Introducing the Localism Index

Localism Index for 100 Largest MSAs

Here you can see the overall results of the 2015 Localism Index by metro area, where red corresponds to highest scores and yellow corresponds to lowest. Find the interactive version of this map here.


In an age in which data is used ubiquitously to measure and analyze society (it’s what I do here regularly), it is important to recognize that numbers and metrics are always infused with implicit values. This is something we must remember when we are faced with facts or rankings of any sort; even simple statistics can rarely be presented without any sort of bias or narrative. This isn’t exactly a bad thing; narratives help us derive meaning from the world, but narratives and biases can become dangerous when we grow so accustomed to them that we approach them with thoughtless acceptance. I would even go so far as to assert that every metric and every piece of data is flawed; it is not the metrics which are most flawed of which we should be wary, but the ones with flaws we’ve ceased to recognize (GDP is one of these metrics. For further discussion about this, see my post on my senior thesis). Because of these issues, I strive in my work to constantly assess and shape the values implicit in data for the benefit of human well-being. In this vein, I have worked off and on for the past year to produce a new sort of ranking system for American cities. I’d like to introduce it to you now: the 2015 Localism Index. Continue reading

The Poverty Problem: Concentration of Gentrification?

Continuing the Conversation on Diversity in American Cities

Four years ago, my introduction to the field of community development was accompanied by a few disparaging words about gentrification. In the four years that I have spent in the field, gentrification has been an unending source of conversation and, often, confrontation. It is often decried and lamented as a scourge on our cities and accompanied by insults of racism and classism. Lately, however, pundits and journalists have been questioning its evils. Today, as I continue my discussion of diversity in American cities, I’d like to take a look at one recent study which is attempting to adjust the focus of our conversation around poverty away from the issue of gentrification and towards the issue of concentration.

City Observatory’s report can be found here.

First, for those who are unacquainted with the topic, gentrification is a term used to describe the rapid transformation of a neighborhood, from low-income (and typically racially diverse) to somewhat-affluent (and if we follow the cliche, white and hipster). The argument goes that when rich white kids start moving into a poor neighborhood, it is immediately flooded with development money and its long-time poorer residents are driven out by the rising costs of living. If this story is true, it certainly presents a problem for low-income residents of cities everywhere. However, if a recent study by Joe Cortright and Dillon Mahmoudi of City Observatory is to be believed, gentrification really isn’t the issue we should be talking so much about. Instead, concentrated poverty represents a much larger challenge for American cities. Continue reading

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

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

About the Portfolio: From Brownfields to Development Opportunities

Photo courtesy of the Ohio Office of Redevelopment under a Creative Commons License:

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

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