Struggling With Civic Capacity in the Suburbs

2.26.13 | In Missouri, the aptly named “Show Me” state, a pair of regional cooperation efforts have drawn recent attention. Naturally, they’re at opposite ends of the state, for balance must be maintained between St. Louis and Kansas City (as there is in barbecue, and isn’t in baseball).

In suburban St. Louis, the Normandy School District encompasses parts or all of 24 inner-ring suburbs and struggles to overcome the negative aspects of regionalism. BRR Researcher Todd Swanstrom and three of his colleagues at the University of Missouri-St. Louis—Will Winter, Margaret Sherraden, and Jessica Lake—studied how fragmentation in local governance dug a deep hole from which the school district is struggling to emerge. Fittingly, their paper, published in the Journal of Urban Affairs, is titled Civic Capacity and School/Community Partnerships in a Fragmented Suburban Setting: The Case of 24:1.

The 24:1 Initiative Community Plan (PDF) refers to those two dozen municipalities within the Normandy school district “that are now striving toward one vision for the community.” Swanstrom and his colleagues note the place-based comprehensive effort to address educational and place-making success began in 2010 and was released in April 2011, making it a very young work in progress: “it remains to be seen whether 24:1 will be able to develop sufficient civic capacity to sustain itself and reverse the deep-seated forces of social and economic decline.”

24:1’s strategies and impact areas run the gamut from education to housing rehabilitation and development, retail development, fostering healthy lifestyles, community organizing, and municipal collaboration; from college prep to youth recreation and access to infant care.

The danger here lies in the inertia of regionalism’s “dark side”—the circle of “we” becomes smaller and smaller until it’s contiguous with your own municipality’s border, leaving everyone else to be “they.”

Fragmented suburban governments generate distinct parochial interests that inhibit collaboration. Moreover, suburban governments, with weak administrative structures and frequent turnover of elected leaders, undermine the ability of local governments to successfully collaborate and build trust over time.

That danger is especially present in these suburbs that, like their parent city, have lost industrial jobs and population over the last 12 years at a much steeper rate than St. Louis.

The paper concludes on a cautiously optimistic note. 24:1 has had success in building civic capacity and drawing economic investment to the school district, but its challenge “is to sustain this progress over the long run”—especially since the state’s Board of Education in September 2012 stripped the school district of its accreditation under “No Child Left Behind” laws, effective January 1: “Normandy has two years to improve or face state takeover.”

The other major threats to 24:1’s success include a gap in civic, grassroots organization; the ability to tap sustained resources to reverse the region’s economic decline; and the need for supportive regional policies.

Swanstrom talks more about 24:1 and the importance of regional collaboration in an article at HUD’s Evidence Matters publication last year Growing Toward the Future: Building Capacity for Local Economic Development.

Over in Missouri’s northwestern corner, journalist Richard C. Longworth, a senior fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, took recent note at The Midwesterner blog of what may be a unique effort in local philanthropy: a community foundation promoting economic development in the 18-county region centered around St. Joseph.

One goal of The Community Foundation of Northwest Missouri “is to educate the region, including its philanthropists, on the importance of repairing the region’s tired old economy, generating a new economy and reviving the area as a decent place to live.” And that, Longworth says, is probably unique in the United States.

Upcoming Conferences of Note:

If you have the time and the means to get yourself to Stockholm, Sweden, the Future of Places Forum will be June 24–26, 2013. The conference is free, but you have to snag an invitation. Apply for that here, but note the criteria. This is the first of three conferences leading to Habitat III 2016, the third United Nations conference on sustainable urban development, and will “highlight how and why cities need to embrace [a] a people centered approach in order to achieve positive urbanization and avoid falling victim to the negative attributes often accompanying urbanization” (emphasis in original.) For more information on Habitat III 2016, read this UN General Assembly statement.

Photo/ Velo_City

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