Envisioning the Future City
Season 2, Episode 7
In the U.S. political economy, some economic regions grow and gain in prosperity in sustained ways while other cities’ fortunes rise and fall over time. How do cities come together to shape these trajectories? In this week’s episode, our co-hosts Evan Oleson and Stephen Henriques speak with Prabal Chakrabarti from the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston about the lessons learned from the Working Cities Challenge aimed at supporting catalytic cross-sector initiatives to reimagine economic paths forward in smaller, post-industrial cities. We also speak with James Johnson-Piett from Urbane Development about his work on the Sunnyside Yard Master Plan where multiple communities came together to envision the way a major public development project could support future visions of the city. James shares how this envisioning process can also be used at the neighborhood level, using an example from Philadelphia to illuminate different development pathways for a neighborhood as it evolves alongside broader strategic initiatives at the city level.
This is CitySCOPE.
A podcast from the Inclusive Economic Development Lab at the Yale School of Management.
Where we learn about what might be possible in our city by talking with others about what is happening in theirs.
Are we ready?
Elm City, what up?
Stephen Henriques (00:29):
Hello. I’m Stephen Henriques, a first year MBA student at Yale School of Management. I’ll be one of your hosts for today’s episode at CitySCOPE podcast.
Evan Oleson (00:38):
Hello, I’m Evan Oleson, a second year MBA at the Yale School of Management.
Stephen Henriques (00:42):
If you’ve been listening from the start, you will know that this season, we’ve been exploring the role of narratives and storytelling and inclusive economic development. Today, we will be looking at the role of narratives and developing a vision for what cities could be.
Evan Oleson (00:55):
We have two guests today. Let’s have them introduce themselves upfront.
Prabal Chakrabarti (00:58):
Prabal Chakrabarti, I’m the Senior Vice-President and the Community Affairs Officer for the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston.
James Johnson-Piett (01:06):
James Johnson-Piett, Principal at Urbane Development.
Evan Oleson (01:10):
When we look at our country’s economy today, we see a handful of superstar cities and industries that are thriving, while many regions struggle to revitalize their regional economies as the industries that once made up their economic base continue to decline.
Stephen Henriques (01:24):
That’s right, Evan. The Boston Fed took a hard look at what this looked like in smaller cities throughout New England. They found that this dynamic was playing out regionally where the city of Boston is attracting industry, talent and investment, while many of the nearby cities in New England are not participating as much as they could be in Greater Boston success.
Evan Oleson (01:42):
So, how do you begin the work of helping these smaller cities get on a different economic path?
Stephen Henriques (01:47):
That is the exact question the Boston Fed was asking back in the early 2000s.
Prabal Chakrabarti (01:51):
The impetus for this initiative began in 2006, with a report on concentrated poverty that the Fed system did around the country. It was looking at poverty occurring in different contexts, whether that’s the inner cities or suburban areas, but also rural poverty and even poverty on Native American reservations and other types of geographies. We at Boston Fed chose to look at small and medium-sized cities. Clearly, there’s a lot of these in New England that had suffered from decades of job loss from deindustrialization. And at that time, we were looking at Springfield, Massachusetts, which had some of the highest rates of concentrated poverty in the country. That was the initial impetus, but as we got into doing that case study, our President of the Boston Fed asked us whether there’s more that we could do and whether we could have more impact.
Evan Oleson (02:41):
This is the million-dollar question, right, Stephen?
Stephen Henriques (02:44):
It is, and as a research institution, the first thing that Boston Fed did was review the literature. There were some key research papers that inform the Boston Fed’s next steps.
Prabal Chakrabarti (02:54):
So, there has been a lot written about cities; I think there’s been less that’s been focused on the problems of small cities. One of the issues of the literature is actually how little there is very detailed that’s about the nature of sort of the smaller and medium-sized cities, a lot of literature, either groups them all together, it looks to see larger, much larger cities like Detroit and Cleveland and others. And I think there was an operating assumption that things may work a bit differently in these small and medium-sized cities, so good or for ill, and the effort that the Fed began, was with a research study conducted by research economists. And they began very much like the traditional econometric study. They looked at small cities around the country in 1960 that were doing comparatively very well. They then looked to see if any of these cities were doing well today. And at that time, this was 2009 reports, as of 2009. They were surprised to find there were a set of cities that were doing, if not terrifically well, at least, comparatively better than their peer cities. And so, those cities were labeled resurgent cities and they were cities like Winston-Salem, North Carolina and Grand Rapids, Michigan. Just in numerical terms, these were cities that were at about say 80% or 85% of the U.S. median. Now, in 1960, there were at 100%, 110%. So, certainly, they’d fallen some, but their peer group had fallen tremendously to even 55%, 60% of the U.S. median and these are more cities like Hartford and Springfield. And these other cities, resurgent cities, had maintained their economic vitality and had really realized many of the attributes that we talked about in terms of the assets. So, the question was, “Why? Why had these cities performed comparatively so much better?” And that’s where the traditional-like econometric exercise sort of stopped because they tried to correlate with different things. They tried to correlate with proximity to a major city, factoring employment in certain sectors, demographics. And all these traditional sort of explanations couldn’t explain why these cities were doing so much better than the others.
