From rural to urban communities, appropriate, affordable housing is in demand, and is increasingly hard to come by. In different places, appropriate and affordable take different forms. In our work, we have worked with rural communities that had a surplus of aging single family homes, but few rental apartments appropriate for single person households. We have also worked with urban communities where multi-family housing was being built, but all the units were out of the price range of a middle income earner, such as a teacher.
In places that are facing a shortage of appropriate, affordable housing, the question often asked is, “Why can’t we just convert that old school/warehouse/abandoned church into apartments?
It seems like a simple trade – there is a need for space, and these structures have a lot of it. Oftentimes, they are a link to the community’s past, such as an old school or a mill building. But the process of transitioning a commercial, industrial, or institutional use to residential is complex and expensive, and not a fit for every community.
The first hurdle is zoning. The principle behind zoning is to keep land uses separate, and sometimes for good reason; that old industrial warehouse along the river may have been part of a loud, noisy, and potentially polluting complex fifty years ago.
If that warehouse is now located along a riverfront rail trail, and within walking distance to bars and restaurants, it may make sense for the zoning around it to change. In order to do that, the city would either have to change the zoning, or grant a variance – a specific waiver that allows the property to be used in a way that is not permitted by the current zoning ordinance.
Zoning variances take a long time to be decided and are not a sure thing. This is especially true if the change in zoning would require more infrastructure and city services to be delivered to an area that formerly was not active. In property development, time is money, and the more time a property is tied up in zoning proceedings, the less likely it is to be redeveloped.
Retrofitting an industrial or institutional building into residential involves many different factors, and one of those factors is money. Older buildings are more likely to hold outdated and dangerous materials like asbestos insulation and lead paint. Utility systems and elevators may not conform to residential and accessible standards. And finally, building footprints (such as classrooms) may not align with codes for residential units.
Addressing each of these factors is expensive. Those costs add to the total project budget, resulting in higher costs that are eventually passed on to the owners or renters of the building’s units. As remediation costs pile up, the developer will compare the budget with other new build construction rents and development costs. If renovation costs push unit prices high above market rate, the rehabilitation of the structure will be untenable. And if it can be profitable to the developer and deliver a product within the market range, these costs can push the prices far above what is affordable.
What can we do?
Successful conversion of large, older buildings into residential properties can be encouraged by lowering municipal policy and financial barriers.
Municipalities can review zoning to determine ways to allow for conversion of properties, for example, considering if a former industrial site should be zoned light industrial or mixed use, or allowing for multi-family units in single-family residential neighborhoods which could allow reuse of churches and schools. Parking requirements can also be a barrier – it is likely that the residents of an 8 unit building will not have the same parking needs as a 50 person company.
Financial hurdles are harder to address from a municipal standpoint, but programs such as the Low Income Housing Tax Credit provides some incentive for building affordable units. The Historic Tax Credit is another way to alleviate financial hardship, thought this program is practically only useful for project over $5 million. If the project is in an Opportunity Zone, there may be a heightened possibility of attracting outside investment, thus relieving the need for bank financing, which can be difficult to secure for unconventional projects.
There is never a simple answer to how to create more affordable housing, and converting buildings from industrial and institutional is no exception. It requires flexibility and ingenuity from both the private and the public side to make sure there is a perfect fit.
Anywhere you go – when you tell people that you live and work in Maine – almost always the reaction is “Ooooo – I LOVE Maine.” Chances are if you have been to Maine – let alone live here – you have a deep affinity for the place and people. Whether it is the picturesque pine lined coast, the perfect peeping foliage, powder laden mountains, the ridiculous amount of delicious cuisine or the quant draw of classic New England communities – there is a lot to love about this place.
What you may not know is that there is a frothy tidal pool of local government innovation seeping into tributaries of infrastructure, technology, policy and economic development that led to a State at truly a watershed moment. To that extent I am grateful to find myself navigating the frontiers of these territories as Fourth Economy takes on a growing role helping facilitate smart, connected, and resilient policies and practices throughout the State.
