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The Urban Strategista Blog
Keeping the world connected through issues that impact urban policy and development

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  • New Research, New Posts Wow, has it been four years since my last post? Some of you may have been wondering where I've been. It's been an exciting four years of doctoral ...
    Posted Mar 7, 2018, 3:57 PM by Tracy A Corley
  • What’s Wrong With Current Approaches to Urban Sustainability Most cities approach sustainability in the wrong way. During a recent review of sustainability projects, I identified more than 220 district-scale projects in 115 cities across North America, ranging ...
    Posted Mar 7, 2018, 3:21 PM by Tracy A Corley
  • Beyond Labeling, the U.S. Needs Transparency Now for GE Food Genetically engineered (GE) food promised to feed the world. Unfortunately the world refuses to buy it. In April 2014, China banned imports of U.S. corn, reportedly due to fears ...
    Posted Mar 7, 2018, 3:21 PM by Tracy A Corley
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New Research, New Posts

posted Mar 7, 2018, 2:53 PM by Tracy A Corley   [ updated Mar 7, 2018, 3:57 PM ]

Wow, has it been four years since my last post? Some of you may have been wondering where I've been. It's been an exciting four years of doctoral studies and research. After conducting scans of informal work in Mexico, Germany, and the United States, I have focused the past few years on Germany's illegal or "black" work (Schwarzarbeit). Finally, a way to test all those decades of studying German!

Tour of Kreishandwerkerschaft Mönchengladbach
Thanks to the German Academic Exchange Service and my host institutions, I spent 14 months traveling the country, interviewing politicians, workers, entrepreneurs, public officials, migrants, leaders, and scholars about the relationship between employment policy reforms and illegal work in the country's skilled trades and artisan crafts sector called Handwerk. Since Germany's reunification in 1989, lawmakers have revised employment-related laws and policies at breakneck speeds. These massive changes to work, education, apprenticeship, retirement, and commerce have disrupted the assumptions of Germans and global onlookers — like U.S. workforce policy influencers — about work and society. Given ongoing political and economic uncertainties around the world, reforms and disruptions will continue.

In the upcoming months, I will share some of those findings. Also, this research and my travels on both sides of the Atlantic underscored the need for more direct urban policy measures that serve all residents in our world's metropolitan regions. Whether a native-born working class citizen, a young adult deciding on a career path, or a family that migrated from another country, all of us need opportunities for fair, decent work and the right to lead dignified lives. The news, resources, and op-eds about urban strategy and development that I post here will discuss such policies and efforts, with a strong emphasis on work, workforce, and entrepreneurship.

I invite you to follow me on Twitter or LinkedIn, where I post more frequently on breaking news and current trends. Meanwhile, I look forward to conversations that discuss ways that we can improve opportunities and quality of life for the world's citizens.

Photo: Me with automotive sector leaders at the Mönchengladbach crafts union. Taken by Julia Kreuteler, Kreiha Mönchengladbach.

Want to comment? Discuss this on Twitter with #TACANEW2018

What’s Wrong With Current Approaches to Urban Sustainability

posted Jul 10, 2014, 5:25 PM by Tracy A Corley   [ updated Mar 7, 2018, 3:21 PM ]

Most cities approach sustainability in the wrong way. During a recent review of sustainability projects, I identified more than 220 district-scale projects in 115 cities across North America, ranging from less than half an acre to 1,150 acres. These projects provided a glimpse of the growing importance of sustainability to municipal business issues. An increasing number of cities use sustainability to protect natural resources, attract investment, and improve brand images. Sustainability represents the competitive advantage of the 21st century city.

Three components of sustainability
Many cities, however, define sustainability in the wrong way. These definitions vary widely. Many equate sustainability with the “green” movement of the 1970s. Green just means “less damaging” than traditional practices, whereas real sustainability zeros out, if not regenerates, the capacity of municipal resources so that outcomes are equal to or greater than inputs. Others think of sustainability solely in relationship to the environment, but sustainability impacts more than just the health of the planet. Only a few correctly define sustainability in terms of John Elkington’s “triple bottom line.”[i] This 1994 concept states that for all business enterprises, true sustainability includes a balance of three bottom-line measures: economic, social, and environmental factors. These three areas all must pencil out for a business to be sustainable. The same principle holds true for municipal corporations.

