Balance is needed to preserve the character of a city while encouraging economic development, a leading thinker on innovation and urban planning said.
While the character of a city such as Charleston should be preserved, it is going to need places for people to live to continue to develop. Therefore, the city must embrace greater density, Bruce Katz, who focuses on the challenges and opportunities of global urbanization at the Brookings Institute, told Palmetto Business Daily in an interview focusing on how Charleston can remain competitive in a rapidly changing world economy.
“Basically I start with the market dynamics that we are under, with particular focus on the innovation economy, which drives just about everything else,” Katz, the institute’s inaugural centennial scholar, said.
“Advanced industries depend on research and development, as well as skilled workers,” Katz said. “We have moved to an open network economy where companies are innovating by connecting and collaborating, through universities, through entrepreneurs."
Even in this era where there are so many connections online, those at the cutting edge of innovation want to live and work together, and companies want to be close to universities, medical hubs, and entrepreneurs, he argued.
“That is the contradiction, the paradox.” Katz said, citing GE.
“GE moved its headquarters from Fairfield, Connecticut, to the Boston Seaport," he said. "That is an iconic example of how the world has changed. GE wanted to be in the middle of the action.”
Looking at Charleston, Katz said he understands how many want to preserve its unique character and beauty.
“I presume you are trying to preserve a certain character and fabric,” he said, “and Charleston is a beautiful city. You can understand that, but cities are not museums.”
Katz added: “This needs to be a balanced conversation and cannot it be either/or. It exists in gray."
Yet Katz said he understands why city residents want to hold onto the unique character of their hometown.
“I completely appreciate the desire to preserve a particular character, but it has to be balanced because there are bigger forces playing out, like access to affordable housing and quality jobs,"he said. "You have to look at the implications of moving ahead with anti-density policies, disparate implications that might not have been intended, including housing affordability.”
There is a “sustainability dividend” to developing the cores of cities, a fiscal benefit, and with infrastructure, including less need to build roads.
“With sustainable urbanization, there is a enormous amount of literature on the benefits of density bringing innovative growth and decent jobs,” Katz said.
Cities must build on their distinctive character, build the best versions of themselves, and in the case of Charleston, that character is “very unique and distinctive.”
“There are issues with whichever way you develop,” says Katz. “There are implications whichever path you pursue. I think the path to take is to release the full potential of your city — economy, jobs, residential, tax, fiscal. This is the moment cities should understand the big forces in terms of revitalizing the cores of cities.”
Katz said he looks at cities like Pittsburgh and Atlanta as examples of how best to revitalize the urban core. There is enormous growth there, many innovative companies, and they work closely with higher learning institutions such as Carnegie-Mellon and Georgia Tech.
But innovation is not happening just on campus, Katz noted. “Look at those places that have 21st century innovative hubs. Global companies are now looking where there is talent and an eco-system that promotes entrepreneurship,” he said. “If you decide you do not want to ride the wave, there are big implications.”
His central point is that there must be balance between development and retaining character. “The conversation has to be held by knowing there are a very big dynamics and understanding those dynamics," he said.