Prabal Chakrabarti (05:12):
What they ended up doing was looking at all the periodicals over time, over those decades. There, came out something quite different. It was actually three or four different things: Investment in infrastructure, investment by anchor institutions, extension of the benefits beyond the community. And the key finding that they had, which is what we based the Working Cities Initiative around was the presence of cross-sector collaboration and leadership. One of the things they were learning, as we had done the research, was also the importance of collaboration and leadership. The importance of being able to find a leader, it could be an energetic mayor or it could be a philanthropist, a business leader or a set of people. It didn’t matter so much where the leader came from is what they were able to do and bring together. We got to talking and of course, the Fed has a lot of economists and drawn to the idea of sort of incentives that at that time competitions were really starting to get used more often for sort of social goals and social outcomes. And we sort of hatched upon the idea of doing a competition, creating an incentive and some grant money, some prizes, toward implementation. That I think was the sort of key insight that we had was to try this. Obviously, there’ve been challenges through philanthropy in government, but the Federal Reserve had never done anything like this before. We’re prohibited from making grants directly, so we had to work with partners. This is a really new idea, and something that was really stepping out beyond the usual sort of purview of the Fed, but we felt that if we could get a set of cities towards a better long-term economic outcome using this incentive, that it would then present this light or sort of shed a light for others to say, “Look, this is possible.” It’s possible to change this trajectory of some of these small cities; we felt it was worth trying, given the high levels of spatial inequality that we were seeing. And this actually became even more pronounced since we started the effort, but it was already happening at that time in the 2000s, very starkly.
Stephen Henriques (07:19):
Clearly, these cities need a new vision for their future. But shifting the narrative about where a city has been and where it is going, and leading through such a change can be hard.
Evan Oleson (07:28):
Right. How does the city get ready to do this work? What needs to be in place before a re-visioning?
Prabal Chakrabarti (07:34):
So, one question that we’ve asked ourselves is, “Can you create the kind of conditions that lead to these sorts of partnerships? To what extent that they have to exist already?” And I think that we have through this effort fostered the conditions by which things that exist already, maybe in one sector, a good way of working, can be expanded to other sectors. So, the example I give is in Lawrence, Massachusetts, which is one of the winners in our first round. They had a strong nonprofit collaboration, sort of ethos, but it stayed in that sector. The private sector was absent and the municipal sector was really challenged. Now, there’s a little bit of luck in everything. They had a mayoral election with the stronger, in a collaborative sense, Mayor elected and that made a difference, but it really did take some coming together of shared interests. So, I would say that, I mean, selflessness is important in a certain way. I think it’s really recognizing and getting the message that the perception of being together is really important to the outside folks with resources and things that you need. And so, I think you come together with that in mind, and that can feel like a forced marriage. But I think that genuinely, if you’re spending time with other people and you’re getting to know them and you’re working on this application together, I think you are going to build the kind of relationships that then lead to a different kind of recognition. So, it’s not quite selfishness or selflessness, it’s relationship building and it’s trust. And then when you have trust, then it’s, “Wait, we’re working together, because we’re all going to do better off.” That’s something easy to tell people. Without trust there, it’s just not going to happen. People are going to see that more cynically. And I think that those cities that did well, absolutely, were not cynical about what they were doing. I think if they were cynical about it that came out to the jury. I think it came out to who they brought in the table and to how they did community engagement. So, the criteria of the effort wasn’t just cross-sector team and an idea, it needed to focus on low and moderate-income people. That’s a second criteria or the residents of your city. And it needed to have robust community engagement as a third criteria, and it had to be genuine and they had to be involved in a design. And then the fourth was adaptation, learning, using evidence to drive decision making. If you have a discussion about what’s the vision for your city, what can you agree on, what do you think would be a strong application? Putting that in a competition environment is actually a good thing. It pulls people together. You’ve got a deadline, you’re on the same team, and I do think that built trust. Many teams told us driving to the design sessions or the competition sessions in advance, doing the presentations to our jury, being in the car and prepping for those together with other people - that actually created trust. I think it put people on the same team. That I think is what we fostered. But again, the relationships and the history of collaboration and grudges and all that going in, it did make a difference, I think it’s very difficult if you don’t have something that has some momentum already for an effort like ours to build on. I think every place there is, there’s committed people that are working with others. The point is really how do you find that, those places of momentum, lift them up, amplify them, bring them together, and try to get that behavior that muscle, into other parts of your city? And to do that, you absolutely need to have the right leadership in the other sectors.
Stephen Henriques (11:20):
So, the Fed has built this really interesting challenge to force cities to pick a vision, and do the hard work up front of rallying disparate organizations and people to this common cause. The incentives the Boston Fed built into the Working Cities Challenge pushed cities into a broader and community engagement effort, to build a collaboration to enter the contest.
Evan Oleson (11:39):
What kind of ideas did cities come up with?
Stephen Henriques (11:41):
There were definitely some interesting ones.
Prabal Chakrabarti (11:43):
We had a city that was really focused on wind and offshore wind and put together a proposal around, for the human capital aspects of that, not literally to build the very expensive offshore wind facilities. We had a city that focused on Latino entrepreneurship and starting up entrepreneurship. A different city focused on preparing every child to be ready to read by kindergarten using the childcare centers going into kindergarten. We had cities that proposed focusing on parents of public school kids and increasing their income and measuring the impact on student academic performance, so a two-generation model. These were just examples of the kinds of efforts, some winning, some not, that we saw.
Evan Oleson (12:28):
Let’s talk a little bit more about the community engagement dimension to this competition and to the work more generally. For Prabal and his colleagues at the Boston Fed, this was as much about the process as anything else.
Stephen Henriques (12:40):
That’s right, Evan. And it was not always easy.
Prabal Chakrabarti (12:43):
The point was could you put together a cross sector team? You had to have individuals from the nonprofit, private and public sector together, and we didn’t say who the lead had to be, so this was different. I actually had a city call me saying, “Look, you can’t do this. This is going to be divisive.” Like, “Just tell us. Can’t you just pick? We’ll send you three things. Tell us which one you want it to be?” And we said, “No. That’s not what we’re trying to do here. You need to have a vision for your city, you need to have agreement on that vision, and put that vision forward.”
