Friday, September 21, 2012

The Kalamazoo Promise and Bridging Community and Economic Development

The New York Times Magazine recently had a great piece looking at the Kalamazoo Promise, a program that will pay for the college educations of students from Kalamazoo, MI that attend schools in the state. The schools include both community colleges and four year institutions. It's a blanket promise so there are no means tests for income, academic performance, or even criminal records. Aside from the emotional impact of the piece, it is a mini-case study in a rather bold experiment on an explicit human capital based economic development scheme. I just wanted to share a few thoughts/observations on this kind of a program and some of the more interesting notes in the article that folks may have skimmed over.

I think the most striking aspect of the Promise to me, from a public administration or regional economic viewpoint, is how filling a major gap in funding support for individuals can allow for the building of a deep strategy. We take it for granted that resources are scarce, even moreso in these times of intense austerity, and I don't know if we ever seriously examine how scarcity limits us from making interventions or moderates expectations. It's fascinating to me how the entire school system, and community, is able to rally around an idea of students attending some kind of college and to build from that. For example, the middle school system was encouraged to reform its curriculum to refocus on core standards while allowing for more individual student attention. One can argue that the system should have done this anyway given its poor rankings in the state, but something like the promise gives everyone, from teachers to administrators to school board members, to take seriously the idea that every student can go to college and should be prepared for a college education. Simply, if you have an institutional or organizational expectation that your students will not go to college (for whatever reason you choose to believe whether that be poverty, race etc...) then there will be extreme amounts of friction from different parties about best strategies and where to go. But the guaranteed funding of these students gives this school district a unified goal to work themselves around and they focus on a core mission.

It would be an interesting set of case studies to see if you would get similar systemic cooperation around a clearly stated goal if there were, essentially, a lack of scarcity at one point. Does the recognition or even perception of scarcity encourage political infighting and institutional inertia? I don't know the literature but in Kalamazoo it seems that the promise has acted as a rallying point that everyone can get behind and not necessarily having to worry about what happens to your students after they graduate may allow school systems to focus on just providing the best education they can to their students. This is idle speculation, but I think it offers some fascinating questions in administration, management, and education.

The second major focus for me is in examining the promise as an anti-poverty program. Those of you are out there who are poverty specialists or who have done a lot of work with low-income groups may disagree with this assertions, but, at least in the article, their are multiple students that are highlighted as saying their primary impediment to pursuing a college education was financial.We often forget that college is a HUGE financial impediment and simply instructing students to accrue more debt through student loans can not only be counterproductive and harmful but provide an extra barrier as the process for getting loans can be complex, time consuming, and intimidating. While the students have to pay for their own room and board, a not inconsequential amount for most families, the promise removes a rather large barrier to higher education.

While this seems to be an anti-poverty program, it is equally interesting that it is not presented as such to the public.The article highlights how the program has spurred an entire city-wide effort at getting these students into college. This includes advocating for access to better housing and nutrition so kids can live in healthy environments and focus in school and the adoption of universal Pre-K programs. These are classic community development and poverty alleviation type interventions but it is couched in this message of increasing human capital and economic development. It's a bit disappointing that even in area like Kalamazoo that is intimately aware of the burdens that poverty places upon individuals and communities that one cannot rally the community around an explicit message of poverty alleviation or to embed ideas of economic development as explicitly including poverty alleviation goals and approaches. This divorce of issues of poverty from a lot of mainstream commentary and thinking of economic development is a HUGE gap and only reinforces the false dichotomy that separates community development folks from "traditional" economic development folks.

