The Lameness of “Transformative Investments”

Urban policy heavyweight Bruce Katz of Brookings has co-authored a paper with Julie Wagner about “Transformative Investments” that cities are undertaking.  What is a transformative investment?  Here’s how they describe it:

This subset of urban investments share important characteristics:

  • On the economic front, transformative investments uncover the hidden value in a part of the city, creating markets in places where markets either did not exist or were only partially realised.
  • On the fiscal front, transformative investments dramatically enhance the fiscal capacity of local governments, generating revenues through the rise in property values, the growth in city populations, and the expansion of economic activity.
  • On the cognitive front, transformative investments redefine the identity and image of the city. They effectively “re-map” previously forgotten or ignored places by residents, visitors and workers. They create nodes of new activities and new places for people to congregate.
  • On the environmental front, transformative investments enable cities to achieve their “green” potential by cleaning up the environmental residue from prior industrial uses or urban renewal efforts, by enabling repopulation at greater densities to occur and by providing residents, workers and visitors with transportation alternatives.

Their piece is troubling for two reasons.  First, it is way too abstract to be helpful to a practitioner or policy-maker.  Second, in its abstraction, it veers towards embracing the importance of large “home run”-type projects that are buildings and explicitly tied to civic pride.  An example are publicly-subsidized stadiums.  Katz would never want to be categorized as a pro-stadium person, but the ideas in this paper are a bit too similar.   Exciting vibrant communities focus on developing the public management and civic infrastructure to hit a lot of “singles” over and over, instead of swinging for that big, expensive “home run” building.  It’s hard.

Building a stadium, or even one big public housing redevelopment is relatively straightforward.  Creating innovative services, such as publicly-owned car-sharing, universal pre-k, and highly affordable community colleges is harder.   Fostering the right mix of commerce in a community to preserve both uniqueness and economic value is also harder than a stadium or housing development.  For example, I can’t believe there is a Whataburger next to Sandy’s, yet at the same time am absolutely overjoyed at the lack of chains at Bergstrom.   The unintentionally beautiful and Austin-branded manhole covers  standout more as a creator of community than The Domain.  And so it is important to push back against the idea of big, transformative projects and instead re-focus on the many small victories that add up to a unique, livable, and just community.

Picture Credit: John Turlington

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