Smart growth equips cities for business growth, job creation

What makes a city good for business? To get a sense, we looked two prominent business magazines that recently ranked cities all across America for their business climates. Four cities made it to both lists’ top ten: Washington, D.C.; New York City, New York; Austin, Texas; and Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.

What do these “best for business cities have in common? They’re all using smart growth strategies.

“Great neighborhoods and great cities are where employees want to be and where businesses want to move,” said Geoffrey Anderson, President and CEO of Smart Growth America, “That’s why smart growth strategies are good for economic development – it helps businesses connect with workers and customers.”

By focusing on walkable neighborhoods, promoting the economic vitality of downtown areas and attracting the Millennial generation and creative class, D.C., New York City, Austin and Oklahoma City are increasing in appeal even while some other cities are still feeling the effects of the recession.

As the Millennial generation comes of age and increases its percentage of the American population, its actions and consumption patterns will play an increasingly important role in our nation’s economic forecast.

“Millennials in particular are demanding a walkable urban environment to live and work in,” said Chris Leinberger, President of LOCUS, a national coalition of real estate developers and Fellow at the Brookings Institution. “This means businesses want to be where millennials want to be.”

Since 77 percent of Millennials want to live in urban cores, Leinberger said, businesses are recognizing that if they want to take advantage of the best talent available, they’ll need to be where that talent is. Leinberger noted that cities, which in many instances were considered less desirable for young professionals due to perceptions and values, have strongly reversed that trend and are now growing rapidly.

Washington D.C., for example, is “now a place to be” after initiatives were taken to play off the city’s easy access to transit and to create highly livable communities near jobs, shops and schools. “D.C. has more walkable urban places per capita than any other metro area in the country,” Leinberger added.

Capital Bikeshare members ride through DC's Chinatown neighborhood

Harriet Tregoning, Director of D.C.’s Office of Planning, stated that D.C. has made deliberate investments to greatly increase transportation choices for residents, workers and visitors, including Metrorail and Metrobus, Capital Bikeshare and D.C.’s own premium bus service, the Circulator, as well as a variety of car-sharing options.

“Those transportation investments, combined with smart land use, have resulted in highly walkable, convenient and livable neighborhoods,” she said. “We have attracted tens of thousands of new residents who are now reshaping and diversifying our economy as they draw new companies to the city or start their own.”

Along with those 37,000 new residents in the past 10 years, Washington D.C. has also seen an influx in business development, especially along corridors with significant reinvestment.

“We are seeing strong growth in our local small businesses,” said Tommy Wells, Ward 6 Councilmember. “Over the last year alone, the H Street NE retail corridor has seen 28 new businesses open that created 319 new jobs. It comes on the heels of a significant city investment in the streetscape – new and wider sidewalks, improved bus stops, new lighting and street infrastructure, and tracks and stations for the future D.C. streetcar.”

In addition, after releasing Sustainability Plan 2010, D.C. launched Sustainable DC in 2011, a multi-stakeholder initiative to make DC the greenest, healthiest, and most livable city in the nation.

Likewise, smart city planning and walkability make New York City a destination for businesses. And as Leinberger notes, “The most vibrant places in New York City are the most walkable places.”

In 2007, The City of New York launched PlaNYC, an effort undertaken by Mayor Bloomberg to prepare the city for an increasing population, which includes measures to strengthen the economy and enhance the quality of life for New Yorkers. Since its launch, PlaNYC has already helped to expand access to transit options in neighborhoods city-wide.

That kind of smart city planning is not limited to top-tier cities like New York City, however. All across the country, it’s being used an economic and business development tool that plays into the visible trends and demographics of America today.

“Cities across the nation like Seattle, Portland, Denver, Salt Lake City, Phoenix, and Dallas are trying to emulate D.C. and New York City, often promoting walkability by making improvements to transit,” Leinberger said.

Oklahoma City Mayor Mark Cornett approached economic development in his city by addressing the connections between economic development and health. After the city was ranked one of the “Fattest Cities in America” in 2007, he started a campaign to put the city on a diet under the notion that healthy citizens are more productive workers. To promote economic development, he focused on increasing mass transit, economic diversification, urban renaissance, and civic beautification. Part of his urban renaissance meant 400 miles of new sidewalks, over 100 miles of new jogging and biking trails and a 70-acre downtown park.

Five years later, Oklahoma City’s economy has flourished to the point that experts have dubbed it “recession proof,” and it was re-named one of the fittest cities in America by Men’s Fitness.

Austin, Texas, famous for it’s unofficial “Keep Austin Weird” slogan, is known not only for attracting the creative class, but also for its plan for a sustainable future. In December 2011, the Austin City Council approved the $350 million Downtown Austin Plan with the goal of making downtown the heart of one of most sustainable cities in the nation. This includes a dense and livable pattern of development, interconnected streets, a multi-modal transportation system and historic landmarks that celebrate Austin’s history.

The exact strategies differ from city to city and are based on individual communities’ needs, but one thing is for certain: Downtowns experience growth and receive recognition when leaders make the right kinds of investments.

“As America rebounds from the recession, there is no better time than now for municipalities and regions to make smart investments in transportation infrastructure and downtown development,” Anderson said. “Building an economy fit for the long-haul starts with connecting communities and making our towns and cities a place to live, work and play — not just a name on a map.”

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