Having helped define and distill the City of Portland’s Innovation Agenda in 2018 – we now find ourselves helping The City of Lewiston develop a first of a kind Smart Infrastructure Strategy. As Lewiston seeks to leverage a significant housing and neighborhood transformation plan – the City seeks to establish a comprehensive smart city overlay of policy, infrastructure and operations. It is an exciting opportunity to work with civic innovators already investing in street light upgrades and advanced water meter networks.
Through the work with The State’s two largest cities – we are excited to be working with the Maine Technology Institute, GrowSmart Maine, and The Island Institute in the launching of a Smart Communities Maine a network of Maine municipalities, regional agencies, nonprofits, private companies, developers, and universities converging around the need to address smart infrastructure development opportunities at a regional scale. The aim of the initiative is to both develop local capacity to design place-based strategies that reflect community priorities to inform smart infrastructure investments, public policy, and economic development partnerships.
Due to these projects and partnerships we are proud to help support two unique events taking shape in June that contribute to the growing momentum across multiple sectors to foster smart, connected, innovative and resilient communities across Maine.
June 5-6 The Build Maine Conference hosted in Lewiston will be a unique opportunity to introduce cutting edge business practices and focused conversations with leaders in transportation planning, real estate development, and public service, demonstrating a breadth of knowledge we can apply locally.
June 20-21 The StartUp Maine Annual Conference will seek to align the robust Maine startup ecosystem with local government and policy innovators. I am proud to be producing a series of conversations around how smart and connected infrastructure is percolating in multiple sectors across the state.
The PCRG Community Development Summit was held on May 8-9, 2019. It was titled Capital and Capacity: Replanting Roots in an Ever-Shifting Reinvestment Landscape. The title was an undersell to say the least. I would characterize this year’s summit as Transforming the way we do development.
The summit’s first session on May 8, Under our Own Power: Games to Inform, Organize, Build Capacity, and Compel Action was not your ordinary “we can make community engagement engaging” kind of session. The session was facilitated by the Andrea Elcock of the Port Authority of Allegheny County, David Totten of the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission and a team from evolveEA that included Christine Mondor, Elijah Hughes, Ashley Cox and Daniel Klein. Christine set the tone early by framing levels of engagement from low (transactional) to high (transformational).
These levels of engagement can and should build off of each other. Just because an engagement is transactional, that doesn’t mean it is bad. Sometimes you just need to inform people. However, if you need to get things done, it will require a more significant engagement effort. This goes far beyond the typical community engagement process of Inform, Collect Feedback, Ignore Feedback.
On May 9, Andrea Batista Schlesinger of HR&A Advisors fired up the breakfast club with a call for Equitable Development. Ms. Schlesinger did not pull punches, for example she led off by saying that “Economic development is not neutral, it is political and the tools of economic development and planning are often used to enforce racial segregation.” She called for equity to be a central focus and not an “extracurricular activity.” She advocated for an approach to Equitable Economic Development that I have boiled down to four critical questions for every development program or initiative:
- Who wins?
- Who loses?
- Who made the plan? Or who runs the program?
- How do you protect people from your good intentions?
At the lunch keynote, Nathaniel Smith of the Partnership for Southern Equity made clear that the problems of inequity today are rooted in our history. Early in his address he quoted James Baldwin: “History is not even the past; It is the present.” Mr. Smith made clear what he meant when he said “Extreme Extraction = Extreme Inequality” that he matched with maps and photos of America’s slave trade and the Trail of Tears that displaced native peoples from their historic homelands.
Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Wealth, Asset Ownership, & Debt of Households Detailed Tables: 2014.
Today the net worth of black households is only seven percent of the net worth of white households. While we might like to confine the sins of slavery and racism to the past, they are in the words of James Baldwin, very much a part of the present. New research by Dionissi Aliprantis and Daniel Carroll at the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland explore the causes of the wealth gap. For an easily digestible summary of their research, see the article by Brentin Mock of CityLab, “Why Can’t We Close the Racial Wealth Gap?”
