7 Incredible Stories of Economic Recovery

What you don’t always hear during national news reports are the stories obscured by facts and figures — the journeys that city leaders have taken to bring their cities from recession to recovery.

We measure economic recovery through a series of numbers: jobs that are coming back, property values recovering, and how many families on food stamps. What you don’t always hear during national news reports are the stories obscured by facts and figures — the journeys that city leaders have taken to bring their cities from recession to recovery.

Every day, local leaders are tasked with finding solutions to their communities’ economic challenges, but it never stops there. The greater challenge is the long-term maintenance of economic stability in order to keep the streets paved, water safe, and sidewalks walkable. These are the details you don’t hear in reports of post-recession data. You don’t always hear about what it takes to bring a city into prosperity: the development of a bold vision, the multi-sector strategizing, the coming together of multiple sectors, and the capitalization on what makes a city unique.

Take the story of Chattanooga, Tennessee. A once-flourishing industrial city with a bustling downtown, the fourth largest city in Tennessee took a downturn in the 90s when manufacturing jobs left. The iconic narrative resembled so many others: the bustling downtown emptied and crime increased. The City, along with public and private sectors, acted boldly and swiftly, capitalizing on waterfront revitalization efforts to transform Chattanooga into a lively, diverse, walkable hotbed of entrepreneurship.

The National League of Cities has actively been seeking out such stories of economic resilience to share with city leaders everywhere, emphasizing the message that “cities are where things get done.” We searched across the country for stories of city leaders who thought creatively, collaboratively, and quickly. They’re not just inspirational tales; these are real solutions from communities who are concrete successes.

On Friday April 15, from 9 a.m. – 1 p.m., NLC brought you seven of these short, powerful stories of economic resilience — including the story of Chattanooga – via the live stream of our Big Ideas for Cities event in Miami, Florida. Check out the video above; you can also share your thoughts on our Facebook and Twitter page. And if you’re not already, be sure to like and follow us!

Mari Andrew bio photoAbout the Author: Mari Andrew is the Senior Associate of Marketing at the National League of Cities.

Transportation Planning Is Stuck in the Past. Here’s What Needs to Be Done.

There are several critical limitations in municipal transportation planning, and in many ways, these limitations are worsening.

Atlanta-GA“Fixed-guideway systems will still be around, public streets and personal cars will still be around… Now transportation planners need to learn from the software industry and be more iterative. How can we accommodate different modes within the old networks?” (Getty Images)

This is an excerpt from City of the Future: Technology & Mobility, and the second in our “Viewpoints on the Future” blog series. Read the first one here.

Peter Torrellas has been working at the intersection of infrastructure and technology for almost twenty years, and currently serves as National Business Manager for State and Local Government at Siemens. Today, he believes there are several critical limitations in municipal transportation planning, and in many ways these limitations are worsening. “The window of opportunity to solve problems is moving faster than the planning process,” says Torrellas. “Planning, capital allocation, politics, even innovations like TIGER with the notion of ‘shovel-ready projects,’ are all built for a different time.”

So far, these limitations haven’t been too problematic. For all of the media buzz surrounding cities and the ‘disruption’ caused by transportation innovations, most people in most cities still only commute via car. But the true disruption may be right around the corner. “We’re going to have autonomous vehicles in 10-15 years. It isn’t a question.”

While denser cities like San Francisco, Chicago, Washington and New York will likely continue their trends toward multi-modalism, on-demand fleets of autonomous vehicles could be much more significant for the rest of the nation. Making trips to the store for bulk purchases, getting children to events or enabling seniors to live independently can all be accomplished without actually owning multiple personal vehicles.

Mr. Torrellas notes that “In the last 10 years, independent app developers taking advantage of public data was obvious and inevitable, but the next big thing will be centered around the automation and digitization of these systems.” Taking this step would be much more efficient and would remove significant amounts of traffic during peak hours. Particularly for freight and delivery services, “data centers will begin optimizing and directing the whole transportation network,” says Torrellas. “Algorithms make 60-70 percent of the trades on Wall St. and the same trend is happening in transportation.”

So how can cities prepare for the future and still be responsive to these unknown changes? For most cities, it will actually be important to think small. His advice: “You can’t just throw out the old way. Fixed-guideway systems will still be around, public streets and personal cars will still be around, but it will be one of many options. Now transportation planners need to learn from the software industry and be more iterative. How can we accommodate different modes, or driverless vehicles, within the old networks? San Francisco started with bike lanes and complete streets pilots, and they scaled. The city nailed pay-for-parking because they scaled and had vision.”

