Prosperity for All: Big Ideas for Little Places

Posted on Thursday, February 19 2009 by Heather Brandon

Mark Muro (pictured) of the Brookings Institution appeared today by phone on WNPR’s “Where We Live,” along with Heidi Green of 1000 Friends of Connecticut and Bill Cibes of the Connecticut State University System in the studio. Along with several others, Green and Cibes co-authored the recently-released “Prosperity for All: A Blueprint for Connecticut’s Future” (PDF), a broad, visionary document for the state.

The episode, titled “A New Blueprint,” is part of a Thursday series looking at “big ideas” for Connecticut. Next week’s show will feature David Osborne, senior partner of the Public Strategies Group, and author of Reinventing Government and The Price of Government: Getting the Results We Need in an Age of Permanent Fiscal Crisis.

Big ideas can be useful, and they can also be overwhelming and sometimes a little too broad to feel relevant. While today’s show was intriguing and important, it also exacerbated my own sense that for all of our talk about putting cities at the center of discussions and revitalization efforts, we’re forgetting to put cities at the center in any practical fashion. In some ways, “metropolitan area” has become a cliché to talk about networks of suburbs where people really live, and cities are relegated and reduced conceptually to being empty places that just make us feel sad.

Host John Dankosky kicked off today’s show by asking Muro to summarize the concepts in the Blueprint for American Prosperity, a multi-year initiative from Brookings that aims to promote a national economic agenda building on metropolitan areas’ assets.

Muro said the blueprint establishes four cornerstones for building prosperity: strong infrastructure; powerful innovation resources for the creation of new economies and breakthroughs; human capital, including an educated workforce; and “quality of place.” Metropolitan areas are the crucial place for national prosperity to emerge, he added.

“What does a metro area mean?” Dankosky asked. Muro explained that a metro area is a formally defined space on the landscape, a particular place where economic, social activity occurs.

“It’s the place where community patterns flow across,” Muro continued, “even air pollution flows, and so it’s the real space where people live their lives. It includes cities at the center; it includes suburbs, sometimes exurbs, and fully rural places. So it’s the full landscape of a fully regional economy.” He added that 75 percent of the nation’s annual GDP is in 100 metro areas, including Hartford.

Dankosky prompted Muro to talk about what can be done now to assist metro areas, especially in light of federal economic stimulus funding. In response, Muro underlined the importance of building cohesive, coordinated regional capacity for decision-making and the shaping of investments. The key, he said, is “how you align the dollars” so they can be “a truly catalytic investment that amounts to more.”

“It’s clearly a significant challenge for Greater Hartford,” Muro continued. “Connecticut is extremely localistic, with large numbers of municipalities dividing metro areas and the state. Regional government is truly the alpha and the omega of success in American prosperity. That is, again, the place where your challenge is greatest, and you should try to use the stimulus package as an occasion to put in place stronger linkages and coordination.”

Dankosky raised the point that in Connecticut’s urban areas, a challenge is mere “survival,” not necessarily a problem of establishing “linkages.”

“Urban decline at the center of a metro region is one of greatest impediments to success,” Muro replied. “We would wager that the extent to which you can attack that problem is the extent to which these regions succeed.”

Muro said the isolated but devastating decline at the center of a region is a reflection of the fragmentation of government and the proliferation of small municipalities, each going their own way. “These are serious, systemic problems requiring regional and statewide focus,” he said. “Without mastering this problem, the region will likely not succeed.”

Did Muro have concrete examples? Dankosky pressed him to outline how newly-infused dollars could specifically help Connecticut in the near and long term.

On the infrastructure front, Muro said, powerful rail linkages and truly strong transit across the region will assist, citing Denver’s success as a complex area with a large number of municipalities that have collaborated on rail projects and associating housing development over a 20-year period. “We view transit—rail—as a crucial priority over and against highway and road investment,” he said. “We think that networks can be [successful] and overlays created even in New England. It requires a lot of collaboration, compromise and trade-offs. If you ask us what matters, we think that’s the starting point.”

Dankosky turned to Bill Cibes and invited him to explain how the Connecticut blueprint document was created. Cibes said the meetings began last spring following a realization that a long-term vision for the state was needed. The working group decided to focus on economic development and global economic competition. Heidi Green brought in the Brookings blueprint concepts to help organize the thinking, and the tenets were adapted and integrated into the state-focused document. Peter Hutchinson, founder of the Public Strategies Group and co-author of The Price of Government, contributed ideas.

Green explained some of the core ideas in the Connecticut blueprint document. It’s about asset-building, she said: innovation, infrastructure, places, workforce issues, innovation investments, and growth areas.

The idea of innovation was intriguing for Dankosky. What does it mean, he wondered.

Cibes responded that innovation means supporting entrepreneurs, trying to attract them to the state with incentives, as well as attracting smaller companies with the capacity to grow. It also means investing in human capital through education. “We need to make a hard decision about what is critical for the future,” he said. Specifically, the state can offer research and development tax credits and angel investor tax credits to help fledgling entrepreneurs to “have the wherewithal to develop their ideas.”

