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Adopting a place-conscious approach to community development: A conversation with Margery Austin Turner of the Urban Institute

Community Dividend speaks with Margery Austin Turner, Vice President for Research at the Urban Institute's Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center, to learn about her comprehensive, thought-provoking approach to poverty issues and neighborhood revitalization.

October 1, 2010


Sandy Gerber Community Development Senior Project Manager
Adopting a place-conscious approach to community development: A conversation with Margery Austin Turner of the Urban Institute

When it comes to the interwoven issues of housing affordability, poverty, segregation, and neighborhood distress, two competing approaches have held sway for the past several decades. These strategies have come to be known as either place-based, that is, improving the physical environment of poor neighborhoods, or people-based, that is, increasing the skills and employment opportunities of low-income individuals. Margery Austin Turner, Vice President for Research at the Urban Institute's Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center, proposes a third way of looking at these issues. Her "place-conscious" approach involves simultaneously improving neighborhood conditions, building the skills and capacities of individuals, opening up access to opportunity-rich communities, and changing regional development strategies to connect low-income people and places with regional opportunities.

Turner, a nationally recognized expert on urban policy and neighborhood problems, studies issues of racial discrimination, neighborhood segregation and inequality, and the role of housing policies in promoting residential mobility and location choice. Prior to joining the Urban Institute, she served as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Research at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) from 1993 through 1996, where she initiated three major demonstration projects that tested strategies for helping inner-city families gain access to opportunities through employment and education.

Turner was a presenter at a recent Minneapolis Fed Community Development Forum on "Maximizing the Neighborhood-Tenant Connection: A Thought-Provoking Perspective on Expanding Affordable Rental Housing." Community Dividend followed up with Turner to learn more about her comprehensive approach to poverty issues and neighborhood revitalization.

Community Dividend: You advocate place-conscious strategies to address poverty and neighborhood disinvestment. What does "place conscious" mean, and how does it differ from the traditional place-based or people-based approaches?

Margery Austin Turner: The place-conscious idea is a reaction to the simple-minded tendency that says there are place-based strategies that focus on a neighborhood and fixing things up in that neighborhood, and then there are people-based strategies that don't worry about places or neighborhoods or where people are located but simply focus on giving people opportunities to improve their situation through services, job training, and in some instances, relocation to other neighborhoods. I think pitting these two approaches against each other and treating them as if they're mutually exclusive is creating false dichotomies and false conflict.

What we should be thinking about is how to revitalize the places in which people live, how to enable people to take advantage of opportunities that are located in different places around the region, and how to make connections between where they live and regional opportunities. Whether we're trying to fix up a place or create more opportunities for individuals, it's essential to acknowledge the importance of all these elements—location, individual and family needs, and the distribution of opportunities and challenges throughout a region—and to interweave these approaches.

I'm not suggesting that place-conscious strategies are something different from the neighborhood-based revitalization strategies and the mobility strategies that have been explored and pursued over the last several decades. I'm arguing that we should pursue those neighborhood revitalization and mobility strategies in a more systematic, coherent, comprehensive way, taking into account the impact of individual capacity, place, and neighborhood, and tackling these issues accordingly.

CD: In a recent article, you wrote, "Efforts to revitalize distressed neighborhoods cannot truly succeed unless poor families have meaningful choices about where to live and work."1/ What do you mean by that statement?

MAT: I was alluding to concentrated poverty. Part of what we've learned from the last few decades of experience is that the concentration of poverty undermines the well-being of neighborhoods. If low-income—and particularly low-income minority—families are excluded from neighborhoods where schools are successful, jobs are plentiful, and streets are safe, then they are in effect forced into a smaller set of central-city neighborhoods. And if we insist on trapping large numbers of poor people in those central-city neighborhoods, those places are going to remain distressed. Even if we try to make them better, the concentration of poverty there undermines their health and vitality.

We've seen efforts at revitalizing those places by demolishing very high densities of subsidized housing and replacing it with housing that caters to a variety of incomes. An intent of that approach is to deal with concentrated poverty by changing the ratio of low-income people to higher-income people. That's accomplished by making those neighborhoods places where people of many income levels would choose to live. However, if you pursue that strategy without replacing the now-demolished affordable housing and locating it in a wider variety of neighborhood settings, then you're just pushing poor people from one distressed place to another.

On the other hand, efforts have been made to address the situations of the individual people who live in concentrated poverty. One approach I mentioned earlier, known as a mobility strategy, provides low-income people with vouchers so they can afford to move to middle-class neighborhoods. However, we've learned that families who've been living in distressed, high-poverty environments have often been damaged and undermined by those circumstances. Enabling them to move to safer, healthier environments is a positive for them, but it doesn't fix everything that has contributed to their suffering. So hand-in-hand with providing a voucher, you may need to provide services and additional help along the way.