About the Author: Cooper Martin is the Program Director for the Sustainable Cities Institute at NLC. Follow the program on twitter @sustcitiesinst.

Does the Maker Movement Hold the Key to Economic Growth?

The power of this movement is its ability to draw production back into cities. This can have profound economic and social benefits.

MakerspaceA man builds a 3D printer at a makerspace. (Getty)

This is an excerpt from NLC’s upcoming report, The Maker Movement. The report was created in partnership with the Department of Public Administration and Policy at American University.

If you’ve visited Pittsburgh lately, you might have noticed companies like Google and TechShop have setup outposts in the city’s developing urban core. Drawing on the prowess of the robotics engineering programs at the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Melon, the city has found a new calling, becoming one of the most encouraging spots for innovation in the country, and the so-called maker movement.

These economic investments in startups, makerspaces and the technology sector are resulting in real dividends for the city. Revenue from economic growth has translated into protected bike lanes, open spaces and parks, and events – projects aimed at making the city a place people want to stay and lead active lives.

From Rust Belt cities like Pittsburgh to rugged outdoors towns like Burlington, Vermont, the maker movement is providing localities a framework for unlocking growth and engaging citizens. With the growth of the movement, which views the producer as the consumer, co-location of manufacturing, engineering and design is common – a process that is transforming our city landscapes.

And that’s the power of the movement: its ability to draw production back into the cities where consumption occurs. This can have profound economic and social benefits. In addition to added jobs, proximity means more innovative potential for workers. The untapped skills and knowledge of out-of-work producers become part of the creative economy of the city.

But, what is the maker movement, exactly?

In the 1990s and early 2000s, the United States’ technology and manufacturing industries experienced a significant transition. With the advent of the Internet, computers began shrinking in size and price, while global connections grew exponentially and economies became inextricably linked.

During this time, the U.S. began outsourcing much of its technological needs. However, the introduction of new technologies such as 3D printers and non-commercial droids spurred an interest in Do-It-Yourself (DIY) and Do-It-With-Others (DIWO) hobbies. Faster prototyping and the availability of fabrication tools as well as easier sourcing of parts and direct distribution of physical products online further contributed to the desire to grow community workspaces.

In this sense, the maker movement gained momentum from the increasing participation of all kinds of people in interconnected communities, defined by interests and skills. The increased predominance of makerspaces offers individuals a compelling social experience that is built around interpersonal relationships.

According to Atmel Corporation, the leading manufacturer of microcontrollers and touch technology semiconductors, and a major backer of the maker movement, there are an estimated 135 million U.S. adults who are makers. In 2013, Wired magazine reported that the overall market for 3D printing products and similar maker services reached $2.2 billion in 2012, a compounded annual growth rate of almost 29 percent when compared to the $1.7 billion the industry recorded in 2011. Projections are expected to reach $6 billion by 2017 and reach $8.4 billion by 2020.

Each region of the U.S. and each local community has a slightly varied understanding of what the actual maker movement is, and its definition is often affected by the unique economic environment of each locality. In many cities like Detroit, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, the maker movement has emerged organically as former manufacturing cities look to diversify by incorporating innovative new technologies into their existing factories.

The transition away from generic, mass-produced, made-in-China merchandise and back to local industry seems to encourage entrepreneurs who are looking to share their ideas and innovations with other like-minded people, and build broad-based support for the maker movement.

Brooks Rainwater bio photoAbout the Author: Brooks Rainwater is the Director of the Center for City Solutions and Applied Research at the National League of Cities. Follow Brooks on Twitter at @BrooksRainwater.

What It Takes to Be a 21st Century City

“Local governments are competing to be the most progressive, the most innovative, to lure the most Millennials, and to be at the forefront of the new American 21st century city.”

Gabe Klein discusses the sharing economy at NLC’s 2015 Congress of Cities in Nashville, Tennesse. (Jason Dixson)

This is an excerpt from City of the Future: Technology & Mobility, and the first in our “Viewpoints on the Future” blog series.

Gabe Klein has worked his entire career in the transportation business, switching between the private and public sectors. He headed both Chicago and Washington, D.C.’s Transportation Departments, and prior to that worked for several private sector companies, including Zipcar.

