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Margaret Cowell

The Evening Star restaurant in the Del Ray neighborhood in Alexandria, VA, near the new Virginia Tech Innovation Campus and Amazon headquarters.
The Evening Star restaurant in the Del Ray neighborhood in Alexandria, VA, near the new Virginia Tech Innovation Campus and Amazon headquarters.

Margaret Cowell: Giving Voice to "Those in the Shadow"

Margaret Cowell, associate professor in the School of Public and International Affairs in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies, has always cared about the underdog. With training in city and regional planning and urban studies, she has focused her research and outreach efforts primarily on economic and community development.

“I am essentially looking at what communities can do to remain or become successful in the 21st century,” Cowell said. “For example, how to help them be more competitive economically by assessing the landscape, learning what they are doing well, what they are struggling with, how they are falling behind.”

Early in her career she studied midwestern cities such as Cleveland and Detroit to learn about how communities responded to the loss of manufacturing jobs.

“I interviewed economic developers and mayors to explore what they knew about economic change, who was at the decision-making table when plants were closed and how local officials and cities dealt with the fallout from such announcements,” Cowell explained. She learned that often workers had little input into the process and decisions were made by leaders who had vastly different lived experiences than the workers.

Since then, Cowell has become even more interested in equity issues surrounding economic development in local communities. “I am interested in those whose voices are missing from these conversations.”

Currently, Cowell is heavily involved in two endeavors, an initiative called Vibrant Virginia, led by John Provo and the Office of Economic Development at Virginia Tech that focuses on the divide between urban and rural regions in the state, and the “Collaboratory,” a project funded by the Institute for Society, Culture and Environment, which uses a social science lens to examine issues related to the development of the new Amazon headquarters and Virginia Tech Innovation Campus in the greater Washington, D.C. area. While these two initiatives are distinct strands of work, they both give voice to those who are often “in the shadow” according to Cowell. 

Vibrant Virginia is a statewide effort that brings together academic institutions and communities to create linkages between rural and urban areas and improve the economic vitality of the state. Cowell is a long-time collaborator with key players in Virginia Tech’s Office of Economic Development, which is leading the Vibrant Virginia initiative. Cowell, along with Sarah Lyon-Hill, are the academic leads for Vibrant Virginia, tasked with writing an edited collection that investigates the urban-rural divide in Virginia. The book project is supported, in part, by the Virginia Tech’s Policy Destination Area.

“The book focuses on opportunities related to the ties that bind us. We are divided in many ways but there is a lot to be gained from working with one another. There is much to be explored about the institutions and endeavors that can bridge that divide,” explained Cowell.

In April 2020 Cowell and Lyon-Hill solicited chapters from policymakers, practitioners and academics across the state seeking works that describe community experiences or research related to university and community partnerships. The collection, slated to be published in 2021, will include topics such as education and workforce development; agriculture and the environment; entrepreneurship and innovation; cyber security and data analytics as well as health, including the opioid epidemic. In addition to these and other themes, the collection also aims to examine the multiple meanings of terms, such as urban and rural; highlight research on similarities or differences in urban and rural areas; and identify strategies to overcome discrimination or other cross cutting challenges that are present in both types of communities and those in between.

Cowell and Lyon-Hill are currently editing the collection, which includes 20 chapters submitted from a diverse group of authors, and will be submitting the book to the publisher in early 2021.

Cowell’s research on the Collaboratory project, in contrast to her work with Vibrant Virginia, focuses mainly on the urban end of the spectrum. She and her colleagues are examining the implications of Amazon’s decision to build its second U.S. headquarters in the Washington D.C. area, particularly its impact on small businesses in the surrounding area. The fact that Virginia Tech, through the development of its new Innovation Campus, will provide a pipeline of qualified job applicants to work for the online retailer and other high-tech industries, “makes the ripple effects more interesting and larger because of Tech’s involvement” said Cowell.

She is particularly interested in whether small local businesses, such as ‘mom & pop’ stores and restaurants, which are often “in the shadow” of the national giant, will see an increase in sales or otherwise benefit from the new association. Cowell’s colleagues in Urban Affairs and Planning are also exploring where people who will work at the new Amazon headquarters will live and how they will get to work since these factors also impact community life.

Cowell hopes the Collaboratory project will help government officials make sound decisions about how to respond to, and work with, Amazon and the Innovation Campus. “The goal of our work is to inform the policies they put in place to protect the neighborhoods and small businesses and make sure there is economic opportunity for everyone. I am thinking of the most vulnerable communities and those who may be pushed out. We want to help them to stay and to thrive.”

To expose students to these issues, Cowell has also incorporated some of her work with the Collaboratory into an applied studio class she teaches in which students conduct research for an external client. In Spring 2020, her students analyzed the current small business ecosystem in the neighborhoods that surround the new Innovation Campus site and provided recommendations to both Virginia Tech and the City of Alexandria about ways to respond to the impacts of this investment. This work also resulted in a StoryMap they created and posted online for relevant stakeholders to access as needed.

When asked about her main motivation for her work, Cowell says she hopes to help communities examine past approaches so that they can learn from earlier successes and avoid making the same mistakes.

“In both Vibrant Virginia and the Collaboratory, we are trying to shed light on things that are working and to think about the opportunities to work better together. We want to avoid getting stuck in the rut of division. That is very hard to do at this moment; the ties that bind us are what we are quick to overlook. It’s a very strange and divided time right now; but this is very important work to do.”