Saving Trees, Losing Forests

Seth D. Kaplan

Fall 2023

Covid-19 exposed what should have been clear before: Our families, communities, and neighborhoods are fragile. Americans suffer from family disintegration, homelessness, racial animosity, suicide, and deaths of despair — and on a scale without parallel elsewhere in the developed world.

These problems reflect American's social breakdown — the fraying of the relationships that used to bind us to each other. Yet our government bodies, philanthropists, and social entrepreneurs target these challenges in separated siloes, often weakening the very relationships people need in the process. Individuals and groups in communities across the nation look outward, hoping to qualify for public programs, rather than inward to build social relationships with family and neighbors. And individuals who get ahead quickly learn that it's best to move on to a better locale rather than build up their own. Those left behind do not flourish.

Place plays a central role in determining outcomes, whether for good or ill. Government policy and economic trends matter, but neighborhoods exert direct and continuous influence on us, leaving an outsized stamp on our formation, capacities, and well-being. This is especially true for those in their formative years — infants, children, and youth.

We can think of a particular place as a forest. Young people are the trees — successive generations that will either grow tall and strong, mutually reinforcing one another as they bear fruit that enriches new saplings in turn, or else wither and die out. Each tree's individual health depends on the health of the forest ecosystem. As with forests, so with communities. Social dynamics are a product of collective action, which, as Nobel Prize winner Elinor Ostrom argues, determines how well a group manages common resources. While collective action is most often associated with the sustainable management of natural resources like fish stocks, pastures, woods, lakes, and groundwater basins, it is also essential to the development of social capital, as well as the maintenance of safe streets, good schools, and strong social-support networks. Neighborhoods that fail to generate collective action suffer from a tragedy of the commons, with grave consequences for all the individuals living there.

When housing authorities, health-care providers, education leaders, economic-development agencies, non-profits, and philanthropists work separately on specific problems, they tend to ignore broader social dynamics that powerfully shape individual outcomes. They water and nourish an individual tree, as it were, or else transplant the sapling to a distant place with better soil. They don't consider the forest, even though it must flourish for the individual trees to thrive.

They should focus far more on the forest — the place-based social commons that people depend on for so much. Deliberate cultivation of a healthy social commons involves decentralizing authority, bolstering role models and healthy norms, cultivating place-based institutions, and seeking community organizers who can make connections across sectors.


The relationship between place and disadvantage is indisputable. Raj Chetty's research with Opportunity Insights has shown how a person's social mobility depends on the neighborhood in which he grows up. Bad outcomes — including poverty, homicides, low birth weights, low employment rates, unstable families, underperforming schools, and poor physical and social infrastructure — bunch together in particular places, with grave consequences for the children and youth living there. As a result, the problem is not so much disadvantage as its concentration in specific locales. This concentrated disadvantage creates a multiplier effect on the surrounding neighborhoods' social dynamics, reinforcing harmful patterns and obstructing change.

Despite attempted interventions, the number of such chronically struggling places continues to climb. Joe Cortright and Dillon Mahmoudi from City Observatory report that "the number of high-poverty neighborhoods in the U.S. has tripled, and the number of poor persons living in them has doubled since 1970." There are about 750 of these distressed places in American cities, where children are born into intergenerational poverty and face acute, concentrated disadvantage. More exist in suburban and rural areas.

Such conditions harm the young in particular because they create high and recurring levels of toxic stress that hinder neurological and physiological development. In Stuck in Place, Patrick Sharkey documents how causes of toxic stress include pollution, poor social infrastructure (parks, libraries, etc.), substandard housing, high transiency rates, unstable families, meager learning and work opportunities, distrustful neighbors, unsupportive social ties, crime, violence, sexual abuse, psychological abuse, misogyny, gangs, and limited access to nutritious food. A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Kaiser Permanente on adverse childhood experiences found that affected children are much more likely to end up with poor coping skills, unhealthy lifestyles, mental illness, and chronic physical maladies — and in permanent poverty. Such conditions affect everyone: Even if a family is strong, offers a safe environment at home, and features positive role models, the environment — the place itself — creates a high risk that the children in that family will succumb to the adverse conditions surrounding them.

These neighborhood effects explain why children who are born poor are increasingly likely to stay poor. This trend especially holds for blacks, who are not only less likely to move up the income scale, but also more likely to be stuck in a distressed neighborhood over many generations. According to Sharkey, black youth (13 to 28 years old) are 10 times as likely to live in a poor neighborhood when compared to white youth (66% versus 6%), and black families are seven times as likely to have lived in poor neighborhoods for two or more generations as white families (48% versus 7%).