He now works as a Special Venture Partner at a venture capital firm that funds next generation mobility companies, and advises a cadre of startups. His unique experiences in different sectors have led him to see the immense value in both public and private contributions to urban development — but even more so in cross-sector partnership.

Klein has seen a change in the way cities think about land use, public space and transportation, and also in the way they partner with businesses and NGOs to improve the quality of life of their residents.

“Local governments are competing to be the most progressive, the most innovative, to lure the most Millennials, and to be at the forefront of the new American 21st century city,” says Klein.

Public-private partnerships (P3s) have been most successful overseas, but they are starting to be implemented in the United States as well. For example, the city of Chicago has successfully implemented several P3s to improve its transportation network. Beginning in 2003, the city coordinated a partnership called the Chicago Regional Environmental and Transportation Efficiency (CREATE) program. This arrangement between the U.S. Department of Transportation, the City of Chicago Department of Transportation, the Illinois Department of Transportation, Metra, Amtrak and six private freight railroads aims to address necessary infrastructure improvements, increase Chicago’s freight and passenger rail capacity, and ease congestion throughout the region’s transportation network.

The city of Chicago also leased its parking garage and meter systems out to private partners, and in doing so was able to pay off some of the debt acquired in building Chicago’s famous Millennium Park. Because they are becoming more politically palatable, U.S. cities will begin working with the private sector to jointly fund their transportation projects. There will be an uptick in the application of P3 arrangements for toll roads, parking structures, and other major infrastructure assets that fall outside the traditional purview of city management.

Cities have begun pushing the envelope more, not only in terms of transportation planning but also implementation. The levers of government are being used more effectively in partnerships with the private sector. Together, the two entities are leveraging each other’s strengths.

These partnerships have helped with financing, as cities can now utilize not only federal money but both private and philanthropic dollars. The time is past due to rebuild existing infrastructure, and we all realize that it must be rebuilt in a much more resilient way.

The price tag is mind numbing, but it is critical to the vibrancy of our cities. Today’s modern mayors get the connection between land use, transportation, housing and employment. Long range plans are more coordinated, but harder to implement given the outdated and shabby state of many of our cities’ infrastructure.

Cities will need to rely on outside partners and embrace innovation if they want to remain at the cutting edge. Mr. Klein notes that “there is a great deal of innovation coming out of the private sector and government has started embracing it and applying it in ways that meets civic needs and goals.”

He imagines a scenario in which city governments could provide the framework for the changes they want to see, ensuring service equity, job creation, and safety, and letting the private sector fulfill the service role.

For more thoughts from Klein, follow him on twitter: @gabe_klein.

Nicole DuPuis bio photoAbout the Author: Nicole DuPuis is the Senior Associate for Infrastructure in NLC’s Center for City Solutions and Applied Research. Follow Nicole on Twitter at @nicolemdupuis.

A Smarter Way to Make Smart Cities

Though it may seem counterintuitive, small interventions powered by small companies can have almost as large of an impact on cities as expensive, big business projects for only a fraction of the price.

Songdo, South Korea has been billed as the world’s first “smart city.” (Image: Gale International)

This is a guest post by Isabel Munson.

Today, when we hear the term “smart city”, massive interventions powered by some of the world’s largest companies come to mind. Take the $35 billion+ city of Songdo, South Korea, which was built from the ground-up with the help of Cisco. The planned city boasts 16 miles of bike paths, 40 percent of its area dedicated to outdoor spaces, and a designation as the biggest project outside the U.S. to be included in the LEED Neighborhood Development Pilot Plan (and first LEED Accredited district in South Korea). Most impressive of all is the city’s pneumatic waste disposal system, which funnels garbage from every kitchen in the city directly to a central waste processing center. Only seven employees handle waste for the whole city, and there are no garbage trucks or cans on the street.

But how can you make a smart city if you don’t have several billion dollars or the ability to build a development from the ground up? Aren’t expensive projects by big companies the only way to make your city smart? Though it may seem counterintuitive, small interventions powered by small companies can have almost as large of an impact with a fraction of the price. The creation of small smart cities companies may seem unrelated to any municipality’s actions, but cities can do a lot to encourage and empower these innovations.