If we are going to transform the way we do development, so that it is something that benefits people, then we need to reframe the development debate.
Under the hypothetical scenario used in their model, wherein no income gap exists since 1962—meaning all things equal in payscale between blacks and whites—they claim that the wealth gap likely would have mostly been closed by 2007. That’s because their model predicts that by 1977 the labor income gap has become a stronger contributor to the wealth gap than the initial conditions, and then accounts for more than 80 percent of the wealth gap by 1990, as visualized in the chart below.
If we are going to transform the way we do development, so that it is something that benefits people, then we need to reframe the development debate. Nathaniel Smith challenged us to consider the following: What would Pittsburgh look like if every policy were evaluated based on the impact on the most vulnerable?
So wherever you live, ask yourselves that question before you sink the next bucket of tax dollars into a development deal.
Andre Perry of the Brookings Institution and members of the Fair Housing Task Force recently discussed barriers to fair housing in Pittsburgh and suggested policies to promote housing equity across protected classes.
Andre Perry shared information from a recent report by the Brookings Institution that explored the devaluation of assets in black neighborhoods. The report found that, “differences in home and neighborhood quality do not fully explain the devaluation of homes in black neighborhoods.” In the nationwide study, homes in majority black neighborhoods were found to be worth 23% less than similar homes in neighborhoods with fewer black residents, even when controlling for variables like quality of home and access to amenities. This devaluation equates to an equity loss of $48,000 per home and $156 billion in lost equity across black neighborhoods nationwide.
The effect of housing devaluation has a negative impact on upward income mobility. Raj Chetty, who publishes studies with Opportunity Insights at Harvard University concluded that there is a significant racial disparity in economic mobility and that mobility varies widely across neighborhoods within cities. Their research provides support for “policies that reduce segregation and concentrated poverty in cities.”
In Pittsburgh, devaluation in majority black neighborhoods has resulted in an average 11.6% difference in home value and a -$11,919 absolute price difference. Disparities extend beyond home valuation. Homeownership rates are lower for African Americans. According to the 2010 Census, African Americans represent 26.1% of the population in Pittsburgh, but account for 16.4% of total homeowners. One-third of Pittsburgh’s African-American households own their homes, while nearly two-thirds of white households do.
The Fair Housing Task Force, organized through the City of Pittsburgh Commission on Human Relations, represents interests of protected classes under the Fair Housing Act, which include color, disability, familial status, national origin, race, religion, and sex. For the past two years, the task force has worked with 44 organizations across Pittsburgh to assemble recommendations that address fair housing access in neighborhoods across the city. These policies build off of the work of the Affordable Housing Task Force by using a fair housing lens to address long-standing racial economic disparities within housing.
“Smart Cities: Transforming Cities for a New Era” was the theme of the 10th Annual Sustainability Conference, hosted by the Pittsburgh Section of the American Society of Civil Engineers, the Pittsburgh Chapter of the Environmental and Water Resources Institute, Carnegie Mellon University’s Metro 21 Smart Cities Institute, and Sustainable Pittsburgh.
The day-long summit, which took place at the August Wilson Center in Downtown Pittsburgh, explored our unique, local approach to planning for our future as a smarter, more livable and connected city. Speakers highlighted a variety of topics but ultimately circled around a central question – How do we leverage data and technology to improve quality of life for the people who live in our region?
Major themes discussed throughout the day included:
- Transportation – How can we build complete, networked transit systems that include first and last mile solutions?
- Energy – How can we manage resources by implementing efficiency technologies, alternatives, and behavior change to reduce emissions on a large scale?
- Infrastructure – From wifi networks to utilities, how do we ensure the needs of residents are addressed in effective, reliable ways?
- Land Use – How do we design and develop the built environment with a mix of residential, industrial, and public space that people actually like to use?
- Climate Change – How do we address serious climate stressors like increased rainfall and stormwater management before they become potentially deadly shocks like flooding and landslides?