So to sum up, the place-based and people-based strategies we've been employing for decades aren't comprehensive enough on their own to address poverty and its effects.

CD: Some of your research discusses the Gautreaux and Moving to Opportunity (MTO) demonstration projects, which are two of the best-known examples of mobility strategies. Gautreaux, which was implemented in the Chicago area from the late 1970s through the mid-1990s as part of a desegregation settlement, provided housing vouchers that enabled thousands of low-income, minority families to move from high-poverty neighborhoods to middle-class neighborhoods. MTO tested a similar concept in five metropolitan areas beginning in the 1990s. Where do you think these two mobility projects succeeded, and where did they fall short?

MAT: Regarding Gautreaux, MTO, and other assisted housing-mobility strategies, I think we're in a continuous process of learning, adjusting, revising, and learning some more. We've learned lessons from Gautreaux and MTO that organizations are applying right now as they develop the next generation of mobility strategies.

To me, the big lesson coming out of both Gautreaux and MTO is that many families want the opportunity to move to a dramatically different neighborhood. It's not necessarily the right solution for all families, but many families really want the chance to move. Families who've had that chance with a voucher and some assistance have gotten to dramatically safer neighborhoods than they started out in. They've appreciated—with a depth of emotion that's hard to describe—the safety, security, and escape from crime that they found in their new neighborhoods.

There's emerging evidence that freedom from violence, disorder, and fear translates into significant health—including mental health—gains for women and girls. These are huge, important findings. I've heard people say that the reduction in depression is as dramatic as any that are found in clinical studies. And depression, obesity, and hypertension are all significant barriers to work, employment, and self-sufficiency.

In addition, maternal depression is an enormous risk factor for children. A mobility strategy that gets women to safety may pay off not just for them and their health and employment prospects, but for their children, because if children grow up with a mother who isn't depressed, their prospects for healthy emotional development are significantly better. I think these are all really positive things we've learned from mobility strategies.

On the downside, these demonstration projects didn't fulfill our hopes in other respects. For example, when you help people move to a different neighborhood with a voucher, just using that neighborhood's poverty rate as the indicator of whether it's a good neighborhood or not is probably too simple-minded. In evaluating the appropriateness of a neighborhood to move to, it might be important to consider the distance of the new neighborhood from the original neighborhood. The quality of the schools that serve that neighborhood may also be a critical determining factor, as are transit access and proximity to employment. We figured that all these factors were accounted for by focusing on neighborhood poverty rates, but they aren't.

CD: According to some people who promote neighborhood revitalization strategies or mobility strategies, minority families will benefit by living in close proximity to white, middle-class neighbors. What do you think of that idea?

MAT: I think it's a hypothesis that hasn't yet been proven right. Part of the argument behind it is that in high-poverty, distressed neighborhoods, all kinds of things go wrong in a sort of self-perpetuating, downward spiral. There's little investment, there are poor public services, there's no grocery store, no good child care, the private sector pulls out, the police don't do an effective job, and the high rates of poverty, unemployment, and distress undermine the effectiveness of the remaining institutions and social relationships. Because lots of people aren't working, the networks that connect people to jobs are missing, and there aren't many role models to show kids that working hard and playing by the rules can pay off with a better life.

So how do you turn that process around? How do you get a positive cycle going? One of the existing hypotheses proposes that if a neighborhood has working families who are successful, who play by the rules and are experiencing a payoff from that, and who have connections to the workforce and the larger world, then the social capital they generate can pay off for everybody, including the lower-income families. This is part of the hypothesis about the way neighborhood revitalization is supposed to work, and also part of the hypothesis about how mobility is supposed to work. And I think it's still unproven.

You don't have to believe that everybody needs a nice middle-class neighbor to be successful. But you may acknowledge that neighborhoods where no middle-class people live are often neglected by government institutions, private-sector lenders, grocery stores, and service providers. My own personal view is that these latter structural arguments have more force. It's not that I think the low-income black family needs white neighbors to learn how to behave properly. But I think that in our still discriminatory society, middle-class white neighbors attract grocery stores and good public services, they wield political and market power, and they bring things to a neighborhood that everyone can benefit from.

CD: You assert that addressing concentrated poverty can be good for a region, and a regional strategy can be good for poverty reduction. Can you elaborate on this?

MAT: I think there's a common-sense view that badly distressed neighborhoods drag down the vitality, fiscal health, image, and future growth prospects of a city and potentially the region as well. In many ways, these pockets of poverty blight the larger communities of which they're a part.

