To create economic opportunities, cities must confront their past — and look to the future

New American citizens wave American flags after taking the Oath of Allegiance during a naturalization ceremony in Newark, New Jersey, U.S., March 1, 2017. REUTERS/Mike Segar - RTS110PR
Editor's note:

This post was originally published on CityLab.

Recently, a jury in Minnesota acquitted the police officer who shot and killed Philando Castile during a traffic stop last summer, sparking renewed anger over a criminal justice system that perpetuates historic racial bias in cities. On the same day, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos announced his company had bought Whole Foods for $13.4 billion, potentially upending the future of retail.

These were not unrelated events. They represent the twin urgencies that local and regional leaders must confront if they want to create broad-based prosperity: Make right the wrongs of the past, while radically preparing for the future.

Cities are under pressure to deliver on a whole host of national priorities, including addressing the nation’s weak productivity growth, stagnant wages, and stark racial disparities. That’s because Washington, D.C., has made clear that building an inclusive economy is not a top priority. Health care and other supports for low-income, working families are on the chopping block. A robust federal economic growth agenda is missing. And the Trump administration’s budget blueprint and policies indicate that state and local governments, along with the private sector, are expected to step up their investments in key domestic policy areas including infrastructure, basic and applied research, job training, and housing assistance.

As public and private sector leaders in metro areas set out to build more productive, inclusive economies, they should address the structural barriers, past and future, that prevent many people, places, and businesses from participating fully in the economy.

At one level, this means that cities and metro areas must reverse the housing, land use, and infrastructure policies that have privileged white homeowners over black and brown Americans. In a pair of recent speeches, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu articulated their response to these challenges. Before an audience of Michigan’s top business, government, and nonprofit leaders, Mayor Duggan detailed how his latest affordable housing and neighborhood policies aim to return economic power and wealth-creating potential to longtime city residents. In an address that went viral, Mayor Landrieu explained why removing Confederate monuments was an essential step towards racial healing and opening a new chapter of greater opportunities for all.

The geography of opportunity and poverty is shifting, creating a patchwork of concentrated advantage and disadvantage across cities, suburbs, and exurbs that challenges existing models of governance.

At the same time, cities and metro areas must help their communities adapt to the rapidly shifting dynamics of the new era, which threaten to exacerbate inequality and exclusion. Technology is transforming every occupation and industry in cities large and small: According to forthcoming Brookings research, the share of U.S. jobs that require only low levels of digital literacy shrank from 56 percent in 2002 to less than 30 percent today. In just over a decade, the day-to-day duties of administrative assistants, toolmakers, truck mechanics, HR specialists, and numerous other occupations have dramatically digitalized.

Additionally, the workforce that must be prepared for a digital economy is both aging and diversifying, with older, whiter generations and younger, multi-ethnic ones each seeking to navigate a changing labor market. The geography of opportunity and poverty is shifting, creating a patchwork of concentrated advantage and disadvantage across cities, suburbs, and exurbs that challenges existing models of governance.

How can one create more inclusive economies in this disruptive age? City and regional leaders should help their communities adapt in the following three ways:

Help people adapt their skills to the changing demands of our economy. Many older workers are struggling to translate their skills and experience into stable employment, while younger ones lack meaningful workplace experiences or personal networks to find good jobs. City leaders can help both groups by promoting apprenticeships and other work-based learning programs, organizing digital and global fluency trainings, and ensuring work supports for near retirees. New York City, for instance, has launched Ladders for Leaders, a program that sets its sights on providing 100,000 jobs, internships, and mentorships per year for young New Yorkers by 2020, particularly vulnerable youth.

Improve connectivity and access to better opportunities. Too many neighborhoods and jurisdictions within metro areas are isolated; cities can help re-connect them by investing in better transit, more affordable housing in opportunity-rich neighborhoods, and a network of innovation hubs and job centers across the metro area so that residents are close to jobs regardless of where they live. Los Angeles, Seattle, and Atlanta have multi-billion dollar transit expansions in the works, while leaders in Northeast Ohio are creating job hubs through coordinated actions in economic development, transportation, and workforce development.

Help businesses launch, scale, and innovate, promoting greater economic dynamism and productivity. Despite all of the promises of technological innovation, research confirms that business formation and productivity is flat, challenging workers’ paths to upward mobility and income growth. City and metropolitan leaders can create healthier, more productive business ecosystems by helping firms invest in their employees and new digital solutions, encouraging entrepreneurship and startups, especially among underrepresented groups, and connecting small and mid-sized firms to new customers and markets abroad. FirstBuild in Louisville, Kentucky, for example, provides a model for how incumbent firms can foster an entrepreneurial ecosystem, by connecting engineers at GE Appliances and the local university with individual innovators to co-design the next generation of household consumer products.

Achieving more productive, inclusive economic growth requires multidimensional action. Local and regional leaders will need to change mindsets, emphasize systemic reforms over narrow new programs, and reimagine ways to finance solutions. It certainly won’t be easy. But in today’s political climate, progress on these crucial objectives will increasingly depend on the adaptive actions of cities and metro areas.