Ralph Boyd
ULI Senior Resident Leadership Fellow

Civic leaders, including public officials and private developers, must be proactive and prepared to take risks if they want to develop their cities for the new economy, ULI Senior Resident Fellow Tom Murphy said at the ULI Spring Meeting in Nashville.

Cities are facing unprecedented changes in a variety of arenas, including cultural, technological, economic, and demographic. At a session titled “Smart Choices in a Changing World,” ULI’s senior fellows debated ways that cities can thrive in a new economy while creating a sustainable workforce for future needs.

“Successful cities anywhere today have a vision for the future, and a shared vision for the future,” said Ed McMahon, ULI senior resident fellow and the Charles E. Fraser Chair for Sustainable Development and Environmental Policy. “Successful cities also inventory their assets and build their plans—whether it’s an economic development plan, a land use plan, a tourism plan, whatever—around the enhancement of what they’ve already got. Successful economic development for most communities today is not about going to get something you don’t have. It’s about building on the assets you already do have to complete and create that vision for what the city could be.”

Murphy agreed. “You can’t wait reactively for someone to come build developments. You have to be able to proactively start developments and create the city that you envision. It’s about you going after something and figuring out what you want to do.”

But, the senior fellows noted, that point is moot if there are no leaders willing to take the risks needed for growth. “City leadership has to have an appetite for risk,” said Murphy, who was mayor of Pittsburgh from 1994 to 2005. “But leadership doesn’t come just from the public sector. The private sector has to be willing to take charge as well. The leadership can come from lots of different places. That leadership is what will drive the city’s success.”

McMahon said the most important investment a city can make in order to grow is in education. Because automation displaces people from jobs faster than public policy can accommodate, cities must adapt to this changing dynamic. Educational institutions, cities, and the growing industries within cities need to collaborate in order to grow intelligently and successfully.

Tom Murphy, former mayor of Pittsburgh and ULI senior resident fellow, Joseph C. Canizaro/Klingbeil Family Chair for Urban Development, and Ed McMahon, ULI senior resident fellow, Charles E. Fraser Chair for Sustainable Development and Environmental Policy, speaking at the 2019 ULI Spring Meeting in Nashville.

To attract and keep talent, cities must demonstrate that they also can provide homegrown talent that matches up with their burgeoning industries. “If I’m investing in a development, I’m going to want to know where the talent is,” said Murphy. “I think we’re going to see companies moving into downtowns to chase talent, and the trend is going to accelerate.”

Ralph Boyd, ULI senior resident leadership fellow, moderated the session. In an interview, Boyd noted, “This is an alignment issue. This is looking down from 100,000 feet and seeing all the elements and how they fit into a city’s vision. From an overarching perspective, it’s this concept that growth has to be thought through with all of the relevant stakeholders—from the folks that have the capital, to government leaders, to civic folks.

“There has got to be some theme to the development so there is sufficient alignment so you don’t have elements working at cross purposes—[so that] you’re not pursuing particular growth goals that can’t be capitalized or sustained over time, and you don’t have a lot of unintended adverse consequences in pursuing something you haven’t thought through in a more holistic way.”