Building inclusive and sustainable city economies: learning with Newcastle, Pittsburgh, and Saint-Étienne

Introduction and background

Building more inclusive and sustainable city economies is a priority for politicians and public policymakers in the contemporary era of rising social and geographical inequalities. While cities are seen as dynamic and productive engines of their national economies, their potential benefits are not equally shared nor accessible to their residents. Generating and spreading opportunity more widely is central to ensuring people and places are not ‘left behind’ by their city economies.

A workshop was organised by CURDS and Insights North East to bring together academics and policymakers from Newcastle (UK), Pittsburgh (USA) and Saint-Étienne (France) to share their ideas, innovations, and practices in building inclusive and sustainable economies in cities[1]. The challenges are particularly difficult in these post-industrial cities undergoing continued transition and trying to generate new pathways to urban prosperity for more people and places. This policy briefing summarises the ten key learning points from the presentations and discussion in the workshop.

[1] The workshop was organised by CURDS and Insights North East and held at Newcastle University on 9 and 10 March 2023 supported by the EU ERASMUS+ TPEC Jean Monnet Network project. Presentations from the workshop are available at: Building inclusive and sustainable city economies – Centre for Urban and Regional Development Studies – Newcastle University.

#1 Priority action now: the status quo is not an option

Inequalities act as a drag on economic growth and generate instability. Constrained life chances and wellbeing fuel feelings of injustice, insecurity, and discontent at the lack of opportunities, stoking populist backlash at the ballot box. Persistent economic challenges in some deindustrialised places span generations. A polycrisis of disruptive change, uncertainty, and volatility has been ongoing since the 2008 crash, with the COVID-19 pandemic and acute climate crisis making the situation much harder to address. Persistent inequalities not only affect the resilience of communities to weather emergent economic shocks, but also influence the ability of anchor institutions to respond as they face competing demands and cuts to funding. But despite these challenges, there is a moral, economic, and political imperative to address growing social and spatial inequalities to shape more inclusive outcomes.

Key questions:

  • How do we develop and build support for intentional local strategies for change?
  • How do we provide purposive and thoughtful local approaches to address inequality?
  • How do we show that ‘but for us,’ these issues would be absent from local public policy?
  • In what ways can progress be made in changing the national political economy to deal with structural issues that may not find resolution in place?

#2 Recognise, organise, and mobilise around shared agendas and goals

Ideas and models for more inclusive and sustainable city economies often have much in common. International agendas on ‘more and better jobs’ and ‘building back better’ share an emphasis on equality and fairness. Yet issues remain about how to work with and change the economic system and improve inclusion and sustainability. Articulating a shared agenda or ‘moral floor’ helps to set common goals and a direction which can inform strategy, policy and decision-making. Constructing values-based and positive narratives and stories about what kind of city people want to live, learn, play and work in can help. Examples of values include equality, equity/fairness, opportunity, family, security, mobility, and participation.

Key questions:

  • What is meant locally by an inclusive and sustainable city economy?
  • What values and principles can we use to shape our shared agendas and goals?
  • How do we shape local opportunity structures for more people such as pathways to good jobs for those previously excluded?
  • How might such structures differ in the context of economic stagnation or decline as political actors struggle to ‘buy-in’ without demonstrable wins?

#3 Consider equity for whom?

Inequalities manifest between people and places and are made more complex and difficult to address by the diversity and dynamism of cities. People in places have various axes of social and economic difference, status and power which intersect in multiple ways. Ways of responding to these inequalities and differences reflect a city’s underlying values. One progressive approach is to reimagine ‘burdens’ as assets. Some cities in France, for example, have managed migration in ways which balance service provision which supports new arrivals with existing residents by setting up fora to deliberate, discuss and find local ways to answer the question, ‘equity for whom?’ This approach accounts for psychic dimensions to inclusion that are difficult to measure but have real consequences for lived experiences of place and processes, such as how people are situated within and able to navigate welfare and employment systems and policies.

Key questions:

  • Equity for whom? Who is currently included and excluded from opportunities?
  • How are opportunities evaluated and accessed by different groups?
  • How do we avoid conflating the interests of different groups and/or places in the city?
  • Where are the meaningful channels for representation and voice?
  • What are the broader implications of our choices (through our supply chains, taking account of sustainability and the planetary impact of our policies)?

#4 ‘Pick and mix’ ideas to tailor policies to local circumstances

A diverse range of ideas and models offer alternative approaches to city development, including community wealth building, doughnut economics and foundational economy. A pragmatic ‘shared ingredients’ approach can be helpful as elements of approaches and solutions may work across multiple places, but with different configurations which can be tailored to local circumstances. Examples include identifying principles and a framework (e.g., for jobs, business growth and community wealth) to guide action and navigate multiple ideas.

Key questions:

  • Which ideas and models are appropriate for your place?
  • Does a ‘pick and mix’ approach work?What are the benefits of more holistic approaches?
  • How can we utilise a suitable mix of short, medium, and longer-term policies?

#5 Innovate with conventional and alternative approaches

Inclusive and sustainable growth can be pursued using conventional approaches within the existing economic system and by considering alternative approaches that seek to challenge and/or change the economic system. Both approaches have contradictions as well as complementarities. There is potential to connect conventional strategies on economic growth, productivity, and innovation with alternatives such as adopting the ‘Beyond GDP’ perspective of wellbeing economics. Example responses include bringing equity into conversations about city policies, synthesising and adapting international learning and local innovation, especially in adverse and unsupportive national settings.

