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Why It Matters Who Gets to Shape a City’s Economy

More representative conversations mean more inclusive economies.

Louisville, Ky. (Credit: AP)

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Good things happen when conversations about shaping a city’s economy are more representative of those who live in cities, according to a new study from the Urban Institute, released today.

The Columbus Partnership launched in 2002, bringing together over 60 CEOs in the Ohio capital to engage with projects and organizations from the city that typically struggle with capacity and funding. Together they strategized about how to work toward sustained economic growth and community development. Today the partnership continues to work with city government, anchor institutions like the Ohio State University, and philanthropic groups on projects focused on economic and racial inclusion.

In 2003, Louisville, Ky., merged with surrounding Jefferson County. At the outset of the city-county merger discussions, there was a fear that African Americans would be under-represented in the new combined political structures, having previously been the majority in the city’s governing body. Pressure from the NAACP and other civil rights organizations resulted in an agreement to redraw council district lines after the merger, creating majority African American districts in the city.

Going back to a wave of southeast Asian immigrants in the 1980s, Lowell, Mass., supported the development of a Southeast Asian Water Festival in 1997, which went on to spur economic activity by attracting tourists to the area. More recently the city, prompted by the Cambodian community, invested in establishing a “Little Cambodia” district as a place for both small business development and food tourism.

According to the new Urban Institute study, between 1980 and 2013, each of these three cities experienced an economic recovery in which they also improved on both economic and racial inclusion relative to other cities in the research sample.

The nonprofit research organization collected data on 274 of the largest US cities, ranking each on economic, racial, and overall inclusion over the last four decades. They focused on periods of economic recovery to see if cities could harness economic growth to improve inclusion. The short answer is yes, they can, even if cities don’t explicitly realize they’re doing it.

“A few times, we heard people were surprised they were being highlighted as improving on inclusion,” says Christina Plerhoples Stacy, who co-authored the study. “We found some of the cities that came to the forefront as more or less inclusive might not fit the narrative you hear.”

The study is the result of a partnership with the Kresge Foundation. The team took a step back from an earlier plan to write a guidebook for urban inclusion. Instead, the study looks at what inclusiveness means in cities, how it’s measured, and where it was best manifested in times of economic recovery. “We wanted to figure out who had done it well, then try to learn from them to help others do it in the future,” says Plerhoples Stacy.

The first step was to distinguish economic inclusion from racial inclusion. Economic inclusion measured how all community members are able to share in, and contribute to, economic growth through income segregation, housing affordability, the share of working poor residents, and the high school dropout rate. Racial inclusion measured whether people of color also participated in that economic growth by tracking segregation, racial gaps in homeownership, poverty, and educational attainment and the population share comprised of people of color.

That was set against each city’s economic health, looking at employment growth, unemployment rate, housing vacancy rate, and median family income. The goal was to hone in on cities with “inclusive recovery,” a term that “has not been a focus of prior literature.” The report offers this definition for inclusive recovery: “when a place overcomes economic distress in a way that provides the opportunity for all residents — especially historically excluded populations — to benefit from and contribute to economic prosperity.”

The report found that on average, economically healthy cities tend to be more inclusive than distressed ones, but an economic recovery does not guarantee gains in inclusion. In fact, more than half the cities that experienced an economic recovery lost ground on either racial or economic inclusion during their recovery. One example is New York City, which in 2013 ranked 197 out of 274 cities on overall inclusion, 208 on economic inclusion, and 162 on racial inclusion. From 2000 to 2013, New York’s economic health rank increased from 187 to 131 — but the city became less inclusive, falling from 194 to 197 in the overall inclusion rankings.

The report found that smaller cities tend to be more inclusive than larger ones. “Smaller cities are often understudied in these types of things,” says Plerhoples Stacy. “And they did tend to fair better in inclusion.” The causal relationship isn’t clear, but it pushed the researchers to take a deeper look into which of these cities “were able to move the dial of inclusion,” as Plerhoples Stacy puts it. That led to the focus on Columbus, Ohio; Louisville, Ky.; Lowell, Mass.; and also Midland, Texas.

Plerhoples Stacy points to Louisville as an example of “thinking and acting regionally,” as well as “building voice and power,” while Lowell provided a good blueprint by embracing its community of Southeast Asian immigrants who arrived in the 1980s.

The report also points to Midland’s adoption of education policies and programs that support inclusion. The city offers a college attainment program in which any student graduating from Midland Independent School District receives free tuition at Midland College and at University of Texas Permian Basin. As the study states, the effort is supported by the city’s foundations, which reinvest money from the city’s oil boom toward the area’s human capital development. The city also focuses on progressive housing policy — with erratic availability and pricing due to the volatility of the oil market, Midland works to insulate its lowest-income residents with a combination of local programs, state and federal assistance.

(Credit: Urban Institute)

As the study acknowledges, many factors affect inclusion that are outside the control of city stakeholders. And unsurprisingly, the study couldn’t present a “single model for success.” Instead, Urban Institute identified eight common elements that emerged in a two-day summit with public and private sector representatives from the four featured cities: adopting a shared vision; inspiring and sustaining bold public leadership; recruiting partners from across sectors; building voice and power; leveraging assets and intrinsic advantages; thinking and acting regionally; reframing racial and economic inclusion as integral to growth; and finally, adopting policies and programs to support inclusion.

While the study wasn’t quite the guidebook first envisioned, Plerhoples Stacy believes it can be used “as a platform to continue thinking about becoming more inclusive, monitor these things over time, and make inclusion a core focus of their day to day work.”

The next steps? “We hope it’s taken further, with more [dis]aggregation by race as well as other groups who face barriers to opportunity,” she says.

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Emily Nonko is a social justice and solutions-oriented reporter based in Brooklyn, New York. She covers a range of topics for Next City, including arts and culture, housing, movement building and transit. 

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Tags: urban planningincome inequalitydata

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