Every week seems to bring some new revelation in community development: innovation districts, green jobs, or the announcement of a new biotech hotspot. But the big promises rarely pan out. Despite billions of dollars of spending in dozens of US cities, for example, nothing has changed the landscape of the biotech industry, which is even more concentrated in Boston, San Francisco, and San Diego than it was a decade ago. So there is an understandable skepticism when someone comes to town promoting the latest wisdom on urban economic competitiveness.
But there are two clear and enduring factors that affect a city’s economic success more than anything else: talent and opportunity. Add engagement—a sense of localness and loyalty—and you have a recipe for civic success.
The term “talent” is imperfect, shorthand for people with at least a four-year college degree. But while graduates are not the only talented people, they are the primary talented people we can count. As it turns out, the percentage of college graduates in a population explains 58 percent of a metro area’s success—if you measure success by per capita income. Anything that determines more than half of a city’s success should be a priority, but talent generally isn’t. Some officials want to count everything but talent.
Developing, attracting, and retaining talent should be the bedrock of a city’s economic development strategies. What’s good for the individual is good for all of us, and cities need to ensure that everyone has a chance to reach his or her full potential.
Cities must also create opportunity, and although the foundation for creating opportunity is education, new research shows that having people of different incomes living in close proximity—versus economically segregated neighborhoods—also accelerates upward mobility.
One of the worst mistakes we’ve made in cities has been to isolate poor people in poor neighborhoods. That makes overcoming circumstances of poverty much tougher. But it doesn’t just isolate poor people; it isolates all of us.
How can ideas spread quickly if we have to make appointments to see each other? How do the happy accidents that spark new ideas occur if there is not a robust civic commons in which to gather? How do we create a vibrant street life if everyone drives everywhere? The most valuable places have centrality, density, and diversity.
Over the past four decades, there has been a steady increase in the preference of adults ages 25 to 34 for “close-in” neighborhoods—the central business district in metropolitan areas and the three-mile radius around it. In fact, college-educated young adults are more than twice as likely to live in these neighborhoods than other Americans.
Cities must offer lifestyle choices that young adults want today: mixed-use, mixed-income, walkable, bikeable, transit-served neighborhoods with lots of street life. These places attract and keep talent, and play a critical role in the economic mobility at the heart of the American dream.
Localness is another factor important to the success of cities. When I led CEOs for Cities, we created a series of reports called “Things Look Different Here,” which examined the special qualities of places—what made them different from all other places, what ultimately defined localness. But often local leaders ignore what makes a place different or, worse, run away from it.
How refreshing, then, to see a new generation reject that thinking and create bespoke cities, starting interesting businesses and slowly bringing the rest of the world along for the ride. It seems like every city now has its own beer, soon its own doughnut. A city with a deep understanding of its differences and that can spin economic vibrancy out of that difference will have real advantage.
Hand in hand with localness is loyalty, which cities can foster by inviting citizens to be on boards and advisory committees, and by staying in touch with former residents and inviting them home to see what’s new.
This summer, professional basketball player LeBron James returned to his hometown of Akron, Ohio, and committed to being a community leader. “I have a responsibility to lead ... and I take that very seriously. My presence can make a difference in Miami, but I think it can mean more where I’m from. I want kids in Northeast Ohio, like the hundreds of Akron third-graders I sponsor through my foundation, to realize that there’s no better place to grow up. Maybe some of them will come home after college and start a family or open a business. That would make me smile. Our community, which has struggled so much, needs all the talent it can get.” he explained in a Sports Illustrated interview.
Promising initiatives in cities such as Akron and Miami are aiming to draw in talent and create opportunity, and to foster localness and loyalty. These efforts and others acknowledge the fact that a few broad strokes by a few people doesn’t determine a city’s future; it takes thousands of people making small decisions every day about what they believe about a city, its future, and their role in it. That’s why community development is so tricky. It is a product of the decisions we all make.
The fate of our nation rests in the success of America’s cities, and the responsibility for our cities rests in all of our hands. We all need to come together and foster those things that make cities thrive to make our cities work better, for all of us.