A tale of two cities

Depending upon where you sit, these are the ‘best of times and the worst of times’.  In response, as planners, do we have our act together?  I would say no, we do not, as we are not united to fight a worthy fight.

Take Austin, Texas, our state capital, a city with a poverty rate of 16%.  Just a couple of weeks ago, I wrote a short editorial challenging the decisions of city and county government, as they acted in the name of ‘economic development’.  The majority voted to grant the world’s richest technology company, Apple Inc, tens of millions in tax rebates and abatements, in return for meagre community benefits.  The editorial I wrote, published as the lead story, charged these officials and planners with ‘public and professional malpractice’, and ends with, ‘Have you no shame?’ On the heels of much agitation by the community, Austin will soon begin a process of public input to determine how to make better deals with companies seeking public benefits.

Yet, ‘cutting a better deal’ is not the way to go. In an extended guest column, I made the argument that economic development is not the same as ‘business development’.  Yes, we need to work with business interests, but we do so going to bat for our community.  We do not take the Chamber of Commerce approach, which is to count jobs created and dollars invested, get some token public benefits in return, and call it a day. These conventional deals are handled by ‘urban’ planners, whose knowledge of economic development is limited to 50 words.  While they sing in one note, we in economic development deal in poly-chromatic symphony, all the more to reach far and wider audiences for maximum effect.  We negotiate for so little, we get so little in return.

Therefore, the first order of business is to define economic development before allowing this term to be defined for you. If the market economy model operated with efficiency and effectiveness, without gaming the system, paying their fair taxes, lifting sinking boats, training and hiring our neediest, as true partners in revitalisation, then I could be supportive.  However, this is not the case; regrettably, the culture of taking more than you leave behind, is deeply embedded.  In economic development we need to concern ourselves with two key components: raising standards of living, and increasing quality of life, as measured from a common baseline.  All tools and resources are applied toward making positive impacts, on a continuous timeline.

I do not see that we know how to measure for anything we wish to impact, nor do I see the application of tools and mechanisms, or any protocol to build upon, to indicate true progress toward objectives.  We have what could be called ONCED – Of No Consequence Economic Development. I do declare, knowing economic development practice in the US, we do not honestly practice economic development in the U.S.

Instead, we practice what can only be called ‘Chamber of Commerce Economic Development’.  Imagine, many people get national and international awards, university degrees, and industry promotions to advance private interests, effectively at public expense. Our public representatives and professional staffs fail us in big ways.
True, economic development does not distract us by other issues – traffic congestion, creative placemaking, infrastructure projects, human services, etc. Rather, we need to focus on the structural meat and bones of socio-economic prosperity, such as raising household or individual income, job generation by sector, diversity of the economic base, wage and non-wage employment, etc.  Additionally, we need impact measures, such as in healthcare coverage, literacy, homelessness, crime rates, environmental quality to round out a holistic approach for a healthier, prosperous community life.  However, as all communities have a shelf life, we must be vigilant to avoid stagnation and neglect.  In many cases, this posture is too late, which will require greater efforts to turn around, or, a community’s life could simply die, as we see happening in the US.

To quote from a favourite planning magazine, the reputable Progressive Planning magazine, affiliated with Cornell University’s Planners Network, in the current issue: ‘Sadly, the urban planning profession remains by and large silent on the major issues of the day.  Even worse, it fails to recognize its contribution to the problems. . . Planners touted the benefits of ‘growth’ (smart growth) and ‘economic development’ . . . many planners, and the related professions of architects, designers, and engineers, limited their focus to the areas of their expertise – the built environment and local places – but ignored the big issues of economic equality, social justice and the tyranny of global capitalism’. (Spring, p.5, 2012)

This is where policy entrepreneurship comes into play.  Areas on the downslide need to be packaged for curb appeal, to lure investment, physical improvements, job creation, and consumption.  What community assets can be built upon?  What are the major threats?  Where are the current opportunities to spur interest, commitment, and long-term engagement?  How can public resources be better leveraged to pivot a community toward positive activities?  Are economic development planners taking the lead role, putting the pieces together?  No, as our role is not respected, understood, or desired.

Close to home, San Antonio, a city of 1.3 million, is marketed as a vibrant community.  We have positive attributes as a place for young families, business activity, and investment, yet we also have an official rate of poverty of 19.5% and high drop-out rates.  For the past 35 years, our city has chosen to simply manage these challenges by seeking and obtaining federal and foundation safety net funds in the millions of dollars; managing new rounds of programmes and projects is the typical city response.  There is no appetite for structural reforms, therefore, despite our community’s assets and appeal from a marketing perspective, we remain a poor, urban city.  Worse still, our young, ambitious mayor wants his legacy to be ‘early childhood education’, which he and our clueless press brand as ‘economic development’.  Incredible, but true.

As an economic development planner, I feel that a different paradigm would work better to impact those areas which cause us to be a ‘poor’ city.  I’ve identified those poor areas by a common unit of analysis, the census tract, and mapped their location. If by consensus we wanted to walk away from being a ‘poor urban city’, we would then use our technical know-how and available resources to positively change the demographics of these low-resource communities, such that a new dynamic would take hold, building upon a foundation of growth and prosperity.  Has this approach been taken? No. Our civic culture is such that the status quo is acceptable; there is no genuine interest in tackling concentrated areas of poverty.  As a consequence, we live in a bifurcated society, one of haves and have-nots.  More and more people are falling from the middle class and into privation.  How much longer will it be before we see the dam burst out into the streets?

Ours is a tale of two cities, the haves and the have-nots.  Will it be too late before we can make a difference, in a structural sense?  I am not optimistic about the odds, as I see that economic public policy is stuck in the paradigm of the last, industrial-based century, and being led by people who are comfortable with a narrow understanding of the power and potential of what economic development can be – multi-faceted, interdisciplinary, and integrated – for greater results than we currently see.


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Neil McInroy
Neil McInroy
11 years ago

Fine piece Fernando. Strikes me, that economic development should be a progressive force for new thinking and positive change. However, in some quarters, it is danger of becoming a prop for the orthodox and the failing status quo.

Daniel Moore
Daniel Moore
11 years ago

Interesting piece and would be interested to hear more about ‘economic development deal in poly-chromatic symphony’. I believe the Anglo Saxon approach to capitalism simply would not allow this.

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