In Focus

Changing the Urban Landscape One Neighborhood at a Time

PHOTO BY DAVID FERRIS, COURTESY OF THE LOCAL INITIATIVES SUPPORT CORPORATION

Volunteers with the People's Emergency Center on April 14, 2012, cleaned up blocks of Haverford Avenue as part of the LISC Sustainable Communities Initiative in West Philadelphia.

When Metis Associates began to evaluate the Annie E. Casey Foundation's signature, five-city New Futures Initiative in the early 1990s, it was a watershed for the firm. Not only was it Metis's first major evaluation project outside of New York City, it also allowed us to expand our reach across social-service domains, whereas previously we had focused mainly on public education. Metis was deeply involved with this youth-focused project in Savannah, Georgia, where a community center, established in an impoverished neighborhood, served successfully as a one-stop resource for children and families to receive vital social, health care, and employment services.

New Futures was also a turning point for the concept of community revitalization. Its leaders recognized that deeply entrenched urban problems don't have single solutions and that it takes multiple agencies and systems to coordinate their services. “Just getting huge monolithic agencies to talk to each other was an achievement,” says Stan Schneider, president of Metis Associates. “For Metis, and for the country, this felt like the beginning of something new.”

Developing Precision Evaluation Tools to Meet Neighborhood Needs

For Metis, the evaluation of place-based projects like New Futures required new kinds of evaluation tools. In Savannah, for example, we soon learned that traditional county-level data were wholly inadequate to explore issues affecting small neighborhoods and communities. So, using relatively new geographic mapping tools, Metis researchers started disaggregating existing statistics related to employment, education, health, and crime by census blocks that corresponded to the geography of the neighborhoods. Using these tools, Metis was able to show that conditions in the targeted area of Savannah had improved relative to conditions in similarly situated non-targeted neighborhoods.

Another project begun at about the same time, The National Community Development Initiative (NCDI, subsequently renamed Living Cities), identified housing and commercial development as keys to addressing some of the most critical issues in low-income neighborhoods. This collaborative of 22 foundations and financial institutions funded community-development corporations (CDCs) that, in turn, supported urban development in 23 cities. Metis became the national evaluator of this project in 2002 and also provided technical assistance related to reporting and information technology.

The wave of comprehensive community revitalization initiatives begun in the 1980s and early '90s was characterized by large foundations taking on the challenges facing the nation's impoverished inner-city areas. These challenges began with widespread poverty but were compounded by dysfunctional child welfare and juvenile justice systems, poor schools, unemployment, crime, and drugs. Living Cities invested more than $370 million in its first 13 years, helping to bring public and private investments worth more than $11 billion to these cities. Indeed, progress was made, according to Managing Senior Associate Robert Harrington, who led the project for Metis. “But poverty is intractable. We learned that we need to do more than fund housing and build CDC capacity to address the needs of distressed communities.”

For Metis, the lessons about system-wide change that were learned in Savannah and in the Living Cities sites are truer than ever. These lessons—particularly the need to bring more community members to the table, to attack persistent poverty through multiple and systematic interventions, and to have government backing—have been absorbed by a new generation of urban reformers. Several of these projects depart substantially from earlier models of community re-development.

Metis is bringing experience and lessons from the past to bear on four of these exciting undertakings. The newer efforts tend to focus simultaneously on multiple issues—such as education, child welfare, housing, and economic development. Not since the Johnson administration have we seen the resurgence of serious governmental interest in community revitalization. But now, the federal government is joining philanthropies in supporting these projects, making possible endeavors that have a more substantial potential impact.

Transforming Two Philadelphia Neighborhoods

In 2006, the Sustainable Communities Initiative (SCI), a project of the nationwide Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), took aim at two neighborhoods in Philadelphia where low-income residents have long faced crime, inadequate educational opportunities, and poor health. The initiative's strategy is comprehensive, investing in real estate and commercial growth, family economic stability, access to quality education, and quality-of-life issues. Dozens of community groups and two major universities are involved in the project.

