Todd Swanstrom: Dilemmas of Community Development: Grappling with the Equality-Efficiency Trade-Off

As Des Lee Professor of Community Collaboration and Public Policy Administration at the University of Missouri–St. Louis (UMSL), Todd Swanstrom specializes in urban politics and public policy. He has an M.A. from Washington University (1971) and a Ph.D. from Princeton (1981). Prior to joining UMSL Swanstrom taught at Saint Louis University and the Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy at the University at Albany (SUNY). He also worked as a neighborhood planner in Cleveland and as the director of strategic planning for the City of Albany, New York. He is presently doing research on neighborhood dynamics in weak market metros and the causes and effects of high levels of involuntary residential mobility. Swanstrom uses the resources of his endowed professorship to support the Community Builders Network of Metro St. Louis.


We invest far too much of our scarce housing and community development dollars in neighborhoods with little or no chance of revival. Meanwhile, we ignore "middle" neighborhoods that are on the verge of tipping into contagious abandonment and could be saved with relatively modest interventions. The approach of community development practitioners to strong market neighborhoods is also often problematic. We view neighborhoods with rising land values through the simplistic lens of "gentrification" — understood as a unified deterministic process that must be opposed. In fact, neighborhoods that are ascending in the market are highly variegated and contingent. They are not just a threat but an opportunity. With sufficient political will, equity planners can leverage their market strength to benefit the entire city. The most sophisticated and realistic analysis, however, cannot shield equity planners from the need to confront tough trade-offs between efficiency and economic/racial inequalities.

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