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The Many Influencers of the Urban Economic Development Field

By May 11, 2021September 6th, 2023No Comments

Who has influenced cities and their economic development approaches the most?
Some people on my list might surprise you!

I love cities. I love innovation. I love entrepreneurs. I love economics. I love collaboration & bringing ideas to life. I love music, art, design, architecture, placemaking, creativity and bohemian & cultural diversity. When you combine all these things together you get the dynamic and endlessly fascinating field of metropolitan and city-level economic development.

In this post I pay tribute to the thinkers around these topics that have shaped the economic development profession and whose ideas continue to inspire cities and their economies around the world. I wrote this as a self-reflection of the type of thought-leadership and ideas that have fuelled this work and where it’s going next. Some of these I only recently became aware of, but I’m predicting their ideas will push new boundaries.

In no particular order, here are the thought-leaders who have shaped cities and their economies:

Jane Jacobs and the role of cities in shaping human and economic progress

Most people know Jane Jacobs as the matriarch of the modern urban planning profession thanks in large part to her classic 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities. But her work on cities and their economies is equally respectable and in fact her books The Economy of Cities and Cities and the Wealth of Nations have influenced the economics field significantly — including many of the PhD’s that follow in this list (their words, not mine!).

This is why I listed Jane first. As an early 20-something I read several of her books and they’ve shaped my — sometimes stubbornly high — regard for cities and their role in the macro-economy and in shaping societies and cultures.

Anne Hidalgo, Charles Montgomery, Enrique Penalosa and the wellbeing economy

The next evolution of the economics field will most definitely be the convergence of human wellbeing and traditional economic wellbeing into the mainstream (thanks in large part to economists like Mariana Mazzacuto who appears later in this list!). The case has been made that humanity simply needs more just, sustainable, equitable and inclusive systems in place in order for our planet and societies to thrive.

Cities are applying these concepts on the ground all over the world, but the most remarkable case study comes from Enrique Penalosa, former Mayor of Bogotá, Columbia. Charles Montgomery, in his book Happy City, takes readers into Penalosa’s world and dubs him the Mayor of Happy. Penalosa’s work is inspiring because he went against the advice he was getting from North American consultants (and even NGOs backed by big automakers) who said that true progress of a city is measured by things like car ownership and fast-moving freeways. Penalosa teaches us that cities are actually about people — all types of people (and most cannot afford cars). Only by prioritizing the marginalized and the vulnerable can we say that progress and wellbeing has happened. Charles’ work in amplying this story through a well documented journey is worth reading and sharing. It will challenge your beliefs about urbanism and the urban form and how these can actually make people happier and healthier.

There are many city-builders on the cutting edge of this (too many to list) but I thought Anne Hidalgo, the first female Mayor of Paris was worth highlighting since her “15 minute city” (ville du quart d’heure) vision has gone viral during the COVID-19 pandemic. It will inspire many cities to act since it has now been adopted by the C40 — a global network of the largest global cities (more on them later!).

Honourable mentions in this category: These topics build on the well-known legacies of architects like Jan Gehl, sociologists like William H. Whyte, and “placemakers” like Fred Kent (and many others) who have all respectively influenced countless urbanists and urban approaches worldwide.

Rebecca Ryan and making cities cool

Few people have influenced my love for cities more than Rebecca Ryan. Though the scope of her consulting work has changed in recent years, it was her research in the early 2000’s around young professionals and how certain cities were attracting them (while others weren’t) that influenced my thinking on the role of the city as a “magnet”. If you design the city in alignment to what you want (whether it be tourists, retirees or bright, young innovators), you can make magic happen. I’ll never forget when Rebecca called me one day to ask if I knew Jane Jacobs and could make an introduction (Jane was still alive then and living in Toronto). Do American’s really think that everyone in Canada knows each other? Either way, I was honoured that she may have even thought that I knew Jane personally. Rebecca is part economist and part stand-up comedian, which has made her ideas extremely accessible and helped accelerate her influence in dozens of North American cities.

