Skip to main content
Affordable Housing , Community Development

What Makes a Strong Community?

22 January 2013

America’s older cities and towns are enjoying a renaissance that is unparalleled in my lifetime.  We can especially see it in the neighborhoods and when approached the right way, sustainable neighborhoods become the building blocks of sustainable cities.

It’s about time.  Nothing has been worse for the environmental, economic and social resilience of our cities than the decay and disinvestment of our inner-city neighborhoods and accompanying suburban sprawl. The importance of changing that paradigm cannot be overstated:  Strengthening the places we have before building new ones is of enormous importance to both economic and environmental recovery.  When revitalization of our distressed neighborhoods is done well, it is almost unrivaled in its ability to advance simultaneously the “triple bottom line” of sustainability:  improving the environment, the economy, and social equity.

Fortunately, central cities are growing again. Driving rates are going down, while walking and transit usage are going up.  You can see dramatic differences in places like Boston’s Dudley Street, Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine, and St. Louis’s Old North, until recently the most abandoned districts in each of those cities.  Similar changes are reviving  the fortunes of once-forgotten communities in Denver, the South Bronx, Houston, and even Paducah, Kentucky

Common to their success is a spirit of inclusion, empowerment, and community engagement.  Change happens faster and better when residents – who know and care the most about what’s happening on their blocks – shape their own revitalization.  Indeed, outside investors are more willing to contribute capital when they know that proposed projects have community support. 

Connecticut, in particular, is not without challenges, including income disparities and high housing costs.  But from the viewpoint of someone from, say, Detroit or Modesto, these are not bad problems to have: You have an active economy, and people want to live in your communities.  You also have great historic building stock, including older manufacturing facilities ready for adaptation. These are the kinds of places new generations are looking for.  With planning and leadership, you can build the kinds of connected, walkable neighborhoods that have the most potential for prosperity in the 21st century.
It’s happening elsewhere.  Why not here, too? 

Click here to read more about the upcoming IForum.

Kaid Benfield is the Director of Sustainable Communities, Energy & Transportation Program for the Natural Resources Defense Council and keynote speaker for the Jan. 29th IForum, “What Makes A Strong Community?”

Click here to read previous blogs.