Posted September 9th 2014 at 10:09 am by
in People Matter: The Human Impacts of Planned Redevelopment

Communities as a Force in Community Revitalization

DSNI Teams 1990s DSNI Team Members in the 1990s. Photo Credit: DSNI

There are many possible directions to take this conversation. Let me focus on one – urban community change efforts. Long the object (some would say, the victim) of redevelopment planning policies and institutions, communities themselves have emerged as a force in this work.

In the 1950s and 60s, low income urban areas were labeled “slums.”  Structures were cleared and people displaced to make way for “higher economic uses,” including middle and high income housing, businesses, government offices, highways, universities, and hospitals.  Communities of color were so often targeted that “urban renewal” came to be known as “Negro removal.”

In Boston, these activities were particularly destructive. The vibrant working class West End neighborhood was “taken” through eminent domain to make way for Government Center. Chinatown, abutting downtown, was, and continues to be, besieged by highways, medical center expansion, the red light district, and luxury housing and hotels.  African-American homes, small businesses and neighborhood institutions were “taken” to make way for the Southwest Corridor highway.  If the project hadn’t finally been stopped through massive organizing, the highway would have effectively cut off these communities of color from the rest of Boston. Today, the South End of Mel King’s youth has been gentrified, despite fierce organizing to preserve the once diverse, primarily African American, working class neighborhood. Entire communities have been lost. Others continue to be threatened.

All these communities have had a tradition of organizing to preserve what is valuable and to create what is missing. They have often been at odds with the government’s vision and policies as well as the private market.

Building vibrant urban communities is not just the work of spunky organizers and courageous residents.  The important role of urban neighborhoods in advancing anti-poverty and equity goals has given rise to a community building field. This work had a resurgence in 2009 through the Obama White House’s emphasis on place-based initiatives. The goal of this work is to revitalize low-income communities, to have “development without displacement,” and to improve the lives of residents.  It focuses on both the people and the places.

The example of the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative (DSNI) in Boston’s Roxbury/Dorchester neighborhoods is worth exploring.  Dudley was devastated by disinvestment, redlining, block busting, white flight, arson, and dumping. It was a wasteland with fully half the land in the center of the neighborhood vacant, covered with the rubble of burnt houses and the region’s garbage.  The neighborhood’s successes have been dramatic, stopping and reversing the destruction.

While there is much to discuss about DSNI’s change methods, for the purpose of this discussion, I’ll highlight these:

  • DSNI plays the complimentary roles of community planner and organizer.  Because of this, the community has the capacity to conduct its own democratic planning processes and to sit as full partners with city planners and other major institutions.  (I don’t know of another urban community with this dedicated planning capacity. Does anyone?)
  • The vision and leadership for change needs to come from community stakeholders, under the leadership of residents. (This approach supports and goes beyond Jane Jacobs’s contention that we need to “discern, respect, and build upon the forces for regeneration that exist in slums themselves.”)
  • Process and product go hand-in-hand. The quality and inclusiveness of the process determines the quality, appropriateness, and sustainability of the product.  No “expert” planners can successfully impose a plan from the top or from the outside without sufficient engagement of local expert stakeholders.
  • Innovation – don’t be limited by what has already been tried or “proven.” The best known example is DSNI’s successful “Take a Stand, Own the Land” campaign which led to the unprecedented conveyance of eminent domain authority over vacant land in the center of Dudley. With the land, DSNI established Dudley Neighbors, Inc. as a community land trust so the community could own the land, determine the appropriate mix of uses, and ensure permanent housing affordability, with a goal of “development without displacement.”


Communities will continue to insist on determining their own futures. The opportunity today is to forge respectful partnerships between communities and planning institutions so that we can align our efforts towards common goals, especially in the face of extreme and rising inequality, the crisis in housing affordability, and continued concentrations of poverty.

Transforming low-income urban communities is complex work. The Aspen Institute Roundtable on Community Change is just producing a new volume, “Managing Effectively in a Complex Environment: Viewing Community Change Efforts through a Complexity Lens” (available soon).

May Louie is a life-long social justice activist-organizer. She spent 20 years as a senior staff member at the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative and is now working on a book.

This post is part of a series reflecting on re/development practices worldwide. See the other posts in the series here.

One response to “Communities as a Force in Community Revitalization”

  1. Dave Cooper says:

    Excellent article! Thank you.

    From my experience as an Asset Based Community Development practitioner, coach and educator, there remains a tension between the principles and practices of planning and producing results that community folks use snd those which “professional” planners would use. John Friedman, the internationally known and often quoted planner, addresses some of these tensions in his little book, Insurgencies: Essays in Planning Theory. I think the tension is a good one in which the business culture of producing with efficiency is balanced with the culture of communities where relationships, trust and reciprocity are as essential as delivering a product.