Building a startup ecosystem: my interview with Mike McGee of Starter League

One of the topics that I continue to study closely is the question of how startup ecosystems and other kinds of small business communities can best be supported, encouraged, fed and enabled to grow into their potential.  I did an interview a couple months back with Mike McGee, a central part of the Chicago startup ecosystem and one of the founders of Starter League, which teaches people from all backgrounds how to code.


As you’ll see from this interview, the ability to create web applications isn’t just relevant to “tech dudes” — increasingly, the ability to at least understand how code languages work and how to create things online becomes central to every kind of small business, even in fields where we don’t normally think of coding as a necessary skill.  Mike also gives us some insight here into how the different elements of the startup community in that city relate to each other — and it’s that interrelationship, as much as anything, that has a lot to do with why businesses like Starter League and others are growing in that city.

You can read the full interview at Creating Genius, a lovely publication that focuses on sharing entrepreneur’s stories and to which I have become an occasional contributor.  Here’s a selection from it:

Della:  Who takes your classes? What types of people end up getting involved with Starter League?

code classroom
Inside Starter League. From CreatingGenius Magazine

Mike:  It’s a very diverse group in terms of age, professional background, educational level, city, state, country, etc. The common thread is that our students typically are those who want to transform from consumer to creator.

The common thread is that our students typically are those who want to transform from consumer to creator.

They’ve worked in other industries and they’ve gone to school for another focus entirely, whether it’s history, education, law, retail, real estate. Every professional industry you can imagine. They’ve experienced problems in those areas and they’ve talked with their family and friends about them.

They often say things like, “Oh, it’d be great if I could solve this problem”, but it stops right there, because they don’t have the skills necessary to solve those problems with technology. It’s been festering and boiling inside of them. It’s like “If I could only do this…or if I only had these skills, I could build this app.”

That’s the thread that ties all of our students and graduates together, is that they are just sick of using someone else’s solution, or they’re sick of not having a problem solved. They want to take matters into their own hands and build a solution for it, or just to change their career.

Mike rocks, and you should definitely read the whole interview.  My thanks again to Mike for spending the time with me, and to Lee Constantine, CreatingGenius’s publisher.


Marketing Detroit (and other places): the deeper challenge

As I wrote last week, Andy Levine from DCI asked me and a few other economic development professionals to respond to the “Extreme Makeover: Detroit Marketing” challenge, as a part of a post he was preparing for  I posted the full piece that I had written, on the expectation that Andy would only use a bit of it, and he used more than I expected. Here’s the piece.

As I used to tell my writing workshop students back in my teaching days, the more concrete you make your writing, the better.  So, of course, the part that ends up in the Forbes article includes the oh-so-pretty picture of covering up a nasty scar with a thick application of makeup.  I think we all know how well that trick works…

To my surprise, the Detroit MetroTimes picked up the article, and said:

We particularly like this quote from Della G. Rucker, principal at Wise Economy Workshop:

“I know an extreme makeover sounds appealing. You spend a lot of money, you get a brand new fantastic look, right? But it is Detroit’s flaws that make Detroit unique. And real. You can’t hide them anyway. So be honest about them. Strive to address and fix them, but own them. Trying to hide them, when everyone and their mother knows they’re there, just makes them all the more obvious. It’s like putting a heavy layer of pancake makeup over a big scar — it might look better from a distance, but when you get close enough to connect, the caked mess says more about you than the actual flaw does.”

That was nice to see.  Thanks, folks.

But as I look at it again, I’m struggling even harder with the basic premise:

Is Detroit “the toughest sell in America,”as Andy said?  Well. maybe, possibly — if you’re talking only about the largest US cities, and you’re talking about marketing that city to everyone, everywhere.  And that’s what he probably meant (Forbes doesn’t want to run War and Peace, after all).

I would argue that Detroit already has a hell of a brand, a whopper of a marketing presence — at least in certain circles, among people who are attuned to what Detroit has to offer.  For crying out loud, I can’t go a week anymore without someone trying to tell me about Shinola, the Detroit-based watch manufacturer that completely bases its own branding on the Detroit Brand.

Now, caveat emptor: I live in the next-door state to Detroit, my husband is a product of the Detroit suburbs, I visit southwest Michigan pretty regularly, and I pay closer attention to Rust Belt and city revitalization and all those kinds of stories than the average joe.  So I might be a little too close to the situation to see what EveryOne Else in the world sees in Detroit.  And that powerful “brand” might be a niche thing, like a Shinola watch, and it might not have enough supporters to support the level of market presence that its population size and its physical scale needs to be sustainable.

But… Detroit most definitely has a brand, an it’s a powerful one.  Detroit right now is this collection of amazing, compelling, incredible stories…some hopeful, some tragic, many unresolved.  All powerful.

It’s a place that, even at the lower level where these stories have been finding their voice, you can see people of all types and of all backgrounds…resonating to it.  Responding to it.  Relating to it.

In a sense, the Detroit Story, writ large, is like a sweeping cinematic experience that pulls you in from the opening scene and then you can’t bring yourself to get up to go to the bathroom or get your popcorn out of the microwave.  Of course, the incredible and often cruel struggles that many Detroit residents face aren’t entertainment, and it’s crucial to the future of the city and the country that their situations improve, by a lot.

Think about the power, the emotional pull, of a place where people are fighting and trying and sometimes failing and rising with determination again.  Consumer goods use all kinds of tactics to tease an emotional response out of us.  For cryin out loud, they use lost puppies to sell beer and teddy bears to sell toilet paper.

Why?  Because we, all of us, make spending decisions based on our emotional response, in addition to logic.  Doesn’t matter what our income level, education level, self-importance level is. Otherwise, all marketing would consist of press releases.

Detroit doesn’t have to manufacture emotional response.  Detroit has it.  In bucketfuls. And I assure you, it’s more intoxicating than any mega-brew.

That’s why I said that a city that faces challenges like those Detroit has needs to own its flaws.  That history, that striving, even the striving among the wreckage, that’s what makes a place real.

We have so many Botoxed cities, pretty spin jobs, places that are desperately trying to invent overnight the kind of real-ness that Detroit and Cleveland and Milwaukee and their neighbors have.  Because they can see that when people only choose you because you’re cheap and you require little effort, they don’t have any reason to build the emotional connection that compels them to make a real investment.  They can see that because they’re living with it now.

So… I don’t think Detroit is a hard sell.  Detroit has pride.  Detroit has determination.  Detroit has a past and a present and a future that are complex, and messy, and unpredictable, and interesting. And it’s a place where a person, a business, would have a fairly decent chance of being part of building something that they can truly care about.  And Cleveland, and Buffalo, and Mansfield, and Elyria, and South Bend, and Rockford… you can pick the flavor that suits you best, but if you want a place you can sink your teeth into, I can show you several dozen.

Marketing, traditionally, was about razzle-dazzling you into thinking Product A was the answer to all your needs. After a hundred years or more of traditional marketing, it’s pretty clear that the bloom is long off that rose.  Marketers of all types are desperately trying to convert from flash to relationship building.  And if you have a relationship with someone or some place, that means that you care about it.

I’d say that for marketing Detroit, and other Rust Belt cities, the time has come.  You have the kind of product to sell that a lot of people are looking for.  So the real task, and the focus of your marketing, is actually pretty simple:

Start spreading the news.

Because we are all our own magazines, Nous sommes tous Charlie, now more than ever

I wrote this last week at EngagingCities in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo massacre. After some thought, I decided that it was worth re-sharing here, because any of us who tweet, share, write online or do any of this stuff, for whatever reason and from whatever personal or professional justification, face a common echo: the fear that what we say is going to make someone not like us.  Be mad at us.  Maybe even lash out or try to get back at us.

Of course, most of us will never fear for our lives or need bodyguards because of what we publicly write or say.  But we all have to make a tiny version of that choice sometimes: speak the truth as we perceive and understand it, or back off and protect our self-interest.

Like many Americans, I had never heard of Charlie Hebdo before last week, and I know enough now to know that satirical cartooning means something in the French culture that I can’t fully understand.  And although my pathetically bad French means that I am lucky if I can catch the drift of anything I have seen reprinted, I understand  from more well-versed sources that the weekly’s cartooning and editorial staff may have sometimes made decisions that would seem from my perspective to be in bad taste.  But that’s a core requirement of free speech, and speaking the truth as you perceive it, is about: sometimes you get it wrong.

We have always, each of us, faced a personal challenge between expressing that truth as we see it and holding back to avoid conflict.  But as we increasingly become our own mini-magazines, generating our content of what we create or what we curate to the people who read us, that challenge takes on a little more urgency.  The ability to speak to more than the people in our families and offices becomes both an opportunity, and an obligation.  Exercising free speech isn’t just something that journalists and authors and protestors do.  It’s something we have the power, and burden, to do, on a regular basis.  As I tried to describe in this piece, and talked about in the Local Economy Revolution book, the best word I know for that is bravery.  

I wrote this piece below because EngagingCities mostly functions as a digest, and we find and curate and share content that we find in blogs and niche publications and newsletters that we think adds something to the international conversation about the nexus of democracy, planning and technology. Most of those seem pretty non-controversial, but I know very well the trepidation you get sometimes when you share anything you have written, especially when you are just throwing it out there into the universe like a blogger does.  And some of the writers we share, and the readers who share us, are working in places where free speech can’t be quite so much taken for granted.

So I wanted to write both an reflection on the diffusion of the role of “media,” and give those folks a little encouragement at the same time.  But the piece at EC hasn’t gotten as much attention as our usual, so perhaps I made the kind of mistake in my exercise of free speech that I talked about before.  If you have any feedback, please do let me know.  Thanks.

Nous sommes tous Charlie, now more than ever

From the Editor

ARTICLE | JANUARY 8, 2015 – 11:00AM


By now you have probably heard from a thousand journalists more qualified than I, at a few hundred publications with more readers than us, as they respond to the incomprehensible, stomach-ache-inducing events in Paris today — where people whose job was to poke, prod, and make us admit what we didn’t want to admit, died viciously because they had done that.

Even those of us who can’t draw a stick figure recognize the impulse to truth, to share truth, or at least what we can see of truth, that guided the creators of a magazine like Charlie Hebdo.  Sometimes we all get it right, sometimes, we realize afterward, we didn’t.  But if you share information with an audience, whatever your format, you do it because there’s something that you think the world needs to hear.

The response, from thousands of people in the Place de Republic and across Europe and the world, is emblazoned on placards: “Not Afraid.”  And embodied in ball point pens held aloft like a sword.   Thank you, Parisians and those elsewhere.  Thank you for your determination.

There’s two ways to interpret that response, and the statement,  “Je suis Charlie [I am Charlie].  One is in support for journalists, journalism, satirists, cartoonists.  The importance and power of the Fourth Estate as a bulwark of democracy.  All well and good.

But when I saw the hands with pens held high like standards, I didn’t just think about magazines and professionals.  I thought about the bloggers, Medium authors, niche publications and plain old regular people whose work we read and sort through and share with you here.  Most of the time, what they write and what we share is not controversial stuff — it’s how-tos for getting people to pay attention to your project, news of some community opening its data, neat initiatives somewhere that introduce us to ideas like “gamification.”  But those writers raise their voices; they take the risk of putting their ideas out into the world.  And we consider it a central part of our job to try to signal boost as many of these voices as possible.

In a very real sense, the solidarity cry of “Je suis Charlie” means more than just “I support and value free speech and journalism.” That’s true, but there’s another dimension to the story.

Every one of us has become a piece of that Fourth Estate.  We do that every time we share a Facebook story or retweet an article.  I think a lot about that responsibility anymore, especially on my personal platforms. We, each of us, shape  the conversation in a way that the compatriots of the French Revolution could not have imagined. We each run our own micro-magazines.

For you who read and share EngagingCities content, and for you who write the words that we try to boost, I know that you sense the importance of your piece of that responsbility.  You are not just dealing in gossip or gee-whiz.  You’re working, in one form or another, to strengthen, build, fix peoples’ relationships with their communities.  You’re trying to use the tools of technology, data, and communication to change the way our places operate and the role that people play in deciding their community’s future.

As some of you know all too well, asserting that we can do it better implies that the way things are now isn’t good enough.  In doing so, you show us our current weaknesses and prod us to strive to get better.  And that often comes at a price.

In a certain sense, we all now have to own a piece of Charlie Hebdo’s burden. If we want our communities to be better, we have to shine a light on the parts that are not working, using whatever technical, artistic or rhetorical skills we have to work with.  For most of us, the price of doing that won’t come anywhere near what the people in Paris paid.  But some of you reading this are working in places where you risk much more than just an angry comment or a cold shoulder.

Joe Randazzo used to edit The Onion, a U.S.-based satirical “fake news” publication that I’ve loved for decades.  Joe wrote this today at MSNBC:

You cannot kill an idea by murdering innocent people – though you can nudge it toward suicide.

That is the real threat: that we’ll allow our fear, or our anger, to kill ourselves.

The most crucial work of journalism, whether we carry a press pass or no, is the work of that idea — telling what we see as clearly and accurately as we can, but not backing away from it because it might make someone angry.  If we have the gift of a voice, the benefit of a platform that reaches a dozen or a hundred or a couple thousand people, we have both the opportunity and the responsibility to take on a piece of that work ourselves.  And when the field in which we find ourselves speaking has as much urgency as enabling our citizens to  participate better in their communities, then the opportunity, and the responsibility, extends even further.

I doubt I, or most of you, will ever be targeted by gunmen for writing in favor of improved public engagement.  Stephane Charbonnier, editor of Charlie Hebdo, knew that his life was at risk for what he published, and he chose to remain true to his responsibility to hold up that mirror, stating now famously that he would rather die standing than live on his knees.  I don’t have much ability to respond to that level of bravery, other than to know that I would probably never live up to that.

But I think I can find a little more determination, with what megaphone I have and with the small part of the world that I address, to hold up that mirror more steadily, with less wavering, less wobbling, with more resistance against the urge to turn it away or shift it to a little more flattering angle, so that the person looking in it likes me a little more.

Je suis, et nous sommes tous, Charlie.  Merci.


My thanks to Rebecca Maclean of @foodmeonce for late-night checking of my French.


Come see us! Why This Work Matters hits the road

Sorry for the double post, but in case you didn’t see this on the blog for the Why This Work Matters book — wanted to make sure you knew that we’re developing what I think will be an interesting and rewarding way for people to explore their own frustrations about their work in communities — and reconnect with their passion for doing it.  If you’d be interested in doing this in your own community or at your own conference, let me know.


I’m thrilled to say that you have two upcoming opportunities to join in the discussion of Why wtwm cover ebookYour Work Matters with your colleagues and some of the authors this fall!

On October 3, I will be moderating a panel at the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Planning Conference with Jason Segedy, Mike Hammes and Bill Lutz.  We’ll be talking about the experiences that they shared in the book and their experience managing the demands of working to make communities better on their time and their energy.  Knowing these guys, this will be a no-holds-barred, brutally honest discussion.  To learn more about attending, check out

On October 17, Kimberly Miller and I will be leading a discussion at the Texas Chapter of the American Planning Association’s Annual Conference.  We’ll be sharing our own insights and selections from the book, but more importantly, we’ll be able to have a discussion of frustration, burn out and determination among all the participants.  I think this will be an amazing experience, and I’m intensely looking forward to aving a deep, free-flowing conversation!   For more information, check out

I’ll also be preparing audio, and maybe video, of the sessions, so if you can’t get to these, stay tuned.

Fall 2014 Speaking/Running Around Update

Just realized that I’m overdue to give you an update on upcoming speaking / tapdancing gigs.  There’s a few that are still floating around, so expect to see some updates in the next few weeks.  Here we go!


  • From September 12 to 14, I’ll be hanging with the cool kids at the Strong Towns National Gathering in Minneapolis, helping Strong Towns supporters figure out where they want to go and how they can best make a difference.  I’m pretty excited about the way Strong Towns is growing and evolving, and it will be a blast to get back to Minneapolis proper for the first time in a few years.


  • On September 17th, I’ll be teaching two sessions at the Great Placemaker’s Lab event in Columbus. Ohio.  The first one, “Managing the Axe-Grinders,” is an exploration of methods for facilitating more effectiveand fair public meetings (spoiler alert: we do role playing!  You get to be the meeting’s wing nut for a change!).  The second one, “Hack Your City,” focuses on techniques for enabling grassroots civic tech to help communities make better-informed decisions and share the burden.


  • On September 21 and 22, I’ll be at the Heritage Ohio Annual conference in Kent, Ohio.  Any speaking I do there will be to help uncover information to guide a client’s project, so I’ll send more targeted information on that when I know more.


  • On October 1-3, I’ll be at the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional American Planning Association Conference in Lexington, Ohio.  As a result of, I suppose, karma coming back to bite me for something I don’t remember doing, I’ll be givng my best Phil Donohue impression for two sessions.  One in the veeery first time slot, and one in the veeery last.    The first one is with Martin Kim, Jason Segedy and Steve Strains in a tough heart-to-heart about the real-world struggles and victories that come with trying to create a regional land use plan.  This will be the first time Martin and I have had a chance to talk about the Going Places process since it wrapped up in May, and I’m looking forward to the opportunity to set that complex and often emotional process within a larger framework.  And all three of those guys rock.

At the end of the conference, I’ll be leading a discussion with three of the contributors to Why This Work Matters, talking honestly about frustration, short-staffing, burnout, and remembering why we do what we do.  This will be the first time we’ve done this kind of a discussion, and it won’t be the last.


  • On Friday, October 17, I will be doing a second conversation based on Why This Work Matters with Kimberly Miller at the Texas APA conference in Plano.  That one’s scheduled for late afternoon — more when I know more.


If you’re going to be at any of these events, please let me know!  And if you’re looking for a speaker to give your peeps a push on economic development, entrepreneurship, tech or public engagement, just say the word.  Beats heck out of sitting in the office…



Economic Development as Junk Food?

A couple of weeks ago, I did an Ignite-style presentation for the International Economic Development Council’s conference in Minneapolis, Minnesota. I was riffing on a theme that Bill Lutz wrote about here about a year ago, and that showed up in the Local Economy Revolution book as well.  The premise I was working from:

Most of us know in our guts what we need to do.  We need to diversify our tool kits for helping our communities, we need to stop acting like our three favorite projects can solve everything, we need to learn from the full range of others who are trying to make communities better and start designing more sophisticated, more flexible, more collaborative strategies for addressing our communities’ real issues.  Just throwing incentives at new businesses that promise a bunch of minimum-wage jobs, or sinking money into a fancy streetscape on the assumption that it will magically fill the storefronts… come on, we know that’s not they way to really make a difference.

We all know that.  But we keep doing it.  Why?

It’s kind of like why we keep eating junk food.  It tastes good!  It makes us happy! Yeah, it probably makes us fat, and maybe lazy, and it doesn’t help anything important, like our community’s health, get better.  But….

I kind of like doing Ignites, because they force me to be concise and push me out of my comfort zone a little bit.  And they don’t require a full lunch hour to watch, like most speeches.

So enjoy. And additional thanks to Cecelia Harry for womaning the video camera for me.

CNU22 and IEDC: A Tale of Two Conferences

As I’ve noted elsewhere, I spent last week at two conferences – the International Economic Developers Council and the Congress for the New Urbanism – where I figured I was the only soul who would schlep from one to the other.  They’re not exactly sides of the aisle that are known for being all buddy – buddy with each other. While I’m a regular at IEDC stuff, this was my first CNU – as I explained yesterday, I was there because a consulting team on which I had served was slated to receive an award.  Good reason to drag yourself from Minneapolis to Buffalo, I figured.  I was wrong about being the only one doing that, though.

Emily J. Brown is a planner and writer who plays a big role in IEDC’s research arm.  She’s also a CNU chapter board member.  So I thought that was she wrote after the two conferences was particularly illuminating — and important for a wider range of people to read.  Even though there’s a big silo in this photograph, I think it’s clear that we all have to get past our silos and start engaging in a meaningful fashion across community disciplines.  If we ever had problems that could be solved by just one of our types working along, we don’t anymore.

The interesting question to me is that I think I am starting to see a few small-scale cross-pollinations between community professions, but mostly we still say “yeah, we need to be working together” while housed safely within out organizations.  If we mean it, how do we start connecting across the disciplines?  Is that something that professional organizations can lead, or does that have to come from somewhere else?  What do you think?

Emily’s post was brief, so I’ll paste it in below.  I’d recommend you follow her at or on Twitter at @ebrowndowntown.

Here’s Emily:

In the past week, I have been lucky enough to attend conferences of two of the most influential groups in the planning realm—the International Economic Development Council’s Spring Conference in Minneapolis, MN and the 22nd Congress for New Urbanism in Buffalo, NY. Though two conferences in one week can take a toll, I feel very fortunate to have been exposed to cutting edge thinking on building high-functioning communities from two very different angles.

In planning, there’s always been some tension between the policy folks and the design crowd. Those on the policy side pooh-pooh design, while advocating “real solutions.” In the economic development side these

Presentation at CNU
From Emily Brown

solutions ideally lead to jobs. Designers answer that the policy folks are not thinking holistically and advocate for elegantly framed places that organically attract people, investment, and yes, eventually, more jobs.

As a board member of my local CNU chapter and an employee of IEDC, I’ve got one foot in both worlds, and from where I stand, I see them growing closer together. In Minneapolis, economic developers were talking about the importance of new transit options in attracting and retaining a quality workforce, while in Buffalo, there were multiple sessions discussing the financial aspects of denser development. Often, I feel like the two groups discuss the same problems with different language. Such as when economic developers talk about fostering an “entrepreneurial culture” and new urbanists expound on the virtues of “lean urbanism.”

The last week has proved to me that the overlap in the Venn diagram between new urbanists and the economic developers is large and growing. Of course there are areas that don’t fit in—new urbanists don’t really have much to add to the conversation on engagement with Workforce Investment Boards, for example, and economic developers could care less about articulated windows, but the two groups could benefit from more interaction and conversation as both work towards finding solutions in a new economy.


For interesting discussion on financially-solvent economies, economic developers should check out Chuck Marohn’s blog, Strong Towns. They presented at Spring Conference, too!

Also don’t miss Joe Minicozzi’s work on the financial case for mixed-use development: here and here

Urbanists should check out the work of economic development consultant Della Rucker, who was part of the team working on the Charter Award winning form-based code for Cincinnati:

Also consider following @iedctweets for information on our webinars, blog posts, and newly released papers.



I learned something: Cincinnati Form-based code team wins CNU Grand Prize

Last week I had the pleasure of being one of the people who got to represent the Cincinnati Form-Based Code consulting team at the Congress for the New Urbanism’s annual meeting in Buffalo. I had the pleasure of leading a team on that project that managed public engagement and public relations — that included Tammy Monroe, Northlich LLC, Sam McKinley’s Sustainable Places Studio and Patrick Whalen.

While I have some ongoing ambivalence toward the New Urbanism movement -(Ok, more with some of the tone and tenor, which I am planning to explore in an upcoming post) getting back together with the team gave me a chance to think through again what I learned out of that process, which finished more than a year ago.  And since the next Wise Fool book will be on public engagement, the timing is pretty good.

So here’s a few of the things I am remembering:

  • People need graphics to build understanding of their physical environment.  I kind of knew that, but I am such a verbal person by my wiring that I tend to forget that.  The power of being able to show people graphics – and revise them on the fly – I think does get through a lot of the mental barriers that people encounter when they try to think about what a different future would look like for their community. Most of us only have whatever stock of mental images we have in our heads, and that sense of unknown is probably a big part of what we often tag as recalcitrant NIMBY-ism.  Perhaps it’s not NIMBY, it’s frustration at lack of vocabulary.


  • BUT, showing people pictures isn’t enough.  The planner/designer has to be like a good teacher — part guide, part leader, part collaborator.  The team that worked the charrette process in Cincinnati (largely consisting of Opticos and Urban Design Associates staff) seemed to me to honor and value the eye-to-eye feedback they got from the community members.  That’s also a humongous part of the reason why a citywide form-based code passed in what’s historically a pretty cautious community. The people of the communities understood what the code was doing – it wasn’t done to them, it was done with them.  Based on about a million other proposals that I have seen choke and die once they get out of the designer’s hands, both in Cincinnati and elsewhere, that real collaboration is probably the single most important reason why this project actually came to life and is being used.   We the professionals (of whatever stripe) forget that way too easily, and get caught up in the castles we built in the air.  If the people who have to live in those castles don’t come to own the castle themselves, you have wasted your time.  And they will not buy it based on your illustrious resume or your assertions that it will all be lovely.  That might have worked 40 years ago, when both professionals and communities were more naive, but not you’re dealing with people and places who have probably been burned more than once.  And as every person becomes their own potential publishing platform, your ability to snow them withers fast. That didn’t happen in Cincinnati on this project, because people didn’t feel like they were being snowed, but the speed and vehemence with which people can push back if they feel they’re being talked down to — and the number of people they can reach overnight –continues to amaze me.  I’ve seen that kind of backlash across different geographies, demographics and education/income levels, and it seems like it gets more intense every time.  So there’s really no rational reason to think you can get away with pushing your project over on them.  If that had happened in Cincinnati on the form-based code, I assure you that you would have never heard about it again.


  • Gaining the trust and collaboration of the community is more about soft skills than hard skills.  The guys who could draw the best technically weren’t necessarily the best charrette managers.  The design professionals who empathized with the residents, probed honestly, explored transparently, and explained patiently…those were the ones where you could see the energy flowing through the whole group working together.  And those were the groups whose communities are moving forward today.


  • People get economics.  And economics matter a hell of a lot to their willingness to take risks with their community.  One of the things that surprised me when my team first came on the form based code part of the job was that the lead firm had already lined up two economic development specialists.  I will admit now that my nose got just a skotch out of joint — like a kid saying “Hey! I can play in that sandbox too!!!”  But being in the public engagement/ PR role gave me a chance to watch the interactions in a way that I probably couldn’t if I were doing that part.  And what I saw was that Ed Starkie of Urban Advisors and Kathleen Norris of Urban Fast Forward were able to connect with the residents, through logic and data and through stories, and help them understand and articulate the latent potential of the places.  They were able to give these folks a very practicable, take-to-the-bank counter to the negative press, the narrative of disinvestment that had come to tag their communities.  And even though many of them sensed, sort of knew intuitively that the bleak picture wasn’t accurate, they didn’t have the tools, the rational foundation, to give them a basis for pushing ahead, and pushing back on the doubters.  That’s a crucial element — and I came to the conclusion that giving people this sort of mental re-framing turned out to be every bit as important as deciding how tall buildings should be and what kinds of porches fit the environment.  Designers, understandably, don’t always get the importance of community economics.  But in this case, paying close attention to how the designs might interplay with the community’s economies gave residents and political representatives the intellectual foundation to be able to support potentially risky proposals.  And again, if that happened, you would be reading something else now.

So my deep thanks again to the City of Cincinnati and to my friends and partners on the consulting team for this great experience.  And thanks to the more than 700 people who turned out to get their hands into this process.  Y’all did good.

The slide. We knew the project was getting an award, but we didn’t know it was getting one of the big kahunas.


You Should Read This: We Have Met the Enemy and He Is Us

My friend Jason Segedy posted something last week that I think should be required reading for every urban planner, every zoner, every economic developer and every other local government administrator.


If you teach college courses, you should be making your students read this.  If you manage a department, you should make your staff read this.  If you write a blog, you should reblog it.  Period.

It’s complicated stuff, and I know it will take you a couple of minutes.  And that you have other stuff to do.  And if you’re honest, this will make you squirm.

Read it anyways.


We Have Met the Enemy and He Is Us

By Jason Segedy

May 22, 2014

Follow me on Twitter @thestile1972


Cascade Plaza, Akron (completed 1968) – A place with the all of the human warmth of a Soviet gulag, and a living humility lesson for urban planners

Hilary went to her death
Because she couldn’t think of anything to say
Everybody thought that she was boring, so they never listened anyway.

-Belle & Sebastian, If You’re Feeling Sinister

Charles Marohn of Strong Towns writes a great post today about the planning profession, its future, and some of its present challenges.


We need the planning profession to not only be relevant but we need planners to be leaders in our communities. The current planning paradigm is stuck in 1950’s thinking. It is old, stodgy and defensive. It not only clings to dogmatic beliefs about zoning, projections and centralized planning but fails in the most important duty of any credentialed profession: to systematically challenge itself to improve.

APA comes across as less concerned about great planners and great places than in ensuring continued employment for their dues-paying members (and collecting said dues). 

His critique is spot-on.  The urban planning profession does a lot of good work, but Chuck is absolutely correct when he says that we are stuck in 1950s thinking; and are, far too often, defensive, dogmatic, unapproachable, inflexible, and needlessly abstruse*.

*See: I could have simply said “difficult to understand”

As a profession, we are generally followers, rather than leaders; risk-averse; and poor communicators.

Indeed, our three greatest weaknesses as a profession are in the realm of: 1) public policy leadership; 2) risk-taking; and 3) authentic, substantive, two-way communication.


Take public policy leadership, for example.  Even now, after spending the past 19 years as an urban planner, I am still continually struck by how rare it is to hear or see a planning official actually offer a substantive subjective opinion on anything.

Planners make plenty of definitive statements when it comes to objective matters (e.g. “the code does not allow for that use”; “the design manual clearly states that these lanes must be 12 feet wide”; “the benefit/cost ratio of the project is sufficient to justify public investment”).

But you hear nary a peep from most planners on matters that they consider to be the least bit subjective.

Subjectivity is not a dirty word.  It is an inescapable reality of decision-making.

The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was to convince us that objective criteria are not subjectively chosen.

The code doesn’t allow for that use, because whoever wrote it made a subjective value judgment that that use was a bad idea at that location.

The design manual states that those lanes must be 12 feet wide, because whoever wrote it made a subjective value judgment that wide lanes are better than narrow lanes on that type of road.

All of these supposedly objective criteria reflect someone’s subjective value judgments about what is important. This doesn’t by any means invalidate them, but it should remind us that measures like the “cost-effectiveness” of a project are predicated upon subjective value judgments of what “effectiveness” means.

None of the supposedly “objective” tools that planners use came down from Mount Sinai carved into stone tablets.  They are all rooted in someone’s subjective opinions.

This should be self-evident, but, far-too-often, it is not.

I would argue that it is your job as an urban planner to have clear opinions on urban planning and development issues.  This doesn’t mean that your opinions are the most important ones, or that they are always right, or that they should be written in blood, or carved into those selfsame stone tablets, or that you can never change your mind; but the very essence of public policy leadership is the ability to say “I think that ‘this’ is better (or worse) than ‘that’, and here’s why”.

Then, let the debate begin…

We do elected officials and the general public a grave disservice when we shirk this particular responsibility.

I hear many planners dismiss the entire notion of public policy leadership with statements like “Well, yes, but we only play an advisory role, anyway…And it is the job of others to decide.”

Well, of course.  So what’s your point?

First of all, if you are an adviser, then for the love of God, you should be advising people.

Secondly, since when was it only the people with the formal, official power to change things, that were the ones who actually changed them?

In reality, hasn’t it often been the precise opposite?

Those with the formal power to lead, and to change things, have often been the very people that most vigorously enforced the status quo, and kept things from changing.

Think about it: the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the Abolitionist Movement, the Civil Rights Movement…

Most of the people in this world that have changed it for the better were precisely those that did not have the formal power to change it.  In fact, many of them did things to that were considered inappropriate, illegal, or heretical, and they were often ostracized, abused, jailed, or killed for their trouble.

It is safe to say that few urban planners are going to end up jailed or martyred for their beliefs.  So what is stopping us from becoming thought leaders?


It is often fear that is stopping us.  Most urban planners are risk-averse.

In a battle, or in mountain climbing, there is often one thing which it takes a lot of pluck to do; but it is also, in the long run, the safest thing to do. If you funk it, you will find yourself, hours later, in far worse danger. The cowardly thing is also the most dangerous thing.

-C.S. Lewis

I am fond of saying that the best humility lesson for today’s urban planners is a five-minute meditation upon the fact that our primary job is fixing the mistakes that urban planners made 40 years ago.  It will be all too easy for us to fall into the exact same trap.

