This is a guest post by Ben Hecht. This post is the first installment in a series focused on NLC’s 2015 Cities and Unequal Recovery report, which highlights the findings of our 2015 Local Economic Conditions survey.
If we want to see dramatically better results, we need new ways of solving the complex problems facing American cities. The findings from NLC’s 2015 Local Economic Conditions survey highlight three opportunity areas where we can focus our attention to catalyze lasting change.
(photo: Bill Dickinson)
Many findings in the 2015 Local Economic Conditions report, recently published by the National League of Cities (NLC), mirrored what we at Living Cities are seeing in the field. We believe that the following three areas, highlighted in the report and below, are particularly important to understand and harness if we are going to build a new type of urban practice that gets dramatically better results for low-income people in cities:
Entrepreneurs, Small Business, and the Rise of ‘Urban Serving Businesses’
The NLC’s finding that “new business startups and business expansions are driving improved economic health in cities” couldn’t be more true. And it’s different than in other recoveries. For example, in our Integration Initiative sites in Albuquerque, N.M. and New Orleans, civic leaders are intentionally tapping into the potential of local entrepreneurs of color and unique contracting opportunities to build growth businesses and to get low-income people and people of color into jobs, especially at a sustainable, living wage. Encouragingly, the Kauffman Foundation recently selected Albuquerque as part of a new project to learn about and identify the best ways to build a local ecosystem to support these emerging entrepreneurs.
Relatedly, we’re seeing the rise of what we’ve termed ‘Urban Serving Businesses,’ structured as social enterprises and otherwise, that are building their businesses in cities, creating jobs and often delivering products and services that are improving the lives of low income people and the communities in which they live. Accelerators like Tumml and participants in efforts like Code for America and Venture for America are great examples of this trend. This is an area of opportunity for cities, and one that Living Cities and our partners are exploring on the job creation front. We’re about to undertake a landscape scan, in partnership with Deutsche Bank, to understand the state of that emerging sector, the ecosystems that currently exists to support them, and the gaps that inhibit their growth and long term success. We’re also interested in learning if a collaborative like Living Cities can play a role in that ecosystem, and what that role could look like.
Addressing the “Skills Gap” Problem from Cradle to Career
Yet, even as businesses grow, we’re still seeing that educational attainment and workforce preparation remain a challenge. As the NLC study found, the misalignment between skills available in the community and the needs of businesses is worsening. This reality is part of why we are a big supporter of the StriveTogether Network, where we’re learning about and testing promising solutions to fixing the skills gap permanently by re-engineering the systems that are failing our kids, from cradle to career. We’re particularly encouraged by the recent announcement of the six sites selected for funding from Strive’s Cradle-to-Career Accelerator Fund. In each site, leaders from the public, private, philanthropic and nonprofit sectors have come together to achieve needle-moving change across the cradle to career continuum, from readiness for Kindergarten to college completion and securing of a good job. They are using data for continuous improvement, disaggregating by race and income, and working to re-direct dollars from approaches that aren’t getting results to those that do. More than two dozen other sites are primed to learn from them and follow in their footsteps.
Innovative Affordable Housing Solutions: Looking the Problem with Fresh Eyes
Finally, the NLC’s study confirms what we are reading about in the papers and on social media every day. Despite “rising residential property values,” the “lack of affordable housing is a major concern facing cities.” We’re seeing communities across the country realize that the tried-and-tested tools that they’ve long relied on to attack the problem are grossly insufficient to address current conditions. That has catalyzed places like San Francisco and Boston to develop new approaches to building market-rate, mixed income, and affordable housing for their residents. In Boston, for example, the Mayor’s Innovation Team (i-team) is tackling the city’s affordable housing challenge in new and creative ways by helping agency leaders and staff through a data-driven process to assess problems, generate responsive new interventions, develop partnerships and deliver measurable results.
NLC’s new report highlights exactly the areas where we need to focus our attention. It provides further fuel for the argument that we need new ways of solving many of these old problems if we want to get dramatically better results. There are many promising solutions out there — in Albuquerque, Boston, Cincinnati and beyond. We all need to help them to succeed and to move them from the periphery of practice to the mainstream.
About the Author: Ben Hecht was appointed President & CEO of Living Cities in July 2007. Since that time, the organization has adopted a broad, integrative agenda that harnesses the collective knowledge of its 22 member foundations and financial institutions to benefit low income people and the cities where they live. You can reach Ben on Twitter @BenHecht.