Rebuilding Urban Neighborhoods from the Inside Out

A few principles for comprehensive community development and urban neighborhood renewal

I’m convinced there’s never been a better time to invest in urban neighborhoods. Having served in a range of community and faith-based organizations in urban communities, I recently delved afresh into readings, research and conversations related to urban community revitalization. I am inspired by emerging possibilities.

Urban community development is a fascinating arena, full of hope and challenge. For all its promise, it’s not an arena for the faint of heart; lots of crosscurrents are at work in the polis. At the same time, organizations, communities and individuals are attempting and expressing the very best in urban community development.

As I’ve examined the underpinnings of organizations and initiatives that are attempting to revitalize urban core communities, and as I’ve explored best practices resources, a few principles emerge for me. I hope to have further opportunities to articulate and shape these in practice, but I want to share them here–even if in embryonic form. It seems to me that these ideas apply not just to urban neighborhoods, but to more difficult and complex suburban ones. This is about as close to a community manifesto as I get.


1. All who desire urban community renewal and vital neighborhoods should consider the significant non-monetary costs and investments: relationship building, careful process, time, personal challenge, disappointments, agitations. These investments payoff well, but they should not be overlooked or avoided.


2. There is a way to rehab and build houses that brings neighbors into emerging relationship and grows healthy neighborhoods. If houses and landmark buildings are going to be rehabbed and restored anyway, why not do so in a way that builds relationships and makes community itself a landmark? Instead of following the pattern of most real estate developers, follow–and insist on–a process that reflects the community-building mission.


3. It is easier to build houses and buildings than build enduring relationships and integrity with neighbors. Without these, community is just a place and a concept, not a relational reality. Investment in urban neighborhood renewal needs to account for and give attention to good process and relationship development with and among neighbors and organizations.


4. Good design and master planning can go halfway to develop inviting and livable urban neighborhoods, but it needs to be met halfway with relationship building. We like the aesthetics of well-designed structures in relationship to others. But it is the aesthetic of caring neighbors makes a community shine.


5. More people than we care to admit have lost their sense of place and community—and not just in urban neighborhoods. Being a consumer, patron and spectator doesn’t begin to satisfy the desire to belong, contribute and shape the future that lies at the heart of all of us.  The continuing effort to include, invite, welcome, make room, recognize and celebrate—drawing the circle ever wider—brings all into a new and hopeful social reality.


6. Organizationally, nonprofits gain trust with neighbors and stakeholders when they act with humility, gratitude and creativity. These trump the hubris, expert-itis and authority plays that too frequently spill over into the arena from bad for-profit and public sector actors. Community-based organizations are most effective when their collective way of being is reflected in an “alongsideness” with neighbors and neighborhood groups.


7. Government and for-profit sectors can be good partners and stakeholders in urban community revitalization. As neighbors dream of community, look out for it, or seek to preserve or restore, they need critical stakeholders whose self-interest may be different than a neighbor’s or neighborhood’s.If urban communities are to be restored, community and faith-based nonprofits and fourth-sector associations of neighbors must articulate and fight for their dream. They can welcome partners, but they must lead the way.


8. Doing the right thing in the right way is one thing in the for-profit and public sector, but the “right thing” (leadership) and the “right ways” (management) may be quite different in an urban community redevelopment setting. It is a mistake to impose a “business knows best” grid on community-based initiatives. Instead, look for collaborations and partnerships in which all sectors learn from each other in this fascinating arena of urban community renewal. Though the process and path may be different than the one for-profit or public sector partners would prefer, the mutually-desired outcome of invested, livable, sustainable urban communities are the better, long-term outcome.


9. Renewing and taking seriously the principles and practices of Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) can reinvigorate urban planning protocols and practices that say “asset-based” but may have deteriorated into satisfying report forms and getting projects completed on time. Recovery of rudimentary ABCD practices catapults community development toward its intended reality.


10. Organizations, partners, neighborhoods, and neighbors find synergy when they cross borders and build bridges between and among themselves. Connecting in every direction, like learning in every direction, creates common ground and possibilities for community realization (with its natural efficiencies and power) that could not otherwise be attempted.


11. Pressing challenges of urban neighborhood revitalization remain: (1) grappling head-on with the sources and impacts of economic poverty, (2) access to livable-wage employment and the education, readiness and advocacy which make that possible, (3) addressing reentry for thousands of ex-felons in a way that offers livable-wage work and reintegration without unreasonable life-long barriers and stigmas, and (4) cooperative and responsive public safety. I am convinced that creative solutions and pathways forward will be found and best shaped from within urban neighborhoods who put ABCD to work.