At first blush, this would appear to imply that our risk-averse, conservative professional tendencies are justified.  But I would argue that it should lead us to the exact opposite conclusion.

Trends are an inescapable fact of life.  They are not going anywhere anytime soon.  Some trends leave lasting positive impacts, and are healthy reactions to things that truly need to change; some trends leave no impact whatsoever, and are harmless fads; while other trends leave lasting negative impacts, and in retrospect prove to be huge mistakes.

The history of urban planning is full of examples of all three types of trends.  The simple lesson for planners is that we can’t escape from any of these trends simply by staying risk averse.

It is our job to try to sift through them, figure out which is which, and to do our best to embrace and promote the first type of (positive) trend; to not concern ourselves too much one-way-or-the-other with the second type of (neutral) trend; and to actively resist and fight against the third type of (negative) trend.

This means that we need to be smart, savvy, and vigilant; to provide leadership; to exercise good judgment, and to demonstrate humility at the same time.

We need courage, integrity, and honesty; recognizing that it is not primarily our job to try to look good, or to tell people what they want to hear so they will like us, or to seem smart, clever, or important; but, instead, to tell the truth – to elected officials, to the general public, and to ourselves.

In fact, it is precisely our fear, and our unwillingness to take risks, that ensures that our profession will continue to be marginalized, and considered unimportant by most people.

The job is about helping people, and about making their lives better.  If you are an urban planner, and this is not primarily what you are concerned with, you should clear out your desk immediately and go do something else, because that’s the job. That’s what it’s all about.  The rest is just a bunch of paperwork and technical details.

Which leads me to my last point…


It’s about people.

Urban planners, as a general rule, are poor communicators.  This is unfortunate, because (like most jobs) communication is the single most important skill that you can possess.  It is not a substitute for other skills, but it is indispensable if you want to be effective at what you do.

This is especially true in a profession that involves ideas and concepts.  The success of your ideas or concepts is heavily dependent upon your ability to effectively communicate them.

One of the saddest ironies of the urban planning profession is that although it is fundamentally about people and places (two things that most people have a profound personal interest in) we end up managing to boil nearly all of the life out of it, and transform it into one of the most boring and obscure endeavors that there is.

But men love abstract reasoning and neat systematization so much that they think nothing of distorting the truth, closing their eyes and ears to contrary evidence to preserve their logical constructions.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky

The reasons for why this is the case could fill another entire blog post, but suffice it to say that much of it has occurred through a mixture of professional arrogance, an affinity for abstraction, sheer ignorance, and a lack of simple human empathy for our constituents.

Too often, we end up blaming the victim, and when our ideas, or concepts, or intentions are misunderstood; we are far too quick to criticize elected officials or members of the general public (intentionally or not) as being ill-informed, unenlightened, or disengaged.

Here’s a hint: when virtually no one seems to be able to understand what you are saying, perhaps it is time to look in the mirror and consider the fact that you may need to change your approach.

When no one seems to be able to get excited about what you are doing, or promoting, or planning, perhaps it is time to reevaluate the way that you are doing things.

When people are complaining on a regular basis that you are not listening to them, that they do not have a voice, and that you are just going through the motions, perhaps it is time to consider that they may be right.

Urban planning, done well, is one of the most engaging, exciting, and invigorating of all human pursuits.  It is the stuff of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Library of Alexandria, Central Park, the Eiffel Tower, Greenwich Village, and Rockefeller Center.

At its highest and best, it is about the diverse and wondrous array of people that comprise our society; and about the incredible places and spaces in which they live, work, and play.  At bottom, these are things that every person is interested in, because everyone interacts with other people, and everyone exists within time and space.

Urban planning doesn’t have to be all about lifeless charts, and graphs, and maps, and budgets, and zoning codes, and design manuals, and forecasts, and plans, and other similar abstractions. These are simply tools.  They are means to an end.  Far too often, we portray them as ends in themselves.  And when we do, we only have ourselves to blame.

Chuck Marohn is right:  the most important duty of any credentialed profession is not to ensure continued employment for its due-paying members; it is to systematically challenge itself to improve.

Am I full of it? Explaining a new (old) consulting service

I had to write some new text today explaining how I do public engagement — in the consulting world, we call this “boilerplate” because they’re the pieces of general information that you can drop in when you need to and supplement with more specific details.  As I was going through this, I ended up inventing a sort of brand name or catchphrase for how I do this, since “get people-together-and-help-them-make-the-decisions-directly” got pretty tiring to type over and over again.

So I’m not wedded to StratSet (and it may indicate that I’ve been hanging out with the tech guys too much), but I think the description is on task.  At least, if it says to the rest of the world what it says inside my own head, then I think it describes how I do strategic planning and public engagement pretty accurately.  Problem is, though, I’m kinda stuck inside this thing…

Would you be willing to take a read through this and tell me what you think?  Does it make sense?  Does it sound like something that might be beneficial?  And while I don’t want you to obsess over it, does the StratSet name work?

I’ll be watching the comment box below eagerly… and hopefully.  Thanks.

Decisions that Matter, Decisions that Hold: the Wise Economy Workshop StratSet  Method

Governments and nonprofits need to make good plans, but they also need to do something much harder: they need to set strategies that can survive.  With crunched budgets, stretched staff, competing demands and more and more voices in the discussion, a plan’s decisions have to not only make sense, they have to earn the ownership of more people and more partners than ever before.

But conventional methods of plan development and public engagement around plans doesn’t do this well.  Here’s the first issue: we limit the real decision-making to just a handful of insiders, and we gingerly reach out to anyone else, asking for their “feedback” or their “ideas” or their support.”  By doing that, we have cut our planning efforts off at the knees.  Lots of people care about our community, and they want to do more.  And many of them have the power, the resources, or the connections to help the plan’s recommendations happen – or prevent them.  But they know when they’re not being offered a seat at the table, and if you exclude them, they’re naturally not going to participate.  When you need it, they’re not going to help you.  And they may fight you instead.

Similarly, the way we conventionally make plan decisions with our insiders doesn’t do much to build a personal or professional stake in the outcomes – the kind of ownership needed if people are going to stand up for the plan during a debate over the funding it needs, or advocate for your Big Ideas to the rest of the community.  We make it far too easy for even our insiders to play nice, to let us interpret their silence as support.  No wonder we are so often surprised when those insiders who served on the steering committee, who supposedly “supported” the plan, are nowhere in sight when we need them.

The Wise Economy Workshop StratSet method pulls from the best teaching and team-leading tactics to turn plan-making into a powerful launchpad into the community’s future.  StratSet methods create a clear set of shared, prioritized actions that come from the collective work of everyone we can bring to the table.  But that doesn’t means it’s a free-for-all or a parade of impossible ideas.  Instead, the StratSet method uses carefully-designed activities and shared group objectives to channel the participants.  The StratSet method enables them to understand real constraints, develop real-world solutions, and create them in collaboration with people they have never met.

No more showboating, no more grandstanding in public meetings.  No more “public feedback” that has nothing to do with reality.  No more plans that become unusable because no one truly supported the recommendations enough to take a stand.  No more claims of “that was their idea,” “they didn’t really listen to us,”  “The whole thing was a waste of time.”  Instead, StratSet builds a prioritized plan of action that everyone owns.  Your community and political leaders can trace how it was developed, understand the choices and their reasons, and see the range of support behind the recommendations.  And the people who worked on it will be more likely to support the hard decisions that a meaningful plan will create.

We can all do better, together.

How does the StratSet method work?

Economics matter.

People understand that economic issues are some of the biggest factors in the long-term viability of a community — and that even supposedly non-economic issues, like parks or internal operations, have big economic implications.   StratSet draws out the economic implications of the issues that are driving the plan through carefully-selected information sharing and group evaluation.  This gives participants a deep understanding of the importance of the issues that they will be working on, and gives them an immediate reason to stay at the table in the face of all the other demands on their time.

The Participants make (and own) the plan.

When professionals or a Star Chamber of insiders are allowed to make the plan decisions alone, the plan probably won’t do what it was intended to do – make the community better.  Plans need more than good ideas; they need support. Broad support, committed support.  The kind of support that you will only give when you have deep personal, intellectual and emotional ownership of the recommendation.  With so many competing demands and so few resources, only the recommendations that have these kinds of supporters are going to come to life.  Since Stratset participants grapple with the issues and evaluate the options themselves, they understand the potential of those recommendations better than you will ever convey in a written plan.  And that’s a powerful ownership that will make the difference in whether your recommendations get set in action or sit on a shelf.


Part of the reason why planners fear involving the public is because we’ve all been through too many useless free-for-alls or wild imagination sessions.  No one wants to be part of that kind of public engagement – not the planners, not the residents, not the elected officials.  In trying to give everyone a chance, we end up hearing from only a few, and no one gets anything beneficial out of it.

StratSet draws on a method that school teachers use to enable students to work together to build a rich understanding of complex issues.  Cooperative small group methods have been used for over 30 years in classrooms ranging from pre-K to graduate school, leveraging a mix of small working groups, group operating norms and structured sets of activities to guide participants through the process of working together, learning together, and developing well-informed, intelligent results together.  And after more than 10 years of using collaborative small group methods across the country, the difference in the quality and support that these plans generate is unmistakeable.  Just like water needs to run through a channel to power a turbine, channeling the hopes and ideas of people through a collaborative small group process gives us access to a powerful way to make smart and meaningful plan decisions.

Setting Priorities: Systematic, Transparent, Fair, Useful

Plans that don’t establish priorities don’t get anything useful done, but we often avoid setting priorities because we don’t want to offend someone.  But in an age where demands far exceed money and time, we don’t have that choice anymore.  StratSet methods make the process of setting priorities clear and transparent to everyone.  It does this by using participant-led systematic activities to guide people through the process of evaluating the choices and impacts, and by showing transparently how those priorities were made – not only for the participants, but for anyone else who wants to know in the future.  People might not personally agree with everything, but when you can see how the group made the decision, it’s hard to argue against it.






Shrinking Cities (Back to the Future)

My friend Jason Segedy posted this excellent piece of analysis at, and I felt that this was probably the best quantitative sum-up of the challenge of post-industrial communities, such as those that make up the Rust Belt.  I don’t know how he found the time to do this, but he pulled together a set of data that is both humbling… and encouraging.  As we’ve said more than once, the challenges our communities are facing didn’t spring up overnight, and it’s ridiculous to think we can solve them overnight, either.  But if you’re taking a long-term view, then there’s a little comfort in the idea that we have time to keep plugging at it.

Here’s Jason:

I’ve seen a lot of lists drawing attention to America’s shrinking cities over the years.  These lists normally show population declines since 1950, or since the city’s year of peak population.

Both of these measures are interesting and useful.  1950 is a good year to look back to, since it represents the first census since the end of World War II.  The end of the war is often looked at as the beginning of the suburban boom:  the interstate highway system, shopping malls, separated commercial and residential land uses, and low-density housing that is not walkable or transit accessible.

Examining a city’s decline since its year of peak population is useful for benchmarking a city against itself, but is slightly less useful for making comparisons to other cities.  In the portions of the Rust Belt centered around the steel and automotive industries, the population decline generally begins around 1950, 1960, or even 1970.

In the portions of the Rust Belt located further east, the decline begins even earlier – generally around 1920 or 1930.

What I haven’t seen a lot of, though, are lists that actually go back this far – to 1920, for example.  1920 is an interesting year to look at, because you don’t find many large U.S. cities that reached their peak population earlier than 1920.  1920 also marks the tail end of the great wave of European immigration.  Most northern cities continued to grow long after 1920, due to high levels of domestic migration, largely from the rural south and from Appalachia.

So, looking back to 1920 cancels out a lot of the statistical “noise” associated with the Great Depression, World War II, and the post-war suburban boom, taking us back to the initial heyday of the industrial era in many Rust Belt cities.

1920 is also a significant date because all of the cities on this list were large enough by then to have developed a substantial urban core with tens or hundreds of thousands of housing units in it.  So, every city on this list has a significant stock of housing that is at least 100 years old.  This means that the cities which have not yet experienced much in the way of gentrification, redevelopment, or neighborhood revitalization (and this is most of them) will be facing increasingly difficult challenges in terms of vacancy, abandonment, and brownfield mitigation.

For many of these cities, it will be a race against time to see whether they can turn around their residential housing markets – either through rehabilitating older properties, or though constructing tens of thousands of marketable new housing units.  If they cannot learn how to do this, there is little reason to believe that their population decline will slow down.  In fact, it could get even worse before it gets better.

So, here is a list of U.S. cities that had at least 100,000 people at some point in their history that are smaller than they were in 1920.  They are ranked by their net change in population between 1920 and 2010.

1) St. Louis, MO – loss of 453,603; 772,897 in 1920; 319,294 in 2010

2) Cleveland, OH – loss of 400,026; 796,841 in 1920; 396,815 in 2010

3) Philadelphia, PA – loss of 297,773; 1,823,779 in 1920; 1,526,006 in 2010

4) Pittsburgh, PA – loss of 282,639; 588,343 in 1920; 305,704 in 2010

5) Detroit, MI – loss of 279,301; 993,078 in 1920; 713,777 in 2010

6) Buffalo, NY – loss of 245,465; 506,775 in 1920; 261,310 in 2010

7) Newark, NJ – loss of 137,384; 414,524 in 1920; 277,140 in 2010

8) Boston, MA – loss of 130,466; 748,060 in 1920; 617,594 in 2010

9) Baltimore, MD – loss of 112,865; 733,826 in 1920; 620,961 in 2010

10) Cincinnati, OH – loss of 104,302; 401,247 in 1920; 296,945 in 2010

11) Rochester, NY – loss of 85,185; 295,750 in 1920; 210,565 in 2010

12) Youngstown, OH – loss of 65,376; 132,358 in 1920; 66,982 in 2010

13) Scranton, PA – loss of 61,694; 137,783 in 1920; 76,089 in 2010

14) Providence, RI – loss of 59,553; 237,595 in 1920; 178,042 in 2010

15) Jersey City, NJ – loss of 50,506; 298,103 in 1920; 247,597 in 2010

16) New Orleans, LA – loss of 43,390; 387,219 in 1920; 343,829 in 2010

17) Wilmington, DE – loss of 39,317; 110,168 in 1920; 70,851 in 2010

18) Camden, NJ – loss of 38,965; 116,309 in 1920; 77,344 in 2010

19) Trenton, NJ – loss of 34,376; 119,289 in 1920; 84,913 in 2010

20) New Haven, CT – loss of 32,758; 162,537 in 1920; 129,779 in 2010

21) Utica, NY – loss of 31,921; 94,156 in 1920; 62,235 in 2010

22) Fall River, MA – loss of 31,628; 120,485 in 1920; 88,857 in 2010

23) Syracuse, NY – loss of 26,547; 171,717 in 1920; 145,170 in 2010

24) New Bedford, MA – loss of 26,145; 121,217 in 1920; 95,072 in 2010

25) Reading, PA – loss of 19,702; 107,784 in 1920; 88,082 in 2010

26) Somerville, MA – loss of 17,337; 93,091 in 1920; 75,754 in 2010

27) Albany, NY – loss of 15,488; 113,344 in 1920; 97,856 in 2010

28) Canton, OH – loss of 14,084; 87,091 in 1920; 73,007 in 2010

29) Hartford, CT – loss of 13,261; 138,036 in 1920; 124,775 in 2010

30) Duluth, MN – loss of 12,652; 98,917 in 1920; 86,265 in 2010

31) Dayton, OH – loss of 11,032; 152,559 in 1920; 141,527 in 2010

32) Akron, OH – loss of 9,325; 208,435 in 1920; 199,110 in 2010

33) Lynn, MA – loss of 8,819; 99,148 in 1920; 90,329 in 2010

34) Lowell, MA – loss of 6,240; 112,759 in 1920; 106,519 in 2010

35) Chicago, IL – loss of 6,107; 2,701,705 in 1920; 2,695,598 in 2010

36) Cambridge, MA – loss of 4,532; 109,694 in 1920; 105,162 in 2010

37) St. Joseph, MO – loss of 1,159; 77,939 in 1920; 76,780 in 2010

38) Niagara Falls, NY – loss of 567; 50,760 in 1920; 50,193 in 2010

There are some surprises on this list.  There are cities that are “shrinking cities” by any possible definition that I expected to see on here, which are not.  There are also cities listed here, which are not generally perceived to be “shrinking cities”.

Some of the cities that are smaller than they were in 1920, really have not lost much population since that time, nor since their peak.  These cities generally peaked-out around 1920 or 1930, and could be categorized as “East Coast Gentrifiers” and include places like Lynn, Lowell, and Cambridge – all located within the suburban orbit of Boston.

Other cities are at the opposite end of the spectrum, and their degree of decline, if anything, is understated by looking solely at this list.  Not only have they lost considerable population since 1920, but they have lost at least half of their population since their peak, which generally didn’t occur until 1950.  These cities could be categorized as “Rust Belt Poster Children” and include places like St. Louis, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Buffalo, and Youngstown.

There are other cities that could also be classified as “Rust Belt Poster Children” that do not show up on this list at all, due to the fact that their rapid growth occurred after 1920.  They grew in the immediate pre and post World War II years, and then rapidly declined shortly thereafter. Cities in this category include smaller places like Gary, Flint, and East St. Louis, as well as larger cities like Toledo and Milwaukee.

Several cities, some that show up on this list, and some that do not, have experienced numerically significant population loss, but have either slowed or reversed long-standing declines, and are currently in the process of “gentrifying” and redeveloping many of their historic core neighborhoods.  Cities in this category include places like Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Boston, Chicago, and Minneapolis.

As we move further into the 2010s, it will be interesting to see how redevelopment efforts in places like Chicago, Boston, and Washington, D.C. play out.  Is it a permanent sea change that will dramatically improve the economic prospects for all residents?  Is it something that redevelops much of the core, but ultimately leaves most residents in the dark, leading to more inequality, with poverty moving increasingly to the suburbs?  Or is it just a temporary blip on the radar?

For cities like Detroit, Cleveland, St. Louis, Buffalo, and Youngstown, where the bottom has virtually fallen out; and for others like Akron, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati, whose decline has been more manageable, but are still facing significant challenges, the answer to these questions could prove to be extremely important.

New Book: Why This Work Matters launched!

I am delighted to be able to share a very important and beautiful new book with you — important and beautiful because it comes from people like you. 

Why This Work Matters was envisioned as a way of encouraging people who do the hard work of running and improving our communities.  My goal with this book was to give you a portable, on-demand shot of that encouragement, sympathy, and reinforcement that you might try to get from your professional peers… if you have people around you who understand what you’re facing.  I know that not everyone who does your work has that.  And it’s also a way to start changing the too-common popular perception of government employees, and showcase the dedication and determination that doesn’t show up in the popular press.

In Why This Work Matters, I asked 11 community professionals to reflect on why they keep doing the hard work that they do — and what they think about or call upon when they get frustrated, when they want to give up.  These folks come from all over the United States, they work in everything from local nonprofits to federal agencies, and they do urban planning, community development, government administration, downtown revitalization and a lot of other things.

These reflections are written in some of the most personal, heartfelt voices you have probably ever encountered in writing about work, and the honesty, the power of what they wrote continues to amaze me.  As editor, I did my best to polish up their gems, but the beauty of the raw materials is the real power of this book.

You can learn more about it at  You can also buy the book for e-reader or print, and you can read selections from the book and link to the authors there as well.

I’m really proud of this book, and I’m really proud of these authors.  Some are experienced bloggers, but for others, this was their first experience in writing anything other than a zoning report.

I think you’ll find them unforgettable.  Kind of like you.




Who cares? Not Everyone: the wicked challenges and vicious necessity of fixing regional development

I have been meaning to share this essay from my friend Jason Segedy, in part because it’s so insightful and beautiful, and in part because…. you get Metric, Death Cab for Cutie and geospatial cultural analysis in the same essay.  You cannot ask for more than that.  You just can’t.

Jason explains, better than almost anyone I can think of, the deadly challenges and the very difficult social psychology that blocks the two sides of the “sprawl” debate, and has left us ineffective at actually addressing these issues from any ideological angle.  Jason’s role as head of a regional planning agency, and as a leader in development of an incredibly ambitious 12-county planning framework, means that he knows of which he writes.

And in between his erudite quotes, he gives us the facts behind eye-opening assertions such as this:

People know that our core cities are losing population, but not many people understand the sheer magnitude of the decline.  Collectively, since their peak, Akron, Canton, Cleveland, and Youngstown have lost more people than they have today.

It doesn’t take an expert in finance or public administration to imagine what collectively losing 750,000 people has done to these cities’ tax base, housing stock, public utilities, and transportation infrastructure.  We have a core city infrastructure built to support 1.5 million people that, today, serves less than half of that amount….

The problems of blight, vacancy, and abandonment have spread to the inner ring suburbs, as well.  In East Cleveland today, one in five houses sits abandoned….

Urban decline, as such, is not the historical anomaly to which I am referring.  Cities have grown and declined throughout human history, sometimes due to economic conditions, and sometimes due to things that are even more unpleasant:  natural disasters, disease, and war.  People died, were displaced, or moved away, and the city shrank accordingly.

What people haven’t historically done, though, is to rebuild a new version of the city right next door to the old one, expected both of them to carry on as they always had, as if nothing fundamental had changed, and had taxpayers at all levels of government foot the bill.  That’s the historical anomaly.

It is at this point that people typically seek to avoid this uncomfortable truth, and prefer to preempt the discussion of what to do about it, by instead dwelling on why they think that all of this has happened….

Both a racist and a civil rights advocate, for example, can explain what “went wrong with our cities” entirely in terms of race.  And the more that someone is uninterested in actually trying to address the problems of our cities, the more likely they are to be dogmatic and reductionist in their account of how the problems happened in the first place.  But this is irrelevant now…

The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.

-Elie Wiesel


This essay is about Northeast Ohio, but there’s lessons in it for every community and region that experienced urban flight.  Or lost businesses.  Or lost industries.  Or has residents who are so isolated from each other that they have no idea why Those People keep whining and don’t get with the program.

Or for those regions and communities that don’t think sprawl is a real risk to their fundamental economic survival.  Or who think the Rust Belt experience will never happen to them.

I think that covers pretty much all of us.

You can read more from Jason at  And you should.

Here’s Jason.


Where a gothic spire raked her nail across a concrete sky
Where onion domes from Slavic homes grew round a vale of fire
Where Irishmen from tenements kept the furnace burning white
Where the rod and staff that smote the fascists rolled off of the line

-The Secret Sound of the NSA, Captain Future

One day, several years ago, a friend and I were driving across the west side of Cleveland on a beautiful Sunday morning.

As we drove along I-90, somewhere between West Boulevard and W. 44th St, I was admiring the beautiful Gothic and Romanesque architecture of the numerous churches that you can see from the side of the road.  I thought about all of the generations of immigrants that had built, and then cherished, those places, finding in them solace and a sense of community.

I looked at the hundreds of modest wooden-frame houses with front porches, in varying states of repair, clustered tightly together around the churches.  This neighborhood had seen slightly better days, but, all-in-all, to my mind, the image formed an idyllic, and somewhat winsome, tableau.

I remember thinking to myself, “You know, with a little bit of tender-loving-care, these neighborhoods could really be something special.  All of the components of a great place are here, even if it needs to be polished up a bit.”

Suddenly, my friend turned to me and said, “What a shithole!  Who the hell would ever want to live here?  I wouldn’t live here if you paid me a million dollars.”

Que sera, sera.

The Gathering Storm

All the way from where we came
Built a mansion in a day
Distant lightning, thunder claps
Watched our neighbor’s house collapse
Looked the other way

-MetricSpeed the Collapse

Most of us have driven through a formerly thriving city neighborhood, and have seen the abandoned buildings, the vacant lots, the potholed streets, and the decrepit infrastructure.

Some of us have reflected a bit further upon this explicit physical decay, and have begun to grasp and wrestle with the implicit inequality that is, in part, both its cause and effect.

But the decline and fall of our urban neighborhoods is a devilishly vexing issue, even for the most passionate urban advocates among us.

For every person, like me (and like many of you) that loves our aging cities, and is profoundly concerned about their welfare, there is another person like my friend, that views our cities with indifference, at best; and outright hostility, at worst.

Issues of perception aside, we in Northeast Ohio are dealing with some hellishly difficult issues today.  Our 12-county region has lost seven percent of its population since 1970, falling from 4.1 million to 3.8 million people.

But instead of shrinking our footprint, we’ve done the exact opposite.  The region developed an additional 250 square miles of land (over three times the land area of the City of Cleveland) between 1979 and 2006 – a 21% expansion.

Meanwhile, our four core cities continue to deteriorate and hollow-out.


People know that our core cities are losing population, but not many people understand the sheer magnitude of the decline.  Collectively, since their peak, Akron, Canton, Cleveland, and Youngstown have lost more people than they have today.

These four cities, which, in 1950, all ranked among the 100 largest in America, are today, added together, smaller than Cleveland was in 1950.  Cleveland, the 7th largest American city in 1950, ranks 45th (and dropping) today.  Akron, Canton, and Youngstown have all dropped out of the top 100.

It doesn’t take an expert in finance or public administration to imagine what collectively losing 750,000 people has done to these cities’ tax base, housing stock, public utilities, and transportation infrastructure.  We have a core city infrastructure built to support 1.5 million people that, today, serves less than half of that amount.

This trend, by itself, would be bad enough.  But it’s not just a matter of bricks and mortar.  As ruinously as the built environment and urban landscape in these cities has fared, many of their remaining residents have fared even worse.  The poor are increasingly isolated from social and economic opportunities, as the region continues to sort itself geographically by race, class, and socioeconomic status.


The effect on the most vulnerable neighborhoods located within the core cities themselves has been nothing short of catastrophic.  Thousands of houses have been torn down, leaving gaping holes in the urban fabric, while tens of thousands more are sitting vacant and abandoned today.

Short of intentional action to do otherwise, the future of our core cities looks even worse.  According to the Northeast Ohio Sustainable Communities Consortium (NEOSCC), the region can expect to abandon an additional 175,000 houses between now and 2040.  That’s a staggering 18 houses per day, day-in and day-out, for the next 27 years.  If current trends continue, very few of them will be rebuilt in place.

The cost of removing all of those abandoned houses is estimated to be around $1.75 billion dollars.  Federal, state, regional, or private funding to address the problem is unlikely to materialize.

So, in a perverse vicious cycle, the cities themselves will likely be on the hook to dig deeper into their already decimated tax bases, and foot the bill to remove the houses.  It is a no-win situation:  ignore the problem, and watch the blight and disinvestment spread even farther, or spend money that you don’t have, raise taxes, and drive more residents and businesses away, in order to try to keep things from getting worse.

If you are skeptical about this future projection, the future is already here.  Today, over 15,000 houses in Cleveland sit abandoned.  In Akron, the number is around 2,300.  And in Youngstown, a city of 65,000, that used to have 170,000 residents, an estimated 5,000 abandoned houses and 20,000 vacant lots pose a problem almost too overwhelming to comprehend.

The problems of blight, vacancy, and abandonment have spread to the inner ring suburbs, as well.  In East Cleveland today, one in five houses sits abandoned.

It gets worse.  The 12-county region, which has about the exact same population that it did in 1960, has spread those people over a much larger footprint, replicating all of the housing, public utilities, and transportation infrastructure that was already there to support them.

So, taxpayers at the federal, state, and local level already paid once to build all of the infrastructure that was in place prior to 1960.  Now, they are in the process of paying a second time to build a largely redundant duplicate infrastructure in many of the areas that have been developed since 1960.

The end result, with the region’s population aging, and predicted to grow by less than 100,000 people over the next three decades, is a lot more infrastructure with the same amount of people to pay for it.  This means more public debt, higher taxes, and probably both.

In the coming decades, many of the areas developed since 1960 will face a similar dilemma to the one that the core cities are facing today: spend money that you don’t have to maintain infrastructure in an effort to stave off abandonment, or slowly watch previous hard-won investments in housing, economic development, and public infrastructure wither and die.

Death By A Thousand Cuts

Sorrow drips into your heart through a pinhole,
Just like a faucet that leaks and there is comfort in the sound.
But while you debate half-empty or half-full,
It slowly rises, your love is gonna drown.

-Death Cab for Cutie, Marching Bands of Manhattan

We are living through an abnormal, historic aberration, in terms of the way that we plan and arrange our communities.  In the long-run, it is socially, economically, and environmentally unsustainable.

In the short-run, it is an abnormal new normal.  Our pattern of abandoning thousands of houses, building new ones elsewhere, and building redundant infrastructure, all while (in the case of Northeast Ohio) continuing to lose population, is a social experiment.  It is one that is unlikely to end well, as Charles Marohn, of Strong Towns, has pointed out.

In the long-run, there are simply not enough federal, state, or local tax dollars to simultaneously pay to maintain legacy infrastructure and deal with continued abandonment in our older communities, while paying to maintain (and build more) infrastructure in our newer communities.  We are caught between Scylla and Charybdis.

Urban decline, as such, is not the historical anomaly to which I am referring.  Cities have grown and declined throughout human history, sometimes due to economic conditions, and sometimes due to things that are even more unpleasant:  natural disasters, disease, and war.  People died, were displaced, or moved away, and the city shrank accordingly.

What people haven’t historically done, though, is to rebuild a new version of the city right next door to the old one, expected both of them to carry on as they always had, as if nothing fundamental had changed, and had taxpayers at all levels of government foot the bill.  That’s the historical anomaly.

To be clear, we are not just talking about people building newer, nicer, dwellings; wanting a little bit more land; or about the rich separating themselves from the poor.  These things have always happened.

But they have never happened on such a massive scale, by building what is essentially a duplicate publicly-funded infrastructure of modern utility and transportation networks, with capital, operating, and maintenance costs stretching into the billions of dollars; all (in the case of our region) to serve the exact same amount of people.

And then the storm was overhead
All the oceans boiled and rivers bled
We auctioned off our memories
In the absence of a breeze
Scatter what remains
Scatter what remains

-Metric, Speed the Collapse

The 21st Century will mark the first time the United States has ever had to replace a modern public infrastructure.  We’ve never had to comprehensively rebuild a modern water and sewer system, transportation network, or electrical grid.  The staggering expenditure associated with doing this is is going to be an unpleasant wake-up call for a notoriously short-sighted culture.

Did I mention that our country is $17 trillion in debt?  This wasn’t the case when we modernized our much less extravagant 19th century infrastructure in older cities like New York, Philadelphia, and Boston.

But it is not the maintenance and replacement costs that will be our ultimate undoing.  It is the fact that we are doubling, tripling, and quadrupling-down on this unfunded liability, by continuing to sprawl outward.  No one in human history has ever attempted to do what we are doing.  That is, to build a modern, urban infrastructure at what is, in-effect, a semi-rural scale.

This is uncharted territory. There is an inexorable, compelling, and inherently conservative economic logic that says it is better to serve more people with less infrastructure, rather than doing it the other way around.

The likely consequence of flouting such a reasonable course of action will entail our going broke, or having to abandon much of the modern transportation and utilities grid, or both – neither of which are appealing options.

Looked at from this perspective, it is hard to imagine something more short-sighted and fiscally unsound; a greater breach of the public trust; or a larger waste of human labor and natural resources.

It is at this point that people typically seek to avoid this uncomfortable truth, and prefer to preempt the discussion of what to do about it, by instead dwelling on why they think that all of this has happened.

Everyone has a different pet theory:  the automobile, government corruption and/or incompetence; corporate greed; personal irresponsibility; race and class-based social tensions, etc.  As Charles Marohn, of Strong Towns, has astutely pointed out, people from one ideological perspective can find plausible narratives that run completely counter to plausible narratives put forth by people of the opposite ideological perspective.

Both a racist and a civil rights advocate, for example, can explain what “went wrong with our cities” entirely in terms of race.  And the more that someone is uninterested in actually trying to address the problems of our cities, the more likely they are to be dogmatic and reductionist in their account of how the problems happened in the first place.

But this is irrelevant right now.  What I want to do is to acknowledge the magnitude of the problem that we are facing, not assign blame for why it happened.

So what are we facing?  We are facing a situation that is a recipe for fiscal disaster and financial collapse.  And if that is not scary enough, I would argue that it is also a recipe for worsening social pathology, civil unrest, and civic decay, as people are further segregated by race, class, and socioeconomic status.