For example, the mayor’s office of New Urban Mechanics in Boston focuses on incorporating futuristic design and technology into the city’s development. Its willingness to invest resources and take chances on new technology has helped small companies succeed while ensuring that Boston remains innovative. I work for one of those small companies, Soofa, a MIT Media Lab spinoff founded in 2014. With the support of New Urban Mechanics, Soofa was able to pilot 10 pieces of smart urban furniture — solar-powered charging benches — just a few months after creating the first prototype.

Soofa CEO Sandra Richter with Boston Mayor Marty Walsh and the first Soofa protoype. (Mashable)

Soofa CEO Sandra Richter with Boston Mayor Marty Walsh and the first Soofa protoype. (Mashable)

The feedback gained from this pilot phase allowed Soofa to make major bench improvements and complete their first production run this spring, with benches being installed in eight U.S. states and three countries.

The new Soofa Bench, with changes made based on results of the Boston pilot program. (Soofa)

The new Soofa Bench, with changes made based on results of the Boston pilot program. (Soofa)

Across the river, Cambridge was also willing to take a risk on a new startup by being an early adopter of Soofa Benches and a R&D partner. The Soofa Bench features a sensor brain that detects the environment around it — from noise and nitrogen levels to humidity and temperature. Cambridge realized that this wealth of data gained from urban environments can be harnessed for more effective city planning, evaluating the efficacy of various programs and developments, and most importantly, helping citizens enjoy their urban spaces! As such, Cambridge was willing to be Soofa’s R&D partner as they develop the most comprehensive sensor brain and data platform possible. This R&D project was recently the feature of a Governing Magazine article which discusses in greater detail Soofa’s data collection capabilities.

So, why are small interventions better? When entrepreneurs envision ways to improve the city, they dream big, but are constrained by cost and practicality. The resulting products have big potential with a much smaller price tag. Installing a bench is much easier than retrofitting aged infrastructure with sensors, and more cost effective. A solar-powered bench can seem like an unnecessary expenditure, especially to smaller cities, but this investment enables cities to be more efficient and enjoyable in the future.

Creating a space where local entrepreneurs can have their city-improving ideas heard and potentially supported by city governments is critical to the creation of smart cities. Even if no investments are made, gaining the input of stakeholders from professors to designers and engineers is invaluable to future city planning. Chicago’s Array of Things project is another great example of a city using their valuable local academic and technological resources to create a low-cost, high-impact smart cities intervention.

A rendering of the Chicago Array of Things sensor boxes’ functionality. (Chicago Array of Things project)

A rendering of the Chicago Array of Things sensor boxes’ functionality. (Chicago Array of Things project)

Edward Krafcik, Director of Partnerships and Business Development at Soofa, participates in the Innovation Central expo pavilion at NLC's 2015 Congress of Cities in Nashville. (photo: Paul Konz)

Edward Krafcik, Director of Partnerships and Business Development at Soofa. Soofa was recently invited to participate in the Innovation Central expo pavilion at NLC’s 2015 Congress of Cities in Nashville. (photo: Paul Konz)

Chicago still took input from smart-cities giants like Cisco, but made a conscious choice to loop in local talent for the research and design behind the project. Though here we encourage cities to support small companies creating smart cities interventions, we must give big companies credit where credit is due. Without their push to encourage smart cities projects, smaller companies would never be able to sell their products or get funding — because no one would know what a smart city is! The research, awareness and funding from major companies in the smart cities space has been invaluable. That said, any city can be cost-effectively made into a smart city through small interventions powered by small businesses.

So, how do you future-proof your city? Prioritize the creation of civic innovation offices similar to New Urban Mechanics to support local talent and small businesses. Small, agile interventions end up having a big impact.

About the Author: Isabel Munson is the Data Strategy Lead at Soofa, an Internet-of-Things company dedicated to creating social, sustainable and smart cities. Her other musings on smart cities, #Soofatalk, may be found at www.soofa.co or @mysoofa.

19 Tech Startups That Are Shaping the Future of the Sharing Economy

This is a guest post by Tristan Pollock.

The future of the sharing economy looks a bit like the past. Tristan Pollock explains how the technology we are seeing introduced to our cities is spurring a return to small town values and making our communities more social, localized and connected.