Inadequate public policies have played a large role in the deterioration of many distressed neighborhoods and the concentration of blacks in these settings. In some cases, public policies and actions explicitly sought to congregate blacks in specific areas and disadvantage them, as Richard Rothstein shows in his 2017 book The Color of Law. Racially segregated public housing, redlining, restrictions on government-mortgage guarantees, eviction proceedings, the behavior of real-estate brokers, and school-zone designations all played a role. As noted by William Julius Wilson and others, the welcome end of formal segregation in recent decades actually reinforced some of the harm by allowing middle- and higher-income blacks — potential neighborhood role models, leaders, and economic supports — to leave these places.

The response to disadvantaged neighborhoods, Sharkey writes, has been influenced by "the long-standing conviction of some urban scholars and advocates that moving families out of the ghetto, en masse, should be a primary dimension of our efforts to confront concentrated poverty." This approach, he argues, is "unrealistic" and likely to "have harmful consequences for many eligible families." Public and private initiatives cannot gain traction as long as countervailing neighborhood conditions persist. Addressing these entrenched problems requires a new approach devoted to changing the underlying conditions that lock them in place. As Harvard professor Robert Sampson concludes: "Attempts to change places and social environments rather than people may yield payoffs."


Social dynamics determine how supportive or constraining a neighborhood is. These dynamics are as much a "commons" — a set of resources open to and managed by everyone living there — as shared natural resources like forests. The better a locale's social institutions and norms (which translate residents' actions into collective action), the more sustainable the commons is likely to be, and the more it will enable residents to flourish. But as Ostrom concludes in Governing the Commons, "[i]n some settings...rampant opportunistic behavior severely limits what can be done jointly...." In such places, neighborhoods drag their members down.

Sampson's work, Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect, may stand as the most comprehensive attempt to methodologically appraise collective-action capacities on the scale of neighborhoods. Using a slightly different term, he argues that each district has more or less "collective efficacy" to maintain standards, collaborate, lobby government for resources, and address the daily needs of residents. This is a product of "repeated interactions, observations of interactions, and awareness of potential interactions," as well as norms stemming from experiences with formal and informal institutions, and the extent of shared common identity (however loose). In the Encyclopedia of Criminological Theory, Sampson describes it as "the process of activating or converting social ties among neighborhood residents in order to achieve collective goals, such as public order or control of crime." For example, residents watch how kids play on streets, intervene to thwart teenage misbehavior, and confront anyone who disrupts public areas. In such a neighborhood setting, intimate ties matter less than trust and shared expectations.

While many factors influence a neighborhood's dynamics, the wealth of "organizational life" — the various formal and informal institutions and neighborhood activities that bring people together around joint activities — is especially important. Organizational life enables the informal social control and shared expectations that make up collective efficacy to materialize. Much of organizational life is unofficial: Think of neighborhood watch groups, residential associations, and weekly children's activities. Sampson says these groups and activities "generate a web of 'mundane' routines that can lubricate collective life, although seldom planned as such." We might think of these routines as part of the forest's root system: They are underlying patterns of social organization that aren't easy to map but that bolster the "visible" trees — each resident.

As mentioned above, a growing number of American neighborhoods are experiencing social breakdown, and with it, a significant deterioration of their organizational life and social commons. Institutions have weakened or disappeared. Norms don't support community, family, or individual flourishing. Anne Case and Angus Deaton have linked the rise in "deaths of despair" among adults to "slow-acting social forces," stating that "purely economic accounts...have rarely been successful in explaining the phenomenon." The deterioration of traditional social structures such as marriage, church, and unions, and of these institutions' impact on "family, on spiritual fulfillment, and on how people perceive meaning and satisfaction in their lives," are chiefly responsible. "[C]hanges in social customs" have produced "dysfunctional changes" in society, resulting in the rise in mortality and morbidity.

The relative robustness of the social commons is evident in a crisis. During a 1995 heat wave in Chicago, the North Lawndale community saw over six times as many deaths as South Lawndale even though the two places were similar socioeconomically. In his "social autopsy" of the city, sociologist Eric Klinenberg blamed "a number of surprising and unsettling forms of social breakdown" that allowed people to "die behind locked doors and sealed windows that entombed them in suffocating private spaces where visitors came infrequently and the air was heavy and still." After comparing various neighborhoods and ethnic groups, Klinenberg concluded that places with higher population density, more commercial life in the streets, and more vibrant public spaces had stronger social connectivity and better social codes that prompted people to help one another in times of need.