Pushed away I’m pulled toward
A comedown of revolving doors
Every warning we ignored
Drifting in from distant shores
The wind presents a change of course
A second reckoning of sorts
We were wasted waiting for
A comedown of revolving doors
Fate don’t fail me now

-Metric, Speed the Collapse

It’s a death by a thousand cuts.

Who Cares?

The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.

-Elie Wiesel

There are some that see any attempt to get a handle on runaway infrastructure costs by stemming the outward tide of development and the continued abandonment of our core cities, as a form of communism (at best); or totalitarianism (at worst); that will eliminate individual rights, private property, and destroy the principles that our nation was founded upon.

There are others, like me, that see this as the very essence of conservatism itself:  good stewardship of our tax dollars and our natural resources, a respect for community and tradition, a belief in the social and spiritual importance of place, and an acknowledgement of this inescapable reality of life – that we all need one another, and that, in the end, no one is an island.

The fiscal unsustainability of our current pattern of growth and development should naturally appeal to conservative sensibilities.  But the political right has largely drifted away from this type of conservatism (conservation of financial, human, and natural resources).

Meanwhile, the political left has either ignored the issue, or has gone about addressing it in typical tone-deaf fashion, failing to engage the imaginations, hopes, fears, and aspirations of everyday people.

Like so many other difficult issues, it represents a colossal failure for both political parties.

So where are we in Northeast Ohio today?

  • Our core cities have collectively lost 750,000 people since 1950.
  • Hundreds of thousands of residents currently lack access to social and economic opportunities that people like me (and likely, you) take for granted.
  • Tens of thousands of houses in our core cities and inner-ring suburbs currently sit vacant and abandoned.
  • An additional 175,000 houses (18 per day, for the next 27 years) are projected to be abandoned, and it would cost close to $2 billion to remove them.
  • Suburban areas are building more infrastructure than they will be able to afford to maintain, especially in the long-term.
  • Absent a will to change this unhealthy dynamic, we will repeat this cycle in community after community, until we are broke.

We need to have a spirited debate about how to deal with all of these complex and interrelated problems.  These are difficult issues that people of goodwill all over the ideological spectrum can and should disagree about how best to address.

The solutions are not immediately apparent and will not come solely from one person, group, or political party.  They will not come from a couple of urban planners sitting around a table, but will instead need to involve the private sector, public officials, and all of the citizens that they represent.

But first we have to acknowledge that there is a problem.  A problem that that we have a collective responsibility for.

This isn’t just a matter of dollars and cents.  It is ultimately about people.

So, our core cities continue to be abandoned, and we develop more land on the fringes of our region into what amounts to a parallel-society that is much wealthier and whiter than the region as a whole.

The poor, the working class, and many minorities are left behind in the places with shrinking tax and resource bases, while the wealthy continue to concentrate themselves in places that are increasingly homogeneous, with greater access to social and economic opportunities.

Who cares?

Not everyone.

The deep-seated inequalities and inequities that exist as both a cause and an effect of our current pattern of growth and development should be obvious, but often are not.  Most of us see what we want to see, and we see the world through our own two eyes.  We know what we know. But we don’t know what we don’t know.

Without a philosophy that allows us to transcend the self, it is there that we will stay – prisoners of our own experiences and expectations.

In the end, it all comes down to our views on people and place, and on this thing we call “society”.

What is society?

Well, for one, “society” really just means “other people”.  The term itself is a tacit acknowledgement of the truth that we are all connected to one another, whether we want to be or not.

It is actual individual human people with names and families (and not abstractions like “society”) that are important.  But actual human people are inextricably linked to one another in physical space, and through thought, word, and deed.  The word “society” reminds us of this reality.

And what is place?

Are the things that are associated with place (like tradition, identity, stability, and community) objective values that are intrinsically important? Or are they just subjective and arbitrary?  Are they really just subordinate means to (more important?) ends such as economic development and personal profit?

Are places really nothing more than engines for economic growth that, like machines, can be discarded as obsolete when they are no longer “useful” in the most reductive, narrowly-defined sense of that word?  Or do places have an emotional and spiritual significance that we ignore at our peril?

And what about people themselves?  Where do they fit into the equation?  Where do they stack up on the balance sheet, and in the benefit/cost calculations?  Who is measuring the true human cost of abandoning entire neighborhoods, entire communities, and entire ways of life?  Is it possible to truly understand the social, economic, and spiritual impact of our collective decisions on where and how to build our communities?

These questions are never considered in conversations about economic growth and development.  But they should be.

You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.

-Matthew 5:13

How do we see ourselves?  Are we stewards tasked with upholding the values of community and stability, acknowledging our interconnectedness, mutual dependence, and our responsibility to look out for one another’s well being?

I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.

-Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged

Or do we see ourselves simply as consumers of resources, and maximizers of utility; confident in our own self-sufficiency; content to put our faith and trust in the invisible hand to separate the weak from the strong?

Are we just makers and takers? Or are we fellow human beings, created equal, with a mutual responsibility to look out for one another, and to care for the places in which we live?

It is a sad and sorry ideology that sees any type of virtue or courage in simply succumbing to the fatalistic logic of social darwinism; to glorify in being swept to where the tide was going to carry us anyway.

We should fight it tooth and nail until the day that we die.

Ah, when to the heart of man
Was it ever less than a treason
To go with the drift of things,
To yield with a grace to reason,
And bow and accept the end
Of a love or a season?

Robert Frost, Reluctance

It is a decision point for our region.

Happy New Year, everyone.

Well, at least kind of shiny: Brilliant Economic Development panel at IEDC Leadership

About a month ago I sat on a panel with a collection of leading economic development people from all over the country as Anatalio Ubalde, CEO of GISPlanning, threw hard questions at us in front of an audience of our peers.  This little pressure cooker happened at the IEDC Leadership Conference in Irvine, California.  And it was one of those situations where you walk into it worrying about how you’re going to come off, but you walk out of it realizing how privileged you were to get to hear and talk to the amazing people sitting beside you.

IEDC’s publication, ED Now, did a brief write up on the session (and knowing GISPlanning and their fondness for videotaping, I’m sure footage will emerge eventually).  One of the neatest things about the conversation was that we were able to take on the reframing of economic development work — as a key contributor to a community’s resilience and strength, part of the mix with urban planning and housing and all of the other elements of community management that we have too long treated as Someone Else’s Job.  What I myself said on that topic apparently resonated, and not just inside my head, because that’s what Louise Story of IEDC picked up on in her article:

Building resiliency and community

Echoing a broader conversation currently taking place, the first audience question for the panel was about the growth in income inequality. Della Rucker, principal of the Wise Economy Workshop in Cincinnati, pointed to practical reasons why economic developers should focus on this issue.

“More and more, our viability as an economy depends on our viability as a community,” said Rucker. “Economic development cannot exist in a silo, planning cannot exist in a silo. It’s really all about making communities as functional, as vibrant, as resilient as possible. Addressing disparities of all types becomes an essential element of that, even if just from a self-interest standpoint.”

Thanks again to Anatalio for his ongoing kindness to me and the Wise Economy work, to GISPlanning and IEDC for being willing to push this conversation forward, and to the other amazing people who sat on the panel for enlightening and energizing me.

Selections From new Book: Why This Work Matters

I’m so, so delighted to be able to start sharing with you a few selections from the upcoming Wise Fool Press book, Why This Work Matters.  This book contains 11 essays from community professionals from all over the country, telling us in their own heartfelt words how they maintain the courage and the determination to do the work they do… and how they keep at it when things go badly.

This selection is from a consummate downtown professional, Jennifer Kime of Downtown Mansfield, Ohio.  I asked Jennifer to contribute because I knew she would write something amazing and beautiful.  And she did.

Why this Work Matters will be launching soon.  In the meantime, keep it tuned here for more updates on the book and a few more selections from some of the essays.

Thanks.  Here’s Jen:

If I made widgets, I could tell you exactly what my production has been in the last six months; including profit margins and every economic indicator you could ask for. But economic development and building community is a messy job.  The victories are slow, and most often don’t occur for years.  There are no grand award ceremonies for us, rewarding us for the best sense of community created.  The value of the work is in the giving, and the reward is creating community pride.

I was raised at the mall. Seriously. My mom would drop me off with my friends and we would hang out all day at Little Caesars, the record shop and the Limited.  Those stores were our gathering place.

I’d hear stories, though, of a community where my parents grew up. A place that was authentic and safe, where children would walk to school and stop at the shops on the way home.  The business owners were friends and family and even neighbors.

That didn’t make much sense to me.  No one knew who owned or even managed the Little Caesars, even though I spent an embarrassingly large portion of my time there.  We were friends with the breadstick boy, but that was just good sense.

It took a move to Chicago, where I managed a flower shop in the Printer’s Row neighborhood, to really understand community.  The business owners were friendly, the restaurant managers knew each other, and they all knew I was “from the neighborhood.”

If I’m being honest, it was kind of uncomfortable at first.  I wasn’t from Chicago and I didn’t even know these people.  But the owner of the deli knew that I loved the Italian sub, no onion, and we all knew that the coffee shop barrista was moving to London and we sent her flowers.

Mansfield’s downtown was well on its way to revitalization before I came around, but I plugged myself in — with overconfidence in my education and travels and self-assured problem solving skills.  I applied the equations and formulas that I had learned and observed.  Progress was made and I was feeling pretty good those first couple of years.  Our achievements were measurable and I kept a running tally to show exactly what had been accomplished.

That’s where it gets messy.….

How people feel about a place goes in cycles.  a community’s pride or self deprecation can be charted, I’m sure of it.  

Here’s how that cycle goes.  First, something changes and everyone feels good.  A unique new business opens and the community wraps around it and takes a little piece of it as their own source of pride.  But a month later, when an older business closes, the public begins the rhetoric: “

Someone needs to do Something about this town…”  

That continues for a while, until the next big event where thousands gather and the moms and kids chat endlessly about how fun it was to be downtown. Pride is temporarily restored….

When I got into this work, I didn’t know how messy it would be.  Especially coming from finance where there is a right, a wrong and an end to each column.

But I did come to the work with a vision that I continue to hold all these years later.  It’s not a particularly specific vision, it’s not complete and it’s not particularly pretty either. My vision of where we are going doesn’t look like a new outdoor mall, or the past, or even what I’ve seen in other communities.

My vision looks like a unique place where people who live in the community feel a bit of ownership.  That’s the difference that I see most strikingly between communities that are dying and communities that are fighting this great revitalization challenge.  The key element is developing ownership, and it’s best measured by listening to people talk about a place.

It’s the stark difference between, “they need to do something about that park” and “have you been to our new coffee shop?” And that’s my single most motivating factor in the work I do…..

Making a difference in a community is really about building ownership.  My most valuable work is not only in re-creating ownership where it has been lost, but also growing it in the younger generations.  When I see children wanting to be here, I get a sense of relief:

Someday they won’t have to worry about “someone to fix things” because they will be fixing them themselves.  Then, perhaps, I can go back to finance, or maybe I’ll finally make some widgets…



What the Berlin Wall Taught Me

My dear and admired friend, Jason Segedy, ran a lovely post on his blog, the other day.  It does a beautiful job of tracing out how our assumptions about the future can so readily turn out wrong — and why the fact that they so often turn out wrong means that we never have an real excuse to say that thing we often say:

It is what it is.  It (our politics, our leadership, our lack of money, fill in the blank) will never change.  

After all, we all thought the Soviet Union was invincible.  Until 1991.  As Jason says, Who knew?

So who knows whether your  tough challenge will last or change?

Maybe you do, after all.

Here’s Jason:


Meine Reise nach Berlin

In 1987, when I was 14 years old, I went to Germany.  It was the first time that I had ever been outside of North America.  And it was the first (and only) time that I had been behind the Iron Curtain.


Twenty-seven years ago, this March, I crossed the Berlin Wall at Checkpoint Charlie and visited Soviet-occupied East Berlin.  Twenty-six years before that, in 1961, the Berlin Wall was constructed.  The wall separated the totalitarian east from the democratic west.  It separated friends and colleagues from one another, divided families, and served as a major flashpoint in the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union.


It was easy to see what the West Berliners thought of the wall – every square inch was covered with (mostly political) graffiti.  The side that faced East Berlin, however, was virgin concrete, unsullied by graffiti.  It bore mute testimony to the voiceless East Berliners that had been silenced by their own government, the German “Democratic” Republic (a.k.a. East Germany).

Berlin wall
West Germany side of the Berlin Wall (there were actually two walls a few hundred feet apart). From


When we crossed into East Berlin, it was like crossing from a color world into a black and white one.  West Berlin was like New York, with a little bit of Las Vegas thrown in for good measure.

Crossing over into East Berlin, you could actually feel the oppression.  Some areas of East Berlin were still bombed out from World War II, and piles of rotting lumber sat unused at vacant construction sites, where it looked like nothing had happened for decades.  There were far fewer people on the streets, and far fewer shops and stores.  It was a city full of drab blocks of apartments, with a few communist monuments thrown in for good measure.


In the west, people smiled, and would make eye contact with you.  The place was lousy with advertisements, neon signs, and street level kiosks selling cigarettes, snacks, newspapers, and lots of pornography.  Late-model Volkswagens, BMWs, and Mercedes-Benzes filled the streets, and edgy electronic music emanated from the ubiquitous discotheques, seemingly located on every block.  In the east, no one really made eye contact.  The streets were largely silent, and looked empty by comparison. The cars that we saw were these little two-cylinder numbers that looked like you could kick them apart.  It looked depressed, and felt depressing.  It was a place without hope.


I wish that I could go back and do that trip over again.  Although I was pretty mature and well-behaved (for a 14 year old), there are so many more things that I would have noticed and appreciated as an adult. On the other hand, seeing the Cold War up-close-and-personal, as a 14 year old, offers a valuable perspective, too.


Growing up, I honestly believed that there was a decent chance that I would be vaporized by a Soviet ICBM.  Like a lot of other kids in the 1980s, I put my odds at surviving until adulthood at around 50/50.


Here in the present-day, it is all-too-easy to forget that we went to bed every night knowing that a global thermonuclear war was a horrifyingly real possibility.  Millions of people in Berlin were forcibly separated by a wall that served as a constant reminder of the atomic sword of Damocles that hung over the heads of an additional billion people, like myself, living throughout North America, Europe, and the U.S.S.R.


I became an adult in 1990.  The Cold War ended the very next year.  Who knew?


Twenty-seven years after my visit, it is starting to hit home that my trip to Berlin actually is a “historical” event, just like World War II was when I visited.  Time is a funny thing.


The Scourge of Fatalism


So what did the Berlin Wall teach me?

It goes back to that “Who knew?”

No one did, of course.  Not, for sure, anyway.

We never know.

So why is it that we so often pretend like we do?  Why do we default to a fatalistic, you’ll-never-change-it, assumption about what the future holds?

Fatalism is to the 2010s what irony was to the 1990s – a defense mechanism that we employ to avoid confronting the crushing reality of free human choice.

Fatalism might be the single biggest thing that holds us back as a culture.  We forget that what we do here, in the present, controls what happens in the future.

It is the collective sum of the untold billions of human choices, great and small, that each of us make each and every day, which (excepting what is truly beyond our control – accident, natural disaster, disease, and death) are directly responsible for every ounce of misery and suffering on this planet.

We have met the enemy and he is us.


On the other hand, we collectively have the power and the capacity to make our world into a virtual paradise.


But what can we really do?  We are just individuals.  What can any of us, even the most virtuous or noble among us, really change in the end?  We are, each one of us, simply one of a billion of grains of sand on a desolate beach.  How can we be expected to make a difference?


So, instead, we resort to fatalism.  We assert, and assume, that we can’t.  It makes the conundrum of free human choice a lot easier to deal with, and it assuages the feeling of helplessness that come with the recognition of our individuality and our dependence upon others.  It’s a cold comfort, that some may argue is better than nothing.


But, the thing is, taking the cold comfort doesn’t help us.   In fact, it makes our situation even worse.  It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.


See, if we know that the future is going to be such-and-such, there’s really no point in trying to change it.


Sound familiar?


How about these:


We know that people of different races are just never going to get along.  People are people.


We know that there is no way that we are going to be able to produce the energy that we need, and protect the environment at the same time.  We’re powerless to change it.


We know that, no matter what we do, we are never going to be able to provide enough health care, food, or shelter for those that need it.  So why bother trying?


We know that Americans love their cars and their big houses, and there is no point trying to promote alternatives to driving, or to urban sprawl.  That’s just the way it is.


But, see, the thing is, we don’t really know any of these things.  Take a look at history.  Most of our prophecies about the future have been wrong.  And most of the prophecies that were not, were of the self-fulfilling variety.


Some of the people in Warsaw, in May 1942, were undoubtedly just as sure as the Nazis were, that the German Reich would last for a thousand years.


By May 1945, the Reich was gone.


Some of the people in Berlin, in March 1987, were sure that the Cold War would never end, and that the Wall would never come down.


By November 1989, the Wall was gone.


Some of the people in Northeast Ohio, in 2014, are sure that we are destined to remain the “Rust Belt” from here to eternity.


We’re not.

My trip to Berlin in 1987 was a reminder to never give up hope, even when things seem dark.

History is neither a long, slow march toward utopia, nor toward oblivion.  It is whatever we choose to make it.


There will be new Berlin Walls in the future, and there will also be new people to tear them down.




Don’t believe it for a second.  Reject it, and choose your future.  What you choose to do today matters.


Live it out.

New Learning from Las Vegas: Fight, Survive and Thrive

I’m not supposed to like Las Vegas.

I have a planning degree, after all, and Las Vegas is typically described in planning talk as the anti-planned, environmentally unsustainable train wreck waiting to happen.  It’s the story that smart growth planners pull out when they want to describe everything that was done wrong in the 20th century, and how it’s all going to come home to roost in just a matter of time.

I’m also a historic preservation type, and of course Vegas is the place that blows up what little history it has for show- the show of the explosion and the show of the even more ostentatious something that replaces the garish past.

Hell, I don’t even like to gamble.

And yet I am falling in love with Las Vegas.

Las Vegas might be the place that teaches the rest of us how to thrive in a decentralized, messy, entrepreneur, do-it-yourself-with-what-you’ve-got-to-work-with economy.  I’m visiting with some of the folks who are working on Downtown Las Vegas later this week and next, and I’m hoping to learn a lot – to begin with, what the heck is actually going on, since it’s a whole lot more complicated than the tech-hero-saves-the-day story that most of the mainstream media has been telling.  The real story is clearly much more robust, and a lot more tangled.

And for those very reasons, potentially more relevant to the rest of us who give a damn about our communities than any Tech Hero Spending Money would be.



“Of course, a vacation city must be defiant of death, a desert city like Las Vegas doubly so, for it is a city built upon a desolate landscape….

The theme of Elvis’s show that night was the theme of Las Vegas (the gambler’s prayer) – resurrection.

–Richard Rodriguez, Darling: A Spiritual Autobiography


From a distance, Las Vegas gives me a sense of a place that continues to fight for relevance, for survival, even when the experts, and sometime logic, seem to say it should not.

I know all the reasons why Las Vegas should not be.  You don’t have to look hard to catch the water issues, the lawns and golf courses in a place with almost no rain, the receding water levels in Lake Mead.

Lake Mead
Lake Mead at Hoover Dam. White ring indicates declining water level.

My colleagues with urban design cred sneer at the derivative fantasies, the impossible geegaws , the sequined buildings, the cheese.  My dear friends who fight for the survival of towns in the Rust Belt stick pins in secret voodoo dolls of the parallelogram sign, muttering quiet encouragement to themselves that one day, one day, the water out there will run out and all those people will come rushing back to us, begging our forgiveness for running away years ago.  Just a matter of time…you’ll see.

The overlooked high school geek hangs on to the hope that the gorgeous cheerleader turns out to be a horrible person, just like in the movies.

Richard Florida, writing in the wake of the Great Recession, when Vegas was first coming to grips with what happens when your own version of the steel mills go out, described Las Vegas with less sympathy, and with less sense of a potential for redemption, that any of the other places he examined.  Detroit, New Orleans  –hard times places all– gave Florida reason for hope.  He could see, could infer, a profitable future, a unique national economic role, a raison d’etre, for each one.

But for Vegas, poster child of the Sun Belt mortgage collapse, Florida seemed to struggle to find hope.  The best he managed was to identify an opportunity to expand the city’s role in the meeting and convention industry.  Despite the fact that convention attendance nationally has been dropping for a decade.  Hardly a transformative opportunity.

But put all that against the determination, the entrepreneurship, the multi-faceted, incremental efforts unfolding downtown and all over Las Vegas today.  As a distant observer, I can’t help but grow aware of a conscious

Container park shop.  From Local Motors,
Container park shop. From Local Motors,

choice on the part of some people – who, I don’t exactly know other than a few names – who choose to love the place in spite of, in the face of, maybe because of (?) its flaws.

There’s an undercurrent of struggle in Las Vegas that underlies the glamor, and that gives the place an integrity of sorts that you don’t imagine if your don’t look past the usual tourist spots.  A trip off the Strip leads you to neighborhoods that look like any other place you have been.  The huge roads, the franchise signs, the driveways, the street lights…Not too surprising.

But look closer, and you notice how the desert takes over the vacant lots, gives them an austerity that you don’t see back east.  The business signs in dozens of languages, offering services familiar (auto repair, fried chicken) and not so familiar but clearly pedestrian here (security, costumes, slot machine repair).  And the neighborhoods of modest houses, and the churches.  Churches in some places as dense and variegated as the most tangled clump of ethnic neighborhoods in any old steel-making town.  It’s just that the architecture isn’t the same.

If I weren’t from a rusty place, a beat-up place myself, I might find it hard to understand how people can choose to call such a place their home.  But hundreds of thousands do.

And because I have loved places that crumble and break and fight against the urge to give up in the face of their own crumbling and breaking, maybe I start to understand why this place matters.

When you come to a place like Las Vegas from the towns where the dust of the last economy still hangs in the air, from places that are used to being disappointed by promised magic solutions that failed to deliver, and you look past the Las Vegas flash, what do you see?

What I think I see, maybe under the Liberace costume, maybe when I look to the side of it, is my own town’s younger brother  —  the place, like mine, that fights and continues to fight for its piece of relevancy, its market niche, its old-fashioned place in the sun.  Its relevance, and its survival.

A survival that isn’t assured.  But a survival for which it is deeply rooted in our nature to seek.

I won’t root for Las Vegas’ s demise.  I want Las Vegas to succeed.  I want those new tech wizards and small business owners in the Container Park and the Stitch Factory, and the hospitality-wage families and revue dancers and waitresses and old-line casino owners, to make the place theirs–uniquely theirs, maybe cheesily theirs, maybe goofily theirs, but theirs.

interior sewing factory
The Stitch Factory. From

Theirs in a way that will be unlike my place, because that is what they have become, in all its complexity and all its deep challenge.

So, to my friends in Las Vegas: please do sell your tickets to your neon sign graveyard and the Mob Museum.  Memorialize places where Sammy Davis played and give people a chance to get married by an Elvis impersonator.

But more importantly, perhaps: build your Container Park and hold your downtown cornhole nights and by all means bring your Huntridge Theater back to life.

Do it, all of it, in the way that is authentic to you, that matters to you and who you are.  If the intellectuals sneer and the architecture critics deride, who cares?

You are who you are.  That’s as valuable, as unique, and by now as real, as any steel mill city’s grit or New England village’s town square.  It’s you – in all complexity and contradiction and shortcomings, it’s you.

So don’t give up.  Don’t hide your face at what you have meant, good or ill, to generations.  By all means grow, diversify, build, reach, change.

The rest of us need to know that you are out there in the desert, in an environment the rest of us can’t understand, somehow making it work.


Wise Fool Press Update: Why This Work Matters entering production

Just wanted to let you know that the next publication from the Wise Fool Press is in the work, and should be rolling out to you by around this time next month.

This book is a big departure from The Local Economy Revolution: What’s Changed and How You Can Help.  For one thing, I’m not the author of most of it.  Why This Work Matters features essays from ten dedicated professionals who are trying to make their communities better.  Some are planners, some economic developers, administrators, downtown managers, and more.   They work for tiny nonprofits and federal agencies, they deal in transportation, grant administration and trying to keep buildings from falling down…you name it, we probably got it.

Two things unite these authors.  First, of course, their commitment to their work.  Second, their willingness to share with us from the depth of their experience — their personal motivations, their frustrations, their heartbreaks, and where they find the guts and determination to keep going.

These aren’t motivational speakers or favored talking heads.  These are real people who are doing the work that you do.   My hope for this book is that is will give us all a source of encouragement — a touchstone for remembering that we’re not the only ones who sometimes feel like giving up, and the voices and stories of people who have been in our shoes as we feel them sinking into the mud.

I knew this would be a good project, but I had no idea it would be as emotionally moving as it has been, simply reading through the first drafts and talking to the authors about their experiences.  It’s been a deep honor to compile and edit this collection, and I can’t wait to share it with you.  So stay tuned… more to come.

Landing the Whale: Why a rational debate on incentives isn’t happening.

It’s been just over a year since the New York Times ran its series on economic development incentives — the one that shone a truthful but uncomfortable light on the lack of transparency, analysis and evaluation that has plagued many incentive programs.  Since then, there has been much hand-wringing, some debate, a few cases of increasingly targeted state and local scrutiny, and some localized progress toward improved information and accountability. But its been, at best, a mixed bag.

One of the best-informed observers of this issue, Ellen Harpel of Smart Incentives, noted recently that she saw three trends in 2013:

  • The total number of new facilities and expansions nationally is a fraction of what is was just a few years ago, but the average amount of money involved in the deals that do attract incentives has skyrocketed.
  • State subsidies overall have become more transparent, but that’s not the case with most local governments.
  • Fewer incentive programs are targeting incentives according to policy priorities, such as improving needy areas or improving energy efficiency.

One guardedly optimistic item, one squirm-worthy, and one that even the most diehard incentive supporter would have to admit presents big cause for concern.

Even more disturbing to me, though, is that we who deal in economic development — and who understand better than anyone else the impact that a well-designed incentive can have on facilitating economic change — appear to be continuing to lose our relevance to, our role in, the incentives debate.  Just a couple of weeks ago, one of the largest economic development service providers ran a blog entry recapping their sense of the year’s trends – including the fact that, after an initial flurry of attention, “this story did not seem to grow legs, and the issue went away.”

Hate to break the news, guys:

The issue didn’t go away. A lot of us have gotten an earful, including people who have spent a lot of time in legislative hearings and program re-evaluations and squirming uneasily under sharp questions from reporters and citizens at public meetings.  And more importantly, others have been talking about it.  Ask your city manager.

What hasn’t happened?  We haven’t fixed it.  Except in some corners of the profession, we haven’t even had a cogent conversation about it.


I have been wondering in the back of my mind just what is making us so damn stubborn, so obstinately resistent to face this issue before it turns around and takes a large bite out of us.  And part of the answer came to me from a bit of a surprising source — my old friend and frequent Wise Economy contributor Pete Mallow, who turned the tables on the former English major and helped me understand the deep psychology at work in the incentives non-debate…through 19th century American literature.  Go figure.


Read what Pete wrote, and let’s figure out how we get over the whale hunt mentality before it wrecks our flimsy boat.

Landing the Whale: Why a rational debate on incentives isn’t happening


The ongoing debate regarding incentives has been an intriguing one for me.  Living in the Midwest, it seems the vast majority of incentives are used to keep a company from leaving a neighboring town or to induce a company from the neighboring town move.

Moby Dick illustration
Um, yeah. That happened.


Who can blame the companies for accepting the handouts? It is a competitive advantage to the business and the cost of doing business to the community. One egregious example that comes to mind is a retail store that accepted millions of dollars in direct subsidies to buy inventory in exchange for staying in the central business district.  They recently announced that they will be moving to the suburbs, though.


I want us to think about why our debates regarding economic development incentives continue, yet there is little discernible change in our actions and our debates over the past couple of decades.


That reason lies deep in us, but it can be found in many different stories over time — perhaps none better than a great piece of American literature.


“Call me Ishmael.”


The opening line of Moby-Dick begins a story not unlike the quest to land a large company in one’s community.  Once the whiff of a landing a massive company reaches our noses, everyone lines up speaking of the good fortunes that will come. The obsession to land/retain the company quickly becomes a single-minded pursuit to land the Whale. There will be doubters, people offering there words of wisdom from past pursuits, and others saying stick the plan. Yet, these voices are quickly drowned out. How can anyone expect a rational debate about the value of incentives when you are trying to land the Whale?


If you are reading this, you probably have found yourself caught up in that pursuit.  Maybe many times. It could be an automobile plant, a casino, a large “lifestyle” mixed-use center, or a business with hundreds of office jobs. It all boils down to obsession, which is the chase of the whale.


We, the economic development community, justify landing the whale as the one thing we need to put our community on firm ground and allow us to focus on more sustainable strategies or home grown strategies afterwards. You know, these strategies, everything we talk about in our conferences, to grow smart, buy local, and invest in the gazelle company.


Yet, the next whale is just off in the distance. Waiting…


The next whale is always visible in the distance.  It offers a panacea to all the problems facing the community. The whale will increase employment, increase all sorts of taxes, bring prestige to the community, and reelection to any number of political leaders.

These reasons fuel the obsession to grant large incentives to the whale.  Whether it be infrastructure improvements (new roads, sewer, water, etc.) or Tax Increment Financing, Industrial Revenue Bonds, payroll tax credits or abatements local communities will put forth their most competitive package and lobby their state elected officials to put forth additional incentives.


Can a politician go to his/her constituents and say, I let the company go that was going to bring/keep hundreds of jobs our community?  Can we say to our elected leaders that we let the whale get away?


Absolutely not!  When the pursuit of the whale, major employer, begins it is all consuming. The various incentives we have to offer become our harpoons to be hurled at the whale. Rational thoughts, logic, best-laid economic plans, and long-term thinking can’t compete for this most basic human emotion.


“There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness.”—Moby Dick


As I tell my kids about every day, understanding someone’s behavior does not mean accepting it.  If we are acting like Ahab, blinded to everything except the elusive promise and the thrill of the chase, then we are going to put everything else at jeopardy.  And like Ahab, we won’t realize the mistakes we have made, and the danger that we have put ourselves and our communities in, until it’s far too late.

We’ve got tighter budgets, less money to work with.  The screws tighten every day, we face a constant demand to squeeze more services from less and less  resources, and…

We’re going to give mega-incentives?

How long, realistically, do we think we can get away with this?

How soon before the people we say we’re trying to help — the ones we say we’re “creating jobs” for — conclude that we’re nuts?

How long before Moby Dick turns into Mutiny on the Bounty

How long before that crew that we thought were following us to the bright economic future we were promising…dump us off the ship and sail home without us?

For God’s sake, let us get over this already.  Use the damn things right.  And stop wasting what little we have chasing long-shot, unproven whales.


We’re not all white males: we need more voices in planning and economic development

Last week a colleague of mine publicly took a popular professional publication to task for not having any women (and few non-white males) among their regular contributors. As the editor pointed out, they do have several who have contributed in the past, but they’ve gone quiet. Probably too busy.This morning, then, I run across an essay from one of my favorite writers, Richard Longstreth of the Midwesterner, who introduced me to insurance agent, essayist and former Poet Laureate Ted Kooser of Nebraska. Haunting and beautiful Midwestern -based stories, powerful in their simile and metaphor. What I am always looking for in a writer who deals in the character of a place and its people.

Except for one thing.

He’s a guy.

They’re all guys.

Let me run down the list of some of the current writers/bloggers i follow whose professional interests intersect with mine. I guess you’d call these kind of folks “thought leaders.” I’m not sure what exactly that term means–when someone calls me by that term, I’m never sure how to react. But here’s my go-to list:

Aaron Renn
Richard Longstreth
Chuck Marohn
Otis White
Richard Florida
Nicholas Talib
Philip Auerswald
Umair Hacque.

Note the first names (and for those who are unfamiliar with it, “Umair” is a common male first name in the Urdu language).