Technologies are shaping the future of the sharing economy in a way that’s enabling a return to small town life – and allowing for stronger connections to our neighbors, for better or for worse. (Credit: andrewgenn/Getty Images)

Right now, there are battles being fought in our cities. Ridesharing services are at war with taxi companies, homesharing apps are fighting to win customers from hotels, and carsharing services are battling for market share with car rental providers. But if we focus only on the negative consequences of these battles, I think we’re missing the bigger picture.

The technology we’re seeing introduced to our cities via sharing economy services is having a greater positive impact than we could have ever expected. It’s making our communities more social, localized and connected. In fact, we’re returning to the days of small town America when we left our doors unlocked, doctors made house calls, and we actually connected with our neighbors.

Here’s how 19 tech startups are changing the way you connect with your neighbors and your community:

You can leave your doors unlocked (and lock them remotely).

1) August and Lockitron are smart lock companies for your home or office. Now you can let your friend in without being home, or let your neighbor in to borrow an electric drill or some sugar.

And if you need to borrow something…

2) Rooster, Peerby and NeighborGoods help you borrow from, or share things with, the people on your block.

Doctors can make home visits again.

3) Heal and Pager bring doctors in your city right to your front door.

Neighbors are talking to each other more than ever.

4) NextDoor is connecting neighbors via a mobile app making it possible to to have more conversations between neighbors now than ever before.

5) VillageDefense is digitizing your neighborhood crime watch. The company was created after founder Sharath Mekala’s Atlanta home was broken into by a burglar. Now, in Atlanta and Detroit, VillageDefense has reduced home burglaries by up to 80 percent by notifying neighbors when a crime has happened nearby.

6) Lyft maintains the motto of ‘your friend with a car’ and aims to make inner city commuting more social. Lyft Line takes that a step further and allows you to simply share your ride with others going the same way.

Local government is listening to your needs (and responding).

7) SeeClickFix allows for seamless reporting of needed city improvements to local government officials.

8) Change.org allows for easy creation of online petition for local issues.

9) Neighborland empowers people to take action on local issues.

You can put your dollars to work locally.

10) StartSomeGood helps local changemakers crowdfund social impact projects.

11) Neighborly is a community investing platform that allows you to search and filter for bond issuances by community, cause, or yield.

12) HandUp helps you donate to homeless people trying to break the cycle in your city.

13) KivaZip allows you to easily support small business owners on your block.

You can share meals with your neighbors.

14) Mealsharing and Feastly bring locals together to share meals with each other or invite travelers to the table.

And that’s just a small sample of the services being created right now. More startups are launching everyday to bring us closer to our neighbors. One key takeaway from these developments is the idea that, even though technology can bring us closer, it’s not a substitute for face-to-face relationships. Online, humans can only build relationships to a certain point – we need to go offline to create deeper bonds with the community around us.

About the Author: Tristan Pollock is the co-founder of Storefront, the marketplace that connects makers, including Kanye West, with retail space. Previously, he co-founded SocialEarth, a social impact media platform acquired by 3BL Media. Tristan has been named to the Forbes “30 Under 30” list, and his street art was featured in a TEDx talk on creative cities. A Minnesota native from a family of makers, Tristan now lives and creates in San Francisco, California. Connect with him at tristanpollock.com.

Four Ways City Leaders Can Boost Entrepreneurship and Propel Economic Growth

This is a guest post by Josh Russell and Jason Wiens. This post is the fourth 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.

Startup density varies from city to city across the United States. (Kauffman Index of Startup Activity)

City leaders across America understand that entrepreneurship is key to the success of their economies. That is the message from the 2015 Local Economic Conditions Survey conducted by the National League of Cities.

In that survey, 47 percent of cities said the “number of new business starts” was a positive driver of local economic conditions. New business creation was viewed by more city leaders as source of local economic improvement than any other factor.

These perceptions of chief elected officials are in line with decades of data that show new and young businesses are the primary source of net new job creation. When it comes to job creation, age matters more than size.

But how do these perceptions reflect the reality of entrepreneurial growth in these cities? Is entrepreneurship flourishing in cities where leaders viewed it to be an important contributor to economic growth?

To answer these questions, we looked at a sample of cities linked to their metropolitan statistical areas from 2002 to 2012. Here is what we found:

  • Over the last decade, average startup rates are consistent among cities regardless of their views on new business creation.
  • Startup rates converged in 2012 to 6.9 percent for cities that believed startup rates were an impactful economic factor and to 6.8 percent for cities that did not.

