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3 Ways Local Leaders Can Connect Cities for Growth

America’s cities must ensure that people are prepared for 21st century employment opportunities, that the places they live connect them to those opportunities, and that sufficient jobs are created so their income can grow.

America's cities are the engine for national prosperity and individual economic opportunity.  Indeed, for generations, low income people from around the country and the world viewed our cities as the best path to a better life. But in recent decades, that has been less true.  Despite the tens of billions of dollars being spent to tackle big challenges such as education, jobs, mobility, health, and housing in cities, we are failing to achieve the desired results, at the needed scale. 

Why? Because once-in-a-lifetime developments, such as the internet and globalization, have fundamentally transformed the way people live and how the world works and we simply haven’t adapted accordingly.   The systems that we always thought were going to produce more opportunities for the next generation than they did for the last, no longer do so.

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That’s why we think it is critical to support public and private sector leaders who have the courage work together to disrupt these obsolete approaches.  They are taking on long-broken and siloed systems; and focusing on efforts that simultaneously tackle issues of people, place and opportunity.  America’s cities must ensure that people are prepared for 21st century employment opportunities, that the places where they live connect them to those opportunities, and that sufficient jobs are created so their income can grow. 

The way that leaders view the challenge of connecting people to opportunity is especially important.   The geography of opportunity has expanded from neighborhood to city, region and even the globe. Today, few people work, live and learn in a narrowly defined geographic area.  Even if opportunities to further one's education, or get a better job, exist in a region, it often takes too long to get to them, costs too much or other barriers, such as lack of child care, get in the way.  That's why effective “connect” systems focus on ensuring that the essentials that people need to succeed (jobs, education, health care, child care, and housing) are affordable and reasonably accessible via, for example, public transit, car and bike sharing and broadband. 

Effective “connect” systems are not about transit or even transit-oriented development but about access to life’s essentials.  Local leaders are building “connect” systems in places such as Detroit, Denver, the San Francisco Bay Area, and the Twin Cities, and have taught us three very important lessons:

  1. Collective impact is required for systems change. Because “connect” systems are made up of many interacting policies, practices and institutions, no institution or sector can re-engineer them on its own. Effective connect systems bring all actors who control the essentials—planners, businesses, developers, local and regional governments, community leaders, lenders, philanthropists and service providers—to think strategically about how their collective efforts can turn opportunity into reality. These cross-sector decision-makers must commit to understanding their institution’s role in the system, setting ambitious goals, using data to transform systems, and holding themselves accountable to achieving consistently better outcomes. Only through this type of broad shared vision and differentiated, but coordinated activities, can the potential for systems change be met;
  2. Priority must be on execution.  In addition to the broader view of what it means to connect people to opportunity, we must move strategies from perpetual planning to practical implementation.  Despite the Federal mandate that requires the formation of metropolitan planning organizations for transportation driven efforts in cities; and HUD’s $250 million investment in regional, integrated planning processes; few “connect” plans have come off the paper. Our integration initiative underway in 5 cities is indicative of a multi-faceted, long-term effort to learn how best to braid together strategies for people, place, and opportunities and to support cities in overhauling long obsolete systems while fundamentally reshaping communities and policies to meet the needs of low-income residents. In the Twin Cities, for example, five local and state funding streams have been permanently redirected to support the “connect” strategy.  They collectively allow for the build-out of a light rail transit system that serves as a focus for expanding access to jobs, affordable housing, and essential services for residents of all incomes and backgrounds. This was possible because of the intense focus on moving the vision, which started at 50,000 feet, to implementation on the ground.
  3. Capital innovation is necessary.  No “connect” strategy can be successful without an ambitious agenda to leverage public and private capital.  That means changing existing funding flows when data shows they aren’t achieving the desired results; using subsidies to best leverage public dollars; and maximizing private investment.  Yes, dedicated transit-oriented development funds like in the Bay Area  may be needed but there is no scenario where they won’t be insufficient to support the build-out of the essentials.  This will require developing new products to invest in, for example, health centers and making fresh food more available; and, supporting pay-for-success strategies that wring more out of an existing child care or workforce development subsidy.  In Detroit, we have seen how the inclusion of lenders at the “connect” table has resulted in $20 million of new community-enhancing investments and financing products never thought possible.

Government has always played a unique role in building shared prosperity through the policies it creates, the resources it deploys and the leadership it exerts.  But that role today looks very different than even twenty years ago.  Leaders who embrace collaboration, action and innovation are positioning their constituents for the future.  Those who don’t, aren’t. 

Ben Hecht was appointed president and CEO of Living Cities in July 2007. Since that time, the organization has adopted a broad, integrative agenda that harnesses the collective knowledge of its 22 member foundations and financial institutions to benefit low-income people and the cities where they live. Living Cities deploys a unique blend of more than $140 million in grants, loans and influence to re-engineer obsolete public systems and connect low-income people and underinvested places to opportunity.

With more than 20 years of experience covering state and local government, Tod previously was the editor of Public CIO, e.Republic’s award-winning publication for information technology executives in the public sector. He is now a senior editor for Government Technology and a columnist at Governing magazine.
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