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Urban Practice

Abstract and Keywords

Social work practice is best understood and practiced when taking into account the local context. The urban context of social work practice may share much with suburban and rural contexts but also brings with it unique problems and opportunities.

Keywords: context, capacity enhancement, demographics, social and economic justice


The importance of grounding social work practice within a context is impossible to over stress, particularly as the profession continues to expand the social arenas and population groups it seeks to serve. This context is invariably characterized in terms of, among other things, the sociopolitical climate, history, sociodemographic patterns, and culture of a geographical area or population group. Contexts help inform assessment and intervention strategies. Further, conceptualizations of the context provide the theoretical and interactional terrain that helps minimize communication and collaborative barriers that have historically divided practitioners and academics, thereby aiding the profession (Delgado, 1999; 2000a, 2000b). However, this is not to say that the social work research and literature has kept pace with these developments.

The urban context is particularly vital to social work. It is impossible to talk about social work in the present without considering how this context shaped the birth of the profession (Fabricant & Fisher, 2002). Fabricant and Fisher (2002, p. 15), making reference to the settlement house movement, indirectly highlight the importance of an urban context to this movement: While there is always a tendency to romanticize history by elaborating accomplishments or downplaying errors and failures, the interest in settlement history harks back to a glorious heyday when the leading houses served as free spaces of social activism and midwives of modern social services in the United States. Fabricant and Fisher rightly acknowledge the importance of the settlement house movement, which had urban roots, in shaping the social work profession. In fact, the profession generally developed and thrived in urban areas, where charity organization societies, juvenile courts, and other child-saving institutions, as well as hospital social work evolved.

Cities continue to shape and direct the profession in a manner that few social workers fully recognize, appreciate, and celebrate. True, there are other geographical areas in which social work is practiced and important work is accomplished. However, there is little dispute that social work is still primarily taught and practiced in cities across the United States. These urban contexts have a tremendous amount of influence over how social work gets conceptualized, researched, and practiced. Through scholarship, the implications of urban contexts find their way into social work curriculum.

There is hardly any question that urban centers have played an important role in the development of the nation in general. Historically, coastal cities such as Los Angeles (Sawhney, 2002; Waldinger & Bozorgmehr, 1997) and New York (Foner, 2000, 2001; Haslip-Viera & Baver, 1996), and Miami (Delgado, 2007) have been the port of entry of millions of newcomers from throughout the world (Segal, 2002). In circumstances where cities were not the primary point of entry into the United States, they eventually became one of the primary destinations once a newcomer entered the country, documented or undocumented. Consequently, cities have played an influential role in the lives of most newcomers to this country with the possible exception of Native Americans.

The United States historically has had a love and hate relationship with cities. This has continued into the present, and may well continue into the future. Cities represent opportunities for advancement and acceptance in this society. Cities have also been viewed as places where deviance is not only tolerated but celebrated, and thus are feared by Americans who are skeptical of diversity and fail to acknowledge and celebrate it. The antiurban bias, first described by sociologists in the early 20th century (Parks, Burgess, & McKenzie, 1925) and critiqued in the classic work by Jane Jacobs in 1961, meant that solutions to urban problems were based on theories that sought to physically eliminate the slums through federal programs such as Urban Renewal, or to bring the country to the city with more open spaces, parks, mallsneither of which understood the dynamics of safe and thriving neighborhoods.

Definition of Urban

Not surprisingly, there are numerous definitions of what constitutes a city or urban area. The simplest definition is as follows: cities are defined as geographical entities with populations of over 50,000 and a local government. The mention of urban generally conjures up images of large metropolitan communities that are invariably located on either coast of the United States. This impression is largely the result of how the media has portrayed cities in the news and popular culture. In reality, cities vary in population size and also differ in such features as history, geographical location, and national reputations.

Cities Worldwide

Urban centers have historically played a critical role in nation building internationally (Kirdar, 1997). Moreover, the world is becoming more urbanized every year. In 2003, 48% of the world's population lived in cities and this percentage is projected to increase to 50% by 2030 (United Nations, 2004). Further, it is estimated that between 2000 and 2030, urban populations will increase by a rate of 1.8% per year, which will result in a doubling of their population within 38 years (United Nations, 2004). Thus, the importance of urban areas can only be expected to continue to increase in the next half of this century.

Demographics and Trends in the United States

The United States also is very much an urbanized society, with 79.2% of the population (almost 226 million people) residing in urban areas (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2004). Over 58% of the nation's population resides in urbanized areas with populations over 200,000 (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2004). The nation's cities, like cities worldwide, are not only growing but changing in racial and ethnic composition at an extremely rapid pace. Latinos in the United States, for example, accounted for 81% of the nation's growth in this country's 100 largest cities (United States Hispanic Leadership, 2004). Latinos now numerically outnumber African Americans in 6 of this country's largest cities and in 18 of the 25 most populous counties (Coleman, 2003). This shift in ethnic and racial composition has far wielding social, political, and economic consequences. The number of newcomers, documented and undocumented, is increasing in cities across the country, too (Delgado, Jones, & Rohani, 2005).

