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    November 2022
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A Food Revolution in the City

The food economy is going through a transition; some would call it a revolution. The term revolution pops up a lot, from celebrity chef Jamie Oliver’s food revolution (bringing healthy food back to working class communities), to the innovative, fast-growing company Revolution Foods, which brings healthy food into schools.

We heard from Revolution Foods co-founder and CEO Kristin Groos Richmond over lunch today at Urban 2.0. She talked about the importance of bringing healthy food into schools, in particular inner city schools. A phenomenon that’s garnered attention in recent years is that of food deserts, where local residents don’t have a grocery store nearby, and struggle to access healthy, non-processed food. In bringing quality food (and teaching good nutritional and cooking knowledge to students and parents alike), Revolution Foods is helping students and families become more healthy and productive (teachers report better student performance), along with teaching invaluable life skills.

Another revolution has been the shift to growing food on a larger scale inside the city. Food growth in the city for the past several decades has been a largely private, small-scale endeavor, people growing food for their own supply in their backyards, balconies, and in small community gardens. If farms were found inside the city limits, they were on the outskirts, fighting against the ever-encroaching growth of suburbia. Recently, this trend has been turned on its head. With Detroit leading the way, shrinking (usually former industrial) cities are converting abandoned tracts of land to agricultural purposes. Cities like Cleveland are pursuing this strategy as well.

City Centre Market
The popular City Centre Farmers’ Market in Edmonton, Alberta

A parallel development is happening in more affluent cities. Food is grown just outside the city, but many aspects of the food economy occur inside the city. Cities like Boston, Denver, Minneapolis, and Washington, DC are leading the way. Some of the outputs in both struggling and thriving urban centers are an increase in farmers’ markets, food trucks and carts, and independent, locally owned restaurants and food producers.

This strikes me as a smart economic strategy for regions that have an existing agriculture base nearby (or one with lots of vacant, underutilized land). Food is a growth industry. Consumers are willing to pay more for quality (locally grown) food, either at a market or a restaurant. There will always be a demand for food, making it a more stable investment than a commodity that will experience more elasticity. An exciting, quality restaurant and food scene is a big attraction for residents (as quality of life) and tourists (as an experience). On a holistic level, it creates jobs in the local community, and smart food production strategies learned on the job can also transfer to one’s home life, encouraging healthier, better living.

This isn’t to say everyone should shop local all the time (there are good reasons against doing so). But maximizing a region’s potential for food output can be a catalyst for growth and success.


The Death and Rebirth of Industry and Manufacturing

They’re closing down the textile mill across the railroad tracks
Foreman says these jobs are going boys and they ain’t coming back

Bruce Springsteen, My Hometown

Industrial jobs are not dead. Certainly, many have been lost – shipped overseas, lost to the great recession, or eliminated due to automation or increased efficiency. To follow the dominant public narrative, though, you’d be forgiven for thinking industrial jobs in North America are a relic of the 20th century. Whether it’s the conversion of former ports and industrial lands to residential/commercial space and amenities, the hollowing out of former industrial centers in the Midwest, or pop culture narratives from artists like Bruce Springsteen, the focus has been on what’s been lost, not what’s been preserved, enhanced, and created.

“We have a PR problem”

One of the panelists in the Industrial 2.0 session noted this, that people don’t realize industry still offers well-paying jobs in growth sectors. Keynote speaker Roland Martin, of Fortune 200 Company Illinois Tool Works, echoed this. Dan Swinney of the Chicago Manufacturing Renaissance Council noted that not one career counselor he spoke to would refer a kid to a manufacturing job. As I tweeted yesterday, I was surprised to find out that manufacturing is one of the 5 fastest growing industries in Chicago. The other 4 – health, education, hospitality, and culinary – feel rather intuitive, but manufacturing came as a surprise.

Industry and manufacturing is changing, not disappearing entirely. My belief is that the misconception also comes in part from the fact that many of the most recognizable household items – things and brand names we come across regularly – are manufactured (entirely or in part) overseas. We’re much more aware of kitchen items that say ‘Made in China’ than we are about automotive or electronic parts whose origin we’ll never seen branded. For example, Roland Martin spoke about how and where in the United States his company manufactures parts for the iPhone and electronic devices. My home region of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada has an economy driven in large part by the production of oil field parts and supplies. Most consumers will never encounter these in their everyday life.