Stephen Henriques (13:15):
This idea of co-constructing and vision with community is often given lip service in city planning efforts, but the Boston Fed designed a grant challenge centered on that aspect of the work.
Evan Oleson (13:24):
There’s a project our second guest has been involved with in New York City that has also put a lot of effort into soliciting community engagement for developing not just the physical space, but also the broader vision of what the space means for the city.
Stephen Henriques (13:38):
As some of our listeners might be aware, there’s a mega development project underway in Sunnyside, Queens that began in 2014 when Amtrak approached the city about decking over the existing railyard. This will result in a large swath of publicly owned land and the city invested a lot in engaging the surrounding neighborhoods to hear about community priorities for use of the land. Our second guest, James Johnson-Piett from Urbane Development led some of that community engagement outreach.
Evan Oleson (14:05):
Sunnyside Yards is such a big project that will touch on so many neighborhoods, the scale for the community engagement component must have been huge. It’s also exciting to have such a large public development opportunity. Sunnyside Yards, because it’s new land created by decking over the railyard, is blank canvas on which any number of investments can be made in service of a future for the city.
Stephen Henriques (14:27):
It’s true, and for Urban Development as well. This was the largest community engagement project they had been involved in, so it was an opportunity for them to take what they had learned in smaller engagement projects to a much larger scale.
James Johnson-Piett (14:40):
The Sunnyside Yard master planning process was really an evolution for Urbane because it was the first project that we specifically took as community engagement consultants or experts. Up until that point, any community engagement that we did was very much tied to a product that had another purpose. Community engagement was a part of a larger goal for something whereas the larger goal for this was create a master plan for a generational size development project and we were one of many consultants who were part of that process. But we were the stakeholder and community engagement consultants, so our sole job in terms of what we were getting paid to do was to look at how does this process occur in lockstep with the city and the Economic Development Agency for the city to execute community and stakeholder engagement. Stakeholder engagement is a little different because you’re talking about lots of different players. You’re having private conversations, you’re having group conversations, so it’s really unfurling the entire toolkit that you have on how to talk to folks, one-on-one, group, because people in real-time they capture their information, you’re doing public meetings, four or five hundred people at a time, trying to convey large chunks of information within a small sort of time period. And because of the general public you have so many different sort of audiences and you had to finally figure out what the baseline information level needs to be or do you create different information levels depending on how to move people through space or time around a topic.
Evan Oleson (16:03):
So, if we take another recent large scale development project in the city, Hudson Yards, how does Sunnyside Yards compare?
Stephen Henriques (16:11):
Well, first, Hudson Yards created new opportunities for private ownership whereas Sunnyside will remain publicly owned. And second, Sunnyside is just bigger. Both of these dimensions had implications for the community engagement efforts.
James Johnson-Piett (16:24):
To give you some context, Hudson Yards essentially was like a bowl. You have this bowl where you have sort of underutilized rail line going through, you slap essentially a deck on top of it, like putting a plate over a bowl and then you build on top of that plate. Sunnyside Yard was not a bowl. It’s not shaped like a bowl. You’re not next to a river. You have six viable dense neighborhoods sitting next to Sunnyside Yard. Sunnyside Yard is seven times large as Hudson Yards, and much more active. So, it was a much more complicated engineering exercise, if nothing else. And trying to explain all that to people, the talk about the cost, the engineering, the construction sort of headaches, so engagement became a much, much bigger construct, because you’re having to think through how you build essentially a little city. You know this is 180 acres of potential real estate, and so, you’re trying to figure out how to program and focus on, and for every neighborhood, they have their own set of sort of dynamics and just because Long Island City is next to Astoria or next to Sunnyside as a neighborhood, they have completely different thinking. If you look at the initial building fabric in those neighborhoods, that looks different as well. Long Island City was formerly industrial and in manufacturing, so think about a city on the hill, literally and what those dynamics look like. For Queens, unlike Manhattan, you have a lot of homeowners, like true homeowners. And so, they’re thinking about all the dynamics that come along with that: School seats, their home values, parking, density as well. So, you’re having to communicate all this stuff in an environment and just to be blunt and I could say this now because it’s over, where… and we talked about trust, right? They did not trust the city. Period.
Evan Oleson (18:10):
I think you’re touching an important point is easy to overlook in setting a vision for a city, trust. How do you go about building that trust?
Stephen Henriques (18:17):
It’s an important question. Another thing I wondered about was Urbane’s role in this. It must be tricky as a firm hired to design and implement engagement strategy. When they do all this work to build trust, but ultimately, are not involved in making the final decisions about how to use the input from community to inform the final project direction.
James Johnson-Piett (18:35):
A large part of our opportunity as a consultant was to help them think through, “Well, how can you do community engagement differently?” In my mind, at least. It wasn’t so much the tool, so like we certainly use different tools. We had mapping software, we had customer-relation management software that we were used to kind of track conversations we were having with folks to sort of connect the dots between a convo we had with a real estate developer and with a community group and try to figure out the dynamics between the two. So, all that sort of back-end analytic was there, but really, it just came down to “Do I like you? Do I trust you? Do I feel like I can buy into the process?” Period. There’s a term in a lot of the spaces that I play in moving into spirit of trust and I think a lot of what you get as that sort of dynamic where you can only move as fast as people trust you, so if they trust you quickly, great. You’re in a good space. If they don’t, you got to work at it. And I think, it was a mixed bag. I mean, like any planning process, especially something like that big and dynamic, you’re having a lot of micro conversations and you’re having a lot of micro conversations with the same people that was going to show up with the great macro conversations. And then depending on how those two conversations went, you may hear two different things from people because everybody had their role and their politics around what they’re doing. So, having to navigate all that and make sure you understood as a team, “Well, what do I need to convey to the client? Would a client listen to me? Are there other dynamics that they’re focused on that don’t necessarily run in lockstep with what you’re trying to accomplish as an open goal?” So, we had to really take almost every lesson we learned and every context that we learned it, small business, real estate development, more traditional community engagement, business development, et cetera, figure out how it all related to the sort of multi-sectoral project with a group of folks who are super diverse.
