On the heels of the 2013 Neighborhood Revitalization Conference last week, the future looks bright for policies focused on comprehensive, place-based, and resident-centered community redevelopment. Researchers, policy-makers, thought leaders, and practitioners presented and discussed the latest successful programs and models, delving into both anecdotal and empirical evidence suggesting that holistic and highly localized efforts can have huge impacts on persistent, intractable, concentrated poverty. The movement has grabbed the attention of federal policy makers, sparking continued investment in programs such as the Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative, Strong Cities Strong Communities, and Promise Zones. A lot of energy is coalescing around neighborhood building that encourages resident participation and leverages the strength of informal networks. These kinds of programs are trendy, which begs the question: if it’s such a good idea, why has no one thought of it before?
The short answer is that they have. In fact, this type of work has been going on continuously (if out of the spotlight) for a long, long time. At its core, “place-based policy” is essentially the same as the settlement house movement: local programs braiding together different funding streams and leveraging the strengths of the neighborhood to provide comprehensive wrap-around services to adults, children, and families in the community. A renewed interest from academics, politicians, and economists only lends quantitative evidence to what settlement houses have known and practiced for decades (in some cases, more than a century): where you live matters.
Far from being the antiquated relics from the time of Jacob Riis and Jane Addams, settlement houses (and their various iterations—neighborhood centers, community centers, etc.) are just as relevant in communities today as they were among the tenements 130 years ago. In fact, many settlement houses have had such longevity because of their ability to evolve and adapt to changing communities—always prioritizing responsiveness to the needs of the neighborhood itself. As other trends in urban policy have come and gone from the conversation in Washington, at think tanks, and on university campuses, settlement houses have quietly continued serving their communities with much the same philosophy throughout the 20th Century and into the 21st.
Rather than continuing to muddle through, and waiting for the next sea change in social policy, settlement houses and neighborhood centers should seize the opportunity to galvanize community members and decision-makers around resident-centered neighborhood revitalization. Many settlement houses have been around for so long because the values remain relevant: meeting the needs of a community with neighbors and as neighbors. The future is bright for place-based policy not just because of new research and trendy, new jargon, but also because of a long legacy that should be harnessed to inform the future.