Visualizing Inclusive Economic Growth

By Wyatt Cmar • November 14, 2017

Despite widespread economic growth in recent years, inclusive development has been an elusive prospect for many U.S. cities.

The Brookings Institution, evaluating the 100 largest metropolitan areas in the country from 2010 to 2015, recently reported that while every city they studied achieved job growth, and 98 percent of cities expanded their gross metropolitan product, only 53 percent saw their median wages rise.

In other words, in 47 out of our nation's 100 largest cities, the individuals at the middle of their metropolitan income distribution saw their wages fall, or at best, stay the same. The authors of the report concluded that "economic growth alone, even growth that produces rising living standards, does not reliably assure better outcomes for all groups in a metropolitan area."

So what does? What are the other ingredients necessary to produce inclusive economic prosperity?

Enterprise Community Partners, a Washington D.C.-based non-profit, recently published Opportunity360, a web-based tool that combines over one hundred and fifty public and proprietary data sources to provide insight into inclusive economic development across the country. More than a white paper or a data-visualization platform, Opportunity360 is at its heart a diagnostic tool, revealing not only the symptoms of unequal development, but also the underlying conditions that shape it.

"We want to help users of the platform build a narrative around economic development and understand the context of the information they're reading, not just provide terse charts and spreadsheets," said Vrunda Vaghela, Director of Special Projects at Enterprise.

To illustrate this, Vaghela took me on a walkthrough of Opportunity360. She typed in my office address, and the screen filled with graphs dividing up performance metrics for housing stability, education, health and wellbeing, economic security, and mobility. In each category, the strength of the census block was measured against region, state, and country averages.

The good news is that Harvard Square still ranks well in terms of educational attainment levels -- we got a perfect score of 100 percent. However, our housing stability score was 13 percent, far from a passing grade.

Map of Harvard Square showing high rates of educational attainment

Map of Housing stability in Harvard Square with a range of stability levels both high and low
So we went deeper into the portal where we could analyze the factors and key indicators that comprise the overall housing stability metric. We found that on this particular census block there weren't any two-bedroom units that were affordable at 50 percent of the area median income, and fewer than 4 percent of the owner-units were affordable at 80 percent of the area median income.

By grouping together metrics for housing stability, education, health and wellbeing, economic security, and mobility, the platform lends itself to cross-sector collaboration. In our brief examination of my office's census block, Opportunity360 provided specific data to back up what many of us probably already guessed -- that the coexistence of prestigious academic institutions, numerous amenities, and impressive transportation accessibility would lead to exorbitant housing prices and quick turnover with people moving throughout the semesters.

One can imagine how useful this data could be to a range of people working to study and improve the urban environment. “Our communities’ challenges are interconnected, so our solutions must be, too,” said Vaghela. “With a shared understanding, community residents, nonprofits, businesses, and government agencies can identify and target collaborative, cross-sector solutions, so that together we can create stronger communities.”

About the Author

Wyatt Cmar

Wyatt Cmar is a Research Assistant and Writer for the Project on Municipal Innovation Advisory Group. Before joining the Ash Center, Wyatt worked as Business Development and Research Manager at Diller Scofidio + Renfro, a New York City-based art and architecture studio. Prior to that, he was Program Administrator at the Neighborhood Preservation Center, a nonprofit incubator and resource center located in New York City. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in Economics and Metropolitan Studies from New York University.