In the public mind in the United States today, local politics, and especially local politics as they relate to economic development, is often portrayed as a forced choice between doing what is right and what is effective. We are led to believe that the economy is a zero sum game in which one can take public resources and make decisions to support livable neighborhoods, social welfare, and environmental protection, but that such decisions will inevitably come at the expense of jobs and the revenue generation necessary to support public goods.
In most communities, where growth coalitions of landowners, banks, and corporate media dominate, often with unions as junior partners, economic development is nothing more than a question of bowing to the dictates of outside investors who have the capital to stimulate various kinds of business activities and often at the expense of the concerns of neighbors, small business owners, and residents. This is the logic that drives communities across America to compete with each other for car dealerships, big box stores, and where the wage structure allows it, other forms of large-scale industrial production.
This accessible and exciting book by Rhonda Phillips, Bruce Seifer, and Ed Antczak presents a compelling challenge to that ideology. Put most simply, they make a persuasive argument that communities can create durable economic growth by focusing on doing the right thing and not accepting that profit maximization by large corporations is the only path to economic success. Using the experience of Burlington, Vermont, a community in a region that is quite accurately characterized as the “rust belt,” they show how a community that focused on creating and sustaining local, socially responsible businesses, providing for general social welfare, focusing on inclusivity for diverse populations, embracing a vibrant alternative culture, and integrating urban, environmentally sustainable agriculture was able to build a local economy that would be the envy of most communities in this country.
The strength of the book is the concrete examples they share of how the community of Burlington made this happen over the past few decades. An attempt to describe even the most important of the initiatives that were undertaken in Burlington would result in simply reproducing the book itself. But there are a few central ideas that are worth emphasizing. Perhaps the most important is that it is possible and essential that communities actually plan their development.
This is by no means a common assumption of most communities, who imagine that they have no choice but to depend on the decisions of large outside investors for economic development. The authors demonstrate that Burlington was able to make difficult decisions about what kind of a community they wanted to be and then make use of local government institutions to create a context that invited the kind of development they wanted. Eschewing what appeared to be quick-fix solutions to various economic barriers, the community made a plan and stuck with it until they got the outcomes they really wanted. Planning, which in Burlington was a process of community engagement, became a very real alternative to the “invisible hand” of market forces. The book emphasizes the importance of public–private partnerships, but these relationships in Burlington clearly have been under the control of the public sector.
The book also emphasizes the synergistic nature of the economic activities that were promoted. By themselves, none of the detailed programs described in the book would have led to the kind of sustainable economic growth that Burlington has experienced, but together the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. So, for example, providing social workers out on the streets to actually address the needs of people with mental health challenges turns out to create a more successful downtown business climate. Providing job training for immigrants and unemployed single mothers created a workforce that supports many of the economic initiatives being undertaken by local businesses.
It will be impossible in the span of a short book review to give the reader a full appreciation for the practical nature of what is being presented in this work. The authors don’t just tell the reader what they accomplished, but they explain how they were successful. In each of the areas they cover, they describe the opportunities they had, the obstacles that had to be overcome, and how they overcame them. They offer a nuanced and programmatic map of how the political work was integrated with the realities of market forces to effect the desired outcome. In each section of the book, they provide concrete case studies and an impressive list of references and resources for those who might like to implement similar programs in other communities.
As a former five-time Mayor of the City of Santa Cruz, California, I would say that no planner, public official, or urban community activist in America should be without this book. It provides a healthy antidote to the idea that democracy and progressive social values must ultimately surrender to the power of corporations and the values they promote. If the readers of this journal are, as its name implies, looking for actual solutions to the economic problems being faced by their communities, they will find this book an invaluable resource.