Economic recovery has eluded many low-Income people. Now, we have to re-think how we build our cities, to achieve better economic opportunities for these low-income residents.

Living Cities is open sourcing our 2014 annual report, asking folks to respond to the question: “What will it take to achieve dramatically better results for low-income people faster?” This blog is a response to that question. In the coming weeks, we will showcase a diversity of points of view around this question. Learn more about the event and follow the conversation on social media with #NewUrbanPractice.

While the national economy finally seems to be accelerating in the aftermath of the recession—with growth nearing 5% and unemployment falling to under 6%—the fact remains that much of this growth eludes low-income people. Solving this distributional inequality will require policy change at multiple levels of government, from federal tax reform to state-level education initiatives.

But, at the end of the day, many of these low-income families live and work in our cities; and by rethinking how we build our cities, we can achieve better economic opportunities for our citizens.

Our approach: link economy-shaping, place-making and workforce training. Key to this is the understanding that economic and demographic preferences are making cities more attractive to innovative firms. The suburban office park has become an outdated model as businesses increasingly desire collaboration and talented workers prefer city-living. This demands a new model—what we call the innovation district—which clusters research-intensive industry with universities, medical campuses and start-up incubators.

Done right, innovation districts can be platforms for not just economic growth but also economic opportunity. Fifty percent of jobs in the STEM-intensive industries that comprise innovation districts do not require a bachelor’s degree. These sub-baccalaureate positions offer good wages—on average, 10% higher than non-STEM jobs—and many are in high-growth occupations such as health care and IT.

STEM Jobs

50% Of jobs in innovation districts' STEM-intensive industries do not require a bachelor’s degree.

On a more micro level, by virtue of their location and proximity, innovation districts can directly connect low-income people with opportunities in these industries. Partnerships between community colleges, technical high schools and nearby research labs, or institutions, are emerging in cities throughout the country. Such programs have the potential to both connect businesses with a well-trained workforce and also to give students access to hands-on training that can lead right to a well-paying job.

At the same time, innovation districts have the potential to revitalize low-income neighborhoods—directly through investments in affordable housing, infrastructure and improved internet connectivity, and indirectly via enhanced tax revenues that result from city-wide economic growth.

The growth of innovation districts is, in many ways, a natural and organic response to shifting market dynamics. Yet, with strategic planning, these districts offer multiple opportunities for neighborhood revitalization, quality employment and poverty alleviation. Pursuing these will lessen the tensions between innovative and inclusive growth, which have emerged in many communities and, ultimately, offer a ladder of economic opportunity to low-income residents.


Image source: Flickr user IzzoInteractive, CC by 2.0