View from the Field: Does Community and Economic Development Face Technical or Process Challenges?

In community development today, we sing the song we know. We implement the projects that we have tried before and that we have seen other communities implement, and we do it with the stakeholders that we always have worked with. At the opening dinner of the Florida Civic Advance Summit this past February, Suzanne Morse Moomaw, associate professor of urban and environmental planning at the University of Virginia, suggested this metaphor—of singing the same song  again and again in community development— but she followed it up by saying, "I believe we are at a point in the development of our communities, and certainly in the states that we all represent, that we need, not only a few…different verses, but perhaps a whole new song."

The summit was a gathering that brought together stakeholders from across the state interested in developing efforts to enhance civic life in Florida communities. Attendees included researchers, local leaders, politicians, students, and community members as well as representatives from academic institutions, industries, associations, and philanthropies. The goals of the summit were to better understand the challenges in creating a vibrant civic life in Florida, one where people feel engaged in decisions about the local community, where they are informed about and involved in elections, and where people of diverse backgrounds feel they can contribute to and be involved in community decisions.

Some discussion centered on how vibrant civic life can help promote local economic development—whether a strong civic life helps community members respond to community economic challenges and whether strong civic life can lead to stronger economic and labor market outcomes. Peter Levine, director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, or CIRCLE, gave an overview of research that showed that higher performance on indicators of civic vitality can predict lower levels of unemployment at the state level. Levine suggested that discussions determining what a community can do to encourage civic involvement should be broad, inclusive, and action-oriented. He cited other locally oriented projects in Florida that have shown promise in promoting greater civic exchange and promoting local businesses. For example, Tallahassee's online forum Village Square began as an effort to promote learning and civil debate about civics and contemporary issues by bringing people in the community together to discuss both local and national issues. Organizers of the Village Square believe the site has improved civic life and democratic deliberation in the Tallahassee community. They hope, as the discussion suggested, that it will lead to a stronger economic outcomes in the community.

A similar conversation happened in early March between staff and leadership from community development corporations and community-based organizations at the national People & Places 2015 Community Conference in Washington, D.C. An incredibly diverse group of practitioners and community leaders gathered from across the country to discuss innovative approaches to the challenges that community and economic development groups face in the current policy landscape.

The two conferences had similar threads of discussion related to the process of and approach to community development. Rather than offering technical solutions to community development problems, both suggested that thicker networks of organizations, connections to others and to civic dialogue, and collaboration among organizations are important factors for moving the needle in terms of community quality of life. Although such suggestions have typically arisen from intuitions, research is beginning to support these claims, and speakers cited Why the Garden Club Couldn't Save Youngstown by MIT researcher Sean Safford, among other publications. The book demonstrates that thicker connections between civic groups in Allentown, Pennsylvania, led to stronger community and economic revitalization than those in Youngstown, Ohio, which had a more isolated community leadership. (You can find a working paper version of the book on the MIT site.)

The pursuit of new and innovative approaches to community planning, redevelopment, and revitalization is important, but also consider how efforts can be more inclusive and collaborative. A new idea or a new partnership might spring from thinking about who is involved and how to approach community development work.

By senior community and economic adviser Stuart Andreason