A Seat at the Table: Place-Based Urban Policy and Community Engagement

By Price, Hayling | Harvard Journal of African American Public Policy, Annual 2011 | Go to article overview

A Seat at the Table: Place-Based Urban Policy and Community Engagement


Price, Hayling, Harvard Journal of African American Public Policy


Public participation has been defined as "the practice of consulting and involving members of the public in the agenda-setting, decision-making, and policy-forming activities of organizations or institutions responsible for policy development" (Rowe and Frewer 2004). While this civic engagement strategy has been employed in the United States to empower underrepresented communities in a variety of settings, this organizing approach has proven to be especially effective in enhancing the capacity for the public to communicate its priorities to policy makers (Putnam 1995). In urban revitalization initiatives, this strategy also plays a key role in local governance structures, which Robert J. Chaskin and Clark M. Peters identify as "formal mechanisms to engage citizens and to facilitate coordination and collaboration among service providers, community development practitioners, businesses, and local government" (1997). In the context of antipoverty initiatives, these structures leverage social capital in low-income neighborhoods and allow citizens to influence the policies that impact their well-being. In practice, this often entails the deployment of surveys and focus groups targeting neighborhood residents. It also involves the incorporation of these stakeholders into the long-term deliberative process that guides the community-based efforts.

While federal social programs often call for extensive needs assessments that require resident engagement, community involvement tends to decline after initial outreach activities. Primarily operating in minority communities, these antipoverty initiatives are hampered by lapses in communication that result in dissonance regarding the needs, priorities, and culture of low-income communities. Accordingly, outreach efforts accompanying such programs should be subject to thorough assessments of the terms and levels of citizen engagement. Citing the need for accountability, Gene Rowe and Lynn J. Frewer (2004) have suggested that rigorous scientific evaluation methods should be incorporated in these public participation exercises. Providing standard guidelines for public participation would hold local officials accountable to stakeholders to a greater extent than federal authorities have traditionally required. As the Obama administration rolls out its comprehensive urban agenda, it is essential that federal policy makers and local leaders learn from past missteps and seize the opportunity to meaningfully incorporate residents in place-based work. By clearly defining the terms of resident engagement, strongly encouraging the extension of resident participation through program implementation, and measuring the extent and effectiveness of this engagement, policy makers can maximize the empowering and transformative potential of these policy interventions.

The Evolution of the Urban Agenda in U.S. Domestic Policy

On the federal level, urban policy has come to address "the twin problems of poverty and racism and their progeny in U.S. cities," which generates geographically concentrated poverty (Persons 2004). This socioeconomic polarization has been proven to have "deleterious consequences for individuals and entire communities, generating spatial inequality and threatening the fiscal viability of central cities" (Zonta 2005). Accounting for the residential segregation that isolates low-income, inner-city populations, some policy makers have advocated for a place-based approach to urban policy in order to alleviate severe economic distress. Such a strategy is geared toward specific geographic areas, "focusing resources in targeted places and drawing on the compounding effect of well-coordinated action" (White House 2009).

Observers have noted that the Obama administration is the first executive branch to openly embrace a comprehensive strategy for urban revitalization since such reforms were institutionalized under former U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society platform, which included the War on Poverty (Lester 2009). …

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