Thoughtful Leadership Is the First Step Toward Equitable Smart Cities

Smart city solutions could be contributing to the digital divide. Local and conscious solutions can bring equity back in focus.

Great cities do not rise from a blank slate.

When cities succeed, they do so by using specific, place-based assets to build on what is special about the community — rather than simply seeking to recreate success from elsewhere.

With more cities focusing on developing strong tech ecosystems, equity and inclusion are growing into even more pressing issues. Economic success should always be celebrated, but rapid growth also can lead to rising housing costs, displacement and prosperity that is not as broadly felt by all community members.

In order to help city leaders face these challenges, the National League of Cities authored a new report, "The Future of Equity in Cities," which seeks to forecast the opportunities and challenges that exist not just today, but in the decades to come. Through an analysis of long-range planning, on-the-ground programming for inclusive economic growth and upcoming public safety challenges, this report presents an examination of equity that will guide cities far into the future.

The analysis includes the rapid changes that we are observing in the mobility environment. Not long ago, autonomous vehicles were the stuff of science fiction. Now, they traverse our nation's roads. Likewise, the idea of underground vacuum tubes for train transportation has progressed from fantasy to fact. Now this space is rapidly changing — and cities are helping usher this future forward.

But even as mobility is rapidly changing, many cities have accounted for these new cognitive technologies in their long-range transportation plans. Out of the 50 largest U.S. cities, 82 percent lay out explicit intentions or strategy around intelligent transportation system investment, according to the NLC report. A large percentage of cities have a complete streets policy (84 percent) and mention equity in their plans (80 percent).

Of those cities, 38 percent mention autonomous vehicles in their plans, while 30 percent of cities address the impact of transportation network companies, such as ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft.

The data tells the story, but the full picture is driven by all of us.

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New Capabilities Meet New City Concerns

With all of the exciting technological advances come a bevy of new questions about equity. Will the technologically-driven city and mobility network of the future serve everyone? Will individuals have digital autonomy? How will we protect privacy? As we experience this monumental transition, how do we ensure that low-income communities and communities of color are not left further behind?

Mobility is critical to the growth of our cities and the people that live in our communities. Where an individual goes, how they get there, and the resources they can access have the potential to influence nearly every other element of their lives. As mobility and adequate infrastructure have become more widely regarded as essential civil rights — a perspective central to inclusion and critical to individuals' capacity to prosper in the modern-day economy — they have simultaneously been impacted by the rise of technological forces.

Access — who has it, and how it is controlled — is a fundamental concern with the rise of new mobility schemes from the furtherance of ride-hailing systems to fully autonomous privately-owned fleets of vehicles and buses. We can imagine a not-too-distant future in which every consumer product and piece of infrastructure increasingly has the ability to sense surrounding stimuli, communicate with other devices and people, and draw on the computing and storage power of the cloud. However, along with all of these exciting advances come a bevy of new questions about equity.

Since 2000, minority populations have accounted for 98 percent of the growth in the 100 largest cities, according to a Brookings Institution analysis of the 2011-2015 American Community Survey. Despite this increased diversity in cities, racial segregation has only moderately declined. Dominantly white neighborhoods in cities were 79 percent white in 2000 and 72 percent white in 2015, despite the overall white population in cities having dropped from 64 percent to 56 percent during the same period, according to the analysis. For neighborhoods outside of large metropolitan areas, this reduction was even smaller, from 84 percent to 80 percent. As a nation, higher birth rates for racial minorities are projected to make the aggregate minority population a majority of the country by 2043.

In the majority of cities, the fastest growing employment sectors are high-skill and high wage, according to the NLC report, but unfortunately these sectors are not likely to add the same number of aggregate jobs as much larger and lower-skilled sectors like retail, food service, and office and administration. This spatial mismatch of employment and wages will only be amplified by future growth trends in cities and will reinforce inequities. It is imperative that cities work to counteract these trends now.

Local Solutions Take Steps Toward Tackling Equity Challenges

In Houston, like many successful larger cities, these trends are acutely felt. In response to many of these community challenges, BakerRipley (previously Neighborhood Centers) partners with other local service providers to offer cradle-to-career services focused on economic access. The organization has grown to become the largest nonprofit human services provider in Texas, operating 75 service centers in the Houston area.

In 2010, the first federal Promise Neighborhood planning grant in Houston was awarded to BakerRipley to develop the Gulfton Promise Neighborhood, a center in Houston's most densely populated and underserved neighborhood. It now hosts a charter school, adult education, citizenship classes, expanded health services, an opportunity center for financial education and other community spaces.

These types of local solutions are critical as cities continue to rise in stature and wealth. The 10 largest cities in America already account for just over $4 trillion in consumption, and income inequality and wealth gaps are at outsized levels, with the richest 0.1 percent holding the same amount of wealth as the bottom 90 percent. And when examined through a racial equity lens, the disparities become even starker: On average, white families have six times the wealth of African American and Hispanic families.

This is where we are now. And while the current policy environment at the national level may not be focused on directly alleviating these inequities — cities are.

Our nation's cities cannot only be defined by the growth of the tech and the creative sectors. Instead, we must act deliberately for growth of any kind to be truly sustainable. As the tide of innovation in cities rises, local leaders must work assiduously to lift all boats by planning for inclusive economic development.

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Mar 12 2018