James Johnson-Piett (20:18):
Even something as simple as a public meeting. You try to find a time that it works for majority of folks and do something at a library or at a university that’s open to people and you kind of open the doors, but you start to discover even if it’s 500 people, there’s still a certain group of folks who can come, that kind of thing. Right? So like, how do you produce childcare opportunities? How do you do things in multiple languages? And in Queens, it’s not like, “Oh, I’m just going to do Spanish, it’s going to be okay.” You’re doing this in like six or seven or eight languages. How do you convey complex information to multiple people in their languages? How do you figure out how to get feedback that’s actionable in a context like that? So, we had to really break it up and say, “Okay, here’s your large-scale public meeting.” We have those. Then we’re going to have these sort of large scale workshops that are going to be much more hands-on, much more intense around topic points, so talk about what sustainability means, in terms of like storm water and power and infrastructure. You’re talking about building this new community, but you’re thinking about an 80-year build. So, with so many dynamics that were happening, we had to sort of sit back and say, “Okay, where do we add the most value?” We can ID a ton of really interesting things around how to execute these events or ways to talk to folks, but it came back down to some of those core principles we talked about earlier. It’s repetition. It’s having those sort of one-on-one conversations. It’s learning very quickly what the neighborhood dynamics are. You’re having a different conversation for Astoria folks than you are having for folks who are in Woodside, because they’re not the same neighborhood and you have to be able to understand the lever points. Finding champions are huge, so even within the context where you have a party that big. We’ve probably touched over 2,000 stakeholder touch points in that project, but like there’s probably about 20 that really, really, really matter. And so, if you push those 20, what do you get, right? You have like this massive generational project that’s going to just that in the eyes of many community members is going to basically blow the affordability out the water in the middle of Western Queens.
Evan Oleson (22:20):
This highlights how complex community engagement work is. It’s not just the scale, but also the breadth of competing viewpoints.
Stephen Henriques (22:27):
Yes. And remember, this was also going on in the middle of the Amazon HQ2 competition, and the development projects associated with New York City’s proposal.
James Johnson-Piett (22:36):
You have Amazon and then you have this private rail that’s not really solving what people perceive as the real transit access issues in the borough, but really basically a way to connect hipster Brooklyn to hipster Queens. And so, you have all this stuff happening at the same time. Even though our scope was Sunnyside, we’re answering questions about the BQX, we’re answering questions about HQ2, because it’s all tied to the city. So, you having to become a city’s advocate and take those hits for them, right? Or have sidecar conversations with folks and say, “Hey, can you focus on what we’re trying to do here?” It puts you in places that you probably were uncomfortable with, but if you’re going to be real with community, they’re going to ask you questions that are germane to their lives and so, sometimes it was directly around the project that we’re working on and sometimes, it had nothing to do with it. But if we want to do our work effectively, we had to be able to be fluent enough in that and know how the dynamics would impact people’s daily lives, and then still get them to dream a little bit because it was important.
James Johnson-Piett (23:32):
One of the things that we were able to really do is make it about “If you want this to be a community that’s going to matter to you in 20, 30, 40 years, it’s going to be through your children, it’s going to be through the eyes of young people. What are we voting for them? So, even if you’re not around, that’s not necessarily the only thing that’s important here. Can we talk about the next generation of what we want to see?” And some, folks, if you were a renter and you may not be long for, Long Island City maybe didn’t care about that much, but for long-time residents, even if they didn’t have kids there anymore, they still matter for them. They still cared about what their neighborhood is going to be and what it looked like.
James Johnson-Piett (24:07):
Sunnyside was just an education for us in a lot different levels. We had to staff up in ways we hadn’t had to staff up before. A high-profile project with lots of stakeholders and politically, when it’s political, people are really, your eyeballs are on it. You’re getting Press. Most of it, it’s going to be a little shaky. So, we had all these dynamics that frankly weren’t in place for a lot of our other projects, but I think in terms of how we ran it, it wasn’t anything particularly new. It was just scaled. If you look at the actual end result, which is the plan, I can say the plan has the voice of the community in it. I don’t think I’m going to ever say it’s a community plan, if you understand that sort of distinction. But I think even the size of this thing and how many folks are touching it, the community’s voice and particularly some of the things that they cared about the most met the moment where if I think we didn’t have engagement processes, as robust as we did, it probably wouldn’t have been there. It’s a good example of a place where community engagement really unearthed the true desire for sort of a different type of ownership structure for that neighborhood. So, this idea of valuing what’s important, and what the public sector and whether that’s government or the people, the body politic wants to invest in place. That’s always the question, because you hear this thing’s going to cost X billions of dollars and wrapping your arms around it as an individual is hard. But the thing you want is the thing you want, if you want better roads, you want better sanitation, infrastructure, you want better schools, who’s going to pay for that and how, and how creative are we going to be and who gets to make the decisions, who gets to own and decide what’s valuable. I mean, there were some really heavy things that happened in this context, too, that felt the sort of engagement structure that we had. We probably wouldn’t be able to have those conversations. And I think the end product would have been lesser because of it.
