I’ve had numerous conversations with colleagues, friends, family and neighbors about my upcoming visit to Boston. The curious ones ask, what’s your work event? When I tell them, proudly, the Harvard Innovations in American Government awards, the nearly inevitable response is some sort of wisecrack. “Innovation and government, that’s an oxymoron!” “How much bureaucracy is involved in the awards presentations?”

Hey, I like mocking government inefficiency as much as the next person. But the frequency of this response is emblematic of a deeper problem in America, which political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson call “American Amnesia.” We have collectively forgotten the degree to which we owe our prosperity to proactive government investments in research & development, infrastructure and public health made in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s.

Other scholars take the premise even further. Not only is government an important partner of prosperity, it is the primary driver of innovation. Building on the work of Mariana Mazzucato, Ben Tarnoff puts it this way in The Guardian: “…nearly every major innovation since the second world war has required a big push from the public sector, for an obvious reason: the public sector can afford to take risks that the private sector can’t. Conventional wisdom says that market forces foster innovation. In fact, it’s the government’s insulation from market forces that has historically made it such a successful innovator. It doesn’t have to compete, and it’s not at the mercy of investors demanding a share of its profits. It’s also far more generous with the fruits of its scientific labor: no private company would ever be so foolish as to constantly give away innovations it has generated at enormous expense for free, but this is exactly what the government does.”

So yes, there’s plenty of innovation in government, from the federal level down to the local. Check out the wonderful finalists for the aforementioned Harvard award if you don’t believe me. Or our “how-to” library on this site. Or the Alliance for Innovation. I could go on, but the point is: we need to support more of this innovation rather than waiting for the private sector.

 

“As local municipalities, we should have the goal that every one of our residents succeeds,” declared Tukwila City Councilmember D’Sean Quinn during the opening public lecture of CNU25.

This year’s 25th Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) in Seattle has included a strong theme on equity and inclusion, on ensuring that new urbanism is living up to its principles for all people as it enters its second quarter century.

Throughout the Congress, various speakers have emphasized that equitable placemaking needs to look both the benefits and opportunities offered to diverse members of a community, and also across the various communities within a county or region. Great places cannot be a luxury afforded only to certain groups.

King County’s Targeted Universalism

Quinn spoke in the public lecture on the suburbanization of poverty in his role as an elected official in Seattle’s most diverse suburb, but also appeared in his role as a King County employee in a session on that county’s equity and social justice policies. The county passed an equity and social justice ordinance in 2010, identifying 14 determinants of equity against which to measure their progress towards a fair and just community

The County describes their approach as “targeted universalism”: the 14 factors outline things that should be universal to all in the community–things like “quality education” or “affordable, safe, quality housing”–and then targets efforts to the people or communities who are not yet enjoying those universal benefits.

The nuts-and-bolts application of this principle include an equity impact review for county policies or programs, to make explicit who will experience positive or negative impacts. The county has also incorporated equity standards into their sustainable infrastructure scorecard, an internal accountability document that all capital improvement projects must complete.

Project for Code Reform

One Congress effort I’ve personally been involved in is the Project for Code Reform, an initiative to support local municipalities in targeted, tactical fixes to their development codes that enable the creation of better places.

As the Congress’ CEO Lynn Richards explains,

“The Project for Code Reform is centered on incremental change. Many code reform processes seek to overhaul the entire code. The all-or-nothing approach has significant potential to morph into a contentious and arduous process for all involved … Our approach focuses instead on smaller, achievable changes. This incremental approach lays the foundation for creating great places by addressing the most problematic coding issues.”

The result is not necessarily codes that ensure good place–but codes that have had the worst barriers to good placemaking removed, offering the opportunity for improvement.

From a municipal perspective, this is significant because it offers an alternative approach to potentially pricey and time-consuming efforts like full form-based code rewrites: most of the League’s communities have the capacity to tweak, but not overhaul.

But this is also an equity issue.  Traditional development codes require high levels of expertise and bureacracy-navigating skills by a potential developer, skewing the playing field towards large firms with access to financing and professional resources. Through the project for code reform’s incremental appraoches, we not only hope to expand applicability to smaller communities, but to smaller developers.

Cleaner, clearer codes that provide the by-right ability to develop small projects put development in reach of many more of our residents. By allowing people the opportunity to invest in and shape their own neighborhoods and communities, we both help deepen their ties to each other and our municipalities but also expand access to the upside of neighborhood revitalization and the secure tenure that developer-ownership can provide in the face of potential displacement.

