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What Inclusive Urban Development Can Look Like

Updated: Apr 2

In 2019, I led a roundtable discussion at the National Civic League's All-America City Awards called "Economic Development Equals Equitable Development." At the table, we discussed the challenges facing many urban areas. The fear of rampant economic growth in urban cores pushing out disadvantaged communities was widespread among attendees, and this fear was consistent whether the participant was from a large metro or a small one.

In particular, I remember one participant, an urban planner from a medium-sized town, expressing concern over his city's recent economic growth. He felt conflicted because, while he wanted to strengthen his town's economy, he worried that a large development he was overseeing would negatively impact the town's lower income residents.

"What can we do?" he asked me. "How can I make sure this development doesn't push out local residents?"

I think that many local government leaders and community members share this same concern, especially with many larger cities getting attention for astronomical housing costs and exorbitant lifestyles that are out of reach for many. I like to think of it as "The San Francisco Effect" (and interestingly enough, if you Google that exact phrase, the first result is a Wikipedia article titled "Gentrification of San Francisco").

In my experience, even very small rural areas share this fear of "becoming like San Francisco" and growing so much that the city becomes almost unlivable - and unrecognizable.

The answer, in many cases, is not to avoid economic growth in urban cores. First, much of this growth is out of the control of individual local actors. Today's "knowledge-based" economy catalyzed urban growth decades ago, so fighting against these tides is futile. (I like to think of what my Jiu Jitsu coach tells me: "Go with the grain, not against it.")

Second, denser urban cores are better for the planet, and smaller, more connected living is one of the most crucial ways we can curb climate change. Finally, re-investing in neglected urban cores is an opportunity for cities to pay long-due reparations to communities of color whose neighborhoods were decimated by the overtly racist urban planning policies of the twentieth century.

The question isn't, "Should we invest in the urban core?" It is, "How do we do it in a way so that the people with the highest need will benefit?" Working with community-based real estate developers is one way cities can begin to answer this question. I highly recommend this article by urban theorist Richard Florida and Washington D.C.-based real estate developer Jodie McLean.

They offer guidance for what they call "inclusive urban development," where the benefits of development are shared equitably by all.

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