Urban Opportunity Looks Different Today

This blog post is a response to the Meeting of the Minds & Living Cities group blogging event which asks, “How could cities better connect all their residents to economic opportunity?”

Q: How could cities better connect all their residents to economic opportunity?

A: Connecting residents to economic opportunity is not a straight line proposition. In years past, the answer may have been as easy as starting a new job training program for residents or arming an adventurous economic development professional with plane tickets and a fist full of corporate giveaways in an effort to locate a large, out-of-town manufacturer in the community.

Today, however, we face a different kind of challenge, namely how to make a community economically attractive to businesses in a time when the human experience of individuals is paramount to location and retention efforts for business. It is a difficult proposition, one that requires cities to respond in ways that fly in the face of 20th century ideas about competitiveness.   

Let’s take Detroit as an example. The city has suffered a very public fall from its days as the booming industrial hotbed of the U.S. The city is undergoing the nation’s largest municipal bankruptcy and its once-mighty corporate institutions have been zapped by decades of downsizing. Established “players” in the economic field like community colleges and NGOs have also seen huge declines in resources that left large voids in traditional offerings. As you may have guessed, all of this led to a fair amount of chaos within the system—that’s the bad part. What’s the good part? It is that all of this led to a fair amount of chaos within the system. (See what I did there?)

A New City Emerges

A New City Emerges

Like all of the great fortune cookie philosophers tell us, “Crisis brings opportunity.” When city government stepped away from many of traditional roles there were others who stepped in, often bringing different values to their work and new metrics for defining success. For the first time in this historically “big business” city, we saw a heavy emphasis in areas like small business startups, the local food movement, and creative placemaking; areas where the city (and cities like it) often enjoy a decided advantage over greenfield developments because of their diversity and design. As the municipal government continues its trek towards solvency in the coming months, its challenge will be to create space for the advancements made from the outside by not over imposing itself on the organic, innovative network that has formulated in the city under the leadership of everyday citizens, small business owners and foundations. At the Michigan Municipal League we like to say to local officials, “Be the host of the party, not the life of the party.”    

Something else that we know about today’s economic competitiveness is that jobs and people are more mobile than ever. So are industries. This means that in order to compete, cities must understand changing values and preferences of everyone who lives in, works in, or may consider moving to their community. One look at the data illustrates that local officials need to understand things like community engagement, walkability, and cultural economic development. Additional time must be spent on historic preservation, talent attraction, and locally produced goods. In overwhelming numbers talented workers look for these things when considering where to locate, so if a community lacks in these areas, then low taxes, glossy brochures, and fancy job training grants won’t matter in the end. The League has identified the eight assets of highly competitive communities to bring focus to these critical, yet often undervalued, qualities to city life.  Check them out here.