Innovating for Societal Good at the Public Library

person sitting at desk at a library

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.


How to Incorporate New Voices into Community Change Efforts

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.Quote: 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

Engaging the “unusual suspects” in community and economic development processes is important for a variety of reasons.

  1. It will help your project generate new and diverse ideas.
  2. It will build stronger social connections in your community as people are encouraged to work with individuals that they do not normally.
  3. 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.

Tackling Economic Inequity in a Resilience Strategy

St Louis 100 Resilient Cities CoLab, February 2018
St Louis 100 Resilient Cities CoLab, February 2018

Earlier this month, Fourth Economy came together with practitioners from various sectors and parts of the country to help St. Louis tackle the issue of economic inequity. We were convened by 100 Resilient Cities – Pioneered by The Rockefeller Foundation, because they have seen so many of the cities in their network identify economic inequity as a key stress. Fourth Economy is a platform partner of the 100 Resilient Cities network, creating tactical recommendations for the planning and implementation of resilience efforts. After two days of intense collaboration, our group of community leaders, Chief Resilience Officers, economic development experts, and other thought leaders developed seven discrete project ideas that St. Louis could implement to impact economic inequity.

St Louis, Missouri

Some of our ideas really focused on the basics. One clear take-away is that before we can implement new, innovative solutions, we need to ensure that we are investing in the basics.

  • Talk to Each Other – First thing’s first…Developers, city agencies, and community organizations need a forum to discuss how all partners enhance the tools, processes, and partnerships to implement equitable economic development.  
  • Equitable Economic Development Strategy – St. Louis is about to embark on creating an economic development strategy; making it explicitly about creating an equitable economy will be key.
  • Resilient CDCs – Like many of our cities, some of our neighborhoods have strong community-based organizing and development capacity, while others are lacking in investment, or quality investment, in part due to this lack of capacity. We recommended an organization that could promote sharing of resources, developing professional capacity, promoting collaboration, and developing a central pool of funding.

One of those other important basics is data. We all know that what isn’t measured, doesn’t count. So 100 Resilient Cities is working with the CUNY Center for State and Local Governance to help cities in the network develop a set of equity indicators. The equity indicators that St. Louis will be using to measure economic resilience and economic equity include:

  • Are residents able to fully participate in the economy?
    • Educational attainment: Enrollment in college or vocational training
    • Education quality: Dropout rate
    • Court reform: Youth adult convictions for nonviolent, nontraffic crimes
    • Court reform: Legal representation
    • Civic engagement: Digital equity
  • Are residents able to access goods and services?
    • Health: Pedestrian deaths
    • Health: Access to healthy food
    • Health: Access to social services
  • Are residents able to invest in their own community?
    • Financial empowerment: Median credit scores
    • Financial empowerment: Home loan denial rates
    • Financial empowerment: Business ownership rates

With these indicators in mind, our group developed ideas around both Access and Investment.

Access to Services and Jobs

  • Hubs of Growth – In cities that have experienced the degree of population loss that St. Louis has (and that’s a lot of us!), we must foster the development and growth of neighborhood hubs of economic and community activity that will drive growth in their surrounding areas. If connected by transit, these hubs can enhance safe access to healthy food and social services, but also create the density needed to support the growth of local businesses.
  • Mobilize – Another common challenge is the mismatch both between where people live and the skills they have, and where and what jobs are available. This idea brings employers and training providers to the neighborhoods to better understand the needs and opportunities of residents, and target services accordingly. Furthermore, micro transit would be used to connect residents to jobs.  

Investing in Small Business

  • Scale up STL – This program would increase access to capital and supportive services for small businesses that want to scale in targeted neighborhoods. This could include discounted land/space, collateral back stops, regulatory relief, and right-seed lending products.
  • Small Business Portal – St. Louis is making investments in its open data portal. But once they have all of their data available, how should it be used? This proposal is to engage small businesses to understand how the data can best be utilized to support their growth.
  • Women of STL – St. Louis could use a grass-roots organization run by women that strengthens the social fabric and supports the creation and growth of women-owned businesses. This organization would provide workshops, business incubation to address how to start a business, how to access credit, and technical training, e.g. use of internet resources.

As the City of St. Louis develops its resilience strategy, these ideas will be further developed. If you know of best practices in any of these areas, send them our way so we can help St. Louis create equitable economic development faster!

Workforce and Placemaking

The following is the fourth installment of a four-part series entitled, “Re-defining the Three-Legged Stool: Placemaking as a Component of Economic Development.” (Read Parts 1 , 2 and 3)Three Legged Stool

Workforce is the underpinning of the three-legged stool of economic development. Without a strong workforce, there is no way to succeed at business attraction or retentionand no way to cultivate entrepreneurs. In economic development circles, the discussion around placemaking often centers on talent attraction. The thinking goes that top talent is attracted to places with high quality of life; businesses thrive on this talent and will expand and relocate to those places where talent flocks. So, in essence, places with a high quality of life are better for business.