While there is little difference between startup rates in cities that viewed new business creation as an impactful economic factor, the real story is found when we look at employment in startup firms.

The percent of employment in startups has diverged among cities that believe startups are and are not an important economic factor. In those cities that viewed startups’ impact positively, new businesses were adding more jobs than in cities where leaders did not view them to have a positive impact. In 2012, on average, firms in cities that viewed new businesses as having a positive impact started with 15 percent more employees.

2011 marked the first year of an increase in new business creation since the start of the Great Recession. To further boost entrepreneurship and propel economic growth, local leaders have a menu of tools available to them.

  1. Build connections. While capital constraints represent one of the primary challenges to entrepreneurs, research has shown that public venture funds and local incubation centers result in little to no benefit to entrepreneurs. Instead, cities should focus on fostering local connections among entrepreneurs and businesses. These local connections, as opposed to national or global contacts, are vital to an entrepreneur’s success. Focus should be put on events that cause entrepreneurs to think and act together, building a robust local ecosystem. Examples of early-stage entrepreneurship programs that can be implemented in cities include Startup Weekend and 1 Million Cups.
  2. Welcome Immigrants. Immigrants are twice as likely as native-born Americans to become entrepreneurs. These entrepreneurial gains are not limited to low-skill sectors, but include high-skill and high-tech sectors as well. Immigrants and children of immigrants represented 52 percent of key founders of high tech firms in Silicon Valley and over 40 percent of Fortune 500 founders. While legal barriers to immigrant entrepreneurship result in missed opportunities for U.S. economic growth, cities can capture the benefits by welcoming immigrants and supporting their entrepreneurial ambitions.
  3. Support Women. Women face many unique challenges to starting a business and are half as likely to start businesses as their male counterparts. Among the top challenges are financial capital, mentorship, and work-life balance. Women are one-third as likely to access equity financing through angel investments or venture capitalists as men and begin companies with nearly half as much capital. Mentorship plays an important role in developing successful entrepreneurs, yet nearly half of female entrepreneurs say a lack of available mentors is a major challenge facing their businesses. Parenting balanced with work also results in lower rates of entrepreneurship among women. Women with STEM Ph.Ds are significantly less likely to engage in entrepreneurship if they have a child under two, while there is no statistical difference in entrepreneurial rates of comparable men. Local policies that support women in entrepreneurship can create positive economic growth in cities.
  4. Develop Human Capital. Higher levels of education are associated with increased entrepreneurial activity. While a high ratio of college graduates means more entrepreneurial firms, a substantial high school completion rate can further increase a city’s startup activity. Developing a strong school pipeline can help promote human capital and develop a strong, local entrepreneurial ecosystem.

Stated simply, these policies are all about investing in people.

As entrepreneurship rates grow, entrepreneurs are reviving local economies across the nation. The role of city leaders in this arena is to create conditions that allow more entrepreneurs to start businesses and nurture that environment so that those businesses can grow. Cities that invest in people should see entrepreneurial benefits.

About the Authors:

Josh Russell is a research assistant at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.

 

 

Jason Wiens is Policy Director at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.

Three Ways Your City Can Prosper by Embracing Equity

This is a guest post by Sarah Treuhaft. This post is the third 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.

Participants in the SySTEMic Solutions program in Fairfax County make a presentation on robotics. As part of an overall strategic plan for economic growth, cities can create programs like this one, in partnership with universities and area businesses, to funnel students into STEM-related professions. (photo: Northern Virginia Community College)

NLC’s 2015 survey of local economic conditions paints a clear picture of unequal growth in America’s cities, underscoring the need for bold, focused strategies to firmly link low-income communities and communities of color with regional (and global) economic opportunities.

Two years ago, New York City mayor Bill DeBlasio captivated voters with his “tale of two cities” narrative summarizing the dynamics of rising inequality in America’s largest metropolis. NLC’s 2015 survey of chief elected officials reveals how uneven growth is not isolated to high-tech boomtowns, but widespread among the nation’s cities.

The survey illustrates the challenge of poverty amidst plenty: While 92 percent of city mayors said economic conditions improved in the past year, 50 percent reported an increase in demand for survival services like food and shelter, 36 percent saw an increase in homelessness, and 24 percent reported a decrease in housing affordability.

