Marianna Leavy-Sperounis, above, is one of six members of the CoLaborative Thesis Group. All six theses examine New Strategies for an Old Crisis: Regenerating Local Economies, each in a different American City.
Although accounting for only 15% of Massachusetts’ population, eleven “gateway cities” are home to 30% of the people living below the poverty line in the Commonwealth. As a result of this stark reality, studies about how to pursue economic development in these cities are particularly important to create opportunity for their residents. Across the country, MIT professor Lorlene Hoyt and Andres Leroux have identified 150 similar cities. They dub these small, old, and economically distressed cities “forgotten cities,” home to some 7.4 million Americans. As the nation’s economy recovers, understanding these places is necessary to ensure they can benefit from policies designed to encourage the development of the green economy.
Lowell and Lawrence are typical of Massachusetts’ “gateway cities.” Founded along the Merrimack River to harness water power for industrial production, both cities have struggled as the state’s economy shifted from an industry to a knowledge economy centered on Boston. In recent years, these cities have attracted new immigrants causing their population to stabilize or grow.
Drawing upon her unique personal background, Marianna Leavy-Sperounis’ masters thesis proposes a new regional strategy of green job creation in these cities. She presented the thesis, Manufacturing Recovery: A Networked Approach to Green Job Creation in Massachusetts’ Gateway Cities, to a group of students and faculty in the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning on Friday, April 23rd. Descended from Greek immigrants to Lowell and a former community organizer in Lawrence, Leavy-Sperounis uses her deep knowledge of both communities to document how the distinct history of each place influences the effects of place-neutral economic development strategies.
Despite their proximity and common industrial history, Leavy-Sperounis concludes Lowell and Lawrence have developed surprising different social, economic, and governmental institutions. These disparities result in an unequal playing field in terms of attracting state grants and private investment. In particular, she argues the design of the city meant Lowell would retain a middle class, resulting in political entrepreneurship to develop the Lowell Plan, Lowell Development and Finance Corporation, and the Lowell National Historical Park. Today, financial expertise at the Lowell Development and Finance Corporation is enabling the city to use energy efficiency grants to create a revolving loan fund. How Lawrence will use the funds remains unknown. The city’s distinct histories also mean that the capability of gateway cities to take advantage of other programs and opportunities varies widely.
As a result, the thesis proposes a “networked approach” to clean technology collaboration. Recognizing the strengths of each city and inspired by the success of “network organizing” at Lawrence CommunityWorks, Leavy-Sperounis argues the Commonwealth’s policy interventions should recognize the existing regional interdependence of the two cities. The key to effective green job creation for all the gateway cities may be to create new connections between them, instead of encouraging unintended “competitive regionalism” among them for scarce grants.
The presentation provoked discussion on the topics of how private entrepreneurship can be encouraged, what assets the communities already posses, and the drawbacks of the design and powers of existing government agencies. A powerful indictment of “business-as-usual” economic development policies, Leavy-Sperounis urges us to take a place-based approach to ensure Massachusetts’ — and the nation’s — older post-industrial cities can benefit from our changing economy.
Article by Rob Goodspeed. Photo by Danielle Martin.