Collaboration an 'unnatural act' for communities, yet idea gaining ground - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Collaboration an 'unnatural act' for communities, yet idea gaining ground

Photo courtesy of IFF

This apartment building in Maywood, Ill., was rehabilitated and put back on the market thanks to a collaborative effort between five communities in Chicago's western suburbs.

The new Brookings Institution book Confronting Suburban Poverty in America surprised many audiences with its revelation that more people live in poverty in our nation's suburbs than in inner cities. On Tuesday, June 18, Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) President MarySue Barrett and Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance Director Andre Leroux participated in a webinar with the book’s co-author Elizabeth Kneebone, moderated by Robin Snyderman of BricK Partners, LLC, about one smart way suburbs are tackling the implications of these demographic shifts: collaboration. 

The book and webinar shone the spotlight on the important of "quarterbacks,” regional leaders who are fostering and sustaining these innovative new partnerships. Barrett told the story of two clusters of neighboring suburbs in Chicagoland—23 communities in south Cook and five in west Cook Countythat are collaborating with one another across municipal boundaries, as well as with groups like MPC, local philanthropies and investors, to advance jointly created housing and economic development plans. Leroux explained how the collective effort of several regional organizations in the Boston area is helping to improve five local communities through the Great Neighborhoods initiative. 

Not surprisingly, many of the questions from the audience focused on how to get communities to collaborate in the first place. Barrett acknowledged that “collaboration is an unnatural act for communities.” She paraphrased a quote Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is fond of: “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.” Indeed, in Cook County, the housing market crash was the impetus for collaboration among the south and west suburbs; leaders from both areas realized that addressing housing market challenges such as foreclosures, vacant properties and the growing number of single-family homes being rented out makes much more sense at the scale of the housing market, which does not stop at municipal borders but rather spans many communities. 

But while a crisis can be the “push” communities need to come together, sustaining that collaboration “is tough,” noted Janice Morrissey, who participated in the Q&A session as the local representative of the south Cook County partnership known as the Chicago Southland Housing and Community Development Collaborative. In metropolitan Chicago, local foundations The Chicago Community Trust, Grand Victoria Foundation and Field Foundation were early supporters of the south and west Cook clusters; their support demonstrated that financial incentives—not only from the philanthropic sector, but also from private and public sourcesgo a long way.

All three speakers also agreed that positive results ultimately drive ongoing collaboration. Kneebone pointed out that the economic crisis left most communities short on staff at a time when public services are in high demand; many suburbs have found they can do more with less by collaborating with neighboring communities. Leroux explained how the Boston area is parlaying short-term, relatively low-risk and low-cost placemaking wins in the five Great Neighborhoods communities into larger development opportunities. Barrett pointed out that the two clusters of communities collaborating in Cook County are starting to move past stagnant development thanks to new public-private resources and development tools created by the collaboratives. “Every community has fiscal pressures,” she said. “Collaboration is proven in our region to help attract dollars and reduce demand on already strained community capacity.” 

For example, the south suburbs created a Land Bank and Development Authority to facilitate the redevelopment of acquired properties. With seed funding from Sustainable Communities Initiative Challenge Grants, and additional support in south Cook from Enterprise Community Partners and Chicago Community Loan Fund, and in west Cook from IFF, both the south and west suburbs have created development loan funds available for predevelopment and acquisition of properties near transit stations and routes. All of these new tools and more are helping to unlock the economic potential of Chicago's inner-ring suburbs—and keeping communities at the table to continue to collaborate. 

Kneebone, Leroux and Barrett all called for more flexible federal and state funding to support innovative collaborations. A December 2012 report that documented the benefits of and barriers to collaboration in Chicago’s suburbs, issued by MPC and our partners the Metropolitan Mayors Caucus and Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, details how inflexible public funding hampered the early efforts of Chicago’s clusters and why more flexible funding is needed. We are continuing to work with the Brookings Institution and other national partners to break down this barrier to collaboration and to institute new incentives for collaboration. Along these lines, Brookings has recommended the creation of a Metropolitan Opportunity Challenge, which would offer incentives to organizations, state and local governments to pursue targeted, metro-level strategies to combat regional poverty and promote opportunity. 

To continue these conversations and keep up with related developments, be sure to look for the book’s authors in metros across the U.S. Specifically regarding the regions featured in the webinar, Confronting Suburban Poverty in America will be discussed at events in Chicago on Sept. 26 and in Boston on Nov. 20. For additional information, contact


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For more than 85 years, the Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) has partnered with communities, businesses, and governments to unleash the greatness of the Chicago region. We believe that every neighborhood has promise, every community should be heard, and every person can thrive. To tackle the toughest urban planning and development challenges, we create collaborations that change perceptions, conversations—and the status quo. Read more about our work »

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