- Workforce – How can we ensure we are adequately and equitably training workers for a future economy that includes automation and rising advanced industries?
- Data, Surveillance and Privacy – How do we balance the inherent tension between data collection for the purposes of increased security and connectivity with our right to privacy?
Technology, no matter how advanced, must be used as a tool and instrument of building an equitable, high-functioning lived environment that responds to the needs of the population who call it home.
Throughout the day ran a central idea – that though technology is better than it’s ever been, and indeed is a growing staple of our regional economy, the future of Smart Cities cannot be about tech for tech’s sake. As seductive as the allure is of a completely integrated web of devices answering our every whim, the essential question planners must ask before anything else is “what kind of spaces do we want to live, work, and play in?” Once that vision is established, technologies and innovations can be sourced to enable that vision. Technology, no matter how advanced, must be used as a tool and instrument of building an equitable, high-functioning lived environment that responds to the needs of the population who call it home.
We must guarantee that our future Smart City development is incremental, deliberate, and, most of all, people-centric.
We are lucky to have bright thinkers in our region like those who spoke throughout the day to help ensure that Smart City technology integration is driven by the will and desire of people in our communities. We will certainly apply this critical thinking in our work in communities like Lewiston, Maine, where over the next nine months we will examine opportunities for enhancing and investing in new smart city assets – things like smart streetlights, traffic signals, parking kiosks, wifi-hotspots, Electric Vehicle (EV) charging stations, distributed energy generation units, shared multi-modal units (bike or scooter shares), and fiber assets – to increase public health, digital equity and public safety.
In short, “Smart Cities” has the potential to improve our lives by connecting, monitoring, and optimizing city services like transit, utilities, and public safety resources. However, in order to make sure that it actually achieves the impact we want, we must guarantee that our future Smart City development is incremental, deliberate, and, most of all, people-centric.
Who are you designing your talent attraction and retention program for? You might say, “For everyone!” And you might mean that – in today’s tight labor market, being able to keep and attract a great workforce means widening the definition of “talent”.
We know that the economic development profession is overwhelmingly caucasian, and, especially in areas of leadership, skews male.
When talent attraction and retention programs are designed by older, white males, then the community enters into a loop of marketing the program right back to the same audience. This is known as “cognitive bias” and it shows up in every field. A startling example of this comes from the U.S. auto-industry’s all-male teams of engineers. They designed the earliest air bags for test subjects that resembled themselves, the result of which killed many women and children whose smaller bodies were not accounted for.
To be fair, the stakes for talent attraction and retention campaigns are not quite as high, but we know that companies are increasingly making operating and relocation decisions based on the availability of a strong workforce. The more educated and talented these workers are, the more competitive a community’s case will be. Rather than focusing your strategy on “everybody” perhaps it is time to target one of the largest sectors of the talent market – Millennial women.
Sisters are doing it for themselves
Why millennial women? Millennial women are highly educated, high earners, and entrepreneurial.
Consider the following statistics:
- About 36% of women ages 25-34 have a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared with about 28% of men who are the same age.
- Though there is still a gender wage gap, women’s wages are rising; between 1975 and 2016, the share of young women earning less than $30,000/yr plummeted from 79.6 percent to 58.1 percent.
- Women are starting about 1,821 new U.S. businesses per day, a significant uptick from an average of 952 between 2012 and 2017.
- There are more than 9 million women owned businesses in the US today.
There are many reasons why women are playing a larger role in the economy, not including the relaxed expectations for women to immediately enter traditional marriages.
One reason for their increasing role is, ironically, due to traditional gender roles. Because of sexism in blue collar jobs, women have more of a need for education than men to earn comparable salaries. Of the jobs that do not require a college degree, the highest paying ones typically go to men. Plumbers, electricians and truck drivers have higher wages than female-dominated jobs that don’t require a degree such as secretarial work, child care or restaurant-industry jobs. This has resulted in women seeking out higher education more often than men and has created a pool of young, female knowledge workers.
The impact of women on your community
Attracting more women impacts your community favorably, both economically and socially.