If a region pursues an economic growth strategy that consciously works to open up job ladders for lower-income, less educated people; consciously works to reduce old barriers based on race and ethnicity; consciously tries to expand access to neighborhoods where the schools prepare kids to be great citizens and employees, and at the same time tries to improve the schools in the distressed neighborhoods—all these strategies that tackle inequality and distress have the potential to result in a more skilled work force, a smaller poverty and distress problem to pay for, and less crime.

When a region and the jurisdictions within a region sit down together and ask, "Where does our region want to go?" it's not as if the only answers are, "We can either grow as a region while retaining these pockets of poverty, or we can address these pockets of poverty while remaining stagnant." Those aren't the only choices. There are all kinds of ways to think about growth that explicitly open doors for people who have been excluded in the past. In reality, this will lead to more equitable, and potentially greater, growth.

CD: Isn't it true that, in the past, communities within regions haven't always succeeded at working together to address poverty?

MAT: Yes, and that points to a big structural challenge. The existence of many units of local government within particular regions makes it difficult to frame and pursue strategies that benefit an entire region, as opposed to strategies that benefit individual jurisdictions at the expense of others. It's a big problem, and people of good will are going to be struggling with it in slightly different contexts all over the country for the foreseeable future.

My colleague Manuel Pastor, who's currently with the University of Southern California, has done far more work than I have in thinking about coalitions of interest—business, civic, environmental, and antipoverty interests—that can take a regional perspective and advocate for regional strategies. In effect, coalitions exert pressure on the individual jurisdictions within a region to behave in a way that advances the interests of the region as a whole. If it were just antipoverty advocates making these regional cases, it might not be as effective in the short term as it would be when business interests were also making the case. In many instances, businesses are undermined by jurisdictional fragmentation. And increasingly, advocates for environmentally sustainable growth are seeing the connection between their work, and equity and inclusion. I think this is the direction in which progress lies, but it will be slow, incremental, and frustrating.

CD: What would a hypothetical scenario look like for targeting a concentrated poverty neighborhood, tying it to a regional strategy, and mutually benefiting neighborhood residents and the region?

MAT: First, you'd look at where the jobs are. Not a lot of them will be in the high-poverty neighborhood. A regional strategy would say, "Okay, we have high joblessness in that neighborhood, so let's start a neighborhood-focused outreach effort to assess the training, preparation, and placement needs of the residents of that neighborhood." But although you're doing an assessment at the neighborhood level, you intend to connect the residents to training, mentoring, and placement opportunities that may be located all around the region. So that raises the question, "How do people in the poor neighborhood get to where the jobs are?"

That would lead you to think about strategies like rearranging the bus routes or creating some kind of targeted van-pooling mechanism or subsidized car program for residents of that neighborhood who get jobs in distant places. All of these strategies can be part of the solution.

Then you would say, "Some of these families are getting jobs, succeeding, and advancing in these jobs. They might like to live near where their jobs are." So what are some strategies for making sure people who would like to live where the jobs are can do so? Maybe you could use the Low Income Housing Tax Credit to build affordable housing there, if need be. Maybe there are zoning barriers that need to be overcome. Or, in the current foreclosure crisis, maybe there are opportunities to acquire some foreclosed properties, transfer them to nonprofit ownership, and create quiet little scattered-site, single-family, subsidized housing opportunities all over the place.

Then you'd want to think about the neighborhood itself—its central location and fantastic historical assets that have gone unappreciated. It might make sense to invest in physical revitalization, streetscapes, and community assets. When you start considering that, you'd recognize right away that this neighborhood could become a really hot location for the region, and you'd want to be sure that low-income people can stay on if they want to. So you'd include the preservation of affordable housing as part of the strategy.

But you'd also recognize the assets and deficits of other parts of the region, think about who around the region might find this location attractive, and consider what kinds of magnets could be added to this neighborhood to make it really attractive to homeowners, renters, young people, artists, major grocers, and service providers. That would lead you to think about schools. How does the school that serves this neighborhood perform? Does it fit into any kind of citywide school-improvement effort?

In other words, you'd think about opportunities throughout the region, but you'd also think about the spatial link between those opportunities and this neighborhood, and how this neighborhood can become a real plus in the regional context. What does the neighborhood have to offer that will make it a regional asset and will also benefit the people who currently live there?

CD: One piece of your regional strategy concerns employers. How do you get them on board?

