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  • Writer's pictureBrady Hummel

Community-Centered Urban Redevelopment: A Case Study of Carlisle, PA

Updated: Nov 24, 2021

This essay is the third part of a larger project focused on defining and connecting social sustainability and community economic development in order to inform local policymaking to further improve communities’ ability to fully mobilize and achieve sustainable development. This essay takes the CED-SS model that I’ve developed in the last two essays and uses it to see how urban communities can work within the model to move towards social sustainability. The main forum for this project is through the Wordpress blog, “Nexus Point: Social Sustainability and Community Economic Development.” Follow along with the twice-weekly posts that will next explore what the CED-SS model looks like for rural communities.

Applying the Model to the “Real World”

Up to this point, we’ve been working in the weeds of defining key concepts and connecting them to each other to round out a model for how community policies can be properly crafted and aimed at achieving social sustainability. This has been pretty theoretical and wonky, I’ll admit, and it’s hard to take such abstract concepts and fluffy talk about how they relate to the “real world” and wrap your head around the whole thing.

Enter the first of our two case studies, stage left.

These will help us to see how the model we’ve built on paper can and has been applied in communities across the country. However, no two communities are alike. Thus, we’ll look at the unique circumstances and policy challenges posed by urban communities first, then rural communities in the next essay.

It’s Hard to be a Saint in the City: Urban Challenges to the CED-SS Model

There are struggles in urban areas that are unique to either social sustainability or community economic development; community quality of life issues fall more into the former while roadblocks and shortcomings in the policymaking process fall more into the latter. These aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, but it’s important to take them one at a time and acknowledge this interrelation while building a conception of how the CED-SS model can me used.

To start: what is holding back opportunity for all and long-term quality of life in these urban communities?

Concentrated poverty has been a residual issue in US urban communities since the massive congregation of the population in cities during the Industrial Revolution. While there has been wide exodus from the cities to the suburbs in recent decades, “a larger share of the population in cities — 20.9 percent — is poor compared to the population in suburbs — 11.4 percent.”

For context, that means about 1 in 5 urbanites in the United States is struggling to make ends meet and survive, and most of these are concentrated in specific neighborhoods within the cities that consistently are underfunded and excluded from many of the benefits that accrue to cities. This phenomenon has been caused historically be a number of factors:

“Today’s poverty map reflects the legacy of discrimination, legally sanctioned segregation, and racial inequality.”

This geographical pocketing of disadvantage is a huge obstacle for improving social sustainability in the community as a whole; it “affects not only the residents and communities touched by concentrated disadvantage, but also the regions they inhabit and the ability of those metro areas to grow in inclusive and sustainable ways.”

Crime in urban neighborhoods also inhibits the expansion of opportunity for community members and infringes on their quality of life, as they live in fear of those around them and hesitant to engage in activities that build community. Violent crime rates are highest in urban metro areas than in other areas, according to the FBI, even through the overall crime rate nationwide has been declining in recent years.

Lack of quality supply of affordable housing units in urban areas also undercuts any attempts at stability or quality of life improvements for many members of urban communities, and it’s difficult to find a job or take advantage of opportunities for improving your quality of life if you’re unsure where you’ll sleep at night. Because of a national trend away from homeownership and towards renting, “the number of extremely low-income renteres exceeds the number of affordable units available.” This deficit severely undermines the stability of the community and is a severe challenge to furthering social sustainability in these areas.

It’s difficult to get to a job or fully engage in the community if there is crumbling urban infrastructure, which is characteristic of many city neighborhoods in the US; buildings are crumbling and condemned with little prospect of investment or habitation, roads are potholed and unsafe, and public transportation is unreliable, causing a “time penalty” for those who use it to get to work or around town. Because of the backlog of historical underinvestment in maintaining our infrastructure nationally, these neighborhoods are hampered from reaching social sustainability.

The “suburbanization of jobs” with the trend of urban flight in recent decades has also made it more difficult for residents in urban neighborhoods to find gainful employment near them, either causing higher unemployment or more difficulty finding employment, a clear impediment to improving the quality of life for those that are affected in cities nationwide.

But, what are the barriers to effective community economic development policymaking in urban communities?

First of all, because of many of the factors I outlined above and others, broad-based participation of community members in the policymaking process in urban areas. The struggles residents face because of these factors make it infinitely more difficult and more unlikely that broad engagement in policy will occur. In the CED-SS model, the interaction between the factors above and this lack of participation would be the arrow linking the SS bubble at the top to the CED bubble below it.