Jane Jacobs.  From Wikipedia
Jane Jacobs. From Wikipedia

We hold up Jane Jacobs as this patron saint of urbanism, as this person who re-defined what makes a place work, what makes a place matter, what makes a place worth caring about. But the reason why she did that, why she had the ability to do that, is because she came to the question of what makes a community work from a profoundly different perspective than her male contemporaries.

And a big piece of that difference, although certainly not all, was her gender. She saw, she understood, the community around her in a different and illuminating way, not just because she wasn’t trained as a planner, but-

Because she was a woman.

Claiming that the genetic fact of being female gives you some kind of inherently valuable perspective is admittedly thin ice for skating. On the one hand we assert our intrinsic equality, and on the other hand we end up claiming that we’re different. Even my two sons, raised with a mom who is about as similar to June Cleaver as a Martian, challenge me on that. But they understand, they perceived early on, that something is definitely different over on this side of the chromosome divide.

What part of that difference is genetic? Cultural? Psychological? I sure don’t know. But look at the studies of gender differences in leadership styles, communication methods, collaboration patterns, urban bicycling, perceptions of how safe an urban space is. Mentally chart the divides.

At the end of the day, though, I don’t care what the reason is or why women and other non-white male voices aren’t showing up in planning and economic development and urban thought leadership. I’m not looking for some kind of forced equity for the sake of equity.

What worries me is this: we have to figure out how to make communities work better in this generation. We have to figure out how to untangle this welter of wicked problems that we have inherited, that are robbing the communities that we care about is their life and vitality and resilience and health.

If we only have one set of voices, we’re only going to find one set of solutions. And those could turn out to be just as wrong as the urban renewal damage that Jacobs fought against.

So where are today’s Jane Jacobs’s? Who is going to join the thought leader brigade and give us more perspectives, more information, more ideas on how to make this all work?

Where are they? Are they too busy, too overwhelmed with making a living, too overextended?

Too frightened?
Too intimidated?
Too unconvinced of the value of their own voice?

I don’t know. But I know we need them. Lots more of them.

And frankly, it’s getting lonely out here.

I don’t like to complain, and I generally suck at playing the victim. So I want to ask you for two pieces of help:

1. If you know of any women or non-white males who are writing thoughtfully and insightfully about any of the issues involved with helping communities do better, please leave names, links etc in the comment box below. As much as I love all of the guys I named in that list, I think I need some new reading material.

2. I’d be very interested in your thoughts about what we can do to bring more voice into the community building discussion. You can leave them below or email to me directly, whichever your prefer.

Thank you!

But I don’t want another yard: the potential unintended consequences of vacant property

If you’re interested in a new perspective on how to help communities, check out www.localeconomyrevolutionbook.comYou’ll be glad you did (man, I hope…)


But while the city [Youngstown, Ohio] had planned on a stable population of 80,000, more than 1,000 people move away every year, leaving behind 130 additional empty homes in addition to the city’s 22,000 vacant properties and structures. Four thousand of those homes are in dangerous condition, according to the city, but each demolition costs $9,000 and the city has yet to decide whether to close nearly abandoned neighborhoods to try to save money.

“It’s almost anti-American to say our city is shrinking,” said Heather McMahon, the executive director of the Mahoning Valley Organizing Collaborative, a Youngstown community group.

“But if we’re going to survive as a city and not go bankrupt like Detroit,” she said, “we’re going to have to figure something out.”

Blighted Cities Prefer Razing to Rebuilding”New York Times, December 12


Figure something out…


I have had a high level of personal uneasiness toward mass demolition programs for decades.  Since I cut my professional teeth in historic preservation, and in the aftermath of an ambitious urban renewal program to boot, that’s probably not surprising.  But there’s a risk in preservation of trying to preserve everything for the sake of preserving everything – sometimes it’s extremely hard to make the kind of judgment calls that preserving some places, but not all, requires.  It’s a internal struggle I still face every time I deal with a older building or community.


Because I know that conflict in myself, I’ve tried to give the mass demolition programs developing in many of the cities of the northeastern US the benefit of a doubt, depite the opposition shown by many of my longtime preservation colleagues.  After all, I do understand the macro-economics — the oversupply of buildings, the spatial shift in where economic activity happens, the up-against-the-wall situation facing so many of these communities.  And the fact that arson and crime and potentially deadly spaces can’t be tolerated.   And the fact that not everything old is “historic.”

I’ve worried in the back of my mind about the consequences, but I haven’t been able to articulate what was worrying me.  Or tell for sure if it isn’t just an old reflex of mine reacting to a stimulus.

Youngstown was one of the first to make city downsizing its official policy, and one data point does not make a trend.  But I’m concerned that what we’re seeing in Youngstown might be a first indicator that mass-scale vacant building demolition, and the way that we are often handling the vacant land that results, might do more long-term harm than good.


In downtown revitalization, we often find that districts that have too much vacant land, such as too many parking lots, struggle to achieve a healthy economy.  The root reason is amazingly simple, but somehow gets overlooked: if there are fewer buildings, people have that many fewer reasons to go there – each parking lot represents a space that can’t hold a business or a restaurant or another reason for people to come downtown.  Most downtowns need to accommodate some cars, but successfully revitalizing downtowns have come to figure out that plentiful parking doesn’t attract customers if those lots mean that there are less reasons to come to the downtown district.  Unfortunately, a lot of them figured that out after they have lost a lot of buildings to mostly-empty parking lots, but in the world of downtown revitalization professionals, that’s pretty well understood now.  That’s why you see more building of new buildings on parking lots in downtowns, as a national trend than you see the kind of demolition for parking that dominated the 1970s.


Does similar logic hold for urban neighborhoods?  Do we create a worsening spiral of disinvestment by simply trying to get rid of the bad stuff?   Can massive demolition have the same kind of backfiring effect that surface parking lots have in a downtown?


Are there fewer reasons to live there if there’s fewer houses around?



We get into trouble sometimes because we think of people, and the places where people live, as these straightforward, uniform creatures.  Of course, we know that’s not really the case – we know that we fight with our spouse and we certainly don’t have the same tastes as our fuddy – duddy parents!  But when it comes to public policy, we have an tendency to say “people want this” “people don’t want that.”  If we’re honest, we have to admit that it’s a tendency that should make us uncomfortable.


A lot of uses for vacant urban lots have been proposed, but one of the most common so far seems to be giving the vacant lot to the home owner next door.  Maybe it’s a case of what my Appalachian mother used to call “making a silk purse our of a sow’s ear” – she meant when she said that, attempting to make something nice out of something not all that appealing.  And given that most mass demolition programs so far have basically created scattered vacant lots interspersed with some proportion of leftover houses, it’s certainly an on-its-face-logical tactic.


But as the idea has proliferated, the rhetoric being used to justify attaching vacant lots to the house next door  — and the act of calling that a “solution” — is starting to worry me.  It’s worrying me because it sounds like the kind of solution we invent when we fall back on an old assumption without asking whether that assumption fits this issue – or whether it ever fit anything at all.


One of the themes of the vacant-building-demolition movement, and a common justification for trying to hand the vacant lot to the neighbor, has been this idea, this assumption, that giving people more open space, less density, more distance between buildings, means giving them a benefit.  If you review “rightsizing” plans and other vacant lot strategies all over the northeastern US, you repeatedly encounter the more-breathing-room, big-side-lot, look-you-can-have-your-very-own-garden justification for handing that newly-vacant lot over to the house next door.


Here’s my problem: we’re assuming (or maybe hoping) that urban residents will see more land, more open space, as a good thing.   And I am not convinced that it is a good thing. Or that the people we need to invest and re-invest in these neighborhoods will see it as a good thing, either.

My bigger concern is that we may be assuming that without realizing that we’re assuming it.  Which means we can’t see the flaws in what we’re assuming at all.


If you were trained in planning or urban design or urban studies or the like, you got exposed at some point to the Garden City school of thought.  It runs, kind of counter-intuitively, through the whole history of urban planning – from  Ebineezer Howard’s Garden Cities to Mies van de Rohe’s mega-blocks surrounded by parkland, and back from that and forward from that.  They look a little different, but the overarching theme is the same: Design places so that people live as close to an idealized small town , semi-agrarian life as we can get.


And in case that sounds like ancient history, note that there is a new Garden City competition unfolding in the UK today.


For some reason (probably rooted in a desire for cleanness and simplicity and a system that we can understand), urban planning types have always had an ambivalent relationship with full-bore urban places.  We have this strange tendency to keep wanting to revert back to that “everyone can be a gentleman farmer” mode.  And even with the embrace of the Jane Jacobs legacy over the past 20 years, with the value that she placed on an urban environment’s vibrancy, and the economic power generated by proximity, and her distrust of forced “open spaces,” this tendency in the profession’s thinking patterns seems to keep surfacing, like a partially-forgotten reflex.


It’s dangerous to give too much weight to your own experience.  But here’s something to think about:


How many people living in an urban or semi-urban setting actually want to double the amount of land that they are responsible for maintaining?


There’s probably some, no doubt.  All I really know is that I’m not one of them.


I live on a third of an acre lot in a suburb.  I have very busy days and a lot of things making demands on my time.  With the exception of a couple of weeks in the spring (when the first sight of green shoots after months of grey probably turns everyone into a closet farmer), I don’t even want to maintain the yard and flowers and trees I already have.  In my head, the trimming and weeding and planting is just Another Thing I Have to Deal With.  If you gave me the lot next door to take care of, free or cheap as long as I would take care of it…I wouldn’t want it.


I wouldn’t take it unless I felt that I had to… that I had to control that land in order to protect my home from someone or something else.  Unless I felt that I had no other choice.  And if I have to take on that burden to defend my home, that would probably increase my eagerness to find a new home as soon as I can.


Just one, admittedly over-extended, person’s opinion.


But in a society where the average age is climbing, where average household size is plummeting, where hours worked are increasing, and more and more people live alone, how many people are seriously going to want more land to take care of?


Post-War single family suburbs are being told by planners that they are in trouble, that they have to diversify their housing stock, because the traditional two-parent, two-kid families is on its way to becoming an endangered species.  And as a denizen of one of those, I will tell you that I believe it.  But I will also tell you, having lived in those neighborhoods: those are the places where people have the time and money to maintain big yards and trees and flower beds.


So, while it’s likely that a few people in your Neighborhood X might tap their inner Hobbit and embrace the opportunity to extend their flower and vegetable plots onto the next lot, I cannot help but fear that this is more of a once-in-a-while idiosyncacy than a workable strategy.  But since no one’s going to force someone to start gardening the lot next door, no harm, no foul, right?


That’s what I thought… until I saw the item about Youngstown that opened this essay.  Now I wonder if we are not inadvertently reinforcing these neighborhoods’ and cities’ decline.


Here’s the core problem: we’re assuming that more open space and more trees and more room between houses will look like a Good Thing to potential future house buyers.  In a sense, we’re saying,


“Look! This is just like those big lots in the suburbs… look how much room you’ll have!”


But here’s how that might translate in the minds of those future buyers:


“Look!  You’ll get more stuff to have to take care of!  Oh, and all those benefits of being in the city, like transit and ability to walk places and shopping options… well, there’s not enough people to support that stuff here anymore, so you’ll have to drive to the shopping centers the same as the suburban people.  And yes, I know these roads are broken up and half the street lights don’t work and the recreation center two blocks over closed because we don’t have enough tax revenue to support all this stuff.  But look how much land you have!


I think that we have to recognize, rationally, that this isn’t a very compelling sales proposition.  And because it’s not a compelling sales proposition, and because we haven’t come up with anything better, I fear that we are going to watch that hemorrhage continue, rather than stabilize.  If we don’t think critically about their assumptions, and instead pin our hopes on this Urban Little House on the Prairie idea, we will probably find that we have thrown money and time at a strategy that did nothing to stem the population loss, and may in fact make it worse.  It’s more likely that the vacant lots signal to people a lack of future, not some happy urban farmer/fake suburbia thing.



I understand very well that people who are struggling to try to fix these neighborhoods are faced with the bitterest of awful, no-win choices.  Nothing in here is intended to imply anything else, and I’ve worked over and worked over this essay until it turned into a baroque tangle of caveats and conditions in an attempt to not sound like I want to cut them off at the knees.   As I’ve said elsewhere, I am frankly in awe of the determined people who fight to make communities better in the face of disinvestment, discouragement, unending frustration and setback.  And I know that’s what the people on the front line of the urban vacancy issue are living with.


My goal here is to encourage these folks to keep fighting, and not give in to the temptation to cling to a simplistic answer as the longed-for solution. The urban vacant building issue is probably the biggest wicked problem we are going to face in the next decade, and I sure as hell don’t have an easy answer.  There probably isn’t one answer – urban farmers, condo-seekers, restless temporary alighters and overextended, overwhelmed constant-workers are probably all parts of our future urban neighborhoods.  Monolithic assumptions are a big piece of what gets us into trouble in the first place.


And I know that’s not the neat wrap-up answer that people want at the end of an essay like this.  It’s damn easy, I know, to be a critic.


But a big part of the problem with how we are handling urban vacancy, and many of the other issues we face, is that we keep looking for easy answers. We have too much of a tendency, particularly among urban planning and design professionals, to blindly accept the received wisdom of past generations, even when we can see for ourselves the evidence of that wisdom’s failures.   And when we accept a happy piece of pablum, one that pacifies us into thinking that we might not have to undertake the blindingly hard fight to gain the money and the attention that we need to figure this out in a manner that will actually work, then we have done ourselves no favors.


So let’s take this issue on seriously, and more meaningfully support the organizations and volunteers and communities who are facing and taking on this fight. Let’s test some tactics – really test them, putting money and intellectual rigor into figuring it out.  There have been a few systematic experiments, but nowhere near enough.  Let’s figure out what we actually need to have in our toolbox, and how we can best use it..


Preferably before we finish all that planned demolition.

More (MOAR!) Books – Recommendations for your reading list (or for someone else)

Yesterday I pointed you to an introduction to the Wise Fool Press’s upcoming work, but obviously there’s a ton of good information and general good writing out there that is helping inform my thinking and that of many people who care about helping communities work better.  So if you’re interested in rethinking how your community works, I’ve created a page of additional resources that I think are worth your time, effort, and a little bit of your cash.  You can find those books and links to purchase them here, or under the MOAR Books! link at the top of the page.

Right now the list is short, but it will be getting longer.  If you have recommendations for other items to add, or if you want to add to the conversation about how these books made a difference for you or your community, just let me know.  Thanks!



Peek behind the curtain for Wise Fool Press

Since the launch of The Local Economy Revolution, people have been asking me about the Wise Fool Press.  So I wanted to make sure you knew that an overview of what the Wise Fool Press is about has been posted here.  This page also introduces a few upcoming publications, including

  • A how-to for creating more meaningful public engagement events; 
  • An exploration of how economic development might learn from the Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper approaches to urban planning, and
  • A collection of personal essays from people all over the country about why they work for the future of their communities, and how they keep going when it gets tough.

So I hope you’ll check the page out, and let me know what you’re excited about.  And as I said, we’re looking for partners to help make all these things happen faster and better, so let me know if you want to help us.



What we learned: lessons from the Rust Belt’s children

A slightly different version of this essay appeared about a week ago at my friend Jason Segedy’s blog,, and then (to my delight, because he deserves a much broader audience) at  In the meantime, I had done a little tweaking to the original post, since everyone benefits from an editor, myself definitely included.  So I’d like to share this with you as a very moving and profound response to my Rust Belt essay here not too long ago.

One thing that Jason gets at beautifully, which I think kind of got lost in my piece, is that neither my goal nor his was to rewrite history, to put some kind of Rust Belt Chic spin on the industrial era.  Jason references his uncle’s death in an industrial accident, which wasn’t as uncommon as you might think.  The Phelps brothers’ sculptures that I described in the previous piece resonates with me because of the labor and the dirt and the exhaustion they portray.  And my own father’s brain tumor probably had more than a little something to do with a lifetime around toxic chemicals. Romantic, not so much.

The thing that I want to explore, though, and that Jason has picked up on, is whether that experience of being in that time and that place at that formative age impacted how those of us who work on making communities better…do that work.  I think it colors the experience, shapes the perspective of this subset of 30- and 40-something community professionals and advocates, and my theory is that because of that experience, this subset does that work a little differently than others.

And since communities of all kinds and all regions are struggling with how to deal with massive changes, wicked problems and bewildering economic issues, maybe those of us who grew up in the first wave of this sea change might have something beneficial to offer.

So, I’m toying with this topic for an upcoming book, but I don’t know exactly where we’re going with it yet.  If you’d like to share your insights, please feel free to send me a note at

Thanks.  Here’s Jason.

Go to sleep, Captain Future, in your lair of art deco
You were our pioneer of progress, but tomorrow’s been postponed
Go to sleep, Captain Future, let corrosion close your eyes
If the board should vote to restore hope, we’ll pass along the lie

-The Secret Sound of the NSA, Captain Future

In the Beginning…

map of NE US
“Image Source: Wikipedia: Change in total number of manufacturing jobs in metropolitan areas, 1954-2002. Dark red is very bad. Akron is dark red.”

As near as I can tell, the term “Rust Belt” originated sometime in the mid-1980s.  That sounds about right.  I originated slightly earlier, in 1972, at St. Thomas Hospital in Akron, Ohio, Rubber Capital of the World.

My very earliest memory is of a day, sometime in the summer of 1975, when my parents, my baby brother, and I went on a camping trip to Lake Milton, just west of Youngstown.  I was three years old.  I have no idea why, of all of the things that I could remember, but don’t, I happen to remember this one.  But it is a good place to start.

I remember looking at the green overhead freeway signs along the West Expressway in Akron.  I remember the overpoweringly pungent smell of rubber wafting from the smokestacks of B.F. Goodrich and Firestone.  I remember asking my mother about it, and she explained that those were the factories where the tires, and the rubber, and the chemicals were made.  They were made by hard-working, good people – people like my Uncle Jim.

When I was a little bit older, I would learn that this was the smell of good jobs; of hard, dangerous work; and of the way of life that built the modern version of this quirky and gritty town.  It was the smell that tripled Akron’s population between 1910 and 1920, transforming it from a sleepy canal-town to the 32ndlargest city in America.  It was a smell laced with melancholy, ambivalence, and nostalgia – for it was the smell of an era that was quickly coming to an end (although I was far too young to be aware of this fact at the time).  It was, sometimes, the smell of tragedy.

We stopped by my grandparents’ house in Firestone Park on the way to the campground.  My grandmother gave me a box of Barnum’s Animals crackers for the road.  My grandparents were Akron.  Their story was Akron’s story.  My grandfather was born in 1916 in Barnesboro, a small coal-mining town in Western Pennsylvania, somewhere between Johnstown, DuBois, and nowhere.  His father, a coal miner, had emigrated there from Hungary nine years earlier.  My grandmother was born in Barberton, in 1920.  Barberton was reportedly the most-industrialized city in the United States, per-capita, at some point around that time.

They both worked in factories their entire working lives (I don’t think they called jobs like that “careers” back then).  My grandfather worked at Firestone.  My grandmother worked at the Saalfield Publishing factory, one of the largest producers of children’s books, games, and puzzles in the world.  Today, both of the plants where they worked form part of a gutted, derelict, post-apocalyptic moonscape in South Akron, located between that same West Expressway and…well, perdition.  The City of Akron has plans for revitalizing this area.  It needs to happen, but there are ghosts there…

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings,
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

-Percy Bysshe Shelley, Ozymandias

My grandparents’ house exemplified what it was to live in working-class Akron in the late 1970s and early 1980s.  My stream-of-consciousness memories of that house include:  cigarettes and ashtrays; Hee-HawThe Joker’s Wild; fresh tomatoes and peppers; Fred & Lamont Sanford; Archie & Edith Bunker; Herb Score and Indians baseball on the radio on the front porch; hand-knitted afghans; UHF/VHF; 3, 5, 8, and 43; cold cans of Coca-Cola and Pabst Blue Ribbon (back when the pop-tops still came off of the can); the Ohio Lottery; chicken and galuskas (dumplings); a garage floor that you could eat off of; a meticulously maintained 14-year-old Chrysler with 29,000 miles on it; a refrigerator in the dining room because the kitchen was too small; catching fireflies in jars; and all being right with the world.

I always associate the familiar comfort of that two-bedroom bungalow with the omnipresence of cigarette smoke and television.  I remember sitting there on May 18, 1980.  It was my eighth birthday.  We were watching TV coverage of the Mount St. Helens eruption in Washington State.  I remember talking about the fact that it was going to be the year 2000 (the Future!) in just twenty years.  It was an odd conversation for an eight year old to be having with adults (planning for the future already, and for a life without friends, apparently).  I remember thinking about the fact that I would be 28 years old then, and how inconceivably distant it all seemed.  Things seem so permanent when you’re eight, and time moves ever-so-slowly.

More often than not, when we visited my grandparents, my Uncle Jim and Aunt Helen would be there.  Uncle Jim was born in 1936, in West Virginia.  His family, too, had come to Akron to find work that was better-paying, steadier, and (relatively) less dangerous than the work in the coal mines.  Uncle Jim was a rubber worker, first at Mohawk Rubber and then later at B.F. Goodrich.  Uncle Jim also cut hair over at the most-appropriately named West Virginia Barbershop, on South Arlington Street in East Akron.  He was one of the best, most decent, kindest people that I have ever known.

I remember asking my mother once why Uncle Jim never washed his hands.  She scolded me, explaining that he did wash his hands, but that because he built tires, his hands were stained with carbon-black, which wouldn’t come out no matter how hard you scrubbed.  I learned later, that it would take about six months for that stuff to leach out of your pores, once you quit working.

Uncle Jim died in 1983, killed in an industrial accident on the job at B.F. Goodrich.  He was only 47.

The plant would close for good about a year later.It was an unthinkably tragic event, at a singularly traumatic time for Akron.  It was the end of an era.


Times Change

My friend Della Rucker recently wrote an essay entitled The Elder Children of the Rust Belt. .  It dredged up all of these old memories, and it got me thinking about childhood, about this place that I love and where I still live, and about the experience of growing up just as an economic era (perhaps the most prosperous and anomalous one in modern history) was coming to an end.

That is what the late 1970s and early 1980s was:  the end of one thing, and the beginning of a (still yet-to-be-determined) something else.  I didn’t know it at the time, but that’s because I was just a kid.

In retrospect, it was obvious:  the decay, the decomposition, the slow-at-first, and then faster-than-you-can-see-it unwinding of an industrial machine that had been wound-up far, far, too tight.  The machine runs until it breaks down; it is replaced then with a new and more efficient one – a perfectly ironic metaphor for an industrial society.  It was a machine made up of unions, and management, and capitalized sunk costs, and supply chains, and commodity prices, and globalization.  Except it wasn’t really a machine at all.  It was really just people.  And people aren’t machines.  When they are treated as such, and then discarded as obsolete, there are consequences.

You could hear it in the music:  from the decadent, desperately-seeking-something (escape) pulse of Disco, to the (first) nihilistic and (then) fatalistic sound of Punk and Post-Punk.  It’s not an accident that a band called Devo came from Akron, Ohio.  De-evolution:  the idea that instead of evolving, mankind has actually regressed, as evidenced by the dysfunction and herd mentality of American society.  It sounded a lot like Akron in the late 1970s.  It still sounds a little bit like the Rust Belt today.

As an adult, looking back at the experience of growing up at that time, you realize how much it colors your thinking and outlook on life.  It’s all the more poignant when you realize that the “end-of-an-era” is never really an “end” as such, but is really a transition to something else.  But to what exactly?

The end of that era, which was marked by strikes, layoffs, and unemployment, was followed by its echoes and repercussions: economic dislocation, outmigration, poverty, and abandonment; as well as the more intangible psychological detritus – the pains from the phantom limb long after the amputation; the vertiginous sensation of watching someone (or something) die.


And it came to me then
That every plan
Is a tiny prayer to Father Time

As I stared at my shoes
In the ICU
That reeked of piss and 409

It sung like a violent wind
That our memories depend
On a faulty camera in our minds

‘Cause there’s no comfort in the waiting room
Just nervous paces bracing for bad news

Love is watching someone die…

-Death Cab For Cutie, What Sarah Said


But it is both our tragedy and our glory that life goes on.

Della raised a lot of these issues:  our generation’s ambivalent relationship with the American Dream (like Della, I have the same unpleasant taste of rust in my mouth whenever I write or utter that phrase); our distrust of organizations and institutions; and our realization that you have to keep going, fight, and survive, in spite of it all.  She talks about how we came of age at a time of loss:

not loss like a massive destruction, but a loss like something insidious, deep, pervasive.

It is so true, and it is so misunderstood.

One of the people commenting on her post said, essentially, that it is dangerous to romanticize about a “golden age;” that all generations struggle; and that life is hard.

Yes, those things are all true.  But they are largely irrelevant to the topic at hand.

There is a very large middle ground between a “golden age” and an “existential struggle.”  The time and place about which we are both writing (the late 1970s through the present, in the Rust Belt) was neither heaven nor Lord of the Flies. .  But it is undoubtedly a time of extreme transition.  It is a great economic unraveling, and we are collectively and individually still trying to figure out how to navigate through it, survive it, and ultimately build something better out of it.

History is cyclical.  Regardless of how enamored Americans, in general, may be with the idea, it is not linear.  Our existence as a culture is neither a long, slow march toward utopia, nor toward oblivion.  We  see times of relative (and it’s all relative, this side of paradise) peace, prosperity, and stability; and other times of relative strife, economic upheaval, uncertainty, and instability.  But we have clearly moved from one of those times to the other, beginning in the 1970s, and continuing through the present.  And I think the Rust Belt has been that movement’s ground zero.

The point that is easy to miss when uttering phrases like “life is hard for every generation,” is that none of this discussion about the Rust Belt – where it’s been, where it is going – has anything to do with a “golden age.”  But it has everything to do with the fact that this time of transition was an era (like all eras) that meant a lot (good and bad) to the people that lived through it.  It helped make them who they are today, and it helped make where they live what it is today.

For those of us who were kids at the time that the great unraveling began   a big part of our experience has been about the narrative that we were socialized to believe in at a very young age, and how that narrative went up in a puff of smoke.

In 1977, I could smell rubber in the air, and many of my family members and friends’ parents worked in rubber factories.

In 1982, the last passenger tire was built in Akron.

By 1984, 90% of those jobs were gone, many of those people had moved out of town, and the whole thing was already a fading memory.

Just as when a person dies, people reacted with a mixture of silence, embarrassment, and denial.


As a kid, especially, you construct your identity based upon the place in which you live.  The whole identity that I had built, even as a small child, as a proud Akronite:  This is the RUBBER CAPITAL OF THE WORLD; this is where we make lots and lots of Useful Things for people all over the world; this is where Real Americans Do Real Work; this is where people from Europe, the South, and Appalachia come to make a Better Life for themselves.

That all got yanked away before I was 12.  I couldn’t believe any of those things anymore, because they were no longer true, and I knew it.  I could see it with my own eyes.  Maybe some of them were never true to begin with, but kids can’t live a lie the way that adults can.  When the place that you thought you lived in turns out not to be the place that you actually live in, it’s jarring and disorienting.  It can even be heartbreaking.


We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our great war is a spiritual war. Our great depression is our lives.

Tyler Durden, Fight Club

I’m fond of the above quote.  I was even fonder of it when I was 28 years old.  Time, and the realization that life is short — and that you ultimately have to participate and do something with it– has lessened its power considerably. But it remains the quintessential Generation X quote, from the quintessential Generation X movie.  It certainly fits in quite well with all of this.

But, then again, maybe it shouldn’t.

I use the phrase “Rust Belt Orphan” in the original title of this post, because that is what the experience of coming of age at the time of the great economic unraveling feels like at the gut-level.  But it’s a dangerous and unproductive combination, when coupled with the whole Gen-X thing.

In many ways, the Rust Belt is the “Generation X” of regions – the place that just doesn’t seem to fit in; the place that most people would just as soon forget about; the place that would, in fact, just as soon forget about itself.  The place that, if it does dare to acknowledge its own existence or needs, barely notices the surprised frowns of displeasure and disdain from those on the outside, because it has already been subsumed by its own self-doubt and self-loathing.

A fake chinese rubber plant
In the fake plastic earth
That she bought from a rubber man
In a town full of rubber plans
To get rid of itself

-Radiohead, Fake Plastic Trees

The whole Gen-X misfit wandering-in-the-Rust Belt-wilderness meme is a palpably prevalent, but seldom acknowledged, part of our regional culture.  It is probably just as well.

It’s so easy for the whole smoldering heap of negativity to degenerate into a viscous morass of alienation and anomie.  Little good can come from going any further down that dead-end road.


Whither the Future?

“The Greek word for “return” is nostosAlgos means “suffering.” So nostalgia is the suffering caused by an unappeased yearning to return.”
Milan Kundera, Ignorance

So where does this all leave us?

First, as a region, I think we have to get serious about making our peace with the past and moving on.  We have begun to do this in Akron, and, if the stories and anecdotal evidence are to be believed, we are probably ahead of the region as a whole.

But what does “making our peace” and “moving on” really mean?

In many ways, I think that our region has been going through a collective period of mourning for the better part of four decades.  Nostalgia and angst regarding the things that have been lost (some of our identity, prosperity, and national prominence)are all part of the grieving process.  The best way out is always through.

But we should grieve, not so we can wallow in the experience and refuse to move on, but so we can gain a better understanding of who we are and where we come from.  Coming to grips with and acknowledging those thingsultimately enables us to help make these places that we love better.

We Americans are generally not all that good at, or comfortable with, mourning or grief.  There’s a very American idea that grieving is synonymous with “moving on” — and (even worse) that “moving on” is synonymous with “getting over it.”

We’re very comfortable with that neat and tidy, straight, upwardly-trending line toward the future (and a more prosperous, progressive, and enlightened future it will always be, world without end, Amen). We’re not so comfortable with that messy and confusing historical cycle of boom-and-bust, of evolution and de-evolution, of creation and destruction and reinvention.  But that’s the world as we actually experience it, and it’s the one that we must live in.  It is far from perfect.  I wish that I had another one to offer you.  But there isn’t one.  For all of its trials and tribulations, the world that we inhabit has one inestimable advantage:  it is unambiguously real.

“Moving on” means refusing to become paralyzed by the past.  It means living up to our present responsibilities and striving every day to become the type of people that are better able to help others.  But “moving on” doesn’t mean that we forget about the past, that we pretend that we didn’t experience what we did, or that we create an alternate reality to avoid playing the hand that we’ve actually been dealt.

I don’t think we can, or should, “get over” the Rust Belt.  The very phrase “get over it” traffics in denial, wishful thinking, and the estrangement of one’s self from one’s roots.  Countless attempts to “get over” the Rust Belt have resulted in the innumerable short-sighted, “get rich quick” economic development projects and public-private pyramid-schemes that many of us have come to find so distasteful, ineffective, and expensive.

We don’t have to be  something that we are not. We can’t be, even if we want to.  But we do have to be the best place that we can be.  This might mean that we are a smaller, less-prominent place.  But it also means that we can be a much better-connected, more cohesive, coherent, and equitable place.

The only people that can stop us from becoming that place are we ourselves.

For a place that has been burned so badly by the vicissitudes of the global economy, Big Business, and Big Industry, we’re so quick to put our faith in the Next Big Project, the Next Big Organization, and the Next Big Thing.  I’m not sure whether this is the cause of our current economic malaise, or the effect, or both.

Whatever it is, we need to stop doing it.

Does this mean that we should never do or dream anything big?  No.  Absolutely not.

But it does mean that we should be prudent, and that we should  prefer our economic development and public investment to be hyper-nimble, hyper-scalable, hyper-neighborhood-focused, and ultra-diverse.  Fetishizing Daniel Burnham’s  “Make no little plans…” quote has done us much harm.  Sometimes “little plans” are exactly what we need, because they involve fundamentals, they’re easier to pull off, and they more readily establish trust, inspire hope, and build relationships.

Those of us who came of age during the great economic unraveling and (still painful) transition from the Great American Manufacturing Belt to the Rust Belt might just be in a better position to understand our challenges –and to find the creative solutions required to meet them head-on.  Those of us that stuck it out and still live here, know what we have been through.  We’re under no illusions about where we live, or who we are.  I think Della was on to something when she listed what she thinks that we can bring to the table:

  • Determination
  • Long-game focus
  • Understanding the depth of the pit and the long way left to climb out of it
  • Resourcefulness
  • Ability to salvage
  • Expectation that there are no easy answers
  • Disinclination to believe that everything will be all right if only we do this One Big Thing


When I look at this list, I see pragmatism, resilience, self-knowledge, survival skills, and leadership.