MAT: Everything I understand about employment strategies emphasizes that employers need to be plugged in from the beginning. Training, readiness, and placement strategies don't work if they aren't closely connected to employers. People also have to recognize how incentives work on the employer side. In a tight labor market, where employers are looking for workers, employment advocates are in a much stronger position to say, "Okay, take a risk. You really need workers, and I'm bringing you some. They may be people you've negatively stereotyped in the past, but I've trained these workers and I'm going to stand behind them."

In a weak market like the current one, where we're going to be struggling with high unemployment for a long time, it's harder. We need to work with employers to understand what their problems are with recruitment and securing a work force. Do they need people to work the night shift? Do they need people who can show up reliably at certain times of day, or do they need people with certain packages of skills? We can work with employers to identify some of these problems, and then we can deliver employees who solve them.

CD: Do you envision nonprofits in that role? Do you see them stepping in and trying to fill the gaps?

MAT: This is a big challenge for nonprofits. I'm not suggesting that every single nonprofit has to be doing all of this regional, place-conscious stuff. Individual nonprofits have individual missions. What we need to think about are organizations that can play a linking role—intermediary organizations that can help the array of nonprofits in a region add up to more than a sum of their parts.

Some organizations are really effective at reaching out to the most challenged people in a poor community. It's not that we expect these organizations to do everything else, too, such as connecting to employers and having a regional sector strategy. We want some other entity to connect with employers and implement a regional sector strategy. And this entity would reach out to the community-based organizations in their midst and help them plug into a larger regional strategy. In addition, a strategy that links organizations together could include a role for vocational training schools or community colleges, enabling them to connect to employer needs and to effective neighborhood organizations.

CD: As you've pointed out in your work, there are potential sources of opposition to a regional equity approach. Among them are not only some suburban interests but also some leaders of communities of color who might fear that dispersing inner-city residents could dilute whatever voice and power they might have. What's your response to that position?

MAT: I certainly have heard an argument that mobility strategies and opportunity-opening strategies undermine solidarity or centers of political power. Personally, I feel very strongly that racial segregation and the concentration of poverty are hurting all of us in innumerable ways: economic, social, and cultural. And clearly the people being hurt the most are the people with the fewest choices: low-income minorities. I don't have a lot of sympathy for an argument that says we ought to leave things the way they are.

I do think, however, that we have to be careful not to suggest that everybody has to move, that a minority community cannot be a vibrant and healthy community, or that the only way to have healthy neighborhoods is when they're predominantly white. We have to transition ourselves to a world in which a minority community is as well-served, vibrant, safe, and service-rich as a majority-white community or a racially-mixed community. People should be able to choose which of these kinds of communities they want to live in. Right now these choices don't exist, for the most part. The widespread availability of these choices would bring much more power to all concerned than the unsatisfactory situation in which we currently find ourselves.

CD: Earlier, you brought up the subject of the demolition and replacement of affordable housing. Do you support a one-for-one housing replacement policy?

MAT: I think keeping a really careful eye on the availability and workability of affordable housing in the region is essential. I think in some markets one-for-one replacement of units may be necessary, but I don't think it's absolutely necessary in every market. I think there are some places where the vacancy rates and the distribution of affordable rental stock suggests that a replacement of some of the original units with vouchers can be more effective; it can lead to better outcomes for families. So I would argue for one-for-one replacement in places where the availability of affordable units is demonstrably at issue.

Then I would worry about where those replacements go. Because one-for-one replacement of units in distressed neighborhoods, or in high concentrations, is not going to be conducive to long-term, sustainable, stable solutions. However, one-for-one replacement that includes some units on the original site, some units within the original buildings, and some units in opportunity-rich neighborhoods elsewhere, could be a much more viable long-term solution.

CD: In a report published earlier this year, you write that federal policies and programs that attempt to address environmental sustainability can end up reinforcing or encouraging racial and economic exclusion from opportunity.2/ How does that happen, and how can it be avoided?

MAT: This is something that my friends in the fair housing world are really worried about. The rhetoric of sustainability incorporates equity and inclusion. However, if the sustainability effort focuses too narrowly on transportation, pollution, and environmental issues, you can quite easily imagine outcomes that would make matters worse around equity and inclusion.

Suppose, for example, that a new housing policy said we'd no longer build any affordable housing in neighborhoods that aren't well served by public transit. That would mean all these suburban communities that have so effectively excluded affordable housing for all these decades through zoning regulations would be off the hook. The ability to open up neighborhoods where the schools work, the parks are safe, and there is pretty convenient job access would be foreclosed.

