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Renewing Our Cities

American cities are booming, or at least some of them are. The process of re-invention has been difficult and uneven for the economy as a whole, and old industrial cities are no different. The keys to successful cities? Reinvention, inclusion, diversity, and education.

That is the conclusion of a report from the Brookings Institution entitled “Renewing America’s economic promise through older industrial cities.” An analysis of the legacy industrial base shows that some cities have been successful, others have not. The differences? In large part, a willingness to embrace change and diversity, giving it the space and tools they need to blossom.

What a “job” used to mean for many.

The story of cities like Detroit and Cleveland is rarely told often enough in America. It’s as if we are embarrassed by them, and in many ways that is reasonable. The astonishing blight that has taken root as many industrial cities have fallen is a genuine tragedy.

Much of this decline can be linked directly to racism, like everything in America. White flight from Detroit left the city vulnerable and accelerated its decline, without a doubt. What has proven less obvious is how these cities acted as regional engines of growth, and their eventual decline put even more pressure on much smaller industrial cities around them. As went Cleveland, so went Akron and Canton.

But why did they not eventually recover on their own?

The Brookings report highlights what made some cities successful. In all cases, it is a dynamic partnership of public and private. Their summary of the winning recipe:

Public and private actions have focused on (1) identifying and investing in key technological capabilities; (2) spurring strategic urbanization; (3) preparing a diverse workforce for current and future opportunities; and (4) stewarding inclusive growth at the regional scale.

These key items are important enough that they need to be evaluated individually so that we can understand what they mean in detail.

Did you get our jobs?

Investing in key technological capabilities is something rather like what a developing nation does when it creates an industrial policy. In the US, it’s done city by city rather than as a nation. As such, it has less control over the population and has to succeed quickly. What technological capabilities need investment? Generally, it’s going to be the basic support of a regional industry of some kind.

Strategic urbanization is a difficult one. It means that the receding industrial glaciers of the city need to be replaced, and important pieces of land need to be redeveloped. It is, without any doubt, a public private partnership that involves urban design. It will take talent and care.

A diverse workforce starts with an open and successful education system. The role of education at all levels is going to be critical. This means not simply opening schools of all kinds, including vocational, but making sure there is access to them and that they perform.

Inclusive growth means that no one is left behind, and the emphasis on the whole region is important. Connections to and through the city are what make it stronger. No neighborhoods can be walled off, and no towns can be isolated.

In summary, the report identifies four key investments that need to be made: Industrial capacity, land, people, and connections.

Many hands make lighter work. Many different hands make the work a triumph.

None of this should seem surprising, and it cannot be considered as such. But what separates cities far too often is not the will or the talent, but the divisions which prevented them from making the necessary investments in these key areas. The most significant among the many divisions is racism, without any doubt, often expressed as a rural-urban divide defined by exurban white flight.

What can and should be done about this? On a national level, support for cities has to be increased. But that support is not measured primarily in dollars. Reports like this are an excellent start as expertise is shared among cities. We do know what works and we have seen it happen.

In the end, however, like most investments the necessary investment for successful reinvention comes down to a matter of faith. We have to go beyond the obvious lines and have the will it takes to make these investments and then make them work for everyone.

We have the resources, we have the knowledge. What we are missing is unity.

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