Interview with Steven Pedigo on City Branding, Economic Development and Urban Sustainability

Steven Pedigo, Director of the NYU Schack Institute Urban Lab, in this interview discusses city branding, real estate, economic development, talent attraction and urban sustainability.

Steven, an early position of your professional journey was that of vice president for business attraction for Greater Portland, Inc. Looking back now, would you say it has become easier or more difficult for cities such as Portland to attract business?

Business attraction is a long-running challenge. More and more, companies are beginning to value cities with large talent pools and distinct qualities of place. This requires a firm knowledge of your city’s strengths, including the key drivers of its local economy.

In the case of Portland, we identified target industries like advanced manufacturing, clean technology, software, and athletic apparel as economic development priorities. With this kind of knowledge, cities can be strategic about their investments and begin to build supply chains that attract major companies.

Another key component is to empower your staff to become industry experts. For a city like Portland that wants to attract clean technology companies, business development officers must understand the needs and challenges of the industry, such as permitting and land use.

When the conditions are right, a city’s economic development staff can form a deliverable action plan using clear metrics to guide their efforts. This action plan should build on a city’s current initiatives, identify new opportunities for growth, and communicate a compelling narrative to the public.

How has your view on business attraction and economic development changed since then?

The days of attracting a single superstar company are behind us. When it comes to drawing businesses and talent to an area, it’s no longer enough for a city to be a bustling financial center. Instead, cities should be focused on expanding and retaining talent, and creating environments with a unique set of aesthetic and cultural offerings that distinguish them from other areas.

Organizations like Campus Philly are a wonderful example of how cities can leverage their current talent base to retain college students and promote job growth.

I’m also reminded of my work in Jerusalem, where I helped develop a strategy for harnessing local talent. While the city competes with Tel Aviv for both talent and jobs, we encouraged Jerusalem’s residents to become community ambassadors that advocate on behalf of their city.

As talent becomes more of a focus, cities must also invest in the well-being and prosperity of their residents, including low-income, service, and minority workers.

It’s a common misconception that businesses and investment will invariably gravitate toward cities with a wealth of millennial or boomerang talent. In fact, both people and businesses are increasingly drawn to areas that demonstrate openness to new backgrounds and ideas. By creating a shared value between companies and residents, cities can attract a more diverse range of talent.

Over the years you have specialized in economic and urban development and placemaking. In your experience, what are the main obstacles to getting a place’s businesses, politicians and residents involved with place identity building and branding strategies?

It’s important to note that stakeholders have their own individual priorities. In order to encourage residents, businesses, and officials to become involved in a project, stakeholders must arrive at a shared value and vision for their city’s economic development.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle is getting each stakeholder to understand the role of data and authenticity in place branding. Too often, cities try to imitate a strategy that has been successful in another area without considering the unique conditions of their own urban environment. What works in Newark, for instance, may not work in Portland or Miami.

As a partner at Resonance, I recently developed a brand strategy for the city of Salmon Arm, British Columbia. Based on our data collection, we helped shape Salmon Arm’s unique position as both a recreational community and innovation/technology ecosystem. This strategy—and the community buy-in that came afterward—would not have been possible without the data to support it. By shaping their place branding strategy around concrete metrics that are specific to a city’s industries and workforce, stakeholders can maximize their efforts and leverage their city’s distinctive assets. In turn, they help cultivate an identity that attracts visitors and new residents.

As someone who has advised numerous cities, what are the key ingredients nowadays for attracting talent (and retaining it!)?

One of the key ingredients is engagement, which is often lost in today’s discussions about improving quality of place.

Recently, the NYU Schack Institute of Real Estate Urban Lab co-sponsored a conference called City Nation Place Americas, which focused on strategies for place branding and marketing. One of the panel discussions highlighted the need to promote interactions between universities, residents, and local businesses, and introduce them to a city’s key amenities. This creates the kind of “stickiness,” or strong attachments, that retain and attract talent.

Across the world, many organizations have already undertaken this mission. In Tallahassee, the Knight Foundation invests in community-based initiatives that promote engagement and collaboration. In 2016, for instance, they agreed to fund a series of community meals that take place in 100 local homes.

And in Guelph, Ontario, The Elevator Project acts as a “community matchmaker,” helping local residents identify opportunities for collaboration.

As faculty at the Schack Institute, what trends do you observe regarding real estate use – with implications for place developers, marketers and managers?

The link between real estate and economic development forms the basis of my research at the Urban Lab.

In recent years, developers have begun to recognize their role as placemakers with the power to shape a city’s brand and attract worldwide talent. This has led to the growing trend of full-scale, mixed-used developments that feature amenities such as green space, retail shops, restaurants, farmers markets, and startup incubators.

In order to provide these services, developers are beginning to partner with city governments and local anchor institutions such as universities and tech companies.

Increasingly, communities have begun to recapture public space, creating new opportunities for place branding.

