Economic development should focus on people, not places

What does economic development mean?

The term is certainly common enough that everyone has heard it, but when asked to define economic development, I’m willing to bet that most people will give different answers.

Often, we speak of economic development of place. We speak of Schenectady’s downtown being in a Renaissance with new buildings, refurbished streetscapes, new companies, and new restaurants turning downtown around. Downtown is showing new signs of life.

But downtown is not a person. It has no well being, no soul. It matters not to downtown if a new business moves in, nor if the buildings are collapsing. Therefore, money spent to make downtown a nicer place is wasted money.

So, if investing in a place is not worthwhile, then what is? How should we define economic development?

First we must give some thought to why we think investing in a place is worthwhile. The most obvious reason is that we take pride in showing off our city to the word, and an attractive looking downtown is one way to do it. A nice looking community engenders a sense of community pride, while a decaying building evokes feelings of regret and worry about things falling apart.

At its base, investing in a shiny new downtown makes us feel good. But is that the best use of our money?

Instead of focusing on development of place,  we should focus on development of people. When we change the focus away from place to people, new development gets scrutinized differently. We should be asking, “how does this investment improve the quality of life of existing residents?” or “Is there a more effective use of the money to improve residential quality of life?”

Changing the paradigm away from place and towards people is important because people are what matter. It is people’s lives that should be improved with economic development, not places.

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