Honourable mentions in this category: I’ll throw an odd name into this category: Jack Kerouac, someone who you might not guess had influenced urban economics. But I think the love for cities (as opposed to rural or remote towns and the like) comes from a connection to what the city represents: cultural and bohemian diversity — which I’ve written about here — creativity, art, music, travel and spontaneity. And nobody has influenced those topics more than Jack Kerouac. Bonus: did you know his first book called The Town and the City contained themes about these differences? These perspectives even informed his more famous work On the Road.

Urban economic development is about exploiting (and improving upon) the strengths of what makes a particular place great. Ryan and Kerouac helped me understand that more clearly.

Richard Florida, Ed Glaeser, Enrico Moretti and regional economic geographies

Here’s the key point: local economies are not based on jurisdictional borders, they are based on behaviour: commutersheds, trade patterns, and how people go about their lives. This is why metropolitan-level collaboration is essential to effective economic development.

Best-selling author and head of U of T’s Martin Prosperity Institute, Richard Florida’s books like The Rise of the Creative Class, Who’s Your City? and The New Urban Crisis were big influencers in how policy makers think about cities and their economic systems. Florida’s books also opened my perspective on not just meso economics, but the role that geography itself plays in all of our lives, from how much money we make, how rich our social and romantic lives are, to the types of experiences we have that align to our values and choices. Because of this, cities that attract and nurture diverse members of the “creative class” have much higher economic productivity and innovation rates than cities that don’t.

A contemporary perspective on this (though more focused on USA) is Enrico Moretti, Professor of Economics at U of C-Berkeley and author of The New Geography of Jobs, which Barack Obama described as “a timely and smart discussion of how different cities and regions have made a changing economy work for them…”. One of the major realities that North American cities have had to face in the last 20 years has been the shifts caused by globalization (like the decline of the rust belt cities due to outsourced manufacturing to Asia. But also the story of how cities like Pittsburg have reinvented themselves to become 21st century knowledge economies). Moretti shows how these forces can be devastating, but also helps uncover how they can be redirected to achieve something positive.

Harvard Economist Edward Glaeser, Director of the Cities Research Program at the International Growth Center and author of many published works (like The Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier) is the unsung hero in this catagory. While not a household name like Florida, Glaeser’s work has formed the foundation upon which Florida could make his insights go mainstream. To put it simply: cities play a substantial role not just in the lives of their inhabitents, but also in society, the environment and the macro-economy. Nobel laureates (like George Akerlof) have called him a genius and Florida himself has stated that Glaeser should be the next recipient of the Nobel Prize in Economics.

Honourable mentions in this category: Arguably the ideas above all build off of legacies of economists like Alfred Marshall (economies of agglomeration) and Paul Krugman (New Economic Geography), strategists like Michael Porter (cluster theory) and luminaries like Jane Jacobs, which they all would openly admit if you asked them. I’ll throw another curve ball into the honourable mentions by including writer Eric Weiner, whose books The Geography of Bliss and The Geography of Genius are delightfully entertaining journeys into what makes cities special — from influencing happiness to sparking creative and intellectual renaissance.

Bruce Katz, Amy Liu, Tim Moonen and helping us understand city policy and practice

The Mayor of Victoria got me onto Bruce Katz’ book The New Localism: How Cities Can Thrive in the Age of Populism a couple years ago. Katz’ work focuses particularly on reforms that promote the revitalization of central cities and older suburbs and enhance the ability of these places to attract, retain and grow the middle class. He documents the policies and programs that cities have taken to achieve this, which makes his work extremely useful.

Katz was also the founder of the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program, where Amy Liu currently sits as Vice President and Director. Her work on city policy is also remarkable, especially around major issues like equity and inclusion (like here) and her ground-swelling report Remaking Economic Development, which has directly influenced the approach that I take in this profession.