Some critics argue that this is happening at too great a pace, with deleterious consequences (Buchanan, 2006, 2007); advocates, in turn, argue that as cities grow so does the influence of a nation's most disenfranchised population groups, bringing with this increased presence the potential for positive social change. Concentration of marginalized people in urban areas can translate into concentrated political power through election of officials who embrace social and economic justice agendas. This concentration, however, does not necessarily translate into political power, but it certainly has the potential to do so and to bring national public attention on urban communities. However, regardless of one's point of view, demographic trends pertaining to cities must not be ignored by the social work profession in its attempts to better contextualize services, both asset and deficit-driven.

The Complexity of Urban Life

Urban life, particularly for those who are newcomers to our country and city living, produces stressors. However, it would be foolhardy from a practice perspective to lose sight of the resources and experiences urban living can bring. Bernstein (2000) identifies 10 urban assets that are generally overlooked in any discussion concerning this nation's cities: (a) purchasing power (concentration of capital and markets), (b) concentration of workforce (availability), (c) mass transit systems (available and do not have to be created), (d) accessibility (general geographical accessibility facilitates development), (e) abandoned and underused land (open land and buildings are available for development), (f) underutilized infrastructure (available for upgrading where needed), (g) in-place infrastructure and underutilized carrying capacity (ready availability of utilities), (h) already assembled rights of way (incentives to establish new institutions and businesses), (i) efficient resource use (concentrated facilities), and (j) biodiversity and natural capital (availability of uncultivated land). Bernstein's list is heavily focused on physical capital. However, social capital, in the form of human diversity and cultural assets, also needs to be considered as an urban asset (Delgado, 2000b, 2007). A social work addendum to Bernstein's list represents an idea dimension by providing a balance between physical and social capital. Of course, the resources listed above are primary reasons why social work tended to develop in urban contexts.

Context and Practice

Social workers quickly learn about the importance of context as both a backdrop and a shaper of how human behavior gets manifested. This context serves to influence all facets of an intervention starting with assessment, to actual intervention, to the final stage, evaluation. Further, the importance of context, in this case urban based, serves as a bridge between the clinical, macro, and mezzo worlds of practice social work is practiced. The sharing of an urban community context facilitates the collaboration between different branches of the profession in service to undervalued communities by providing practitioners with an important point of reference.

Urban social work practice may share many philosophical and practice principles with its suburban and rural cousins. However, how it is manifested or implemented on a daily basis results in substantial changes in perspective and operationalization. That is what is referred to as urban practice. Urban social work practice is that practice that has specifically emerged to take into account a host of environmental (physical as well as social) factors in dictating how best to meet the needs of people who live in cities (Delgado, 2000a).

Social Justice

The concentration of social problems in the nation's cities highlights social and economic injustices. Consequently, compelled by the NASW's Code of Ethics, it becomes imperative that urban social work practice incorporate the goals of eradicating these injustices as part of any social work intervention, micro or macrofocused. Oppression based upon ethnicity and race, gender, abilities, and sexual orientation, for example, is counter to our Code of Ethics that stresses equal opportunities and empowerment. Although social and economic justice issues are present in other geographical contexts, the issues take considerable prominence in urban social work practice because of the high concentration of marginalized groups residing in cities (Delgado & Staples, 2008).

The embrace of a community capacity enhancement paradigm for social work practice in urban areas necessitates a shift in perspectives. This shift focuses on identifying and mobilizing indigenous assets at all levels of social work practice. Assets such as murals, community gardens, community-built playgrounds, and sculptures, for example, typify the multitude of ways that urban assets can be conceptualized as unique forms of urban social work practice (Delgado, 2003). Urban social work practice utilizing a capacity enhancement paradigm is predicated on social workers being willing and able to identify the many advantages that urban areas bring as a context for practice. Vacant lots, for example, can be viewed as places where illegal activity can transpire within an urban community. However, they can also serve as places for cultivating community gardens that produce food for a community and can also serve as meeting places for residents.


Cities will continue to wield tremendous influence on the nation in the 21st century. Social work as a profession has continued to widen its influence into new areas and arenas for practice and will no doubt do so in the future. However, how social work is practiced in cities remains a central core of the profession; many social workers would agree that the key challenges facing the profession will be urban-based and urban-driven. Issues related to gentrification, political disenfranchisement, limited funding, and English as the Official Language movement, will continue to present the profession with obstacles in our pursuit of a social justice agenda.

Failure of the profession to actively and meaningfully address these challenges in the coming years will ultimately mean the marginalization of the profession within an urban context. Other helping professions, in turn, will fill that void. The political consequences of playing an active role in helping to shape public debate on these challenges will also open the door for the profession being criticized by the political right. Nevertheless, we cannot ignore these challenges for fear of being criticized.


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