Exclusive Commentary

Growing Hope, Transforming Lives: Why Holistic Community Revitalization Works

Carol Naughton, Purpose Built Communities - Posted January 3, 2011

Almost every city has at least one neighborhood where residents live in despair—where crime, drugs, and poverty reign, while educational opportunities, safe housing, and hope are virtually extinguished.


One of the nation’s worst was Atlanta’s East Lake neighborhood. In 1995, East Lake had a $35 million annual drug trade, a crime rate 18 times higher than the national average, chronic unemployment, and a failing school where only five percent of fifth graders met state standards for math.


In 1995, a small group of local leaders began working with residents to forge a better future for East Lake. Today, East Lake is a thriving, mixed-income community, thanks to a holistic revitalization that created both the physical infrastructure and community support that families need to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty.


What is holistic revitalization?


Rather than tackling problems like rising crime rates, failing schools, or declining property values in isolation, a holistic approach addresses challenges – in education, housing, recreation, transportation, and community services – in a carefully planned, thoughtfully coordinated way.


The nonprofit East Lake Foundation engaged residents, as well as public and private partners, in an intensive planning process that paved the way for a healthy, sustainable community:


          Dilapidated public housing was replaced with best-in-class, mixed-income apartments that draw a diverse mix of families


          Cradle-to-college” educational opportunities blossomed when a failing public school was replaced with a public charter school that serves students from age three through grade eight. Drew Charter School is also home to CREW Teens, an innovative support program that helps students succeed in high school and prepare for college


          The private East Lake Golf Club has been restored to excellence and now hosts an annual pro golf tournament. Proceeds from the club and the tournament benefit the East Lake Foundation


          The East Lake Foundation built a second golf course for public play, which also serves as home to The First Tee® of East Lake, a year-round life skills and golf instruction program that helps children develop values, life skills, and academic success


          The revitalized neighborhood has attracted diverse commercial development, including a grocery store and two bank branches, as well as the East Lake Family YMCA


Can East Lake’s success be replicated?


Each year, more than 1,000 visitors tour East Lake—many of them looking to apply the East Lake model in their own communities. In 2005, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, a team of New Orleans civic leaders formed the Bayou District Foundation. Inspired by the East Lake approach, they planned a holistic revitalization of the Gentilly community, which had struggled economically even before being devastated by Katrina’s floodwaters.


The Bayou District Foundation’s vision is now being realized. A mixed-income residential community is rising on the site of the former St. Bernard public housing site, and new schools serving children from toddler years through high school are under development. The Bayou District Foundation is proving that the East Lake model of holistic community revitalization can be replicated.


What are the critical success factors?


Holistic revitalization can yield dramatic results—to be successful, though, a community needs:


          A single-purpose, local lead organization to sustain the initiative over time and keep partners working together toward the shared long-term vision


          Neighborhood focus to deliver a deep and lasting impact on a defined neighborhood rather than minimal impact across an entire city


          Cradle-to-college educational continuum to ensure that children learn, thrive, and are prepared to compete successfully in the workforce of tomorrow


          Mixed-income housing to build a healthy, sustainable community of choice


          Regulatory flexibility to deliver solutions that address unique community needs


          Time, plus patient, long-term commitment of resources to achieve meaningful, sustainable outcomes


          Collaboration and partnerships to accelerate progress and realize efficiencies offered by best-in-class for-profit, nonprofit, and public sector partners


          Commitment to results, assessment, and improvement to ensure that the initiative continues to deliver on the initial promise, as well as respond to the community’s evolving needs and opportunities


While a holistic approach can transform a community, it is certainly not the easiest approach. It takes time, long-term investment, and dedicated consensus-building.


Up until now, community leaders hoping to implement a holistic approach were pretty much on their own. There was no organization or support group to help them understand critical processes, share best practices, and learn from each other.


Purpose Built Communities was established in 2009 to address that need. Now working with groups in eight different cities across the country, this nonprofit organization helps community leaders develop the strategies and partnerships they need to effectively address the issues that trap a neighborhood and its people in intergenerational poverty.


Breaking the Cycle of Poverty


Today, East Lake is a changed community. Virtually all adults, except those elderly or disabled, are working. Household incomes of East Lake public housing subsidy recipients grew five times faster than those of conventional public housing residents. Violent crime has been cut by 95 percent, and 99 percent of fifth  graders meet or exceed state math standards. Now a beacon for working families, East Lake is proof positive that the cycle of poverty can be broken through a holistic approach to community revitalization. 

To print a PDF version of this document, click here.

Carol Naughton is vice president of Purpose Built Communities, a nonprofit organization working to catalyze and accelerate holistic community revitalization across America.