How a Place-Based Approach to Economic Development Won 2016 – Next City
The Equity Factor

How a Place-Based Approach to Economic Development Won 2016

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio tours the Greenpoint Manufacturing & Design Center in Brooklyn. (Todd Maisel/The Daily News via AP)

If there is one economic development fix that equity-minded cities are taking into 2017, it’s the importance of a place-based approach that is shaped locally, by the industries, people and infrastructure that already exist.

In Memphis, Albuquerque and Richmond, Virginia, that means partnering with medical manufacturers and other players in the healthcare industry, including local hospitals and universities to generate jobs through new medical districts and smart procurement strategies.

In Oklahoma City, it means developing housing that is close to existing job centers. “We see the need to provide workforce and affordable housing, especially in the downtown area where there’s high concentration of employment,” says Cathy O’Connor, president of the the city’s Alliance for Economic Development.

New York is also working to connect its employment-dense areas with a greater range of residents. In 2017, it’ll be launching the first phase of its Citywide Ferry System, which will provide new transit routes for workers in Astoria, the Rockaways and South Brooklyn that gets them to directly to Queens, Manhattan and Brooklyn’s East River

“We’re also taking the first steps towards a longer-term transit project — the Brooklyn-Queens Connector — a modern, efficient [streetcar] that could connect people in transit starved neighborhoods from Astoria, Queens, to Sunset Park, Brooklyn,” says Maria-Torres Springer, president of the New York City Economic Development Corporation.

Another sign of the growing appetite for place-based investment can be found in the EDC’s decision to support manufacturing and tech hubs across the city.

She wants that to extend into 2017. “Through our Industrial Developer Loan Fund we’ll be helping open a 90,000-square-foot manufacturing center in Queens, with room for 26 small industrial businesses,” she says, noting one incoming project.

On the West Coast, Los Angeles announced on Dec. 21 that this year the city reached its highest employment numbers in the past 24 years, and unemployment is now down to 5 percent, as compared to 10 percent just three years ago in 2013. It’s been a testing ground for one of the country’s most innovative, place-based, equity-driven job creation programs, the U.S. Employment Plan.

Created by Jobs to Move America alongside the the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, the University of Southern California and the Brookings Institution, the U.S. Employment Plan is a bidding format for city public transportation projects where those firms that commit to reinvesting into their communities — whether that’s through hiring veterans or people with criminal records or putting money into local manufacturing centers — have the best shot at securing city contracts.

Los Angeles was one of the first cities to try out this program, through a deal between Japanese vehicle manufacturer Kinkisharyo and the LA Metro that led to the creation of 243 manufacturing jobs. This year, LA Metro re-employed the U.S. Employment Plan for a major sustainable bus project that could potentially create up to 4,500 U.S. jobs.

Jan Perry, the general manager of the city of Los Angeles’ Economic and Workforce Development Department, says using transportation projects to employ disadvantaged workers will be a key focus going into 2017.

“We have to make sure workforce development is part of that ecosystem,” she says. “Every action we take should be an action to generate jobs, to leverage public funds, and to possibly create a sustainable pathway to jobs beyond the life of a project.”

Voters in her city overwhelmingly backed two equitable development measures during the November elections. Measure M will put $60 billion over the next 40 years into greatly expanding Los Angeles’ public transit networks, and Measure HHH will put $1.2 billion worth of bonds to building 10,000 housing units for the city’s massive homeless population.

Pursuing equity through economic developments takes on a different face from city to city. And as cities like Oklahoma City, New York and Los Angeles enter the new year, they’re faced with drastically different federal and local policy changes than when they started 2016.

But one clear theme is the recognition that putting more city dwellers into jobs that help them afford where they live means collaborating across sectors instead of letting government departments and organizations strive for goals in a silo.

It also helps cities track metrics to make sure these grand initiatives chalk up real results, says Springer.

“That helps us determine whether the programs we invest in are successful, but it also helps ensure that the jobs we’re creating pay good, middle class wages, and that our partners are doing everything in their power to make jobs available to diverse New Yorkers,” she says. “That’s a big priority in all that we do, and will remain so in 2017 and beyond.”

The Equity Factor is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.

Johnny Magdaleno is a journalist, writer and photographer. His writing and photographs have been published by The Guardian, Al Jazeera, NPR, Newsweek, VICE News, the Huffington Post, the Christian Science Monitor and others. He was the 2016-2017 equitable cities fellow at Next City. 

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