I think this example in Kalamazoo demonstrates how economic developers need to be more active in advocating for poverty alleviation programs and tying them explicitly to economic development goals. The evidence is still out there as to whether this approach will bolster Kalamazoo's economy, but if it does prove successful, then I pray that the economic development community, including urban economists and regional scientists, pay close attention and find more ways to study the economic and social dynamics and poverty and different ways that we can attack them while pursuing greater economic development goals. And we must also convince business leaders, at all scales and sizes, that poverty alleviation programs like affordable housing and nutrition programs are legitimate community and economic investments. This is doubly so in areas that are distressed like many areas of the Rust Belt. This has the potential to usher in a new era of politics and approaches to regional economic development and community development. I can't wait to see the results.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Retreat day 2

Covered a lot of stuff today. The first part of the morning was devoted to questions covering different aspects of research, from the process and strategy of publishing to some tiny attempts to get us all to think in a multidisciplinary fashion. It was all fairly boilerplate stuff that I've heard or been through since I've been at Portland State and affiliated with the IGERT. It was straight...no real issues.

The second part of the day was devoted to a discussion of the challenges of actually working on complex/wicked problems in a multi or transdisciplinary approach. This ended up being a much more wide ranging and theoretically interesting part of the day. The first part of the exercise was going over again what wicked/complex problems are. We are a room full of people that have either worked as planners, ecologists, teachers, or environmentally-oriented scientists so we were all aware of what wicked problems are and some basic characteristics of them.

Where the conversation became interesting is in discussing solutions to wicked problems. My deconstructionist-oriented folks will already take issue with the language of assuming that there are actually solutions to wicked problems. This was something that was never really touched upon the entire day- the assumption that there actually is a solution or a suite of solutions. Correct me if need be, but part of my understanding of complexity theory or socioecological resilience thinking is that we recognize these systems to be complex and adaptive and constantly changing. The idea that there is a single solution or suite of explicit solutions rests upon a static understanding of the issue as opposed to saying these are ways we can adapt to particular situations or offer a series of approaches to address the most extreme problems associated with a particular complex problem. A minor theoretical wrinkle, but one I noted fully recognizing that I may be misreading what little bit of resilience theory I've read or misunderstanding what my colleagues meant by "solution".

What was more interesting was a continuation and partial resolution of a classic problem in planning- proper scale at which to intervene. As a bunch of ostensibly progressive planners, when asked how to approach solutions to these wicked problems we all faithfully talked about seeking out and listening to stakeholders and trying to be as inclusive as possible while one of our colleagues, playing devil's advocate, called for a more traditional, "authoritative" approach to problem solving. Of course, the answer lies somewhere in between. What we were seeing was a battle over appropriate scale. Purcell has a great piece on the local trap and not attributing any particular kind of normative value or preference for a particular scale, the local, regional, or greater.

But what jumped out to me, and this is why I will start advocating that we read more planning theory as a program, is that we seem to have a less nuanced, potentially arrogant view on the potential of planning and planners or scientists to solve these problems and their ability to convince people of the proper path. These are natural assumptions given the way we are often trained as practitioners but we know that they have often failed or have lead to some disastrous results. I've found the writing of James Scott in Seeing Like A State to be illuminating in pinpointing the weaknesses and gaps that our technical and scientific forays often miss or deliberately pave over. There was this constant turnaround during the discussion to collecting data and setting up models without a recognition that such collection could miss vital aspects of the lived experience of an area. This holds for social interventions as well as ecological/scientific. The collection of data is largely an exercise of exclusivity. It has to be. But what we find to be important, useful etc rests upon our own feelings, politics, and technology. In this sense, we need to be more careful in assuming that we can accurately portray a particular region, community, ecosystem, but there was not a strong warning on this. Something to consider and remember.

Finally, there was a constant reference to consensus and dialogue and problem solving through consensus that rubbed me the wrong way. Purcell has another piece on the weaknesses of communicative planning  as a way to challenge neoliberal development schemes and instead argues that it can actually legitimate and obscure existing power imbalances. Having been witness to and read many case studies of planning issues and projects, I'm inclined to agree that this idea of consensus needs a lot of working over. Our relationships with others and certainly those between competing social groups is much more agonistic than communicative and consensus oriented planners would have us to believe and we also need to be more honest by the fact that more often than not those with the most power end up getting the vast majority of what they wanted, regardless. Our insistence on not recognizing this and continuing to push this idea of consensus as a means of problem solving I think leads us down already well worn paths.