Furthermore, women control a lot of money and spending. Globally, women are responsible for 85% of consumer spending: the average woman is making purchases for herself, her husband or partner, her children and her elderly parents. That translates into a powerful economic force in your community.
One industry in particular that has benefitted from more women in the workplace is the wellness economy. From 2015-2017, the wellness economy grew from $3.7 trillion to $4.2 trillion, or by 6.4% annually, a growth rate nearly twice as fast as global economic growth. This includes sectors such as Wellness Tourism ($639 billion) Personal Care Beauty & Anti-Aging ($1,083 billion) and the Spa Economy ($119 billion). More women in your community means more jobs for those in the health and beauty industry.
Additionally, a report from the Bureau of Labor statistics shows that women volunteer at a higher rate than men, across all age groups, educational levels, and other major demographic characteristics. Think of all the aging non-profit boards in your community – attracting young women is a way to ensure the continuity organizations and supplement their leadership!
Millennial women, between the ages of 25 and 35, are reaching a point in their careers where they need to make a decision about where to locate more permanently. Due to lower rates of marriage and childbirth, this population is mobile. But they need a good reason to call your community home. Designing your marketing strategy so it speaks to women’s needs and wants will ultimately determine if they choose to relocate and exercise their social and economic abilities in your community.
How to reach these women where it will impact them?
When marketing to millennial women, like any group, it is important to target their key motivations and speak to their values in a way that resonates. Showing, rather than telling, that your community’s values align with theirs can influence decision making.
To attract women, you should speak to the following:
While millenials in general are not buying homes at the same rate as previous generations (hello student loan debt!), single women are buying homes and condos at nearly twice the rate of single males.
Personally, this statistic aligns with my lived experience. I moved from Washington D.C. to Pittsburgh partially because I could afford to purchase my own home. And when comparing the status of many of my closest friends in each place, a majority of my Pittsburgh friends own homes, whereas only a couple of my D.C. friends did.
Does your community have plentiful and affordable housing available for purchase? Make sure it is highlighted in your marketing efforts.
And let’s not forget the pay gap. On average, women make 80% of what men make. (Www.aauw.org). That’s due to a lot of factors but it’s a fact that women are very aware of. Showcasing businesses that are committed to equal pay, or making the case that your money goes further in smaller communities speaks to women’s concerns about lower wages.
Illustrating your community’s commitment to family connections is also a relevant message for millennial women. The responsibility to care for aging parents often falls to women because of gender norms around emotional labor. As parents grow older, millennial women will be increasingly called upon to address their care. Conversely, if a woman has children, being close to her parents often provides a built-in support system and potential child care benefits.
Attracting young families back to your community has the added benefit of keeping their parents in place. In some communities we have seen the “Double Brain Drain” wherein retired grandparents move to be closer to their grandchildren. Bringing young families to town ensures the older populations don’t move away.
Social media marketing allows for very targeted ad campaigns. Facebook is a relatively inexpensive way to target specific populations, including new parents. And, even without paying for advertising, a viral campaign about how your town is family friendly might catch some eyes.
Young women have flocked to larger cities for a number of reasons – more things to do, better restaurants to try, more impressive scenery for their mental health (and instagram photos). But more often than not, what they are seeking is opportunity.
The more you can show women rising to success in your community, the more women will be interested in seeking opportunity there. If you look around and don’t see women owning businesses or in corporate leadership, ask yourself why not. Is there a need to start an incubator for women and minority owned companies? Do your corporate partners have a diversity program or mentor ship option? Once these programs get off the ground, highlight them in your marketing materials.
Be Authentic! Don’t try to play this marketing angle without actually having the programs to back it up. Promoting a false commitment to equality can backlash.
Their Health (Social, Emotional and Physical)
It’s not enough to have a yoga studio. Every city and town has a yoga studio. What you really need is free yoga. Preferably combined with alcohol.