These neighborhood effects explain why many of our society's problems — including inequality, low employment rates, low-performing schools, and poor health outcomes — seem intractable. Without strong neighborhoods, school systems cannot improve educational results, housing authorities cannot increase affordable housing, health-care agencies cannot improve health outcomes, and police cannot make streets safe. Anthony Bryk and his colleagues concluded in Organizing Schools for Improvement that while schools often stand on the forefront of efforts to change outcomes, "the neighborhood served by a school may offer significant social resources, or it may create formidable barriers to sustained development of the essential supports necessary to improve student outcomes." In other words, the entire neighborhood (or forest) matters for students (or saplings).


A multitude of public and private initiatives over the past half-century have targeted the individuals and places most in need. But most efforts have fallen short of their goals. At best, they make an impact in one small area or on the lives of some residents without transforming the neighborhood itself. Why? Because we treat the symptoms instead of the causes.

Part of the problem lies in the way government bodies, philanthropists, and non-profits operate. They typically extend help to individual "trees," or even just branches, trying to improve education, housing, health, security, food, and work. They define problems within the confines of their mandates and rarely work with others or seek to address the forest's overall health. They may not even ask whether their objectives are achievable in context.

As such, these organizations are unable to think strategically about specific places. They emphasize metrics for individuals' progress and equate well-being with material outcomes. They have a limited ability to tackle problems related to social context, address some of the core challenges constraining a locale (such as the role of social norms), or engage with potentially useful partners (such as houses of worship). Moreover, Elisabeth Clemens explains in Civic Gifts how government has encouraged the development of "large hierarchical organizations (whether federal agencies or voluntary associations)" geared to meeting top-down goals and satisfying complex rules and contractual requirements.

This practice has distorted civil society, disconnecting community organizations from their immediate surroundings (from which they used to get funding) and residents from the institutions that once played a crucial role in nurturing the strength of their community. Social entrepreneurs can still invent and expand, but the massive outflow of public resources creates incentives for local groups to redirect efforts away from developing new social institutions to bolster communities. Instead, they design programming that will satisfy government and philanthropic requirements. Similarly, instead of developing local leaders who can act as connectors, role models, institution builders, social-code setters, and organizers — all relational activities that bolster the social commons — they encourage the advancement of leaders who can engage with professional managers and case workers and handle the administrative duties these organizations require.

Programming can also have a negative impact. When, for example, universities and non-profits identify the highest-achieving students from poor neighborhoods and give them access to university or work opportunities, they often end up helping a small set of individuals "escape" — leaving everyone else behind, bereft of potential leaders and models for change. As Majora Carter writes, instead of encouraging "the talent" to stay in a community and help lift it up, "the well-intentioned efforts of activists, service providers, philanthropists, and the government often serve to repel talent." For instance, when the government builds more low-income housing in a disadvantaged neighborhood, it may meet its mandate, but it risks perpetuating or even increasing the concentrated disadvantage in the area over time. Carter continues: "Many current housing practices do little to encourage or incentivize the more economically successful native residents to stay, grow, and share their example, which can enable a range of social connectivity that can inspire others to see that a better quality of life is possible within their own community."

Too much government centralization has exacerbated this dynamic. Centralization not only limits the local knowledge and initiative necessary to meet local needs, it also results in too much thinking about "trees" to achieve change. In a report last year for the American Enterprise Institute, Howard Husock wrote that "[i]n recent years, the discretion of U.S. local government has diminished somewhat, as higher levels of government mandate select projects and programs....[N]ot only has the size of the federal government increased, but its reach is now extending into municipalities and other local spheres to influence their activity." Coercive federal grantmaking limits the agility and adaptability necessary for local authorities to respond to the unique needs of each place.

In Governing the Commons, Ostrom describes how external intervention in a particular place can easily undermine the social institutions and norms that previously structured behavior. Too often, "major policy decisions will continue to be undertaken with a presumption that individuals cannot organize themselves and always need to be organized by external authorities." In contrast, when leaders and residents switch their focus from garnering outside resources to working together around a set of common rules, they will foster a thriving social commons.