 

A Change in Economic Forces

It used to be that a community’s economic success was dependent on some fixed competitive advantage such as access to natural resources or proclivity to a transportation network for moving goods. A good example is our firm’s hometown, Pittsburgh, located in an area rich in ore and coal to make steel and with access to three major rivers. Manufacturing created the economies of Pittsburgh and many other cities, but today, talent is the number one most important economic force. Sources from across the economic development spectrum tell us this.  Nearly all the executives (95.1 percent) surveyed by Area Development in its 28th annual Corporate Survey rated availability of skilled labor as “very important” or “important” in their site selection factors. This factor is now considered more important than highway accessibility and labor costs, and certainly more important than incentives offered. We see this in Pittsburgh too, as companies such as Google and Facebook locating offices in town to be close to the graduates of the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University.

But talent is in short supply. Unemployment rates are falling, which means there are fewer people available for jobs. This is felt particularly hard in tech companies, which report a lack of talented workers with the skills needed for the rapidly evolving industry. Another benefit of attracting and retaining talented workers is that they are engines of innovation, whether from the inside of companies where they spearhead new ideas and spin off new divisions, or through entrepreneurship, forming their own enterprises and creating jobs. Attracting new talent is essential, and the best way to bring in high quality people is to offer a high quality of place.

Beyond the Baseline of Quality Markers

Quality of place means many things. A more traditional definition includes low crime rates, good housing stock, great schools, and local culture and recreation. But the cities and regions that are really pulling ahead in the race for talent understand that the baseline is no longer good enough. Much has been made of the “return to the city” and how millennials and baby boomers prefer a dense, walkable environment where they can live, work and play (to the point where urban planning professionals roll their eyes at the catchphrase). But the proof is in the evidence. Cities that provide living space in multi-use areas connected by transit and surrounded by quality recreation outlets are seeing their attraction of talent skyrocket.

Take Denver for example. The city has bet large on placemaking, from the $1 billion revitalization of the historic downtown Union Station to a new light rail system. These investments, coupled with outdoor amenities and copious sunshine, have contributed to Denver being named by the Brookings Foundation as second in the nation for attracting millennials. But it’s not just large cities that benefit economically from increased quality of life via placemaking. Regions around the U.S. are shifting their focus from business attraction to talent attraction. In Northeast Indiana, the focus of the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership is to attract new people to the area through improvements in downtowns, greenways and blue ways, arts and cultural assets, and education and industry through the Road to One Million plan (which Fourth Economy had a role in creating.)

Resiliency Means Quality of Place for All

Attracting and retaining talent is an essential component of economic development, but, it’s important to understand that placemaking does not mean only making places comfortable for highly skilled, highly paid employees. A well-designed place delivers quality of life to those at every age and income spectrum. Planning for all members of a population is what makes a place resilient and vibrant.

Providing affordable housing, especially in trendy inner-city neighborhoods, is a tough challenge and one that affects the workforce, especially for essential employees whose wages don’t begin to compare with highly paid tech workers. In places like New York, workers who make under $35,000 are increasingly being pushed out of formerly affordable neighborhoods to outer suburbs. When this happens, the financial and time cost of their commutes rise, cutting into already low wages. While particularly dire for service employees such as retail workers, this also affects teachers and police personnel.

From the placemaking perspective, increasing density leads to more options for housing across the spectrum, ideally situated in in-town neighborhoods that are walkable and served by transit. As the supply of housing increases in these desirable neighborhoods, the price decreases. One tactic to encourage denser development is to allow for “Missing Middle” housing to be developed. Missing Middle housing, a term coined by Opticos Design, is composed of a range of multi-unit or clustered housing types that are compatible in scale to single-family homes. Some examples include duplexes, carriage houses, townhouses, and accessory dwelling units. Allowing this type of development densifies neighborhoods and provides access to housing at a lower price point, without a significant disruption of neighborhood character.

Missing Middle Housing Diagram

Barriers to Small Scale Affordable Housing

Building Missing Middle housing is typically not undertaken by large developers, and therefore is built by property owners, small real estate developers, and community development corporations and financed by local banks. The margins of profit for Missing Middle housing are smaller so in order for these projects to be financially feasible, there must be a regulatory environment that permits these types of buildings. Most existing zoning codes separate housing types so that multi-family is not intermixed with single family and residential above retail is not allowed. This stunts Missing Middle housing by forcing projects to go through zoning hearings that extend the project timeline and cost to a point where construction is not feasible.

