The Interplay between Entrepreneurship and Urbanism

I had the pleasure of starting my year off at Social Tilt, a gathering of community builders and social entrepreneurs. I came away with lots of insights. One of the most profound came from Andy Stoll, a social entrepreneur based in Iowa. Andy does some excellent work to build and foster the entrepreneurial ecosystem in the Cedar Rapids/Iowa City area.

Photo: Scott Meyer 

Photo: Scott Meyer 

As we were discussing the intersection between his interest in nurturing entrepreneurs and my interest in urban design and land-use, Andy shared an excellent analogy: land-use and urban planning are like the hardware of a city while the kind of work he does to nurture startups and entrepreneurs is like the software. 

I think this is a very useful perspective. There is a strong interplay between the built environment in our communities and the local economy. In previous Strong Towns posts, Chuck has talked about this relationship and how auto-oriented development on the fringe favors absentee owned businesses while putting local entrepreneurs at a competitive disadvantage. 

This connection between urbanism and economic gardening is important. Too often people fall into the trap of thinking that, if they create a cool walkable urban district or add a streetcar, tech startups and hipster coffee shops will somehow magically appear. But without a concerted effort to support local entrepreneurs, that is less likely. Conversely, it is increasingly difficult to attract talented millennials to suburbia.

Photo: Scott Meyer

Photo: Scott Meyer

Recently, some of my fellow Social Tilters got together in Brookings, SD to talk placemaking from the perspective of entrepreneurship and community building. Event organizer and host, Scott Meyer, describes placemakers as: “anyone who wants to make their community a better place to live and work, and is trying to make that place special.”

Emerging Prairie, a company dedicated to activating the startup and entrepreneurial community in Fargo, blogged about the Brookings gathering. Some highlights:

Creating community over business was a reoccurring theme throughout the event. Tom Stellman, founder and CEO of TIP Strategies in Austin Texas, works with small cities across the nation to help them with economic development. He has found that without strong community, a strong economy cannot exist.
Jim Gartin, President of the Greater Fargo-Moorhead Economic Development Corporation, encouraged other city leaders in the room to practice “economic gardening.”
“The idea is that, you gotta take care of your own,” he said. “Grow opportunities from within your market, instead of spending all that time chasing smokestacks. If you do it internally, those dollars stay within your system and revolve around. And then they’re involved in the cultural aspect as well as a business aspect.”

Secrets of placemaking

One of the goals behind Social Tilt’s event in Brookings was to learn about successful community building tactics and encourage attendees to apply them in their communities. Emerging Prairie’s post discusses some components of this secret sauce:

Secrets like starting an Empty Buildings Tour, as Deb Brown did in Webster City Iowa. By touring the empty buildings of their downtown, she was able to bring light to their potential; now, 10 of the 12 buildings are filled with new businesses.
Secrets like getting local entrepreneurs to meet each other and share what they’re doing, by giving them a platform with lots of free coffee. Nate Olsen shared how he did this in Kansas City, by starting an event called 1 Million Cups that now exists in over 70 cities around the nation.

There are plenty of other secrets and tools out there to grow and nurture the local economy. Obviously, it helps if local political leaders and economic development officials have evolved beyond chasing smokestacks and have started investing economic development resources in local companies.



However, there are plenty of things strong citizens can do to move the ball forward. A few tactics that come to mind (by no means is this an exhaustive list): getting entrepreneurs together regularly through events like startup drinks, creating coworking spaces, holding Startup Weekends, and creating startup incubators. Providing educational and coaching opportunities for entrepreneurs is another important component. 

I’m excited by the interplay between building great places and creating sustainable and vibrant local economies. Efforts on both fronts are maturing and becoming more sophisticated which gives me a lot of hope. Cheers to all the community builders out there!

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this interplay or secrets to grow the local economy organically. Please share in the comments.