Although philanthropists have more flexibility than government actors and are more attuned to the needs of specific locations, all too often they also zero in on specific, material goals. This approach falls short because, as systems-change analysts John Kania, Mark Kramer, and Peter Senge argue for the non-profit consulting firm FSG, "[c]omplex problems such as mass incarceration, educational disparities, and environmental degradation remain intractable due to myriad constraints that surround any specific program a foundation might fund." The Eisner Foundation's Trent Stamp and Cathy Choi likewise observe that "[t]he problems philanthropy seeks to remedy are big, messy, and complicated. Yet far too often, we try to combat them with simple responses....[I]t's far easier to focus on outputs...than on systems change." Philanthropy, therefore, can stumble into the same pitfalls as government.

Our country is full of social entrepreneurs and civic organizations, and many do good work. But few of them concentrate on activities that strengthen local social habitats. Their efforts often fail to make a sustained impact on the social context in any particular place because these groups are problem- or advocacy-driven and work over a large area. They organize around professional management with a national focus (sometimes headquartered in Washington, D.C.), and they use mass mailings, seminars, and promotional websites rather than fostering on-the-ground connections with volunteers and local residents.

In contrast, the many organizations that once dominated American life — from the Knights of Columbus to the Boy Scouts to the Rotary Club to the neighborhood church — depended on the active and highly personal participation of people in their communities. This created strong social bonds around cooperation geared toward common ends, which could be practical, relational, or spiritual. Many of these institutions were founded during an era of great social inventiveness in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when social entrepreneurs developed new organizational models in response to changes they experienced. Yet as Theda Skocpol explains in Diminished Democracy, these older organizations — place-based, voluntary, membership-driven, and cross-class — have rapidly dwindled in size in recent decades.


The great majority of public and private interventions do not create robust social commons in particular locales. This must change. In the words of Shirley Franklin and David Edwards, "neighborhood transformation is not a complementary is the central one."

What could this look like?

Let's start with various levels of government. Legislation should delegate decision-making down to the smallest or lowest level of government whenever possible. This subsidiarity would encourage competence and downward accountability rather than mere implementation of a predetermined mandate from above. Those overseeing programs and funds could look at neighborhood indicators (discussed below) rather than subsidies dispersed, permits issued, or boxes checked. When the scale remains local, feedback mechanisms are clearer; residents and place-based institutions become more influential in governance, and social innovation becomes more likely. The need to improve social habitats becomes evident, and the nuanced approaches required to do so can emerge. Public servants can take greater risks because they understand the context and see the potential return as higher, even if failure occurs along the way. Instead of sector-specific expertise that roams from project to project, generalists with a wide range of skills could commit to one geographical area for an extended period. Public servants would see themselves as facilitators rather than deciders, using their intimate firsthand knowledge of streets and businesses and residents in particular places.

Subsidiarity would not only make government a more effective change agent in neighborhoods most in need of help; it would also boost civil society more broadly. Writing in these pages, Andy Smarick posits that decentralization is essential to safeguarding the "abilities and autonomy" of "civil-society bodies" and ensuring

that the various components of civil society are able to carry out their roles. Central policymakers should focus on supporting such entities, in part by determining which tools — for example, block grants to states, competitive grants to non-profits, or vouchers to individuals — would be most helpful in any given situation.

There are an astounding 87,000 different units of government in the United States, in which more than half a million officials serve, often on a volunteer basis. But despite great variety in the form and scope of their activities, these units often don't cover urban neighborhoods. Husock notes that "U.S. big-city government is far more distant from voters than the majority of the country's municipalities." And, as indicated above, city officials too often lack the flexibility to spend their budgets as local residents would wish. Decentralization can not only make government more accountable to local residents; it could also strengthen citizen involvement and volunteerism while helping local organizations and leaders.

When conservation groups seek to restore a native habitat, they often begin with just a few acres or an area with specific ecological importance. In the same way, reenvisioning the social landscape around clearly demarcated neighborhoods would complement efforts to decentralize government programming. Ideally, this combination would bring a new emphasis on in-person exchange and the development of organizational life place by place.