It all rings true.

He wanted to care, and he could not care. For he had gone away and he could never go back any more. The gates were closed, the sun was gone down, and there was no beauty but the gray beauty of steel that withstands all time. Even the grief he could have borne was left behind in the country of illusion, of youth, of the richness of life, where his winter dreams had flourished.

“Long ago,” he said, “long ago, there was something in me, but now that thing is gone. Now that thing is gone, that thing is gone. I cannot cry. I cannot care. That thing will come back no more.” 

-F. Scott Fitzgerald, Winter Dreams


So, let us have our final elegy for the Rust Belt.  Then, let’s get to work.


Grasshoppers without antennae: economic development and boxed-out young professionals

Want to get some help making your community’s economic development work better?  Check out  You might thank me for that.  Or maybe not.  Won’t know til you check, will you?  


In a rather eerie turn of events, I ran across an article from a few days ago in the New York Times a couple of hours after I put up an admittedly uncomfortable post designed to spur some conversation around the role of young professionals in economic development.  In the article “Embracing the Millenials’ Mind-Set at Work” by Tom Agan, you read this paragraph:

When a small, closed group…  holds power, it tends to limit information and education and resist innovations that threaten its strength, the authors explain. By contrast, innovation thrives when information is unfettered, education is nurtured, people can readily form new groups, and decision-making is inclusive. These circumstances offset the strong tendency of those in power to resist change — in a country or at a company.

Studies of organizations make the point of that paragraph pretty incontrovertibly — groups that limit information and resists innovations damage themselves because they destroy their ability to understand and deal with change.  They end up like a grasshopper that loses its antennae — they fail to perceive big pieces of what’s going on around them, which means that they can’t react appropriately.  Which usually

sparrow with cricket in beak
Bird Lunch. From

means they end up as Bird Lunch.

That’s why every Fortune 100 you can think of puts huge effort anymore into increasing the range of its employees – gender and race, yes, but also cross-disciplinary team assignments.  It’s not just to make nice. They’re doing it to widen their scan of the market they operate in, and the emerging issues that will help or hurt them.  They’re doing it to strengthen their antennae.

The two words I deleted at the … were: “of elites.”  I deleted that because we tend to make that assumption — that the “elites” somehow are responsible for closing out those other voices — younger, older, GenX, whatever.

I edited that quote for a reason, and it wasn’t just to be nice.

We don’t have to think of ourselves as “elites,” or have anyone else think of us as “elites,”  for that deadly closing-off effect to occur.  If, as the Twitter stream quoted in my last post indicated, young professionals working in economic development are excluded from the mainstream of the profession and are having to have “their own conversations,”  I will posit to you that this is a major risk to the economic development profession.

But frankly, I’m not too worried about them.  Young professionals who want to make their communities better will find a way, and what professional label you put on yourself probably matters less and less in the context of addressing complex contemporary challenges.

The question, then: what happens to the grasshopper that has lost its antennae.


Important Question: Do younger people feel boxed out of economic development?

Christa Franzi of Camoin Associates posted an insightful Twitter stream to LinkedIn the other day.  I had been part of the original discussion on Twitter, so I was particularly glad to see the key elements pulled together.  Here’s what she posted — I’ve bolded a couple of the comments that I thought were particularly insightful/disturbing:

Originally posted this question on Twitter and wanted to include the greater economic development community — some initial responses below: 

@ta9ti Some young #EconDev pros may feel boxed out but 4 the profession to succeed they need to be welcomed in. #IEDC has a #YoungPro group. ~ GISPlanning

@GISplanning @ta9ti good q. Young pro for on LI at least had been very quiet. Seems like something more interactive is needed. But what? ~Della Rucker 

@ta9ti – It’s an old school crowd in #econdev with few reaching out to younger people. Not much plan for the future-> the ‘chasm’ is growing ~GISWebTech

@dellarucker @GISplanning I think they’re thirsty to be part of the #econdev conversation, but not always included so they have their own… ~ Christa Franzi

I wrote this response. and since there has been little reaction over there, I wanted to ask this question to a broader audience.  The key question is in bold at the end.
The comment from GISWebTech above is pretty telling, and it resonates with what I have been hearing from younger professionals all over the country.
The elephant in the room, perhaps, is that three issues are converging. First, younger professionals seem to be coming in more from public policy-related fields and educational/personal backgrounds than previous generations, who mostly came in from business, marketing, etc (I don’t know this for a fact, just my sense of the wind. Would be interested if anyone has better information). My hypothesis would be that this means that these folks are coming from a more holistic, and perhaps more complex, world view than folks who came in to the field with “go sell this town/state” marching orders.
Second, I would posit that younger folks might have a harder time buying into conventional, relatively simple understandings of the economic development job. Those that find themselves operating within a sell-at-all-costs, winning-is-the-only-thing environment might find it hard to reconcile that job description with the broader picture of the health of the communities they care about (where they work, where they grew up, whatever). If you have watched your community and the school district you came out of continue to struggle for funds, and you can go through your college friends and count the number working for low wages, part time, brutal hours, etc., …I wrote recently about how the experience of growing up in the Rust Belt when I did had the ability to blow big holes in your faith in the system, in your assumption that “New Economic Thing” = Issues That Matter To You Get Better. I wonder if some of that might be in play here.
Last, there’s no question in my mind that the economic development profession as a whole is going through some massive growing pains. Just like practically every industry , we’re being forced to shift from an old, formerly stable model to…. what? No one’s 100% sure yet. And that’s understandably scary for a lot of people who were comfortable with the way things used to work. So there’s this pervasive tension between status quo guards and those who might be wondering whether the Emperor actually has anything on.
All that isn’t unique to economic development, but as other industries trying to innovate have found, you have to open the door to let meaningful discussions about change happen. You have to make it OK for people to say that something needs to change, and by and large I don’t really see that going on in economic development at this point, certainly not to the extent that it has gone on in city management or urban planning. Without broadly and meaningfully opening the door, without enabling and accepting meaningful discussions about how to innovate — without making it OK within the professional culture to say something innovated– only the really bull-headed are going to take that risk. Instead, an alternative conversation is going develop, and the ability for the broader community to discover the changes that they need is going to be hobbled.
So, let me reframe the question: if young ED professionals are having “their own” conversations about the practice and future of economic development, how do the rest of us help get that conversation into the mainstream, for the benefit of all of us?

Tactical Economy?

I have written a few blog entries and posted a few videos at the Local Economy Revolution book web site this week about an event that I participated in last weekend in Middlesboro, Kentucky.  This small town on the edge of the Cumberland Gap held an event called Better Block Boro, and I was one of three national figures who were invited to come, participate and share our expertise.  The other two, Mike Lydon of The Street Plans Collaborative and Matt Tomasulo of Walk Your City, helped the participants implement some tactical urbanism strategies to demonstrate the impact that some relatively simple improvements could make in terms of the downtown area’s quality of life.

I, on the other hand, spent most of the day in “pop-up” conversations with Mike, Tom, Isaac (the downtown program manager) and many others about how low-cost, low-risk improvements like these impact local economies.  With everything that was going on, we had a lot of food for thought.

You can review some of the photos and videos from that event at

Tactical urbanism at work.  Guerilla historic markers.  Makes you realize the potential right in front of you, See more examples at
Tactical urbanism at work. Guerilla historic markers. Makes you realize the potential right in front of you, See more examples at

As I was driving away from Middlesboro that afternoon, I started thinking more directly about how the principles behind tactical urbanism might be applied to revitalizing local economies as well.  There’s several spoken and, sometimes, unspoken assumptions behind tactical urbanism that drive this strategy’s relevance and increasing importance for communities these days.  Without cribbing from any of the standard sources, here’s my interpretation of why Better Block/tactical urbanism efforts have become such a powerful part of the urban planning landscape:

  • They focus on improvements that are achievable in the short term.  Rather than waiting to pull together the funding, the plans, the approvals needed to do a Big Project, they emphasize doing what they can do with what’s available.  Pallets get turned into chairs and bike racks and tables and hanging planters (how many uses can you think of for a wooden delivery pallet?  A whole lot more than I had come up with, apparently).  Vacant lots get turned into outdoor dining spaces and music stages, and extra parking spaces turn into community gathering spots.
  • They place emphasis on the community education that comes from the improvements as much or more so than the actual thing they build themselves.  The goal of a pallet street chair isn’t just to give people someplace to sit.  It’s to give them a real-world lesson in the impact of making public spaces comfortable for people to hang out in.  The implicit realization: many places have had such paltry human-scale public space investment over the last couple of generations that building support for meaningful investments means physically demonstrating what we can do and how it can impact the community.
  • They know that iterative is OK.  A Better Block event is by its nature a little messy.  You have volunteers working on a dozen little projects, things being built out of castoffs, “scavengers” hunting for more wood or tarps or whatever, and a constant stream of “Where can I find an extension cord?” “Do you know where the staple gun is?”  “What do you need me to do?”  The goal isn’t to do everything.  It’s to do enough, this time, with what we’ve got, to move things forward, to spark some understanding and some energy, to get farther down the road to something better than we are today.

One thing Mike Lydon told me is that when his firm proposes to design conventional streetscapes or park improvements or the like anymore, they add a tactical urbanism piece to their proposal — they want to build something physical, something temporary, to maintain the community’s desire to implement the full plan during the long period between finishing the pretty pictures and getting the funding and approvals together to build the permanent project.  They’ve come to understand that people need to see forward momentum, that simply designing something to plop into a space often doesn’t empower the change in minds and hearts necessary to make real community change happen.  After decades of working with urban planners and designers across the spectrum, I felt like a veil had been lifted.


The broad conditions that I think have led to the growth of tactical urbanism pull from the same zeitgeist that is impacting how we do a lot of the work that we find ourselves needing to do with our community’s economy.  That includes:

  • Not enough money to do the big projects that we relied on in years past
  • Increasing awareness of the complexity and interrelated impacts that those big projects can generate
  • Increasing levels of peoples’ ability to access and spread their own information (or misinformation) about your Big Project’s feared impacts
  • Increasing distrust that the Big Project will have all the benefits that its supporters promise.

For physical planners, those Big Projects might have been multi-million dollar streetscapes or parks.  For people in economic development and revitalization, that might be big commercial building projects, things that require big financial incentives, big business recruitment.  Just like the streetscapes and the parks, those kinds of economic projects still happen in many places, but the broad trend seems to be that they are getting harder to do, demand more and more money and staff time and community energy, and too often fail to live up to their promised impacts.

So, this is the germ of an idea, and I’m putting it out to you for your ideas, thoughts, brick-throwing exercise, whatever.

I think that we need to start developing a Tactical Economy toolkit.  When people want to do Better Block stuff, a quick Google search can give them all sorts of ideas for projects to try and stuff to build.  Part of what people find when they do that search is simply ideas that they might not have come up with otherwise (how often do you think of putting up guerilla historic signs?), while the other part is specific plans and step-by-step instructions, such as to build a chair.  Not exactly something you want to just take a flyer at and then leave out for people to sit on.

We need both of these in  Tactical Economy toolkit.  Some of the tools might be pretty straightforward to implement – the challenge may be simply helping people think of them.  Others might require some how-to instructions.

What do you think?



The elder children of the Rust Belt

Psst…looking for some new ideas to make your town better?  Check out  But you didn’t hear it from me, ya got that?


Growing up in New Castle, Indiana, identical twins Kelly and Kyle Phelps shared everything – a bed, hand-me-downs from their six older siblings, their school classrooms, and all the rhythms and routines of life in a Rust Belt manufacturing town during the 1970s and ’80s, the waning heyday of the American auto industry….

“Kyle and I would go and pick the metal shavings out of the bottoms of his soles. It was big fun to do that,” Kelly recalls. Their dad’s clothes would smell of machine oil, a powerful sense memory for the twins to this day. The next morning, without fail and without complaint, he’d get up and do it all over again….

Now 40, the Phelps twins share a very personal artistic vision. Together they make art that puts a human face on a growing statistic – workers displaced by downsizing, outsourcing, automation, and hard times.”

–  “American Made. ” American Craft Magazine


sculpture of work shoe
Kyle and Kelly Phelps, “Industrial Sole.” The most moving to me of the works in the article, probably because my dad wore work shoes a lot like this.

Before I write anything else, let me encourage you to go read this article and examine the Phelps brothers’ work.  Haunting isn’t a good enough word for it.

I read this article on a flight, and had to keep my sunglasses on because of my red eyes.  I read art magazines a lot — I have a taste for contemporary ceramics and jewelry — but I tend to prefer abstract designs and shy away from representational work.  So my reaction to this article caught me way off guard.

The thing that bewildered me is how deeply the Phelps brothers’ work resonates to me.  And for many reasons,  it shouldn’t.  I grew up in a town a lot, a lot like New Castle, but I live a comfortable middle class life now.  On top of that, a lot of the Phelps brothers’ work reflects the role of unions in Rust Belt workers’ lives.   I have a personal,  emotional-level ambivalence toward unions, which were often blamed for making the collapse of the industrial economy worse when I was a kid.  But I”m only saying that to get my own emotional baggage out onto the open.


It’s there something about rust belt children of our generation that is different?  What do we know/claim/resonate?  I’m talking here particularly about the children of the blue collar workers.  So that doesn’t include my husband, who grew up in the heart of the Rust Belt, but whose dad had gotten out of Appalachia and into upper management.  And maybe not even my brother in law, who spends every working day now managing the GM factory in Flint, Michigan, arguably Rust Belt Ground Zero.  He didn’t grow up being formed by that experience, although he lives in its backwash now.  And certainly there’s many people younger than I who have gotten caught up in the subsequent waves and have certainly been shaped by their experience too.

But there’s a small cadre of us who had that experience in the beginning, in the 1970s and 80s in Cleveland and Pittsburgh and Buffalo and Akron and Gary and Milwaukee and more, and who are now working in communities in the Midwest and across the world.  And as I have gotten to know many of them and listened to them, is striking me that we may share a unique perspective.

But I’m not yet sure what it is.


Is it an ambivalent relationship with American Dream idea?

A background expectation of uncertainty?

A tendency to assume uncertainty, impermanence, in economic fortunes and community life?

Awareness of how much pain your can have, and how helpless you can be, in face of major economic shifts?

A realization that you have to keep going regardless?  A certain kinds of stoicness–maybe learned from watching parents get dislocated?

A distrust of organizations and institutions.  Maybe not distrust–but lack of faith.  expectation of fallibility?

Awareness of risk of romanticizing?


The Rust Belt’s children know probably better than any that something is gone that will never come back.  We watched the industrial age end, not on TV or in an academic report.  We stood in the wings while the scenery crashed down.  We are the ones who watched as children while the old world died.

And many, many of us got out, while others chose to stay and fight.

Perhaps the big difference is this: we came of age in time of loss–not loss like a massive destruction, but a loss like something insidious, deep, pervasive.

We are specifically the first post-American Dream generation, or generational cohort, to be specific. We were probably first in at least a few generations who couldn’t make that assumption about doing better than our parents, at least, not make it automatically.  And that’s not because we haven’t done better than our parents, by and large, although that’s probably generally true.  But we saw our parents not do better than their parents.

Maybe that’s why talk about an American Dream sounds so hollow to me, why I can’t even write that phrase without discomfort.  Even though my own story, the fact that I have had the education I have had and  live comfortably and all that makes me in some respects the poster child for that idea….

I’m seldom not aware that my story has been something of an outlier.

There’s a place in the back of my mind where I never really believe it’s permanent.  Even after all these years, I can never lose the sense that the other shoe can quickly drop.

I have a hard time believing that the idea of an American Dream of some kind isn’t rhetoric.  And my gut sense is that I’m not alone.

So what do we, the oldest Children of the Rust Belt, specifically bring to the work of revitalizing our communities?

Maybe it looks a little like this:

Long game focus.
Understanding of the depth of the pit and the long way left to climb out of it.
Ability to salvage.
Expectation that there are no easy answers.
Dis-inclination to believe that everything will be all right if only we do this One Big thing.

Years ago, I gave a keynote speech in Michigan.  It was one of the first time I’d been back in Michigan since starting to work out the early versions of my core message.

And I felt actually embarrassed taking to this audience about small business ecosystem and resilience and all this stuff.  More than most places in US, these guys were already doing it.  They’d had to–they lost the other options long before.

Are we the ones to whom new economic realities, and the apparent best but not easiest answers, make the most sense?

An elegy is an exercise in emotion–it’s a Romantic-era conceit that expressing strong feelings is all that is needed.  An elegy does not help us figure out what to do with it.

But as I’ve said elsewhere, we aren’t just creatures of the head… We have to remember, to reconnect with the reasons why the hard work we do matters. 

Maybe the oldest children of the Rust Belt can help us all learn some of the lessons that our communities need.



You can’t please all the people all the time. And it’s probably not worth trying to.

If you’re interested in improving how local governments and community organizations work, check out The Local Economy Revolution: What’s Changed and How You Can Help.  You’ll be glad you did. Available for digital and print.  


In local government public engagement, we tend to rely on a very simple– simplistic, really– metric for public engagement:

How many?

How many showed up? How many logged on? How many names on the sign in sheet? How many butts in the chairs?

sleeping students in lecture hall


Like many of the metrics we use in local government, we use this one because it’s easy to see, easy to grasp. Economic developers, for example, tout the number of jobs the agony new project will create. Don’t ask most of them what old jobs those new jobs are creating, or whether the pay our tax levels will justify the money spent on them (off topic rant hereby derailed.)


What we fail to measure–or, often, think about– is the quality of the public engagement. In the case of public engagement (different from economic development), that’s partly because of our deeply-rooted democratic principles. Everyone’s voice matters, right? Therefore, everyone needs to participate…or at least as many as we can possibly drag in there.

After a couple of decades of trying to drag everyone and their mother out to my public meeting or onto my online platform, I’m wondering if we’ve been thinking about this all wrong. Face it: not everyone cares about everything. We just can’t– and as people work harder, and work longer, and have more and more demands on their time, and as the issues we have to deal with become more and more varied and complicated…how much can we realistically expect?


Confession time: I haven’t attended a council meeting or planning commission or public open house or whatever for the village I live in in the past four years. And I’m the one in this little burg who makes an living quoting chapter and verse about the importance and virtues of public engagement.


So why haven’t I?


Well, I got other things to do…


The fact of the matter is that there’s been nothing going on that I feel like _needs_ my attention. There’s nothing going on regarding which I have anything unique or particularly beneficial to offer–for myself or for the community. So I choose to put my time somewhere where I think it can make a bigger impact.


Maybe we need to stop assuming that everyone should want to come to our public meeting–and stop assuming that if they don’t, it’s because they are “disengaged.” Like many other issues, we’re probably viewing that too simply– as too much of a binary choice. People make choices with their time just like they make choices with their money- and they make alot of those choices based on the expected return on investment. If they’re not coming to your meeting in droves, that may simply mean that the droves don’t think that they will get an adequate return on investment for their effort.


Maybe they’re wrong, maybe they’re right.


But within the droves, chances are that there is some subset that cares about the issue, and cares about it a lot. And I’ve reached this conclusion: all other things being equal, and assuming that every possible person has been informed and warmly invited to your public engagement event…


A small turnout might not be a bad thing. Especially, and perhaps necessarily, if those people have the opportunity to make deeply constructive contributions. Maybe even more constructive than if a hundred people who didn’t really get it showed up.


I’m not trying to be an elitist….I know as well as anyone the risks of letting the diehard obsessives make the plan. It’s easy, way too easy, for The Passionate to feed off each other and turn into The Nut Jobs. And that’s where it becomes critically important to use strong activity structures and active group management methods to keep the people who care enough to participate within the bounds of reality. That’s making sure that the interests of those for whom this issue didn’t have sufficient ROI still get recognized.

My main point is that engaging a small number of the dedicated should be counted as a success…If we have engaged them constructively. Sometimes the main thing we need is to crowdsource a little wisdom from those who are willing to invest it.


The Book is DONE! The Local Economy Revolution: What’s Changed and How You Can Help

Woo Hoo!

After much head-thumping against online publishing systems and my own levels of distraction, the first Wise Economy publication is finally on sale!

The book is titled The Local Economy Revolution: What’s Changed and How You Can Help.  It’s designed to do the one thing that the piles upon piles of economic development/local government/planning books out there don’t do:

It’s designed to give all  of us a deep understanding about how what we need to do in our communities has changed, and help us summon the bravery and determination to go do it in the face of all the frustrations and resistance that any change-maker is going to encounter.

For that reason, I wrote it in the most accessible, personal style I could muster.  You’ll find some talk in here about economic structures, measurement systems, downtown revitalization strategies and economic development incentives, but you’ll also find stories designed to bring that abstract stuff down to where our guts live — to families, personal histories, loves and loss.  cover of book

Longtime readers of the Wise Economy blog will probably recognize some of the stories, but you’ll also find new stories and a new sense of comprehension, structure and meaning that becomes possible when you work in something bigger than 600 – word chunks.  And more importantly, I think you will find something here that you can share – with your colleagues, with your board members and volunteers, to help encourage them to see the big picture of what you’re trying to do, and maintain the willpower to keep it going forward.  I think, and hope, that this book gives you a platform to support your own local economy revolution.

I’m obviously not just doing a charity here, but writing this book, like most of the writing I do, isn’t a great money-making proposition.  The market for books is glutted and even with all the online tools, it’s hard as hell for one little voice to get itself heard.  But after a lot of years of listening to the resolve and fight and  heartbreaks of many of you, and watching what works and what seems to be failing, I think this book is a message that we all need right now — that engages the head and the heart together and strengthens us to keep pursuing what we know our communities need.

So, I’m hoping you’ll help.

First, if you want to buy the book, you have four current options:

  • You can buy it for your Kindle e-reader here.  You can also download a free Kindle Reader app for your smartphone or tablet or computer here – it works well.
  • You can buy it for a Barnes & Noble Nook e-reader here.
  • If you’d like a hard copy, nicely bound and all pretty-like version, we got’cha covered right here.
  • AND, if you want to go relatively old-school and don’t mind doing your own printing, you can get a PDF version el cheapo here!

I’m still working on the Apple iBook edition.  But that’s coming soon.


Second, if you do get a copy and read it (and you don’t completely hate it), I’d be grateful for your positive review on any of the sites.  Even a couple of sentences would be helpful.  If you’re really sweet, I might ask your permission to put your quote in the front of the next version!

Third, if you want to learn more about how exactly we can get this hard and important work done, bookmark  We’ll be sharing real-world examples and having important discussions over there.

Fourth, if you have colleagues, bosses, junior staffers, elected officials, volunteers or random humans that you think would benefit from the paradigm-shift and encouragement that this book offers, please share with them.


As I wrote somewhere near the end of this thing, we who are trying to make our places better often feel like a violin in the void.  But in our communities, a strong violin can change the void.  We can do that.  We have to do that.

It’s a job for the head and the heart.  My deepest hope is that this book feeds both.


So vive la revolucion.  And thanks for joining me on the adventure.




The Last of the Yankees

My father was one of the last of the Yankees.  He was part of a culture that has, largely, vanished.  Change didn’t happen fast, but it happened pretty thoroughly when it did.


My son Jon and I watched a movie tonight that referenced the Salem witch trials, and he didn’t understand what that was about.  In explaining it to him, I remembered that one of his great-great etc. grandfathers had been a founder of Salem, Massachusetts, in 1628.


Even though I’ve known that for years, it’s kind of bewildering when you think about it.  Anything that gets into Puritan life happened an incredibly long time ago, and a world we can hardly comprehend.  But I can run a straight genealogical line from me back to him.



My dad was what they used to call a Western Reserve Yankee.  I don’t think anyone other than Ohio history geeks knows that term anymore.  But virtually pure Western Reserve Yankee he was.  As far as I know, every grandmother, every grandfather in his family line could trace back to a boat full of Puritans landing in New England. The only exception I know of was my great-grandmother, who actually moved here from England.  (I inherited some of her china, which is hideous in the way only intensely proper, scrupulously formal Victorian people could have pulled off).   With what I know of the family tree, I think I’ve got DAR status a few times over.  I don’t say that from some sense of pride, but from a sense of how bizarre that is today.

painted plate
The plates. I told you they were ugly.


The area where I grew up around Cleveland is dotted with Western Reserve Yankee remnants…towns with ruler-straight central squares anchored by towering brick and stone Old Town Halls and massive, geegaw-encrusted Protestant churches.  The classic visual representations of power and order that dates from far earlier that New England, rendered in the precise lines and perfect angles of a neat grid system imposed on relatively flat and un-rocky land.  You can almost read the ambition, the optimism, the sense of “Finally! A place where we can do it right!” in the earnestness of these town centers.


Even as a kid, growing up in a postcard Western Reserve Yankee town, I knew that my lineage was weird.  Where I grew up, the question “where is your family from?” was so straightforward for almost all of my classmates that no one even bothered to ask.  The Lesniewskis came from Poland, the Starnonis’ grandpa came come from Italy.  Simple–all you needed was a family name to fill in the rest of the story.


Where’s your family from, Della?  Um, here, I guess.



Actually, that long Yankee lineage ended with me. My mom was Scotch-Irish Appalachian, although she wouldn’t have said it that way (“hillbilly” didn’t work either–and would earn you a smack on the head).


By the standards of the children of immigrants around me, that didn’t look like a difference worth noting.  But I figured out early on that Mom and Dad had somehow reached across a pretty deep cultural divide.  And after my dad died, I found out from my mom that her mother in law never accepted her–that she thought the southern girl, in her heels and pearls and carefully scrubbed untwanged accent, was still not good enough for her son.  She believed that until the day she died.


I read an article recently that described the decline in the number of people in the US who trace their roots to traditionally southern population groups.  Even in my mother’s Appalachia, the proportion of people who come from that background is steadily declining.  The precedent cited, the previous US population to pull this disappearing act? Yankees.


I can’t ask my parents anymore what it meant to be Appalachian or Yankee–they’re both dead many years.  And I suspect that my child’s sense of their paradigms, their home cultures, in a sense, would miss large pieces of the story and probably render their experience too simply.  I can sense an assumption of personal responsibility that came with my dad’s understanding of the world, and that might have come from his place in a long line of Yankee small business owners.   And my mom placed a priority on justice and fairness that might have come from being the child of a blacklisted Appalachian labor organizer.  But what those cultures meant to them, how they were influenced, how they choose to pull away from them, I only know in bits and pieces.


One thing that I do know is that the economic upheavals that hit the Rust Belt in the 1970s and 80s undercut both sets of assumptions, probably quicker and more deeply than generational change and intermarriage among populations could have done alone.  That Yankee optimism and emphasis on the rewards of hard work became much harder for my dad to hold during the years after the family business collapsed and his manufacturing experience became largely worthless.  And my mother’s Appalachian sense of faith and independence must have taken a painful hit when we had to accept food donations during a particularly rough year.



Western Reserve Yankees disappeared because people like my father found the freedom to marry outside of their old cultures–the classic tale of assimilation told from the inside out. And it took generations of living among other groups to get to that point.


I think we are entering a phase of very swift, fundamental economic and cultural change, and we are just starting to see how that will affect our culture, our sense of self and our expectations of ourselves and the world around us.  As I work with folks in civic tech and entrepreneurship across the country, I have a growing sense that something is profoundly changing–not just in how we write letters or talk to elected officials, but in how we fundamentally see, understand and interact with the world.  It’s a change that I think will accelerate much faster that even my father, in the painfully dislocated days of 1983, could have imagined.  But “much faster,” for the really deep stuff, probably still means a generation.  Not next week.


As we’re getting ready for this crazy-changing future, we’re slamming into the inevitable conflict, miniaturized by my proper grandmother’s refusal to accept her son’s wife.


You know what I’m talking about, regardless of your topic of interest or your favorite political fight.


It’s the Old Guard.  They piss us off, they don’t get it, they block us like duplicitous mules screwing up our ability to get to that future, whatever it is.  A thousand political confrontations across the US and the world bring that into stark relief.  If you’re trying to improve something in your community or your profession or your country, you’ve hit it. Or you will soon.  I certainly hit that every day myself.


It’s incredibly easy to forget to see the humanity behind that stubborn holding on to old assumptions, old expectations, old conventions and old ways of doing business.  People who are on the fading end of a way of life often react (in the pit of their guts, underneath all the rhetoric), out of a deep-seated, unarticulated, visceral fear.  For those of us who have accepted a changing world, who are taking about things like open government and hackerspaces, let alone those who look aghast at regressive social policies and old-school political manipulation, all that holding on to the past makes no sense.


And it’s really easy to demonize them.  All the easier because they’re often damn good at demonizing everyone else.


Sociologists call it “itification” – the tendency to ascribe less than human characteristics or assumptions to other people.  We do it all the time.  We do it because it’s easy – a hell of a lot easier than trying to deal with real messy conflicted humans.


As I’ve said before, I’m not much of a polemicist.  I’d probably be a more successful consultant if I was.


Pragmatically, I see three basic options before us: wait until They die off, push Them out, or find ways to force the discussions back to a search for common ground.  The first two are ostensibly easier, but the cost and the waste might leave us nothing more than hollow, exhausted victors surveying a burnt-out land.


The last one looks, hard, way too hard.  But it’s the least costly, and the most likely to move the needle.


We used to be able to do that, at least some of the time. But we’ve kind of forgotten how.  As Jason Segedy wrote on this page a few days ago, Gen X and Millenial people have never lived in a world where reasoned political debate happened.


But by that same token, maybe that means that we’re the ones who have to change that.  Because the Old Guard can’t or won’t


We can push that important change by refusing to put up with the simplistic answers, and by forcing factual information into the light.  By refusing to itify, to let ourselves get stuck with those false choices, to get trapped in the yes-you-are-no-I’m-not playground sniping that we should have outgrown in 3rd grade.


That will require a higher level of sophistication in understanding the tactics of rhetoric  — and conscious awareness of how to end-run those playground rules and take control of the conversation.  We have to get much more intelligent about it.  And we have to realize that changing these bad habits will take time, especially when others don’t want to give them up.


I know.  A lot easier said than done.


It’s one of those things mothers always say, and we hate it but we know it’s truth: two wrongs don’t make a right.




Deep change takes time.  That’s the fact of the human condition.  The important improvements to urban life fostered by the Progressive movement of the early 20th century took decades to find their place in law and practice.  That doesn’t excuse the pain and suffering that might have been prevented if old interests had stopped stonewalling.  But it is a sobering reminder of how change actually plays out.  And for a lot of issues, we right now are just at the very beginning.


In a political and cultural environment that has replaced discussion with screeching, and a 24-hour “news” world that has to shove a steady stream of crap at us to try to keep our attention, we forget that change is a long game, not a round of Space Invaders.  But the song remains the same.


Just because the opposing side of your debate acts like an ass doesn’t mean that’s they will win at the end of the day.  More importantly, it does not mean that you have to play by those rules.  That’s the good news.  But if sticking to the high ground is the right way to do it, we must remember the “sticking” part.  Chances are the change we seek won’t happen before the next issue of USA Today comes out.


Eventually, though, we will probably find ourselves wondering who made those ugly plates and all those perfect square-cornered parks, and why those minute details mattered to them so much.  The Old Guard has deep influence, but even the Yankees eventually fade away.


False Choices, Suburban/Urban, Welcome to Reality in Akron

Yesterday I shared with you an excerpt from a great piece by Jason Segedy that used a recent post from New Geography about raising children in urban versus suburban environments as a platform for calling us to order around the over-simplification of our “debates” over planning and public policy.  As he said so well,

“Generation X and Millennials have never known an America where you could have an honest disagreement on public policy without the same tired partisan straw men being trotted out over and over again. Cities vs. Suburbs is an old classic.”

Jason did a great job of challenging us to stop allowing this kind of yes-no-yes-know thinking, and challenging us to debate all of the “hows” of how we organize communities “with intelligence and good will.”

