The fast lane – Demography, regional competitiveness, city finances

Editor's note:

We are launching a new monthly blog series aimed at highlighting research, commentary, and news that touches on the important issues that metropolitan communities throughout the country are facing. Our goal is to help both local leaders and concerned citizens understand the challenges and opportunities in their cities and potential local solutions to address them.

Seizing a demographic tipping point

Demography is destiny, goes the old saying. In the United States, a changing and growing population may help spare our society from the workforce shortfalls afflicting many other industrialized countries. Yet the transition to a more diverse America, including the first recorded decline in the country’s white population, is causing palpable anxiety in our politics and reigniting core tensions around race. In the San Francisco Chronicle, Bill Frey explains why America’s growing minority youth population is good news for the nation’s future, building on the second edition of his book, Diversity Explosion.

At the same time, it’s clear that demographic margins alone won’t automatically translate into broadly shared opportunity. Writing in The New York Times from his fast-changing majority-black hometown near Pittsburgh, Andre Perry urges investors and technology companies to bridge the gaps that too often separate diverse communities from the urban tech boom.

On the competitiveness of cities

While the Amazon HQ2 race has expanded interest in what makes regions competitive and how cities should create jobs, true economic development nerds hold a special place in their hearts for Harvard Business School professor Michael E. Porter and his 1990s theory of clusters. Post-Porter, one of the hallowed truths of economic development has been that dense agglomerations of firms, suppliers, skilled workers, and the right infrastructure, intently focused on an industry or problem, produce a certain kind of magic.

But what does this mean, in practice, for a generation of city leaders who have devoted their careers to developing clusters strategies? In a new report, our colleagues Ryan Donahue, Joseph Parilla, and Brad McDearman explore what works and what doesn’t in terms of identifying, prioritizing, and supporting clusters. Their bottom line: effective clusters strategies are hard work to pull off, and they might not make sense for every region at every time.

Can cities really go it alone?

We live in an era of city boosterism, where innovation from below and neglect from above have put city leaders in the driver’s seat on a range of critical economic and social issues. But for cities beset by limited revenue sources, state-imposed restrictions, and tax structures that don’t necessarily align with local economies, this can be a heavy burden. Michael Pagano from the University of Illinois at Chicago and Chris Hoene of the California Budget & Policy Center provide a reality check on city ambitions and a call to action for state and federal leaders: Local innovation demands more fiscal flexibility.


Are America’s housing prices too (damn) high or low?

With their stories of ridiculous NIMBYism alongside dire consequences for working residents, coastal markets have become synonymous with America’s housing crisis. But is housing unaffordable for middle-income Americans across the country? And what does it mean if housing is also too “cheap”? In a new podcast, building on earlier research, Jenny Schuetz explores these dynamics and argues all levels of government must contribute to making our housing markets function better.

The limits to a tightening labor market

A decade after the Great Recession, tight labor markets are translating to more opportunity for a wide swath of American workers. Yet, as Martha Ross and Nicole Bateman detail, employment levels for disabled Americans remain low, depend on local economic conditions and educational attainment, and portray the need for continued investments to ensure these workers reach their potential.