America Thrives When Neighborhoods Thrive

02/03/2017 11:42 am ET

By Shirley Franklin, Executive Board Chair of Purpose Built Communities and Carol Naughton, President of Purpose Built Communities

In his column published on February 1, 2017 in the New York Times, Tom Friedman writes, “The way we lift American workers is not by building higher walls, but rather stronger communities — where business, philanthropies, the local school system and local government forge adaptive coalitions to enable every worker to engage in lifelong learning and every company to access global markets and every town to attract the smart risk-takers who start companies. That is exactly what is happening in America’s best communities, and the job of government is to scale it, and the job of big business is to defend it.”

What Friedman is describing is a type of leadership that champions practical, collaborative, cross-sectoral solutions to some of our country’s most entrenched problems. This is the approach that Purpose Built Communities and the East Lake Foundation have taken for more than 20 years to break the cycle of inter-generational poverty, with outstanding, long-term results. This approach not only works, but it is necessary to move our country forward

Concentrated urban poverty in America is largely the result of public policy that enshrined institutional racism into the very fabric of our cities. A recent piece on the practice known as “redlining” by Alvin Chang on Vox.com does an excellent job of detailing how this destructive policy systematically segregated our cities by race and denied people of color access to the same economic opportunities as white Americans. Chang writes: “Redlining poisoned the mortgage market for black people. It meant that black families were systematically forced to live in separate neighborhoods. We're seeing two divergent Americas, one with money, and one without — and the one without is largely black. And the residents of that America are increasingly living in neighborhoods of extreme poverty, where 40 percent of residents live below the poverty line.”

Harvard professor of public health Dr. David Williams puts it this way: “You say, what does segregation have to do with anything? Well, stop and think. As you well know, where you live determines where you go to school. It determines the quality of education. It determines your preparation for higher education. Determines your access to employment opportunities. It determines your neighborhood and housing conditions. It determines whether it is easy or difficult to live a healthy lifestyle in your neighborhood, and research shows it actually even determines access to high quality medical care. So place is a powerful driver of health.”

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has created maps that show how much life expectancy can vary by neighborhood. In New Orleans for example, life expectancy is 55 in one neighborhood and it is 80 in another. That is a 25-year difference determined simply by which neighborhood one lives in.

One of the best ways to fight this trend of increasing inequality and poor health in our neighborhoods, like what Friedman advocates, is for business leaders, community residents, nonprofits, local governments and school boards to work together and make coordinated investments in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty in three specific areas: housing, education and community wellness. These are the pillars of the Purpose Built Communities Model of holistic neighborhood transformation.

Private sector leaders in 16 cities across the country are doing this vital, long-term work. Some work in “red” states, some in “blue” states. What they all have in common is a desire to work with best-in-class partners to transform neighborhoods of concentrated poverty into healthy, mixed-income neighborhoods with deep, durable channels for low income residents to rise out of poverty. The investments in housing, education and wellness are sustained by a “community quarterback,” a nonprofit dedicated solely to the transformation of a specific neighborhood, aligning resources and partners to focus on serving local residents, families and children while attracting new investment and residents over time.

Now more than ever, people are looking for solutions that work. The Purpose Built Communities Model works. Not only that, it is being implemented by private sector leaders in cities that look very different from each other from coast to coast. We are looking for more leaders to support in this difficult but effective work. It is not for the faint of heart and requires not a little disruption to local systems and dynamics. Why?

Dr. David Williams says, “The institutional geographic isolation in space that leads some places to have much more opportunity and much more living conditions that support health than others is a powerful institutional mechanism.” It takes powerful leadership, an engaged community and excellent partners combat this “powerful institutional mechanism.” As David Williams says, “By improving the places where people live, learn, work, play and worship, we are actually improving health in very fundamental ways.”

What can government do? Help these local leaders build stronger communities by keeping critical funding for public services in place, encouraging social and economic interaction among diverse populations and creating the flexibility to invest both public and private money in strategic ways on a neighborhood level. As the CEO of Purpose Built Communities David Edwards says, “if all of a city’s neighborhoods are healthy, it is by definition a healthy city.” Think what America would look like if all of the neighborhoods in the country were healthy. Now that would be great.

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