Green said, “We want to make Connecticut as attractive as possible, through affordable housing, transit, our educational system, so people choose to be here, invigorating our cities, making our state pleasant and dynamic.”

Cibes added, “These assets leverage off each other. They’re all are tied together.”

Dankosky asked if Muro had examples of other places where this concept of metropolitan innovation is actually working. Muro mentioned San Diego, including UCSD, and the area around the Science Foundation of Arizona, where a biotechnology economic development corridor has been established. The idea, he said, is transcending silos in favor of “synergistic exchange.”

Earlier in the show, Dankosky indicated maybe our old New England cities and towns are too entrenched and bogged down by a history-laden built environment to change. He then invoked the idea that colder weather repels the young and the innovative.

Muro said the success of the Minneapolis-St. Paul region disputes the idea that cold weather has to be a barrier to growth. He also mentioned Burlington, Vermont and Portland, Maine. “You’re right that weather is an important determinant, but it’s not everything,” he said. “Places have found ways to create a vibrant urban setting.”

Cibes said quality of life and quality of place are critical, as well as the ability to afford it. Green said, “If you look at where young people in Connecticut go, it’s Boston and New York. It’s less about weather than amenities, lifestyle and choices.” She said New Haven has been successful at attracting people, but the area lacks entry-level jobs.

Cibes went on to mention educational assets in Connecticut: Yale and UConn, as well as “a great elementary and secondary school system.” However, he acknowledged, “There are a number of gaps that need to be filled,” mainly a massive discrepancy between the cities and suburbs.

In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs noted that cities grow the middle class. Rather than attempting to draw them, she argued, cities should give better attention to those they are developing, and work to treat them well and simply retain them. If such an approach also attracts newcomers, so much the better, but a relatively stable social and economic fabric is needed in order to yield all sorts of benefits, including not least of all enhanced public safety and happier and well-rounded, better-educated children.

For all our obsession over attracting the middle class, we tend to neglect this, the notion that we ought to value highly the populations growing right in the midst of what suburban-focused policy-makers and legislators may well regard as the pits of despair known as our central cities. Such urban-dwelling populations, especially families, are people who, treated well in the city, might choose to stay rather than move to the suburban equivalent of having arrived. It’s as though existing residents don’t matter unless they are of a certain social class and color. This is not a new idea. What’s remarkable is that we keep trying to come up with new ideas rather than dealing with this old one by investing more heavily in our cities, by living in them for example, contributing to their tax base and sending our children to their schools and participating in their democracies, and by recognizing the cities’ assets are already living there.

Indeed, it’s been argued that cities are more successful economically if they have an educated population; there are arguably strong ties between educational attainment and economic success. What our broader policies fail to accommodate is how to encourage attainment and growth for the population already residing in our cities, and enable that population to return the investment by remaining and continuing to foster that vibrancy and quality of place.

For example, we provide public housing for the poor, but we fail to integrate adequate middle-class housing (especially for all types of households) so people can retain social and economic ties they created while they were pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps, as it were. To attain the middle class, people believe they must move out of the city, which is a real loss. Similarly, we worry about “urban education” and shuffle the deck of cards, creating new schools, obliterating old ones, hoping city students mingling with suburban students will help some kind of affluence and an urge for college will rub off on them, but we fail to provide the adequate (and massive) funding required for small class sizes, which would make an enormous positive difference in the quality of this “urban education.”

The message disenfranchised people get is: you don’t matter. If such populations attain a degree of success, ironically, they may well turn their backs on the city, returning the sentiment. If a successful, home-grown city-dweller does happen to return to make good, sometimes it literally makes the news.

But the city is what helped such a person attain, and in doing so, cities earn the resentment of their well-heeled neighbors who may believe their state and federal taxes are being poured in to these unappealing places that rarely give back. Cities give back all the time; cities are leaking their assets.

The Connecticut blueprint doesn’t necessarily touch on this; it’s a document of broad notions and not so much a to-do list for city dwellers and urban leaders, although its goals are worthy and noble.

Ideas about investing in or retaining city populations tend to get glossed over in discussions about “urban education” and “building human capital.” This is an issue we seem to hold at arm’s length rather than spell out and comprehend clearly. What’s going on in the schools, street corners, playgrounds and people’s private home lives can be very hard to comprehend, even for our elected leaders, or maybe especially for our elected leaders.

The Connecticut blueprint is a good start for unifying the state around some economic development vision that will help us make some kind of progress. Its authors are right to urge the state to have a vision.

In the meanwhile, the people who have chosen to live in the cities, as well as the people who are stuck there with not much else to choose from, work on earning a living, building community and solving little problems without much notice or help from the policy-makers or the powers that be.

Big ideas are for the big people; what the little people need are little ideas for their little places, and we can build from there.

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