Professor Margaret Cowell, assistant professor in the Urban Affairs and Planning program in the School of Public and International Affairs and Faculty Fellow to the Metropolitan Institute, shared some of her background and research highlights recently.
Q: Please tell us a bit about your academic background.
I attended Brown University in Providence, RI, with the intention of becoming a medical doctor, however an undergraduate urban studies course sparked my curiosity and I quickly became obsessed with the subject and took every city-based course I could. I had the opportunity to study abroad in Cork, Ireland, a post-industrial city that felt much like the towns I’d grown up near in upstate New York, and a little like Buffalo or Cleveland. During my time abroad, Cork was seeing some growth with the ‘Celtic Tiger’ and my time there showed me another face of urban development in distressed areas. I then pursued a Masters degree in planning at the University of Buffalo – another excellent location for studying urban development in shrinking cities. Several years working and conducting research at the Federal Reserve Bank cemented my love for research. Driven by a desire to develop my own research agenda, I went back to school to pursue a PhD at Cornell University, working with Rolf Pendall and Susan Christopherson on transitional economies and regional resilience.
Q: What are your main research projects at the present time?
Currently, I’m working on a book manuscript to help us better understand how larger cities of the Midwest responded to deindustrialization in the 1970s and 1980s. The research is built on interviews I conducted with development officials, civic leaders, public officials, and private sector representatives in Buffalo, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Columbus, Detroit, Indianapolis, Milwaukee, and Pittsburgh to get a sense on the decision-making process and the economic development planning response crafted in each of these places. I talked to as many people as I could find, interviewing hundreds of individuals, asking questions like: What were the initial responses when the first plant closures were announced? Who was involved? Does hindsight offer any insight? I am not looking exclusively for best practices, but also lessons learned and mistakes made. Listening to the interviews, the real voices of the people, the issues become personal and absolutely fascinating. Even if you think you don’t care about the issue, you would find the conversations intriguing. Deindustrialization was an exciting and scary time, and those feelings resonate in today’s economic challenges. It’s hard to capture the personal impacts in just reviewing the planning process.
Saint Elizabeths project in Washington, DC: The project combines the efforts of a team of Virginia Tech researchers, including John Provo of the Office of Economic Development and Heike Meyer of the University of Bern, Switzerland, to develop an innovation strategy around the re-development of the St. Elizabeths East Campus. St. Elizabeths is a former mental health facility, totaling 300 acres in southeast Washington, DC. Currently, the General Services Administration (GSA) plans to relocate and consolidate the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) on the West Campus. The District governs 100+ acres on the East Campus, so our project focuses on how to best leverage this investment for the regional economy, and also how to integrate the surrounding community. It is one thing to have DHS involved in the area but it is another to bring in the private sector that normally co-locates with DHS. In addition, to private sector investment, we are also trying to integrate this development into the community better with ideas like a drop-in center, workforce development, a test-bed facility for consultants, or a DHS university or educational facility. What I’ve enjoyed most about this project has been getting to know the many people already at work in the St. Elizabeths neighborhood and the many people in DC government who are trying to ensure that we don’t miss this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Q: What led you to get excited about your research interest?
I grew up in a small college town in upstate NY, Oswego, where the economy was anchored by the nuclear industry and a small university. During my youth I was able to observe the economic challenges and slow decline that occurred over decades in Oswego. In many ways, I think this was a seed for my research interests today. I went to college in another transitional city — Providence, Rhode Island – and earned a Master’s degree in planning in another – Buffalo, New York. After my Master’s degree, I worked for the Buffalo Branch of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. The branch was unique in that it was essentially a think-tank that conducted research, particularly on the upstate New York regional economy. I built the tools necessary to analyze not only data sets, but also to reach out and gather information from struggling communities.
It was during the pursuit of the PhD that I began to work with the concept of resiliency. While researching Rust Belt regions, resiliency emerged as a way to frame the question. I see it as a theoretical framework to examine the transitions these places faced. Resiliency as a research focus intensified with the introduction of the MacArthur Foundation’s Research Network on Building Resilient Regions. As part of this group, I was able to meet and correspond regularly with leading scholars from planning, geography, political science, and sociology that were working on the problems of regional resilience. As part of this network, we spent a good portion of time defining resilience, investigating its relevance to regions, and thinking through the factors that make a region resilient to certain shocks and disruptions. Most of our work is available on the network’s website: http://brr.berkeley.edu/ One of my favorite pieces is an article that I wrote with Rolf Pendall and Kate Foster. The article — titled, “Resilience and Regions: Building Understanding of the Metaphor” – explores the concept of resilience and helps to clarify the concept. The article, and other ongoing explorations of the resilience concept, serves as a foundational reading for a course I now teach called, Community Resilience.
Q: What is unique about how you tackle these research projects?
My work has focused on not only quantifying the changes seen as a result of economic development decisions made in the face of deindustrialization, but also on capturing the sentiment and understanding the decision-making process in order to uncover the motivations and actors behind decisions and policy choices. The interviews from the Rust Belt work are quite unique – going back in time to harvest qualitative data, with the goal of seeing the “how” in addition to the “what.” Often we think we can say whether a policy or decision was successful or not based on the numbers, but the interviews uncover the reasons why a certain decision was made or a certain economic development path pursued. I ask, “Who made these decisions? What worked? What didn’t? But WHY did they work or not work? How did we arrive at the point of making those decisions?” Much of this is uncovered by talking with the people who were calling the shots and by examining plans and other archived documents of the past. I like to think that my work helps us to capture as much as we can from the past, helps us to avoid their mistakes, and learn from their lessons.
Q: What is the impact of your research on cities and the people living in cities?
The historical conversations are important to avoid making the same mistakes. We can use this knowledge to think through the effectiveness of the planning process, regional resilience in shrinking cities, economic development policy arena choices, and policy responses to slow-burning challenges like deindustrialization. The problems of shrinking cities continue today and are seemingly more relevant than ever. As we watch the Clevelands, Detroits, and Milwaukees of the world struggle with their ongoing campaigns to right-size their infrastructure, their footprints, and their government, we know that the long term resilience of these places will depend not only on the decisions they made in the past but also on the decisions they make today. How these transitions occur, and whether they occur gracefully or haphazardly, will likely affect the long-term resilience of these regions and the people whom call them home. ‘The Big 3’ automakers were essentially the original ‘too big to fail’ of the 70’s and 80s; this sentiment has been seen again in recent events and it’s shown us that we haven’t learned all that much from the mistakes of our past. As my research continues, I hope that the lessons learned from these interviews and from my archival research will help us better understand and navigate current and future challenges here in the United States, and in other countries.
Q: Is there a recent project or piece of research you’d like to showcase?
Kevin Desouza and I received a seed grant from the Institute for Society and Culture to build a research program on designing resilient networks for local communities. We will look into how communities organize themselves when in duress, below the radar of federal assistance programs. How do they form, make an impact, and then dissolve when the need is passed. Understanding the workings of community response helps in looking at disaster recovery but also in recovery from long-term ‘disasters’ such as economic collapse. I’m looking forward to this new angle on the resiliency question.