Investing in People and Places

For the United States to remain globally competitive, our economy – especially its workforce – needs to continue to improve, adapt and innovate. The key strength of American enterprise has always been innovation. Here, in the rough and tumble competition of the marketplace, the lone entrepreneur toiling in the garage is the patron saint of economic prosperity.

In the modern parlance of public policy the term of art is “social capital.” The focus is on investing in people, in knowledge, in skills and in the coordination of knowledge and skills to yield outcomes such as patents and inventions and ventures and ultimately economic success. This is classic Americana. The country was built on the shoulders of individual improvement.

But what of places? New urbanist Jeff Speck reminds people that investment in good urban space does not just happen without a plan. In fact, if city leaders allow for an “organic” process, thinking that constitutes a citizen-driven plan, all they will get is a well-engineered city that is “great to drive through but not worth arriving at.”  Surely investments in the built environment – neighborhood parks, public libraries, waterfronts, sidewalks and street lights – affect the lives and aspirations of city residents and thus their opportunities to pursue prosperous and happy lives.

Building better places goes hand in hand with supporting individuals. In an interview for Next American City, HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan, the nation’s crown prince of urbanism, comments on the place-based initiatives coming out of the HUD-DOT-EPA coalition. His suggestion is that, in the absence of thinking about both people and places, the end result is an overabundance of unsustainable places, “places that are the farthest from jobs, the farthest from retail, in communities that don’t have a diversity of activity and quality of life.”

Bound up in place-making efforts by Secretary Donovan is the legacy of Burnham, Olmstead, Moses and Jacobs. From their observations and creations, today’s urbanists draw lessons; some contradictory but lessons nonetheless. At least one wag boiled their collective teachings down to just two words: “place matters.”

When all the attention gets focused on improving education and job skills, it’s important to remember that one genius in a garage can only be successful after he or she leaves that garage and engages with the stimulating and energizing world beyond its walls. Just ask Mark Zuckerberg.