Evan Oleson (25:56):
It sounds like in the end, James felt like the community input made a difference in the final vision for the projects. Did Urbane have to do a lot of work in the handoff of their deliverables to ensure that all of the community feedback is not forgotten as the project moves forward? When you have so many players involved in the process, I imagine it can be easy to lose sight of the community input. How far did they stay involved to prevent this?
James Johnson-Piett (26:20):
What is our continuing presence in places where we do community engagement? I’ll say it works in two different ways. So I think, in a case like Sunnyside where we’re essentially a hired gun. It’s always been a tricky part of our projects in general where we are the consultant, so we’re there to advise someone else into that. That someone else has to take that work forward. So, the question is, “How often do you check in with the client for a course correction?” It’s funny, because we’ve been asked to work on parts that weren’t part of our scope. So, we haven’t been asked to do anything on community engagement anymore, but we’ve been asked about small business, we’ve asked about alternative finance and community capital. It’s only because that’s a fluency that we have with the firm, so the city and other folks in the neighborhood have come back and said, Hey, that idea that came up in the planning, how could we start to begin to execute that? So, we’ve ad hoc played a role in sort of helping think things through or record any resources, but from a community engagement perspective, I think part of the next step has to be the community takes it work on for themselves. And I think part and parcel of the end game for the planning work in Sunnyside was something has to be birthed out of this process. So the city initiates it, you have all these folks come in, you have all this human capital expended to create a product. And so, the last sort of section of our time was trying to figure out who could take that work on.
James Johnson-Piett (27:33):
Transportation is such a huge part of the plan. There are many transportation advocates in Queens that are already thinking about what they think makes sense, but now they’re armed with some information. So, how do you let that information become something greater now that’s something that wasn’t in the purview of the project? It wasn’t like, “Okay, how are we going to pay for the next layer of advocacy?” You have a pilot of X, Y, and Z and have someone else to take the baton for and run with it. And the reason why, just bluntly, community engagement as an isolated part of our work isn’t something I like, even though we just did this project, whatever the case is, for this exact reason and I think our model isn’t set up to do it that way. Inevitably, we wanted to be more of a feedback loop, so we’re doing community engagement for the purpose of if the outcome we want to create. So for us, the community engagement allows for us to then do the other things that we like to do when it comes to the neighborhood level investment, and whether that’s buildings or the workforce application. It gives us a rich way to engage folk, and then we get to be more of a known quantity in the neighborhood. So, we’re sort of pivoting into the space where it’s frankly the true place based model. The community engagement sort of undergirds the research, the advisory work and our place-based investment work is really multi-faceted in that way.
Evan Oleson (28:46):
The issue of sustainability of the effort is one that Prabal Chakrabarti has also thought a lot about as the Working Cities Challenge grant contest has matured.
Stephen Henriques (28:54):
Right. As James Johnson-Piett noted in Urbane’s work on Sunnyside Yards, a dedicated amount of time needs to focus on the handoff. Who takes the work from here?
Evan Oleson (29:04):
It’s the same with the Boston Fed’s work, on the challenge grants.
Prabal Chakrabarti (29:08):
Another thing that we’ve learned is the importance of thinking about sustainability of these efforts from the very beginning. So, when we started this, we weren’t thinking about year four necessarily. Our jury would ask questions about it, but these were three-year grants. They are meant to be catalytic. The work needed to continue in some form. Now, this isn’t about having whatever is being done in year three be done in year four, it’s about a process of learning throughout, keeping what’s working and not doing what is not effective, partners will come in and out and the effort will adapt. So, thinking about sustainability from year one has been something, “Where the effort be housed? How could it move forward? How would it be adapted?” in Chelsea, Massachusetts, they initially started focusing on housing and ended up moving into public safety. They didn’t feel housing was the best place for the initiative, but public safety was and they put together some different sectors, especially the police and housing in the schools, of course, but also other sectors that worked with youth and anti-gang efforts. And they got some real results through that. Chelsea is a safer place than it was previously and it went down by more in the target neighborhood than in other neighborhoods. When I talk about sustainability, just as a measure, our first round, our four cities received the $1.6 million in grants. In follow-on grants, they received $11 million to the Working Cities efforts because the teams were successful, they were applying together, outside funders saw it as a signal that the city had its act together.
Evan Oleson (30:47):
So, we have a few examples so far; projects large in scale like Sunnyside Yard and ones that are process-focused, like the efforts in Working Cities Grants. But let’s talk more about how cities can move beyond just tackling a laundry list of wants and needs and addressing pressing problems. Stephen, tell us more about how we can think bigger.
Stephen Henriques (31:06):
A lot of the regional economic development work focuses on strategies like cluster development where you look for strengths in economic base, and rather than engage in a bidding war with other cities for the next great corporate headquarters location, you make much more strategic bets and firms that will add to your current cluster configuration.
Evan Oleson (31:23):
That sounds like a good strategy.
Stephen Henriques (31:26):
It absolutely can be. However, we’ve been reading the work of the economist, Mariana Mazzucato. Mazzucato would say that cities need to emphasize the importance of establishing a vision and making investments towards that vision that then crowd in the private sector. What Mazzucato argues is that we can both focus on existing clusters and making bigger bets toward the new industries that haven’t been birthed yet, and the green economy for example. She believes city leaders should understand their current strengths as it relates to industry clusters, workforce skillsets, and public real estate assets to drive their future path. But it is also essential that cities think beyond what currently exists to construct narratives about who they could be and make some big bet strategic investments there as well.
