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To achieve equity in our cities, start at the neighborhood level

Educare Students Children at the Educare New Orleans early learning center that is part of the Bayou District Foundation’s holistic neighborhood revitalization effort (Special: Purpose Built Communities)

By Guest Columnist SHIRLEY FRANKLIN, executive board chair of Purpose Built Communities and Atlanta’s mayor from 2002 to 2010

Last week, Lesley Grady of the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta wrote an insightful piece called “Equity, Inequality and Myth Busting” that highlighted the extreme income inequality between white households and African-American households in Atlanta.

“Addressing income inequality will require our collective courage to acknowledge historic, pervasive biases and structures, bounded by race and class, which anchor whole families and communities in perpetual poverty,” she argued

We agree.

I just returned from the sixth annual Purpose Built Communities Conference in Fort Worth, TX, which brought together leaders from fields including business, real estate, medicine, public health, housing, education, social entrepreneurship, social justice, criminal justice, and the faith community.

Shirley Franklin

Shirley Franklin

More than 350 people from 49 communities across the country came together to learn about neighborhood transformation and breaking the cycle of inter-generational poverty.

There are those who think a neighborhood focus is too narrow. According to the latest data and research, neighborhoods are exactly where we should be focusing if we want to reverse decades of concentrated poverty and create equity and prosperity.

Several sessions at the conference focused on the ways neighborhoods determine health outcomes. Dr. Lisa Chamberlain from the Stanford Medical School and Dr. Douglas Jutte from the Build Healthy Places Network shared striking data from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Commission to Build a Healthy America  about life expectancies in different neighborhoods within cities.

In Minneapolis, a distance of three miles could equal a 13-year difference in lifespan. In New Orleans, life expectancy can vary as much as 25 years from one neighborhood to another.

New York University professor Patrick Sharkey’s research about place and poverty shows that having a mother who was raised in a distressed neighborhood puts a child at a two-to-four year cognitive development deficit at birth.

The question is, why is this the case?

According to Jutte and Chamberlain, the science shows that environment has a greater impact on health outcomes than genetics.

Our neighborhood environment, including physical conditions (e.g. presence or lack of sidewalks and lead paint), service conditions (e.g. transportation, stores, schools) and social conditions (e.g. crime, sense of community or lack thereof), largely determine how long a person will live and what kind of quality of life they will have.

Factors like toxic stress, which is prevalent in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty, impact both neurological and physical development.

Educare Students

Children at the Educare New Orleans early learning center that is part of the Bayou District Foundation’s holistic neighborhood revitalization effort (Special: Purpose Built Communities)

Dr. David Erickson, director of the Center for Community Development Investments for the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, and Carol Naughton, president of Purpose Built Communities, shared the latest research impacting community development, including the work of economist Raj Chetty, whose research found a strong correlation between place and upward economic mobility.

There are two ways we know of to address this: one is to move people out of neighborhoods of concentrated poverty to ones where the physical, service and social conditions are qualitatively better.

Another is to improve those conditions in distressed neighborhoods.

Purpose Built Communities exists to help with the latter, assisting local leaders implement a comprehensive model consisting of mixed-income housing; a cradle-to-college education pipeline; and community wellness programs and services guided by a dedicated “community quarterback” nonprofit organization whose sole focus is the health of the neighborhood.

In the span of just six years, we now have 13 Purpose Built Communities Network Members from coast to coast, including East Lake here in Atlanta which provided the blueprint for this model of neighborhood transformation. All of these neighborhoods have community quarterbacks and partners implementing this model to break the cycle of inter-generational poverty.

New Orleans life expectancy

New Orleans life expectancy map (Special: Purpose Built Communities)

Our Annual Conference is a chance for those working in these neighborhoods, and those who are thinking about doing this work, to learn from one another to achieve the results we so desperately need.

As Lesley Grady said, “we have to go further and deeper and fix the fault line that prevents all families and communities from sharing in the region’s growth and prosperity.”

By focusing on the neighborhood level in a holistic manner, Atlanta and other cities can change the trajectory for hundreds of families, especially children, so that a zip code will no longer determine a person’s health, income or lifespan.



  1. Delana Winder Reeves October 19, 2015 9:38 pm

    Thx for sharing this Kate!Report

  2. Pete Settelmayer October 20, 2015 7:58 am

    Sounds familiar, and like we are on the right path.Report

  3. Maynard Eaton October 20, 2015 3:51 pm

    What an interesting, informative and important story Mayor Franklin. Thanks for sharing. Your writing is as superb as your politics!Report

  4. Andre Dickens October 20, 2015 5:03 pm

    A very timely message particularly across the city of Atlanta.Report

  5. harriet macklin October 21, 2015 1:34 pm

    Mayor Franklin is right, but there is more to it.  We should look at the library system, for which some people (general assembly and Board of Trustees and County Commissioners) are looking at no repairing/renovating of the inner city library in Atlanta.  Also, taking away the services of Kirkwood and East Atlanta library by eliminating Atlanta and not adding DeKalb when they changed the name of the Atlanta Fulton County Public Library System to Fulton County Public Library.  And finally, not informing the community of the public business of the library (where the meeting are being held, what the agenda will be, etc.)Report

  6. ironiclad October 26, 2015 9:52 am

    When has there ever been equality – or equity as Mayor Franklin calls it?
    Education is the best opportunity for steps toward a better life but no one or no community is ever “equal” with another.
    People need to at least finish high school, as life is all about finding a livelihood for people to support themselves. The minimum wage for hamburger flippers will never be $20 an hour. But for skilled laborers with at least a high school diploma, maybe.Report


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