Planning for the New Economy
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Charting a New Pathway
Planners in the greater Portland region have become adept at aligning transportation investment and land use policies to support attractive and vibrant communities. However, few of us understand how these investments impact our ability to grow and attract businesses or address the mismatch between job seekers and job openings. This disconnect results in a reactive approach to transportation investment and land use policy that uses freight mobility and land availability as the proxies for economic output. Sure, we are putting a road to where the jobs are today and where a developer says they might build, but we are not leveraging our lands to create an environment for specific industries to flourish, workers to gain access to upward mobility, or entrepreneurs to build and expand a business.
- How is our region using land today, and what do we expect our economy to look like in the future?
- How are disruptive economic trends changing these expectations?
- What programs or site level projects can we use as testing grounds for our assumptions and pilot programs?
- How can we advance a more strategic approach to growth management that responds to disruptions and helps us build the economy we truly want?
Exploring the Future of Our Regional Economy
Mapping Economic Values
The Economic Value Atlas (EVA) is a live beta tool that allows policymakers to focus investments in ways that will support access to family-wage jobs and enhance growing industries. The tool helps verify and improve our understanding of the economy by providing an interactive, visual display of variables. Each variable ties to a set of shared economic values that were developed in partnership with Greater Portland Inc. (the region’s Economic Development District), economists, other local economic and workforce development professionals, and organizations who are working to advance inclusive economic development activities.
Shared Economic Values
The greater Portland region’s dedication to planning and investing towards a great quality of life has brought an influx of new residents and rapid job growth, creating challenges for the region’s livability. Addressing these issues, which include wage disparities, fewer affordable housing options and longer travel times; requires a regional response. The EVA tool provides opportunities to share resources and information across city and county lines.
The EVA will allow communities across greater Portland to build and leverage distinct competitive advantages for neighborhoods and industries. Metro and its local jurisdictional partners have robust plans for land use and transportation, but need to ensure those plans support a thriving regional economy for everyone. This tool can shed light on where businesses are growing, what they need, how people get there and how products get to market.
Example Use Cases in Portland
Imagine you own a business and are looking to relocate to an industrially-zoned site. What factors would play into your decision? You might be interested in areas where there is:
- Nearby highway access, for greater market access
- Easy access to air cargo facilities
- A pool of entry-level workers within a reasonable commuting distance
- An existing base of industrial and commercial square footage
- Nearby buildable land for expansion
The EVA tool can pinpoint areas within the region that exhibit all of these values. In this case, it highlights precisely where FedEx and Amazon have located key distribution and warehouse facilities.
The Port of Portland is facing new challenges, including build out of their larger sites, and identifying uses for their smaller, strategic sites as part of the Commercial Development and Real Estate Program. In addition to its traditional focus on transportation access, trade sector investment, and employment prospects, the Port has an increased interest in aligning its investments with a broader set of community needs and outcomes. As the EVA is enhanced, it will support the Port in outlining a more intentional approach to its acquisition criteria and land management programs. For example, this will help them key in on labor access constraints that can be used to advocate for public transit connections that will make the Port more accessible to a wider pool of employees. EVA can also be used to evaluate the Port’s industrial parks, marine terminals, and airport in the context of the region’s economy.
The EVA tool helps connect Metro and its partners in Oregon with those across the Columbia River in Washington State to establish a shared understanding of our interrelated economies and community development aspirations. The Columbia River Economic Development Council (CREDC) is the primary organization conducting business development on the Washington side of the river. CREDC intends to use the EVA to exhibit advantageous travel times to different labor pools and outside markets, evaluate and advance site readiness on employment sites, and pinpoint complementary target industries as they engage in business recruitment efforts. They also intend to use the tool to highlight community characteristics of different areas that might be attractive to an employer.
Finally, the EVA serves as a primary evaluation tool that will inform Columbia Connects, a project that seeks to clarify how our local economies interact, providing background information that will help us establish a bi-state economic strategy.
My Road is Better Than Yours
One important goal in developing the EVA tool is to reduce the influence of anecdotal statements about project benefits or land use practices and focus on a more data-driven discussion. Using data from the tool will support a more transparent public discussion about economic conditions and strategic investments, which will help build an inclusive economy and expand access to opportunity.
For example, one part of the Portland region might need investments to support better workforce and client/customer access, while other areas may need resources around building business-to-business relationships, or maintaining a strong supply chain among industries. Metro and its partners want to understand how our local markets can advance by supporting the conditions that create opportunities for existing businesses, and lead to startup activity.
The tool also provides information to guide affordable housing investments based on existing affordability levels and nearby workforce. It’s currently being used to indicate the economic situation along specific corridors to help regional decision-makers prioritize proposed transportation investments.
Who Are We Growing For?
Rapid growth brings cost of living increases, wage disparities, challenging commutes, and less affordable housing. Planning and transit-oriented development can improve mobility for those without a car, but this doesn’t help us address issues like the hollowing out of the middle class. These investments need to be aligned with business stabilization, support networks for entrepreneurship among diverse communities, workforce training, and other upward mobility actions. So how do we link major public investments with positive outcomes for historically marginalized communities and other disadvantaged groups?