Even among those who got the definition right, many got the implementation wrong. Most examined available economic, social, and property development models or certification programs that addressed sustainability (I found more than 22) and picked one or more to apply to a disadvantaged district without considering the area’s existing assets and unique features. For those who did not consider an existing model, implementing sustainability devolved into a long, drawn-out exercise. One city found that after three years of planning, a model already existed that outlined the steps to address their key concerns. Whether or not they considered an existing model, many project leaders found themselves with a lot of planning and very little action. Those who managed to execute their plans often fell short of penciling out on all three bottom lines.

When describing the failures of sustainability approaches and efforts, many project participants blamed three barriers:
  • Changes in political leadership. Sustainability requires long-term commitment to complete projects and realize success. If project momentum wanes every two to four years (in accordance with election and funding cycles), then projects are often doomed to failure. In one city, the mayor initiated a district-scale project to address a variety of social, economic, and environmental issues. Four years later, however, a newly elected mayor abruptly defunded the nonprofit organization that organized the neighborhood redevelopment. I found similar situations with six other major projects.
  • Conflicting efforts. By focusing on individual systems or municipal silos, sustainability efforts in one focus area often undermine efforts in another. For example, one city revamped its zoning codes and comprehensive plans to accommodate more sustainable development. Though the comprehensive plan mandated the inclusion of more community gardens in vacant lots, it did not take into account the high levels of soil contamination. Without extensive soil remediation or creative gardening solutions, the city could inadvertently harm the health of its population. If the parks and recreation team, the urban lands commission, landowners, and community representatives had been part of the planning process, they could have identified this issue sooner and adjusted the comprehensive plan to address the reality.
  • Lack of community buy-in and support. City planners often have grand visions for how to redevelop their city, only to find that project abutters and local residents do not share that vision and stop projects in their tracks. Every city I reviewed had at least one story of a project delay or cancellation due to community derailment.
Of the 59 projects I reviewed in more detail, 12 (20.3 percent) were either on hold or in serious decline because of one or more of the issues listed above.

These might sound like different issues, but they all stem from the same source. Sustainability projects succeed when cities shift from individual systems management to big picture systems thinking. Instead of looking just at energy efficiency or job creation or housing or transit, cities with successful sustainable developments use big picture systems thinking to envision the ultimate goal and the plan the interconnected steps needed to achieve that broad goal.

I recommend that city leadership push for big picture systems thinking now. Even if the city is not considering a sustainable development or pursuing certification, now is the time to get different actors—the market, nonprofits, and civil society—and municipal staff used to working together to envision and implement the big picture.
Asking for big picture thinking from detailed oriented managers and technicians might seem like a tall order. Municipalities employ a wealth of internal subject matter experts who often don’t work together. This habit of working in silos brings about limited solutions to complex problems, resulting in projects that tackle the “low hanging fruit” instead of the underlying issues. Cities also contain extensive knowledge and expertise in its market (private sector), nonprofits, and civil society (communities) that often are not included in development. In the 21st century, successful sustainable cities bring ALL of these actors to the table to not just plan and initiate, but manage and govern sustainable development. Cities should take the lead on convening these actors and use its knowledge and authority to bring big picture systems thinking to everyday municipal operations.

Sustainable cities need the market to enable implementation of development. The market constantly innovates and is best suited to adapt to community needs. For example, developers across the country are creating more micro-apartments[ii] to fill the need of growing single-person households (23.7 percent of the population in the 2010 U.S. Census). This demographic includes an increasingly mobile population in search of opportunities, low-income people in need of affordable accommodations, and older people in transition from single family homes. Many of these populations seek homes that provide more services and access to support than can be provided in traditional suburban residential communities. The market sees this and would like to create developments, services, and products to meet diversifying market needs. The city should facilitate these market developments and provide rules and legislation that include the flexibility to innovate.

Sustainable cities leverage nonprofits to fill the gaps that the market won’t touch due to fiscal viability. Nonprofits serve on the front lines, delivering services and meeting the unprofitable needs of disadvantaged and underrepresented populations. If these needs go unmet, cities ultimately pay the price through escalating social services demands, unemployment, crime rates, and other degenerative costs. For example, nonprofits offer job training programs. When these programs are aligned with the workforce opportunities within districts and leverage the resources available through local educational institutions, municipal dollars that support the nonprofit stay within the community to create local jobs and opportunities. In addition, the training participants transfer more quickly into living wage jobs since the nonprofit is working directly with local employers and the city’s economic development team to ensure that they are training the right folks for the right jobs. Integrating the advantages of nonprofits into municipal processes further makes the city economically, environmentally, and socially sustainable.

