Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Neighborhood Effect

I attended a lecture by Robert Sampson at Washington University yesterday and found his short presentation of the research collected in his new book compelling and thought provoking. The Atlantic Cities' Richard Florida did an interview with the author that can be seen here. 

Here is a part of the interview:

The late Peter Drucker used to say that voluntary organizations and non-profits would increasingly drive the knowledge economy. Your focus on non-profits has helped to provide the social, civic and economic organizing glue of neighborhoods and cities. Lots of urbanists and Cities readers work in non-profits, I'm sure they'd like to hear more about this.
We live in an increasingly organizational society, and this reality plays out in neighborhoods as well. The density of nonprofit organizations leads to enhanced collective efficacy (for example neighbors watching out for others), collective civic engagement, and cohesion among community leaders. What’s important is not so much the existence of any specific type of organization but the overall organizational infrastructure of a community. Sometimes a disproportionate reliance on any one type of organization, such as the church, can be a problem. Surprisingly, for example, mistrust and cynicism in Chicago communities are highest in the well-churched communities. Although a fount of the civil rights movement, the church alone is clearly not enough to overcome the needs of African American communities, or any community for that matter. Communities with a diversity and density of many types of organizations seem to do better, creating collective spillover or “knock on” effects.  
Nonprofit organizations can make a significant difference in how vulnerable neighborhoods face burdens such as foreclosures due to the recent recession. Community-based organizations are an important ingredient in building up the collective efficacy of communities to meet everyday challenges. While national policies are obviously crucial, nonprofits serve as a kind of social buffer that can make the difference between which neighborhoods tip into a spiral of decline and which turn themselves around. I call this process the "organizational imperative."

Sampson studied leadership in his city as well as issues related to the 'underclass' in an effort to gain a more holistic view of how things function. Collective efficacy, diversity, density and organizational infrastructure are some markers for successful neighborhoods that cross economic and ethnic boundaries. There were many findings that would seem counter intuitive at first glance but suggest, to me, that some similar research in our metro area might provide interesting and surprising results as well.