Penn IUR co-sponsored and helped organize the Philadelphia Federal Reserve Bank’s sixth biennial conference on older industrial cities. Reinventing Older Communities: Bridging Growth and Opportunity, held May 12-14, 2014 at Philadelphia’s Loews Hotel, focused on the ways older communities are reinventing themselves for the future. More than 400 people attended the event, including planners, elected officials, academics, bankers, community developers, foundation leaders, and students.
Charles Plosser, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Philadelphia Federal Reserve Bank, invoked Wayne Gretzky during his opening remarks suggesting that cities need to “skate to where the puck will be, not where it’s been.” For older communities this means using emerging trends to reinvent the city, while avoiding adherence to policies that simply rebuild what has been. This hockey analogy was a central theme for throughout the conference, as presenters highlighted emerging demographic and economic trends, innovative tools for bridging the gap between growth and opportunity, and successful agents of change within communities. Discussion covered a range of topics including education, housing markets, financial markets and tools, economic inclusion and wealth building, and community revitalization.
M. Night Shyamalan, Hollywood director and recent author of I Got Schooled: The Unlikely Story of How a Moonlighting Movie Maker Learned the Five Keys to Closing America’s Education Gap, and Leigh Gallagher, Assistant Managing Editor at Fortune magazine and author of End of the Suburbs: Where the American Dream is Moving, gave keynote speeches. Following a lively discussion among school superintendents from Toledo, Philadelphia, Milwaukee, and Detroit, Shyamalan discussed his family foundation’s efforts to understand education reform and uncover the five common ingredients for a successful public school—longer school hours, small schools, data-driven teaching methods, active leadership engaged in teacher instruction, and high-quality teacher retention. Gallagher examined physical and economic shifts taking place in suburban America, from greater demand for New Urbanist style development to greater population diversity and higher poverty rates.
Raj Chetty, Bloomberg Professor of Economics at Harvard University, offered opening remarks to the conference’s first discussion panel, Economic Growth with Benefits for All. Chetty summarized his findings that there is significant variation in upward economic mobility rates across the U.S., with urban centers, as well as a significant portion of the Southeastern U.S., showing much lower rates of mobility than other places. This national variation is important because it speaks to the importance of place, as well as the unique challenges that older cities face. Factors correlated with upward mobility rates include segregation, income inequality and the size of the middle class, school quality, family structure, and social capital.
Given the challenges that Chetty, along with numerous other speakers, highlighted, what does the future hold for cities? Jeremy Nowak, President at J Nowak and Associates, Susan Wachter, Penn IUR Co-Director, and Mark Zandi, Chief Economist at Moody’s Analytics, looked into their crystal ball to find out. Zandi predicted that larger cities, stabilized by their diversified economies, will continue to grow in the future and would benefit from overall infrastructure investment; meanwhile, many smaller cities will continue to struggle and, thus, should focus all of their resources on protecting their primary economic asset. Wachter proposed a slightly different vision—large and small cities are back, primarily owing to their densities and infrastructure, and will continue to grow; during this comeback, cities need to turn their attention towards housing affordability concerns and income disparity. Nowak agreed with these visions of the future, but emphasized the need for a more nuanced reading. For instance, Philadelphia, like many cities, increased its population in 2010—the first population increase since the 1950 census. Closer analysis, however, reveals that 22 to 33 year olds are the primary cohort contributing to growth, while 0 to 17 and 34 to 55 age cohorts continue to leave cities. Similarly, as economies stabilize, growth is occurring at the low- and high-wage ends of the job spectrum but middle-income jobs are decreasing.
The final takeaway from the Reinventing Communities conference was that cities are faced with unique challenges, but they also possess the necessary tools to move into the future. As the suburbs confront increasing poverty rates and cities face affordability challenges, policies must consider economic inclusion and wealth building strategies. While local governments are called upon to address divergent issues within the community, new partners are stepping forward with solutions including anchor institutions, community development partners, philanthropic partners, and grassroots organizations. In each circumstance, older cities are moving beyond trying to rebuild the past—they are anticipating where the puck is going to be.
In addition to Penn IUR, conference co-sponsors included the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Fund for Our Economic Future, Federal Home Loan Bank of Pittsburgh, and the Federal Reserve Banks of Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, New York, Richmond, and St. Louis.