Attract and retain new young, educated people but keep our cities distinctive [Knight Milennials]


Cities want to attract and retain young educated talent to fuel their knowledge economies, drive a tax base and create a community that can continue to grow by welcoming more new people in the future. Modern markets are insatiable and indefinitely incomplete.

That’s the clearest, simplest mission I can glean from all the chirping about celebrating gains Philadelphia has made in its old brain drain problem.

But last week at a Knight Foundation session with the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia, I wanted to push that thinking forward in two ways that I don’t think I hear often enough in that conversation: (a) the idea that too much change can in effect take away what is distinctive about a city and (b) that any real success would improve the lives of existing Philadelphians too, not just push them out like in other cities.

My breakout session with a number of smart people resulted in a few interesting thoughts that I wanted to save:

  • “Philly is the most beautiful city in the country that people elsewhere consider ugly:” Dave Raible
  • “We’re leaving this mentality of scarcity to a new age that needs collaboration,” said Zoe Selzer, but many institutions and groups and people are still fighting after the crumbs.
  • Philadelphia is a big forest with small trees, Economy League chief Steve Wray said his predecessor would often say, noting that despite it being a big city, Philadelphia is made up of regional groups and smaller players.
  • Perhaps Philadelphia needs to do more minor planning than master planning, was the result of discussion between Phoenix Wang and James Hartling of Urban Partners. Their point was that major planning for things like the Delaware waterfront stalled for decades because of the enormity of the scale, in contrast to the movement now that is on a smaller scale (Race Street Pier) and what has happened on the Parkway, like Sister Cities Park.

Echoing my first point, as part of the brainstorming, we were asked to give a headline or two we’d want written about Philadelphia 20 years from now. Mine were the following:

  • “Poverty drops in Philly through educational attainment, not population change” because I want to lift up more Philadelphians than just add new ones.
  • “Philadelphia embraces young talent, but retains distinction” because I want this new energy but find a way to keep Philadelphia distinctive.