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SSIR: Groundbreaking study looks at how neighborhood networks anchor community gains

In this week’s Stanford Social Innovation Review, LISC CEO Maurice A. Jones takes a close look at the outcomes from one of the largest single-city community development efforts in the country, the decade-long New Communities Program (NCP) in Chicago. Most notable, Jones writes, is data on community networks and how closely they connect to local growth and opportunity. The evidence confirms what community developers have long assumed but previously never proven: a durable local infrastructure of nonprofits, businesses, and other stakeholders is able to both attract and absorb capital in ways that measurably improve residents’ quality of life.

To invest in a place—whether for profit or for public benefit, whether an urban neighborhood or a rural community—is to place a bet on the strength of that community’s economic and social fabric. It’s a bet on the community’s ability to absorb the capital, use it to attract more resources, recognize and make the most of latent opportunities, and persevere to create more opportunity and value. That ability is a direct function of the cohesion and collective determination of the community’s residents, organizations, and political support.

Not every community has what it takes to pay off that bet. And not all investors have a clear idea of how to cultivate the readiness, the absorptive potential, that makes for an investable place. This explains the many communities where public and private dollars poured in, and a building or two rose, or a new service was offered, some new organization hung out a shingle, people in suits cut ribbons and declared a new era, and then… not much changed.

The story is sad, but it’s not inevitable. Over the years, communities that had seemed to lack the wherewithal to make the most of investments have later turned around, seizing opportunity and remaking the landscape, piling value on value. In places that were once thought resistant to change, in sections of Newark, Indianapolis, Oakland, Houston, and Chicago, among many other places, certain neighborhoods have managed to shift the odds. They have fundamentally improved their ability to use capital effectively, transform their surroundings, and build confidence among both investors and residents. The result: visibly better communities—more street life, better schools, stronger commercial strips, better housing, a heightened sense of safety and possibility.

How does this happen? Years of thought and experience—including many influential articles in this publication—have persuasively argued that the key is cohesiveness. It’s more than an initiative or two; you can’t get there just by building a new school or repaving Main Street or opening a job-counseling office. The key is to form the social and strategic ligaments that bind whole neighborhoods and help their centers of strength and energy work in concert.

In stronger communities, local interests find ways to pull together, form networks, share information, take collective action on local issues, and forcefully promote their own understanding of local needs and opportunities to government and outside investors. An improved school is linked to the new clinic; the youth program and the merchants’ association work with police and the parks department; arts groups and economic development programs and housing associations find common cause.

If you find a way to forge these networks, many observers have counseled, you’ll cultivate fertile places for all kinds of capital, public and private.

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