The current mindset and accepted framework for local and regional development is also a barrier to implementing the CED-SS model:

Conventional economic development remains largely misaligned to what matters. It favors recruiting new firms over helping existing firms become more productive and expand. It relies too often on taxpayer-funded incentives geared to one-time job creation, rather than positioning industries and assets for long-term growth. And when regions need to keep an eye on how to proactively respond to global, technological, and demographic forces, conventional economic development remains largely reactive, driven by deals in the pipeline. The systems and incentives that sustain these habits are so embedded in organizational missions and established practices — backed by strong political pressures — that even well-meaning leaders find it hard to break free of the status quo.”

The political arena has historically been determined by these sorts of development goals and ideas, and a paradigm shift towards our framing of community economic development would mean breaking down those solidified and internalized views of how communities operate and what can be done to help them develop.

This historical status-quo was also built for a time that was less dynamic and was slower paced than the world in which we currently face: “the acceleration in globalization, disruptive technologies, and demographic change is roiling industries and labor markets, adding complexity and further testing the wisdom and prudence of hanging onto long-standing practices.” Flexibility is difficult to achieve through the current development lens, making it more difficult for local policymakers to fully maximize the impact of their development work.

Circling back to our discussion above of segregation and concentrated poverty in certain urban neighborhoods, benefits from development initiatives need to be more evenly distributed amongst the populations and the neighborhoods in the cities and regions that need it most. Historically, “in cities that grew strongly, the economic benefits almost exclusively went to white populations, while income among African American populations grew little if at all.” This not only impacts those excluded populations, however:

“Overall economic growth is limited when low-income populations aren’t connected with new job opportunities. Consequently, social equity must be at the center of [urban] regeneration efforts.”

Although there are a number of challenges facing socially sustainable development in urban communities around the country, it is still in the best interest of everyone to fully embrace the CED-SS model and see local policymaking through a new lens.

Strongest Town in the US: Case Study of Carlisle, PA

Carlisle, a Central Pennsylvania borough positioned twenty-five miles west of Harrisburg, has gone through a transformational change in recent years that has garnered national attention, as it just was named the Strongest Town in the US. The Borough has a deep and rich history through the American Revolution and Civil War until today. Especially during the Industrial Revolution and the latter part of the 20th century, many factories provided a majority of the jobs in the town and were the economic foundation for the community.

However, as seen in countless other communities across the country, these factories fell away and left the town in quick succession due to widespread de-industrialization and globalization: the International Automotive Components factory closed in 2008, the Tyco Electronics factory in 2009, and the Carlisle Tire & Wheel factory in 2010.

The Borough of Carlisle was faced with an enormous challenge yet an enormous opportunity in how to develop the three brownfield sites on the northern side of town. In 2013, after a long and deliberative process, the Carlisle Urban Redevelopment Plan was published, and is an interesting case study to highlight how the CED-SS model can and has been applied in urban communities.

Let’s take a look at a breakdown of some important community statistics to put the case study in context:

Key Community Statistics for Carlisle, PA

These data don’t paint the true picture of reality, however: the reality of rigid geographic and historical segregation; the reality of neighborhood disinvestment and lack of opportunity. They paint the aggregated, blended, and skewed vision of reality that statistics like these have a strong tendency to do.

To get to the true and pure vision of the reality “on-the-streets” of Carlisle, let’s take a look at some statistics on poverty in the town:

Poverty Statistics for Carlisle, PA

Whoa, right? Carlisle is higher in every metric.

But, how can that be? Carlisle looked so rosy before!

This is where the harsh dose of reality comes in, when we break it down even further, neighborhood to neighborhood.

The majority of Carlisle residents living in poverty are concentrated in what are called the “northern quadrant neighborhoods” from College Street to East Street and Lincoln Street to South Street. This area has an alarmingly higher percentage of blacks in poverty (54.3%-76.8%; range for neighborhoods) than whites (4.57%-36%) and, similarly, for children living below the poverty level (~50% in the northern quadrant neighborhoods, ~20% in the southern quadrant neighborhoods). Unemployment in these neighborhoods is also significantly higher (16%-17.8%) than the averages for both Carlisle and Pennsylvania. This can partially be explained by the loss of the three factories on the North Side, as many workers who lost their jobs lived in these neighborhoods, but it also shows a history of concentrated poverty throughout the town’s history and development that poses a large problem and is a barrier to effective community-building and achieving social sustainability.

