How Strong is Your Civic Infrastructure? The Boston Fed Wants to Know.

How Strong is Your Civic Infrastructure? The Boston Fed Wants to Know.

How do you know when a city’s civic infrastructure needs improvement? And what can be done? The Boston Fed is asking asking the people who know their cities best.

In 2008, our colleagues at the Boston Fed set out to learn what it takes for smaller, postindustrial cities to achieve resurgence after years of decline. They started by examining the factors you might expect economists to consider: demographic and socioeconomic conditions, industry mix and employment trends. Our colleagues studied these factors across a set of 25 cities that all looked like Springfield, MA, a struggling city in our district. But their conclusion may surprise you – coming from researchers at the central bank:

In all 10 cities deemed “resurgent” two factors proved key in driving their economic turnaround: leadership and collaboration.

Eight years later, their conclusion feels much more familiar, given the growing cadre of initiatives aimed at strengthening cities’ civic infrastructure—or the network of organizations, resources, and engaged citizens who not only help a community function, but mobilize in times of crisis or opportunity. It’s also not surprising today, given the growing (albeit at a slower pace) body of research helping us understand why and how civic infrastructure matters. One needn’t look further than Living Cities’ own Integration Initiative, which champions a “collective impact” to harness and strengthen cross-sector leadership for the benefit of low-income communities. Indeed, the Boston Fed followed in the footsteps (and with the support) of Living Cities with our Working Cities Challenge, which takes this collective impact approach to smaller cities in New England.

How Do You Know Civic Infrastructure Needs Improvement?

Two years into the first round of the Challenge and months into the second, our team is increasingly concerned with not just the question of how to support cities in strengthening their civic infrastructure, but also how we know whether civic infrastructure is, indeed, improving. We’ve already seen early indicators of improvement in the ways that city teams are broadening and deepening their collaborations around shared goals. However, we’re eager to more concretely depict the ways that these cities have leveraged their cross-sector initiatives to enhance the factors we see as comprising a city’s civic infrastructure—leaders, collaborative networks within and across sectors and institutions, resources, and engaged residents. A more nuanced understanding of the relationships between key measures of civic infrastructure and various economic indicators is important. The lessons from this work can inform how public and philanthropic actors target their investments in places. By operationalizing an approach to measure the core dimensions of civic infrastructure, we hope to encourage funders, policy-makers, and practitioners to assess the extent to which their support strengthens these dimensions and track how such improvements impact a community’s economic well-being.

We’ll be using a comparative approach to look at these elements across a set of Massachusetts cities that are perceived to have varying levels of civic infrastructure. And most importantly, we plan to begin by asking the people who know a city’s civic infrastructure best—its local leaders and residents, as well as the state-level actors who provide communities with scarce and important resources—what they think.

Surveying Our Stakeholders

Our work is just beginning. The first step is to identify which cities—and thus indicators—we will study and compare. To do this, we’ve started surveying people who work with multiple smaller cities in their roles at state and federal agencies. We’re also reaching out to survey staff at local funding entities and intermediaries. We hope that their input will allow us to place these cities on a spectrum, which will allow us to identify and focus on a subset of communities and explore this variation in depth. In those cities, we’d like to:

1) Survey leaders from across sectors to learn more about their behavior and views as they relate to the factors driving civic infrastructure. 2) Survey city residents to learn about the degree to which they participate in and perceive civic infrastructure in their cities. 3) Conduct case studies to learn more about the results of the survey as well as to study the trajectory of a city’s civic infrastructure over time.

A team of graduate students from Northeastern University’s School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs has kicked us off by helping us develop and deploy the state-level survey over the spring, so we look forward to having a better sense of where we’re going from here by the start of summer.

Lend Your Voice

We invite others who are interested in these questions to get in touch if you’d like to learn more, share ideas, or help us think through our next steps. We know we’re not the only ones tackling these questions, so in the interest of practicing what we preach, we welcome any opportunities to collaborate!


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