In West Philadelphia, for example, the nearby University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University are working with the community to help align local work-training programs with the employment needs of the neighborhood. From organizing art installations in vacant buildings to establishing an anonymous crime-reporting system to conducting a community health study, SCI has already made noticeable progress. In North Philadelphia, the project is focused on bringing together residents and the police to change the nature of community trouble spots. Already, a vacant lot that was drawing drug dealers has been turned into a handball court for youth and young adults.

In 2011, Metis was selected to conduct a three-year evaluation of SCI. Metis began by helping the organizers develop their theory of change, map out measurable indicators, and begin to collect data. “For SCI, there are several important factors involved in the theory of change,” says Manuel Gutiérrez, Metis vice president and senior research scientist. “But most important, the lead agencies are developing strong partnerships with other stakeholders and residents to form a common agenda, so there is agreement on what the priorities are for the neighborhoods.”

Living Cities: The Integration Initiative

Living Cities has continued to evolve since the 1990s, and today it is staking out a broad agenda to make citywide systems more sensitive to the people who need them. Newark, New Jersey, is one of five cities receiving funding through The Integration Initiative, targeted at permanently improving the ways in which major citywide systems interact. That a system-wide approach is essential to such efforts was one of Metis's recommendations to Living Cities in the 2000s.

As in Philadelphia, Metis is facilitating in Newark a rigorous process in which the initiative's theory of change is carefully developed, the focus clarified, and the anticipated outcomes and indicators identified so that a highly useful evaluation can be designed. Focused on four pilot neighborhoods, Living Cities has brought together city departments, nonprofit organizations, citizens, banks, and foundations with an emphasis on reforming systems as well as developing leadership and engagement in the community. A typical project might involve bringing together separate city departments to find out who owns an abandoned property and then cutting through red tape to rehabilitate or demolish it.

“Metis brings to these projects both a systems perspective and an understanding of the complexity of change,” says Gutiérrez. “Many factors affect a neighborhood—not just education or employment. Like our clients, we've grown in understanding how change happens, which is critical to designing evaluations that are sensitive to those factors.”

Promise Neighborhoods

PHOTO COURTESY OF CAMBA

Community members discuss the needs of local youth at the Flatbush Promise Neighborhoods Initiative town hall meeting on March 8, 2012. The Brooklyn neighborhood organization CAMBA came to Metis for help developing a needs-assessment survey.

Another approach to community revitalization is being tested by Promise Neighborhoods, a highly competitive grant program begun through the Obama administration's Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative. Promise Neighborhoods follows the “cradle to career” approach to improving the prospects for the next generation of young people that was pioneered by the Harlem Children's Zone. Metis began its work with Promise Neighborhoods when the firm was asked to collaborate with the Morehouse School of Medicine and the United Way of Metropolitan Atlanta to develop a Promise Neighborhoods planning grant proposal for Atlanta's west side. With Metis's help, Atlanta Promise Neighborhoods in 2010 received one of only 21 grants awarded in the first round of this program.

Having also received a Promise Neighborhood planning grant, in 2011, the Brooklyn neighborhood organization CAMBA came to Metis for help with its needs-assessment process. Metis helped CAMBA shape a community survey—a critical component of the project that helped the organization understand the community's beliefs about health care, education, and safety in the target area. Metis also devised a survey sampling plan to ensure accurate representation of respondents along the lines of race, gender, and age. Now, Metis is helping CAMBA analyze and present the data in preparation for its implementation proposal submission to the U.S. Department of Education.

In the Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn, Metis is consulting with the Promise Neighborhoods initiative spearheaded by Lutheran Medical Center on its development of a longitudinal data-management system. The data system will help organizers understand the extent of the project's impact and how the schools in the neighborhood are improving relative to the supports they receive.

Says Harrington, “The origins of Promise Neighborhoods strike back to the original neighborhood revitalization concept. Education is at the heart of it, but now these programs are building community support for young people that should have implications both inside and outside of the classroom. As neighborhoods have better services, kids will do better in school, and the entire community begins to have the potential to thrive.”


Home page photo:
In May 2011, hundreds of school children and local residents thronged the tiny Rainbow de Colores playground on 5th Street in North Philadelphia for the groundbreaking of a thorough renovation of the park. The project is part of the Sustainable Communities Initiative, a project of the nationwide Local Initiatives Support Corporation.