“Eds and Meds” and “Walkability” Are Not Always the Right Answer to Economic Development

6.20.2013 | In what topic would you associate Buffalo, NY, and Orlando, FL? Go ahead; we’ll give you a few minutes.

In “Homogenized Diversity: Economic Visions in the Great Recession,” BRR members Margaret Cowell, of Virginia Tech (Alexandria), Juliet Gainsborough, of Bentley University in South Waltham, Mass., and Kate Lowe, of the University of New Orleans, compare and contrast Buffalo and Orlando against the backdrop of the increasingly accepted idea “that the resilient region of the future is an economically diverse one.”  Looking at how the two cities fared in the recent recession, the story they uncover raises some questions about the popular “eds and meds” and “walkable cities” approaches.

The meta differences in the two metros are significant: Buffalo (which we’ve previously discussed), whose manufacturing base was clobbered by the de-industrialization of the 1970s and 1980s, ironically fared relatively better in the Great Recession than Orlando, whose tourism-fuelled economy and population had exploded since 1965, when Walt Disney chose its swamps over St. Louis for Disney World, and 1971, when the mega-park opened.

Even so, and despite equally sharp differences in both the short- and long-term challenges the metro regions face, the authors note that the two “approach the issue of economic diversification in surprisingly similar ways.” Notably, they both recognize the need for economic diversification in the first place, and they both focus on life and medical sciences as areas for economic growth. They also both focus on land use planning that stresses the more urbanist/New Urbanist desire for walkability and mixed-use communities.

Ironically, the cities’ similar approaches raise the authors’ concern that such “homogenized diversity” “may not be sensitive to existing regional morphologies, to the nuances of a region’s built environment, or to existing regional capital.”

In Buffalo, the authors note, abandoned and vacant properties have left neighborhoods struggling even near that city’s medical corridor and targeted strategic investment zones. In Orlando,

existing land use patterns mean that even if they are able to realize their vision of a “medical city” that includes significant biomedical industry as well as housing built on new urbanism principles, the “medical city” itself will be disconnected from other parts of the region.


Moreover, both regions’ focus on attracting high-skilled workers for the biomedical and life sciences sector basically ignores the fact that the current or recent workforce is composed in significant part by low-skill laborers working in manufacturing (Buffalo) or service workers in the tourism industry (Orlando). Neither existing employment base suggests an easy or natural transition to the knowledge and biomedical economies that both aspire to. Much of the existing workforce in these regions will likely require concentrated training and re-tooling efforts in order to be employed within these sectors.

That two such divergent cities came to the same conclusion “suggests the emergence of a new paradigm.” Yet, they caution, when everyone chases the same prize, some will lose. Regions should think very carefully about all available options and keep an eye on what other regions are pursuing.

In creating regional resilience and economic development strategies, leadership matters. Here, too, Buffalo and Orlando exhibit divergence rather than convergence.

One of the main differences, however, is the composition of actors involved in the shaping and execution of these strategies and visions in both regions. In the case of Buffalo, much of the regional visioning and policy recommendations have come from the university and public sector leadership, some from traditional growth coalition members, and some from not-so-traditional grassroots organizers. In contrast, in Orlando, the actors most involved in regional visioning and planning are mainly the traditional pro-growth actors.

I suspect that difference in regional voices also echoes in the Lowe-Gainsborough-Reckow paper’s look at Orlando and Miami, and the competition for federal transit funding, which we reviewed on June 14.

Looking at the decades ahead, however, I think Orlando has one, perhaps insurmountable challenge to its regional resilience that Buffalo doesn’t: Global warming and rising sea levels.

The Orlando Sentinel’s map of Florida’s future paints a bleak picture. (From the home page, click “The Big Picture” and then “Flooding Florida” underneath the spinning globe.) Unlike Miami-Dade County — which disappears almost entirely with even a 1-meter rise in sea levels — and Tampa Bay, Orlando is far enough inland to avoid being drowned, but the collateral consequences of higher ocean levels will no doubt reach inland.

This is the latest in our series looking at working papers presented by BRR Network colleagues at the closed-door symposium at the Urban Institute on May 31 (full list of papers here).


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