Another influencial peice from Brookings came from Tim Moonen, who I’ve been lucky enough to work with over the last year. His paper (co-authored with Greg Clark) on the “global-fluency” of metropolitan areas spells out 10 traits that all metropolitan regions need to nurture in order to thrive in the 21st Century economy. Tim’s current work at The Business of Cities has gained him and his team international acclaim. We’ll be publishing some of their work on Greater Victoria, Canada in the next few weeks and I’ll link to it here.

Honourable mentions in this category: Columbia University’s Dr. Saskia Sassen. Her 1991 book, The Global City is credited with coining that term. Her work has helped us understand transnational connections of cities including the importance and relevance of immigration policy and the idea of cities as a global network (which, along with Richard Florida’s work, led to my concept of framing of metropolitan economies as a globally-interconnected constellation that make up the macro economy (you could say, in other words, that provincial or national economies are not as relevant as we might think…more on this in a future post!).

Mayor Ken Livingstone, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the role of cities in addressing climate change

In 2005 then Mayor of London Ken Livingstone convened the Mayors of 18 of the world’s mega-cities to discuss climate change. These early meetings would evolve to become the most influential network of major cities on earth: C40 Cities.

C40 is a network of 40 of the largest mega-cities in the world (now 97 affiliated cities) that collectively make up 25% of global GDP. They are on a mission to complete 10,000 actions toward addressing climate change; recognizing the important role that cities and city-level governments play in taking action on-the-ground. While their mission is not focused on city economies, they’ve published research on many interrelated topics and continue to inspire incredible actions around the world.

The C40 are on this list because their work will be influential for years to come and will inform many economic development strategies yet to be written. Their greatest amplifier continues to be former Mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg. Love him or hate him, there is no doubt that — perhaps more than anyone else — Bloomberg has championed the role of cities in addressing many of the world’s top challenges. Bloomberg Philanthropies are funding a lot of important programs and research in areas relating to cities & city policy, including most recently $150 million to create the Bloomberg Center for Cities at Harvard. An initiative that will support hundreds of Mayors and city administrators each year.

Honourable mention in this category: I’m giving Kate Raworth (University of Oxford economist and author of Doughnut Economics: 7 Ways to Think Like a 21st Century Economist) a mention here because I think she’s onto something big. I’m still unsure how this work will influence cities and city economies but there are several cities that are taking notice. Most notably is Amsterdam, which received coverage (in TIME magazine) for their pandemic-recovery strategy based on the Doughnut Economics approach. I look forward to following along to see how this framework continues to take shape at the city level.

Mariana Mazzacuto and the role of government as innovators

It wasn’t Dr. Mazzacuto’s work that inspired my strong interest in this concept, but former Washington and Chicago Transportation Commissioner Gabe Klein through his 2015 book Start-up City: Inspiring Private and Public Entrepreneurship, Getting Projects Done and Having Fun (cole’s notes: why take 5 years to plan something when you can just pilot, test, rapidly iterate, partner with others, and then scale for impact?).

It was much more recently when Mariana’s work entered my peripheral vision. First her well-crafted research around how the economy and financial markets place value on some things and not on others, thus contradicting dominant market theories that say that the market is efficient because it has all the information it needs to be so (this isn’t the case if we ignore externalities like air pollution, GHGs, the degradation of environmental ecosystems, etc.). It was only upon investigating Mazzucato’s increasing influence that I discovered her work on the role of government in innovation as documented in her book The Entrepreneurial State.

The idea is quite remarkable because one of its case studies focuses on the history of Silicon Valley — the place most of us know as the most innovation-intensive ecosystem in the world. But what many people do not know is the role that the government played in its formation! p.s. Did you know that every key technology needed to make the iPhone was made possible through government funding?

As cities get further along into Smart Cities approaches (becoming more data and technologically-driven) they need to explore their role in innovation ecosystems more diliberately. This recent article from Bloomberg Cities reveals a some of approaches that cities can take in piloting and protoyping for example (get the data & learn fast on the cheap, then scale!). Other areas include innovative ways of using procurement to have more targeted social benefits.