A social-landscape effort would resemble attempts to attract business investment into poor areas, but with a focus on social rather than economic impoverishment alone. Public, philanthropic, business, and civic leaders could advance these ideas in the places that most need them by offering incentives (e.g., matching grants) to any philanthropy, non-profit, or religious body that establishes new programs or chapters. Such initiatives should meet two criteria: First, they should be located in an area with significant social disadvantages and low collective efficacy; and second, they should seek to build social cohesion and shore up constructive norms. Similarly, local leaders or officials could provide small matching grants and helpful resources to blocks of households. These households could team up to invest in improving the appearance of their street and area, fostering closer cooperation among residents and more confidence in the neighborhood. The Oswego Renaissance Association does just this in upstate New York. If done right, such efforts can unleash private investment and catalyze positive momentum where none existed previously.

Reenvisioning the social landscape requires the emergence of more neighborhood-based national organizations. Such groups can inspire and aid practical, decentralized, place-based leaders and initiatives that enhance social systems locale by locale. These organizations could comprise a set of local partnerships or chapters across the country, as was once common. An organization could orient itself toward a specific goal, with local chapters focusing on an area with meaningful implications for that particular social environment, such as family stability. Or, a group could gear its activities toward a specific audience, mobilizing groups of people with common interests — for example, businesspeople (including those in Rotary Clubs), women, religious leaders, or retirees — and then letting them decide what initiatives to undertake. The national organizations could provide skill, know-how, practical advice, comparative learning, and sometimes seed capital to help start new chapters or get local projects off the ground.

Several organizations of this type already exist. Purpose Built Communities is developing a network of "community quarterbacks" to revitalize distressed neighborhoods. Communio partners with churches across the country to construct a national network of local affiliates to strengthen marriage and family stability. We need more groups like these. If new organizations multiplied, each with a different focus or audience and dedicated volunteers, a real sea change would occur. In every case, locals would lead, with the national (or regional) organizations catalyzing, supporting, and structuring their efforts. The inspiration may come from either source — locals may start off operating on their own before partnering with a national organization in order to achieve more, or the national group may jump-start change. Either way, local drive is a prerequisite.

Academic and government institutions could boost these efforts by adjusting their leadership training. Their teaching programs could examine how to pursue success for specific places in various fields, including sociology, urban development, architecture, and economics. They could train a future generation of social repairmen, giving credit for time spent working or volunteering in the most needy neighborhoods. Universities could also offer mid-career training, equipping people to bring sorely needed management skills and access to places without either. Leadership training should cast a vision for embedding individuals in a community rather than only giving them a platform for personal success.

New metrics to evaluate social initiatives would also help. Too often, we look at larger economic trends and national or city-level information to gauge the well-being of people. We forget their dependence on neighborhood social and economic context. We need to provide and prioritize the right kind of information — on the nature of relationships, collective efficacy, social norms, quality and quantity of local institutions, and family stability — at the right scale: neighborhood by neighborhood and block by block. Assembling a neighborhood-indicators scorecard for each locale would enable "quarterbacks," or community leaders, to accurately assess their community's situation at any one point in time. Frequent updates would help with tracking change over time, gauging the effectiveness of various initiatives, and pinpointing worrying trends.

Meta-measures of progress, such as relative property values, the transiency rate, crime, and school performance, are the ultimate markers of neighborhood progress or regression. Others include levels of toxic stress, collective aspects of neighborhood life, demographic change, and cycles of investment. Of course, each organization needs to zero in on the data most likely to aid its mission. Data must also be decentralized to empower those on the ground, instead of residing in some distant office where its meaning may be lost or the necessary urgency is lacking.


Each locale needs a neighborhood-specific strategy that is customized to enhance its particular social commons. It is essential to develop such a strategy in partnership with local businesses, philanthropies, and community leaders to cultivate and combine everyone's efforts toward addressing an array of sectors: infrastructure, housing, education, and more. We've seen how the forest analogy is one way to visualize this. Another way is to imagine a feast. Angela Blanchard calls it an "artful arrangement":

[W]e see many failed attempts to revitalize and transform neighborhoods on the back of just one element — the siloed school, heroic housing, a transformational clinic. These attempts fall short. If we imagine we are "setting the community development table," we must imagine it as a giant potluck where the dishes, plates, and morsels are contributed from many sources. It becomes the job of a community development organization to create an artful arrangement that feeds the hunger of the community.

Going forward, any realistic, effective, and sustainable effort to feed the hunger and meet the aching needs of American communities will start by understanding that different social maladies — and the people they afflict — cannot be abstracted away from place.

Seth D. Kaplan is a lecturer at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. He is the author of the new book Fragile Neighborhoods: Repairing American Society, One Zip Code at a Time.


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