Scarcity is breeding creativity in collaborative communities

An urban planning expert explains how Chicago neighborhoods have put aside neighborhood squabbling in favor of a cooperative, mutually beneficial approach to community development. The Northwest can learn from their "sharing is caring" attitude.

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A train station in Chicago's Southland suburb.

An urban planning expert explains how Chicago neighborhoods have put aside neighborhood squabbling in favor of a cooperative, mutually beneficial approach to community development. The Northwest can learn from their "sharing is caring" attitude.

At a time when all levels of government are looking to cut, cut, cut, the scarcity mindset is poisoning America. Far too many municipal, county, state, and federal agencies have lost their way fighting over crumbs, wasting time, and distracting everyone from the ultimate goal: planning for the next economy.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Instead of breeding competition, scarcity is the platform from which creativity is flourishing in several clusters of Chicago suburbs. Still reeling from the housing crisis, these groups of neighboring communities are demonstrating a more optimistic and effective approach to their problems by working together across borders to rehabilitate, revitalize, and re-imagine the local housing stock. They are flipping the script on scarcity by collaborating, which is allowing them to do more with less — and, in so doing, provide greater opportunities to more people in their communities.

Their collaboration is paying off — literally and figuratively. On July 11, the state of Illinois awarded $6.6 million to the Chicago Southland Housing and Community Development Collaborative. As anyone who has sought to clean up the foreclosure mess can tell you, there will never be enough funding to fully address the massive wave our nation has experienced since the housing market crashed. Still, the collaborative, made up of some 20-plus suburbs, is working together to deliver limited foreclosure recovery funding to areas near job centers and rail lines. 

Chicago’s south suburbs were the hardest hit area in the metropolitan region, which was one impetus for their bottom-up collaboration. By jointly committing to a redevelopment strategy, these towns have secured $19 million in less than two years — along with kudos from the Obama administration and Brookings Institution. Rewards like these have been critically important motivators to inspire and support metropolitan Chicago’s multi-town collaborations.

States and the federal government would do well to create more incentives like these to lead to more widespread cooperation.

But funding isn’t the only carrot. Collaboration also builds capacity at the local level, helping communities help themselves in the long run. To strengthen metropolitan Chicago’s Northwest Suburban Housing Collaborative, the Chicago Community Trust, our region’s community foundation, awarded funding to help five neighboring suburbs hire a housing coordinator to work on their collective behalf earlier this month. Particularly in this economy, many communities lack funds to support even one staff person devoted to planning — much less one devoted solely to housing. When communities cannot plan, they miss big opportunities. This new coordinator will be a tremendous resource, working on behalf of the collaborative as well as its individual communities.

Indeed, the Chicago Southland Housing and Community Development Collaborative and a similar collaboration in Chicago’s west suburbs received funding to hire for this role more than 18 months ago. They’re already demonstrating how powerful it is when someone is assigned to navigate, while everyone else rows.

Perhaps most inspiring is that, because communities are sharing their good ideas with one another and addressing problems at the proper scale, solutions help more people like Sarah Hendrickson and Jacqueline Holmes lead live better lives. On June 11, Hendrickson and Holmes were officially welcomed to their new homes in Park Forest, Ill., one of the communities participating in the south suburban collaborative. Hendrickson, widowed since 1998, was able to move out of a run-down and moldy mobile home with a leaking roof, into a newly renovated home, thanks to the partnership between Park Forest, the Chicago Southland Housing and Community Development Collaborative, and Habitat for Humanity.

Likewise, Holmes, a full-time student who also works full-time as an RNA and CNA at a local nursing rehabilitation center, was able to move with her two sons into a fully renovated home that was formerly vacant and foreclosed. The village expects to be able to replicate these stories another 10 to 15 times in the coming months. Through community collaborations in the south, west, north, and northwest suburbs of Chicago, success stories like these will grow exponentially.

Scarcity can be toxic, infecting communities and government with a mindset that frames justice as a community “ideal,” rather than a must.

Through a more optimistic lens, scarcity is a launching pad for collaboration. Through firsthand experience working with these clusters of communities in metropolitan Chicago, I’ve seen how collaboration is helping them meet their challenges: To do more with less and serve the people who need it most. We need more collaboration — and more public and private incentives to encourage it — as we pursue America’s next economy.

This story comes to Crosscut via, a service devoted to creative ideas for urban regions.



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