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Smart Growth Means Economic Development

By Tom Condon

January 19, 2012

Thursday night, I am the warm-up act for Catherine Smith, the commissioner of the state Department of Economic and Community Development, at a 1000 Friends of Connecticut gathering at 6:30 p.m. at Hartford's Union Station. For the few of you who can't make it, here's what I'm going to say:

Good evening. I want you to step back and appreciate the moment. We have Commissioner Smith speaking to 1000 Friends of Connecticut. As Humphrey Bogart so eloquently put it, this could be the start of a beautiful friendship. !000 Friends promotes smart growth. The commissioner is about economic development. In these brief remarks, I will argue that smart growth is economic development.

Smart growth urges mixed-use development in compact, walkable areas such as town centers and transit stops. We've often sold this idea on the strength of what it prevents excessive energy use, pollution, loss of farms and open space, etc. While that is all true, we probably have not emphasized enough what smart growth produces.

Done correctly, smart growth results in healthy density. Some of the most dense neighborhoods in the country Greenwich Village, Beacon Hill, Georgetown, are among the most prosperous. Density equals proximity people having coffee, rubbing shoulders with one another and proximity spawns business ideas.

This was well put by Harvard economist Edward Glaeser in his 2011 book "The Triumph of the City." He wrote: "The strength that comes from human collaboration is the central truth behind civilization's success and the primary reason why cities exist." He said ideas pass from person to person, occasionally creating "miracles of human creativity." The Silicon Valley is an example, so is Hartford in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Nonetheless, traditional government economic development programs took no notice of smart growth; they were often an adult version of Capture the Flag. Georgia would poach a company from Connecticut, we'd grab one from New York, Iowa would swoop in and snake another one, etc. Yesterday I heard the economic development authority of Fairfax County, Virginia, cited as a sponsor of Connecticut Public Radio, so I assume this is still going on.

However, recent research, by the Brookings Institution and others, suggests that poached companies don't produce that many new permanent jobs, and that the better option is homegrown industries. Well, how to do this? Smart growth. The key though the term is rather clunky is place-making, creating interesting places cities or university towns where people want to be and where they have a chance to work with one another. And then providing the infrastructure and services they need to make the miracles happen.

This is happening around the country. Incubators are becoming "accelerators," that not only get businesses going but speed them along. In Boston, Mayor Thomas Menino has established an innovation district on the old South Boston waterfront to attract fast-growing companies. The district includes a gathering place for entrepreneurs and a branch of Babson College. As Governing Magazine reported, it's made possible because the Big Dig made this part of the city more accessible.

Pittsburgh is a great example. When city leaders realized that most of its steelers were now playing football, they needed to do something. The Steel City has had the same problems attendant to all old Northeast manufacturing cities. But as the excellent Buffalo-based blogger Bruce Fisher reports, Pittsburgh has done two things differently than his city (and many others).

First, Fisher reports, "there is a serious, multi-entity commitment in Pittsburgh to stimulating, mentoring and promoting new enterprises, and it has been going on for more than a dozen years." Second, they are putting everything downtown. "The universities are downtown. The big medical center is downtown. The new professional sports arenas are downtown. The new waterfront park is downtown. The entrepreneurship incubators are downtown."

Without putting too fine a point on it, this is not the mind-set that would have put the new UConn medical school in Farmington.

Here in Connecticut, New Haven's Science Park is an increasingly strong example of the kind of 21st century business development the state needs. The lesson is that smart growth is economic growth, and smart growth should inform the state's 21st century economic development thinking.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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