Urban Innovation

The City Reinvented

December 1, 2017  • Jennifer Bradley

At their best, cities are wonderful places to develop human capabilities and ideas. Cities are where inventions cluster. Think about Silicon Valley and the tremendous concentration of talent, companies, and venture capital there. Ironically, technology, which was supposed to cut the ties between people and places and allow people everywhere to work from almost anywhere, turns out to flourish in fairly compact geographic concentrations. Why do cities have this power? They are places where ideas, approaches, skills, and problems old and new meet and recombine.

Across centuries, continents, and cultures, though, many of the people who planned and built and led cities practiced an urbanism of exclusion, division, and separation. Zoning laws were in part a response to genuine public-health concerns: polluting factories and nuisances that were too close to homes, schools, and parks. But other concerns were at work. Within residential areas, zoning laws separated multi-family apartment buildings from single-family homes in order to keep singlefamily property values high and to keep people rich enough to own their own homes apart from renters, who were not only poorer but also more likely to be immigrants or people of color.

So the separation of housing by type was a means to separate people, not just by class but by race. We’ve all heard of redlining—the federally sanctioned practice of saying that some neighborhoods were worth lending to and some were not. These neighborhoods were delineated on maps prepared by a federal government agency, the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, and the “no-investment areas” were hand-colored in red. This division was not just a Southern tragedy. The Mapping Inequality Project has created a site where people can compare old redline maps (about 250 are available online) with current landmarks and streets to better understand how the past influences the present geography of wealth and opportunity in cities.

I could, unfortunately, walk through an analysis that shows where transit investments go and don’t go: highways that run through neighborhoods where redlining made land cheap; bus lines that stop at city borders; neighborhoods with too few parks and green spaces and sidewalks and bike lanes and grocery stores. That’s a far cry from the ideal city where people have meaningful and respectful social affiliations, control over their material and political environment, and come to learn, imagine, and create together.

So the decisions of the past still strongly influence the present geography of wealth and opportunity in cities. But the future might look different. City builders are realizing we cannot afford to continue exclusion. Economists used to believe that policies that supported equity hindered efficiency and slowed down the growth machinery. No more. New research shows that equity and growth can be complements—and cities can suffer from continuing disparities. The Nobel Prize–winning economist Joseph Stiglitz has written, “The bottom line that higher inequality is associated with lower growth—controlling for all other relevant factors—has been verified by looking at a range of countries and looking over longer periods of time.”

Creative economists are influencing urbanists, the people who think about cities, to support inclusion. In cities across the country, there are efforts to create more inclusive economies, and more inclusive economic development. Pittsburgh has an inclusive innovation road map. Washington, DC, is working on an inclusive growth plan, as is Austin. In the greater Cleveland area as well as in several neighborhoods in New York City, philanthropies and community groups are coming together to connect economic development and community development in ways that will lead new jobs and new sources of revenue to counteract rather than reinforce patterns of inequality.

These efforts to make cities more inclusive might also make them more innovative. At the Center for Urban Innovation at the Aspen Institute, I’m concerned with inclusive innovation—that is, innovations that benefit and are created by underserved and marginalized communities. This should be the next frontier in innovation. Just as a lack of genetic diversity can cause problems in a population, a lack of idea diversity can confine invention, creation, and problem-solving. If you surround yourself with people who are trained like you, who have the same experiences as you, who have the same problem-solving tool kits as you, how likely are you to find a new approach? More diverse teams—diverse in racial and gender composition—get better results. African American women don’t think only in one way; Latino men don’t think only in one way. The richer the mix, the greater the chance that the right ingredients for the next big move are available. Diversity can lead to more discomfort and, yes, conflict. But it’s worth the difficulty. Diversity leads to better outcomes.

Harder problems need more minds. Can our cities be the places that take the lead in these innovations? Do they have the civic resources, and the courage, to try and fail and learn, try better and fail again and learn some more, until one of those tries pays off? It is not enough to stop doing the wrong stuff. People have to intentionally, continually do the right stuff. I am hopeful that cities are making this shift.