For generations, cities have been places where people of every background have sought opportunity. But as urban economies have evolved in recent decades, our cities have experienced sharp growth in economic disparities, and many communities have suffered. At Living Cities, we believe that an important part of addressing these disparities is to leverage cities’ economic assets in order to better create, prepare people for and connect them to economic opportunity.
Among the greatest assets found in cities are large, geographically rooted businesses such as corporate headquarters, sports teams, universities and hospitals (often called “anchor institutions”). Our work to date has focused on universities and hospitals. These institutions own and manage vast real estate holdings, purchase many goods and services, and rank as the largest employers in 66 out of the 100 largest inner cities in the U.S. Anchors and their executives are often called upon to play the leadership roles that business leaders did in prior eras, before globalization weakened their ties to place.
Over the past three years, Living Cities has been testing the hypothesis that anchor institutions can play a significant role in creating economic opportunity in cities. Our largest learning laboratory for this work has been The Integration Initiative, an $85-million effort which supports leaders in five sites who are working to overhaul long obsolete systems and fundamentally reshape their communities and policies to meet the needs of low-income residents. Almost all of The Integration Initiative sites have developed strategies involving anchor institutions – mainly focused on real-estate development (“placemaking”), hiring and procurement – a subset of a broader range of anchor institution activities including research and development and faculty engagement. In 2012, drawing from the work we have supported through The Integration Initiative, we held a Design Lab to explore what anchors and other leaders in metropolitan regions can do collectively to further leverage these anchor business functions.
These efforts remain in their early stages and, for the most part, have not to date produced change at a scale commensurate to the challenge. But Living Cities is learning from this work—both about approaches that are promising and about challenges and barriers to results at greater scale. We have come to believe that the role anchors are being asked to play is more than any one institution can do on its own.