In the same post that I pulled that selection from, Jason also shares some of his experience growing up in one of the urban neighborhoods that the New Geography piece claimed was anti-child.  There’s a lot of ink on this topic –Better Cities and Towns ran a piece yesterday as well – but I thought that the picture Jason painted of growing up in an urban neighborhood was worth sharing for those of you who did not have that kind of experience.   I grew up in a neighborhood that looked a lot like the one Jason describes, except that we lacked his neighborhood’s racial diversity.  So for me Jason’s neighborhood looks like largely familiar territory.  But that might not be the case for you.

OK.  You can keep reading, but only on one condition: please don’t read or mis-interpret this essay as a “suburbs suck/urban neighborhoods rock” kind of didactic post.  Please.  Jason’s point from yesterday is more important than anything he or I say about one kind of neighborhood or another.  There are pros and cons to every location – urban, rural, suburban, the Moon, whatever.  It’s not an either-or choice.  It’s a range of choices.  The metrics Jason laid out about fiscal sustainability and long-term community viability… those are what matter. Those are how we have to learn to discern places and place-creating and sustaining options.  Everything else is just noise.

Back to Jason:


So let’s get to the substance of [the New Geography post’s] argument. Much of his perspective, I believe, stems from projecting his own experiences of city and suburb onto society at-large. We all do to some degree.  We speak from what we know. You do the same thing. I will do some of it here. My initial reaction to his post on Twitter was defensive and reflected my own biases as well. It’s largely unavoidable.

So, in the interest of full disclosure; my formative experiences involving growing up in a city are as follows:

Akron Neighborhood
Akron Neighborhood. From

I was raised as the oldest of four children (all boys) by middle-class parents in Akron, Ohio in the 1970s and 1980s. My great-grandparents were poor immigrants from Hungary and Sicily. My grandparents were blue collar, working class, devout Roman Catholics: several factory workers and a cop. My father is an attorney. My beloved mother was a teacher and a homemaker.

We were a white family in a predominately black neighborhood. Like us, most of our white neighbors were Roman Catholic. Several were Jewish. Almost all of the white people, including us, went to private (Catholic) schools. Most of the black people went to public schools. Our block and the blocks surrounding it were full of nearly equal numbers of black and white residents, living side-by-side. To this day, it is still one of the most integrated neighborhoods that I have ever seen.

Playing sports and being the only white kid in a large group of black kids gave me a tiny feel for what many black people experience all of the time – being the lonely only in a group of whites.

My parents loved living in the city. My dad still lives in the house that I grew up in. But contrary to stereotypes, they were conservative Republicans and evangelical protestants (they left the Catholic church when I was a teenager). I’m not sure that they have ever voted for a Democrat. But they regularly supported tax levies for public transportation, schools, libraries, and parks. They were hardly urban elitists. I don’t think I ate a piece of sushi until I was close to 30. They have never owned a new car. They taught us to love and respect everyone, regardless of their race, creed, or color. We should have listened to them more often. They were the best parents that one could ever hope for, but that is a topic for another post.

I live in the City of Akron today. I am a Christian and a political independent. I voted for George W. Bush twice. I voted for Barack Obama twice. Go figure. I try to see political issues from as many sides as I am capable of seeing them from. I dislike the binary political choices we are usually offered. I am imperfect. I am wrong more often than I would like to believe. I will never be perfect, or perfectly fair, or totally unbiased, but I can learn, and grow. Just like everyone else.

Growing up in the city, we learned to be street-smart: unlocked doors were unheard of (they still shock me); unlocked bikes would be gone in 10 minutes; walking too far afield, especially at night, was ill-advised.

But our house was never broken into. None of us were ever the victims of violent crime. Neighbors looked out for one another. There were plenty of kids around – nearly every house on our block had at least two or three. Yards were not gigantic, but they were big enough to play baseball, football, hide-and-seek, and “fight the Soviet invaders with plastic guns” (hey, it was the 80s). There were plenty of parks nearby to enjoy. We went to story-hour at the local library. We played CYO soccer. We tried to get out of yard work as frequently as possible. We were happy kids. Living in the city wasn’t a form of child abuse.

Everyone owned a car. No one used public transportation. We walked and rode our bikes, but there were not a whole lot of stores or businesses to walk to, since neighborhood retail had already begun its inexorable march to the suburbs. It has never looked back. Our neighborhood is all the poorer for it.

So why am I boring you with all of the details of my life? Why? Because my experience does not remotely resemble the false dichotomies proffered as dogma in this (and in so many others) article on cities and suburbs. Contrary to what Lanza says, private schools didn’t destroy life for kids in my neighborhood. Kids from St. Sebastian? Kids from Archbishop Hoban? Kids from Walsh Jesuit? We all knew each other, carpooled together; rode the bus together. If nothing else, we were unified by hatred of our school uniforms.

Which box do I belong in? Which one does my family or life experience fit neatly into? The urban elitist? The All-American suburbanite?

The city that I grew up in and live in today is not one full of urbane, snooty, secular, childless, upper middle class elitists living in a concrete jungle with nowhere for the (non-existent) kids to play. This is Akron, Ohio. Have you ever been here? The city is full of single family homes on small (but adequate for children to play) lots. People living in the city own lawnmowers here. People drive everywhere here. It’s cheaper to live in the city than in the suburbs. “Driving ‘till you qualify” means driving further into the city, not out of it. There’s a lot of open space here in the city, because a lot of people moved to the suburbs. But there aren’t a whole lot of elitists to be found in either place. This is Ohio.

But Akron is still undoubtedly a city. It might not be a city like San Francisco, but it’s still a city, and the people that live here identify it as such. They have just as much pride in where they live as anyone else does. And they should be allowed to. But so should the people of San Francisco. And so should the people of Menlo Park. And so should the people of Stow, and Tallmadge, and Green.

Do I project my life experiences on to my understanding of what cities are and who lives there? Sure. Is my experience representative of, or applicable to that of most Americans? Probably not. Maybe a bit more so to those that grew up in the industrial Midwest. You know what I’m saying Cleveland, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Youngstown, Buffalo, Flint…

But, similarly then, Lanza’s description of suburb hating and anti-child sentiment amongst some in New York City, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C. is hardly representative of the experience of most Americans either; urban, suburban, small town, or rural.


Well said, Jason.

We have a range of communities, just like we have amazing varieties of people and families.  It’s not either-or.  It’s And.  And it’s within the context of Jason’s critical questions from yesterday:

1)    How do we support this place fiscally?

2)    How do we enable a quality place that will last for generations?

So let’s lose the false choices, and start focusing on the things that matter: making the places that we have better.

False Choices and the Only Differences Worth Exploring

Jason Segedy is a planner and transportation leader extraordinare, and he’s also one of very few people I have ever, ever met who can both talk with expertise about Complete Streets design and put a quote from Dostoyevsky in his email signature.  And then share an obscure Joy Division track.  The Renaissance Man is alive and well, thank you.

Jason recently started blogging, which is fantastic because he’s had a tendency to write multi-Tweet epistles that you know are saying something profound but you have to tease it out from all the intervening junk (not your tweets, of course!).   So I’ve been delighted to see him get a chance to take his perspective and run with it.

He posted a piece yesterday that quite impressed me – both for its insight and for its articulate-ness.  He embedded a description of the neighborhood where he grew up in the middle of it, and while that description paints a powerful picture, I wanted to make sure you heard both his primary focus and had an opportunity to think about that experience.  So I’m going to share his work with you via two posts.  This one is mostly focused on what I’ve termed in the past False Dichotomies…but I think Jason says it better than I did.  The second post is going to get into his personal reflections on what it was like to grow up in the kind of neighborhood that he sees being challenged.

Full, albeit uninteresting, disclosure: I had a piece published by New Geography a couple of years ago.  I read the blog occasionally, but I haven’t yet read the piece that Jason is responding to.  Didn’t want to wait the 6 months it might take me to get back to it at my current rate before I shared Jason’s work with you.

Make sure you go follow Jason at, and pick him up on Twitter @thestile1972.  You will be glad you did.


Over at New Geography, Joel Kotkin says this:

“In this bizarrely politicized environment, even the preservation of the most basic institution of society – the family – is morphing into a divisive partisan issue.”

I agree with him.

But then his very own web site runs an a post by Mike Lanza entitled “Suburb Hating is Anti-Child” that says this:

“A large proportion of intellectuals and politicians, including President Obama, decry these problems with suburbs as reason to hate them and advocate for their elimination, in favor of dense, big cities.”

So, after decrying the fact that the civic discourse regarding cities and suburbs has been “bizarrely politicized” and bemoaning the fact that it has “degenerated into a divisive partisan issue,” New Geography proceeds to do just that: create a bizarre politicized environment and foment partisan divisiveness over that very same issue.

What gives?

I have never seen someone with strong opinions about residential living environments (be they urban, suburban, small town, or rural) change their mind in a point/counterpoint exchange. It is about as likely as seeing atheists and theists; staunch conservatives and liberals; or abortion opponents and proponents change their point-of-view following a spirited debate. It doesn’t happen.

Nevertheless, I feel compelled to respond. Why?

Because I think the entire debate is a false choice to begin with. And if there is one thing that is singularly responsible for hamstringing our civic discourse in this country for as long as I’ve been alive, it is the proliferation of false choices and how they get foisted upon the unwilling and the unaware.

Generation X and Millennials have never known an America where you could have an honest disagreement on public policy without the same tired partisan straw men being trotted out over and over again. Cities vs. Suburbs is an old classic. Elitists versus Salt-of-the-Earth; Enlightened versus Ignorant; Socialists versus Real American Patriots.

The real Americans are all in small towns! No, that’s where the bitter clingers and fanatics live!

It’s tiresome and depressing – all the more so  because none of it is even remotely close to the truth.

Let’s get this out of the way right now: Good and decent people; people that love children, their neighbors, the place they live, and their country; they are found everywhere – big cities, small cities, suburbs, towns, rural areas. Everywhere. There are also some crummy people out there. Unfortunately, they can be found everywhere, too. And they always seem to have a disproportionately large negative impact. C’est la vie.

The only differences worth exploring and debating with regards to cities and suburbs, in my mind, are those that involve space and place; along with the associated and interrelated issues of:

1) Fiscal Sustainability: How do we ensure that taxpayer dollars devoted to public infrastructure are used wisely? and

2) Community Viability: How do we create places that future generations will cherish, enjoy, and be willing to sustain?

The short answer to both questions is that we should want to have cities, suburbs, small towns, and communities of all types which are fiscally sustainable and are built to last for generations to come. How precisely, we, the American people, should do that is a topic that is worth debating.

Here is what is not worth debating: Which types of people live in which places and which types of grievances do they have to bring against one another? Which places contain people that are good and virtuous and which ones contain people that are evil and corrupt?  This is all just begging the question.

The core premises  are fallacious: suburb hating; child hating.

Why do you hate the suburbs? Why do you hate children?

When did you stop beating your wife? These are classic loaded questions.

Are there people out there that hate suburbs? Yes. Are there people out there that hate children? Yes. Are there people that hate both, and see a connection between the two? I don’t know.  Probably.

Do most intellectuals and urban politicians hate suburbs and children? I don’t think so. Do some? Sure. There are boorish cranks in every crowd.

None of this is new, or noteworthy. People of every social class, ethnicity, and creed that have hated people that aren’t like them. There are not a lot of them, but there are far too many. This is why the history of humankind is one of nearly continual strife, bloodshed, and warfare.

But is there really an organized conspiracy, involving President Obama and a cadre of elite intellectuals, bent on eliminating suburbs?

If there is, they are failing miserably. Honestly, it begins to sound like Agenda 21 paranoia.

I don’t believe that Mike Lanza really believes in his heart of hearts that there is a far-reaching organized conspiracy to eliminate suburbs. I think this is simply rhetorical posturing on his part. But even if he does, this is America, and he is entitled to his opinion; and either way, I wish him well personally. We agree to disagree. He has something that he cares enough about to devote an entire blog post to it; he clearly cares about people and places, and that’s good enough for me.

But I don’t recognize my experience, or that of my urban friends, family, and colleagues in the piece that Mike Lanza has written. Similarly, I don’t recognize the caricatures of suburbanites that appear in the missives penned by those with a political axe to grind against the suburbs.


So let’s not do it anymore. Let’s not get caught up in these endless arguments about the real and imagined virtues or vices of the people that live here, or the people that live there.

Let’s focus instead on the ends that we can agree on: Quality places that are built to last, which people can love, care about, and will preserve; infrastructure and public investment which is fiscally sustainable and which furthers the cause of creating better places.

And let’s reserve our disagreements and our passionate debates (and we should have them) for the means to carry out those agreed-upon ends. What should our transportation policy look like? Housing policy? Land use? How do we strike that balance between environmental protection, jobs, and property rights? Let’s debate it all.

But let’s debate it with intelligence and good will. Let’s assume that one another’s intentions are benevolent, rather than malevolent. It’s obvious that Mike Lanza cares about places, he cares about people, and he cares about kids. I know that he is doing good work for kids. I apologize for hastily characterizing his piece as “outright lies” on Twitter yesterday. I still disagree with his overall premise and with the false choices that it entails. Disagree we may, but I think we can still learn from one another.

“To find the middle way will require all our intelligence and all our good will…”

-Aldous Huxley

When consultants get it all wrong, and how to get it right

I’m really not an angry person.  Honestly.  That whole red hair thing is just a myth.  You know that, right?  Right??  Hm.

This essay was revised and included in The Local Economy Revolution: What’s Changed and How You Can Help.  If you like this, chances are you’ll like that book.  Learn more here.

As I’ve been reading through my old blog posts here while getting ready to finish the economic development revolution book, I’m noticing a theme that I didn’t expect:  Anger. I hate to say it, but good old fashioned redhead answer — especially at consultants.  I asserted that one of the biggest names in planning was all wet, I marched around a conference fuming at a presenter talking about economic impacts, and I insisted that you needed some  non experts if you wanted to actually make something change.

Um, Della.  You’ve been a consultant for close to 20 years.  You still make money consulting.

You like to eat, don’t you?


I’m starting to understand why I might not be the biggest money maker among consultants.

Traditional consulting relies on the expectation of the know-it-all expert.  The glossy

Victor Gruen portrait
My favorite dead expert to beat up on. Click the image for the Wikipedia link.

haired genius in the sweeping cape who tells you exactly what your town needs and withers you with his glare if you dare to question him.

The Guy With The Answers.  The Oracle. The Fixer. The Big Name.

But here’s the problem: we all know how many times the people we (or our predecessors) thought were Experts in the past turned out to be… wrong. Sometimes badly wrong.  Sometimes painfully, decades-long wrong.  The kind of wrong that we spend generations trying to dig out of.

And yet we buy the next set of promises. The next expert.  The next promised easy answer, wrapped in a flowing aristocratic cape.

Naveen Jain laid the basic problem out in one of the posts I just mentioned.  It’s essentially a problem of methodology: traditional experts rely on historical trends, on what worked in the past,  on their own, often unexamined assumptions.

That’s how we define an “expert,” after all.  How many years have you been doing this? How many projects have you done that were just like ours?

The problem is this: if much of what has been done in our consultants’ lifetimes hasn’t worked, if much of it didn’t really do what we hoped for, and if the challenges we’re facing are wicked and complex and new and interrelated, then what makes us think that a past book of  experience alone counts very much?

Part of what gets me so mad is that neither the consultants nor the people who hire consultants admit or face up to these limitations.  Both sides keep pretending- one that it has all the answers, the other that there are simple answers to be had.

In their guts both sides have to know that neither charade is true.

Or maybe they don’t know that.  Maybe they know but don’t want to know.  Do they?

Now I’m not sure what to get madder about.

Years ago, I managed comprehensive planning projects for a consulting firm.  When you start one of those, you get to review pretty much every plan that town has ever done.  And sometimes what you find yourself reviewing is a case history in delusion.

One community, struggling to find a bright future for a run-down suburban strip, spent a huge sum on a beautiful drawing of lovely new buildings lining the streets.  They also bought a rudimentary market analysis that indicated nothing about whether the lovely buildings could ever be funded through the private investment that the drawing promised.   And then the community threw significant sums of money and effort into finding the people who would build that grand vision.

Thirteen years later, the corridor hasn’t changed, except for continuing to fall apart.  I drove down it last week.

If you’re a former client of mine, and you think this is your town, it’s probably not.  I can tell that same story about 15 different communities.

So, Consultant as Wizard doesn’t work.  Should you ditch them entirely, rely just on yourselves, figure out all out the best you can?  Are the non-experts enough?

No.  Chances are you definitely need outside help.  You just need a different type of help than many consultants have been giving.

In this era, I think an intellectually truthful, community-benefitting consultant has to hang up the cape, drop the all-knowing charade, and take on jobs like this:

  • Trackless Waste Guide.  Adventurers like Robert Perry, who trekked to places people had never been, took people with them who had experience in that type of environment, although not in that exact situation.   Chances are, you Ms. Consultant don’t know the path any better than they do, but you’ve at least moved through an environment somewhat like this before.

So you don’t charge into the underbrush, pretending that you know where all the rocks and rattlesnakes lie, but you walk with them and help them figure out how to best navigate.

  • Framework builder.  When we can’t plug and play easy solutions, when we have to find our way through unknown territory, building mental frameworks gives us a way to evaluate options, think through the potential impacts of our choices and plan ahead for risks.  A consultant’ s experience can help build intelligent and flexible frameworks.  But a framework is not a blueprint, and it’s not a Magic Solution.  It recognizes that it might be wrong and it might have to shift and evolve over time.  It’s an exercise in managing uncertainty with the best intelligence we can bring to the table.   And since the framework is designed to enable shifting and evolving, it might actually continue to fit more than three weeks after the consultant’s last bill gets paid.
  • Tough question asker.  People who lead communities often fail to ask hard questions — you know, the unpleasant ones where we suspect the answers are not what we want to hear, or where the answers aren’t clear at all.  In far, far too many cases, communities get into deep trouble because no one asked the hard questions–either because no one knew what to ask, or because no one summoned the bravery to ask it.

By rights, and as a matter of integrity, the consultant should be the one to ask the hard questions when no one else can or will do it.  After all, the consultant is the one who gets to go home to Somewhere Else when the meeting is over.  More importantly, thought, the consultant can draw on that expertise, that guiding capabilty, to call out and articulate the questions that no one from the community wants to own.

But too many consultants never ask the tough questions — because they don’t want to piss off the client, they don’t want to knock themselves out of consideration for the next project.  Mostly because, at the end of the day, consultants really, deeply want you to like them.

So they let the client believe what they want to believe, and avoid the problems they don’t want to face.  After all, the consultant is the one who gets to go home to Somewhere Else when the meeting is over.  And there’s always another rube, some town we can convince that this project was Fantastic!! somewhere around the bend.

  • Decision pusher.  Communities often don’t ask tough questions, and lots of them try to avoid making decisions.  That’s where the laundry list comprehensive plan failure that I’ve talked about before comes from, as well as a lot of other problems ranging from underfunded pensions to broken water lines.  Decisions are hard, you know… they mean saying yes to some things and no to others.  And we won’t even talk about setting priorities.  Ow.

The consultant’ s job has to include guiding, structuring, pushing and cajoling a community to make a decision.  It just has to.  It has to be done, and I don’t know an honest consultant who hasn’t been around the block enough times to know that in their guts.  If the community doesn’t make important decisions, if you haven’t done everything in your power to get them to do it, I don’t think you’ve earned your fee.  If they flat out refuse, so be it.  But too often we who have the experience and framework to make out the rocks in the water ahead are too timid to tell the captains that they need to change course.

Consultants don’t want to push people to make decisions,either, for all of the same reasons as above.  But unless they do, the effort is probably wasted.

Communities definitely need consultants.  The difference I see is this:
The consultant communities need is a collaborator, a fellow-seeker who brings a new set of expertise, a new collection of tools, to the work of improving your community.

We who do consulting work for communities have to deeply rethink what we provide as consultants, and we who work for communities have to deeply rethink what we demand from our consultants.  Settling for a pretty picture of an imagined future, or a kum-ba-yah list of all the happy things everyone in town said they wanted,  is worse than a waste of money.

It’s setting up the community for a future crushing of hope, a long-term trend of growing cynicism and tuning out.  And it’s setting up the community for painful opportunity costs- wasted resources chasing unachievable pipe dreams.
Letting a community persist in mistaken optimism or pessimism or inertia is not morally, ethically or fiscally acceptable, for consultants or for community professionals.  We simply don’t have that much slack in the system anymore.  Consultants should — and must — help fill a community’s gaps in capacity to make wise choices and tough decisions possible.

The real power of civic hacking lies in the delicate balance

As many of you know, I recently became the editor of EngagingCitiesan online magazine that focuses on the intersection between internet technologies and public engagement in government planning and decision-making.  This piece is excerpted from an opinion piece I recently published over there.  I’m sharing it here because I think it’s relevant to the work that many of you do, and because I’d like to invite you to be part of the EngagingCities conversation if you’re interested.


If you want to read the whole piece, you can check it out here. Thanks.

I met Josh Kalov and Elnaz Moshfeghian, two of the founders of,  at the American Planning Association Unconference in April 2013.  Over the meetings and dinner, I learned two things that continue to impress me about their efforts– points that I think are critical for us to understand if we want civic hacking efforts to truly make a difference in our communities and countries.

First:  the power of their work lies in its transparency– and it’s apparent  lack of predetermined agenda.

Here’s the part that surprised me most when I met them: these guys, at least these two out of the seven listed collaborators, do not have children in the Chicago Public School system.  I don’t exactly remember the story of how they got started– I seem to recall that they were turned on to the issue by someone who was more of a local politics insider, but I probably don’t have that quite right.  The point is, they didn’t start  doing this because they had a specific axe to grind– like people who have been around local governments for a while typically expect to see.  People who get involved in school district politics usually consist almost exclusively of folks who either have kids in that system, or used to have kids in that system.  And the people who get up in arms about school closures are almost always people whose children will be directly affected.

Why, the conventional wisdom goes, would anyone else take the time and invest the effort?  Why would you bother?  But it’s that assumption of a predetermined agenda that makes real engagement, real collaboration between government and citizen, impossible in these emotionally charged contexts.

In a sense, this is the paradigm that civic hackers frequently turn on its head.

Here’s the second element of the Chicago story, and the one that I think presents the deepest challenge to people who want to use technology to improve democracy:

As the story alluded, building an app is nowhere near enough.

Since we’re just at the beginning of this movement, much of what civic hackers are doing still falls into the category of Proof Of Concept.  In many cases, the greatest impact coming out of civic hacking efforts can be less what the new app actually does, and more about trying out new tools and techniques for dealing with the data or communicating with people.  The data set you get to work with, or the amount of time you have to work up something, can be minimal.  But the nature of hacking culture is to try, test, adjust, borrow, try again, repeat.  I get that, and I see the value.

But here’s the lesson from Chicago – and the challenge for those of you who got into this to make a difference in the places you care about:

Making a difference takes more than making an app.  If you truly want to move the needle, you have to stay with it.  You have to refine, shift focus, adjust….And communicate.  Communicate a lot.  As I often tell people who run local government programs, the greatest program you can think of won’t change anything if no one knows it’s there.  The same goes for apps.

The real power of civic hacking lies in the delicate balance that is starting to show us.  On the one hand, the great potential– and the thing that can make civic hacking so much more powerful than conventional advocacy– is that objectivity, that trustworthiness, that comes from the emphasis on transparency and open data.  Frankly, that’s a power, a level of standing, that those of us who have been advocates wish we could claim.

The other side, though, is that enabling that change to happen, living up to that potential, is going to require determination and consistency– and an internal personal or organizational answer to a tough question:

How do I sustain this effort, keep investing my limited time and energy, if I don’t have a personal stake in the outcome?

More on incentives…with double barrels! Via Strengthening Brand America

We’ve been a little heavy on the incentives issue here lately, but one more thing I wanted to share with you if you haven’t seen it.  A couple of weeks ago I did an interview with Ed Burghard for Strengthening Brand America that’s generated some pretty good discussion on his site and on some of the LinkedIn groups he posts to.  Because of the format, I think I mounted my bully pulpit with even more verve than I usually do (not like I’ve ever been accused of being meek), so I thought you might find it an entertaining and maybe useful read.

The majority of the interview is below; you can check out the nice things Ed said about me and the rest of Strengthening Brand America’s impressive work at


It seems that the use of incentives in economic development has become a hot topic lately.  How would you frame the core issue, and what are the potential ramifications of the debate?

From where I sit, the key issue is that we have deep and substantial needs in communities and regions that are calling us to facilitate sea changes in economies, and in many cases our incentive policies do not move us in the direction of those goals.  Or they might be doing that, but we don’t know if they are, we don’t have the right information to know what they’re doing, and as a result we can’t demonstrate whether they are doing what we need them to or not.  We got used to being able to just wing this – just assume that everything was working fine – when we had local economies that were flush enough to hide a little sloppiness or some wishful thinking or simple assumptions in how we handled incentives.  But now, with relief for budget pressures nowhere in sight, and with basics like how work works changing faster and faster, we don’t have that slack anymore.  There’s just nowhere to hide.

As I’ve said before, I am not against incentives per se.  I have spent much of my career working with downtowns and disadvantaged communities.  A well-placed incentive can tip an area or a business sector from economically infeasible to economically possible, and when that happens it has direct and profound impacts on the people who live and work and invest in that community.  But if an incentive isn’t having that kind of impact, it’s wasting money that we just don’t have to waste anymore.  I’m starting to formulate in my own head how the fundamentals of incentives should be reworked; anyone that hard up for entertainment can check it out here.

One of the things I have been saying to economic development professionals is that I’m not all that much worried about communities as a whole (certain ones worry me a lot).  There are thousands of people in the US who do things related to improving local economies – from planners working with neighborhoods, to people running accelerators and hackerspaces, to the growing number of self-organized groups that can kick change in a community into gear simply by their numbers and the ease with which internet technologies allow them to communicate and work in concert.  The big question to me at the moment is, where are economic development professionals going to fit into that evolution, and what impact will it have on people and on communities if the profession, and those professionals, simply become irrelevant?

Incentive practices will eventually change because the forces on them are only getting stronger.  The question in my mind is, how much of our limited resources will we waste with trying to hold back the tide?  And how will that affect the communities, and the professionals, who don’t adapt and find themselves trying to swim in those waters?


Return on taxpayer investment is certainly one objective when deciding if an incentive is appropriate as part of the financial negotiation between a community and company.  How should the economic development professional think about the ROI calculation? What factors typically go into the assessment?

ROI on value to the taxpayer can be calculated pretty simply if you want to do it on a strictly dollar-and-cents basis.  Most people with a reasonable education can figure out how to do that –if cost is less than benefit, you’re ok, right?  Easy cheesy.

Two things tend to get economic developers in trouble – the one is a shortcoming in diligence (or bravery), the second comes from the limitations of the tools we use (like that cost-benefit analysis)

Economic developers get into the first kind of trouble when they get estimates of “economic impact” from developers or project promoters, and they either don’t know how to dig into those numbers to see if they make sense, or – and I think this is more common – they choose not to examine that analysis critically.  I have a training I do with Pete Mallow, who also writes for the Wise Economy, where he tells a story about how during his development career he never gave the same calculation of the costs of a project to a bank as to a local government.  That’s not just Pete, that’s standard.  Unless it’s done by an impartial party, and unless you can see for yourself every assumption, every multiplier that the calculation is using… any decision you make on the basis of that study stands on a foundation of sand.  If you don’t see it, you have a responsibility to ask for it.  We have to get better, as professionals responsible for administering public or donor monies responsibly, at asking the tough questions, forcing the assumptions into the light, demanding reasonable answers instead of the pie-in-the-sky that we will get if we don’t push for the truth.  We used to be able to get away with incentive deals that didn’t measure up to their rosy promises, but the money and the scrutiny is too tight now.

The second thing that gets us in trouble is when we are trying to do the right thing – when we are using an incentive as a strategy for getting something off the ground that the market alone can’t do.  There are sometimes very compelling reasons to give an incentive to a project that will never show up in its pro forma – the project will empower people with new skills that they can use elsewhere, it will rehabilitate an eyesore that is damaging the community’s economic prospects, it will seed the growth of new businesses in the region, etc.  You can’t justify some projects that will benefit the public interest by straight return on investment – some portion of the benefit may be impossible to quantify, or their benefits can only be turned into a number through the kinds of mental acrobatics that render those analyses suspect.  That’s a big difference from how an analysis in the private sector would work.  These kinds of opportunities are going to be automatically harder to justify on a dollars and cents basis, and in many cases they might present a riskier proposition. We might have better analytical tools for assessing non-quantitative impacts in future years –social scientists are working on this – but I would argue that the best way right now to manage this risk is to spread the investment.  Lots of little bets may have more overall impact than a couple of bet-the-farm propositions, and the likelihood that you get your head handed to you when one goes south drops significantly.


Opportunity cost is something businesses discuss when evaluating their own capital investment options.  They take a portfolio approach and acknowledge investing in option A means not investing in option B.  Do economic development organizations go through a similar portfolio review and consider the implications of offering an incentive on other investment options like education, infrastructure, community services, etc.?  If not, should they?  When do you decide to invest the money in improving the community value proposition rather than incentives?

I harp on opportunity costs a lot – and I might be missing someone doing something great, but as far as I know, economic development organizations don’t explicitly identify or analyze opportunity costs.  At least, I’ve never myself heard of one doing that, and it’s not a part of any standard economic development training that I know of.  It should be.

Part of the problem we have with changing how we do incentives is that we don’t systematically and rationally evaluate what else we could be doing with those funds.  But that becomes part of the argument against incentive deals.  It’s just a matter of time before someone else does that math and forces the economic development supporters to confront opportunity costs more explicitly.  I am a big believer in the MPAA model of self-regulation: if someone is probably going to force you to do something you don’t want to, you might as well take the initiative and use your expertise to do it the right way yourself.


What are the top 2 – 3 questions an economic development professional should ask to determine if offering an incentive makes business sense and is not simply “buying jobs”?

wrote about that recently, but it was a first step.  I’m still trying to figure it out, too.  So these are going to be a little vague, but here’s a start:

  • How does this proposed project reinforce or carry forward our community’s economic priorities? (HINT: if you don’t have a clear, priority-driven, broadly-endorsed economic development strategic plan that aligns all the players around shared goals and enables them to take meaningful action to meet those, then stop giving out incentives and get yourself a plan. Otherwise, you’re swinging in the dark.)
  • How is this incentive going to facilitate positive change – not just for this specific business, but for a place or a business sector that is important per that plan?  What are the valuable spillover effects?  If you can’t identify important ways that this incentive deal with help move the community toward those goals, not just feeding one business, then that incentive may not represent a good enough investment in the public interest.
  • What’s our risk if the project doesn’t work as we hope it will?  Clawbacks are fine in some cases, but if your goal is to facilitate meaningful change in the local economy, demanding the money back could backfire.  Venture capitalists demand high returns, but they also expect that some of their investments will go belly-up.  And in the tech world, which I think tends to be a leading indicator for a lot of other long-term growth sectors, the entrepreneur who has failed is often considered a better investment risk for next time, because presumably he/she has learned a few things that will make the next attempt better. Trying to grab the money back in a case like that could be shooting larger goals to grow a sector in the foot.  Don’t get me wrong, people absolutely have to be held responsible for their actions, and communities cannot just say “oh, well” and watch their money get piddled away on boondoggle projects and pipe dreams.  But elaborate legal mechanisms to recapture as many red cents as possible may be less useful to communities than two other simple strategies: better evaluation of risks and benefits, and spreading the risks across more incentive recipients.

In your experience, are there viable alternatives to incentives that will practically allow a community to remain on the due diligence short list?  If yes, what might they be?

We have plenty of evidence to indicate that the majority of businesses don’t make a relocation decision on the basis of incentives.  I get told stories regularly about businesses that get offered an incentive after they have already decided to relocate or expand in a community.  We tend to grossly overestimate the impact of incentives because businesses have figured out how to play us.  But in most surveys of growth industries, incentives are way down the list of priorities, far below things like labor force characteristics and transportation networks.  For non-growth sectors whose primary competition strategy is to shave costs mercilessly, incentives might be a bigger part of the decision.  But do you want your community to be the bargain-basement option?  How well is that going to work?

