can keep choosing between paired answers (and add their own possible answers) for as long as they like. A back-end algorithm ranks answers and, importantly, gets more accurate the more people play. Here, the entire point is to reveal contradictory recommendations and force a public conversation about why some ideas are better or worse than others.
These alternative activities creatively solicit, collect, and even rank ideas without any assumption that community members should agree. By displaying the full range of ideas, they also put more pressure on public officials to transparently explain why they pursued a certain path without resorting to the kind of “community” talk I observed in Upham’s Corner and Mattapan. Neither public art exercises nor wiki surveys can fully solve the problems of participation and inequality. And more questions certainly remain, such as who would control these activities and whether decisions should be binding. But when we rethink the problem as one of political voice rather than community consensus, it opens up new, innovative techniques to determine public priorities. From there, people and organizations can mobilize around the proposals they believe are best for poor neighborhoods.