How should we improve neighbourhoods, especially those with a high percentage of households on low-incomes?
The fact that people can disagree so vehemently over the merits of the changes that have taken place in the U St neighbourhood of Washington DC shows how hard this topic is to get right, and how important it is (I wrote about these changes here and I gave this topic a run last year here).
Where to start? Well, the first and most obvious thing to say is that different neighbourhoods are very different from each other and they require very different approaches. However, there are a few general things we can say.
(btw I’m going to write “neighbourhood”, as the Brits do, throughout, hope this isn’t too annoying for any American readers).
Risks – displacement or stagnation
There are two broad risks facing neighbourhoods that have a large number of low income residents, displacement or stagnation.
Firstly, there is a risk that the neighbourhood improves on lots of objective measures (e.g. crime goes down) and this means that rents and property taxes increase forcing those low income residents out. Now, we might say that the neighbourhood has improved but it hasn’t really benefited those people on low incomes who have been displaced.
Secondly, there is a risk that the neighbourhood continues in the way it has done previously, and residents continue to suffer a number of problems such as high crime levels, poor environment, over stretched public services, stigma and so on.
Principles of neighbourhood improvement
Here are three principles that could inform efforts to improve neighbourhoods with a high percentage of people on low incomes. Neighbourhood improvement should be; managed, asset based and inclusive.
1. Neighbourhood improvement should be a managed process
This means creating a recognised body to oversee the improvement. This body does not have to be lavishly funded and can follow the neighbourhood management approach that was tried under the New Labour government in the UK.
This body needs to do a lot of outreach work and a lot of listening. This means going to where people are and understanding the issues that they care about.
This body should join up what is already going on. This means joining up services (street sweepers, police, health workers, teachers and so on) but also joining up people and associations. Often tenants associations do not know each other and people do not know they have a tenant association.
It also means working with local businesses, for example through a Business Improvement District.
2. Neighbourhood Improvement must be Asset based
Often efforts to improve neighbourhoods focus on what is wrong with the area. Too often this leads on to thinking that the people who live in the neighbourhood are what is wrong with the area! From that conclusion it is not too long before you start to think it would be great if we got new residents in and then we have fallen into one of the risks we were talking about earlier.
A different approach that is more asset based is possible. Jim Diers has won many plaudits for the work he did in Seattle using this approach. There is a great video of him here discussing the underlying principles of Asset Based Community Development.
This approach means identifying and building on those things that people already value. It means supporting and galvanising aspect of the neighbourhood that people love rather than attempting to solve the things that people hate. It also means reward and celebrating sucess.
This can be combined with the ‘business cluster‘ approach that Porter has advocated. This should not involve using, for example, public money to support an individual business but that it could involve promoting a certain industry that the neighbourhood is well known for. For example, it’s one thing to say that everyone loves a certain bar so we should give it money and quite another to say “come to our neighbourhood and enjoy our bars”.
3. Neighbourhood Improvement should be inclusive
Perhaps it is inevitable that when neighbourhoods improve, some people will win and some will lose, some people will celebrate and some people will commiserate. However, it is vital that efforts are made to ensure that the improvements that are brought about are done so in as inclusive a manner as possible.
This means having lots of time and resources dedicated to deliberation and feedback. People should be constantly able to give their opinions on what is happening and be able to find out what is happening.
It is possible to structure economic development so that it benefits and empowers existing residents. This doesn’t necessarily mean guaranteed work placements or training courses but it does mean, for example, creating and supporting co-ops that are partially owned by residents.
Perhaps most important of all is thinking about ways in which any new housing value that is created is partially re-invested into the neighbourhood. This could be done, for example, through community-land trusts.
Finally, there is a danger that any discussion of neighbourhood improvement starts to sound a bit parochial. It can mean drawing red lines on maps and saying “we are going to help you because you are on this side of the line and not you because you are on that side of the line”.
This temptation needs to be guarded against. Structures that are created need to take into account the fact that all areas mean different things to different people. Sometimes exactly the same area can be called very different things by different people and have completely different resonances.
Emotional impact of neighbourhood change
Living in the U St neighbourhood there is a feeling that the changes that have taken place have just kind of happened, almost at random. People’s response to them is along the lines of “I like this change” or “I do not like this change”. It is not “we did this” or “they didn’t listen to me”. Perhaps one of the best things that we could do to change the way neighbourhoods are improved would be to understand how people can have a sense of control over the direction of change.