Award-Winning Paper Ties Failure of Neighborhood Revitalization Movement to Racist Policies, Practices

Proposes comprehensive, aggressive approach to revitalization

Release Date: November 13, 2001

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- A paper by two University at Buffalo professors proposing a new approach to community revitalization has received the 2001 award for Best Action Research Paper on Housing and Community Development from the Fannie Mae Foundation and Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning (ACSP).

The paper by Henry Louis Taylor, Jr., Ph.D., and Sam Cole, Ph.D., professors in the Department of Planning, UB School of Architecture and Planning, offers a detailed analysis of why the decades-old community revitalization movement in all of its permutations has failed to transform inner-city neighborhoods.

They propose, instead, an alternative "turning-point" approach to urban neighborhood development.

"Turning-point" theory describes how urban communities can produce substantial revitalization by first developing strong transformative goals and then fighting for the policies, programs and political commitment required to achieve them.

The data reported in the paper, "Structural Racism and Efforts to Radically Reconstruct the Inner City Built Environment: Rethinking the Community Revitalization Movement," developed out of the authors' professional practice experiences in Buffalo's Fruit Belt neighborhood, the poorest in the city.

The authors refuse to accept the "inevitability" of neighborhood decline and in the paper, criticize practices that have infused marginal resources into poor neighborhoods and expected a miraculous turn-around. Despite past failures, however, they say it is possible for declining neighborhoods to be brought back to life using strategies that require private-public sector cooperation.

The turning-point theory calls for an aggressive, comprehensive approach to neighborhood and community development.

It holds that there is a threshold of investment in a neighborhood below which there will be no significant overall improvement and above which there will be a reinforcing spiral of enhancement that will radically transform the community. To achieve that threshold, Cole says improvements must take place across several dimensions.

"Building new homes without landscaping streets or dealing with security issues is unlikely to be sufficient," he says.

"The additive model we used in the study of the Fruit Belt," he says, "takes many things into account in the economic analysis: the rehabilitation of existing dwellings, new homes, demolition and landscaping, upgrading of streets and sidewalks, and commercial amenities."

The study applies the turning-point theory in its assessment of the total cost and return of revitalizing the neighborhood. It proposes methods of financing and suggests the improvement thresholds necessary for tax-increment financing and commercial development to kick in and provoke further neighborhood development.

"The time has come for planners and community developers to think big and imaginatively as we chart a new urban agenda for the 21st century," Taylor says.

The paper concludes that for the outcomes of the turning-point theory to be realized, the community revitalization process must be led and controlled by neighborhood residents. It will take a political fight, they say, to implement the kinds of changes prescribed, but their theory holds that development can occur if residents acquire the political muscle to move development beyond the turning-point threshold.

Decades of community revitalization strategies have been fueled by the "neighborhood life-cycle theory," which Taylor, director of the UB Center for Urban Studies, calls "a racist structural barrier to inner-city development. Life-cycle theory stresses neighborhood decline as a 'natural process' dictated by rational, impersonal forces of change and by the racial- and social-class composition of neighborhoods," he says.

He notes that, in fact, decline is due to the failure of redevelopment strategies, which are a mixture of policies, budgetary allocations and planned interventions.

"The theory also discourages massive fiscal investment in inner-city neighborhoods," Taylor says, "although just such an investment is central to any strategy to revitalize central cities and energize urban regions."

He says it was life-cycle theory that served as the theoretical underpinning of the neighborhood classification system derived by the Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC) in 1933. The system ranked neighborhoods according to their economic trajectory with the in-migration of blacks being a downward trigger.

The HOLC ranking took on a life of its own, Taylor adds, and for decades negatively influenced the attitudes of homeowners, mortgage bankers, policy makers and developers toward inner city neighborhoods, leading to their ultimate decline.

The goal of the community revitalization movement that emerged in the 1960s was to break this cycle of inner-city distress by fostering a fundamental transformation of poor neighborhoods. New programs were expected to bring about sustained improvement in the circumstances and opportunities for those living there. Despite its promise, Taylor says the movement failed to develop a model capable of achieving its goals.

"The movement devolved into a series of uncoordinated, disjointed activities from enterprise zones and community enterprise corporations to social capital initiatives, community policing, faith-based initiatives and, most recently, 'comprehensive community initiatives,'" he says, calling the value of the result "less than the value of the individual parts."

Taylor and Cole write that another popular and failed approach to community revitalization is based on "tipping-point theory," which promotes the infusion of marginal and incremental resources insufficient to stave off neighborhood decline.

"The neighborhood life-cycle and neighborhood tipping-point theories describe revitalization in passive, preventive terms," Taylor says, "but in order to achieve the objective of vital, reinvigorated communities, we must think about inner-city development in bold, new ways."

Taylor and Cole still are in the early stages of developing this approach. They say that although they have more questions than answers at this point, if the road they have laid out for community revitalization is followed, the outcomes likely are to be far more fruitful than attempts that follow traditional strategies.

Taylor adds, "This paper demonstrates that it is possible to turn a neighborhood- based-practice into award-winning research."

The ACSP award was presented at the opening assembly of the 2001 national ACSP Conference held last week in Cleveland, Ohio. The authors will share the $1,000 prize.

The award is given for the best paper evaluating how new knowledge developed by professional practice or academic analysis and research significantly improved professional planning practice in a housing or community-development project. Preference was given to authors who are actually involved in the project.

The ACSP is the national organization of planning scholars and researchers who study urban and regional planning. The Fannie Mae Foundation recognizes the best ACSP paper that evaluates or analyzes innovative or cutting-edge professional practice, public service or outreach efforts in housing and community development.

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