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When searching for the silver bullet for economic development, cities have traditionally engaged in the “fad” of attracting young professionals. Gilles Duranton, professor of economics at the University of Toronto, expressed his skepticism regarding the enthusiasm generated by cities, especially those in decline, to attract young talent as a prescription for their economic woes. He told a Reinventing audience that “big infrastructure,” downtown revitalization, industrial “cluster” development, and the attraction of young talent all represent a succession of economic development “fads.”
Urban decline is very difficult to overcome because cities that have more educated populations tend to become more educated, while cities that have less educated populations tend to become relatively less educated. The persistence of urban decline makes older industrial cities much more vulnerable to negative economic shocks.
The underlying philosophy of talent attraction policies seems to be that if a city can attract talented people, jobs will follow and multiply. “That’s not an easy proposition,” Duranton said. “In the data, there is a correlation between higher human capital and growth.” The direction of causality is not clear. “When a city is doing well, more people show up, and those who show up tend to be younger and more educated.”
The panel noted that attracting young talent is only one of many drivers of urban growth. Duranton emphasized that successful cities combine talent attraction with strategies that build on a city’s strengths, such as roads, weather and amenities, entrepreneurship, and existing sectors or clusters.
Allison Lamey, director of community development in Lowell, MA, described attraction and retention of young professionals as a catalyst for her city’s redevelopment efforts. Lowell took a deliberate approach to the question, How do we get young people to want to stay in or relocate to Lowell? She said that the answer is to make Lowell a “lifetime city” and added, “Lowell should be a place where people can live in all stages of their lives and at a variety of income levels — not focusing on just ‘young professionals,’ but also keeping in mind that eventually they are going to be older professionals and retirees.”
The lifetime city approach was incorporated into Lowell’s 2003 comprehensive master plan and the There’s a Lot to Like About Lowell marketing campaign. Lamey emphasized that community engagement and network building were critical to Lowell’s revitalization. “Be authentic,” she said. “Capitalize on what makes your community unique, and know what you’re not.”
Abby Wilson, co-founder of the Great Lakes Urban Exchange (GLUE), reiterated the need for authenticity in how cities approach young professionals. “I’m less interested in conversations about attraction and retention and more interested in conversations about providing opportunities for people in this elusive demographic to meaningfully connect with the communities where they live,” she said.
GLUE is a network of young leaders who share an interest in revitalizing “rust belt” cities in the Great Lakes region. Its guiding principles include urbanism, regionalism, storytelling, and network building. “The key to building the kind of demographic diversity that all these cities want,” Wilson concluded, “is to focus on places and their deliberate efforts to change. The way people talk about young professionals is really mostly about their disposable income. These conversations need to be more explicitly about diversity of thought, experience, and perspective.”
Duranton offered some “not very glamorous” alternative policies. He said these policies might include federal policies that help residents who cannot relocate, efforts to attract “unglamorous” assembly plants and call centers (as opposed to high-tech, bio-tech, and pharmaceuticals), or perhaps figuring out how to manage decline.
The panelists generally agreed that attracting young talent is a necessary and valuable part of a much more complex understanding of how to reinvent older communities and build more resilient cities.
Jeremiah Boyle can be reached at 312-322-6023 or firstname.lastname@example.org.