This is the 50th anniversary of the publication of a book that many urban thinkers consider the greatest ever written about cities. It’s Jane Jacobs’ “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” and it is, indeed, an important work. Among other things, it showed us how to look at cities—particularly the interactions of street life—with greater appreciation.
“Death and Life,” then, is a great book. I recommend it highly. But I’d like to offer up another great book about cities, one published in 1993 with a bright green cover and cartoon illustrations. It was by a pair of Chicago academics and community organizers, John P. Kretzmann and John L. McKnight, with a title only an academic or a community organizer could love, “Building Communities from the Inside Out: A Path Toward Finding and Mobilizing a Community’s Assets.”
In 376 pages, Kretzmann and McKnight introduce us to a set of ideas as challenging to the conventional wisdom of community development as Jacobs’ critique was to city planning. Their premise: that every neighborhood and every community—even the most impoverished—is filled with human, organizational and institutional assets that should be inventoried and harnessed before seeking outside help.
I’ll explain more about their ideas shortly, but first let me tell you how I was introduced to this book. In 1995, I wrote an article for Florida Trend, a business magazine, about a city in South Florida called Delray Beach. My assignment was to find the place in Florida with the most committed and effective group of local leaders. I found it in south Palm Beach County, which was a bit surprising because that part of the state wasn’t known as civic minded. But a much greater surprise came when I got to Delray Beach. Leadership worked in Delray, I learned, in ways differently than any place I’d ever visited.
You can read the entire article on the Civic Strategies web site, but here’s the five-second summary: Delray Beach city government insisted that, before it responded to citizen complaints, citizens closest to the problem had to organize themselves, study the problem and assume part of the responsibility for solutions. This bracing attitude—you do your part before we do ours—was so contrary to how local governments worked, I struggled to find ways of describing it. I finally hit on calling it Delray Beach’s “responsibility revolution.”
A year later, I got a second surprise when I was researching a study of leadership in Los Angeles and dropped by the offices of an organization called RLA. RLA had been created four years earlier as Rebuild L.A. and was the political and civic communities’ reaction to the 1992 Rodney King riots. Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley asked Peter Ueberroth, the organizational mastermind behind the 1984 Summer Olympics, to head the group, giving it the vague mandate of raising a lot of money and improving the riot-torn areas of South-Central Los Angeles. In short order, Rebuild L.A. became a political disaster, a high-profile piggybank with a 30-member board that served the interests of everybody but the people in the neighborhoods. (To see of how bad things were, read Time magazine’s article about the early problems of Rebuild L.A.)
By the time I visited RLA, Ueberroth was gone and so was the 30-member board. In their place was a quiet, confident Latina named Linda Griego who had been asked to clean up the mess at Rebuild L.A. and do something to improve the area. Griego wasn’t interested in high-profile fund-raisers or big-ego politics. She renamed the organization and focused on the community’s strengths. What she discovered as her organization inventoried South-Central block by block was that there was a lot more to the area than outsiders thought. She found dozens of promising but underserved retail locations and hundreds of small employers. Maybe the greatest surprise: South-Central was a honeycomb of small manufacturers, from print shops to metal-working establishments.
Griego organized these small businesses so they could support one another and negotiate with big businesses and city hall. And she produced corporate-style market studies, pinpointing places that a drug store, supermarket or discount retailer could thrive. She took these studies to chain stores that had never given places like South-Central L.A. a second thought and already had successes to show for her work.
In the space of a couple of years, then, I had seen examples from opposite ends of the United States of how to look at neighborhoods, including very poor areas, in a totally new way: not as hopeless victims but as places with assets—communities with the leadership and some of the resources needed to turn themselves around . . . if outsiders let locals take the lead. And once again, words failed me. I couldn’t come up with the right term to describe what Linda Griego was doing. I called it “grassroots networking.”
It wasn’t until the following year, when I was visiting the Kettering Foundation in Dayton, Ohio, that I found the words I’d been looking for in a homely guidebook in the foundation’s library. It was Kretzmann and McKnight’s book, and the term they used was “asset-based community development.”
In an 11-page introduction to the book, Kretzmann and McKnight explained that the traditional approach to low-income neighborhoods was understandable but wrong. As outsiders, we view these places as the sum of their problems: “crime and violence, of joblessness and welfare dependency, of gangs and drugs and homelessness, of vacant and abandoned land and buildings.” This causes us to conclude they are essentially hopeless: “needy and problematic and deficient neighborhoods populated by needy and problematic and deficient people.”
One result, they continued, is that we throw the residents a lifeline in the form of welfare and a mixture of social programs. These programs don’t solve the residents’ or their neighborhood’s problems; they “guarantee only survival and can never led to serious change or community development.”
What’s needed for change—for altering the fate of neighborhoods and the lives of people and not just easing their pain—is a new way of thinking about these communities, not as a collection of needs but as a wealth of assets that haven’t yet been identified, organized and made productive. What assets? They are “the capacities, skills and assets” of the residents and the neighborhood itself. And you find these assets in three forms, Kretzmann and McKnight say: in individuals, associations (formal and informal groups of various kinds) and institutions (from churches, businesses and schools to police stations and neighborhood parks). Most of the book is given over to showing how to find these assets and what to do with them once they’re found.
I knew instantly what Kretzmann and McKnight were talking about. Their notion of asset-based community development was the same as Linda Griego’s belief that South-Central L.A. teemed with productive businesses and potential markets, and what was needed were ways of harnessing this productivity and unleashing the potential. But there was also in the asset-based approach the wisdom of Delray Beach: that real change can’t happen until the community is a full-fledged partner in its own development—and not a supplicant. As Kretzmann and McKnight write:
. . . All the historic evidence indicates that significant community development takes place only when local community people are committed to investing themselves and their resources in the effort. This observation explains why communities are never built from the top down or from the outside in.
Yes, Kretzmann and McKnight are careful to add, outside resources are almost always needed, but these resources are effective only when requested by local leaders and matched by local efforts:
. . . Outside resources will be much more effectively used if the local community is itself fully mobilized and invested, and if it can define the agendas for which additional resources must be obtained.
OK, this isn’t great writing. In fact, at one point Kretzmann and McKnight caution that their book “is not a novel.” It’s meant to be read as a handbook, skipping from section to section as needed. But for community developers or others who care about cities, there’s as much wisdom here about the human assets of cities as you’ll find in Jane Jacobs’ descriptions of the physical assets.
There’s one more thing: The greatest obstacle to effective action in cities is the complexity of communities. People are frozen because they don’t know where to start. “Building Communities from the Inside Out” tells us not only how to make sense of places but where to begin our efforts to improve them. Literally. One of its final chapters outlines a five-step process: Map the assets, build relationships, mobilize for economic development and information sharing, convene the community to develop a vision and plan, and (only then) seek outside help.
If you want inspiring prose and a dead-on analysis of the physical assets and street life of cities, turn to Jane Jacobs, who probably did write the greatest book ever about cities. But if your tasks involve changing attitudes, peeling back layers of cynicism and apathy, and rallying groups to improve the places they live, then Kretzmann and McKnight have written the book for you. And by anyone’s measure, it’s a great one.
Photo of Jane Jacobs book ad by Pdxcityscape licensed under Creative Commons.