SPARCC: A Collaborative Path to Equitable Community Development

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Our systems of community development and infrastructure are broken. Housing is unaffordable for many. Public transportation isn’t adequate to connect all who need it to jobs and education. As climate change becomes a reality, the effects of repeated urban flooding are displacing people, straining local resources, and making kids sick, while extreme heat is sending elders to emergency rooms. In communities left out of economic growth, blight, crime and lack of safe spaces translate into increasing social and chronic health problems.

Racial inequities often determine life outcomes, and across the country environmental degradation and pollution threaten health and livelihoods, particularly for people of color and low-income families.

These problems taken on their own seem insurmountable, but there are solutions—improved outcomes that many in our communities have championed for decades and that address the root causes of inequity. Through the Strong, Prosperous and Resilient Communities Challenge (SPARCC), community members, local practitioners, policymakers, and investors across the country will be brought together in a powerful new way to provide a platform for all people to shape the places in which they live.

This new initiative, which kicked off today, aims to align the systems that hold our cities and regions together to create more just economic health and environmental outcomes. Over the course of three years, SPARCC will invest $20 million in grants and deploy upwards of $70 million of capital in at least six regions across the nation to address a rising tide of inequality. The SPARRC effort will seek to break through silos separating social and environmental issues to encourage collective action to create lasting and measurable change in community health, climate impact and resilience, and access to opportunity.

SPARCC will support collaborative and racially inclusive coalitions in six regions out of 10 that have been chosen to compete for funding. Projects will focus on reforming the underlying systems that determine where people live and work, where their children go to school, what type of food they have access to, the quality of the water they drink and air they breathe, and whether they and their families thrive now and into the future.

SPARCC aims to be a platform for people to shape the places they live through locally driven approaches that tie racial equity, health and mitigating the effects of climate change together.

The vision for community change

SPARCC began as an effort to help communities with what we call a North Star—a vision that could be realized with the right resources and support. The paths are there, and in some cases the money and the will are, too, but barriers that have historically limited access to opportunity for low-income and people of color remain entrenched – a situation SPARCC is designed to address by implementing those visions.

NRDC, led by the Urban Solutions Program, as well as Enterprise Community Partners, the Low Income Investment Fund and the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco—with support from the Ford Foundation, The Kresge Foundation, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation—are partnering to design and facilitate the national, multi-year initiative to help regions move from vision to implementation. SPARCC will leverage the deep and complementary experience of the partners to deliver a range of tools to cross-sector working groups, including:

  • Capacity-building grants to ensure that local collaborative groups have the ability to lead initiatives;
  • Technical assistance to assist sites in designing initiatives, strategizing and engaging communities;
  • Support to better utilize data in decision-making;
  • Strategic support on federal, state, and regional policy reform;
  • Resources to leverage arts, culture, and creativity to further community engagement;
  • Participation in a learning network; and
  • Capital for catalytic development and infrastructure projects. 

SPARCC sites will be chosen through a competition that will use a collaborative application process to support sites in identifying partners, resources and projects in which to invest. The 10 sites that will join the application process are Atlanta, Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle/King County, Memphis, New Orleans, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia.

Substantive improvement over time

We understand that change is a process and one that can’t be made for people but must be made with them while they tackle ownership and exercise power in decision-making along the way.  We are working to align policies and funding to ensure that when investments in housing, parks, transit and other infrastructure are made they benefit those who have been historically left out.

We’re not going to reduce carbon pollution and make our communities more resilient by, for example, simply putting up solar panels. We have to think about the ways an investment like solar power can improve the lives of people living in those communities. Do people get jobs as a result? Do they then have access to electric power when the main utility system is down? Can they control where their excess power goes and who it might benefit? Stakeholders—some of whom will be unorthodox in the usual planning process—will come to the table to address such issues.

Learning from each other

We’re talking about supporting significant change in the way decisions are made for development and infrastructure in our communities– with local practitioners, policymakers and investors coming together in a powerful new way to put racial equity, health and the environment front and center. Each community can then share what it has learned with others in peer-to-peer learning.

Change is hard but success is contagious. One of the things we talk about in SPARCC is the catalytic moment—that galvanizing spark, if you will—when those at the table see the way forward with clarity and purpose in the belief that we all benefit when everyone thrives. We expect many such moments in the months and years ahead.

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