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Urban Engines -- American Cities Must Grow

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My name is Greg Selkoe and I am an entrepreneur. This is a phrase I am proud of and no matter what the activity, whether it was when I worked at City Hall as an urban planner, started my own business, got involved in non-profit work, or neighborhood activism, it was this phrase that defined my approach. Since president Obama's State of the Union speech I have participated in many discussions with friends and relatives regarding America's changing place in the world and whether we as a country can remain competitive.  Is America in decline and are we losing our edge? Like president Obama, I believe that the answer can and should be no. But as many have said we need to retain and continue to cultivate our entrepreneurial spirit in order to compete and flourish on this rapidly changing  planet and in this young century. I believe one of the keys to continuing compete and lead economically is the strength of our cities. They must remain vibrant centers of interaction, expression, and ambition. Growing up and living in an urban environment for me has, in no small way, shaped my entrepreneurial approach to life and work. 

When people think of the American entrepreneurial spirit they often conjure up images of westward expansion, highways being constructed, and sprawling factory complexes churning out shiny new products. While that symbolism may embody our collective vision of American progress and ingenuity, the modern truth and future of entrepreneurship lays in our dense cities, not wind swept expanses or our endless suburbs. 

I was discouraged by the 2010 census numbers. Even though, unlike many previous decades, most of our major cities' populations stayed flat or increased population slightly the numbers still were not promising. This trend was far outpaced by America's continued suburbanization and de-densification. And some cities fared terribly such as Detroit which lost 1/2 of its population in a decade and Chicago which dropped roughly 200,000 people. Many of the "cities" that did best in terms of adding population such as Columbus, Ohio contain almost non-existent urban cores and are essentially suburban in nature.  A C.I.T.O.  A City in Name Only, I say this not because Columbus is bad or good but the density and layout  is not urban.

I believe it is urban density, diversity, and excitement that creates fertile ground for creativity and new ideas. Of course creativity, innovation, and new ideas can occur anywhere but just like fruit, the ripest and best, is grown in the ideal conditions.  Without good conditions less is grown, so too is true regarding ideas and new ventures. Urban attributes set the ideal conditions such as the necessity of having or learning to have an open mind in order to live in closer quarters with people who are different, ethnically, racially, sexually oriented, religiously or socio-economically. Even if people exactly like you live in your building, being out walking, shopping, and using public transit ensures interaction with a wide range of people. 

Having vibrant cultural facilities, universities, and flourishing urban life all nearby helps ideas grow and connect. Entrepreneurs and creative types like to be near other entrepreneurs and creative types. Providing districts and environments that attract these groups together facilitates the creation and funding of new inventions, and companies. This is a group that desires the convenience and accessibility of all manner of goods and services in walking distance. The less time traveling by car helps thinking and focus. I have no doubt that the mind-numbing commutes, traffic jams, and parking ordeals that most average suburbanized Americans must endure daily, for both work and personal life, have a negative impact on our ability to innovate and think creatively. I live two blocks from my office and my commute and dealing with it occupies no space in my day or head. 

Cities that will fuel America's innovation economy are ones that cut red tape, allow for individuals to start new businesses with ease, promote and provide for incubation, absorb immigrants easily, encourage new restaurants, shops, and nightlife venues, and ones that push transit oriented development and zoning for dense mixed-use urban buildings, while relying on taxis, public transit, bicycles and foot traffic for transportation over the automobile. Unfortunately, despite these concepts gaining steam US cities that actually live up to these ideals are too far and few between. One must look no further than the 2010 census data to see we are going in the wrong direction with the country's continued mass de-densification and suburbanization.

Even in my home of Boston, a city that has a proud history of innovation and entrepreneurship, we are not fully harnessing what we have.  We are not doing enough to continue to increase our place as a startup center and home for innovators and cultural creatives directly, as well as not providing enough of the indirect ingredients mentioned above, in order to provide the most fertile environment. Because of this I have gotten together with a bunch of like-minded individuals to form the Future Boston Alliance. A 501-C3 we are establishing to help Boston retain talent, support innovation, and entrepreneurship through improving the lifestyle and attributes of the City around us. In coming posts I will blog about my experience getting this organization off the ground and how lessons learned can be applicable to any city in America...stay tuned!

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