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Great Regions, Great Neighborhoods: Two Sides of the Same Coin?

David Warm / Nov 13 2009

For Release Friday, November 13, 2009

David WarmRegional and neighborhood efforts are typically viewed as opposite challenges. Regional initiatives focus on large-scale systems, while local initiatives are targeted, place-based and personal. Are these two distinct realities? Or two sides of the same coin?

After the federal recovery act passed, Kansas City-area Congressman Emanuel Cleaver II proposed creating a Green Impact Zone to intensify the impact of federal funds. The idea was quickly embraced, and efforts are now underway to bring a highly coordinated set of investments to a single, low-income neighborhood of 150 blocks and 8,500 people in the heart of Kansas City. It’s an area that has endured decades of disinvestment but it has assets including well-organized neighborhood organizations and proximity to universities and tourist districts.

Unexpectedly, Rep. Cleaver asked the Mid-America Regional Council--the metropolitan planning organization–to take the lead in coordinating dozens of neighborhood, city and community agencies to implement the Green Impact Zone. He turned to MARC because of our experience in supporting collaborative efforts, our work in relevant areas such as energy and transportation, and our ability to mobilize quickly and manage federal grants effectively.

Why did we say yes? True, it’s unusual for a region-serving agency to take on an initiative that focuses on one neighborhood. While we’ve historically sought to support disadvantaged communities in such areas as aging, early education and public transit, we more typically focus on building inclusive and equitable regional systems. We said yes to the Green Impact Zone because we believe it can advance four principles that highlight the inter-connectedness of regional progress and healthy local places:

Great regions begin with great places. Our region is no stronger than our weakest neighborhoods. To meet regional goals we must pay particular attention to stabilizing and reinvesting in places in need. For example, our region is working to focus more new growth into activity centers and along corridors in urban and suburban locations. Achieving this goal depends on fostering market demand within the existing urban fabric. Regional growth plans often try to discourage decentralized growth–yet, the more important challenge is to make existing places more attractive as places to invest and live.

Our goal for the Green Impact Zone is to a build a new model of urban transformation using sustainability as an organizing principle. We believe that a stable, green community near major activity centers is highly marketable, and that the strategies we deploy here can be replicated throughout our region to add momentum to the market for urban reinvestment.

Great places depend on regional capacity. The Green Impact Zone is not something we are doing to a community. Rather, it’s an effort to bring new resources and partners to help zone neighborhoods achieve their own vision.

For instance, the zone has fostered a new regional planning, financing and programming partnership to increase the capacity of local agencies to produce affordable housing. Likewise, the zone strategy includes regional transit connections to strengthen residents’ access to regional opportunities, as well as workforce development programs that connect zone residents to expanding sectors of the regional labor market.

Great places must be fully integrated into regional economic and social systems. We see the Green Impact Zone as an opportunity to align regional and local initiatives and investments.

Great regions begin with green places. Great regions are green, and like character, green begins at home. The Green Impact Zone is pursuing a robust, well-coordinated plan to transform the community through green investments in every home. This includes restoring and weatherizing, producing energy-efficient infill housing, deploying a smart grid, and promoting entrepreneurs and workforce in green industries.

Our biggest challenge isn’t to reach every home–it is to reach every home dweller. Green solutions are only effective if people understand and use them. The Green Impact Zone includes creating new communications, education, outreach and financing mechanisms that will extend green solutions to people and homes throughout our region.

Great regions require great relationships. Regional progress depends on building a network of strong working relationships among a diverse set of actors. Most regional agencies are adept at this. But many, ours included, find it is easier to engage traditional groups or those with broader functional interests–such as public agencies and business groups–than those with fewer resources or more localized interests.

The Green Impact Zone presents an opportunity to strengthen our working partnership with the leaders of disadvantaged communities, particularly minorities, who have historically been less involved in regional decision making and whose leadership is essential to regional progress. In fact, an important element of the zone initiative is a neighborhood leadership program to build the capacity of community stakeholders to lead local initiatives and engage in regional affairs.

Great regions and great neighborhoods are, in fact, two sides of the same coin–the perspective from each side is different but neither makes sense without the other.

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