The Key to Economic Development: Getting Back to Basics

Pop-up park on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia (Credit: M. Fischetti for Visit Philadelphia)

A recent quote about Akron, from the “62.4 Report” written by the Greater Ohio Policy Center, struck me: “While the city has done a good job of building and marketing itself as a great place to work and play, it has done less to boost itself as a good place to live.”

Akron, certainly, isn’t alone in the problem. Many cities, include Philadelphia where I live, focus a lot of their attention on boosting pop-up parks, a first-class restaurant scene, bike-share systems, and other programs to attract “millennials” (what I think is coded language for well-off, young, white professionals and not a generation as a whole).

City leaders and officials focus on these kinds of programs because they’re relatively cheap and easy to accomplish. Their quick to get done before the next election, and they make young so-called urbanists happy.

But, according to new research by Gary Sands of Wayne State University and Laura Reese of Michigan State University, these schemes may have little economic impact. What city leaders should focus on, instead, are things like education, safe drinking water, a good transit system, and public safety. If a city can’t get the basics right, it won’t be good places to live.

According to the Detroit Free Press, “[Sand and Reese] have completed new research that calls into question almost all of the economic development tactics that Rust Belt cities have thrown at decline over the years, including casinos and programs aimed at luring the so-called creative class. They found little or no relationship between those trendy investments and broader community-wide economic growth.”

The researchers aren’t arguing that pop-ups and bike lanes are bad, and neither would I. But it cities with a poverty or education crisis, they do little to improve the overall economy. I’m so happy to see city leaders and researchers starting to think longer into the future.

Sands and Reese are working on a book, which should come out in 2017, on this topic that I cannot wait to read.