[COMM-ORG] query: Community organizing vs. Community Development

Discussion list for COMM-ORG colist at comm-org.wisc.edu
Sun Aug 22 13:54:30 CDT 2010

  [ed:  thanks to Richard for continuing the discussion.]

Richard Layman <rlaymandc at yahoo.com>
Sat, 21 Aug 2010 10:43:46 -0700 (PDT)
colist at comm-org.wisc.edu

I have been interested in this thread and thought about replying.  Most 
of the cited books I haven't read but I hope to get a chance to 
someday...  As a practitioner with a keen interest in theory and 
academia and a desire to get a PhD (something I probably won't do), and 
an interest in building and extending successful practice, I work to use 
and apply academic work, and generate theories (although not quite to 
the tune of the academic definition, they are more like hypotheses) 
about how to approach urban revitalization and transportation planning, 
the areas that I work in.

But John Atlas' comments motivate me to write because I have similar 
issues with "the profession."

I usually get frustrated at conferences with queries to practitioners up 
on the dais about "how did you do X, create the program," etc. because 
my experience is that practitioners aren't very good at generating 

I tried to get a job at the Nat. Main Street Center and in my cover 
letter, I said that most of what we are doing and talking about is at 
the case study level, that we are not generating theory, and figuring 
out what our successes are and why they succeed (and why programs fail), 
and then using that knowledge to (1) indicate -- figure out and explain 
what we did (or didn't) do successfully; (2) duplicate -- prove that we 
figured it out by applying the learning in another place and getting 
roughly the same results, but more quickly, because we had the advantage 
of working with a robust framework; (3) push -- disseminate the 
information across the network of commercial district revitalization 
programs; and (4) replicate -- generate positive results across the 
network through the capture of knowledge, the development of learning 
and practice frameworks, and the application of the techniques, 
approaches, and frameworks.

I didn't even get the courtesy of an interview...

In this kind of work, everyone gets hung up on the uniqueness of their 
place and what they do, and how best practices from elsewhere are 
irrelevant.  (My response to that is the Positive Deviance Model: 
My response is that while all places are unique, they are not 
exceptional, that the systems and processes of how neighborhoods or 
commercial districts work similarly, that places can be compared even if 
they are seemingly disparate, and learnings from one place can be 
applied to another.

I was really influenced by a keynote presentation by the practitioner 
Charles Buki, at the Urban Forum in Philadelphia in 2003, and I went up 
to him afterwards and asked him about resources, what influenced him.  
His website used to mention an article in the NYT Sunday Magazine from 
the early 1890s by Nicholas Von Hoffman about the failure of community 
development corporations -- I am in fact blowback because of trying to 
figure out why after spending maybe $100 million in urban renewal 
monies, my neighborhood still sucked (this was 2000) and the local cdc 
was disconnected from the community and not helping.  (Yes, I think 
Randy's piece on cdc's explains the problems very well.)

He mentioned the work of Rolf Goetze, particularly the book _Building 
Neighborhood Confidence_.  _Understanding Neighborhood Change_ 
references the taxonomy of neighborhoods created for HUD in the 1970s.  
Many cities use this idea.  E.g., DC has a four rung model (healthy, 
transitioning, emerging, distressed); the original model has 7 rungs.

Where I made some breakthroughs with the taxonomy concept are with these 

- that you should measure, simultaneously and separately, the commercial 
district and the residential sections of neighborhoods

- that you can also do this block by block

- that you should develop proscriptions for policies and practice based 
where you are in the typology, focused on moving the neighborhood up the 

An example of practice based on the taxonomy would be to not put street 
furniture (benches, etc.) in places that are distressed and emerging, 
and only in high transitioning stages, because it would be likely to be 
caught in the crossfire of vagrancy, crime etc., furthering problems 
(and costing money).

So I rely on the work of Jane Jacobs and other with regard to urban 
design; Goetze on neighborhood taxonomy and the role of public 
investment and program development; Mihalio Temali's four pivot points 
laid out in _Community Economic Development Handbook_; the work of the 
kind of people on this list about community organizing and engagement; 
the Main Street Approach with regard to commercial district 
revitalization (although the approach hasn't been properly updated with 
regard to the Design and Economic Restructuring Points); ideas about 
civic engagement and empowered participation come from the ABCD approach 
(John McKnight), Wright and Fung (Deepening Democracy, Empowered 
Participation), Friedmann (Planning in the Public Domain) among others, 
and ideas for neighborhood residential improvement come from Mallach's 
_Bringing Buildings Back_, Goetze, the field of historic preservation, 
and resident attraction programs such as the Live Baltimore program.

With regard to transit and mobility, my ideas are expessed in this 
which I gave to the urban studies and transportation center departments 
at the U of Delaware in March. It outlines a hierarchical approach to 
transit networks across the globe and within a metropolitan area, and 
focuses mode shed on what I call the levels of the transit shed and 
mobility shed.

My experiences in DC led me to shift my interest and efforts to 
transportation planning, because my experience is that $ for $, the 
public investment with the greatest return on investment and positive 
impact on neighborhood revitalization is in transit, which helps 
reposition neighborhoods for success.  Not to mention that there is more 
money in transpo planning than revitalization planning and I am tired of 
scrambling, and because most entities don't seem all that interested in 
taking on a more structured approach to center city and neighborhood 
revitalization planning, especially the method that I espouse.

I suppose I need to write a paper linking all the concepts and the 
approach that I've worked to develop over time.  Some day I hope to get 
to it.  Meanwhile I scramble to make a living and to do interesting work.

Note that I am self-trained, I don't have an advanced degree in 
planning.  Although it is a misnomer to say I am self trained as every 
conference, meeting, experience, interaction, email, paper/report/book 
that I read, etc., has trained me.  I merely synthesized it, applied it, 
sometimes in new ways, and went on my way.

(I have produced commercial district revitalization framework plans for 
Brunswick, GA and Cambridge, MD, and a pedestrian and bicycle access 
plan for Western Baltimore County.)

In conclusion, you can't have "community" development without the 
community, and that's where community organizing comes in.  But 
community development, as traditionally defined -- what I sometimes 
derisively refer to as building better housing for poor people -- isn't 
enough in and of itself to rebuild disinvested communities.  You need 
investment for that, and a focus on rebuilding local economies at the 
micro level.  (Again, that's where Temali's book comes in.)

Pulling this all together, especially in what I refer to as 
"hetereogeneous" communities -- where people differ in terms of age, 
race, SES, educational attainment, and duration of the period they've 
lived in the community -- is very very very very very contentious and 

Richard Layman
Washington DC
a practitioner too much interested in theory to be fully happy in 
academia, and too much interested in practice to likely be able to fit 
in academia

most recently bicycle and pedestrian planner, Baltimore County, Maryland
currently working in a start up business in the private sector focused 
on the development, integration, and sales of bicycle facilities and systems

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