PhotoToddBy Todd Swanstrom

Todd Swanstrom is the Des Lee Professor of Community Collaboration and Public Policy Administration at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and co-author of Place Matters: Metropolitics for the Twenty-First Century.

In Governor Jay Nixon’s words, the first charge of the Ferguson Commission was “to conduct a thorough, wide-ranging and unflinching study of the social and economic conditions underscored by the unrest in Ferguson.” The killing of Michael Brown was the spark that started the protests but the fuel that sustained them was the accumulation of frustrations and resentments by citizens consigned to communities that not only failed to help them get ahead but actually dragged them down. The media has generally portrayed events in Ferguson as the result of old-fashioned racism but, in fact, the underlying conditions that sparked the unrest were a toxic mix of race and place.

The Ferguson Commission Calls to Action recognize the need for targeted, place-based investments to lift up disadvantaged communities. This is wise. The St. Louis region needs to invest now in a community development system that enables every community to succeed.

Where we live makes a big difference in our lives, independent of our individual characteristics. And you don’t need to have studied the impact of geography on people for over 30 years like I have to understand that. People who live in areas of concentrated poverty, for example, often pay more for groceries and lack access to fresh vegetables. The stress of living in areas of high crime can compromise the immune system and damage children’s capacities to learn with negative effects that last a lifetime. The researchers at For the Sake of All reported that children growing up in a disadvantaged zip code in the City of St. Louis can expect to live 18 years less than children in a privileged suburban zip code. Controlling for individual characteristics, residents of high-poverty neighborhoods are less successful in job markets and often must commute longer distances.

The new scrutiny in Ferguson revealed another place effect: poor municipalities are more likely to use the police like an ATM to fund municipal budgets. Municipal fiscal stress is driving the widespread pattern of police abuses. Senate Bill 5, which limits revenue from traffic fines to 12.5 percent of municipal revenue, does not address the underlying cause – the simple fact that many municipalities lack the tax base to provide decent services at reasonable tax rates.

Economic segregation also divides neighborhoods within municipalities. The shooting of Michael Brown occurred on the eastern side of Ferguson where the poverty rate is 33 percent. Political divisions in Ferguson are rooted in patterns of economic and racial segregation.

Fortunately, there is something we can do about economic segregation and concentrated poverty. Research I conducted with Hank Webber and Molly Metzger of Washington University found that, even though concentrated poverty is growing in the region, some 35 neighborhoods have successfully rebounded. The Central West End is the most prominent example but there are many more, including Shaw, Botanical Heights, Carondolet, and Maplewood.

Is there a silver bullet that can guarantee the renewal of a blighted community? No. But we did find one factor that was common to all rebound neighborhoods: strong civic engagement.

The simple truth is that neighborhoods need involved citizens and leaders. Neighborhood renewal is not going to succeed if outsiders come in and tell a community what to do.

So where does strong civic engagement start? Often, a community development corporation (CDC) leads the way. A CDC is a nonprofit with a mission to improve life in a specific neighborhood, city, town, or region. As part of my endowed professorship at UMSL, I have worked with a network of CDCs, lenders, foundations, and government agencies called the Community Builders Network (CBN). The CDC members are doing incredible work, but many of them lack the capacity or financial resources to implement sophisticated neighborhood plans. Many disadvantaged neighborhoods do not even have place-based community nonprofits at all. The network has 18 CDC members in the City of St. Louis but only five that operate in suburban St. Louis County – even though more poor people live there.

Most regions like St. Louis, including Kansas City, Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh, have community development systems that are funded by local and national foundations. St. Louis has not had a major foundation that has invested in community development and so we have not been successful at attracting national foundations to this work. The Greater St. Louis Community Foundation has stepped into the vacuum and is working with a coalition of banks and nonprofits on a proposal, called Invest STL, to create a community development support system in St. Louis.

Community development is not a magic bullet that will correct the social injustices that drove the unrest in Ferguson. But it can give communities the chance to bounce back and create an environment where all their citizens can succeed. Unless we invest now in leveling the playing field of metropolitan development, distressed communities will not only drag down their residents – they will drag down the entire region.

Articles in “From the Field” represent the opinions of the author only and do not represent the views of the Community Builders Network of Metro St. Louis or the University of Missouri- St. Louis.