Urban economies are coming back, but the rising economic tide is not translating into good jobs, rising wages, and ownership opportunities for low-income residents and communities of color. Our analyses of the Bay Area and Fairfax County, Va., revealed the persistence of racial inequities in these booming economies. A new report on New Orleans finds that although the region has “staged an unlikely economic comeback,” 41 percent of families are struggling to get by on less than a living wage — up from 35 percent in 2006 — and those families are disproportionately made up of women and people of color. And Alan Mallach’s research on older industrial cities shows how growth is isolated to a few high-density, walkable neighborhoods while income, wealth, and home values are stagnant or declining everywhere else, with African American communities losing the most ground.

Unequal growth is socially and economically unsustainable. Research shows that more equitable regions experience stronger and longer-lasting growth. Demographic changes are also magnifying the costs of racial economic exclusion and upping the value proposition of inclusion. As Baby Boomers retire, their jobs will need to be filled by a much more diverse generation.

Small business owners Al and Marie Pronko benefitted from a $10,000 cash award as part of Detroit's NEIdeas program, which helps local businesses as part of a larger strategy to spur economic growth in the city. (photo: NEIdeasDetroit.org)

Small business owners Al and Marie Pronko benefitted from a $10,000 cash award as part of Detroit’s NEIdeas program, which helps local businesses as part of a larger strategy to spur economic growth in the city. (photo: NEIdeasDetroit.org)

In the face of these trends, cities should embrace equity as their path to prosperity and take steps to foster inclusive growth: growing new jobs and new businesses while ensuring that low-income people and people of color fully participate in generating that growth and fully share in its benefits. Here are three ways forward:

Bake racial economic inclusion into growth strategies.

Getting to equitable growth requires an intentional and strategic focus on removing barriers and building pathways for struggling workers and entrepreneurs to connect to jobs and business opportunities. Many cities are tackling this challenge and implementing new approaches to fuse growth and opportunity. Portland’s economic development agency just launched an Inclusive Startup Fund to provide capital, mentoring, and business advising to startups founded by underrepresented groups. Recognizing the importance of neighborhood businesses to Detroit’s renaissance, the New Economy Initiative held NEIdeas contests in 2014 and 2015 to provide financial and technical support to help neighborhood businesses grow. And in Pittsburgh, Urban Innovation 21 is connecting the city’s low-income African American communities with its knowledge-economy revival by placing youth in internships at area tech companies, supporting local entrepreneurs, and running a new Citizen Science Lab that offers hands-on life sciences trainings.

Implement a homegrown talent development plan.

City leaders recognize that workforce preparedness is central to their economic success, but often focus on attracting young, mobile, college grads from other states. To shift to equitable growth, cities need to cultivate their homegrown talent. Universal pre-K is a winning strategy and San Antonio’s groundbreaking program is already showing results for low-income, predominantly-Latino four-year olds. “Cradle-to-career” partnerships like Promise Neighborhoods are working to ensure children in low-income neighborhoods have the educational, health, and community supports they need to succeed. NLC’s survey reveals there is a great deal of room for cities to adopt targeted and sectoral workforce development strategies. One promising effort is New Orleans’s Economic Opportunity Strategy, which aims to recruit, train, and connect many of the city’s 35,000 jobless black men with jobs coming online at its major anchor institutions. Cities can also unleash talent by knocking down hurdles to employment. Passing “ban the box” policies that remove questions about prior convictions from job applications and creating municipal ID cards that help immigrants access financial and other services are key strategies.

Leverage public spending, investment, and planning as a force for inclusive growth.

While cities do not control all of the policy levers needed to move toward equitable growth, they can leverage their land use planning and zoning powers, procurement, and infrastructure investments to connect unemployed and underemployed residents to good jobs and transform disinvested neighborhoods into resilient “communities of opportunity.” The upturn in market activity presents cities with opportunities to implement classic equitable development tools — local hiring, community benefits agreements, permanently affordable housing, living wages, etc. — to ensure long-term residents benefit from publicly-subsidized development and can stay in their neighborhoods as they improve. Cities must also innovate new tools — like San Francisco’s new Retail Workers Bill of Rights — to turn low-wage jobs into jobs that support strong families and strong communities.

Now is the time for cities to lead on inclusive growth. Please join us at the 2015 Equity Summit October 27-29 in Los Angeles to explore these and other strategies for building “All-In Cities,” and sign up for our newsletter for regular stories about what works for equitable growth.