Evan Oleson (32:12):
Definitely bold, exciting and a little outside the box. James told us Mazzucato is an academic whom he really admires. Let’s hear more about one of the projects Urbane worked on in Philadelphia, which strikes me as more in this vein.
James Johnson-Piett (32:23):
And so, Philly is at a different context than New York, obviously. Less dense, certainly is still a diversified economy, but more global perspective, not as mature in terms of what its narrative is on a global stage. Philly’s definitely a world class city when it comes to life sciences and healthcare, but it’s competing with Boston, it’s competing with New York to some extent as well. It could be seen as A best in class place, but not like THE best in class place. It’s going to have to like figure out sort of how to compete not just with itself in this sort of localized competitors, but really globally, who else is doing that kind of work because you don’t want to be a monoculture and a mono economy either. So, how do you think about, talking about multisector sort of ways to sort of built up multiple industries. It has the most concentrated poverty - it’s the poorest of the 10 big major cities, so that’s another harbinger to think about as well. So, we were asked by our client, in this case, the Economic Development Agency for Philadelphia to look at a neighborhood in the southwest part of the city and try to understand ways, what capital flows to that neighborhood and ways that they could take their existing services from a capital perspective and find ways to get them into the hands of people there. I think there was this interesting moment where I think folks realized the opportunity, but also the sort of pending crisis moment for that neighborhood. It’s surrounded by just really important assets.
James Johnson-Piett (33:46):
One of our rivers in Philadelphia abuts it. You have the airport, you have the seaport, you have multiple transportation nodes running through the neighborhood, and you have our university cluster directly above it. So, there’s a lot of [inaudible 00:34:01] that make that neighborhood really palpable for development and for sort of private investment. With the opportunity zones, legislation coming down the pike, there’s just a lot of eyeballs on that neighborhood. One of the really interesting tidbits that came out of our work, it was the least invested in from a philanthropic perspective of any Philadelphia neighborhood in the city, even though it had all the same poverty metrics and demographics that we’re looking to around investing in place. I think 2% of all philanthropic dollars over the last 50 years have gone to that neighborhood. The least amount of green space of all the neighborhoods in Philly. Just all of these sort of things. You’re sitting on a ton of locational assets, but at the same time, woefully under resourced. The attention from the city and from other stakeholders was offering opportunity, but at the same time, there had to be some quick movement because their private market was already starting to find its way down there.
Stephen Henriques (34:54):
So, you can see here, with all of these assets surrounding the neighborhood and its central location, the city could just let the gentrification processes unfold. The role of the city in that approach is to facilitate development, bundle parcels of land, play up all of these locational assets to stimulate private developer interest. Basically, smooth the path for private development once the neighborhood gets targeted for outside investment.
Evan Oleson (35:17):
Right. That’s a story we all understand, and while there’s money to be made, and economic growth for the city that can come from this pathway, there’s loss for the existing residents. Loss in terms of higher residential and commercial rents, loss in terms of a reimagining of their neighborhood and a future that doesn’t necessarily include them, and actual loss in terms of not being able to maintain a foothold economically to remain in place.
Stephen Henriques (35:41):
This is just the moment where James and Urbane were asked to help the city consider what other futures might be possible for this neighborhood, and how the city might act to bring about an alternative pathway to growth that was more inclusive of the current residents.
James Johnson-Piett (35:53):
And so, one of the things that was interesting about the neighborhood is like, like many neighbors and cities, you had a different merchant class than you had of the residential class. So, you had an immigrant class of merchants, in this case West African, predominantly. You did have some South Asian owners as well, but the neighborhood was predominately African American, but you had West African immigrants. And so, unlike many of the racial dynamics that would occur, for especially maybe in the ’90s and 2000s, I mean even before that, where you had sort of first generation immigrants coming in and buying your storefronts, and they look different than the African American communities that they were operating in. People didn’t look different, per se. They were different certainly, and I think in this neighborhood, you have one of the first opportunities to see the African diaspora, including African Americans have to figure out how they play together. And that was a really fascinating discussion to have with the merchants, with faith-based leaders, with these community development folks, who were trying to figure out how to create identity for this neighborhood, let alone the city, trying to navigate those sort of dynamics. And so, what was interesting for us was how do African Americans who are not part of that conversation, really ever, that sort of almost like a stateless group of diaspora, how do they play in this context? And so, you have this inflection point where people are thinking about, “I’m part of a diaspora, but I’d never really engaged the culture before, except for in my place.” And so, as a neighborhood, the only real connection you’ve had probably to continent is to the merchants that are on the block. It was an interesting opportunity to say to the city, “You have this really unique dynamic, what do you want to do with it? You have all the underlying assets that are really big and opportunistic. What do you want to do with it?” But there was this two-layer issue going on. One was they had to figure out what they want to do with these large assets and how it relates beyond just this neighborhood. It doesn’t matter of who gets to make decisions, right? So, we go back to that planning conversation. So, you have these massive plans being made and built out, you want to get community engagement to happen, but at the same time, you’re thinking about return, you’re thinking about the projects of the moment, that larger economic development strategy for the city in general. So, we’re trying to attract bigger companies on the corridor, we want this to be a logistics and a distribution hub. How does that fit and jibe with what the neighborhood actually wants and how do you make those things work?
Evan Oleson (38:14):
I can see how part of the challenge in creating a more inclusive path forward is that the traditional approach to pave the way for bigger companies and logistic firms is easy. It’s a playbook we all know how to execute on. What are the alternatives and what kind of research, insight and engagement does it require?
