The past fifty years of urban history demonstrate that there are no quick fixes for our most challenged cities. In the face of this history, local actions and policies still matter. To succeed, older distressed cities must make progress on two simultaneous fronts: one is economic and the other public and civic. In terms of the economy, cities must adopt a cost structure and regulatory environment that is competitive. They must confront historical liabilities that, over the long term, will make it more difficult to pay for public goods. And they must build on the advantages of place, from cultural institutions to research universities.
From a public and civic perspective, cities must address management practices that have reinforced decline and concentrated poverty, including low quality public services and a tendency to ignore the implications of declining middle- and modest-income communities. They must offer services in keeping with the expectations of increasingly sophisticated knowledge workers, while focusing attention on those amenities and services that maximize opportunities for lower- and modest-income families. Cities have to become more competitive and more equitable. A competitive city attracts and retains residents who have options. An equitable city improves circumstances for those with more limited choices…I focus on three public and civic practices that enable competitiveness and equity from the inside out: 1) the reorganization of urban education, 2) the re-norming of place, and 3) a data-driven approach to city-wide community investment.
There is near universal agreement that early childhood educations pays substantial returns for children. The public policy imperative is not just to increase access and funding for early-childhood education, but also to insist on quality and measure the effects. We know the importance of this for lifelong learning, and that is why a good deal of recent education research and public policy has been directed toward making certain that children have literacy competencies by the end of third grade. It is an important predictor of success.
There is universal agreement on the impact of high-quality teachers with regard to both the craft of teaching and content knowledge. Teacher quality involves a variety of issues: whom we attract to the profession; how teachers are compensated; how we train teachers; and how we measure performance and incent quality performers…The emergence of a portfolio management model of schools has not come to fruition in the most optimal way but has developed at a piecemeal pace. The optimal portfolio is driven by a commitment to quality in all cases, with a healthy agnosticism regarding the form of management. Using data-based evaluation standards, a smart portfolio approach would be to expand what works, close down what does not, share best practices across sectors (charter, district, and magnate), and seed innovations where possible.
The most basic attraction and stabilization strategy for cities…is to increase the volume of high-quality places shared across ethnicity, age, and economic status…The recent revitalization of cities…has been a product, in part, of intentional efforts to re-norm places in ways that attract and retain diverse populations. Essential elements of re-norming are often linked to public safety efforts: computer-aided policing around crime hotspots, the so-called “broken window” deployments around nonserious crimes, and community-based policing.
But the restoration of public access and shared spaces has taken many other forms besides public safety concerns: the growth of outdoor cafes; citizen movements around better public transportation and pedestrian rights; new trends in planning and architecture around humanizing small public spaces; the opening up of parks and waterways to increased citizen use; a focus on catalyzing the creative dimensions of place through public art and community festivals; and the repurposing of abandoned industrial buildings for new residential, artisanal, and business uses…A primary focus for rebuilding a distressed city must be to support civic efforts—formal and informal—that re-norm everyday expectations about public life…The most important step [is] to view the patterns as organizing principles for defining public investment strategies. Spatial analysis of real estate and other data can help identify efficiencies of scale, areas of greatest leverage, and areas of transitional stability.
What I took from this analysis—both the data analytics and many days driving the streets and talking to residents—were four public investment principles: 1) building from strength, 2) stabilizing mid-value communities, 3) emphasizing the importance of people-based strategies for the most depopulated and poorest areas…The political symbolism of place has often created a narrative that conflates the rehabilitation of housing with poverty reduction. While the former is certainly an input to the latter, it is very often not the most important use of public resources if household poverty alleviation is the goal…Principle four relates to enabling more mixed-income communities. In those areas of the city where there are multiple market types (some areas rising and others falling) in proximity and where there are large tracts of vacant land, there are opportunities to incent developers and work with civic groups to build mixed-income communities where market-rate housing will defray the development cost of the more affordable units.
It is difficult to enact principles such as these, in part because the politics of constituency services will always seek to spread resources in less strategic ways. But in cities that have too much land, too many service demands, and a tier of mid-value communities that are struggling to sustain themselves, decisions have to be made on the basis of data that supports a theory of change for the overall city.
Jeremy Nowak was a Penn IUR Fellow, frequent contributor, and Board Member. He was a prominent civic investor, advocate, and commentator who founded the Philadelphia-based Reinvestment Fund and later led the William Penn Foundation. Nowak, who died in July 2018, helped guide Penn IUR's work over the past decade, and was a passionate advocate for cities in general and Philadelphia in particular. The above article is adapted from from “Chapter 11: The Fragility of Growth in a Post-Industrial City,” by Jeremy Nowak in Shared Prosperity in America’s Communities edited by Susan M. Wachter and Lei Ding. Excerpted with permission of the University of Pennsylvania Press.
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