What does it mean to build a Sustainable Community?

by Ulises Silva, Detroit LISC Communications Program Officer

It may be cliché (actually, it’s an old Chinese proverb), but it’s true: give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.

It’s the same with community development work. Build a house, and you house a family. Build a vibrant community, and you give that family—and many others—a real home and the opportunity to sustain it.

In Detroit, the community development work of the early 90s focused almost entirely on building units of affordable housing. Somewhere along the way, community development organizations, including Detroit LISC, realized that affordable housing was great—except that residents and families can’t live off affordable housing alone. And so began the push toward more comprehensive approaches to neighborhood revitalization.

The Building Sustainable Communities Strategy is Detroit LISC’s approach. The strategy’s name reflects the idea that it’s not enough for communities to simply be livable. They have to be desirable. They have to be communities anyone would want to live in. And, most importantly, they have to be able to sustain themselves once the community development dollars stop flowing their way.

Metaphorically, it’s teaching a whole community how to fish.

But what does a desirable community need to sustain itself? There’s no silver-bullet approach toward revitalizing neighborhoods in distress, but Detroit LISC, through the Building Sustainable Communities Strategy, focuses on five interconnected, inseparable goals to develop long-term community prosperity and sustainability:

  • Building the physical environment – People still need homes, businesses still need retail space, and communities still need space for cultural and community centers.
  • Increasing family wealth and income – Good jobs and financial literacy mean long-term financial health for entire communities.
  • Stimulating local economic activity – Good salaries won’t mean much if residents don’t have the retail goods, healthy food, and services they need nearby.
  • Improving access to quality education – A community’s long-term sustainability requires its children to be its future leaders, and this can’t happen without quality education.
  • Fostering safe and healthy environments – No community can thrive if it’s unsafe, or if it doesn’t have access to quality healthcare.

Regardless of the different approaches we take (for example, some organizations might place more emphasis on transportation needs or community art), one thing is clear: building sustainable communities has to be a comprehensive approach that does more than build nice homes and set up a business or two. It has to take a big-picture approach, and determine what any community would need. Not just to flourish, but to uphold and sustain itself once the development projects finish and the CDCs move on to the next neighborhood. The last thing anyone needs is for these same neighborhoods to fall back into distress because we ignored some vital component for their long-term success.

Truly viable community development work has to take into account the basic needs that each one of us would want on any given day. Homes. Employment. Access to healthy food, education, and healthcare. Safety. Stated another way, what kind of community would each one of us want to live in, have families in, and lay generational roots in? And what would we need to sustain that community across generations?

Putting this into practice will need increased collaboration between CDCs. After all, some might be better at building homes, while others might be better at building businesses or medical facilities. Some organizations might have great models on teaching residents financial literacy, while others might be especially skilled at promoting educational programs. So in a way, the start of truly sustainable communities is all of us putting our respective expertise to work in collaborative models that are themselves sustainable.

Because, at the end of the day, the more skilled teachers there are, the better a community will learn how to fish.

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Posted on May 27, 2011, in Community and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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