People think that you can only compete on quality of life if you’re Austin, Texas, or somewhere uber-cool like that, but I don’t think that’s the case at all.  Austin would probably be a lousy fit for many businesses, but for the right businesses it’s so ideal that they don’t need any incentives.  The key question comes back to the assets that the community has to offer – what is it that makes us unique?  Who would we be ideally suited for?  And if we’re not unique or not ideally suited for anyone right now, what can we do most efficiently to make us ideal to someone?  We tend to think that incentives are the only arrow in the quiver, but that’s never the case.  Building the character and quality and uniqueness of our community opens opportunity.

We don’t pay enough attention to building uniqueness – to finding our community’s niche.  If I hear one more town tell me that they’re a great place to live/work/play/sleep whatever, or that they’re within 600 miles of 80% of US consumers (like every other town within 300 miles of them…yeah, that’s unique)…well, I might get crabby.  JK

The poor overlooked stepchild in economic development is business retention, and its sidekick entrepreneurship. Let me rephrase: we give those two a lot of lip service anymore.  A lot.  But where does the money in the budget mostly go?

There’s an old saw that says that where your treasure lies, there your heart lies. There’s so, so much evidence that supporting local businesses and helping grow new businesses makes for a stronger economy long-term than does any recruitment.  But if we know that, why does so much money go to incentives, and so little to doing meaningful things to help local businesses get better?  Yes, absolutely, incentives should be offered to local businesses –I’d even argue that, all other things being equal, local businesses should probably get priority.  But what else can we do with our funds to improve their capacity and resilience?  What training do they need?  What connections?  What information?

Your company offers support to communities on strategic planning, including thinking about the appropriate use of incentives.  If a community wanted to reach out to you for help, what is the best way?

Assuming that I haven’t torched all my bridges here… JK

Email is, twitter is @dellarucker.  Those are probably the two that will get the fastest response!

Continue the conversation: Remaking Economic Development Incentives

As usual, when I post something about economic development incentives to economic development groups on LinkedIn, I get some insightful feedback.  The comments below are selected from responses to my recent Remaking Economic Development Incentives post here.  They raise a number of insightful questions and challenges to our current modus operandi that I think are worth a broader discussion, such as:

  • How do we build/support political leadership to make the tough decisions to realign incentives with what the community needs them to do?  Is education sufficient? Have our methods of education been inadequate?
  • How can economic development practices (and the profession itself) reposition to benefit from the methods businesses are using to handle change and find new opportunities in the evolving economy?
  • If, as one person wrote, “a monetary incentive is the easiest way for elected community leaders to say ‘we respect you, want you and want you to invest in our community,’ ” is that a worthwhile use of funds?  What are the (presumably) harder ways to do that, and is the return on investment for incentives vs. “harder” ways changing?
  • If we know what the right answers are, how do we advocate for that change in the face of the fear of “dusting off my resume?”

As usual, these comments were made in a public or quasi-public setting (depending on the group structure), but I’ve removed the names to avoid causing anyone problems.  DGR is me, the other initials are other people.  If anyone wants to claim their role in this conversation, please be my guest.  But I hope many more of you will join in the discussion.


It’s Time to Re-Make Incentives.


Perhaps it’s time to take a big step back– to revisit what an incentive was supposed to do in the first place. And perhaps it’s time to screw our courage to the sticking point, confront where and how our practices are going awry, and re-formulate incentives programs– not throw them away, not just control them better, but fix them, so that they do what our communities need, and so that they are worth the money we invest in them.

First, let’s take the Wayback Machine to Econ Development 101:

The purpose of a tax incentive is to make something happen in the free market that market forces alone can’t do. An incentive is supposed to…



D • Della – this is a great topic re: a very complex policy question. There is considerable opposition in many legislative circles to any use of taxes as a means for altering markets and pricing in “externalities” when applied to “progressive” agendas; social engineering is a term often used in opposition of these initiatives. A carbon-tax is an obvious example but there are many others. An example where “tax incentives” are used widely among states is for economic development and job creation. There have been many papers written questioning the wisdom/value to the public of the “competitions” that states engage in to lure private investment, but legislative support for their use is accepted when related to job creation, even in very conservative states. So a fundamental pre-requisite for the use of incentives is political, as in: Is the leadership and legislative will-power in place to address Problem X, and if so what types of incentives will be acceptable?

The list of “filters” you outline for reviewing incentives will be more or less acceptable when applied to an incentive program depending on the political framework that supports them. Using a “Directly Improve the Community” filter may work against urban renewal and carbon tax programs if the political makeup of the governance body holds the view that the role of government should be limited. That same body may be more receptive to incentives related to urban renewal and carbon tax programs if they are cast within the framework of “Grow Workforce Capability” filters. Without judging their applicability to any particular social issue, the use of incentives needs to be crafted in context with the political and social make-up of the community.


DGR • D — nicely said, thanks.

The key missing element behind many incentive programs — and the piece that elucidates the political will element that you articulated so well — is a clear, well- documented economic development plan that was developed through a broad community-based process. The only way I know of to deal with the political component is to identify clearly where the community’s will (its political will, in a sense, lies), and build the economic development plan around that. It’s basically the same process that we would identify as good planning on the land use front, just applied to the community’s economy. Too often economic development plans are developed by small groups of insiders in an echo chamber — and then we wonder why there’s no political will to support them.

As I think I said in this piece, I don’t support throwing incentives out entirely — sometimes they are needed entirely because of the need to push a local economy in a direction that it’s not going by itself. In some respects, that’s the “social engineering” that D referred to, although of course people don’t use words like that when it’s a change that their community needs because the old industries have tanked. But the incentive needs to fit the objectives, and fit it very closely and intelligently.


M • Incentives are not the problem, it’s the entire economic development practice, approach and processes that are outdated and needs to be reimagined. Certain states have been very innovative with their incentive programs, but that’s only part of the equation.


J • M: can you provide some support for your statements? In what ways is a “tired” profession responsible for the use and misuse of inducements and incentives? How should the profession change? I wish more people were weighing in in this, because it is critically important.



M • J, I can elaborate on a few things here, but it’s a complex issue and I may or may not have the entire solution. I know many fine economic development professionals and would never use “negative language” to describe it.

— The profession faces the same challenge of “relevance” that many companies face in today’s changing business environment. As we grow into this “new economy”, there’s a paradigm shift that’s taking place. This transition is from bureaucratic capitalism and heavy government and corporate influence to entrpreneurial capitalism, where smaller companies and entrepreneuers will become much more influential. For that reason, the engagement model for economic development is flawed because the origin and practice is rooted in government. While that’s unlikely to change, to remain relevant in the “New Economy”, the practices and approaches must align with the”dynamic” and rapid changes in the direction of the businesses, the country, and the economy with an eye on “the future” — It’s also very insular. We created that depicts its insular nature that quite compelling and would peak any professionals interest. …

What the profession needs is a more modern approach to business recruiting, business retention and expansion that’s more focused, service oriented and balanced, with an engagement model that emphasizes “economic innovations” and finding “the next big thing”. It should encourages an ROI on incentives that’s “fair and balanced” and more closely aligned with entreprenurial capitalism and the future direction of business, the country, and the evolving state of its economy. It should also align more closely with communal values, where all stakeholders (including taxpayers) are invited and capable of becoming team players.

DGR • M — that’s very well said. You’ve done a good job here of summarizing the fundamental challenge — the world has changed and is changing and we’re still trying to play by increasingly irrelevant “chump” rules — and how the work needs to change to become more far-sighted, more in keeping with what’s actually emerging in this economy, and more responsible to its community.


DC• We all know some people respond to incentives or economic benefits for performing an action you would like to encourage. When talking about incentives you can’t use the phrase “business.” The term you need to think in is “business owner” “CEO/President”, or “board of directors.”

A business does not respond to incentives; however, the individuals making the decisions certainly do, they are people like all of us. Some may respond to money, others to a kind/comforting word form a head elected official, or others to words from piers in similar industries. Some are just headstrong and don’t respond to anything you put in front of them.

In the end, business owners want to know that communities they invest are sensitive to their good will, company’s interests, and ability of their entity to produce long-term profits. A monetary incentive is the easiest way for elected community leaders to say “we respect you, want you and invest in our community.” Incentives bridges the gap between “saying” you will do something and actually “doing” something for the company.

The playing field was never level, the economy has always been dynamic, and business leaders need to be looking at every competitive advantage they can get. Communities that want to be safe, appealing, and enjoyable for their citizens must understand that real wealth is created in private enterprise. Private enterprise is run by people, who want to be treated like a person and surround themselves with other like minded individuals. People who run enterprises are typically “doers.”


JC• We had a similar discussion in a different group a while back. My summation was that we as a field are all fighting for the same pieces of a smaller pie, when we could be collectively working to just make a bigger pie. The limit, in my view, is a political barrier more than a knowledge gap, though there may be a bit of knowledge/issue, too. In general, it’s the elected officials who drive economic policy, hence we get the short-sighted goals and strategies. I’m sure we, as practitioners, all agree that a sustained, long-term effort and investment is what’s needed, but the decision-makers always have at least one eye on the election cycle. The times I’ve tried to speak truth-to-power usually resulted in my dusting off my resume for update.

DGR• JC: Understood (and I suspect there’s some wincing back behind that statement!)

Since I spent an early part of my career in downtown revitalization, it always surprises me a little bit how seldom economic development types don’t use a tool that good downtown folks often wield very successfully: clear communication with the public and involving them in the development of the plan of action. I don’t mean political mobilizing in support of an action — obviously that’s not ethical for a public or quasi-public official — but pulling a broad range of consituents into making the plan, setting the priorities. It’s amazing to me how often the strategies, programs, etc are developed in a back room echo chamber, and then we wonder why the electeds don’t support it. If there has been broad public involvement underlying the plan that justified that program, then there’s a group of people who have a stake in it and are more likely to carry the water for an initiative that they previously identified as important. Too often we don’t try to include them, or we issue one weak invitation to come to a meeting and give up when they don’t immediately grasp why it would be worth their time.
DGR Do you all know if anyone has attempted to correlate incentives with their inferred impacts, like change in average income? We all know that the NYT story demonstrated that proof of causation of positive incentive impacts on communities was extremely hard to come by, but I am wondering if anyone knows of academic studies, even case studies, that had such an impact. I know of some anecdotally in the downtown revitalization and urban reinvestment world, but not outside of there. My suspicion is that no one has seriously tried to answer those questions yet, and I’d argue that this is a key piece of research that the profession ought to try to make happen.



Deep Thoughts: the future of economic development, generations and big change (and Bill Lutz)

Here’s a podcast that I’ve wanted to share with you for a long time: last December I sat down with Bill Lutz in Piqua, Ohio to record three podcasts: one about the redevelopment of the Fort Piqua Hotel, one on Piqua’s Citizens Academy, and this one (I guess you can think about it as the lost third chapter of the trilogy…or not.  Nevermind).

Bill has written here and here and other places before about how economic development practices increasingly don’t make sense in the context of what people, especially, younger people, are looking for.  He’s a great observer, and he articulates it so well.  So rather than steal his thunder by trying to write a Cliff Notes version, let me pique your curiosity with a few good quotes that you can find in this recording:

“Do people my age really want to work for a big company?”

“This generation watched our parents get pink slips.  This generation has seen the previous generation get burned.”

“They weren’t invested in us…. This generation is looking for more.  They also have the tools and the skills to not have to settle for what the big businesses offer”

“I think of community development as being like a general practitioner.  I don’t know much, but I know a little about a lot of things.  And I know who to ask.”

“If we know that statistically those local businesses are more likely to stay here, then let’s talk to them.”

“Community Development has been defined as being all about housing.  That’s not right at all.”

“I live in all three worlds.  You can’t recruit or zone your way to a better community.  You can only do that if you take a community development perspective.”


Take a listen.  Enjoy, think, and tell us what you’re thinking below.


Materials from Webinar: Evaluating the impact of your economic development work with Blaine Canada LTD, June 27

I promised that I would post the materials that Jim Kinnett and I used yesterday to give our webinar on how to evaluate the impact of your community’s economic development efforts.  Here’s the power point, the list of tdata sources I mentioned, and the simple screening tool that you can use as a framework to evaluate your efforts.

Evaluating Your ED Efforts BC webinar [Compatibility Mode]

ROI Gut Check Screen 1 and 2

Sources of Data to Get your ROI Analysis started

I also mentioned two podcasts that I thought were good examples of local government – driven communication initiatives that are enabling change.  One was in Piqua, Ohio, where staff started a Citizen Academy to help people deeply understand how their local government works (this goes well beyond the usual ride-with-a-cop-for-the-day), and one was in Dublin, Ohio, where a considered initiative to share information with elected officials over time enabled senior staff to get support for some pretty impressive changes in their community.  If you click the city names above, you’ll get a little introduction and a link to the podcast, which you can listen to live or just download as an MP3.  A second blog entry talking a little about the Dublin work is here.


Thanks again to Eric Canada for such a great opportunity!

It’s Time to Re-Make Incentives

We’ve been talking (or, well, not talking) about incentives in economic development a lot lately.  They work, they don’t work.  They’re necessary, they waste money.  You need this control, that recapture method, no your don’t, that’s gonna backfire.  So on and so on.Perhaps it’s time to take a big step back– to revisit what an incentive was supposed to do in the first place.  And perhaps it’s time to screw our courage to the sticking point, confront where and how our practices are going awry, and re-formulate incentives programs– not throw them away, not just control them better, but fix them, so that they do what our communities need, and so that they are worth the money we invest in them.

First, let’s take the Wayback Machine to Econ Development 101:

The purpose of a tax incentive is to make something happen in the free market that market forces alone can’t do.  An incentive is supposed to exist to give the market a push in a direction that it can’t/isn’t going by itself at this moment.  It’s there to fill a gap.  Typically, says Econ Dev 101, the incentive is needed because the market can’t see or isn’t aware of an opportunity — because it’s a new opportunity, because the market is overlooking a location’s potential because of negative assumptions about it, etc.   The incentive is designed to kick-start the change, to get the market opportunity over that initial hump.  That’s why we started giving out incentives — to overcome barriers to entry so that the potential of a labor pool or a technology or a place could be discovered by the market.

No one would say that goal of an incentive is to replace the market, or fake up the market.  But it’s hard to miss that this is exactly what many incentives do.

So, if an incentives is supposed to do what Econ Dev 101 said, it follows that any incentive should have the following characteristics:


  • Time limited–not just in terms of a specific deal having an expiration date, but time limited in availability.

If the purpose of the incentive is to change the market, eventually the incentive should facilitate a change in the free market by demonstrating that a business type or a business location can actually work economically.  If that case has been made — if businesses can make a go of it — then the incentive has done what it was designed to do, and it should not be offered anymore.  Extending the incentive might be OK if that market opportunity still exists but hasn’t fully taken off yet, such as might happen if an area experiences a natural disaster.   But the incentive has to stop being available at some point.  If it continues after the market no longer needs it, it’s not levering the market — it’s distorting it.   And a market that can’t survive without the incentive is probably too risky to the surrounding community to be worth supporting.

  • Grow a market.  The incentive has to be targeted specifically to emerging or sleeper market opportunities–like the “but for” test that many incentive programs at least give lip service to, but more.

 An incentive should be available, not just when Project X won’t work without it, but when the larger market opportunity, with all of its potential, can’t take off without it.   The incentive shouldn’t be about that specific business, although it may technically get applied to one business.  An effective incentive will demonstrate potential to grow the opportunity — to grow the market segment, the market ecosystem.  To grow something that is bigger and more impactful than any one business.  The argument (the provable, demonstrable argument)  has to be that incentivizing Project X will facilitate the growth of a whole sector, not just one firm.

Part of the reason why the incentive focus has to shift from incentivizing one business to growing a market is that most of us ain’t gonna see many individual business opportunities that can single-handedly make a big impact on the local economy.  We all know that businesses are getting smaller and smaller, and almost no one is seeing the four-digit employment investments anymore, no matter how much sugar they throw in the pot.  If from nothing other than a pragmatic point of view,  the purpose of an incentive has to be building an economic sector, not just one individual business, because any one individual business is going to be just one drop in the bucket of the job and investment growth our communities need.  I’ve talked before about the need to shift economic development thinking from doing projects to building an interdependent, interconnected ecosystem.  Same idea here.

A nice side benefit: an incentive that’s focused on building a sector rather than a business spreads the risk.  Instead of chewing our fingernails worrying that Business Y is going to renege on its incentive agreement, or move the day after the incentive runs out, or somehow otherwise break that supposed bond of trust and smear a lot of egg on our faces, an incentive strategy that focuses on building a sector should lessen the economic development initiative’s dependence on any one business.  If Business Y pulls something down the road, a strategy that has focused on using incentive money to build a sector, rather than just make Business Y happy, should have a decent chance at having created a larger system in which Business Y’s employees, suppliers, etc.  can find other beneficial options.

The question to ask isn’t

“Do we need to do this incentive to get this business?

The real question is,

“Are we building a base of human capital, expertise, relationships that can outlive any one business?”

 Remember, businesses aren’t just getting smaller, but there’s lots of evidence that the life span of the average business is shrinking as well.

  • Grow Workforce capacity.  This point follows on to the need to feed the growth of a sector, not just a business.  Whether we’re talking about office, service, manufacturing, tech, whatever, we know more and more that the most valuable and most critical asset we can offer is the skills and capabilities of our workforce.  If we need businesses to help us understand the sector’s workforce needs, and people’s capacities are at least partially built through their work experience — and those businesses where they work become smaller and shorter-lived and generally more fluid everyday — how much sense does it make to just hand businesses a piece of our precious funds and hope that something good will happen?

Why not structure some conditions around building the capacity of their employees?  Why not have an agreement about how they will support or participate in the training, networking, connection-building needed to grow their sector in your community?  That’s not going to ask much of them beyond basic good business practices (retain your employees because that’s cheaper than hiring, build good relationships with your suppliers so you can get credit if you need it, etc.)   You might as well give them a little extra push in that direction  — especially as businesses get smaller and owners and managers may not always fully realize how much they need to be part of the larger system.


  • Directly improve the community.   Here’s one you know, but maybe don’t want to say out loud:

Your citizens are sick of throwing their hard-earned tax money at businesses that they don’t think give a damn about their community.

Popular pressure is probably the biggest single threat to current incentives practices — and as people get better at self-organizing, and as anyone with a mobile phone becomes their own broadcast network, that pressure is going to build.  That’s the nature of the social media, internet world.  So why not give yourself some cover from the public watchdogs, and use incentives to prod businesses to be better community citizens?

Plus, you’ve got precedent.  Planning commissions routinely require developers who want a variance or special zoning to do a little extra — more landscaping, higher quality facade materials, etc.  If you, Madame Developer, don’t want to do that, you can use the standard zoning without going through any extra process.  But if you give us a little extra, you can use our expedited process or get special exemptions.

Why not ask a potential incentive recipient, explicitly, how will you give back?  How will you help build our community?

After all, it’s your taxpayers’ money. They want more return on the investment.

So…that’s what I’m thinking.  We all know that the devil usually lives in the details, but I think we in the economic development and local government world need to start talking about deep and fundamental changes to how we do incentives…. before someone else makes those decisions for us.
What do you think?

The Divergent Creative and the Kid Who Won Everything Else

It’s strange how watching your kid face a defeat means more–and hurts more–than anything that could happen to yourself.

This essay was revised and included in The Local Economy Revolution: What’s Changed and How You Can Help.  If you like this, chances are you’ll like that book.  Learn more here.

I have two kids, who I’ve generally stereotyped here before (and in a lot of conversations), as the Good Kid and the Mad Scientist.  The older one has all sorts of great qualities–intelligent, good grades, well behaved, respectful, etc.  Classic firstborn.  Good Kid.

The second is… well, he’s…yeah.  He’s the one that leaves a trail of chaos in his wake.  Remnants of projects and drawings and creations litter half the house.  Fifty percent of all the food storage containers and reusable water bottles that have ever crossed our property line end up as bug habitats.  Pretty much anything… scrap wood, tinfoil, sticks, my office supplies, silverware, you name it… gets conscripted into his projects.  When he’s working on something, he goes at it with a single minded devotion that verges on obsessive.  Fat chance getting that dishwasher unloaded

Granted, they’re amazing projects.  I know, Mom is supposed to say that, but even given my bias…  The kid makes clay fish the size of your fingernail so detailed that you can identify the species.  He makes reefs with dozens of types of corals that fit in your palm. He draws birds with all their plumage. The kid has sold his work at art shows, exhibiting next to adults.  He’s been the youngest exhibitor every time.  He’s 11.

Today was Awards Day, the culmination of his years in elementary school.  He won…nothing.  The award for achievement in art went to the Kid Who Won Everything Else.

Jon knows how the quality of his work compares to his age peers.  You can’t help but notice at the school art shows.  But he doesn’t always do the art class project exactly the way he was told.  Sometimes he figures he knows a better way. I don’t know if he actually does know a better way or not.  But he’s usually quite sure of his vision.


I watched from the other side of the room as Jon congratulated his classmates…generous kid, sweet disposition.  I watched him jump forward,then sit back down as a kid with the same first name as him was called to receive the science award (Jon’s also a biology wizard, which explains the fish and the bugs and the birds).

But after the art teacher gave her award, Jon sank into himself as though someone had let the air out of his body.  Across the gym, I tried to catch his eye, give a thin smile of encouragement, but he looked at no one.

After school, in the car alone, tears, dashed expectations, I try and try but I’m never good enough.  Why don’t they understand me? What’s wrong with me?

Moms experience heart breaks that feel like nothing else in human experience.


I have an undergrad degree in education.  About a year ago, bewildered about how to deal with this kid, I pulled out one of my old textbooks and reviewed the one chapter I could find on gifted education.  The book listed six types of gifted kids.  First up: standard good student. Check.

Second: Divergent Creative.  Characteristics: independent thinker, resist playing by the rules, challenge authority, driven by deep need to create.

Student is at significant risk of tuning out of the education process.

Look what I got.

The ironic thing here is that I started out as the Good Kid, but turned into the divergent.  I was the Kid Who Wins Everything when I was a kid.  Now I’m the one who challenges authority, who ignores people at the community pool when I’m writing. Who says stuff that isn’t always popular with my peers.   At least some of the time.

I can’t in clear conscience anymore tell him to conform, do everything you’re told, play the game without question.  That’s not true to me, and its not true to him.  And he knows that.

Kid is also pretty good at reading human behavior, including his own.


Why do we crave reinforcement?  What makes us so desperate for praise,  for approval, to hear that “good job?”

I don’t know.  But we have to make a choice sometimes: try to fit the system in the hopes of winning the award, or obey what we are, what speaks to us, do what it seems like is our role in the world to do.

Part of why I think I have been evolving from Good Kid to Divergent is because I realized that I had nothing to lose.  And that’s something I’ve talked about here before— it’s not like job security is a reality for most of us anymore anyways.  And I’ve talked plenty of times about the need for bravery, for grit, and for determination to do the right thing and lead change in the face of discouragement.  If you need a dose of that, click some of the links in this paragraph.

Sometimes, though, that’s a lonely and misunderstood road.  Sometimes that just feels like shit.

But it doesn’t change who we are.  Or what we have to do.

Ironically, I stumbled across a music video yesterday that I hadn’t seen in years.  I never like it when it first came out.  But it’s kinda growing on me.

So this one goes out to all you change agents, community leaders, Mad Scientists and tap dancing bumblebee people.  Hang in there, guys.

And as Jon told me after he got the tears out of his system, none of today’s crap will matter a week from now.  He’ll try to play by the rules better, but he’s not giving up what matters to him.

Wise kid, that Mad Scientist.

Are they running a small business that sucks?

Urban planners and downtown revitalization or regeneration types have done a great job of embracing the value and potential of places that we might be tempted to overlook.  The arcade-style retail space–a sort of anchorless mini-mall located in an office building or downtown corner– has been particularly hard to adapt, and hard for a lot of people to love.  Marcus Westbury in Newcastle, NSW Australia appears to be a welcome exception.  Here’s an excerpt from a piece he wrote hailing the potential of this space type:

Some of the very factors that once counted against them — the scale of their spaces, their relatively low foot-traffic (and hence low cost), and the fact that they require some effort to discover — are actually features, not bugs, in the brave new world where mass markets are shattering into hundreds of niches. Indeed among the fastest growing segments of business and creativity is small, home based, mixed online and offline businesses and arcades are logical places for these rapidly growing businesses to grow into….

For arcades to fire again they need to become eclectic, engaging, active destinational places. Activity will generate activity while decay begets decay. There are no lack of small businesses, online enterprises, hole-in-the-wall cafe or bar proprietors and others for whom the actual configuration of space is potentially tempting and it’s not that hard to find them….  For as long as half the shops sit, partially decaying, with the public facing spaces being left empty or used for storage owners need to realise that they are deterring not growing future value.

I don’t think this was quite his intention, but Marcus has also put his finger on a key issue that we face in the new world of economic development and physical  planning.  And it might not be the one you think.

We have had a tendency over the past 40 years of assuming that our places can only prosper if they fit standard formats.  We’ve built millions of acres of spaces designed to fit standard formats. And except in a few magical places, the market value of these properties has gone in the tank.  And yet we still see communities that don’t think they have arrived until they attain the full complement of chain retailers and restaurants.

We need to help our communities get over that.  We need to help them rediscover the value of the unique, the local, the thing-so-good- it’s-worth-finding.

I suspect we can all agree on that in principle.


But here’s the piece we miss, in both planning and economic development: it’s very hard to run a good small business.

It’s incredibly, stunningly easy to run a small business that sucks.

One of the side effects of the implosion of the real estate market globally is that the amount of really cheap space has skyrocketed.  If you have a business idea, and a little cash on hand, chances are you can find some property owner with a paid-off mortgage who will rent you that storefront for a song.  And as we idolize entrepreneurs, and as we keep telling people that going into business for yourself holds the promise of happy prosperity, more and more people will take them up on that offer.

Including a lot of people who have no damn business running a business.

I’ve written before about how small business owners often reminds me of movie cowboys: independent, self-sufficient, needing nothing from nobody.  And I’ve written about the fact that behind that facade, a lot of those entrepreneurs face each day overwhelmed, unable to muster from within just themselves the full range of skills and resources to run a successful business.

The good ones know that.  But many small business owners have no idea what they don’t know.

It’s easy for us to just write off business success or failure as the machine of the market doing its impartial work.  But like anything else, it’s not that simple.  Places like the arcades that Marcus describes, and many with more or less potential, can get a reputation as a lousy business place pretty quickly, even when we can see great potential.  It only takes a couple of wanna-be entrepreneurs getting a sweetheart deal from a desperate or disinterested property owner, and then crashing in flames when they botch their hiring or their inventory or their marketing, for that “bad spot” reputation to develop.  And for independent businesses, more likely to rely on experience and gut check than the data that the franchises devour, a location’s reputation becomes a very solid reality.

Here’s where you come in.  If you’re not linking your small business owners to detailed, hands-on training and coaching, you’re shooting your community in the foot.  If you’re not inducing or requiring your incentive recipients to go through intensive business training, you’re wasting too much of your limited funding.

And here’s the most important point: you need to have some process, some system, that will help some of your potential small business owners learn the most valuable thing they may ever learn:

That opening that business would be a bad idea.

Sometimes the best thing you can do to help manage your community’s ecosystem is to keep the unhealthy ones from getting planted in the first place.

patch of weeds
Looks familiar…


Citizen Engagement and the Cranky Old Cranky Cranks

It might have something to do with me still being young enough to relate to the vibrant lifestyle of 20-somethings, but it has occurred to me that the field of planning is overrepresented by old people.  Specifically, old cranky NIMBY (Not In My BackYard) men who have a tendency to desire their neighborhoods to be quiet and devoid of any activity that might upset them and their touchy sensibilities on what makes for a ‘nice neighborhood.’….
If my city doesn’t evolve beyond a bedroom community, these colleges will not flourish and likely close down in a few short years.  And if the some colleges can somehow manage operating in a low-attendance environment without vibrant urbanized conditions and instead a burden of maintaining space for ample parking among a struggling core, then these graduates in their 20-somethings will have little reason to stay.  They will see a bedroom community that was design by the retired, for the retired and these recent grads will be the ones cranky about the (un)city conditions and look for jobs (or start companies) elsewhere.
You have to give credit to a writer who manages to work the word “cranky” into five paragraphs about 47 times.  In this piece from the blog “A Planner’s Commitment,”  Ryan Wozniak expresses a very common frustration with older folks’ reluctance to change — one that I hear more and more from young people (and older) across a variety of community-oriented professions.  Ryan employs a little more scorn than I would prefer, but he illuminates one of the most difficult challenges of any kind of community planning, whether for economic development strategies or future land use or transportation:

snapping turtle face
Cranky old cranky turtle.
Dealing with people who aren’t anticipating that the future of the community might not look like its present.
Of course, the kind of situation Ryan describes is common, and it’s not limited to his community in Arizona or to surburbia in general.  But in my (never particularly humble) opinion, writing off this response as NIMBYism or crankiness is too simplistic…even though it’s a write-off we do all the time.
Implicit in Ryan’s situation, and in almost any where the term “NIMBY” gets applied, is a failure to meaningfully engage the public, to do two way communication, and do it consistently, transparently and intelligently enough for it to matter.
And we have got to change that.

My last podcast told the story of a town that has undertaken an aggressive and pretty revolutionary revisioning of itself— and done this in a community that, to everyone else in its region, seems to have everything going for it. Big suburban houses, giant office parks, great schools, fat tax rolls, lots of highly educated middle aged people.  Classic Best of Suburb kind of stuff.

I’m gonna fess up.
I was not excited about doing that podcast.
I was glad when I arranged with my friend Colleen to do it a few weeks earlier, but I ended up going there on the way home from an emotionally and intellectually tough trip to my hometown outside of Cleveland.  When you’ve spent the last two days in what felt like the valley of the shadow, and talked out loud to yourself the whole drive back about why you and others  continue to work so hard for beat up places that sometimes don’t ever seem to get better, summoning enthusiasm for the kind of place that All The Money Went To…
Let’s just say I didn’t feel the mojo was working when I walked in that day.
In my own dark (and yes, cranky) guts, I braced myself for an enthusiastic account of pretty pictures and the magic pill that many communities think form based codes will provide.  I expected something driven by some somebody’s big ego.  Something without critical thinking behind it, and perhaps less staying power as a result.  Not like I haven’t seen that before.
What I didn’t expect to hear about was the thoughtful consideration, the reasoning together, that underpinned the decision to invest a comfortable, conservative… and older… community’s resources in a profound change in direction. The consideration and reasoning that made the uncomfortable stretch into a future very different from the present possible.

Here’s what they did: before the plan, before the picture, before anyone asked Council for a penny, the city manager crafted a community discussion.  He publicized factual information about changes in the region’s demographics.  He recruited thoughtful experts in issues like economic change and fiscal implications.  They hosted presentation and round tables about the big questions facing the future of the region – not just the future of their town.

Not an agenda to support a plan in process, not trying to work the PR machine to win support of a development,  just issues on the horizon that might or might not impact the future of this community.

More importantly, the community, its leaders and residents, had a conversation- or rather, a series of interconnected conversations about what that information implied for the city’s future.  And by the time a proposal came forward to make big changes, a large portion of the community and its elected and informal leadership has a pretty clear-eyed understanding of the challenges and the options.

That groundwork, the quiet, rational, non-ideological discussion– made a historically unthinkable change in direction possible.

Put aside all that idealistic stuff about public engagement for a minute.  Transparency, democratic process, people have a right to know… yah, yah.  Got it.

