Saturday, September 24, 2011

Demographic Dividend

The main lesson I learned from working on Global Cleveland's boomerang migration project is that civic leadership has an unhealthy obsession with population numbers. This is a real drag on policy innovation for shrinking cities and rural communities. We are chasing yesterday's economy instead of looking to the future. Our outlook is reactionary.

Once again, international economic development is ahead of the curve. From the World Bank:

Through concrete policy actions in family planning, health, education, gender equality, and labor market policies, a number of countries have produced large and positive economic returns, referred to as the "Demographic Dividend." Most developing countries have a short window of opportunity to enact policies and promote investments that raise the human capital of young people while positioning them for greater economic productivity when they enter their working years. Demography need not be destiny, but failure of leadership to manage demographic change will guarantee lags in economic growth and increase the risk of social and political turbulence.

People develop, not places. The Rust Belt must turn away from real estate interests and embrace the investment in talent. A casino or a new convention center is not the answer. A place well-known for developing people will attract talent. Placemaking and dangling amenities will not. How does light rail raise human capital?

Light rail can raise human capital. But that's not the goal of such mammoth projects that cost hundreds of millions, sometimes billions. I keep reading how light rail will stop brain drain. That claim is a red flag. It's along the lines of better walkability will raise property values. It may be true, but so what? Why is raising property values an economic development goal? Better schools also raise property values, walkability be damned.


BrianTH said...

I agree the argument would look very different from the way it is usually presented, and likely different priorities would emerge. But on a general level, wouldn't making it easier and cheaper for people to interact count as one of the top ways in which a locality could contribute to developing human capital? In other words, transportation issues (broadly defined to include walkability)--and maybe even convention centers!--won't necessarily be downgraded under such a paradigm.

Jim Russell said...


Placemaking projects are not fundamentally at odds with talent-making projects. I'm arguing for a change in framework and a better understanding of goals. Of course, that will change how a community prioritizes investment.

Greater talent density fuels productivity and growth. But greater talent density also poses challenges. There are negative effects. Urban planning should mitigate those negative effects, thus allowing for greater density.

Justifying a project as plugging the brain drain is tantamount to admitting that you don't know why your community should invest in it.

BrianTH said...

Works for me. In the spirit of form follows function, place follows people, not people follows place.