Key questions:

  • How do we progress inclusion and sustainability with low growth or stagnation?
  • How can we make incremental tweaks to the development model to prepare the ground for a longer-term overhaul?
  • Are local communities wanting or ready for fundamental changes in existing development models?
  • Can symbiotic strategies in which policies offer simultaneous benefits to economic growth and social welfare improvements provide a focus?

#6 Work with city people and places

Economic growth is perceived as abstract and disconnected from lived experience in in cities. People often focus on material and tangible improvements in their lives and value having their voice listened to and acted upon. Public participation should involve meaningfully asking people want they want rather than assuming it or consulting on developments that are happening anyway. Establishing and/or rebuilding channels of public engagement are needed to reduce the disconnections between politicians and citizens and show that more inclusive decision-making can be better. This requires buy-in from technocrats, policymakers, and citizens. Examples include setting up citizens’ assemblies to connect representative and participatory forms of democracy and enabling dialogue and university community engagement centres directly to collaborate with people in disadvantaged places in cities. Disadvantaged individuals do not always have the solutions to hand, and so a level of honesty and leadership is required to ensure voice and representation is meaningful and actionable.

Key questions:

  • How do communities currently name and evidence their needs?
  • How can we listen and act on community claims in more inclusive ways?
  • How can we develop potential solutions and deal with demands that may not be inclusive and/or sustainable?
  • What institutional forms and resources are needed to enable such working?

#7 Work together

Co-ordinating distributed local knowledge and power is a fundamental challenge. Building inclusive and sustainable city economies is a multi-faceted, long-term challenge – too big for any single group or institution to address on its own. Coordinating the powers and resources of local, regional and national partners (public, private, and civic) is needed to progress agendas for change. For anchor institutions to collaborate with partners, they need to know their role and understand where their work meets those of their partners. Some institutions will have more ‘buy-in’ and will be more experienced at joint-working than others. Enduring partnerships have a ‘muscle memory’ so working consistently is important to progress agendas effectively.

Key questions:

  • What needs to be done at what geographical scale(s), especially in relation to wider public service infrastructure provision?
  • How do we build alliances between different geographical levels and places?
  • Who else is acting upon partner institutions and communities to enable and constrain possibilities?

#8 Track how you’re doing

Cities need to know how they are doing in their journey towards more inclusive and sustainable economies. Indicators and measurement are key to make visible what are often longstanding and persistent issues with same people, same places, and same communities. Moving away from one-dimensional headline indicators to capture local granularity is key. New forms of data, visualisation and mapping are useful to render the issues accessible to wider audiences and to help articulate and represent shared narratives of ‘what kind of city and for whom?’ Tracking emergent practices as well as outcomes can help find direction. Examples include using data to underpin authentic and shared stories of the opportunities and challenges in cities rather than tactical and selective use of information to present either unrealistically sunny or gloomy pictures. Selecting peer comparators that match city ambitions and aspirations can be helpful.

Key questions:

  • How are we monitoring, measuring and reflecting upon ‘progress’ towards our shared goals? Is this reflected in how resources are currently distributed?
  • Are existing indicators and composite dashboards helpful?
  • How do we introduce new and/or uncomfortable data that challenges existing city strategies and policies?
  • Are there new methods and data to capture and express the emotions and feelings of belonging and attachment to place by city people?

#9 Experiment, monitor and evaluate

There is no single blueprint or one-size-fits all approach to more inclusive and sustainable city economies. Mixed outcomes are typical and local context matters. We need to consider if the aims are to tweak existing arrangements or a complete overhaul, and to decide which are the most relevant goals for the current context. Local experiments are critical, but they need monitoring, scaling and evaluation to assess their effectiveness. Examples include connecting interventions on childcare, housing instability and mobility to support people into work and/or training. Public policy experiments can be regarded as too risky and difficult to undertake amidst austerity and scarce resources.

Key questions:

  • How do we identify appropriate indicators and data sources?
  • What monitoring and evaluation frameworks work across multiple dimensions (economic, social, environmental)?
  • How do we build sustained capacity and contingency to undertake research, design, monitoring and evaluation that helps cities deal with uncertainty, volatility and disruption?

#10 Map Stories and Brand Carefully

The stories cities tell about themselves reflect their history and intentions. Anchor institutions, especially public authorities may work together to construct a shared ambition, but at heart is a desire to help residents live a good life. But what does this mean for the people who live in the city? Different values and principles direct us to find what is attractive about the city and shapes the place we want to become. Can all communities cohere around these values and aspirations? How do we build diverse perspectives so that these are inclusive? The shared values and principles that form the aspiration of the city and the story that it tells reflects its branding activity but also its performative policymaking. Comparisons with similar cities – such as statistical neighbours with similar socio-economic profiles – can position cities according to peer ambition, benchmarking to places you aspire to be. This can help shift the focus from existing constraints to a new vision of place. An example is adopting the outlook of more diverse cities and promoting an offer of sanctuary to others. Data visualisation is a useful tool for exploring and rethinking our conceptions of place, bringing impetus to new ideas and branding places in new ways. In deindustrialised ‘left behind places’, it is important to connect with realities of inequalities, notice and cultivate improvements, but make clear ‘we are not done.’

Key questions:

  • How can we construct authentic and meaningful stories about our cities?
  • What principles and values can a city cohere around that can form the basis of appropriate branding?
  • What are attitudes to inclusion in the city?
  • How do we actively perform the values we believe or wish the city to have?