Economic Gardening: My Favorite New-to-Me Idea of 2012

Non-metaphorical garden in Singapore.

Photo by ROSLAN RAHMAN/AFP/GettyImages

Scott Dunscombe noted on Twitter that this article I wrote about how cities ought to look beyond high-tech for this economic destiny has a fair amount in common with what Portland mayoral candidate Jefferson Smith calls “economic gardening.”

And in fact, though I didn’t use the phrase in the piece that’s exactly what I had in mind while I was writing about it. I even heard the phrase when I was in Portland over the summer, from someone who I believe was working on Smith’s campaign. After Googling, the phrase turns out to not be unique to him but instead dates from Littleton, Colorado in 1987. Fittingly, the Kaufmann Foundation seems enthusastic about the idea which is neat because a report Kaufmann released a few weeks ago that doesn’t use the phrase at all was one of the inspirations for what I wrote.

But I’ve come to be really taken with the metaphor, or at least my understanding of it.

The way it goes is this. Conventional economic development strategy notes that there are some engines of prosperity elsewhere—a big factory, a corporate headquarters, whatever—and then seeks to transplant those engines to the city. Economic gardening says that instead of playing this game of zero-sum competition, local authorities ought to look around at the businesses they already have and ask what would it take for some of these firms to grow. You’re creating your own engines of prosperity out of the seeds that are already available in your community, trying to build up local strengths rather than bid to the bottom for transplants. It’s not a super-ideological idea, and in a lot of ways I think it’s just common sense, but I also think it serves as a great metaphor for what’s wrong with a lot of mega-projects and bribe-oriented development schemes.