Carlisle’s Northern Quadrant Neighborhoods


As we’ve stated before, the policy intervention is the key entry point to our model, motivated by prevailing factors in the community. In Carlisle, the closing of the factories eliminated over 1,200 jobs and left the sites with contaminated groundwater and soil; the community saw that there was an opportunity and rallied around developing the former factory sites.

This was where the urban redevelopment plan came in. It was started to “serve as a framework for the redevelopment of these three sites in a thoughtful and cohesive manner which considers their neighborhood context.” Community engagement was central to the entire process, and improving the general well-being of the community as a whole was at the center from the beginning:

“The key aspect of this effort is the fact that the Borough is not responding to development proposals, but instead taking a proactive role in working with property owners to assure that the redevelopment of the three former industrial sites maximizes their potential with regard to job creation, tax revenue generation, and community enhancement — all while complimenting the existing downtown and melding with the character of the surrounding neighborhoods and communities.”

Looking at other examples of urban redevelopment plans from around the country, this explicit consideration of factors beyond pure economic motives (attracting more business investment, improving the tax base, etc.) is unique and in line with how policy interventions should be oriented through the CED-SS model because it focuses on the collective benefit of the community than only of business interests or specific sections of the community alone.

“Considering the magnitude of reinvestment and transformation that would occur [during the redevelopment of the brownfield sites], Carlisle officials want to ensure that the formation of a vision and goals for the project and the specific ‘tangible’ outcomes are based on broad community desires for the future of the neighborhoods and the downtown.”

Along with making sure that the policy intervention is in line with community desires, it also is aimed at improving the community capital stocks present in the city. In the case of Carlisle, the urban redevelopment plan directly address the physical capital in the northern part of the Borough, as it focuses on what physical structures will replace the former factory and current brownfield sites.

Included in the plan are also potential development projects to improve infrastructure and transportation generally around all three sites. Property owners and community members also expressed interest in seeing:

  • market-rate residential housing

  • senior assisted living

  • office space

  • mixed-use neighborhood retail

  • food-oriented businesses, “in town” grocery store

While all of these fall under the physical capital stock, the redevelopment would also improve economic capital (improved access to healthy foods and possible new jobs), social capital (new housing units could bring new diverse dynamic to community), and human capital (decreases exposure to harmful health effects of brownfields). A lot of these development ideas and proposals directly target many of the residual issues facing urban communities that we discussed last post, as well.

All of these improvements to the Carlisle community and its community capital stocks lead towards providing opportunities for all, which we defined originally as requiring:

“a fundamental change in the governing philosophy of a community, a shift in perspective on local policymaking, in order to reach for the full potential of everyone together. A focus on the collective benefit rather than the individual benefit.”

As I said above, this sort of “fundamental change” is a clear break from conventional economic development practice and is, unfortunately, a rare example in common local urban policymaking of embracing a building a culture of opportunity for all.

The overarching aim for the CED-SS model, and, in fact, the Carlisle Urban Redevelopment Plan, is the improvement of quality of life over time. The Borough, actually, published a Community-Wide Vision Statement in its Comprehensive Plan in 2002 that read:

“Carlisle: a premier town with a strong sense of community identity and an excellent quality of life, which makes it a superb place to live, learn, work, visit, shop, and play. - A Balanced Community: A small town in spirit and a small city in amenities. The historic and quaint charm of the past centuries, evolving to meet the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century. Preserving our natural resources while promoting smart growth. - Forward looking and responsible in community and economic development. - A caring and engaged community, with unity in diversity.”

In its 2013 Urban Redevelopment Plan, the Borough released a “Vision for Carlisle’s Northern Quadrant Redevelopment” that harkened back to the 2002 statement:

“Improving the quality-of-life and the sense of community for the citizens within the Northern Quadrant Neighborhoods in a manner that is consistent with the Borough’s Community-Wide Vision Statement, through the sensitive investment in redevelopment and improvements which ‘mesh’ the new with the old to form well-functioning and desirable ‘places’ for the enhancement of the entire Carlisle Area.”

In both of these statements, the long-term improvement of quality of life for members of the Carlisle community as a whole lie at their core and are the most important metaphoric lamp unto their feet: the overarching goal for all development initiatives, including the redevelopment of the brownfield sites, aims to improve the quality of life of everyone in the community, not just a select and anointed few.

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