Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Community development by staying put

I ran across this New Yorker article a year ago about a small town in Iowa that has managed to maintain its somewhat insular charm while also providing economic growth and  a decent quality of life to its inhabitants (and holding on to its young people). I thought it was an interesting counterpoint to my thinking and concern about people leaving their surroundings in order to develop themselves, as opposed to developing their entire community (and thus bettering their own lot as well).  Here is an example of a community that has managed to do just that, through a mix of cultural predisposition, lucky geographical breaks in terms of the location of higher education institutions and industrial employment, and concerted, conscious efforts to maintain their small town as a viable, pleasant place to live.  The article highlights some of the tensions inherent to any local development approach, most notably that you need to foster a strong sense of place and belonging so the natives stay, but at the same time you don’t want to be so closed to outsiders that you block the needed migration and investment from outside the community.

When I was younger I sometimes decried the type of people who were just content to stay where they are, working in the same place their folks did, finding their greatest meaning and interest in the affairs of their own neighborhood and not concerned with much that transpired beyond it.  As I have pursued economic development as a professional field though, and as I raise kids that I want to be grounded in the community I grew up in, I appreciate more this attitude of rootedness.  At the same time, I’m not sure if I’d enjoy living in a place like the Iowa town described in the New Yorker article.  It might be a bit too perfect, a bit too satisfied with and centered on itself (I'm lucky enough to be from a place like Chicago that is at once rooted and cosmopolitan, so there's something to satisfy all tastes, or at least all my tastes).  On a larger scale, it’s a cruel irony that the communities where people are most active in maintaining and improving the quality of life, are by definition the communities where people have less energy to devote to improving life in the rest of the country and the world.  The end result is that you see nice, cohesive communities constantly investing in themselves and further improving their lot, while nearby there are other communities that would greatly benefit if their neighbors directed some of their dynamism and investments to these other, less fortunate places.

In the end I’m not sure what the best recipe is for broad-based economic development, whether it’s best to have small communities centered on themselves, or whether it’s better to have more centralized, conscious planning to spark broader-based economic development.  Obviously both are necessary—I’m just trying to figure out the place and proportion of each.  There is certainly a need for communities that are centered on their own wellbeing, because this is the only sustainable way for a place to prosper.  At the same time, I worry about the implications of this approach for inequality.  We certainly see that, in the US at least, there are a few places that concentrate most of the well-educated, well-earning, socially- and politically-active people (think wealthy suburbs of any major city), and these people do all they can to improve their community.  This leads to inequality in at least two ways.  One is that these places naturally prosper more than others, because they have the most resources and these resources are continuously reinvested in the community.  But more insidiously, part of the advocacy efforts of these communities is almost always to set up all sorts of barriers (zoning laws, tax paying and sharing arrangements, transport infrastructure, and sometimes literal physical fences) to keep out people with less capital (social, economic, human, and otherwise). 

I have often been in situations where my work entails trying to drive or catalyze economic development through very conscious, technocratic processes.  Sometimes people like me put a lot of work into trying to make development happen, and it takes a lot of time and investment to make just a little progress.  But at the very same time, you’ll sometimes see relatively unplanned or unregulated economic processes generating more poverty alleviation than our best efforts.  This isn’t always or even usually the case, but it happens enough for me to realize that sometimes these more organic, self-centered community development approaches that I’ve highlighted in the prior paragraphs are indeed the best way to reduce poverty and improve economic development.

As I write this and think it through, I guess I’m coming back to an old adage in my field, which is no less true for its being oft-repeated.  In the field of economic development, it’s often best to use a light touch on the planning or governance side, letting natural positive economic and social processes take their course, while using your outside interventions mainly to favor good processes, correct negative side effects (inequality chief among them), and maximize the social benefit of whatever economic growth is occurring.

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