Allowing for small residential infill projects to be built not only provides more options for affordable housing, it allows property owners to benefit from rising housing costs, and alleviates increased property taxes. Of course, to truly provide benefit, increased density needs to be coupled with transit to access jobs and services.

A Connected Workforce

Placemaking is a term that can be misconstrued to simply mean making communities more beautiful. While placemaking tactics such as downtown development, street scaping, and encouraging traditionally affordable housing types does improve a community’s aesthetics, if done properly, placemaking can unlock significant economic value. Connected, vibrant communities with a multitude of housing and transportation options return the best value to inhabitants, creating places that workers are attached to and invested in.

 

Nostalgia: Community Development Friend or Foe? Pittsburgh as a Case Study

Mabel-NostalgiaRecent podcasts about the benefits and drawbacks of nostalgia got me thinking about this human experience, its influence on communities, and what this means for community developers. I believe nostalgia can help create community, but prolonged nostalgia can be detrimental to a community’s ability to adapt and thrive. Community developers should recognize the value of a community’s collective nostalgia, but they should also work with communities to build upon this legacy and develop an inclusive story of the future. Pittsburgh, like many communities across the U.S., may benefit from this approach. Continue reading “Nostalgia: Community Development Friend or Foe? Pittsburgh as a Case Study”

5 Lessons From the MLB All-Star Game for Economic Opportunity Pursuits

Overmoyer-MLBIt’s All About the Distance. Or is It?

Sure, power contributes to your ability to hit a home run, but it’s also the mechanics of how you swing that can take the ball farther. Many community and economic development initiatives throw a lot of money (power) at an issue without an understanding of the underlying issues and opportunities. A better approach is to use community input combined with real-time data to better understand the current local mechanics and what forms of investment (money and time) it will take to support change. Continue reading “5 Lessons From the MLB All-Star Game for Economic Opportunity Pursuits”

Embedding Equity Into Economic Development

Guest Blog by Sarah Treuhaft, Director of Equitable Growth Initiatives, PolicyLink

Treuhaft-Inequit-BlogIt is another summer in which America’s deep racial fault lines are being painfully exposed. Following the horrific violence in Baton Rouge, Falcon Heights, and Dallas, in a July 8 poll seven in ten Americans said race relations are “generally bad.” A National League of cities analysis of one hundred “state of the city” speeches from 2016 found that mayors increasingly view racism and inequities as major threats to progress in their cities.
Continue reading “Embedding Equity Into Economic Development”

How the Private Sector is Paying for Public Innovation

Evans-Blog-20160405City governments have experienced increasing financial strain over the past several decades – pension payments are coming due, infrastructure needs replacing, and the cost of providing social services is increasing. This leaves little room for local governments to get on the social finance innovation train that has been sweeping the private sector for the past few decades, where bright minds have been exploring social enterprise, low-profit limited liability companies, impact investment, and more. However, many have recognized the importance of bridging the gap between private sector innovation and government, leading to organizations across the sectors investing time and money devising ideas that may fill this void. Continue reading “How the Private Sector is Paying for Public Innovation”

What Is Not Being Addressed that Will Kill Your Economic Development Strategy

BooksforBlogAt this point I think we are all familiar with the struggles facing Detroit Public Schools, at least on the surface: mushrooms growing in schools, teacher strikes, financial crisis. However, as detailed by this incredibly thorough and thoughtful report by LOVELAND Technologies, 200 years worth of poor decision-making led Detroit to where it is today. This speaks to the need for a new approach to public accountability in our education system. Recognizing the critical role of public education to economic development, in Nashville, it has been the Chamber that has been stepping up to provide that platform for accountability by conducting annual holistic assessments and concrete recommendations for improvement. Continue reading “What Is Not Being Addressed that Will Kill Your Economic Development Strategy”

Big Visions Get Big Dollars in Indiana

IndianaBlogImageOn Tuesday, the Indiana Economic Development Corporation (IEDC) announced $126 million in state matching funds to support three regions in pursuing their visions for growth. The Regional Cities Initiative was developed based on a study of regions that have experienced transformational growth, performed last year by Fourth Economy, and is being funded by a tax amnesty program. Tuesday’s announcement was the culmination of months of planning on the part of Indiana’s regions, and Fourth Economy was fortunate enough to facilitate and advise on the strategy for two of the winning regions in those efforts – Northeast Indiana (home to Fort Wayne) and Michiana (home to South Bend). Here are a few lessons learned from our work helping multi-county, cross-sector partnerships identify and prioritize quality-of-life investments meant to attract and retain population.
Continue reading “Big Visions Get Big Dollars in Indiana”