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Resilience and Renewal of America’s Cities Part 2

Resilience and Renewal of America’s Cities Part 2
Charlotte, NC skyline.

HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan, in a major speech to the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia at its biannual conference on May 9, described the efforts of the Obama administration to help cities and communities become strong, resilient communities. At the conference, Reinventing Older Communities: Building Resilient Cities, Secretary Donovan reaffirmed Jeremy Nowak’s position (see the previous issue of The Edge), that through building local capacity communities can revive their economic base. Donovan pointed out that America’s manufacturing base was the lifeblood of many cities and suburbs, which had begun losing industry long before the most recent economic crisis.

Donovan explained that like many older central cities, smaller and moderate-size communities faced severe population loss and long-term economic decline, high levels of poverty and unemployment, low property values, and deteriorating infrastructure. And as in larger cities, a declining tax base left these communities of all sizes with a reduced capacity to deal with these challenges. At the same time, small and moderate-size cities and suburbs confronted an additional set of challenges beyond their control. As recently as a decade ago, most of the poor in our nation’s metropolitan areas lived in cities. Over the past decade, however, poverty grew almost five times faster in the suburbs than in cities, and today the number of poor people living in suburbs outnumbers those in cities by 1.5 million. Typically, these communities lack the infrastructure that larger cities can use to fight poverty and create jobs, from tools to fight homelessness and create affordable housing to strategies to spur economic development.

Donovan highlighted places such as Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Fort Wayne, Indiana — as well as Charlotte, North Carolina, and Aurora, Illinois — that have demonstrated how cities, after a period of pain and difficulty, can emerge as dynamic, resilient, and successful communities. Donovan noted that although their responses differed in the details, these places each followed a similar strategy: they diversified their economies and developed a coordinated approach to workforce development, leveraged private-sector investment when public funds were scarce, engaged new partners and anchor institutions such as nonprofits and universities, and worked at a regional scale.

Donovan noted that many urban policies in the past have failed, either because inflexible federal policies hamstrung local leadership and institutions or because these policies didn’t take unique community assets into account. Nor did they account for the capacity of local institutions. He said that the Obama administration recognizes three fundamental aspects of cities that reflect the lessons of the past century:

• Every community needs a federal partner that understands that one-size solutions don’t fit all.

• A good partner doesn’t just see problems; it also recognizes opportunities.

• No city can succeed without strong local leadership and institutional capacity, no matter how big the federal grant or well crafted the federal policy.

Donovan pointed out that the Obama administration initiated the Strong Cities Strong Communities (SC2) pilot last year to facilitate such change. SC2 brings together 14 agencies to help six economically and geographically diverse communities and regions — New Orleans, Memphis, Detroit, Chester, Fresno, and Northwest Ohio —through Community Solutions Teams to spend the resources they already have more efficiently and catalytically. SC2 is also providing the pilot cities with a class of highly skilled fellows who are committed to public service and who will become the next generation of leaders. These mid-career professionals will be placed in local government agencies for a 24-month fellowship. He also described the U.S. Economic Development Administration’s SC2 Visioning Challenge, which will help economically challenged cities leverage innovative strategies to spur local economic and job growth.

The Secretary concluded that the United States needs dynamic, diverse, and resilient regional economies to create millions of jobs in the 21st century. Through federal assistance that builds local capacity, our nation’s large and small cities can begin to regain their resiliency.