Connecting City Residents to Economic Opportunity

This post is being written as part of a group blogging event put together by Living Cities. These are issues we write about day in, day out at Livability, and we look forward to reading other ideas from around the ‘net today.

Last year, Chicago closed a record number of public schools. Critics pointed to the schools chosen and noted that a disproportionate number of them were in neighborhoods populated mostly by black and Hispanic residents. This was impossible to argue, but it ignored the crazy reality of Chicago Public Schools. In a city where more than three in 10 people are white, fewer than one in 10 CPS students are. Further, 87 percent are from low-income households. If that doesn’t speak to broad, systemic problems and problems that directly impact economic opportunity, I don’t know what does.

Livability editor, Matt Carmichael

Livability editor, Matt Carmichael

Today I live in Chicago, but I have the opportunity to travel to other cities and talk to a lot of mayors, city managers and civic leaders. Schools are a topic that comes up regularly. For some, like the (now former) mayor of Palo Alto, Calif., it’s a bragging point. For others, like Pittsburgh’s new mayor, it’s a known challenge. Pittsburgh’s Bill Peduto told me that when residents turn 35 and have a 6-year-old child, they leave the city for better schools in the suburbs.

That path doesn’t work in the city’s favor. That path also doesn’t work for everyone. It only works for those who have achieved enough economic flexibility to have options. For me, that’s what really defines today’s middle class: Do you have the freedom to make choices, or are you always reacting the best you can with what little you’ve got?

In Chicago it’s clear who has made that choice and who has their choices made for them. But Chicago’s not alone.

So my first answer to the question of how we help our residents compete is deceptively simple: Beg, borrow or steal to invest in the schools. Having a great education shouldn’t be a matter of living in the right (often pricey) neighborhood. It shouldn’t be a matter of having the rock star principal – because that person will eventually move on, and quality should be a constant. It shouldn’t be a matter of winning a lottery. It should be a right for all kids. Equally.

But say you’ve solved that problem. Say you are a community with overall great schools. Now what?

To that, I would return to a mantra readers of this blog have heard before: Cities need to think more like marketers. Gone are the days where huge capital projects like stadia and convention centers are needed to make an impact on a community. That’s partially due to the fact that more and more people are looking to live in denser, smaller geographies – whether that’s in the heart of a major downtown or near a smaller community’s main street. Places that are walkable. Places that are built in a way that encourage loitering and interaction. Places where ideas come together and grow. These ideas can make communities stronger. Ideas can lead to new small businesses – the true economic engine of cities. Ideas can lead those small businesses to grow as well.

Cities can take advantage of big data tools to learn more about how residents interact with their environment. That knowledge can lead to better planning, better services and better marketing of those services to the residents.

Cities can learn from trends like tactical urbanism and lean urbanism, that small and iterative changes can still have an outsized impact on a community.

Cities can be more agile, like the software coders they are all so keen to attract.

Cities can take advantage of the sharing economy to create lower-cost transit options.

Cities can repackage existing assets and services in new ways to maximize the resources that already exist in communities.

Cities can offer all kinds of new incentives to get residents to engage in the communities. Those can be financial – like property tax breaks – or virtual or experiential like Chicago’s Park Points.

All of this comes down to a word you shouldn’t be surprised to hear on this blog: Livability. Because at the end of the day, that’s really what creating opportunity is all about. It’s creating places that those with the economic freedom and mobility want to live. It’s also about creating places in which those without choices can thrive.

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