Behind the new home construction, park improvements, and a rising downtown skyline that are attracting out-of-state migration, some longtime families in Boise, Idaho, are struggling to afford housing in a market that has seen rents more than double in the past decade. The average home price is now beyond the means of the average area income.

“The reason we live here is the quality of life and we better pay attention to it,” said ULI Idaho’s chair and local developer Clay Carley, speaking at a forum of civic and government leaders hosted by ULI in July.

“While creative and entrepreneurial classes enjoy the fruits of prosperity in the nation’s growing cities, large parts of the population find that prosperity just out of reach,” former U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Henry Cisneros told a forum of Boise leaders gathered for a conversation about building equitable cities in an urban nation.

“When I think of cities on the rise like Austin or Nashville, I put Boise in the category of progressive cities growing a strong economy. So many things are possible,” Cisneros told the audience that included elected city officials, business executives, and nonprofit leaders.

Cisneros said the growing prosperity of Boise positions the city to help solve social problems long thought beyond the scope of municipal government.

“People are locked in a permanent underclass where life is just different,” Cisneros said, offering city leaders a blueprint for bolstering the economic mobility for some of its most vulnerable residents. He said that by expanding opportunities for their citizens, cities can advance economic expansion.

“The purview of city government has changed. And leadership on a broad set of issues is important and those are these big national issues like income inequality. We can build our cities, we can build our economy, and design our communities in ways that make it possible to address those other issues.”

He said cities that are on the rise and in a position for strong economic growth like Boise are even better positioned to create more equitable urban environments.

“This is a moment in history that is great for cities,” he said. “For the first time in the history of mankind, more people live in cities than in rural places. The U.S. is clearly a metropolitan nation.”

That American urban landscape is changing, and that positions American cities to address urban problems in ways they never have before, Cisneros said.

We have a new American economy that is no longer rooted in manufacturing but in entrepreneurial growth, creative pursuits, and innovation. Where factories once loomed large, universities, international trade, and medical hubs make up the new economic anchors of our cities.

These changes not only changed the face of American cities but also position cities to make new changes. That entrepreneurial, innovative, and creative spirit shapes local government and could serve as a foundation to help cities usher in a more equitable future, Cisneros said.

“All of these things taken together has created an urban renaissance,” he said.

But amid that renaissance, major problems fester, he noted. Roughly 65 percent of the population lives in 100 of the largest cities and for some of that population, life is not equal.

Cisneros said the innovation and brainpower that drive today’s cities could help solve some of our more perplexing problems of inequality.

“In a time when the federal government has backed away from the equality agenda and states have never had that much interest, with income inequality, cities have a stake and cities have a role,” Cisneros said. “You don’t have to solve the problems of the world, we just have to solve them locally and people will notice and follow.

“It requires big thinking about the people left behind,” he said.

The former San Antonio mayor who coauthored Building Equitable Cities: How to Drive Economic Mobility and Regional Growth drew from his research to explain how cities can focus on strategies to expand opportunity for more residents and boost economic expansion. He offered civic and elected leaders a blueprint that outlined how cities can create more inclusive, equitable environments in which to live and thrive. Cities thrive when people thrive, the authors write.

Cisneros offered case studies of cities that implemented strategies and programs that help residents climb the economic ladders that would ultimately help boost a city’s bottom line. He pointed to efforts already happening in Atlanta that aim to address the inequitable fallout from gentrification to efforts in New York City to increase the number of affordable housing units and initiatives in Denver and San Antonio to make community colleges more accessible and affordable.

“You can’t do these things without a growth economy,” he said.

He reconciled the growth ethic with the equality ethic, noting how San Antonio aggressively recruited new industry to the city. Those efforts created economic stepping stones that helped residents climb the income ladder, he said.

His talk and research looked at strategies that cities employed to bolster struggling neighborhoods and improve the quality of services to residents while strengthening the education, workforce, and financial outcomes of community members. He said that efforts to reduce disparities in education outcomes by neighborhood, income, race, and ethnicity as well as initiatives to increase affordable housing in more affluent areas and collaborations with anchor institutions such as universities and hospitals to spur community development should all be part of the effort to narrow economic gaps.

“Cities are not going to solve the issue of inequality, but they do have a place in the discussion,” he said, imploring cities to invest in job creation, education, and transportation as a catalyst for bridging the gap and boosting economic expansion.

Private and public sector, civic leadership, and philanthropic partnerships are critical to making investments and strategies work, he said.

“Cities have to be intentional and guiding that process. It’s hard. It takes a long time, and most political leadership doesn’t have the patience to stay the course,” he said. “The city can’t lead, but it can steer. You don’t need to paddle, but you do need to steer the boat.”