Today’s Cities Require Leveraging at Every Level

The concept of ‘Scale’ is important in the business world. A breakthrough product doesn’t have an impact until its maker conceives of a way to deliver the product to users at a high enough volume to make a buck. Henry Ford didn’t invent the automobile, he invented a system to mass produce them. The folks at Google didn’t invent the internet, they refined a search engine that answers over one billion questions a day. The owner of the coffee shop that I am blogging from certainly didn’t invent lattes and bagels, but through good customer service and savvy local marketing she has made this spot a profitable enterprise in our community.

I know what you’re thinking… “Thanks for the economics lesson, Dan. It only took twenty years, but you’re finally utilizing your degree. Money well spent! But, this is a blog about cities and urbanism and placemaking. So where in the Hell is this all going?”

Good question.

My work with cities over nearly two decades has convinced me of two things:

  1. The best work done in cities is, and always will be, done outside of city hall. It’s performed by concerned citizens, neighborhood activists, small business owners, non profit leaders and the like. Their collective ability to continually amaze me with their accomplishments is remarkable.
  2. That’s just not good enough.

The people doing the work on the street need those in City Hall, the State Capitol and in D.C. to provide platforms to multiply their efforts many times over. Without a multi-level urban strategy on items such as infrastructure, talent attraction, economic development and public services then the small accomplishments on the ground remain, well, on the ground. Stuck there. This is obvious in a place like Detroit where the current headlines alternate between municipal bankruptcy and new business openings creating a back-and-forth effect that feels like you’re watching a prolonged tennis volley from the stands at Wimbledon.

In Michigan, as in other states, urban policy and infrastructure spending in particular have been marginalized by ideological food fights in DC and at the state capitol regarding taxes and role of government. With respect to cities, this really needs to stop. Our cities should be laboratories for burgeoning economies and incubators for new governing models, not victims of state and federal political showdowns. The entrepreneurs need platforms for micro-financing, young people are demanding more transportation alternatives, city leaders need more cooperation from states in dealing with the increasing demands for municipal services. Pot holes aren’t partisan, neither are street lights.

Real change, the type that endures over time, occurs only when private and public interests work together through a common vision for  a community. Everything needs to be leveraged- ideas, funding, knowledge, capacity- you name it. Only then can we achieve the scale needed to sustain cities over time.