State needs high-wage jobs and racial equity

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Economic development — particularly expanding the availability of high-wage jobs — and racial equity are twin priorities. Both are essential to a Michigan that has a growing economy and as it grows benefits all.

Unfortunately, all too often, they are viewed as competing priorities. Particularly when it comes to central city efforts to retain and attract mobile talent.

Today’s economic development reality is that quality of place attracts talent, and talent drives economic growth. Concentrated talent is what attracts high-wage employers. Talent also is entrepreneurial, so where it is concentrated are the places with the most high-wage business startups. Talent concentration is essential to high-wage job creation.

That means placemaking should be central to Michigan’s economic-growth strategy. The data is clear that the most prosperous places across the country are those with the largest talent concentrations. And that mobile talent is choosing to live in places with quality basic services, infrastructure and amenities.

But the economic development prerequisite to retain and attract mobile talent should not be at the expense of current residents. For cities this must be a both/and not an either/or proposition. Both current and future city residents should be provided with quality basic services, infrastructure and amenities that make the city an attractive place for both current and future residents to live, play and work. 

Far too often, cities have chosen to focus on providing service and amenities to downtown and near-downtown neighborhoods so as to retain and attract affluent/college-educated households. This needs to change.

Atlanta and Austin are prosperous and growing regions driven in large part by being national talent magnets, particularly their central cities. The new Austin transit system and the Atlanta BeltLine provide models for how to do placemaking in a way that benefits current residents and attracts mobile talent. Both initiatives provide expanded services to both downtown and neighborhoods and make affordable housing a funding priority.

Improving the quality of life of current city residents and attracting new residents to the city was the dual mission of the new Austin transit plan. Transit Now — the cross-sector supporters of the initiative — described the benefits of the light rail plus initiative this way:

“It’s time we invest in a new future for Austin that gives our transit-dependent neighbors dignity, that gives everyone else a viable option to sitting in traffic, that helps prevent climate change and protects the quality of our air and water, that prevents displacement and creates complete communities with expanded access to opportunities to all residents, and that keeps our economy humming now and for decades to come.”

The Atlanta BeltLine also is explicitly designed to both improve the quality of life of current city residents and to attract new residents to the city, particularly mobile young professionals. This dual purpose is how placemaking should be done everywhere.

The BeltLine is 33 miles of multi-use trails, parks and a network of pedestrian-friendly transit links. It serves 40 neighborhoods, not just downtown. Light rail is a central design feature of the BeltLine.

Atlanta Beltline’s website describes it this way: “As one of the largest, most wide-ranging urban redevelopment programs in the United States, the Atlanta BeltLine is the catalyst for making Atlanta a global beacon for equitable, inclusive, and sustainable city life.”

The story of the Atlanta Beltline is told in Ryan Gravel’s highly recommended “Where We Want To Live: Reclaiming Infrastructure for a New Generation of Cities.” Gravel first proposed the BeltLine a little more than 20 years ago in his master’s thesis at Georgia Tech.

From its inception, the BeltLine was designed to be far more than a walking and bike path with light rail running alongside the trail. It features include 33 miles of multi-use urban trails; $10 billion of economic development; 30,000 permanent jobs; 22 miles of pedestrian friendly rail transit; 5,600 units of affordable housing; 1,100 acres of environmental cleanup; 1,300 acres of new greenspace; 46 miles of improved streetscapes and the largest public art exhibition in the south.

Gravel calls it catalyst infrastructure. A catalyst for economic development, community development, affordable housing, etc. The BeltLine is infrastructure that creates the kind of amenities where people prefer to live and thus drives where development occurs. It changes the nature of that development from what academic and developer Christopher Leinberger in “Option of Urbanism” calls drivable suburbanism to walkable urbanism.

Turns out that both current residents, across race and class, as well as potential new residents all want walkable urbanism and both/and placemaking. And when communities do that, the result is a place that both improves the quality of life of current residents and attracts mobile talent that drives future economic growth.

Lou Glazer is president of Michigan Future Inc.

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