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Opinion: Rescuing New Jersey Communities From the Brink of Oblivion

‘Networked governance,’ links public leadership, innovative thinking, and community-based expertise to reduce poverty

Roland Anglin
Roland Anglin

Some of the most important public-sector innovations are not the result of administrative improvements in government.

Rather, significant policy outcomes are often a function of governance arrangements in which government is part of a wider policy network that might include nonprofits, anchor institutions such as colleges and universities, interest groups, the private sector, and citizens.

Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley in their book The Metropolitan Revolution note the growing trend toward networked governance and how it is producing significant innovation in addressing the major public-policy challenges of our day -- including revitalizing people and place. These web of governance arrangements and public leadership form the framework that drives innovation in the effort to reduce poverty and rebuild cities and neighborhoods.

New Jersey has many examples of networked governance, but they are not recognized and supported, the way they are in other places. Efforts to support community-based development organizations, juvenile-justice interventions, and workforce development often remain in silos and the need for connection not seen in the larger context. The need for support is especially important in addressing the challenges of New Jersey’s urban areas.

Thirty years ago, Chicago was written off as a casualty of Rust Belt decline coupled with the corrosive effects of decades-old racial and ethnic cleavages that left groups fighting over a shrinking pie. The city was surrounded by some of the nation’s fastest-growing counties and communities. These rapidly expanding communities did not see their fate connected to the city of Chicago, resulting in negative-sum economic development policies that further hastened decline.

Innovation and change came with the election of Richard M. Daley, whose father had presided over the city’s fortunes in a much different era and manner.

Daley the younger helped reimagine Chicago away from the label “hog butcher to the world” by pursuing strategies that improved the quality of life as the precursor to an economic renaissance. He planted trees to beautify Chicago’s communities and parks. Public art became a staple feature of city life. He moved to manage racial and ethnic fault lines by engaging community leaders and supporting citywide economic restructuring, community-based economic development, and educational reform. The second Mayor Daley also pursued opportunities to form institutional relationships with surrounding municipalities on a host of public policies. These included planning for metropolitan housing development and improving the region’s air and water quality.

Today, Chicago is far from the Rust Belt basket case of earlier decades.

The same can be said of cities such as Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and New York, all once written off as repositories of the poor with no economic future. These cities engaged in similar processes using public leadership and stakeholder engagement to come back from the edge of the abyss through forging collaborations key to each city’s future.

Collaborative engagement does not guarantee economic prosperity. All of the mentioned cities still struggle with economic relevancy and concentrated poverty, but the tools now exist to help them go beyond simple stalemate and paralysis. What are the tools?

Some of the tools are institutional. We now have effective ways to organize key sectors, including economically marginalized communities, to act collectively on local and community economic development, workforce development, and now education reform.

Other tools include strategic policies and programs. Chicago’s significant attempt at school reform through elected school-based management comes to mind. Federal policies such as the Community Reinvestment Act and the Community Development Financial Institutions Act are strategic efforts to provide the capital investment needed to reinvigorate depressed communities. The Brownfield Redevelopment Act helped define a new strategic direction in economic development policy when resources were made available to clean up parcels of land contaminated by past industrial uses that now can be used productively for housing and economic development. The Department of Education’s Promise Neighborhood grants encourage “access to great schools and strong systems of family and community support that will prepare them to attain an excellent education and successfully transition to college and a career.”

The list of federal, state, and local policies to help community and economic development in various forms is substantial. Government, along with engaged community interests in both the nonprofit and the private sectors, have jointly developed institutional components, strategies, and policies that are developing people and places. The evolution of cooperation and sometimes conflict between these key sectors has created a system aimed at encouraging individual and community economic opportunity complete with norms, core strategies, and centerpiece institutions.

Whole neighborhoods ravaged by economic dislocation and change have become viable communities once again through the use of public sector strategies designed to provide development capital, support for housing development, and workforce development for the unemployed. There is no better example of this than the revival of the South Bronx.

When President Jimmy Carter visited the South Bronx in October 1977, the community was unarguably an American disaster. Redlining, population flight, and poverty left it without much investment and social capital. High crime and constant torching of buildings for insurance terrorized the remaining residents trying to live a safe, secure life.

Carter’s visit was a clear message to America. The nation had to do better. In the next few years, the federal government and city government worked together. The relationship was fraught with national and local political pressures, but the result was that in 1986 Mayor Edward Koch announced a billion-dollar investment in redeveloping housing in the South Bronx. The problem was how to accomplish this. Private developers could have been employed, but strong community feelings about being used and taken advantage of in the past made that a less-than-viable option. City administrators and politicians made a bold decision: the public sector decided to rely on nascent community groups, many without any development experience.

Over the next 15 years, the city, philanthropy, and nonprofit support intermediaries, such as the Enterprise Community Partners and the Local Initiatives Support Corp. worked tirelessly to grow the capacity of these groups to build housing. In the process, the groups not only built housing but also reignited local housing and labor markets. New York City used what it was learning in the South Bronx to commit $4 billion over a 10-year period, using community-based developers to rebuild housing in other communities. Today the South Bronx is not perfect, but it is an example of what public-sector commitment and innovation can accomplish in bringing a community back from near oblivion.

The innovations that led to renewed viability in places like the South Bronx over the past 40 years may not necessarily lead to sustainability without further innovation and learning.

The world does not stand still. We should continue to reflect on the knowledge accumulated here in New Jersey thus far and use it to inform our response to the immense challenges facing our communities in the near and long term. Major lessons are waiting to be harvested and used to promote more effective revitalization practices. Important publicly supported innovations are emerging in workforce development, economic development, youth development, education, neighborhood security, and new fields such as sustainable development. These are distinct fields of practice, but they directly affect the possibilities for building a coherent path of opportunity for people and neighborhoods.

Roland V. Anglin is director of the Joseph C. Cornwall Center for Metropolitan Studies at Rutgers University-Newark.

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