Stephen Henriques (38:31):
It’s a really important question, Evan. Let’s hear how James approached the first phase of exploration of what other economic features might be possible for this neighborhood. My understanding of how Urbane works is that they spend time understanding the current state of play of economic forces in the neighborhood and build from there.
James Johnson-Piett (38:46):
You have this really interesting and frankly, fascinating informal economy that was occurring in real time. Because of the underinvestment in the neighborhood, folks were just doing what they were doing. So, whether that’s you completely elicit, so we’ll talk about that, but much more of the gray work, particularly around logistics, because again, because of the nature of where it was. You have product going to and from West Africa through shipping containers, then you have aggregation points along the port that are right next to the neighborhood. You have this sort of informal network of U-Haul trucks that would take product coming from the continent, aggregating this aggregate and then take them out to Points West or Points North or South, Hershey and Mars always move their products from Central Pennsylvania through to the Philadelphia port. You still had the most tonnage activity coming through West Africa, coming through to Philly port. You have all this layering of informal entrepreneurship happening and the city sort of knew about this stuff, but really putting some numbers to it and kind of showing what people were frankly investing in, whether it was storage space or aggregation space, trailers. You’ll see this whole interesting little logistics economy happening in this neighborhood and then trailing down to the product and storefront level, the ones were the eye opening thing for everybody.
James Johnson-Piett (40:00):
And then, you had all these storefronts that were leasing property that wasn’t fairly inexpensive and the opportunity to buy now. So, what would you do if you had an entire quarter that can buy their properties as compared to leasing them, so that you could create some wealth and also some stability in terms of the storefronts? So, there were lots of little things we were able to kind of point to and focus on, in terms of the economics and sort of turn to ourselves this opportunity around like a diaspora sort of thing. But the one thing where our community engagement that hadn’t happened that was essential was there had to be a conversation between the various parts of the diaspora with each other. And one thing we learned because the neighborhood had already had various folks who wanted to do bigger, grander things, there is a whole conversation around the idea of an Africa town, so looking into Chinatown or a little Italy, or a little India, et cetera, they wanted to create sort of a hub for African goods to services and really promote it as such. Ostensibly, that sounds really interesting, but again, 80% of African American residential population, they don’t necessarily know what that means for them. What does that contextually mean, which was identifying in a neighborhood when they don’t own anything? They own the merchant storefronts. They don’t own the businesses. They don’t own the real estate. So, what does that mean when you brand it as something else?
James Johnson-Piett (41:13):
So, when we came in, we said, “Look, if the city makes it a goal and says globally, we can be the first American city that is really going to stake our claim around trying to see economic development,” and frankly, putting the infrastructure at a larger scale to really look at the African continent as an economic driver, not just as a sort of random port of call but really think about talent. They’re not just about infrastructure, but around the general investment and sort of cooperation, Import, Export up and through like professional services. We were talking a lot about even this cultural connection points, there’s not a ton of air traffic right now. So, West Africa coming off the East Coast outside of New York. Philly’s airport needs to also be known as something because right now, it’s expensive and annoying to fly out of. Can that in and of itself have a role with some of this and I think as you’re thinking about the next places that you want to invest in, Philly’s well positioned to think about Africa as a place to where it can be a conduit point for diaspora. We try to sell them on the idea of Philadelphia as a sort of diaspora city, and, frankly, as a stronger alternative for many younger Africans across the board, African American or otherwise, because it’s way more affordable. It’s a little less dense, but it has enough diversity in terms of its industry where you can really think about some interesting ways in which you can get lots of different folks to come down and add value.
Evan Oleson (42:35):
That’s really innovative thinking and an exciting vision, not just for the neighborhood, but for the future of the city.
Stephen Henriques (42:40):
I know. I really liked the way James moves from understanding the current economic activities to considering wealth building opportunities for current merchants before rents begin to rise, to thinking about the potential for storytelling as a foundation for economic investment in a little Africa neighborhood, to a city wide narrative about Philadelphia as a destination for the next wave of entrepreneurial talent and the African diaspora.
Evan Oleson (43:03):
James’s contrast is possible economic future with the more usual approach to economic development where we were talking about earlier.
James Johnson-Piett (43:10):
So much of it gets back to what do you value? Because if we’ve just said, “What’s the easiest return?” You could take cheap property, flip it, let me sit on it, and because of the nature of where it is, it could relate it to like the university cluster into this or a financial district, it’s a close enough footprint, where you could do the more traditional justification model, and just wait 15 years, 10 years and flip these houses and flip the warehouse infrastructure and turn it into something that’s going to be attractive or you could try to change the model up a little bit, but there’s so many dynamics that have to happen to really make that second process work. And so much of it was going to be conversations that haven’t happened before or haven’t happened at scale before, so the city has to decide where does it fit within that context? I know philanthropy’s thinking about this as well, but community… like how does it sort of coalesce around each other? How do you have conversations that are going to be hard? They’re going to be really hard to have and get to a shared vision ultimately. Like nothing that works that I’m saying to you right now is novel to that neighborhood. And that’s the thing, like neighborhoods know who they are; it’s a matter of having the ability to be able to present who you are in a way that’s packaged and framed for the powers that be or even being able to speak truth to power and being able to say, “Hey, this is what we want and then being able to execute on it.” The next phase of work for Philly is finding the tools - capital, talent, investment and infrastructure - to allow for folks to be able to sort of write their own destiny a little bit. I think, on the city side of it, meaning government, a rethink around what’s valuable and what do you want to invest in, I think is going to be pretty critical for this one.
Stephen Henriques (44:45):
And that brings us full circle to the economist, Mariana Mazzucato’s new book, The Value of Everything. The public sector can play an important role through their investments and through their storytelling and narrative building, about which pathway of development they go down.