About the Author: Sarah Treuhaft is Director of Equitable Growth Initiatives at PolicyLink. She leads the organization’s work to advance racial and economic inclusion as an economic imperative and coordinates the development of the National Equity Atlas. You can connect with Sarah on Twitter @streuhaft.

How LinkedIn Can Help Your City Match Jobs with Trained Workers

This is a guest post by Nicole Isaac. This post is the second 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.

Skilled workers, like this engineer maintaining the gas turbine of a power plant generator, are in high demand - but cities need more effective ways of connecting with them. (Getty Images)

Skilled workers, like this engineer maintaining the gas turbine of a power plant generator, are in high demand – but cities need more effective ways of connecting with them. (Getty Images)

While some contend that the United States economy may be impacted by a skills gap, at minimum, researchers have found that there is a skills mismatch between the available jobs and the majority of the trained workforce to fill these jobs.

According to a recent McKinsey Global Institute report, in countries around the world, 30 to 45 percent of the working-age population is unemployed, inactive in the workforce, or working only part-time. In the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Japan, India, Brazil and China, this equates to 850 million people. In the United States alone, there are approximately 20 million people who are unemployed, underemployed, or marginally attached to the workforce, yet there are 5.4 million available jobs just waiting to be filled by people with the right skills.

We’re seeing these skills mismatch trends across American cities today. For example, the National League of Cities’ Cities and Unequal Recovery report suggests that the “skills gap” is the most common concern facing local economies, with 21 percent of cities reporting an increase in the gap over the past year, and exacerbated by the lack of coordination across leading partners for the respective components of workforce development.

This is a real challenge – and, given the number of available jobs and a recovering economy, a significant opportunity for cities across the country. As the report notes, “cities are rising to the challenge and embracing the opportunity by creating collaborative, systemic workforce development approaches to not only improve the local talent pipeline, but also to open communications with employers about assessing needs and improving hiring practices.”

Working with local, state, and international levels to address the challenges around skills, both in supply and demand, is strongly aligned with LinkedIn’s vision to create economic opportunity for every member of the global workforce. We work towards this objective each and every day through partnerships with cities to address workforce issues with LinkedIn’s technology and insights from our Economic Graph. We know firsthand that online connectivity allows for faster, better job matching; smarter labor and educational policy making; more efficient hiring and skills assessments at companies; and overall economic improvement in developed and emerging countries.

That is why, in February, we worked on New York City’s Tech Talent Pipeline program, a $10 million initiative meant to train New Yorkers for high-tech jobs. Together, we analyzed aggregate LinkedIn data from more than three million LinkedIn members in the New York City region and 150,000 NYC-based businesses to provide Tech Talent Pipeline with insights on the current state of the city’s tech industry. Using the data, the city can determine how to strategically invest their resources to create the greatest economic impact.

In June, we announced a partnership with the Markle Foundation called Rework America Connected. This partnership will provide an online destination that connects every sector of the labor force within Colorado and Phoenix, leveraging the job seeking and skills matching capabilities of LinkedIn. Through greater transparency among employers, educators, and job seekers, we’re aiming to create greater economic opportunity for the middle-skilled workers of Colorado and Phoenix.

We’ve been working with the National League of Cities and local governments and other stakeholders to identify and support workforce strategies for the jobs of today and tomorrow. Specifically, three of the cities recognized by the NLC – Philadelphia, Salt Lake City, and Nashville – were recently highlighted as part of the TechHire initiative for their focus on training workers for today’s in-demand tech jobs. LinkedIn is partnering with Philadelphia employers, city officials and non- profits to assist with skills alignment in the city. In Nashville, we are working with the Nashville Technology Council to better prepare their curriculum with business needs. Finally, in Salt Lake City, we have been working with the local economic development teams on providing individuals with access in-demand jobs.

Our overall goal in working with cities is to provide individuals with greater economic opportunity, and we’re planning to take the lessons learned from these current initiatives and apply them more broadly in other cities and regions. These public private partnership models are one mechanism by which cities can utilize innovative approaches to age-old problems– through creating more efficient data-sharing models and leveraging the resources of private sector partners to impact communities now.

About the Author: Nicole Isaac is the Head of Economic Graph Policy Partnerships at LinkedIn.

How to Build a New Type of Urban Practice: Analyzing NLC’s Economic Indicators Report

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.