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Kennedy School Review

Topic / Cities and Communities

Four Ways Cities Can Do Economic Development Better


For decades, Times Square was severely congested, prone to pedestrian accidents, and lacking spaces to rest. In 2008, New York City sought to tackle these problems by mapping the diversity and number of human activities that occurred there. It traced walking patterns to identify “pedestrians’ desire lines” in relation to sidewalks and streets. It monitored the ratio of cars to pedestrians and compared it to the real estate that was afforded to each. The data collectively demonstrated that pedestrians were starved for space and the existing design of Times Square posed serious risks to their safety. City officials subsequently decided to pilot a project to close off several blocks of Broadway to vehicles and make Times Square friendlier to those on foot. The pilot was so successful with the public and nearby businesses that city officials ultimately made the changes permanent and pursued similar projects throughout New York.

Like New York, cities around the world are thinking critically about how to improve their physical and business environments. Mayors see a vibrant local economy as key to tackling other related issues, such as housing and infrastructure, and are using economic development policies to intervene where and when markets cannot. However, unlike the Times Square example, city officials are overwhelmingly relying on big data to forecast economic and fiscal impacts related to capital expenditures and other types of public investments.

But the looming question facing city officials is not whether there is enough data but whether it is the right data. The merits of big data notwithstanding, quantitative analysis alone is insufficient to address how and why something happens. While quantitative measurements can help cities keep track of their economic development agenda and make the case for more private, state, or federal dollars, policymakers must take both quantitative and qualitative approaches to their work. Cities can do economic development better. Here are four qualitative methods that can assist policymakers in making better-informed decisions:

  1. Ethnographic Analytics – The practice of ethnography, the work of understanding and observing how people live their lives, offers policymakers sociocultural insights into cities. Ethnographers in the private sector try to understand people’s behaviors vis-à-vis products, services, and organizations, and tease out narratives about what matters to whom. Ethnography has the potential to not only fill in information gaps but also highlight limitations inherent to quantitative data.
  2. Participant Observations – The study of everyday life in public spaces has come into recent renaissance. City planners, urban designers, and architects are trying to document people’s “proximity, orientation, and posture in relation to buildings, street furnishings, movement spaces, and each other,” according to leading urban designer Quentin Stevens. Recording participant observations, like how people occupy or avoid spaces, also offers original insights for site planning and measuring the impacts of new development in a community.
  3. Public Engagement Exercises – Public engagement exercises—including, but not limited to, charrettes, visual mapping, mobile crowdsourcing, scenario planning, rapid prototyping, and storytelling—are constantly evolving, especially with advancements in digital data mining. While such exercises offer innovative ways to gauge public perceptions, their results are frequently undermined, because organizers oftentimes view the act of getting the community involved as enough and fail to synthesize the output.
  4. Surveys and Focus Groups – More traditional forms of qualitative data collection such as surveys and focus groups can provide useful information to policymakers provided they are carried out methodically. Canvassing areas through surveys, whether conducted in-person or via web or mail, offers a way to reach a multitude of respondents and gather diverse data points. Conversely, focus groups are more tailored and offer the opportunity to explore issues in-depth the complexities regarding people’s preferences.

Ethnographic analytics, participant observations, public engagement exercises, surveys, and focus groups are by no means an exhaustive list of potential qualitative approaches to urban economic development. But they can contextualize numbers on a page, corroborate insights, increase transparency, and anchor narratives to diverse information sources.

Cities’ hunger for, and trajectory towards a more data-centric world cannot—and should not—be stifled. City officials should be in the business of developing sophisticated metrics for policy measurement and accountability because of the complex issues at play in urban economic development. However, in a time when urbanization trends are swiftly changing the landscape of neighborhoods and streets, city governments must be prepared to use all of the tools at its disposal to ensure a more prosperous future for its residents.

Joe Joe Lee is a Master of Public Administration candidate at the University of Pennsylvania pursuing a Certificate in Urban Redevelopment through Wharton, PennDesign, and the Fels Institute of Government. This past summer, he worked with quantitative and qualitative data to measure the conditions of everyday life in public spaces for several urban design projects. He was previously a U.S. intelligence analyst and completed rotations at the State Department and the President’s Analytic Support Staff.

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons