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Is NCP working? How and why?

Is the New Communities Program doing any good?

Folks involved with NCP, especially those who’ve worked on neighborhood plans and projects, likely will answer with a resounding "Yes!" They see the affordable housing saved, vacant storefronts reopened, a health clinic launched, parent-tutors recruited, parkways replanted, wall murals painted.

But who’s to say the considerable resources made available by the MacArthur Foundation and others couldn’t have been put to better use? Perhaps the funders should have written a big check to a service provider. Or invested in subsidized housing. Or skipped the middlemen entirely and handed cash directly to working families.

Photo: Copyright © Rahmaan Barnes and Maria Gaspar, Chicago Public Art Group

This mural project at Paderewski School, between North Lawndale and Little Village, included a workshop on racial tensions. NCP groups are taking on bigger issues including youth violence and education.

Fact is, NCP’s approach to grassroots, comprehensive community development is still a working theory. And theories need to be tested, rigorously, not just to confirm whether they work, but to see which features work and which need to be improved. Indeed, this deeper understanding of community development, more than anything achieved on the street, may well prove NCP’s most enduring legacy.

To this end, the MacArthur Foundation and LISC/Chicago have commissioned one of the most ambitious studies ever attempted of what works, what doesn’t and why. Overseeing the effort is MDRC, a New York-based non-profit that, since 1974, has helped pioneer the study of socio-economic interventions and community change.

Under the direction of MDRC’s Nandita Verma and James Riccio, an 80-page research design has been drafted and a study team assembled consisting of MDRC, Metro Chicago Information Center (MCIC) and Chapin Hall Center for Children at the University of Chicago.

Measures of success

The MacArthur Foundation hopes to verify what it calls "two profoundly simple assumptions" about NCP: first, that sustainable neighborhood improvement requires long-term investment in many issues—schools, housing, health, jobs, etc. —all of which must improve together in a virtuous cycle; and second, that the people and organizations of a neighborhood, if provided additional resources and networking help, can produce measurable improvements to their community’s well-being.

Mayra Casarola and her neighbors got organized to maintain affordability of the 54-unit Lorington Apartments. It wouldn’t have happened without the Logan Square Neighborhood Association and LISC/Chicago.

"The country is eager—perhaps desperate—for an approach to community development that works," explained Jonathan Fanton, president of MacArthur, to a City Club of Chicago gathering in May. "If these methods work, and can be accurately verified and defined, we believe public and private investment will follow."

But how does one verify what works in a laboratory as complex as a city neighborhood? What should be the measures of success … or of failure?

Here the plot thickens because MacArthur and LISC are determined to stretch the boundaries of what’s known about how neighborhoods work, how they respond to interventions and which strategies deliver the most bang for the buck.

MDRC will use a combination of qualitative and quantitative research to address six main lines of inquiry (see story, page four). On the quantitative side, MCIC, which has been crunching neighborhood data since 1990, will be compiling numbers on a broad range of indicators, from income and employment to school test scores and business starts.

MCIC also has developed a composite "vitality index" useful in making regional and even national comparisons, and an "income diversity index" that can help determine if economic gains are due to gentrification or to the betterment of folks already in the neighborhood.

MDRC and Chapin Hall researchers, meanwhile, will document—aka "benchmark"—the extent to which all 16 NCP neighborhoods executed the strategies and projects promised by their quality-of-life plans.

Six NCP neighborhoods will be targeted for in-depth interviews and fine-grained analysis. Why just six? Because of the cost, explained Craig Howard, who recently left MDRC to take over for Susan Lloyd as director of community and economic development at MacArthur. "But the six will be a cross-section of different neighborhoods and organizational types."

Forces at work

What’s to be learned from all this? Plenty, though the researchers are skeptical about their ability to infer causality. Think about it: because so many forces are at work in a neighborhood—forces good and bad—it is all but impossible to prove scientifically that, "but for" NCP, conditions would be worse. There is, as the researchers like to say, no rigorous counterfactual.

Nevertheless, MDRC team leaders are optimistic they’ll be able to determine whether, and to what extent, NCP plays a role in positive change … or in some cases, a dampening of negative trends. Then there’s the relatively unexplored territory of just how good things get done: the methods of NCP.

"We need to know how these lead agencies evolve as organizations," said MDRC’s Riccio. "We need to understand what that takes. The relationships. The networks."

Researchers have been in the neighborhoods over the past year, gathering data and interviewing NCPers. And more interviews are in the works.

Andrew Mooney, LISC/Chicago’s executive director, has urged all involved to give the MDRC team prompt and full cooperation. For one thing, he said, the findings will be shared with NCP groups to help solve here-and-now problems; for another, "This evaluation process could lead to a new era of community development practice."

How’s that for doing some good?

Contact: Nandita Verma, MDRC, project director, 212-340-8849, Nandita.Verma@mdrc.org

Click here for a brief rundown of six ways to measure community change.

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