Reducing Inequality, Improving Economic Opportunity

Logo for the Meeting of the Minds conference sponsored by Living Cities.  Source: cityminded.org

Via Aaron Renn at the Urbanophile, I found out that the people behind the Meeting of the Minds Conference and Living Cities hosted a group blogging event, inviting civic-minded leaders across sectors to answer a provocative question: How could cities better connect all their residents to economic opportunity?  I wasn’t invited, but after reading some of the responses I was compelled to add my two cents.

Many of the ideas are practical and pragmatic.  Ben Hecht, President and CEO of Living Cities, argues that greater and more targeted investment in public transportation can establish greater connectivity between low-income communities and job centers.  Margery Turner of the Urban Institute says that if HUD holds firm on enforcement of the 1968 Fair Housing Act, it would go a long way toward reducing neighborhood isolation and neighborhood distress.  Others, like Russ Vanos of Itron and Jessie Feller of Meeting of the MindsGordon Feller of CiscoJulie Fossitt of the City of Kingston, Ontario and Anne Schweiger of the Digital Equity Project all seem to be a part of a growing consensus that suggests that technology and innovation offer a rare opportunity for expanded economic opportunity in cities today.

What do I believe?  I believe tech and innovation solutions to inequality sound great in the abstract, but more concrete solutions are necessary.

We’re at a point now, as middle and higher income residents are returning to cities, as businesses are returning to cities, that low-income communities will enjoy greater proximity to our nation’s economic engines than at any time in the last half-century.  However, this opportunity could be fleeting; as businesses and higher income residents move in, the move to the suburbs by low-income residents is accelerating.  Here’s what I see that could be done:

Entrepreneurship.  I think Aaron was right to focus on entrepreneurship as a solution.  Local regulations can be a barrier to entrepreneurship, and small business offers one of the few remaining ways to move into the middle class.  I’ve said as much about Detroit, suggesting that it could become a national leader in minority entrepreneurship.

Corporate Responsibility.  As businesses are returning to cities to tap into the talent that sustains them, they need to revisit the economic development model that sustained them in the suburbs.  Lured by tax breaks and incentives to suburban office parks, large corporations were enticed by a “what’s in it for us” perspective.  Today, as the highly educated workers they covet move into cities, and the businesses themselves follow them, they may need to consider their engagement in cities — supporting their workers and the communities they choose — as part of their business strategy.

Transportation/Connectivity.  I agree with Ben Hecht that transportation investment is critical.  He rightly raises a point made by Emily Badger of the Washington Post: “The ultimate goal of transportation isn’t really to move us. It’s to connect us – to jobs, to schools, to the supermarket. And recognizing this means viewing transportation in a different way.” 

Gentrification Management.  I think an emerging topic, maybe even an emerging discipline, will be the 
mitigation or management of gentrification’s impacts on low-income communities.  There’s growing evidence 
that gentrification does not displace as much as earlier thought, but broader economic and social forces still strengthen already strong urban neighborhoods and continue to weaken neighborhoods that would otherwise be poised for similar revitalization.  

Those are some early thoughts.  

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