Reconsidering Economic Development: The Prospects for Economic Gardening

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

For decades many local development and community leaders have been questioning the effectiveness of business attraction to create new jobs and expand local economies. At the same time, there has been growing interest among some professional planners and citizen groups in the concept of sustainable development, which suggests replacing short-sighted development plans which convey limited benefits with future-thinking strategies that improve and preserve the quality of life for the entire community. And yet, many local governments continue to rely on business attraction as a key component of their economic development strategies. This paper attempts to explain why these governments are resistant to more progressive economic development strategies. It first examines how and why traditional strategies are ineffective. It then argues that, by contrast, the more recent "economic gardening" approach, which centers on the cultivation of local entrepreneurship, is more effective, particularly with regard to long-term sustainability issues. The paper concludes by discussing economic gardening's prospects of becoming the dominant approach to economic development, and the key role coordinating agencies play in helping communities build the capacity to meet this challenge.

Sustainable development is of growing interest to local planners and citizen groups concerned with the direction and impact of economic development on their communities. As the name suggests, sustainable development is development that can be sustained over an indefinite period, and which does not rely essentially on methods or strategies which undermine the possibility of their own continued use in the future. Thus, the idea of sustainable development implies that communities need to respect their surrounding environments and avoid irreversible damage to, or depletion of, available resources. (Kinsley, 1997) In the words of the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED), sustainable development "meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." (WCED 1987:8)

Such a policy requires the eschewal of short-term, narrowly focused, and ad hoc planning practices in favor of long-term, broadly based strategic community planning. Strategic planning of this sort considers the impact of development on an area's natural resources, attempts to minimize the depletion or destruction of arable land, useable water, forests, parks, and clean air, and takes into consideration the impact of development on human resources. It also attempts to facilitate stable local industries and local entrepreneurs and to promote civic engagement and community pride. Obviously enough, such a far reaching set of goals can only be attained through an innovative and unified effort. Only when community design, planning, and management are retooled and then linked together in this common purpose are sustainable communities feasible.

Local economic development is one of the most important aspects of community planning that must be subject to significant redesign if it is to fit into the sustainable communities vision. Innovative recent economic development strategies-in particular, those which have come to be grouped under the term "economic gardening"-fit much more closely than traditional strategies into the long-term, community-oriented outlook favored by proponents of sustainable development. Whereas the traditional approach focuses on the attraction of businesses from outside the local area, the economic gardening approach emphasizes attempts to foster and encourage businesses already located in the local area, and to upgrade the skills of workers living in that area. (Bradshaw and Blakely, 1999) Such strategies have received a particularly warm reception, and have shown to be particularly successful, in rural areas where the old business attraction schemes have proved largely unsuccessful. (Flynn, 1994)

Economic gardening promotes sustainable practices in a number of ways. …