Evan Oleson (44:59):
In thinking about the work from the Boston Fed, Prabal noted that the visioning and community engagement work go hand-in-hand. Cities can start with a more narrow vision for important initiatives to guide the future of the city and from there, build up the community connections that form the foundation for grander regional initiatives.
Prabal Chakrabarti (45:17):
They may not be a grand vision. It might be something like addressing the fiscal cliff effect of public benefits, and you phase out on those when you earn more, and that’s a disincentive to take a promotion or another job. That’s an example, or English as a second language financing or some common infrastructure for cities, so we see those steps. This is about the kind of community building, if you will, relationship building amongst cities in places where there’s often not a unified urban policy or a vision at all across the State, across a region, across a country for how these places can participate. It’s like “Well, just figure it out on your own and provide some resources,” in a formulaic way. We’ve seen those coalitions get formed. The Fed is not the only actor by any means engaged with these cities. We think there’s a lot of other intermediaries, National Committee development groups, and others doing terrific work with these cities in all kinds of issue areas. We’re just a table amongst all these other tables. The hope there is that you have the infrastructure, the civic infrastructure that gives any other vision or resources a place to land and a direction and a team to implement.
Prabal Chakrabarti (46:29):
Now, when you think about what’s next, we at the Fed have thought about and talked about the idea of around, well, we need something that’s grander, a bigger vision. It may be a question of timing. I don’t believe you can start with that and not have a robust civic infrastructure and functioning community development practices like community engagement and engagement of anchor institutions and working and functioning municipality that collaborates with its private sector. I think those things do need to be in place for that kind of vision to land. One thing we’ve thought about, and again, a lot of these things are prior to the pause in economic activity caused by COVID-19, but a lot of the growth in the country has occurred in just a few mega regions, and in a few sort of sectors, how do you find a place for small cities in these growing industries and sectors? And that might be still building on what that city has as assets, but trying to just build those connections. The example that I like is, I mean, if you think about medical devices or companies, let’s say in Boston and suburban Boston, when they need a prototype, when they had to do some kind of manufacturing, can that be placed out further and it has, in some cases into a small city. The call centers and others that might work with a wayfare that’s based in Boston. And can those things be placed in local areas and in cities and can you build clusters together in these places that service those? I think those are elements of a broader regional vision, public transit, and connectivities. Another vision that I think has gotten put out in places like Connecticut, more rail service, faster rail service, knitting together some of these small cities into something more of an economic connected economic region.
Evan Oleson (48:17):
Well, I think both our guests would agree that engaging the community to jointly formulate a vision for the cities is important. A vision can direct resources and talent, inspire citizens and escalate investment from the private sector.
Stephen Henriques (48:29):
Yes, we talk all the time about the power of vision and mission in organizations. Our guests today emphasized that the same is true for cities. One of the examples Mariana Mazzucato uses is the NASA mission to go to the moon, and how that mission and vision set out the path for lots of private investment and innovation and everything from engineering to clothing and food.
Evan Oleson (48:51):
We’ve got some big challenges ahead of us post-COVID. And from everything we’ve heard today, the lesson is not to be shy, but rather to be bold in the face of these challenges.
Stephen Henriques (49:01):
Time will tell how cities respond, and which cities will be most innovative in picking their moonshot and mobilizing to execute on it. But one thing I do know, as MBA students who are graduating into this moment, you and I and many of our SOM colleagues want to be part of work like this.
Evan Oleson (49:17):
We want to thank James Johnson-Piett from Urbane Development and Prabal Chakrabarti from the Boston Federal Reserve for taking the time to speak with us today. So, what’s up next on the CitySCOPE podcast, Stephen?
Stephen Henriques (49:29):
Stay tuned for our last episode, where Marisa, Alexandra and Professor Cooney will share some highlights from the translating work we did to take the ideas we’ve heard over the past seven episodes and consider how they might inform the efforts for inclusive economic development in the City of New Haven.
Evan Oleson (49:44):
Right. And we’ll also share some of our big takeaways from our conversations with all of our guests.
Stephen Henriques (49:49):
Join us next time for a Finale of Season 2 of the CitySCOPE podcast.
This podcast was recorded in our homes on Zencastr.
Created by Kate Cooney and the students of the spring 2020 Inclusive Economic Development Lab class.
All engineering and projection by Ryan McEvoy and Kate Cooney.
Special thanks to Rhona Ceppos for administration support and to [Giana Montez 00:39:57] for assistance with Zoom.
Music from the album Elm City Trees composed and performed by the artist K Dub. For more information and show notes, visit our website at iedl.yale.edu.
Thank you for listening.
Look, I’m from a city that’s half pretty and half gritty. Ain’t too many cities rocking with the Elm City. Home of the blazers. Those were the days. When I played, all these fast breaks. We don’t need plays. We play on Sundays like we don’t need praise. We pressing all game like we don’t breaks. Look, no debate. Best team in the state. We flow like the Lakers back in ‘88. I learned to play crazy eights in the city that raised the kid that want to big. Like I want to be big. I really hate the way rap’s portrayed. I want to the kids in the Elm to see a different way. Because way back I knew that I would get some pay. Every day in the mirror trying to get some waves. I ain’t trying to push weight. I want to own estates. Putting on the state on my license plate. Elm City. All I need is some Elm City trees. Avoided the trap, now you know where I be at. Everywhere I go, I rep that 203. Yeah, I love my city, but I had to leave. All I need is some Elm City trees. Avoided the trap, now you know where I be at. Everywhere I go, I rep that 203. Yeah, I love my city, but I had to leave.