In Washington, D.C., the real estate developer EDENS partnered with local businesses to offer routine arts-based events at the 45-acre Union Market. EDENS also teamed up with the nearby Gallaudet University for the Deaf to employ deaf community members and design services for the hearing impaired.

In addition to making spaces more inclusive, the design of a project can celebrate its past, present, and future uses. In Brooklyn, for instance, the newly constructed Domino Park pays homage to its namesake, the old Domino Sugar Factory, by featuring signs, screw conveyers, and bucket elevators from the original structure. Nearby, The Design Trust for Public Space is reclaiming the unused land underneath the Gowanus Expressway using sustainable design techniques.

Many of these new developments will have to pay close attention to tenant selection. Instead of gravitating toward high-end retailers and major tech companies, developers must choose tenants that benefit the local community through commitments to small business growth and affordable housing.

One of our core principles at Schack is educating the next generation of real estate developers to adopt this model of inclusivity.

In your view, how important is social and environmental sustainability performance nowadays for the reputation and competitiveness of cities?

Cities cannot afford to underestimate the value of sustainability. Already, the threat of climate change and rising urban populations has placed a strain on our infrastructure and natural resources. Cities that do not invest in social and environmental sustainability will soon find themselves unable to accommodate an influx of new residents or protect against natural disasters such as floods and hurricanes.

With the federal government opting to pull out of the Paris climate change afford, urban leaders have increasingly shouldered the responsibility for today’s mounting environmental concerns. While it may not be the case that people are choosing their city based on its carbon footprint, they are certainly deterred by characteristics such as pollution and aging infrastructure.

Thankfully, organizations like the Nature Conversancy in Texas—where my colleague, Laura Huffman, serves as the director—are working to protect urban resources. In particular, disaster-affected zones like Houston have developed new floodplain regulations and are endeavouring to restore underutilized land and preserve natural infrastructure.

In New York City, the Regional Planning Association has even called for a coastal adaptation plan to combat rising sea levels in high-risk areas.

Bundling strengths together into city regions seems to be one main trend nowadays. Where are the benefits and limitations of city region branding, such as “Greater Washington”?

While the process of regional branding requires large-scale projects and investment, it must first and foremost tell the story of the region.

Recently, I developed a strategy with Resonance for the regional area of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Through our research, we recognized that Tulsa had an opportunity to become a leader of both creativity and innovation. This culminated in the brand mantra “Tulsa Inspires,” which captures the entrepreneurial spirit of the region, and unites the region’s talent, economic development, and tourism fields. While the brand applies to multiple jurisdictions, it also empowers residents and communities to pursue their individual strengths. For the city of Tulsa, for instance, we created the slogan, “Tulsa Inspires Dancing Like No One Is Watching”—but, in Broken Arrow, the slogan became, “Broken Arrow Inspires Hard Work.”

Your three bits of advice to cities emerging from economic crises – how can place branding help them retain or attract people (visitors, talent) and money (investment)?

Data and metrics help define a city’s competitive advantages and track its progress. While former industrial cities like Detroit or Cincinnati may not have the same demonstrable success as a thriving metropolis like New York or Los Angeles, data-driven evidence can communicate both their authenticity and economic revival.

My work with the Miami Urban Future Initiative, for instance, tells the story of Miami’s birth as a startup center, despite rising inequality and affordability challenges. This helps to not only attract new residents and visitors, but also retain current residents who might otherwise consider moving.

At the same time, it’s important for city governments, economic development professionals, anchor institutions, tourism officials, investors, and other stakeholders to work together on a clear strategy for place branding. By communicating their interests with a single, unified message, these stakeholders can help transform a city’s reputation or image. Nashville’s “Music City” brand, for instance, helps convey the city’s creativity, innovation, and status as a highly coveted tourist destination.

A strong place branding strategy must inspire citizens to become more engaged in their local community. An effective brand should make residents proud of where they live and work, and encourage them to participate in its ongoing revival.

In short, strategies and brands need to be acted out in order to be successful.

Anything else you’d like to mention?

Inclusion is often the missing component of today’s place branding or destination development initiatives. Increasingly, the most visited cities in the U.S. are those that prioritize diversity and welcome people from all backgrounds.

In addition to emphasizing their open atmospheres through marketing campaigns, cities must undertake concerted efforts to improve equity and affordability for local residents—all while encouraging new arrivals.

At the moment, I am working with the New York Economic Development Corporation to carry out this mission in Jamaica, Queens. While our project focuses on attracting new residents, it also aims to inspire community members. As one member put it, Jamaica is a place where Bangladeshi, Hispanic, and African-American kids become friends by attending the same schools and living in the same buildings. Our goal is to capture that sense of community to encourage interactions between residents. When this happens, cities become places where everyone wants to live and work.

Thank you, Steven.

Connect with Steven Pedigo on LinkedIn or find out more about his work here. Visit the Urban Lab website for latest research and thinking on real estate and economic development.


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