Young women need to make friends and build a community to choose to make a place a home. But (as I covered in a past blog post) young people are not interested in boring business after hours networking events. Yoga is a high value activity – classes cost between $10-20, but if you can, encourage a local organization (think: library, nonprofits) to do free/donation based events. Adding a happy hour afterwards gives the chance to form relationships. Holding the class in an interesting space, like a museum, provides something to talk about. For extra credit, you can incorporate adorable baby animals.
Make sure to highlight health-oriented and social activities in your marketing plans to pique women’s interest and draw them to your community.
Men will follow
The title of this post is flatteringly adapted from our friend and collaborator David Feehan’s excellent book “Design Downtown for Women – Men Will Follow” which delves into how downtowns can be made into a better experience for women, which in turn, creates a better experience for all.
Men will follow. In the most literal sense, they will follow their partners/girlfriends/wives in their decision to move to your community. But on a greater scale, communities that attract women will grow stronger through more resilient community organizations, more diverse companies, and more tightly knit social networks, and thereby attract people of all ages and gender. The outcome of targeting your talent attraction and retention strategy on young women is a better value proposition for all those who might call your community home.
Clairton, Pennsylvania is home to less than 7,000 residents. It is probably best known for being the home of the Clairton Coke Works and was once known as the Coke Capital of the World. It is also known for being the home of the Clairton Bears, the local high school football, which had a 66 game winning streak that spanned 2009 to 2013.
Clairton is one of the Monongahela river towns where the decline of the steel industry hit hard. Tucked onto two hilltops that overlook the river, train tracks, and the coke works, Clairton has seen more than its fair share of losses. More than a decade ago, the last grocery store in town closed.
Now, there is positive momentum. Local residents, working through two committees: The Healthy Food, Social, and Human Services Committee and the Neighborhood Partnership Program Committee guided the development phase and ensured engagement by the residents of Clairton. The effort to get to opening day resulted from the efforts of two nonprofits, Economic Development South and Just Harvest. Funding for the store was provided by the Pennsylvania Department of Community & Economic Development’s Neighborhood Assistance Program (funded by BNY Mellon and Highmark), and Bridgeway Capital.
Fourth Economy and Palo Alto Partners were engaged by Just Harvest to assess the financial viability of the fresh foods market planned by Economic Development South. We conducted a needs assessment to identify the areas of highest need in Clairton, combined with an opportunity assessment to identify the areas that would be most accessible to residents. We also conducted an evaluation of local expenditures and competing stores and to assess potential store locations in Clairton. Surveys of residents provided critical insights into what factors would make the store successful. The study estimated the potential sales that could be captured for different offerings. Finally, the study integrated all of these analyses into a business plan and operational model.
The results of our analysis demonstrated that such a store would have a narrow path to sustainable break-even operations. Every scenario required some level of subsidy to overcome early operating losses. As a consulting team, we were downcast that we were not creative enough to find a sustainable, break-even solution. We were dreading when it came time to present the results to our project partners at Economic Development South and Just Harvest.
When we got to final numbers on the cash flow and the break-even projections, we expected to hear something like, “Well, thanks for trying.” We got a very different response instead. Greg Jones of Economic Development South was ecstatic — the numbers were much better than he expected. “We can make this work. This is less than it costs to educate people about food deserts and the lack of fresh produce. If we can actually provide fresh foods at this cost, this is a no-brainer!”
With the opening of Produce Marketplace, at 519 St. Clair Avenue, residents of Clairton will have access to affordable fresh foods all year round. It has been great to see this project come to life. It will be two or three years before we know that the store is sustainable, but the level of community engagement and interest to date provides a good leading indicator of the store’s viability.
When was the last time you visited a public library? How about a Starbucks? As of 2017, it is noted that there are more public libraries than Starbucks in the U.S. I’ve experienced a recent uptick in my library visit frequency. Instead of simply using their printer when mine is on the fritz,I’ve used their resources to successfully kick-start an abandoned community garden, discover local neighborhood assets, and score a free yoga class.
