What Can City Leaders Do To Grow A City? Not Much
Wendell Cox recently wrote a paper for the Show Me Institute titled, “Kansas City—Genuinely World Class: A Competitive Analysis.” In it, Cox assesses our economic strengths and weaknesses so that we can develop better public policy.
In a recent interview on Missouri Viewpoints, Cox said
I’m a bit of a skeptic on how much difference it makes to have a great economic development department. People move where housing is affordable; where life is good—livable communities. And by livable I mean low cost of living, good traffic, a place where you can raise your family from before you have children to the point where you have children and move later.
This may be disheartening to policy wonks and anyone working in the economic development field, but Cox is not alone. In 2014, economist Enrico Moretti gave an interview to National Public Radio where he said the same thing about cities that had become innovation centers:
"[Interviewer] This is the unsettling part of your book: How do cities replicate these innovative job clusters?
"[Moretti] It's very tough, because if you look historically where the innovation clusters are located, almost none of them [were] created by some deliberate, explicit policy. It's really hard to engineer an innovation cluster. We talk about Seattle, but if you look at a lot of the clusters, they were all born in very random, often serendipitous, ways. So it's really hard for policymakers to engineer from scratch."
This is important because Kansas City leaders are already on the record talking about how they want to build a city for the future. But how likely is it that city officials will be able to legislate into reality an as-yet-imaginary Kansas City technology district. The takeaway from Cox’s research is that policymakers ought to understand Kansas City’s strengths and build on them rather than just imitate what other cities are doing.