Mar. 11, 2019 2:00 pm

On pursuing equity and opportunity in Philadelphia communities

University City District's Alissa Weiss: "Too often, economic development is framed as a zero-sum game, where the needs of neighborhoods are pitted against the needs of the commercial or downtown area."

The Porch at 30th Street Station — one of University City District's past projects.

(Photo by Ben Tran for University City District)

This is a guest post by University City District's Alissa Weiss.
Hundreds of place-based organizations across Philadelphia — from Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) to CDCs — strive to invest in the transformation of our communities. But the question all of them face is how to harness growth for the broader good of the community.

How do we connect our neighbors to opportunity? How do we ensure that the physical neighborhood we are building — comprised of civic spaces both new and old — is welcoming, safe and inclusive?

Full disclosure: I work for the University City District (UCD), which, through its new publication, “Inclusive Infrastructure and the 21st Century BID,” illustrates how place management organizations can develop effective approaches to sharing the benefits of an economically vibrant neighborhood in a broad and inclusive way.

One of the ways we’ve done that is by use of an audit tool, Just Spaces, to assess the accessibility and equity of UCD’s public space network. Another is by running a job training program, the West Philadelphia Skills Initiative, that leverages our connections with large employers in the district.

Check out four core principles that I believe can provide a “how-to” for peer organizations looking to advance economic opportunity and equity in their own communities:

1. Trust is the lifeblood of social change — build on longstanding partnerships.

BIDs like UCD are built on partnerships with institutions, businesses,  residential communities and more. Working on crime, public safety and other issues over many years will have earned you the trust of those partners. UCD has parlayed these relationships and trust into a new set of conversations around social impact, and our committed partners have gladly joined us in this work.

From our Partners

2. If you’re intentional about change, the choice between growth or equity can be a false one.

Too often, economic development is framed as a zero-sum game, where the needs of neighborhoods are pitted against the needs of the commercial or downtown area. Avoid that trap. Investments in growth and equity are necessary but equity doesn’t simply happen on its own — you have to be intentional about building inclusive infrastructure by building programs to harness downtown growth for neighborhood benefit.

3. When you’re advancing growth, it’s imperative to bake in equity from the beginning rather than sprinkle it on at the end.

The decisions you make today about how you leverage growth will shape your future. UCD is intentionally embedding economic opportunity into our district, working with our community of committed anchor institutions, developers and businesses to build pipelines of talent into their workplaces. We are planning now, before the buildings have been built; otherwise, we risk turning economic opportunity goals into an afterthought.

4. Ask organizational questions that make you uncomfortable.

As UCD has embarked on a journey to embed equity and opportunity into our core operations, we have become increasingly comfortable with change. This work began because we asked ourselves new and different questions and we haven’t been afraid to answer them in ways that pushed us to new, unchartered, and sometimes uncomfortable places. Build new lines of operations, redefine your purpose, change things that aren’t working, and even tweak things that you thought were working until you took a deeper look.

If we want to create livable and healthy cities and neighborhoods, then investing in inclusion with the same vigor and focus with which we traditionally invest in physical transformation seems essential.


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