Another example is an inner-city neighborhood with some affordable housing and good transit connections that suddenly becomes a green magnet for the entire metropolitan area. The city invests more in transit there, and in bike paths and walking paths. All kinds of amenities flood that neighborhood, and developers are encouraged to build more high-density housing there. But nobody pays any attention to affordability or inclusion or the current mix of services and stores that cater to current residents. You can imagine a neighborhood going from being a little run-down but affordable and convenient to becoming a poster child for sustainability where nobody who is low-income can afford to live.

A more thoughtful approach to sustainability encompasses inclusion and equity objectives as well. If we can systematically work toward inclusion and equity in housing, and access to jobs and transportation, we can advance our inclusion, fair housing, and antipoverty objectives at the same time that we're advancing sustainability objectives. I'm actually very encouraged that this is the way HUD and the administration are talking about sustainability now. HUD's latest strategic plan wraps sustainability and inclusion together as an interconnected combination of goals.

CD: In your writings, you've made the point that since sprawl and regional inequality are not the results of the free market, their remedies won't be results of the free market, either. Can you expand more on what you mean?

MAT: I often find that when I talk about strategies to deconcentrate poverty or reverse racial segregation, especially strategies that would help poor minorities move someplace where everything already works, people say, "Oh yikes, social engineering." My argument is that the pattern we have, which results in exclusionary, segregating, poverty-concentrating outcomes, didn't happen by accident. It didn't happen because of the market. It happened because we have a long history of very bad policy. The policy was explicitly segregationist not very many decades ago, and implicitly segregationist for a long time after that. Discrimination still distorts the way markets work, and many local jurisdictions have zoning and other regulatory barriers in place that have the effect, if not the intent, of keeping lower-income people out.

It doesn't take very deep reading into the legislative history surrounding these issues to discover the fundamental intent to exclude people of color. We got where we are through intentional policy. And so, to then shut our eyes and say, "I don't want public policy influencing where people live, where housing is located, and what gets built where—I just want the markets to work," is, I think, really dishonest. We got ourselves into this mess with policy. It's going to take policy and intervention to get ourselves out of it.

CD: You and your colleagues have been researching these issues for some time. Where do you think your research into poverty and neighborhood issues fits into the current policy environment?

MAT: I think we have an administration in place now that's not only activist on these issues but also believes that evidence, research, and learning are useful for advancing sensible and effective policy. I have a huge amount of respect for courageous policymakers and practitioners who invite research into their domain, because very often research reveals that policies don't work exactly the way we'd hoped. If you're brave, you accept the evidence and adapt what you're doing. You learn from mistakes, move forward, and get better and better, but not everybody has that kind of courage.

Some researchers have a tendency to keep on researching in the hopes of finding a definitive answer. However, there's never a definitive answer. I think we need to say, "Here's what we know so far, given the evidence, and this is the next idea we ought to try."

For further reading

Listed below are some recent articles and papers from Margery Austin Turner's extensive body of writing on housing, poverty, and neighborhoods. All of the following works are published by the Urban Institute and are available via the publications search at

Reducing Poverty and Economic Distress after ARRA: Potential Roles for Place-Conscious Strategies, by Manuel Pastor and Margery Austin Turner, April 2010.

Federal Programs for Addressing Low-Income Housing Needs: A Policy Primer, by Margery Austin Turner and G. Thomas Kingsley, December 2008.

Making Work Pay Enough: A Decent Standard of Living for Working Families, by Gregory Acs and Margery Austin Turner, July 2008.

Assisted Housing Mobility and the Success of Low-Income Minority Families: Lessons for Policy, Practice, and Future Research, by Margery Austin Turner and Xavier de Souza Briggs, March 2008.

Promoting Neighborhood Diversity: Benefits, Barriers, and Strategies, by Margery Austin Turner and Lynette A. Rawlings, August 2009.

Family Mobility and Neighborhood Change: New Evidence and Implications for Community Initiatives, by Claudia J. Coulton, Brett Theodos, and Margery Austin Turner, November 2009.

Explore MetroTrends

In addition to being a prolific researcher and author, Margery Austin Turner is one of the contributing experts behind MetroTrends, an Urban Institute web site that offers the latest information on social and economic trends in urban America. To explore the site's data downloads, commentaries, and other features, visit

1/ Manuel Pastor and Margery Austin Turner, Reducing Poverty and Economic Distress after ARRA: Potential Roles for Place-Conscious Strategies, Urban Institute, April 2010.

2/ Vicki Been, Mary K. Cunningham, Ingrid Gould Ellen, Joe Parilla, Margery Austin Turner, Sheryl Verlaine Whitney, Ken Zimmerman, Adam Gordon, and Aaron Yowell, Building Environmentally Sustainable Communities: A Framework for Inclusivity, Urban Institute, April 2010.