CITY/STATE: What Triggers A Civic Turnaround?
Monday, August 26, 2013
How to places break out of this and renew prosperity? Looking at cities where there has been change, I have observed several basic patterns of turnaround.
Many cities failed for structural economic reasons like deindustrialization and globalization. Similarly, many ended up reviving for similar external reasons. In her seminal book The Global City, Saskia Sassen noted that while globalization permitted the dispersal of economic activities to lower cost locations, it created a parallel need for specialized financial and producer services to manage and control those global production networks. These services were disproportionately concentrated in so-called “global cities” like New York and London. While once those cities had fallen on hard times (in NYC’s case, nearly going bankrupt itself in the 1970s), globalization more than any other factor perhaps brought them back to life. Unfortunately, localities have no ability to conjure up these macro-economic changes.
Natural Lifecycle Progression
In a few places, notably Pittsburgh, it seems that the problems simply reached the end of their life cycle. To borrow a phase, they “hit bottom” and started reviving, if slowly. Of course, many places hit bottom and stayed there. Pittsburgh has been helped by the presence of large, world-class institutions. Being in the Marcellus Shale formation that’s the epicenter of the American gas fracking boom doesn’t hurt. It’s worth nothing that Pittsburgh has been fairly slow growth and still faces big challenges, including major pension and infrastructure problems.
Other cities hit a growth inflection point when they were able to attract a critical mass of outsiders. I have argued that having a critical mass of outsiders, that is, of people who aren’t long time natives or “boomerang” migrants, is almost a prerequisite for major civic change:
You need them, and you need enough of them that they a) don’t get beaten down by the man, so to speak and b) that they become a base of support for change in their own right. Once this group becomes large enough, it opens up the field of possibilities. They have the insights and different ideas from having lived elsewhere. They aren’t bought into the status quo or burdened by the baggage of the past. They are willing to question they way things are done. They are more likely to want change. In short, outsiders are the natural constituency for the new. That’s why outsiders are so important for a community to change, and why absent enough newcomers, change is difficult if not impossible.
Of course, this almost begs the question: how do you attract those outsiders? This would appear to be a second order factor. It would be worth doing a deep dive on how significant inward migration began in these places. Also, the places that seemed to do well on this model – like Nashville or Denver – are places that weren’t in terrible shape to begin with.
Any number of cities lend themselves to a narrative of transformational change led by a particular leader or group of leaders. You can think of Richard M. Daley in Chicago or Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg in New York. Cory Booker in Newark may be an emerging story in this mold. Or in previous generations there were business magnates like J. Irwin Miller in Columbus, Indiana that through superior vision combined with clout were able to put their community on a different path than other similarly positioned cities. (Among other things, Columbus, Indiana is an internationally renowned center of modernist architecture, with no fewer than six National Historic Landmarks in a modernist style).
The obvious question here is how much leadership had to do with it. So many of these large tier one type cities came back at the same time that it seems likely some common outside force like globalization was the real driver. Or at least that it was a prerequisite to enable the leadership to be effective. However, there are some examples like Columbus that appear to be less the result of outside forces.
Civic Sector Led Revitalization
Some cities have done well in models without a single dominant leader such as a larger than life mayor. In Indianapolis, for example, it was a broader coalition of business, community, and institutional leaders that championed items such as their sports hosting strategy that had a transformational impact. This is the model most cities try to use, but it has failed nine times out of ten in delivering transformational impact, so would appear to be a very high risk strategy.
Can Worcester accelerate into the urban renewal fast lane as these other American cities have? These five patterns might prompt the next set of questions to ask of the city and state leadership.
Aaron M. Renn an opinion-leading urban affairs analyst, entrepreneur, speaker, and writer on a mission to help America’s cities thrive in the 21st century. In his blog, The Urbanophile, he has created America’s premier destination for serious, in depth, non-partisan, and non-dogmatic analysis and discussion of the issues facing America’s cities and regions in the 21st century. Renn’s writings have also appeared in publications such as Forbes, the New York Times, and City Journal. Renn is also the founder and CEO of Telestrian, a data analysis platform that provides powerful data mining and visualization capabilities previously only available in very expensive, difficult to use tools at a fraction of the cost and with far superior ease of use.