Anyways, enough of that for now. I may have something more later. If not, I'll be here tomorrow. Keep it surly, y'all.

Monday, September 10, 2012

IGERT Retreat Day 1 Reflections

I'm here at Menucha, a Presbyterian retreat, for my IGERT week-long retreat. Just got introduced to the  second cohort. Like the first-year cohort that I've spend the lion's share of my time with this group is filled with folks with  a lot of experience and educational backgrounds. Some truly heavy hitters are here and that's inspiring from an academic point of view, but also for the program, as a whole. It means that Portland State is getting around and this program has the ability to pull in competitive folks.

Unsurprisingly, most of the day was dedicated to introduction and a three-hour session talking about team building and dynamics. It was marginally useful, good to hear some stuff, but, you know, it's still a three hour session on team building. Although, there were no trust falls or rope course type stuff...so...little blessings. Although, there was a bit of a dustup when our lecturer started to discuss the pitfalls of putting major decisions to a vote and gave us advice on what topics are appropriate for votes (trivial things with relatively few options, btw). Doug, one of the cohort, asked what an alternative decisionmaking process would be and our lecturer didn't really give an adequate answer. At least not one I could understand. It was basically a call for some kind of general consensus that occurs when your group has talked all possible options to death and you end up going with something either out of exhaustion, time restraints, or individual stubbornness. Which is, of course, what happens when you depend on consensus based decision tools. You have all of the risks of deliberative democratic techniques that have plagued communicative and democratic theorists for years.

I mentioned how this was kind of a basic weakness in the approach and the issue, appropriately, was unresolved and we left with a consensus. A real teachable moment, actually. At least from a planning theoretical perspective.

So...reflections from first day thus far...everyone should be required to read more planning theory. And can we finally bury communicative planning?

As always, keep it surly. Til tomorrow.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Dissertation/project thoughts/musings

I'm back in sunny Portland, OR and getting ready to start year 2 of this phd. So, like any diligent grad student I am already behind on work and projects. Instead of working on those, though, I'm going to follow in the grand tradition of phd students everywhere and think about other projects!! As always, comment as you will...could use the feedback.

Ecosystem Services and Econ Dev

My current obsession is thinking about sustainable urban development, ecosystem services, and economic development. Big, I know, but bear with me. Specifically, I'm trying to think about ways one can link ecosystem services or ecologically-centered development approaches with economic development...specifically, I'm thinking about attacking water quality issues through urban greening projects. There is a growing body of work trying to better tie ecological indicators and values into input-output analysis to assist in better calculating the economic impacts of our natural capital. I haven't read deeply into this work yet, but the Europeans seem to be diving into it. It would be interesting to see if I could adopt some of that work and apply it on a city or regional scale and combine it with economic development planning.

There's a lot here that needs to be fleshed out in terms of theory, methods, finding an appropriate case...but we could potentially expand the scope of economic development planning and environmental planning by adding in ecological benefits to induced economic impacts. Also, a recent paper in Marine Policy by Edwards et al performs an economic impact analysis of coastal restoration projects using ARRA (Obama Stimulus) money and found that for every million dollars invested in "blue infrastructure" 17 direct jobs were produced. This did not include indirect and induced jobs nor did it include long term benefits of such restoration like improved fisheries for commercial fishing, tourism, or water filtration.

The point is that in terms of infrastructure spending, blue infrastructure spending seems to be incredibly effective compared to other infrastructure projects that also have direct job counts like mass transit, road repair, or gas pipeline construction.There is definitely something here in terms of positive real economic development impacts in investing in our environment. What are some ways that this could apply in economic development and urban development strategies? This is what I'm musing on, currently.

Leave some comments if you have any thoughts, observations or what have you.

And in honor of @tnopper (a great follow, btw) I'm gonna try out a tagline for my posts now...so, without further delay, here it is-- Keep it surly. I'm out.