Civil society brings local knowledge to sustainability issues, without which, city departments operate within a vacuum. Local citizens provide on-the-ground insights that provide empirical quantitative and qualitative data that the city’s staff can use in its assessment of issues. Civil society also can reveal issues that aren’t being addressed and show successes that might not pop up in traditional surveys or focus group. By being a part of the planning process, they ensure that projects don’t get derailed after millions of dollars have been invested. For example, Seattle’s monorail project was voted into being by local citizens. Despite ten years of planning and purchasing property to build the line, citizens were not part of the ongoing discussions and did not understand how debt servicing worked. Local leaders—acting in the best interests of their constituents—were outraged at the costs. The referendum process put the monorail project to another public vote, which resulted in its dismantling[iii]. Actions like these can be avoided by including civil society in regular conversations with the city. They can help build buy in for projects that address critical issues and identify unforeseen community pitfalls that might hinder a project’s success. Integrating civil society into municipal processes builds trust and social capital that will support ongoing maintenance and governance of sustainability issues for decades to come.

City as convener image
As the convener of these key actors, the city sets policies and aligns municipal resources to meet wide-reaching goals. Cities build competitive advantage by serving as a convener and catalyst for creating self-sustaining developments while helping other actors navigate local, state, and federal policies. This moves the role of the city from manager of resources to driver of systems thinking.

Portland, Oregon moved consciousness within the city from the parcel-level planning to big picture systems thinking by elevating project awareness and achieving small successes to improve acceptance of cross-departmental collaboration. A leading city official reported that the efforts led to an unprecedented level of openness and iterative thinking by departments, which made successful urban revitalizations like the Pearl District[iv] come to life without relying on a sustainability model or framework. The leadership shifted development from city planning departments to district actors—the market, nonprofits, and civil society—that drove innovation in everything from small community projects to large-scale developments. The city shifted its role from central planner to central convener: it now focuses its efforts on providing policies, assisting with policy navigation, and aggregating resources for district-led initiatives. The city provides a platform along which to help the neighborhood align with city goals. This frees the city from management-heavy activities while improving the outcomes from projects. Neighborhoods, as a result, are more actively engaged in resolving their own issues, including creating jobs and finding funding sources for projects. The next step for Portland is to formalize this role to continue participation by the market, nonprofits, and civil society. Legislating joint accountability for project and program success makes triple bottom line sustainability work for Portland.

To shift the way cities approach and think about sustainability, they should:
  • Identify priority issues and focus areas, and then require three- to five-year strategic plans to address issues and outline how teams will collaborate to meet goals.
  • Build a collaborative program that engages city staff and actors to evaluate the different sustainability frameworks and determine which one best fits their unique situations and addresses their focus areas.
  • Engage action groups that collaboratively advise on the issues that confront the different districts and neighborhoods around the city so that nonprofits, businesses, and residents can bring their unique knowledge and expertise to city governance and leadership.
  • Formalize representation and leadership in neighborhoods and special districts to make doing business with the city a regular part of day-to-day activities. Make it their charge to promote resolution of issues while keeping new development from pricing tenants out of their homes. This will require everyone to get creative about how to introduce new development without forcing existing residents and tenants out of an area.
  • Insist that project outcomes support themselves in terms of financial, environmental, and social needs. Self-sustainability should be present at all levels of city governance.
  • Enact changes through rules and laws so that sustainability becomes an integral part of the municipal process and ensures ongoing governance of project and program goals.
Albert Einstein once said, “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” To move cities away from degenerative systems that require increasing amounts of inputs just to maintain them, city leadership needs to shift its consciousness about sustainability from individual systems management to big picture systems thinking. Cities survive through good governance and shrewd management. Cities grow and thrive thanks to successful coordination and collaboration with all who live, work, play, and learn within its borders. Only through triple bottom line metrics and convening market, nonprofit, and civil society actors can municipal approaches to sustainability be truly sustainable[v].

  1. [i] See or for more information
  2. [ii] More about micro-apartments movement can be found in the following USA Today article:
  3. [iii] This brief editorial discusses aftermath of the monorail dismantling:
  4. [iv]
  5. [v] For a more detailed discussion on shifting mindsets about sustainability, please see Bill Reed’s paper “Shifting Our Mental Model—‘Sustainability’ to Regeneration” at
This post is also available on Northeastern University's RE:Connect blog. The views, conclusions, and opinions expressed in this article do not reflect the views of Northeastern University or any of its affiliates or assigns.

