CCI ‘s mission is to nurture effective solutions that expand economic opportunity, diversify housing options, and strengthen connection to place.
The center focuses on housing, community and economic development. We work in four topic areas: revitalizing neighborhoods, developing economic resilience, designing and programming for the public realm, and producing and preserving affordable housing.
Working to revitalize San Francisco’s low-income commercial corridors; gathering eviction data to trace the impacts of rising rents in Richmond; collaborating with local officials and national experts to develop scenarios for mixed-income communities – these are just a few ways that the faculty, staff, and students of the Center for Community Innovation (CCI) catalyze real change beyond campus boundaries. CCI brings a fresh approach to university-community partnerships with its focus on “effective solutions that expand economic opportunity, diversify housing options, and strengthen connection to place.”
Launched at the University of California, Berkeley’s Institute of Urban and Regional Development in summer 2006, CCI fulfills a key part of the university’s mission as a public land grant institution: to disseminate “practical knowledge and technological innovations that benefit California and the nation.” At CCI, the knowledge is a combination of academic and on-the-ground experience. And the innovations are best practices in community and economic development, urban design, and affordable housing that are translated and evaluated for use in local communities.
UC-Berkeley has always been involved in the planning, housing, and economic issues that have shaped the Bay Area, and CCI is explicitly arranged as a resource for and partner with cities and communities around these matters. CCI engages with a wide range of organizations, residents, and technical assistance providers. Its researchers ask questions that concern people inside and out of the academy: Is there really such a thing as a mixed-income neighborhood, and what does one look like? Does helping to create cultural institutions in a neighborhood inspire stability or change – and which of those is preferable anyway? Do neighborhood property values go up or down with affordable housing developments? What are the most effective strategies to help low-income workers move up?
Wanted: Diverse Neighborhoods with Diverse Approaches
From the beginning, CCI faculty leader Professor Karen Chapple and D irector Heather Hood agreed that they could only grapple with these questions if their center’s priorities reflected the changing and diverse face of Bay Area neighborhoods. Accordingly, their approach aligns with Chancellor Birgeneau’s current emphasis on equity and inclusion. UC-Berkeley has pledged to support interdisciplinary study through the Berkeley Diversity Research Initiative, which breaks down departmental barriers to examine pressing social issues beyond the ivory tower. Every aspect CCI’s work reflects this spirit, from building partnerships in Oakland’s Lower San Antonio – widely considered one of the most ethnically diverse neighborhoods in the country – to exploring how transit-oriented development can benefit a community without causing displacement. This commitment to and familiarity with diversity is attracting many students to the Department of City & Regional Planning, many of whom come to work at the center or participate in classes linked to the center’s work. CCI fellows gain real-world experience as consultants in local government or non-profit agencies, including Urban Habitat, FaithWorks!, Transportation and Land Use Coalition, the City of Richmond, and the East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy. As former CCI Fellow Jackie Tsou put it, “I am so fortunate to have been a fellow... I met and collaborated with practitioners who have had years of experience in the field, and together, we worked on projects that are making a difference in the community in which they serve.”
Not Just Research as Usual
What makes CCI so unique is not just a focus on serving a diverse public, but a rethinking of the traditional community-based research model. Generally, university-sponsored community projects tend to follow a certain linear progression. First, a faculty member develops a research question that interests her. Then, she sends researchers “out” to a neighborhood to collect data. These students may engage positively with the community, but the methods and motives of their research remain within the “black box” of academic debate. After gathering information, researchers retreat back “in” to the university to draw their conclusions. Policy recommendations, if they appear at all, are published in a journal not easily accessible to the community that was studied.
CCI takes a different approach. Faculty and fellows interact with communities to learn about their research questions. For example, in the Lower San Antonio, CCI researchers listened to the concerns that developers had already brought to community members. Thenstaff and students worked with the neighborhood to form a Real Estate Council where developers coordinated their efforts to purchase land and create affordable housing. Along the way, CCI provided technical assistance by identifying potential infill sites. Unlike many projects that fade at the end of the semester, this Council still meets in the Lower San Antonio. Jennie Mollica from the Annie Casey Foundation says that CCI’s “creative process… led our neighborhood initiative to an innovative approach to addressing the need for affordable housing.”
While designing their research, CCI staff and fellows combine academic perspective with the knowledge of partners, meeting in dinners and conferences where visual and dynamic presentations take the place of dense journal articles. Just this year, CCI has held two conferences, and plans two more. The first, with Urban Habitat, brought government officials and activists together with experts and equitable development from across the country to discuss alternative development scenarios for Richmond's future. The second, with Architecture Professor Paul Groth, brought photographer and MacArthur Genius Award winner, Camilo Vergara, to discuss his photo-documentation of Richmond and Camden. Some recent and upcoming conferences focus on incorporating mixed-income development into transit-oriented development, and using the arts for community development, and what the region’s potential and implications are for converting industrial land.
CCI conferences have a strong showing of faculty and students from several UCB departments, but are also attended by elected officials, city staff, artists, activists, and representatives of community based organizations from the grassroots to the policy level. Because CCI presents to and hears from people who need to know how to make change today, policy considerations guide the work from the beginning instead of being tacked on at the end. The result? An iterative, transparent and most importantly useful body of research that can be applied by academics and community leaders alike. Indeed, CCI’s research and technical assistance have proved so invaluable to the City of Richmond that Mayor Irma Johnson awarded CCI its Public Service Award in December.
As CCI moves forward with current projects – including reviewing the Richmond General Plan Update with the Richmond Equitable Development Initiative; writing a framing paper and conduction specific site assistance for the Great Communities Collaborative; awarding the Terner Prize for Leadership and Innovation in Affordable Housing; conducting merchant surveys in San Francisco’s mixed-income commercial corridors with Local Initiative Support Corporation; and helping communities understand the appropriate policy levers, from inclusionary zoning to after-school arts programs, to help maintain the mixed income character of their neighborhoods – it will stay true to the spirit of community research as an interactive, results-driven process. The Center carries on the legacy of UC’s public service mission, adapting that goal to today’s complex and changing neighborhoods.