My inference from listening to the panelists and keynote speakers is that manufacturing and industrial jobs will continue to exist, but they’re going to continue to evolve and change. You can still have a successful, productive career in this sector, but what’s required to do so is different than 50 years ago. Instead of learning the trade of one factory, or aspect of an industry, core competencies and skills that can serve one well in different types of manufacturing will be key. It’s going to be less about learning a specific, rote task, and more about having skills that allow one to adapt and evolve, just as industry and manufacturing do.

Government and education policies need to align with, and encourage this. Panelists talked about land banking, repurposing of old industrial lands, and other strategies governments are pursuing successfully at the macro level for a region. It’s now time to apply those same principles to the current and future industrial/manufacturing work force, ensuring they thrive alongside the industry.

Clustering for Growth

Michael Porter, founder of the ICIC, kicked off today’s schedule with a talk about cluster-based economic development, and how these strategies can spur economic and job growth in inner cities.

Inner Cities have particular characteristics, and strategies for economic development need to reflect this. In particular, he pointed out that higher poverty rates are common (31% compared to 9% for the United States as a whole), that inner city residents often may not be able to access jobs across the region, and that inner city development needs to respect and be tailored to the particular skills and experiences of residents in the inner city. Despite the growth that many cities have experienced, in the last 10 years 82% of inner cities have performed worse than their region as a whole.

One of the key distinctions Dr. Porter talked about is that between local clusters and trading clusters. Local clusters, as the name implies, exist primarily to serve the local market (i.e. Retail, health). Trading clusters aim to serve national and international markets (i.e. Life sciences, transportation and logistics). Local clusters have demonstrated more growth, in particular in inner cities.

Clusters work best when they build on existing groups of businesses, not when a city attempts to build them from scratch. Adapting this for inner cities, it strikes me that a successful inner-city cluster and growth would build on the following

• Existing businesses (particularly small, locally-owned businesses)
• Underutilized (or unused) skills of inner city residents
• Gaps in the local and regional marketplace that align with inner-city businesses and skills of residents
• Businesses and clusters of businesses that can concentrate jobs and economic activity in the inner city area.

What can your region build upon in the inner city to start developing a cluster? This question is the starting point for spurring more inner city economic growth.

Private Leadership for Public Good

“This is Just What You Do in Chicago”

James Glerum, a board member of the Civic Consulting Alliance, said this early in the session called “Corporate Community Engagement in Chicago: Commitment and Results”, which talked about private sector contribution, and cross-sector collaboration in addressing pressing social issues.

The Alliance brings together pro-bono teams of consultants and experts from different sectors. The session focused on a case study of their partnership with the City Colleges of Chicago, transforming the colleges and reinventing them for the 21st century.

I have previously read about the Alliance, and have been very much looking forward to their participation in this session. Both a board member (Glerum) and a staff member (Brian Fabes, a project manager) spoke, in addition to representatives of Accenture and KPMG, who participate in the Alliance’s efforts.

The Alliance representatives spoke about how they tapped in to Chicago’s long-standing culture of giving back, corporate leadership, and the imperative of collaborating with the organizations you’re helping, not just imposing solutions from the top down. Michael Scimo of Accenture built on this, talking about the value to business beyond social good, of building human capital, the business environment, and helping their employees grow as well.

This session also touches on the evolving role of public sector leadership. Cheryl Hyman, the President of City Colleges of Chicago, is as innovative and entrepreneurial as any successful private sector CEO. Her approach, working with the Alliance, is a departure from how education reform has happened in the past.

Another comment that resonated with me, from Terry Mazany of the Chicago Community Trust, is that these problems are ‘bigger than any single organization can take on’. It speaks to the importance of involving everyone – the organizations directly involved, along with the private sector, government, and other leaders, in addressing social issues.

The question then becomes, how do you best foster, or harness, this culture and use it for the greater good? The Chicago model would seem to be:

1. Figure Out Your Corporate Culture
Do you have a culture of giving back? Who are your business leaders, and what do they like to engage in? What are companies looking for? Do they want to give money, time, or do they want to add value beyond that?

2. Build True Partnerships
The CCA and public organizations truly work hand-in-hand. It’s not about top-down solutions, or fixes imposed from outside. Consultants and public leaders engage in long-term collaborative processes to improve the public good.

3. Change Takes Time
The CCA projects are long-term, over a period of years. It’s easy to get distracted as there are always new issues commanding attention, but they recognize that you have to stay focused, and implement change in a long, continuous process.

Every city is different, but the lessons from Chicago will go a long way everywhere.

