There’s a lot of talk these days about inclusive development, on both the global and local scale. Within real estate development, it takes on particular meaning, because inclusive development goes to the heart of the social and economic fabric of local communities. We often work with our clients to understand that for development to truly be inclusive, it must be authentic, transparent and grounded in community engagement. In short, inclusive development gives the community a way to shape a project so it’s relevant to them. At the same time, inclusive development helps developers meet their diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) goals in a sustainable way.
From the community perspective, inclusive development must be rooted in opportunities to inform developers about the culture and feel of the community, as well as its needs. People in the community must see how this development will add value to their lives and their neighborhood, instead of just a checklist of what developers think “communities like theirs need.”
From the developer side, inclusive development means being willing to bring in the community throughout the lifecycle of a project, from planning to building and even after completion. This participatory development process allows developers and their teams to build authentic relationships with the communities in which they are working. Relationships are forged with residents and businesses. As a result, developers and their teams can help shield themselves from costly mistakes, like permitting delays, while building trust and momentum through each project phase.
Success Comes from Service
Most important, the process is transparent to all stakeholders, not just a few. As Michael Monestime of Morningside Group Real Estate remarked in a recent panel discussion on inclusive development for NAIOP Massachusetts, “It’s not saying one thing and delivering another.”
I couldn’t agree more. As part of the NAIOP panel discussion, I shared an experience from when I was a regional president of Berkshire Bank and we wanted to open more community branches, including in the culturally diverse Roxbury neighborhood in Boston. We observed how, on payday, there was a long line at the local check-cashing place, while no one was walking into a nearby bank.
We talked to the people of Roxbury, listening to how they felt about banks and what the ideal branch would do for them. We heard how some people felt like they had to put on a suit just to walk into a bank branch to get the respect they deserve. In digging deeper, we heard that the bank branch could serve another community need: a place to come together to discuss local economic development – to share ideas that could expand their own wallets. That’s where we got the idea for creating and building branches that provided space for the community to have these conversations – not just with the bank, but also with each other.
Our takeaway was that, for the local bank branch to be successful, it needed to be of service to the community, and not the other way around. That’s a lesson learned that guides our work at Lazu Group today and should be part of the thinking for inclusive development.
It Starts with Trust
The truth is that, too often, when development happens in a community, the first reaction is fear. The reason: Development feels more exclusive than inclusive, as if it’s meant for other people, and not the residents of the community.
When development is done right, however, the opposite happens: People get excited. They see possibilities for themselves, their families and neighbors and the broader community. Most importantly, they feel welcome in the new space. Inclusive development has the power to do all that, but it must start with trust. Trust is a two-way street. Developers must be authentically engaged with the community. It goes without saying that the plan being discussed must truly reflect the vision of what will be built. When developers ask for community input, feedback is considered meaningful and taken seriously. When that rapport exists, developers can trust that they’re being given 100 percent top-notch, accurate information from the community.
Finally, inclusive development is a great reputation-builder. People will see what a developer wants to do and how that will empower the community with the kinds of spaces, services and access that they truly need. More than that, the community will become a partner and an advocate for that development.
Through an open, transparent process, trust becomes the foundation for development. It probably isn’t possible for everyone to get everything they want, but everyone can still feel heard. The result is a process of identifying and delivering the best solutions possible, for the benefit of all stakeholders.
Malia Lazu is a lecturer in the Technological Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Strategic Management Group at the MIT Sloan School of Management, CEO of The Lazu Group and former Eastern Massachusetts regional president and chief experience and culture officer at Berkshire Bank.