Turning Around Challenged Cities

A new initiative looks to revive some of the nation's most challenged urban areas.
by | November 2, 2010 AT 4:00 PM

While the economic crisis has created hardships everywhere, some cities have been brought to the brink of collapse. Given the sky-high unemployment, crime and array of social woes that afflict these cities, many people have given them up for dead.

What's more, traditional city services in these places have been overwhelmed. Budgets are down, demand for services is up and the fragmented, departmentalized approach to service provision has proven ineffective. If a new, better, faster, cheaper approach to urban aid isn't found soon, it's a problem that is likely to befall cities across the country.

It's time for a municipal turnaround.

A new initiative by Living Cities, a philanthropic collaborative effort comprising 22 of the world's largest foundations and financial institutions, is attempting to revive some of the nation's most challenged urban areas. Dubbed the Integration Initiative, Living Cities has launched a multiyear effort designed to advance successful models for effective urban investment.

Recently, Living Cities announced major investments in its five targeted cities: Baltimore, Cleveland, Detroit, Newark and the St. Paul/Minneapolis Twin Cities area. Each city will receive packages of grants and loans between $15 and $20 million. The goal is nothing short of transformation.

In addition to an injection of funds, the Integration Initiative brings with it a philosophy that says the "siloed" approach to service delivery isn't enough. Instead, it embraces an approach that integrates regional factors, such as transportation, housing and economic development as the best way for distressed neighborhoods to build the capacity for self healing.

The effort recognizes the role systems and regions must play in increasing economic prosperity for low-income people. "The Integration Initiative was designed to take advantage of all we have learned about catalyzing changes in cities over the past 20 years," says Living Cities CEO Ben Hecht.

Based on a series of reviews by Living Cities' member institutions, each of the five targeted cities developed potentially game-changing innovations to expand opportunity for low-income people. In addition to rethinking the traditional division of government's own services and organizational silos, these initiatives included exciting new ways to foster collaboration between local and state government, nonprofit organizations and philanthropic and private-sector leaders.

Each city's initiatives will focus on issues uniquely designed to unlock transformational change at the local level.

Detroit will focus on revitalizing the Woodward Corridor, home to Detroit's major universities and hospitals. It hopes the initiative will create a model for older industrial cities looking to concentrate population and activity in sustainable corridors, expanding opportunity for low-income residents and reusing vacant land. Detroit's approach will rely on bridging traditional public and private boundaries. "This initiative will provide the necessary resources for successful collaboration across the public and private sector to make the Woodward Corridor an example of what can be accomplished when we work together," says Detroit Mayor Dave Bing.

Newark's effort is quite different. There, the Living Cities grant will address the problem of sustainable, healthy living for low-income populations. These communities suffer not only from a lack of access to health care, but also from a lack of access to healthy, fresh food, safe streets, green space and affordable, well-built housing. The initiative will employ an integrated approach to health and wellness, improving outcomes for targeted low-income communities through health care, investments in housing, education, mobile and school-based primary health centers, supermarkets and other outlets for fresh food.

"This philanthropic investment will strengthen Newark's Strong Healthy Communities Initiative, which will empower our most vulnerable residents by providing them with the resources they need to overcome significant challenges," says Newark Mayor Cory Booker.

These integrated approaches are a departure from traditional city service delivery models. Government services are organized according to bureaucratic convenience rather than the comprehensive and complex needs of the people our systems are intended -- but not built -- to serve. Government workers, well-intentioned but caught in an unproductive and frustrating system, are often disincentivized, sometimes even prohibited, from working together across public departments with leaders from other sectors and social spheres. For example, government workforce training programs are too often uncoordinated with the public housing, income supports or other services that would multiply their impact. Worse, participants in workforce training often leave programs no more employable than when they began because programs are designed without identifying the skills most needed by employers in a position to create new jobs.

The Integration Initiative is also an attempt to drive reconsideration of supposedly tried-and-true practices that no longer match the needs of our families, neighborhoods and communities in the 21st century. These major investments are designed to challenge traditional approaches such as the nine-month school year -- a relic of a time when students' education needed to be structured to accommodate summer harvests. The Integration Initiative makes space for innovation, supporting bold new approaches for breaking through critical impasses and disrupting antiquated systems.

The challenge is daunting for sure. For more than four decades, federal, municipal and private charities have poured money into various forms of urban revitalization. The challenges facing these communities, from substance abuse to family dysfunction, are as bad as they have ever been.

"The unique combination of funding that Living Cities has assembled is game changing,” says St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman. We can all hope so.