Reclaiming their place

At a time when place is being re-defined, the region’s place-based organizations are tackling new challenges

April 16, 2020

By F. Philip Barash, Fellow, Arts and Culture

These are challenging times for organizations that define themselves as “place-based”. 

In recent weeks, as epidemiologists and politicians have warned Americans to stay inside, a diverse network of place-based organizations - think Main Streets, community development organizations, business and cultural districts, land trusts and the like - has been thrust to the front lines of public health. For many of them, organizations working each day to tend to the social health of their constituencies, this may have been unexpected, but it was not unfamiliar. After all, the most reliable predictor of health outcomes in the U.S. is place. ZIP codes predestine us for a lifetime of disparity: in Boston, the well-documented life expectancy gap between two nearby neighborhoods is thirty-three years. Because place-based organizations bear responsibility for the overall quality of their communities, they are uniquely positioned to address the implications of COVID-19 at scale. 

Central Sq BID Impact Survey cover
The Central Sq BID Impact Study, March 2020

The pandemic has changed our relationship to place; the response of “social distancing” has stretched to its limits the social fabric of vulnerable communities. The retreat from public spaces, with a necessary focus on individual health, places added challenges on a substantial cross-section of unhoused people, gig economy and low-income workers, small business owners, and many other families and individuals. For those who are most vulnerable, public spaces -- and the social infrastructures they sustain -- provide crucial systems of support and civic engagement. As sociologist Eric Klinenberg has demonstrated, community gathering spaces such as parks, libraries, and commercial corridors can and do make an existential difference.

The response of "social distancing" has stretched to its limits the social fabric of vulnerable communities.

How to respond to this new reality has been a core issue for the members of the Place Leadership Network. The Boston Foundation launched the PLN to convene and strengthen a cohort of these effective, if underrecognized, urban place managers. Together, they have been thinking about the changing fabric of the neighborhoods they serve, sharing notes on keeping communities vibrant amidst real estate pressures, and advocating for public interest in the design and construction of the city. 

The Place Leadership Network cohort has been characteristically nimble and resourceful in addressing this complex relationship between public space and public health. In Cambridge, PLN member organization the Central Square Business Improvement District (CSBID) was among the first in the U.S. to canvas its neighborhood and document responses to the crisis. In ordinary times, the CSBID promotes a vibrant commercial district, characterized by independent shops and creative studios. Because the CSBID enjoys access to, and the trust of, merchants, artists, lawmakers, and other neighborhood stakeholders, it was able to capture virtually overnight a snapshot of impacts of the coronavirus as it touched down in the neighborhood. The document CSBID issued laid the foundation of government and philanthropic response to the pandemic -- and served as a model for other place-based agencies to emulate. 

In Chinatown, the Asian Community Development Corporation (also participating in PLN) has been mitigating the early effects of COVID-19 for months. Xenophobia reached these shores before the virus did, claiming the livelihoods of restaurateurs, retailers, and hospitality and service industry workers. In this context of income insecurity and stigmatization, ACDC redoubled its efforts to organize residents, equipping them with assistance in applying for grants, loans, and benefits -- as well as rent forbearance in housing it operates. ACDC has long served as a social connector of the neighborhood, in part by creating public spaces for the use of elderly residents and those with mobility challenges. Now, the organization continues outreach to these and other residents made vulnerable by social isolation. 

And throughout Boston’s neighborhoods, fifty-plus community gardens under the care of the Trustees of Reservations are entering the first harvest season of the year. For many gardeners, the plots are an essential source of sustenance. In recent weeks, the Trustees have been using the garden network to reach a wide audience of 4,000 gardners with essential information about COVID-19. Using analog organizing  technologies like bulletin boards and leveraging volunteers to make phone calls, the Trustees are delivering life-saving information to people without easy access to digital technology. In the process, they are encouraging residents to continue cultivating much-needed fresh food -- and social connectedness -- while observing safety guidelines. 

While approaches of PLN cohort participants vary widely, together, they demonstrate the key role that place -- and place-based organizations -- play in maintaining public health and resilience. Whether they advocate for small businesses, alleviate social isolation, or reduce food insecurity, these organizations have embraced a role on the front lines of their communities. At a time of crisis for our public spaces, their work is as important as ever.