In a conversation I recently had with a professional planner, we were discussing the role of non-profits in helping individuals and businesses build wealth. He expressed his deep appreciation for organizations, such as Community Action agencies, in helping planners do their job more effectively. “After all,” he said, “what is the purpose of urban planning if it isn’t economic development?”
I think there are many roles that urban planners can fill in society, including improving health, creating a sense of community, and reducing dependence on fossil fuels. My friend, however, brought up a great point. The primary reason planners plan is to create favorable conditions for local economies to flourish. This is the purpose underlying zoning regulations, and it is the impetus for initiatives as varied as façade rehabilitations, transportation improvements, and historic preservation. In the end, it is all (or at least mostly) about the money!
Unfortunately, urban planners are hamstrung by public mistrust following a long history of central planning efforts gone wrong. Freeways bisecting delicate urban communities, high-rise project slums, and urban sprawl as far as the eye can see, are just three of the many heartbreaking examples of central planning projects gone wrong. Social critics, such as Jane Jacobs and Lewis Mumford, have been a thorn in the side of conventional urban planning for years. Planners have done a decent job in recent years with ever-increasing public participation efforts, but they are still better off delegating the most important, on-the-ground economic development work to those who can be trusted to do it best: community-based nonprofits.
Community-based non-profits, much more so than governments, live and die by their abilities to effectively build relationships with their constituents. When the constituency of an organization is local small businesses and under-utilized laborers, urban planners should begin to salivate at the possibilities. For example:
- If a local organization is offering potential entrepreneurs Start-Your-Own-Business classes, planners and local government would do well to see the potential of improving the downtown business district;
- If another organization, such as a community college, is training youth to construct affordable homes in their own blighted neighborhoods, redevelopment agencies should take advantage of this by strategically purchasing and donating properties in areas that need to be revitalized.
What nonprofit programs in your community can provide a potential springboard for meeting economic development goals with urban planners? How are planners and non-profit leaders working together to achieve these and other goals?