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Cascade: No. 58, Summer 2005

Advocates for Equity-Centered Smart Growth

Note: The Funders' Network for Smart Growth and Livable Communities is a nonprofit that strengthens the ability of funders to support organizations working to improve communities through better development decisions and growth policies. It is based in Coral Gables, FL.

Across North America, there is a growing recognition that current public decisions guiding land use and development are putting people, the environment, and the economy at risk. The resulting regional growth and development patterns profoundly affect the life circumstances of low-income communities and, in particular, people of color. Philanthropy has a critical role to play in demonstrating how a regional and neighborhood equity framework — by which we mean people- and place-based strategies that revitalize the physical environment of distressed communities and improve the lives of the people who live there — can be advanced to change how these decisions are made.

The Funders' Network for Smart Growth and Livable Communities, founded in 1999, seeks to help funders fulfill this role. The network exists to inspire, strengthen, and expand philanthropic leadership and funders' abilities to support organizations working to improve communities through better development decisions and growth policies. Network members include corporate, private, and community foundations and intermediaries. One of the network's current efforts, the regional and neighborhood equity project (RNEP), is designed to connect and engage funders who believe that racial, economic, and social justice need to be at the core of the movement for smarter growth, recognizing that true smart growth policies address equity, the economy, and the environment.1

Through RNEP, the network is documenting the growing number of experiments, projects, and initiatives that show how funders and grantees are working across disciplines to achieve significant and lasting progress — progress that will ensure that all people and families can participate in and benefit from economic growth and activity throughout regions. Recognizing that land-use decisions have an impact on a broad range of issues that funders care about, including poverty alleviation, economic opportunity, and the fate of children and families, the network has since its inception partnered with organizations such as PolicyLink to advance the objectives of opportunity, justice, and equity by encouraging better decisions about growth and development. To build understanding of the importance of equity-centered smart growth, the network convenes leaders from a range of sectors — philanthropic, nonprofit, academic, private, and public — at national meetings that serve as forums for developing common understandings about the relationship between smart growth and regional and neighborhood equity.2

A May 2005 network publication, Signs of Promise: Stories of Philanthropic Leadership in Advancing Regional and Neighborhood Equity, includes 21 stories of the projects, nonprofit organizations, and philanthropic partners involved in working to achieve better outcomes in neighborhoods and regions, told primarily from the perspective of the foundations that have provided financial and other support. The stories include many examples of the philanthropic community capitalizing on its ability to be innovative, flexible, and use a longer-term perspective.

Lessons Learned

Three clear lessons are emerging that are integral to efforts to advance a framework for regional and neighborhood equity. First, the region matters. Funders focused on neighborhood quality of life increasingly recognize that regional forces and trends — including transportation investments and population growth and decline — are important to consider in order for neighborhood grantmaking to be at its most effective.

Next, public policy is an important lever for change. Many grantmakers are finding that they can further leverage their grant dollars by supporting policy work, such as work on community benefits agreements,3 inclusionary zoning policies, and community organizing. For example, grants to build housing affordable to working families are enhanced by policy work that encourages a more receptive federal, state, or local policy framework and investment agenda for housing. Because foundations can legally support various types of policy work, it is important that they maximize their leverage by doing so.

Finally, issues need to be connected. Land-use policies and practices have implications for work to alleviate poverty, ensure access to jobs and education, and encourage healthy, active lifestyles. By recognizing links and connections between issues, foundations are finding that the means to accomplish the outcomes they desire may change once they realize the underlying factors that are driving the surface problem or challenge.

Network members and the RNEP recognize that it is not only possible but also important to work at the neighborhood level and connect to the region in order to unite diverse interests and improve the quality of life for all residents.

For information about the Funders' Network, RNEP, or Signs of Promise, contact info@fundersnetwork.org; www.fundersnetwork.org.

  • 1 Smart growth is used by the Funders' Network for Smart Growth and Livable Communities to describe a series of policies and practices to ensure that decisions about growth result in well-planned development that protects open space and farmland, revitalizes communities, keeps housing affordable, and provides transportation choices.
  • 2 The term “regional and neighborhood equity” is used to describe a learning and action framework designed to reduce social and economic disparities among individuals, social groups, neighborhoods, and local jurisdictions within a metropolitan area; connect neighborhoods to regional and state public policy decision-making; and harness private market opportunities for community benefits.
  • 3 A community benefits agreement is a legally enforceable and negotiated result of agreements reached by community-based organizations and developers.

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