Building Capital in the Inner City

The first panel session was titled ‘Community-Based Capital for Small Business Financing’. In the introduction, moderator Matt Reilein of JP Morgan Chase noted that an ICIC study found that 70% of inner-city businesses are undercapitalized, which provided excellent context for the discussion that followed.

Two ideas brought up by the panelists jumped out at me – Mary Houghton of ShoreBank’s talk about ‘social investment’, and Jonathan Brereton of ACCION Chicago’s discussion of the role, and challenges faced by, non-profit organizations.

ShoreBank, now part of the Urban Partnership Bank, emerged from Chicago’s long tradition of neighborhood-based political organizing. Founded in 1973, it believed that local deposits ought to be used for local loans. Interestingly, it found that the size of loans requested by small and new businesses was the biggest barrier to accessing capital for inner-city businesses (race and perceptions of poverty were second). The issue of size of loans was brought up later by another panelist, mentioning that conventional banks have generally not been interested in anything less than $25,000.

Houghton mentioned that ShoreBank eventually found a market amongst what she called ‘socially-oriented investors’, people interested in not just a financial bottom line, but a social (and environmental) return as well. Picking up on the theme of social good, Brereton talked about the problems non-profits faced. First, that many people don’t view them as businesses (for example, many loan programs exclude non-profits). Second, there is a stigma in many minds because they are government-funded (he made a great analogy debunking this by pointing out that Boeing’s biggest customer is the government). Finally, the lack of assets non-profits have makes it hard to access credit.

The related idea I take from these two is that an interest in social good can translate into an investment in the inner city, and low-income neighborhoods. My mind goes to the question of ‘how do we harness social good to build capital in the inner city’? Certainly, as citizens we all have a role to play. We can support financial institutions that practice good corporate social responsibility. We can invest in and support non-profits that work in community development, and in marginalized areas. Leaders and funders in non-profit organizations can take on capital and equity-building initiatives and social enterprises (and government programs can adjust to encourage this).

The role of credit unions and other Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs) is essential – co-operatives too. There’s precedent in my home province of Alberta (in Western Canada), which has a strong history and presence of credit unions. Credit unions and co-operatives really took root during the Great Depression, when the big banks wouldn’t fund farmers and other small organizations. Many large, locally-owned financial institutions trace their roots to the early decades of the 20th century, and their legacy continues today. The United Farmers of Alberta, along with Servus and FirstCalgary Credit Unions, show up amongst the province’s highest grossing private companies.

Community Development Banks, and CDFIs (including credit unions) can employ this approach to build capital in the inner city. Between an existing customer and business base in the neighborhoods, and a growing number of investors (myself included) who want to support companies that do social good, most markets should be able to support one, if not more, of these institutions.

There will, obviously, need to be a lot more done. But I see the under-capitalizing of inner-city businesses and neighborhoods to be something that we can start fixing right now, building on successful models, and people’s interest in doing social good (even while making money).

Cross-posted from the ICIC Blog.

Thoughts Prior to Urban 2.0.

I have the pleasure of spending the next day and a half at Urban 2.0: The Next Generation of Jobs. As someone with a long interest in cities and urban spaces, and as someone who follows the Initiative for a Competitive Inner City’s work, I’m very excited to be attending and writing about this event.

With the (north) American economy stagnant, and business and industry in transition, it’s an interesting time to be discussing the future of cities, and their role in the economy. Most would say that cities have made a comeback in the last 20 years, after experiencing a decline in the previous four decades. Thinkers like Richard Florida have argued cities (and mega-regions) attract and hold on to the best talent. Christopher Leinberger has predicted the suburbs will be tomorrow’s slums. Yet, there is still evidence that suburban growth (economic, not just population) outpaces that of cities. And even in the core of most cities, you’ll find empty storefronts with remnants of businesses that have fallen apart (I think I’ve seen a closed or closing Borders in every American city I’ve been to the past two years). New developments are half-built or stalled before ground is broken.

Cleveland Public Library
Downtown Cleveland, Ohio.

With that as a context, here are five questions on my mind, and the themes that will frame my posts over the next two days.

• What are the industries of the future that will drive urban (and economic growth)? Is there a place for industry and manufacturing? Is there a place for agrarian pursuits, traditionally found outside the city core?
• How do we build economic capital in lower-income neighbourhoods, and empower traditionally marginalized groups to reach greater economic success?
• How does a(n inner) city interact and relate to a larger regional economy?
• What’s the role of business, government, NGOs, and every day citizens in making this happen?
• What will the city of the future look like?

Some of the brightest, most talented urban thinkers are in the room today and tomorrow. I can’t wait to hear what they have to say.