In late July, there was an opinion piece shared by Forbes (that was quickly deleted due to insane backlash), that insisted Amazon could and should replace libraries. Leave it to the librarians to whip up some serious backlash. So it’s obvious that there’s a need for libraries, but why? In both rural and urban areas, libraries are moving away from simply being placeholders for books, and closer to becoming a space that meets unmet society needs through technology innovation, education, and municipal services.
Let’s rewind 20 years…
Maxine Bleiweis’ 1997 publishing of Helping Business- The Library’s Role in Community Economic Development, served as a How-To manual for the library’s role in small business development. Back in ‘97, libraries offered free training courses, aided in workforce development, and began advocating for a strange new gizmo: the internet. In the past twenty years we’ve seen the rise of this online resource, with most library materials reflecting this shift. Many now provide public access technology infrastructure resources and capacity, digital literacy support, and domain-specific services and programs (civic engagement, education, health and wellness, etc). However, states with a high percentage of rural areas still struggle with supporting small and local businesses when their residents lack a reliable and affordable internet connection. It’s 2018, and in every single state there exists a portion of the population that doesn’t have access to broadband.
Libraries to the rescue!
In Missouri, Secretary of State, Jay Ashcroft, is pushing to fund the “Remote Electronic Access for Libraries Program”, which supports the costs of internet access, technical support, and other training services at the state’s public libraries. Ashcroft views the program as a cost-effective way to spread broadband throughout the state”, an issue that many states’ deal with. The roots of the Public Library run deep in supporting public needs beyond provision of paper materials . For example, Andrew Carnegie’s first designated library in Braddock, PA (pictured below), was imagined to be a full service center for working class Americans. It was equipped with billiard tables and a bathhouse to provide mill workers with a place to shower before using the facilities.
Photo circa 1893: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division (REPRODUCTION NUMBER: LC-DIG-ppmsca-15382)
In a world where people are paying to get ahead through specialized education such as training programs and certificates, libraries are slowly breaking down the inequality barrier.
In June 2014 the Free Library of Philadelphia launched a Culinary Literacy Center, aimed at revolutionizing the way residents think about food and nutrition while advancing literacy and teaching math through measurements. Over in Connecticut, the Westport Library’s makerspace is equipped with 3D printers which allow users to learn modeling software programs, and robots to teach coding and computer-programming skills. Outside the U.S. exists what is commonly referred to as the gold standard in library innovation, Dokken, in Aarhus, Denmark received the award for best public library in 2016. Patrons can park in the automated, robotic underground parking lot, make use of the lecture halls, and get some fun time in at one of its three on-site playgrounds. Furniture is movable, allowing users to create whatever space they require, a reflection on how libraries function best when listening and responding to community needs. After renovations, visitor counts skyrocketed from 1,800 to 3,800 visits per day.
At a time where inequality is at its highest in the United States, we need more than ever, to embrace potential innovation for societal goods that libraries hold in both urban and rural areas. Whether it be through entrepreneurial and small business support, broadband availability, or being an inclusive space for community engagement, Libraries bring social wealth to communities and subsequently, their economies.
The upcoming revitalization of Braddock Carnegie Library of which Fourth Economy is helping, will allow us to complete a community and economic impact analysis for the library. I’m personally excited about drawing lines from community needs to what the library can offer.
In mid-August, Fourth Economy and the Borough of Ford City played host to developers and investors for an Opportunity Tour.
Fourth Economy has been working with Ford City on their Comprehensive Plan, and this tour was designed to gauge interest and gain ideas for how development might take place on two sites in the community – the former site of Ford City High School and the riverfront that runs between the town and the Allegheny River.
The riverfront is currently home to several different uses – the 36 mile Armstrong Trail starts about a mile away from Ford City and runs the length of the town along the river. Also along the river are several manufacturing firms, some of which have located in the former home of Pittsburgh Plate Glass. At the north end of the riverfront site sits a few uninhabited buildings formerly housing the the Elgier toilet plant.
