16 Jun 2014

The Wealthy Community

On New Year’s Eve, 1900, newspaper magnate James Scripps wrote a letter containing “a prophecy for Detroit as a Metropolis.” He expected his city to be one of the great urban places of the 20th century.

This prophecy came true, but not for the reasons Scripps imagined. He wrote his letter eight years before the Ford Model T set Detroit on a course to become Motor City.

What was Scripps thinking of if not the automotive industry? He described Detroit’s natural features, including its “abundance of pure water,” which meant “there shall be no healthier city than Detroit.”

Two cities, one vision

Nearby, another newspaperman and civic visionary, Joseph Atkinson, was two weeks into his new job as publisher of the Toronto Daily Star. Like Scripps, Atkinson had an eye on the Great Lakes system.

Atkinson saw the prospects of his city as tightly connected to the health of its people and environment. In the first years of the 20th century, he had the Star publish hundreds of articles about the pollution of Lake Ontario and possible solutions to the problem that threatened Toronto’s wellbeing.

Rethinking the wealth of communities

What’s happening in Detroit and Toronto today leads us to ask: what does it mean for a community to thrive and prosper? At Atkinson, we’ve been paying close attention to projects rooted in the idea of community wealth and focused on the renewal of cities.

As Ted Howard of the Democracy Collaborative explains, community wealth is a way of thinking about how to build shared prosperity at the local level. It can operate in a variety of ways, but it often begins with people getting together and doing something like what Scripps and Atkinson did: looking around, thinking about what they value in their communities and how to protect and build on those assets. Some common community wealth building practices include :

  • recognizing—and eventually leveraging—the value of existing assets (these might be financial assets and infrastructure, social capital, organizations, or natural assets like a harbour)
  • encouraging anchor institutions like hospitals and universities to procure locally; having them commit to systematically including people who might otherwise have trouble accessing economic opportunities
  • promoting locally based co-ops, worker-owned business, and other organizational structures that enable revenues to be shared broadly
  • encouraging the local circulation of goods and services

Community wealth takes root and grows — it doesn’t parachute in

Decades ago, communities seeking economic development would compete with each other to persuade large corporations to set up offices or plants there, bringing jobs that would build the local tax base and fuel local spin-off businesses.

Although most jurisdictions are still pleased to see a big business roll into town, the shortcomings of the woo-the-giant model of economic development have become evident over time. Many communities have been economically destabilized when their main employer has left for cheaper labour abroad. Some places have concluded that the benefits they once derived from large-scale industrial activity have been undercut by environmental damage or negative health effects: they increased their community’s monetary wealth, but damaged other important assets like rivers and people. Governments’ efforts to woo big businesses can also become so competitive that they end up in a race to the bottom, giving such big tax breaks that even if the business comes, the direct result for the municipality is a wash.

Local economies that work

For these reasons and others (including a desire to combat growing inequality and declining job quality), many organizations, municipalities, and regional networks — and foundations like Atkinson — are exploring new models for economic development. We believe community wealth building is key to a new way of thinking about how people, community organizations, local businesses, and public institutions work together to renew our cities and make them better for everyone.

Colette Murphy is the Executive Director of the Atkinson Foundation. She is making her first trip to Detroit this summer to attend Netroots Nation 2014.

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