A Path to Equitable City Development

Bloomberg Harvard Student Fellows help cities use data to understand the intersection of equity and economic development.

Published May 14, 2021


The past year has served as an unprecedented challenge for city leaders. As COVID-19 spread to nearly every corner of the globe, cities, with their dense concentrations of people and economic activity, have suffered through surging infection rates triggering lockdowns, which intended to slow the spread of the virus also triggered a spike in unemployment and massive financial hardship. And as cities were in the midst of combatting these dueling public health and economic crisis, here in the United States, scores of cities were saw racial justice protests following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis, Minnesota police last summer, which sparked a nationwide reckoning on race relations.


Now, with vaccination rates largely slowing the spread of COVID, city leaders are shifting their attention to restarting their economies and tackling the economic wreckage wrought by the pandemic. As they begin working on post-pandemic recovery plans, a growing chorus of voices is arguing that cities must confront head on the inequities and injustices laid bare by COVID and racial justice protests. 


To help mayors and senior city officials think about how to promote a more inclusive equitable growth model, the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative produced the City Leader Guide on Equitable Economic Development, a roadmap for cities to shape their economies in a more strategic way and better uphold equity, inclusion, and racial justice. The guide, under development by the Initiative before the pandemic, was “created because a growing number of mayors understand the importance of pursuing inclusive and equitable development, as they acknowledge the failings of an economic system that leaves entire communities behind,” said LaChaun Banks, one of the co-authors of the guide and the Ash Center’s director of diversity, equity, and inclusion.


Rather than serving as a whitepaper or best practices toolkit, the guide contains several analytic tools for city leaders to help diagnose and remedy particular problems in their cities. Specifically, city leaders are taught how to examine data, make informed process decisions, as well as navigate stakeholder engagement and implementation challenges that often go hand in hand when launching new economic development strategies. “We wanted to make sure city leaders were looking at the right data and making decisions based on a clearer understanding of the economic conditions in their cities,” said Banks.


This winter, the Bloomberg Harvard initiative worked with student fellows Abigail Daniels and Will Sternlicht to help pilot the implementation of the guide. Daniels and Sternlicht worked with the cities of Compton, California and Elyria, Ohio to help collect data on each city’s economic status and the readiness of the city to tackle equity challenges, and ultimately make recommendations on specific policies and programs tailored to each city.


“The city leader guide was instrumental in being able to get the [relevant] data and to make it useful,” said Daniels, a Harvard College senior who worked with Compton, California mayor Aja Brown on the city’s equitable development strategy. “It helped me determine what and where data is accessible and even where gaps exist.” Daniels learned first-hand that there were holes in the city’s data that prevented it from developing a more holistic picture Compton’s current economic indicators. "We worked to answer core questions like, 'who are the impacted employers and businesses?' as well as, 'what resources does the city of Compton itself have to leverage?'”


"One of the things that city guide makes very clear is that you can't improve what you can't measure"


Across the country in northern Ohio, economic development was a key issue for Elyria mayor Frank Whitfield when he was sworn into office just months before the pandemic unfolded. The city of 54,000 located to the west of Cleveland, like many others in the region has been working to retain its industrial and manufacturing base while at the same time attracting new knowledge economy employers. For Sternlicht, a dual degree MPP/MBA candidate at HKS and HBS, the City Guide was an essential tool for analyzing Elyria’s economic development work “I don't think I could have done the work I was doing without it, especially during COVID.” Sternlicht used the guide as a reference point for reviewing and providing feedback for the city’s existing economic development plan. “While Elyria’s economic development plan had numbers before I arrived, it [the guide] provided a more qualitative overview.” Much of Sternlicht’s work centered around gathering data to fill in the quantitative gaps in Elyria’s existing economic development efforts. “One of the things that city guide makes very clear is that you can't improve what you can't measure.”


Back in Compton, Daniels’s work on using the city guide to strengthen the city’s data collection practices was essential in helping to develop the city’s forthcoming data hub, a publicly accessible tool open to businesses, researchers, and residents that will make display progress on key development metrics. “The hub was a lot of work, and it was worth every single moment because it is a living document. It’s not just data, it's also trends. It gives great insight into how far the city has come.” For Daniels, making that data available and accessible is key, “I think that that's really important for the people of Compton to be able to assess – how far they've come and where they're going, and is that the direction that they want to go in.”