The Tour began at Klingensmith’s Drug Store, with local leaders greeting their out of town guests, and a quick overview of the comprehensive planning process and the proposed capital improvements plan. After a quick walk around the downtown, tour participants split into a caravan and drove to the southern end of the riverfront, then continued back up, making stops along the way, with property owners along the route to fill in information about each site.
On a clear August day, with a light wind blowing and the sun sparkling off the Allegheny river, tour participants brainstormed about the potential of marinas, riverfront restaurants and residences, and how to repurpose the existing industrial infrastructure.
The next stop was the former high school site, which offers a unique opportunity for development in the center of town.
Down the street from the former high school site, the group gathered at Spigot Brewery for a refreshing happy hour with food provided by Harper’s Grill, a recently opened restaurant that offers burgers made from grass-fed beef.
The tour capped off with a presentation at 10th Street Station, which was attended by residents, town leadership, and tour participants. First, the group heard from Leslie Oberholtzer of Codametrics, about the upcoming process that will result in a new zoning code for the Borough. Then, Jim Kumon of the Incremental Development Alliance explained how starting development on a small scale through rehabilitation of older buildings and spurring small businesses could change the town’s economy.
While the tour ended, Leslie and Jim returned to Ford City the next day to lead workshops in riverfront planning and activating spaces. During the first exercise, the group split into two and cut out different land uses to paste them on a map of the riverfront, an exercise that was useful for envisioning what the space might look in the future.
In the afternoon, Jim Kumon provided several examples of places that had activated uninhabited parts of their towns through markets or recreation, and how that lead to more investment and development. Participants then split into three groups, and brainstormed ideas for how to take the “next smallest step” for the riverfront, the high school site, and the downtown. The riverfront and downtown group went on field trips to survey their spaces, and returned with good ideas and information to share.
All communities that we work in are seeking some sort of change. This change could come in the form of attracting talent and jobs or seeking to improve the quality of life in the area by leveraging an existing asset, such as a river or theater. Change is naturally difficult. It is challenging to envision the change that is necessary, work to develop it, and ultimately implement this new vision. However, realizing change is much more challenging when the process lacks input from every corner of the community.
As our team at Fourth Economy works in communities around the country, it is clear that engaging new voices in these efforts is critical. Most planning processes are driven by a usual group of stakeholders, including representatives from government, businesses, universities, and funders. While these voices are important, exclusively relying on the same opinions and perspectives limits the potential impact of community change efforts.
Therefore, it is essential to look for opportunities to grow the number of stakeholders and the variety of backgrounds in order to genuinely engage new perspectives. This engagement of new voices goes beyond an invitation to a meeting, but should strive to provide ample opportunities throughout the process to listen to this group, allow their thoughts to inform and guide the process, and offer chances for them to lead.
Many communities have attempted to incorporate new thoughts and ideas in their planning processes, but struggle to connect with populations that have not historically been engaged, such as minority communities and those living in rural areas.
To engage these new voices, it is important to meet them where they are. It may be difficult to engage them in the usual monthly meeting, during the day, in a boardroom downtown. Meeting people where they are requires communities to think creatively about how to facilitate the engagement of these individuals. This may involve identifying existing meetings where the desired population is already convening, such as meetings at schools and local community centers, hosting conversations in spaces in their communities, and working with individuals and organizations from the area to conduct outreach to engage people in their networks.
Engaging the “unusual suspects” in community and economic development processes is important for a variety of reasons.
- It will help your project generate new and diverse ideas.
- It will build stronger social connections in your community as people are encouraged to work with individuals that they do not normally.
- It will increase the likelihood of your community change efforts being successful because those individuals critical to implementation have been involved in the development of the strategies.
Engaging new voices is a best practice in community engagement, but more importantly, should be a standard that drives planning efforts in communities around the country. At Fourth Economy, our goal is to engage these new voices to strengthen the impact of our work and we would encourage all communities to do the same. Reach out to learn more about our creative efforts to engage new voices.
Have you had success or unique challenges in engaging diverse voices in your community engagement? Reach out – we’d love to hear about it or problem solve with you.