Why (Good) Economic Development is about People: Exhibit B

Money doesn't grow on trees, but maybe if we cultivate our economies it can... By Frozuki, CC license

Money doesn’t grow on trees, but maybe if we cultivate our economies, it can… By Frozuki, CC license

In my previous post on economic development, I concluded that “Cities desiring economic development should prioritize people: both their current residents and those they wish to attract.”

I’d like to affirm but also move beyond that conclusion a bit today, asking the question: which economic development strategies are willing to appreciate and bring about the most good for the people already present in our cities and neighborhoods? I like this question because it removes the possibility for any sort of easy way out. Too often our leaders and economic developers are tempted or pressured into quick-fixes and shortcuts, providing solutions which address the symptoms but not the causes of the problems. Continue reading

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About the Portfolio: Last Minute Christmas Gift Edition (Rose Mountain Butcher Shoppe Impact Assessment)

The summary in numbers of the impact and context of Ann Rose's shop

In July of this year I was contracted by Heifer International to help them assess the impact of one of their grants.  The grant was to help a local North Carolina farmer start up a butcher shop in Lansing, NC. Lansing is officially listed as a town, but could more accurately be described as a village. Its population has never quite reached 300 and currently sits at around 160, having lost 44% of its population since 1960. While it still has its fair bit of mountain charm, there just hasn’t been enough happening in Lansing in recent years to keep residents sticking around. The grant from Heifer and the opening of the butcher shop has been instrumental in helping them achieve a sustainable economic recovery, though the effects may not be seen instantly.

How much, after all, can one tiny shop really do to change a community? The answer, in this case, is a little bit of everything. Continue reading

About the Portfolio: The Economics of Waterway Development in Indianapolis

Photo from Flickr User _J_D_R_

Indianapolis Central Canal at Night. Photo from Flickr User _J_D_R_

Continuing the “About the Portfolio” series, today I’d like to talk about another of my projects from my time in Indianapolis. This report, “The Economics of Waterway Development in Indianapolis,” is available for download here on my portfolio page. The report was written in 2013 in conjunction with a great effort that is picking up steam in Indy, Reconnecting to Our Waterways (ROW). ROW and projects like it are proof that to catalyze economic or community development we don’t always have to create something new; we simply need to start appreciating the assets we already have. Continue reading

The Parable of the Polygons: How Individual Decisions Create Large Collective Impacts

No, Lake Michigan Has Not Been Invaded by Little Shapes With Faces…

This blog and firm are based on the premise that a group of people making seemingly independent, individual decisions can have colossally large collective impacts to wreck or save the world; our decisions are often more important than we realize. Today I have a perfect illustration of how this can work. It has to do with the age-old question of what happens when you combine game theory, sociological theories of segregation, visualization, and little shapes with faces on them.

…You weren’t asking that? Well, I’m going to tell you anyway. The answer is “The Parable of the Polygons,” and it is nothing short of brilliant.   Continue reading

Why Economic Development is about People: Exhibit A

Picture from Flickr user MCC_Indianapolis: https://www.flickr.com/photos/mcc_indianapolis/

Picture from Flickr user MCC_Indianapolis

In my initial post on this blog, “Why Honeycomb Commons,” I mentioned that “I… advocate for social systems which affirm people rather than control them and economies and technologies which are built with a human and local scale in mind.” I want to provide some evidence for this advocacy today, which will also serve as a nice follow-up to the most recent post on brownfields. As mentioned in that post, many Midwestern cities have seen a massive population decay in their central-city areas in the last half-century.  This decay has taken a toll on both their economies and their tax bases, as many employment dollars get paid to those commuting in from the suburbs, where they are taxed in different towns or counties. To remedy these issues, many economic development departments adopt the “chasing smokestacks” strategy, attempting to woo large firms to locate in prime locations they lay out for them.  As I will make clear over the course of this blog, I believe “chasing smokestacks” is one of the worst strategies a city can take. Instead of seeking companies, I’d like to assert, cities desiring economic development should prioritize people: both their current residents and those they wish to attract.

The first lens through which I’ll analyze this question is that of migration.  What follows is an attempt to explain why people might come to a city and where they might locate within it.

