Go or grow – developing a “next economy” for the Midwest

Detroit, and the subject of its shrinkage, is in global discussion these days.  Here are two of those points of analysis and recommendation that showed up over the past day or two that I think are both representative of the conversation as well as illustrative of its “go-or-grow” nature.

Shrinking Detroit Back to Greatness | Economix | NYT

Ed Glaeser addresses the matter of the shrinking of Detroit in the Economix blog of the New York Times. I remain deeply skeptical of this strategy, believing that abandoning a city and relocating its residents is irresponsible. So many other cities in the Midwest and other places have, after significant decline, found ways of attracting people, building jobs, and providing opportunity, and so improving their physical, social and economic quality of life and growing.

Glaeser offers strategic clues in his analysis. These include proven concepts like –

  • Developing a city of small entrepreneurs, realizing that some may evolve into major global players
  • Support a city of abundant small companies for faster growth than big companies provide
  • Focus on educational opportunity and quality, since skilled cities grow faster
  • Support and grow industrial diversity, since it is more conducive to growth than industrial monocultures

I wish he and others would further develop and promote this “back to greatness” guidebook. This could shift the focus of the conversation from the concept of “urban farming” which is essentially an excuse for a void of civic imagination, dedication and energy.

The Next Economy | Metro Matters podcast | Next American City

As an example of a dialogue I like better, and showing greater imagination about Detroit, there is this podcast from the Next American City. Bruce Katz from the Brookings Institute addresses the issues of perception in the Midwest and the resistance to investment there as a result.

He suggests a reality of its being a “Brain Bet” rather than a “Rust Belt” and argues for investment around this idea. A key concept for him is building a different narrative about the economy in places like Detroit, and he suggests that “Brain Belt” is a phrase that communicates not only the economic reality of the place but also its potential.

Arguing that places like Detroit have to focus on their assets, he also points to the importance of place in achieving successful transformations. He notes that ours is a visual culture, and points to cities like Leipzig, Bilbao and Torino as examples where initiatives around the quality of the physical environment have been significant factors for successful growth after declaration of death.

Faulting both industrial and governmental leaders, Katz suggests that a great future can be found in the Midwest through the commercialization and industrialization of innovations in export-oriented, low-carbon, innovation-fueled products whose development can nurture an opportunity-rich regional growth.

Acknowledging the facts of shrinkage, Katz says there is a “smart way to shrink,” and I did not hear farming or agriculture in his proposals.

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