The project for code reform fits well with our existing support of Redevelopment Ready Communities, and our work to expand crowdfunding as a means of participatory placemaking, and we’re interested in hearing from communities that want to road test some of the tools we’ve created.

In the meantime, back in for day 4 of the Congress.

I have the privilege this week of attending the Hometown Summit, a new national conference focused on sharing lessons and best practices from small and mid-sized cities. The organizers describe it as a “convening and celebration of leaders in small and mid-sized cities who have spearheaded some of the nation’s most creative and successful initiatives for community problem-solving.” 

This is the first of what will hopefully be a series of quick-hit thoughts from some of the best conference content.

One of the morning sessions, with the provocative title “Does Your City Seduce Talent?”, featured entrepreneurs from four cities – Charlottesville, VA, Syracuse, NY, Durham, NC and Milwaukee, WI – testing different ways to attract and retain the creative community. I gleaned the following lessons that cities of any size can pursue:

  1. Speed up your decisionmaking & approval processes – All the panelists spoke to the need to cycle through ideas and try things quickly. They need a host city that can enable that speed.
  2. Make people feel welcome – Customer service and a welcoming vibe, both when dealing with visitors and potential non-profit/business startups, are crucial to attracting and keeping people who might be the future changemakers.
  3. Celebrate and cultivate your grit – None of the entrepreneurs were interested in moving to a city that had it all, rather they wanted to be somewhere that had gaps and was interested in taking them on.
  4. Don’t get hung up on buzzwords – None of the leaders in the room started out to be “talent attraction initiatives” or “civic entrepreneurs.” Rather, they started a project because they loved a place and wanted to make it better. So go find those people and the rest will take care of itself.

Many of our communities are identified by what they make—my hometown of Chelsea is instantly identifiable as the home of Jiffy Mix—but for too many, that identity is past tense: the plant closed, and they don’t make that anymore. The skills and passion for making something remain, though, and can be tapped to grow both good jobs and good places through a focus on many small businesses to replace the few big ones.

ReCast City’s Ilana Preuss has worked with communities around the country to understand small-scale manufacturing sectors. This week, the I-69 Thumb Region hosted a workshop with Ilana to look at how we can cultivate these businesses locally.

 

When the wind is right, I can smell this small manufacturer's roaster from my house--free advertising! (Cross Street Coffee in Ypsilanti)

When the wind is right, I can smell this small manufacturer’s roaster from my house–free advertising! (Cross Street Coffee in Ypsilanti)

Preuss defines a “small-scale manufacturer” as any business that makes something physical that can be packaged and sold, with between one and twenty employees. This can be anything from microbreweries to jewelry makers to small tool-and-die shops.

Why small-scale manufacturing?

The benefit of “small” is that the owner tends to live where their business is (or, in some cases, the business is in their home), so is more rooted in the community than a branch of a large national employer—and, if they do pick up stakes and leave, the blow to the community is limited.

The benefits of “manufacturing” are several. They hire locally, and the jobs grown this way tend to pay significantly better than the service sector. They bring money into the community when they become large enough to distribute, whether through traditional channels or online direct sales. They often source raw materials locally (especially in food products), supporting suppliers in the community.

As part of a placemaking strategy, these businesses can utilize spaces that would require too much buildout for traditional retail, filling in gaps in a small downtown; they don’t rely on foot traffic for their primary business, but they can create it, helping to support retailers and cafés around them. And, their products are often unique, helping to build recognition for the entire community.

Pollinating the small production sector

At the League’s Convention this fall, keynote Michael Shuman urged the adoption of a “pollinator” approach to local economic development: supporting small business growth by making connections between people and resources within the community.

Preuss’ session in Lapeer was a how-to on this theme, walking participants through the steps to identify and grow this sector in their own town. These include:

  • Build from local skills, resources, and history—cultivate the seeds of small-scale production that are already in place, rather than trying to force new ones from zero
  • Make connections between existing businesses—introduce the hot sauce maker who needs a commercial kitchen to the breakfast and lunch café in town whose kitchen is idle in the evenings.
  • Code for small-scale manufacturing in your zoning and building codes—or at least make sure your codes don’t block this activity. (ReCast City’s blog includes links to sample ordinance language from Omaha and Nashville.)
  • Provide financing and underwriting—this will often be through local actors willing to put a stake in the community. Local banks, individual investors, or investment crowdfunding through MILE are likely targets.

Preuss spent the day after this regional session working with the city of Vassar to apply this process to their local opportunities. We look forward to seeing what grows as a result, and hopefully in seeing more great examples across Michigan!

For a taste of Preuss work, check out this video of her presentation in Grants Pass, OR:

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