There are two perspectives from which to approach this issue: firstly, the question of whether “retail follows rooftops,” or more broadly, whether “people follow jobs” in migration patterns, and secondly, the question of how far folks are willing to commute from home to work.    While academic literature and public opinion on these topics seldom yield consensus, a picture of location patterns can nevertheless be painted:  It seems that while on an inter-state or inter-regional level people do migrate to follow jobs, at smaller spatial levels, residential location decisions are made based more on amenities than proximity to work, with people willing to commute on average approximately half an hour to and from work. Continue reading

About the Portfolio: From Brownfields to Development Opportunities

Photo courtesy of the Ohio Office of Redevelopment under a Creative Commons License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode

A brownfield site in Sandusky, Ohio. Photo from the Ohio Office of Redevelopment, Creative Commons License

Today’s topic is one that is very important in the world of economic development and urban planning, but not well understood outside of those realms.  When I worked for the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) in Indianapolis last year, one of our primary concerns as a community development organization was the the decline of the urban core of the city.  The heart of downtown remains flush with business headquarters, government buildings, sports complexes and tourist destinations, but the areas immediately surrounding this central district have been in various states of decline for awhile. Indianapolis is like other Midwestern cities in that the many of its properties that used to be the focal points of manufacturing and business prosperity lie as vacant eyesores in areas adjacent to the downtown area. While population migration is perhaps the biggest cause of today’s vacancies, brownfield properties are both a driver of that population migration and an obstacle to economic prosperity for the residents who remain.

What are Brownfields?

Perhaps brownfield properties are little-known because they’re largely invisible.  A brownfield, by the EPA’s definition, is any property for which expansion, redevelopment, or reuse may be complicated by the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant, or contaminant. These properties could be former industrial facilities, laundromats, car dealerships, or many other things, and chances are that you’ve passed quite a few without even knowing it.  In fact, according to Government Accountability Office estimates, there is one brownfield for approximately every 745 people in the United States:

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) estimates that there are as many as 425,000 Brownfields throughout the U.S. Some estimates show that there are 5 million acres of abandoned industrial sites in our nation’s cities – roughly the same amount of land occupied by 60 of our largest cities. Some estimate that as much as $2 trillion of real estate is undervalued due to the presence of contamination.

To put this statistic in perspective, the number of fast food restaurants in the United States is estimated at between 264,000 and 232,000, depending on who you ask. So there are nearly twice as many brownfields in the United States as fast food locations. Just imagine if each time you passed by a fast food restaurant it was accompanied by two old rotting industrial facilities or weed-filled parking lots with a few rusted out cars in the back.   Continue reading

About the Portfolio: Predictors of Well-Being in High Income, Industrialized Countries and Their Related Effects

To kick off the blog, I plan on starting by explaining my portfolio of project experience.  The first item in this portfolio, chronologically at least, is my senior thesis from Purdue.  This thesis, titled “Predictors of Well-Being in High Income, Industrialized Countries and Their Related Effects,” earned me the Alan Hess Award as one of the top two graduating seniors in Purdue’s economics program. I won’t go into too much detail about the motivation behind the thesis, but I will just say that I have long felt that GDP is not such an adequate measure of the health of a country as it’s often made out to be, and this thesis was a response to the search for alternative measures of progress.

Thankfully, there is a growing movement to promote alternatives to GDP (Such as: the Genuine Progress Indicator, the Human Development Index, the Ecological Footprint, The Happy Planet Index, and Gross National Happiness), and many before me have given this movement ammunition by studying well-being at both personal and national levels.  A good synopsis of the breadth of research on this topic can be found in Alois Stutzer and Bruno S. Frey’s report here. It has been pretty widely established by now that the relationship between per capita GDP and a country’s well-being (as measured by subjective surveys) is logarithmic, that is, countries see dramatic increases in well-being as GDP initially rises, but each further increase in GDP brings about progressively smaller increases in well-being.  This makes sense; a five dollar bill is worth less to a millionaire than a beggar. The following chart from Ronald Inglehart (simplistically) further illustrates this transition: that after basic needs are met through economic growth, individuals do not see as much gain in well-being from improvements in income and “Non-economic aspects of life become increasingly important influences on how long, and how well, people live.” Lifestyle vs SurvivalAs a resident of a world where very few people have to worry about where their next meal is coming from, this economic-to-lifestyle transition feels very real to me.  Inglehart’s hypothesis seems true to my own life experiences, but I didn’t just want trust his word.   For my senior economics thesis, I decided to build upon this hypothesis and the research reviewed above, seeing what the data had to say to either confirm or deny what was instinctively true to me. Continue reading

Why Honeycomb Commons?

CSIRO ScienceImage 7113 Honey bee comb showing cells

Last night I shared a campfire with a Floridian, an Israeli, and a Frenchman, all of whom have traveled and now live in other parts of the world, and the thought occurred to me: I could pick no more an exciting time in all of human history to be alive than right now, in this moment. In this globalized, interconnected world, we have never had more possibilities available to us and yet, I believe, our problems have never been more complex. It is this tension that I hope to enter into with this blog and organization, with the motivation that is encapsulated in the following question: How can we move into the future as a society globally (but especially locally) with both an awareness of our mistakes and fallibility as a human species and a sense of collective optimism about another world that is possible?

But what makes today’s problems so complex? Continue reading