Cultivating Community Potential through Economic Gardening

By: Ahmed Abukhater, PhD, GISP

With the global financial crisis, many local communities struggle to stay afloat. Despite the many ongoing conversations about the nation’s economy and what needs to be done to fix it, Detroit is the latest casualty of this unsustainable economic climate holding the dubious distinction of becoming the largest city in the US to file bankruptcy. There has never been a greater need for a renewed approach to economic development than today.

The economic crisis that the US faces today goes deeper than political polarization. With the current status quo management of public resources whereby lobbies and special interest groups are running the show, we have arrived at a point where achieving sustainable development has become practically insurmountable without fundamental changes to public policy, regulatory processes and restoration of economic development initiatives. Although several factors are at play here, this is primarily a byproduct of lack of execution of operational economic policies that effectively stich together government, business, and civil society. The failure of the current plans to address these challenges gives rise to the idea of reinvigorated holistic management systems.

The traditional approach of economic hunting and attracting new businesses is no longer viable alone. Part of the problem lies in this exclusive “outside-in” economic approach that many cities and states focus their effort on. Creating new jobs by attracting investment from the outside and incentivizing large businesses to relocate into the community has taken us as far as we can get. Sustaining healthy economic development and community growth means more than simply attracting new businesses and big investment. It requires a grassroots approach to economic development that while acknowledging the global scale of the crisis, provides action-oriented strategies at the local level.

Many communities today realized that a more organic approach to growth that focuses on small- and medium-sized businesses may be the answer. Littleton, Colorado was one such community that looked at economic gardening as an alternative response to its financial downturn. Rather than recruiting from the outside, the community looked within its boundaries for opportunities to grow and prosper. Creating healthy economic conditions conducive for sustainable growth means nurturing and empowering local businesses and entrepreneurs with appropriate resources and opportunities. The outcome was nothing short of monumental and one that has been viewed as exemplary for many communities around the world to follow.

Although the concept is fairly new, its application is nothing but. Economic gardening builds on the notion of business retention and expansion which has been in place for many decades. By leveraging community’s existing assets and resources, this “inside-out” growth strategy aims at improving the local and regional business climate while strengthening the overall community’s economic basis. Under the auspices of economic gardening, promoting a healthy economy means paying attention to the quality of economic growth rather than just quantity. To be successful, this approach should be coupled with adequate local infrastructure improvement, a well-connected business ecosystem that allows partnership and alliances among various businesses and organizations to occur, and a platform for acquiring and sharing critical information about market constraints and opportunities. These non-traditional growth tactics are essential components to the overall national economic recovery. They offer our communities a meaningful and practical alternative to the current outdated approaches that proved to be dysfunctional at best.

What’s missing is a holistic and operational approach capable of cohesively tying such local, regional and national economic efforts in a multiscalar range of sectors so decisions regarding planning and policy making can be streamlined to address the current colossal and undisputable failure of local and federal governments on the economic front.

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© 2020 by Ahmed Abukhater