The EVA uses data to paint a picture of the regional economy that will help our communities be more intentional about how and where public investments should be made. The tool itself can be used to expose specific subareas that have significant poverty rates, income inequality, and no signs of income growth for residents. Diving deeper, we’re able see how these combined variables for economic hardship are being experienced by different demographic groups.
Our hope is that by elevating the needs of these areas, agencies can justify more state and federal investment. However, none of this will happen if building a tool like the EVA isn’t paired with a concerted effort to engage and empower those advocating for economic justice. Greater Portland has learned this the hard way. We have seen our share of gentrification and displacement as the better paying jobs require more training than many have access to. This widens the gap between low and high income earners. By getting ahead of significant public investments and addressing issues of displacement and equity directly, we can preempt long term impacts that affect our most vulnerable community members.
Government can build roads and transit, and may even provide some affordable housing. But government alone can’t provide the full spectrum of equitable development outcomes for an area. A meaningful partnership among government, non-profits, businesses and the community allows each a role in shaping an inclusive economy. Our region is engaged in robust discussions about how to address social equity. Lessons from pilot projects seek to redress existing inequities and reduce associated impacts and risks of displacement. Metro and its partners are advancing equitable development principles in tandem with more direct market-driven assessments of economic benefits.
Dealing with Disruption
The next step in planning for the new economy is to explore how automation, e-commerce, micro-scale manufacturing, the sharing economy, and other known unknowns such as climate change will impact how we approach land management. Metro is particularly interested in testing out possible solutions – retooling former retail developments, connecting our robust maker industries to new technology and export potential, and capitalizing on our significant research capacity in innovation districts. These tests will be evaluated against the outcomes we want, helping inform this new way of making investments by:
- Revisiting industrial and employment land policies and zoning
- Building and leveraging new tools for site readiness and brownfield redevelopment
- Working with partners to be more strategic in particular sub-areas of our region
One Small Step for the Portland Region
The EVA serves as the foundation for a more intentional link between planning and the new economy. Metro will test out different applications of the tool and continue building it out through summer 2019. Updates are expected on a one to two year cycle with added features based on guidance from the community.
In the shorter-term, Metro expects to add features that allow users to print out and export data on a particular area, make comparisons between communities, and focus in on only those areas that exceed or fall short of the regional average for a particular measure.
A medium-term build out of the tool might include a feature to assist businesses in early site identification based on zoning allowances, access to workers, existing mobility and connectivity infrastructure, and other key factors. Future build out could lead to a map feature that informs how Metro and local jurisdictions evaluate what transportation investments are made as part of their allocations of local and federal resources.
In the long-term, Metro and Brookings are excited to explore the scalability of this tool. We know that greater Portland is not alone. In the face of dwindling federal resources, many metropolitan areas across the country are having similar debates about how infrastructure investments and aspirational land use planning can help ensure assets are used wisely to advance more inclusive economic development. Brookings and Metro are confident that the EVA and our focus on planning for the new economy is an important first step to address this national need.
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This article was originally published on September 8, 2020.
Update for April 20, 2021:
After the murder of George Floyd we wrote this article as a kind of blueprint, a beginning to a new way of working with equitable resilience in our cities and beyond. Now, as the trial of Derek Chauvin comes to a guilty verdict in Minneapolis and the whole country reflects on the legacy of that verdict, we have to remember another senseless murder – another young Black man, Daunte Wright, at the hands of law enforcement, just miles from the courthouse. Again, Minneapolis is all of us. We have protested, we have voted. We stood up, we spoke out, we have raged about the anti-Black racism. We have seen people come together, we can feel a shift in this country. But there is so much more to do. No equity, no resilience.
-Ron & Stewart
Housing that is affordable to low-income residents is often substandard and suffering from deferred maintenance, exposing residents to poor air quality and high energy bills. This situation can exacerbate asthma and other respiratory health issues, and siphon scarce dollars from higher value items like more nutritious food, health care, or education. Providing safe, decent, affordable, and healthy housing is one way to address historic inequities in community investment. Engaging with affordable housing and other types of community benefit projects is an important first step toward fully integrating equity into the green building process. In creating a framework for going deeper on equity, our new book, the Blueprint for Affordable Housing (Island Press 2020), starts with the Convention on Human Rights and the fundamental right to housing.
Since the Great Recession of 2008, the housing wealth gap has expanded to include not just Black and Brown Americans, but younger White Americans as well. Millennials and Generation Z Whites are now joining their Black and Brown peers in facing untenable housing precarity and blocked access to wealth. With wages stuck at 1980 levels and housing prices at least double (in inflation adjusted terms) what they were 40 years ago, many younger Americans, most with college degrees, are giving up on buying a home and even struggle to rent apartments suitable for raising a family.
What makes it hard for policy people and citizens to accept this truth is that we have not seen this problem in a very long time. Back in the 1920s of course, but not really since then. But this is actually an old problem that has come back to haunt us; a problem first articulated by Adam Smith in the 1700s.