Beyond Labeling, the U.S. Needs Transparency Now for GE Food

posted Jul 10, 2014, 4:56 PM by Tracy A Corley   [ updated Mar 7, 2018, 3:21 PM ]

Genetically engineered (GE) food promised to feed the world. Unfortunately the world refuses to buy it. In April 2014, China banned imports of U.S. corn, reportedly due to fears of GE food contamination. A few weeks later, Russia proposed bans on GE imports and stalled GE crop cultivation, joining the EU, Japan, and more than 60 others in limits and bans.

Many Americans don’t want GE foods either. Most at least they want them labeled — 87% according to a 2008 CBS News/New York Times poll. Unfortunately, more than 80% of processed foods contain GE ingredients. With market saturation like that, Americans have little to no choice but to eat GE food. Even organically-grown crops carry risk of unknown contamination.

The U.S. needs transparency through both labeling and pre-market research of GE food now. In spite of calls for transparency in the U.S. and abroad, the agrotech industry continues to pour millions into fighting transparency efforts. More than 26 states have legislation under consideration, not including city and county ordinances. Vermont was the first state to enact a statewide ban.

U.S. policy hinders transparency just as much as the agrotech industry. The 1986 Coordinated Framework divides responsibility for GE regulation between the FDA, USDA, and EPA. This disjointed regulatory framework resulted in failure after failure, which, in 1999, the public and scientists highlighted in FDA hearings. In response, the FDA issued Pre-market Notification and Labeling Guidelines in 2001 — just as George W. Bush moved in to the Oval Office. The rule, if enacted, would have reversed the FDA’s 1992 policy position that classified GE foods as “substantively equivalent” to regular food and required more pre-market review. To date, the agrotech industry possesses full discretion over market entry decisions and conducts its own research, which it can choose not to disclose.

These regulatory and transparency failures make us and our communities sick. The CDC and other scientists have proven that GE food introduces new allergen sources, more toxins, and increased antibiotics resistance. Healthcare providers cannot keep pace with new risks, particularly since healthcare innovations require more rigorous testing than food innovations. Scientists have shown that GE food sickens the environment through monoculture farming techniques and growing pesticide use, which pollute ecosystems and kill beneficial insects like honeybees and Monarch butterflies. The threat grows as pests continue to develop resistance to Roundup™ and other pesticides.

But most immediately, GE food sickens our economy. Not only have the costs of patented seeds, specialized equipment, and highly skilled labor put family farms financially at risk, but China’s ban alone cost the corn industry an estimated $2.9 billion. To put that into perspective, in 2010, corn exports totaled $11.1 billion at today’s corn prices. Blows like this threaten jobs and businesses across our food system, from truck drivers to neighborhood bakeries.

To avoid a food system and economic disaster, the U.S. needs to bring transparency to GE foods through a national food policy council and the advancement of House Resolution 1699 and Senate bill 809.

A presidentially-appointed national food policy council would foster transparency by coordinating research, labeling, and reporting. By shifting power from three disjointed agencies who cannot even agree on a common definition for genetic engineering, this independent decision-making body can coordinate with federal agencies, scientists, state and local food policy councils, interest groups, and non-governmental organizations. The council would assess multiple food system issues, set the food policy agenda, and craft policy alternatives for improving transparency — much like state and regional food policy councils and the international commission Codex Alimentarius.

Introduced in April 2013, S. 809 and H.R. 1699 already address the concerns in the 1999 FDA proposed rule. Unfortunately, these “Right to Know” acts go head-to-head with the Right to Free Markets in the U.S. economy. Sen. Boxer and Rep. DeFazio should rename these bills, update them with commerce considerations, and push them out of committee to confront Rep. Pompeo’s Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act (H.R. 4432). Authored by the anti-transparency Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) and known by critics as the Denying Americans the Right to Know (DARK) Act, this bill preempts state and local laws, makes mandatory labeling laws illegal, and places discretion in the hands of the FDA secretary. The two pro-transparency bills would move forward faster if grassroots advocates would organize under a single organization — like the opposition did under the GMA — and mobilize the healthcare industry and state governments, who currently shoulder the costs for GE food damages through hospital readmissions, environmental cleanups, and economic development efforts.

To truly feed the world, Americans must get out of the dark. Ask your congressmen and women to support the President in forming a national food policy council and to pass H.R. 1699 and S. 809. Together, we can make GE foods safer and more accepted, domestically and abroad, through transparency.

This post is also available on Northeastern University's Consortium on Food Systems Sustainability, Health, and Equity blog.  The views, conclusions, and opinions expressed in this article do not reflect the views of Northeastern University or any of its affiliates or assigns.

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