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Bernanke Praises Jane Jacobs and Bottom-Up Solutions

Last week, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke addressed the Fed’s Community Affairs Research Conference, entitled “Resilience and Rebuilding for Low-Income Communities: Research to Inform Policy and Practice,” in Washington, DC.  He opened his speech acknowledging that low-income communities were hardest hit by the Great Recession and went on to assert that successful strategies to rebuild communities require “multipronged approaches that address housing, education, jobs and quality-of-life issues in a coherent, mutually consistent way.”

Unexpectedly, Bernanke cited Jane Jacobs’ important impact on the field of community development, noting how she celebrated urban neighborhoods and their complex social networks that enhance community safety, quality of life and economic opportunity.  Resilient communities with amenities that strengthen the social fabric of the community and build the capabilities of residents, Bernanke argued, can be developed with extraordinary commitment and effective leadership and can transform the lives of low-income communities. 

Released several months ago, the book Investing in What Works for America’s Communities, from the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco and the Low Income Investment Fund offers a look at successful, comprehensive community building initiatives — of the kind Bernanke calls for — occurring across the country. Among the policy makers, practitioners, and academics that contributed to this book, Democracy Collaborative executive director Ted Howard talked about how community wealth building strategies spread the benefits of business ownership to help residents build assets, anchor jobs, expand public services and ensure local economic stability.   

Another community wealth building strategy that Bernanke referenced in his speech involves leveraging important community assets — notably anchor institutions — such as community colleges, universities and hospitals. These place-based institutions are recognizing that factors such as educational attainment, income, access to healthy food and the safety of a neighborhood are linked to economic health as well as physical health and are seeking new opportunities for engagement, partnership and investment in low-income communities. In the same book Investing in What Works, Risa Lavizzo-Mourey of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation noted that increasing access to healthcare is not sufficient to improve health. Instead a focus on addressing poverty and other social determinants of health is needed. To improve overall health in America’s communities, Lavizzo-Mourey noted, “requires leadership and action from every sector, public, private and nonprofit, including people who work in public health and health care, education, transportation, community planning, business and other areas.”

What Bernanke as well as Lavizzo-Mourey and the other contributors to Investing in What Works have touched on is the importance of collaboration, local engagement and place-based investments. These are the multipronged solutions that our communities require to become healthy, vibrant and sustainable.

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