Redevelopment, Rural Places, and Inclusion
I study resident and nonprofit staff responses to large-scale urban redevelopment initiatives within low-income urban neighborhoods. As part of this work, I analyze the approaches that municipal governments and urban planning organizations utilize in order to plan and realize development plans. Within the U.S. we refer to these plans as local economic development (LED) initiatives.
LED is an approach to development that places importance on development activities in and by cities, districts, and regions. These plans receive funding from and are often managed by local and national governmental and philanthropic organizations. Local organizations (e.g. community-based organizations and community development corporations) generally work with other organizations (e.g. foundations, mediators, the city, private corporations) that provide resources in the form of cash transfers, strategies, technology, and/or staff, in order to promote local economic development. This can take the form of an affordable housing initiative, the (re)vitalization of a business district, workforce development, or the creation of an industrial corridor.
Some urbanists have called for a different approach to LED that places residents and resident desires at the forefront of all planning initiatives. These scholars highlight the importance of bringing in local leaders (politicians, church leaders, nonprofit staff, chambers of commerce representatives, small business owners, local school council members, et cetera) and residents into the planning, decision-making, and implementation process of any economic development plan.
For instance, legal scholar William H. Simon argues for a form of community economic development (rather than local) that benefits the community as a whole. If done correctly, Simon claims that this model generates resident ownership of the community and maintains affordability. As the neighborhood develops, residents will not want to leave because there is a high quality of life that is both affordable and accessible for existing residents. This model views existing residents as the owners of the neighborhood’s developmental potential and as benefactors of any net benefits. Ideally, this form of economic development will not lead to gentrification—which often increases housing costs and forces out existing residents.
Within local economic development planning, scholars such as economists Daphne Greenwood and Richard P.F. Holt articulate the difference between economic growth and economic development. For them, economic growth does not necessarily equal an improved quality of life for residents. Historically, this approach has privileged business and the potential for jobs, without much consideration to the types of jobs created, the likelihood that local residents will benefit from those jobs, or the unintended consequences of attracting those businesses (e.g. air, noise, traffic pollution).
For Greenwood and Holt, economic development – rather than a growth model – is more broadly based and sustainable. Similar to the CED model proposed by Simon, Greenwood and Holt argue that development raises the standard of living for residents within a specific neighborhood. Greenwood and Holt argue for locally-sourced indicators for measuring economic development. This may include:
- Improvements to (or maintenance of) the local quality of life that includes the natural, social, and cultural environments;
- Sustainability of the local and regional economy;
- ,A commitment to equity that includes concerns about increasing disparities in income and wealth, lack of affordable housing, and environmental justice; and
- A focus on the quality of public services such as education, law enforcement, and transportation.
In trying to understand economic development within cities, it makes sense to study this phenomenon at the neighborhood level. But I’ve often wondered how similar processes of redevelopment play out in smaller rural towns – particularly in places where the population size may be similar to an urban neighborhood, but where there isn’t the same level of density.
Coincidentally, a year after I arrived in Galesburg, Illinois, the town embarked upon an economic development process that strives to implement a version of the models articulated by scholars such as Simon, and Greenwood and Holt. To accomplish this, local community leaders reached out to the Orton Foundation for help.
Founded in 1995, the Orton Foundation provides economic (re)development resources (skills training, funds, and a tested model) to people in small cities and towns. Some of the resources that Orton provides include what they term their Heart & Soul process.
This is a civic engagement and economic redevelopment method that claims to empower local residents to tap into the local, unique, character of their small town in order to successfully draft economic development plans. The idea is that residents know what’s best for their towns and, if they are involved in the process, they are more likely to support any plans that are implemented.
Drawing from research conducted by psychologists, sociologists, and economists, Orton utilizes an “emotional attachment” approach where they believe that when people are more emotionally attached to a place, they are more likely to invest time, money, and sweat equity into it. Orton draws out this emotional attachment through an analysis of residents’ stories, this includes a reflection on what people love and dislike about their towns. A large part of Heart & Soul relies on including residents in the analysis and retelling of these stories. Orton claims that this allows residents to come together, learn how to listen, find common values, and move towards identifying larger community values that can frame future redevelopment initiatives.
In theory, this all sounds warm, fuzzy, and super awesome. Difficulties arise, however, in practice. While marginalized communities (particularly in terms of race, sexuality, immigration status, and religion) often lack access to political and economic power within much of the country, in rural places these communities also often lack a critical mass in order mobilize around shared concerns, desires, and values.
In addition, local politicians, and nonprofit and social service staff, to name a few, are used to dealing with a homogeneous populace with similar values. In places that are beginning to experience demographic shifts or where marginalized residents don’t feel included in that sense of community, it can be difficult to actually include everyone, or to come to a consensus about what matters, (and to identify what matters to whom).
Galesburg is the largest and most diverse (in regards to ethnicity, race, class, and sexual orientation) place that Orton has agreed to work with. The initiative is in its early stages and there have been some missteps; folks committed to the Heart & Soul process, however, strive to actually include everyone and have taken steps to open up who they talk to, where they go to talk to people, and how they approach different groups in the town.
While Orton has several success stories in places like Gardiner, Maine, Laconia, New Hampshire, and Golden, Colorado, it will be interesting to see how the initiative plays out in Galesburg and what that “emotional attachment” and process of civic engagement looks like in the future.