My US mission to find new ways to reverse economic decline

Matthew Jackson new webToday, I embark on a three week fact finding mission to the United States. I am particularly interested to understand how their places and cities have responded to the challenges posed by economic decline and how we can learn from these activities in a UK context.

In the UK, our response to economic decline and indeed our approach to economic growth has focused on the concept of ‘trickle down’; invest in a piece of infrastructure or a physical regeneration initiative and the benefit will organically flow to communities and those in greatest need.

This concept has driven much urban economic policy in the UK over the last 30 years ranging from the urban development corporations of the 1980s to the contemporary local enterprise partnerships and potentially the debate around devolution.

My problem with ‘trickle down’ is that it has not flowed down organically to benefit local economies and people and indeed many of our places still face the same challenges they did 30 years ago around economic decline, high unemployment, and significant inequality and poverty. It has not flowed down because policy has often been top down; it has been stifled in bureaucracy; it has been characterised by local to central tensions; and importantly it has not engaged people and communities sufficiently enough to stimulate change.

In the United States, the response to economic decline has been different. Places have developed more effective localised approaches to responding to economic challenges. In Cleveland, anchor institutions are working with cooperatives to deliver services and move people from deprived neighbourhoods into employment opportunity. In Pittsburgh, a cross sector approach and an emphasis upon sustainability is driving change. In Philadelphia, new technology is shaping the way in which the city government is undertaking economic development activity. And in Providence, the local economy has been reshaped around the cultural industries.

In each of these places, the process of responding to economic decline and growth has been framed by approaches which are reflective of local circumstances, which involve cross sector collaboration, which involve a mature relationship between the local city government and wider state and federal governments, and where people growth as well as economic growth are a core outcome.

My role over the next three weeks is to understand how they have done it. I will be visiting each of the aforementioned places and basing myself with the Democracy Collaborative in Cleveland, Sustainable Pittsburgh in Pittsburgh, the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics in Philadelphia, and the Social Enterprise Greenhouse in Providence. This local knowledge will be supplemented by visits to key local economic thinkers in New York City and Washington DC.

I will be using this blog to discuss what I learn in each place with a view to producing a publication in the autumn. Watch this space and join in the debate!


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Fernando Centeno, CED
Fernando Centeno, CED
9 years ago

As one who has tracked “economic activity” in the U.S. over 20 yrs & as a practitioner in the CED field, please note all of this “economic activity” stemming from gov’t initiative, which they call “economic development”, is limited to artificially created jobs using enormous amounts of public funds. Public officials, business & political leaders, pundits, & academics refer to “economic activity” as “growth”, but this growth is reflected on the private sector side of this partnership, but where are the corresponding public benefits, in socioeconomic terms? No one EVER answers this question.

Those of us on the gov’t or non-profit sector represent the public’s interests, which we call our “public purpose”, certified by the I.R.S. as a proper tax-exempt organization. If anyone wants to promote private sector interests, join the Chamber of Commerce, as this is their mission in life. Those of us in the public sector have a different, legitimate mission in life, which is to meaningfully increase standards of living & quality of life outcomes. Are we using metrics for these objectives?

Unless the structural aspects of overall decline are addressed, regardless of how individual projects are deemed successful, & the totality of public funds do not add up to “move the needle”, we aren’t really ready to declare success, are we? Hope you can agree . . .

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