Eric Klinenberg and the role of Social Capital in economic resilience

Eric’s 2002 book Heat Wave revealed a remarkable (and poignently painful) truth about cities: the strength (or lack thereof) of social capital — that is interrelationships among neighbours and their supporting institutions (libraries, community centres, neighbourhood watch programs, and other soft infrastructure) — can mean life or death. In the case of the great heat wave of Chicago — an event that led to the death of over 700 people in two days, the social capital within neighbourhoods predicted the survival rate (or death rate depending on how you look at it) of vulnerable populations in these neighbourhoods.

This applies to economic development and city economies in several ways: 1) disaster recovery and resiliency (strong social capital is needed and can be built from periods of struggle or to mitigate climate change, as Eric argued in this 2012 article); 2) the regeneration of impoverished neighbourhoods (social capital — and the institutions that build it — can lead to positive economic and human wellbeing outcomes, as Eric demonstrated in his book Palaces for the People); 3) Rebecca Ryan’s aforementioned research revealed a link between social capital and the retention/attraction of young next generation talent. If your city is rapidly aging (for example) you might want to take action in this last area!

Honourable mention in this category: I’d have to put Jane Jacobs here — though she could be mentioned in all of these categories in my opinion — but I believe it was her who coined the term Social Capital as it relates to communities and neighbourhoods. Sociologist Lewis Mumford is also worth mentioning here since his philosophical critique of cities emphasized the importance of the human connection to place. He believed many cities didn’t recognize this and that many social issues are a result of not planning for human scale and connection.

George Morse and the importance of existing businesses as foundational to city economies

I spent the first few years of my economic development career deep in the world of business retention and expansion (or “BRE” as we call it), I was certified as a BRE Coordinator and Consultant, and even served on the board of the international professional association for a while.

The founder of this approach, Dr. George Morse, has influenced countless practisioners like me through his work starting in the 1970’s and 1980’s which led to his publishing of the “bible” on this subject in 1990. As this paper by his protégé Michael Darger points out, Morse’s work was game-changing because up until this time, economic development policy and practice was focused almost exclusively on industry attraction (whereby state and city governments offer large incentives — tax, infrastructure, workforce programs, etc. — to attract large employers to their jurisdiction). As the economy modernized, this race-to-the-bottom approach became more and more outdated and ineffective. Studies on the subject have documented these flaws, yet despite this, many economic development efforts still remain embedded in these views — especially when political forces come into play. Just look at the infamous Amazon HQ2 process where they essentially made state and city governments dance for them and then ultimately selected the only option they were actually considering from the beginning (of course I have no way to prove this, but I will point to this article where Richard Florida not only points to the significant flaws in the approach itself, but accurately predicts the outcome!).

Morse’s findings are interesting to cities because not only do existing businesses tend to create the majority of new jobs in a jurisdiction (existing employers expanding is easier than attracting outsiders), but the data generated from meeting with and serving the existing economy is actually super useful to attracting new businesses and investment anyways. It’s this latter perspective that lands George Morse on this list for me!

Honourable mention in this category: A special shout-out to my friend and mentor Doug Howorko who got me into the BRE approach through involving me (and pushing me into the deep end) in his multiple award-winning projects. Nobody has pushed me further (and harder!) in my career than Doug! He also introduced me to the world of regional /multi-jurisdictional collaboration. A mindset and approach that has come to define my entire career!

This concludes my lengthy list of influencers — but by no means is it intended to be comprehensive! There are simply too many to list. And that’s a good thing.

Who did I miss? Who has influenced your work in cities and their economies?

In a future post I will attempt to bring these topics together to explore why “cities and metropolitan regions” might just be the most important organizing units of the 21st century. I’ll present some of the key problems that cities will help solve using the above topics.