For a moment, be purely selfish.
The fact of the matter is that we screw ourselves over as professionals when we don’t have those conversations right at the beginning.  We make the whole process of doing our jobs 47 times harder on ourselves than it should be.  The simple fact of the matter is that you know there’s stuff that your community needs to deal with, and not dealing with it is compacting your budgets and your staff and your time to the point where the most basic parts of the job get harder and harder.  You need stuff to change – better tax base, more efficient land use, less money getting sucked up into roads and pipes and programs that aren’t generating a decent return on investment.  And you know this is the case all over, so job-hunting doesn’t get you out of the mess.
People who don’t work in your field are not going to see the emerging issues that are self evident to those of us who do.  They’re not going to intuitively understand what you’re seeing any better than you’re going to be able to anticipate what 3-D printing will enable 10 years from now.
And it’s psychological fact: when people don’t have good information to work from, they over-rely on their past experience.  “It worked just fine 10 years ago, why upset the apple cart?”   That’s not an age issue or a gender issue, although age and gender roles might lead one to put even more emphasis on past experience or influence how a person communicates that.
It’s a human condition issue. And the only way to counteract that bias, that the future should look like the present, is to give our rational minds the information it needs to shift its gears.   That’s the way human creatures work.
So why do most communities fail to have intelligent conversations about their futures?
We have a tendency in local government to assume that people won’t listen to reason — we point to lots of situations where residents say stupid things or make assumptions that, given the more extensive level of information we have to work with,  just don’t make sense.  Even though we “told” them what the facts were, they “chose” not to listen.
Good teachers know that just telling someone something verbally doesn’t mean it will stick in their head.  That’s why teachers don’t just tell you something once.  You hear it in a lecture, you read it in the book, you do a project, you write a paper.  People need to interact with new information on multiple levels, and do that over time.  If you want someone to understand something, just telling them doesn’t cut it.
And yet, in local government, most of the time that’s all we do.  No wonder they can’t mentally shift away from the status quo.  No wonder they don’t see the threats and opportunities we know about.
A fundamental purpose of our work –in any kind of local government or community management– has to change.  We have to become managers and facilitators of community conversations, not just presentation-givers, open-house-when-the-plan-is-all-but-done-holders, grouse-helplessly-to-each-other-when-they-don’t-get-it-ers.  We can’t keep falling back on “it’s complicated…you wouldn’t understand…trust us.”  And then wonder why people don’t see the need for change.
Dublin did just that.  Rather than try to shove everyone along to some pre-determined conclusion, skimp on building understanding and risk an ambitious plan blowing up in their face, they built a shared, broad-based understanding.  And that included people who could have very well become cranky old NIMBY cranks.

happy old man
Guess I got old early.

The Planner’s superpower: no straight edges required.

“This is not the planning profession John Nolen built. A century later, our great recession has sparked a full re-evaluation of what a city’s urban planning department should be ‘doing’ for its citizens. As witnessed in Los Angeles and San Diego, the planning profession is being measured by its eternal conundrum between Forward Planning Departments that plan for future development projects and Current Planning Services that process today’s development applications….

Having been regulated to stakeholder status in a city’s Economic Development prioritization, planners must reclaim their place at the city’s Capital Improvement Planning table.”

-“The Future of Municipal Planning: Is John Nolen rolling over in his grave?”

It’s always a little disorienting to agree and disagree with an author at the same time.  This article by by Howard Blackson on Placemakers gets at many points that I’ve advocated in the past– planners needing to be proactive, responsibility for fiscal decision-making, important role of planners in guiding economic development decisions.

But…the objective is “a place at the Capital Improvement Plan table?”   No doubt, that would be helpful. But it’s not enough.

Planners do more than lay out physical improvements.  We do more than illustrate desired future developments.  And we have to.  Our communities need more, a whole lot more. The responsibility, the importance of planning, goes far beyond capital improvement plans. Today more than ever before.

I know this is a long, long debate in planning…Moses vs Jacobs, van de Rohe vs Davidhoff, etc etc.  We sometimes joke about it as why the profession gets no respect…no one knows what the hell a planner does, and sometimes that includes the planners themselves.

But there’s a very practical reason why we all have to reach beyond our core skill sets: doing the job that needs to be done takes a lot more tools than pens and zoning codes and AutoCADD.

If all you do is physical design, and you meant it when you said way back when that your purpose was to make places better, you’re hamstrung by the box you have allowed yourselves to be stuck in.  Even if you are in a proactive and forward-thinking community and you can do great design work, how much of your ability to enable change and improvement is constrained?  How much difference can your design work make if people can’t find jobs?  Will they be happier just because you make it look good?

If you’re only tool is a hammer, how often do you actually fix the problems that need fixing, and how often do you just bust the box instead?

I was in Chicago for the American Planning Association conference last week.  Chicago has this incredible history of urban design and physical planning.  By the end of the week I suspect even design junkies might have had their fill of the Burnham Plan and the World Fair and Mies van de Rohe and the rest.

But Chicago is not the buildings or the parks.

I love Chicago’s architecture, but I would not move there to look at buildings, as much as I appreciate the buildings.  My husband and I, 20 years after leaving, still talk about retiring to Chicago…because of the human activity.  The things to do, the character of the place.

Crowd at festival
One of the real reasons why people go to Grant Park.

Buildings and spaces set the stage for the things that make a city great or miserable, but they are just that: the stage upon which us as the actors make the play.   People often attach intensely to places that don’t have Millennium Parks and Sheds Aquariums, as delightful as those are.  Sometimes, they attach fiercely to a place despite their absence, or in the face of the lack of such loveliness.

It’s one thing to be an Artiste and dedicate your life’s work to pure aesthetics.  It’s another thing to take on the responsibility for using design skills to make our stages for human activity work better.  That’s a critical and necessary differentiation.

I know…it’s not your job to fix everything. You can’t do it all. You don’t know it all. You don’t have all the answers.

Understood.  But… you, you might be our best hope.

I have spent most of my adult life in the intersections between professions– physical planners, landscape architects, traffic engineers, civil engineers, economic developers, community developers, Main Street managers, city admins, neighborhood rabble rousers, so on and so on.  My address book needs a sorting system that doesn’t come with the software.

This next part is for you who have some kind of degree or job with the word “planning” in it….and only you.  Everyone else go get a sandwich or something.

Ok.  Are they gone?

Here’s the deal: you guys, the Planners, whatever flavor, you understand the interconnections.  You get that, frankly, better than anyone else.   You guys have either learned or intuitively see how the human elements and the design elements and the infrastructure and the programs and the hundred other things fit together.  It’s not a perfect understanding, by any means, and you each come at it from a little different direction, but you’re closer to it than any of the other professions that deal with communities.

You’re at least talking about it…for all its warts and limitations, a conference like APA enforces that.  I can tell you that the economic development profession, for one, is deep in the throes of understanding the limits of its historic siloed approaches right now….and I think it’s going to be a long time before that profession, as a whole, comes out the other side.

I think a secret to the planner’s insight is this crazy messiness we’ve inherited… the fact that”planners” do a hundred different kinds of jobs, to the point where sometimes we have no idea what that word actually means anyways.

That always bugged the crap out of me.

But…I’m coming to the conclusion that it’s an advantage.  Or maybe a burden, but the kind of burden you have to carry to be able to do something great and meaningful and needed.  Kinda like a superpower.

“Able to see interconnections and interrelationships through walls and silos!!  It’s a design geek…no, wait, it’s a zoning director… It’s Planner Person!”

cartoon of superhero holding paper labelled Plan
eh….maybe not.

Ok, I won’t get the t shirts made yet…

But the communities we work in need you to use your superpower–to reach across the disciplines and find the interconnections. We need to do that better.  We need to develop the tools a and analytical frameworks to do that, and right now we’re still weak on that.

But we’re probably the best chance our communities have for getting to it.


So if your main gig is design, incorporate into your design work the best understanding you can possibly muster as to how people actually use places and how they can support people better.  If you deal in land codes, strive to anticipate those unintended consequences– how one site’s development might have rolling impacts.  If you make land use plans like I used to, don’t just color maps–work through all of the interrelated elements that will either empower or hinder those recommendations.  And if you do any of those other 97 things… wade into the edges, take on the messiness, do your damnest to use the full range of your knowledge to make places work.  You won’t do it perfectly.  But try.  And keep trying.

Why? Because most of the others probably won’t get there any time soon.  And our communities won’t wait.  You, you might be our best hope.

No laurel-resting here: Dublin, Ohio plans for a changing future

People in Ohio tend to point to the Columbus suburb of Dublin as one of those places that has everything going for it: big houses, wealthy people, lots of high-paying jobs in beautiful office parks, great schools.  The kind of place where “planning” would typically mean maintaining the status quo.  But Dublin has done something kind of…well, radical, for an affluent suburb: it realized in the late 2000s that the world was getting ready to turn upside down on it, and decided to get ahead of that curve as fast as it could.  Here’s the podcast

This conversation with  Terry Foegler and Colleen Gilger focuses on the story of the changes that Terry and others saw on the regional and national horizon, and how they persuaded Dublin’s elected and appointed leadership to dedicate significant time and resources to a planning process that would lay the groundwork for a profound reconfiguring — and densifying — of the historic center of the community.  Beginning with an initial visioning process and continuing through the recent adoption of a form-based code, Dublin is trying to strike an unique and potentially trail-blazing balance between traditional suburbia and urban vitality.

As APA 2013 gets underway in Chicago, this is an interesting case study on convincing a community that doesn’t face many problems today to anticipate and get ahead of many of the trends that planners have been talking about, but communities haven’t always had the willpower to address, for a decade.

I could post a bunch of pictures, but since this is an ongoing project, and Dublin is pretty good at generating new information, here’s the latest on the Bridge Street initiative — videos and all


APA 2013 — Sessions, events, awesome people…and maybe some blues. Or something.

Just a quick note for you planning types that I’ll be doing two sessions (read: I am an idiot) at the American Planning Association’s annual conference next week in Chicago.

On Saturday, April 13 at 4:00 PM, I’ll be talking about the future of web-based fiscal impact modelling with Doug Walker of Placeways, LLC and Chris Haller of Urban Interactive Studios.  We’ll be digging into two different web-based fiscal impact models, telling the truth about what worked — and what didn’t work — and thinking about what communities can do to capitalize on the explosion of analysis and communication power that these tools can bring to decision-making today.  Sound eggheaded?  Well, I hear that Chris has a guerilla app that’s launching this weekend, so you never know what will happen… especially if someone brings some bananas… what?

What’s a fiscal impact model?  You can read my explanation here, and a little information about one of the models here.  Per usual, I’ll post a podcast and annotated slides in the next week or two — after I find out what the heck these guys have to say.

On Monday, April 15, at 9:00 AM, I’ll be talking about building Small Business Ecosystems with Carolyn Dellutri of Downtown Evanston, Inc. and Taylor Stuckert of Energize Clinton County.  Taylor himself will be worth the price of admission, especially if some of his recent hard-earned luck can rub off on anyone else.  Not only is Energize Clinton County winning an APA National Planning Achievement Award for Innovation in Economic Development and Planning, and he was featured in Fast Company Magazine’s recent article on ” 7 People Under 30 Who Are Changing Our World,”   BUT…. he just successfully defended his thesis for his Master of Community Planning.  Like last week.  How freaking cool is that?

Does that Energize Clinton County thing sound familiar?  Well, it should…especially if you read or listen here very often.  Here’s a link to an awesome podcast that I did with Taylor and Chris Schock, his partner in crime at the county…awesome because of them and their story.  I mostly just held the recorder.  And Evanston?  In addition to having a completely kick butt downtown that Carolyn shepherds, it’s the home of my alma mater, where I’m proud to say they do it the right way.  If only the wedding ecosystem that Carolyn will describe existed back in the dark ages when we got out of school….  I’ll get audio and annotated slides posted for that one as well.

So, I’m gearing up for a busy, exhausting, exciting and energizing week of hanging out with the best and the brightest — these guys, and you.   If you’re going to be at  APA, send me a note at or on Twitter at @dellarucker.  I’m hoping to catch up with a lot of you and hear your stories about how you’re making great things happen where you live and work.  And I might have a notebook or a recorder in my pocket.

I’m even toying with an impromptu tour of NU’s campus or a night at the Kingston Mines.  You never know….


Changing Your Culture of Public Participation (or, Not Giving the Chance to Say Stupid Things in Public)

In a true display of democracy, a town hall meeting held at the New Bedford High School auditorium Monday gave the crowd of approximately 550 residents the opportunity to publicly voice every last one of the inane thoughts and concerns they would normally only have the chance to utter to themselves.

Though the meeting was ostensibly held to discuss a proposed $21,000 project to replace the high school’s grass football field with synthetic turf, City Councilman Thomas Reed inadvertently opened the floodgates to a deluge of ill-informed, off-topic diatribes on inconsequential bullshit when he allowed those in attendance to demonstrate their God-given gift of language.

–“Town Hall Meeting Gives Townspeople Chance To Say Stupid Things In Public.”  The Onion (everyone knows that this is a satire/fake news web site, right?  


Just checking.)


This fall, my son starts a new high school.  After a lot of deliberation, my husband and I decided to acquiesce to the kid’s wish to attend an academically rigorous Catholic high school.  For a former public school teacher and career public education kid, this was a hard decision.  Our kids have gone to public school since kindergarten.  But in the end, we concluded that this was the right choice for this bright, serious, disciplined kid.  We decided that he needed an environment that would build on those assets.  And he wanted the challenge.  Hard to argue with that.

The kid was accepted in January.  By the time he starts school in August, he will have had one Saturday morning with the music program, a one on one with an assistant principal, two weeks of band camp and a two day freshman orientation.

He had the meeting with the assistant principal last Saturday.  It was not what I expected.  There’s my 14 year old, sitting across a conference table from a massive, intimidating-looking man–300 pounds of tie-you-in-a-pretzel-if-you-mess-up.  Generally a good trait in an assistant principal, thinks the former substitute teacher turned mom.

 The assistant principal places a binder full of information In front of the kid.  Mr. Intimidating then starts asking James questions (note that he had already been accepted). The questions start off with unsurprising stuff…what’s your favorite subject in school, what do you do outside of school…easy for the kid to answer. Then, the questions take a surprising turn: what kinds of situations stress you out? How do you deal with stress? What are you passionate about–what gets you out of bed in the morning?  If I asked your best friend to describe you, what would he say?

Find yourself a 14 year old boy and try those questions on him.  Or try them on yourself.

James stumbles through them, and Mr. Intimidating takes notes.

Then the assistant principal asks James to open the binder.  Sitting to the side, I steel myself for a marginally painful review of rules and requirements and consequences.  Instead, Mr. Intimidating spends the next 20 minutes conversing with James about the core principals of the school’s educational philosophy.

Critical thinking.  Self-awareness. Compassion towards others.  Integrity.

Deep stuff. Foundational stuff. Not a single rule or regulation.

As I listened, it dawned on me that this wasn’t a one-off thing.  It was just more obvious because of the setting.  When my son did the music department event a couple of weeks ago, the entire group of kids ended by singing the alma mater.  The incoming freshmen put arms around each others’ shoulders, exactly the way the upperclassmen do, while they tried to read the words off a piece of paper.

Find yourself a 14 year old boy and try to get them to put their arm around the shoulder of another boy.  Good luck.

And yet I watched my kid do exactly that.


Think for a moment about how we complain about the public’s involvement in our planning and economic development and local government–in person and online.  I opened this piece with a purposely over-the-top piece of satire, but…come on.   Hits a little close to home, don’t it?

We gripe that they don’t behave themselves, that they say nasty or off topic things, that they pound soapboxes…or worse yet, that they just don’t show up.

No wonder our meetings are so miserable.  It’s all their fault.

Now think for a minute about how much effort we’ve put into establishing our community’s culture of public engagement.  What have we — and our predecessors– done to convey, to demonstrate, what effective public engagement looks like?  What have we done to set the tone, to establish the environment we want?

Do we even know what the public engagement we want looks like? Or would we sound like a 14 year old trying to answer a question about how his best friend would describe him?

What public engagement culture do we have?

If all St. Xavier High School did was a 20 minute discussion of principles, I would never expect it to take.  A 14 year old would forget that stuff before he got out the door.  But when every aspect of the culture reinforces those principles– alma mater sung with arms around each other, freshman applauded by upperclassmen when they enter the assembly on their first day of school, senior mentors in freshman homerooms, band camp that welcomes new students instead of hazing them–then those principles come to mean something.  That’s how a culture–especially a culture that is radically different from what newcomers might expect– sticks.

The most successful companies all know that. Edward Deming, the father of modern manufacturing, gets quoted in business schools every day:

Culture eats strategy for breakfast and process for lunch.

Show me a Fortune 100 business, and I will show you how that company has built its culture through and into everything it does.


Last year I wrote a blow-by-blow account of how I managed a potentially contentious public meeting.  That post has now been read by 3,500 people.  Obviously that essay addressed something that a lot of people needed or wanted.

But keeping a meeting from blowing up….that’s simply classroom management.  That’s the very basics.  It’s not creating a constructive environment.  it’s not enabling a constructive culture.  It’s not in itself moving us forward at all.

We have to change the culture of community participation, and we have to do it top to bottom.  Organizations that take on culture change know that they have to do it intentionally…they have to build it into every interaction, every communication.  They need to consciously reinforce the principles of the culture they want–not just by saying what the principles are, but living them through every interaction.

What are your community’s public interactions telling people about how you want to relate?  What does the room setup say?  The rules…or lack of rules? The options and opportunities for involvement?

Is meaningful public engagement built into your processes, beginning to end?  How do you involve people upstream– in setting policy and deciding priorities? Do people have real opportunities to be part of the solution, or do your just invite them in when there is a fait accompli to argue against?

Do you give them the ability to do something other than say no, no, no?  Do you channel them into being part of the solution?

If you don’t, don’t despair. Culture change is a long and difficult process.  That’s why my son’s new school starts on this work long before they get their books, and why they build it all the way through the experience.  The more I think about it, I suspect it’s not luck….it’s got to be intentional.


Like more most analogies, this one breaks down. A 14 year old, to at least some extent, goes where you tell them to go and does what you tell them to do.  Especially if you are a 300+ pound assistant principal.  But your residents will participate only if they perceive that the value of doing so will exceed the c cost of their time and energy.  Which makes a culture of meaningful public engagement all the more important.

So you might as well get started.  Ask yourself: what would meaningful public involvement look like here? What do we need to learn from our residents? What do we want our public meetings to look, to feel like? What character, what principles do we want?  How can we build that into everything we do?

It won’t happen overnight. But goofy 14 year old boys don’t turn into men overnight, either.  So go ahead and get started.

Incentives: No more yes-no-yes-no.

I wrote the following as a response to an ongoing debate on incentives that has been occurring on one of the LinkedIn groups that I follow.  There’s been a strong yes-no-yes-no tone to the conversation, with a few people who oppose the use of incentives on principle butting heads with a few who adamantly believe that incentives are important and valuable.

I’m posting this here because that conversation seems like a microcosm of the ongoing debate.

And if you’re going at it as a yes-no-yes-no, on-off switch kind of choice, stop it.  You’re not doing anyone any good.  including yourself.

Instead, we have to start asking:

What are we trying to do?  What are the tools we have available?  What does our data tell us about how they’re working or not working?  How do we get better information on that?

And if it doesn’t seem to be working, how can we adjust our tools or add to the toolbox to give us a chance of doing what we’re supposed to do?

That’s the right conversation.  That’s the conversation that addresses the sober responsibilities that we have to our communities.  Time to grow up a bit.


Thank you again for leading the charge into this critical element of debate.  We need this debate.  We need it.  And we need much more invested in the debate than we’re-just-fine-don’t-rock-the-boat.

Every business and every profession has to grow and change — we of all people should know that, given the amount of time we spend with people who live in the business world.  And given the intersection where economic development lives — of government pressures and blinding business change — we absolutely have to take a cold-eyed, critical look at what we do, how we do it, how that needs to change and how that can be done better.

Part of the problem that surfaces here and in the previous debates on this group about incentives and the like is that we are looking through an insect’s compound eyes: we as a group represent a thousand differing perspectives, and we are being pushed harder than ever to make a coherent whole out of the picture — by voices outside and inside the profession.  And it’s a lot easier for any of us to just insist that the view through our little lens is the right one.

But we are reaching a point, whether it’s due to techology changes or government pressures or the information that the general public can grab and use and share without our spin control, where we can’t pretend not to hear those voices anymore. The profession has to turn a critical eye on itself, clearly understand its strengths and limitations, and change,

It’s not a binary choice — it’s not “Everything is fine!!!!” or “Everything stinks!!!”

Critique is a part of growing up, and in times of pressure you have to grow up faster than at other times.  We all have some growing up to do – in this and in all the other professions that are on the hairy edge of our understanding of how communities and economies work.  But we can’t rest on some claimed laurels today, more than ever.


So, new questions:

What do we have to do to make the real estate component part of economic development more valuable, more meaningful to communities?  What else do we need to be accounting for if we intend to have a positive impact?  Are our current methods creating unintended negative impacts — impacts that have hidden consequences for communities?


The Rust Belt Bird-Flip to Dying

Sometimes you have to force yourself to walk with your ghosts so that you know who they are.   And who you are, too.


I always say that I am from Bedford, a small town outside Cleveland.  But “from” might be the most telling word.  After growing up there, deeply embedded in the community through my father and my grandfather and my own activities, I left that piece of the Rust Belt to go to college in Chicago.  I came back for three summers, and then…left.

When my parents were alive, I would visit every so often.  But not that often.

They died years ago.  The last time I was in the house I grew up in, my brothers and I went through all of the furniture and dishes and tools and all of that detritus of a life, and divided it up.  I continued to co-own that house with them for years, and my one brother still lives there.

I have never gone back inside.

I don’t want to go back to my hometown anymore.  I don’t want to go back to the place that formed me, that played such an integral part in making me who I am that I put a picture of 1970s Cleveland on the introductory slide of every presentation I do.

It’s one thing to talk about it.  It’s another thing to go there.

Don’t get me wrong.  Bedford is a charming little Western Reserve Yankee kind of town.  Lovely square with gravel paths and dignified war memorials, grand Victorian buildings around it.  Gazebo that supposedly has a brick with my name on it somewhere (I’ve never found it… who knows if Granddad told the truth…he didn’t always do that).   Solid buildings lining Broadway.   Stately houses on streets with real sidewalks.   The Old Urbanism, Exhibit A.


Drive around after a few years’ absence, and you notice the potholes.  You see the vacant lots where something’s gone… what?  I don’t remember.   The post office on the site of the old Marble Chair factory – the one that shut down in the late 70s so abruptly that workers left their lunches on the tables – still looks too small.  Then drive through downtown and out into the non-quaint neighborhoods, and…vacant storefronts.  Empty buildings.  Dried weeds in lots.  Houses that might – or might not – have people living in them.  Who might or might not be able to leave the house under their own power.    You can’t quite tell by looking.

There’s a lot of that.


I went to Bedford last week, not wanting to visit my own ghosts, but to see a friend who has been visiting hers.  One of my oldest childhood buddies lost her mom a couple months ago.  I had to skip the funeral, in the funeral home on the corner of the cemetery where my own parents are buried, because I had a cold/flu kind of thing.  I wasn’t all that sick, but I didn’t want to risk infecting a room full of old people.  You think about that in this context.

I felt guilty about not supporting my friend.  And I did seem to have something.  But I was kind of glad not to have to go.

I didn’t want to go there.   I really didn’t want to go.

My friend lives in Alaska.  Seldom gets to Ohio.  It’s expensive.  She came back for two weeks to help her Dad move and help clean out the house she grew up in.  I promised I would come and see here.  I figured a friendly face might do some good.

I stood in the front room of the tiny Cape Cod, the one that I could almost find without the address, although I hadn’t been there in 25 years.  The trees in the front had gotten bigger, which made the house look smaller than I remembered, and that threw me a little. But that wasn’t as confusing at the thing that looked like a brick bunker at the end of the street —  that made me think I had taken a wrong turn.  Renee told me that the city had built that years ago to block off an alley – to keep drug dealers from the next town over from running their supplies down this little street.

The front room felt smaller, too, because of the boxes and bins and piles of papers and photos and phonograph records and who knows what else.  I’d stood in rooms like this before, so I brushed off my friend’s apologies.  I’ve been there, don’t worry about it, this doesn’t look too bad, you’ve made a lot of progress.  I know.  It’ll be OK.

When you sit there in the middle of all of that, with the ghosts of your own long-ago life racing around you disjointedly, you don’t know if you will ever get done.  Or if it will ever be ok.


Later that day, I made the call that I didn’t want to make.  I called my brother, the one that still lives in the house where we grew up, who lives there alone and survived a long period of unemployment by selling off almost everything that my other brother and I didn’t claim.  Knowing how little he had, we didn’t claim much.

The one who never visits, never talks, with whom a 15 minute phone conversation feels like a mental battle to say something not stupid.

I apologized for the short notice, said I hadn’t known sure that I was coming until earlier that day (that was true – my friend had been sick), and asked if he had time to go grab dinner.  He said yes.  I hadn’t talked to him for over 8 months.

I proposed to meet at a little pizza shop that I had noticed on the way through town – in the storefront that used to hold the magazine shop at the foot of our street.  Two doors down from the newspaper where I had my first job, across the street from the shop where I got my first haircut.

The ghosts swirled.  I couldn’t get any closer.

Brian walked down the street, met me on the corner, hug.  It’s 8:30, pizza shop looks like it’s closing, everything else around is dark except for a bar (he doesn’t drink).  We get in my car and go to Applebee’s out past the high school, just this side of the shopping mall where I bought my first record, where I wrote a big feature spread for the paper when the mall turned 30 or 40 or something.  The place that I was warned on a trip home after college not to go near, because I was sure to get mugged.  I forget who told me that.

I mostly remember how to get there, but have to double-check myself with him a little.  He has lived in Bedford for most of his 41 years, never lived farther than an hour from here.  He doesn’t have that problem.

Under the pendant lamp at the Applebees booth, Brian looks a little less thin than he used to be.  I am probably thinner than the last time I saw him – I was supposed to run my first 5K tomorrow, but cancelled that to come here.  We have the same face, primarily our dad’s face.  Same hair, same shape, same wrinkles, even the same cleft lip scar, except that his is the mirror image of mine.

Same eyes.

Brian talks some about his job, asks politely about my kids, but talks for a long time about the church we grew up in.  They’re losing population fast, can hardly afford to pay a pastor.  When we were kids they had two pastors, and two parsonages.  They sold the one next door back when our dad was the church council president.  Now they are looking at a merger with three or four other churches, most of which are even smaller.  There’s no one left except old folks.  Brian says he’s the only one in his generation who shows up on Sunday.  And in a brief flash of something interior, he says: “This is the church I grew up in.  I don’t want to see it die.”

There’s a sadness in his eyes all the time.  He hasn’t had it easy.  That sadness intensifies in that second.

I drive him to the house I grew up in, note in the dark that it’s still standing, nothing obviously wrong, landscaping is overgrown.  Hug, goodnight, let’s do a better job of staying in touch.  A string of apologies from me.  He doesn’t invite me inside.  I head for a hotel downtown – I’ve scheduled a meeting with a colleague in the morning.

At the hotel, I look in the mirror.  And notice, not for the first time, the way my eyes look vaguely sad when I am not talking to someone.

“What kind of culture lets this happen to its cities?  How are people okay with the post apocalyptic Mad Max hellscape that is Detroit?”

One of my Twitter correspondents runs a regional planning agency in Akron.  He has been reading  Detroit: An American Autopsy by Charlie LeDuff.  Jason lives the Rust Belt experience every day, and I know he’s a thinker.  I checked my Twitter over breakfast before leaving for Bedford.  This book is clearly working him over.   I read the review he tweets.

Cringe. I don’t add the book to my reading list.



Driving out of downtown Cleveland heading home after my last meeting, I glance sideways from I-90 to glimpse the Detroit-Superior Bridge over the Cuyahoga Valley.  That’s the two-decker one – the one that 70 years ago carried streetcars on its lower level.   That level hasn’t been used for decades.  My father, a self-taught paint chemist who always had bigger dreams that never happened, used to talk to me about his vision for a tourist experience in that lower level – a little fragment of streetcar track and a car to take people out over the river valley to take in the view and get a little meal in the old canteen at the stop down there.  He even took me at some point when someone did a tour of that lower level – I forget whether I was in college or if that was after I got married.  His love of places like that – and his inclination to proclaim “I see usability” – probably had a bigger impact than I know on my career.

The space was dark, full of debris, lit by only sunlight.  But it was a heck of a view.

It’s still not used, except for once in a while when someone holds an art fair or something like that on the old streetcar level.  I haven’t been, but my other brother, an illustrator, has exhibited there.  He says it was  fun – all sorts of exhibits and dance and performance art under temporary lights run off generators and extension cords.

I just bought one of his local prints from a proud-of-everything-Cleveland shop downtown.  It’s the names of the city neighborhoods arranged in the shape of the city.  I told myself that I bought it so that I could keep track of where the neighborhoods are if I end up with a consulting gig in Cleveland.   But I don’t really know why I bought it, other than I like his work and I want to support my niece and nephew…and this little store.

Random quote in my head: A violin in the void.   Vladimir Nabokov, describing his stories about dislocated Russian exiles before and after World War II.  I tell myself that’s the wrong quote for Cleveland, the Comeback City.


Past the bridge, it’s a minute or two til I pass the remaining steel mills – I catch the old familiar scent, but it’s not the overwhelming miles-away smell I remember – then into a grey landscape of highway, warehouses, suburbanish buildings, more spread apart buildings.  A landscape eventually dominated by the dark grey trees and brown grass of late Ohio winter.  I debate turning on the radio, but end up talking to myself instead.

Why does this place feels like the Valley of the Shadow of Death?  Am I just doing some kind of long-suppressed grieving – for parents who died too early, for tenuous family ties, for roots that have mostly shriveled, for my own realization that my time slides away?

Is it Renee in her family detritus?

Is it Brian struggling to hold together the family that I have never been for him, in the face of a community where old people die or move away, and new people never come?

Is it potholes, vacant stores, vacant lots – the physical in-my-face manifestations of all of the grim statistics and trends that I have read so long, that I know so well?  I follow news from Cleveland, from Detroit, from Buffalo, and so on, pretty closely – I am From Here, after all.

Is it Jason’s anguish for Detroit, for its sister communities he works so hard for, seeing in the brutal struggles of Detroit a mirror or a prophecy for the places he cares about?

That I still care about?

What audacity animates the people who are trying to build something here – the hundreds of people that I know, or that I know of, who are working in some way to turn Rust Belt communities around? The people who do the art thing under the bridge?  The people who fly in the face of Where the Market Looks Good  to open a shop in a struggling neighborhood, or run a downtown revitalization program, or make pictures that show happy local landmarks?

People like Jason?

I used to do that – I helped start a downtown revitalization program for a downtrodden neighborhood in Wisconsin, when I lived there in my 20s.  I still talk to and advise and support and encourage people all over the country who are trying to make their places better.  But I don’t do it myself anymore.  Where I live now, no one needs me for that.  And I know that it’s exhausting.

In some ways, it’s very easy for me to encourage people to be Brave.  If it were easy, you’d have already done it, I tell them.   Go get ‘em – go make it happen.


How do you maintain that bravery in the face of decline – decline that is everywhere you look, decline that goes back decades, decline all around?   How do you maintain it for the months and years and decades where you take a step forward and then (if you’re lucky, only) a half-step back?


The morning after my visits with Renee and Brian, while I was still standing in a hotel room that had been created from an old bank building on Euclid Avenue, Jason tweeted this passage from the same book.  When a quote matters so much to someone that they send it despite having to divide it into five tweets, you know that they think it matters:

#1 “The small, white ‘art community’ in Detroit complained that I was focusing on the negative in a city with so much good. What about (ctd)

#2 “all the galleries and museums and music? they complained in a flurry of e-mails and blogs. What about the good things? (ctd)

#3 “But these things are not supposed to be news. These things are supposed to be normal. And when normal things become the news, the (ctd)

#4 “abnormal becomes the norm. Writing about shit like that [galleries and museums] in the city we were living in seemed equal to (ctd)

#5 “writing about the surf conditions while reporting in the Gaza Strip.” -Charlie LeDuff “Detroit: An American Autopsy”


I felt like I should respond.  But I had no idea what to say.


When  we love a person – a parent, a spouse, a friend, a sibling – we know that we love something that is imperfect.  We know where the bad stuff is, where the baggage lies, we have a clue where the dark places sit and at least a little bit of an inkling of what might be in there.  We choose to love despite knowing that.  Sometimes the bad stuff is too much and we walk away.  But when we do choose to love someone,  we know that that’s going to be there.  And we’re going to just have to live with it.

But why do we ever make the choice to live with it?

I’m no psychologist, or pastor, or much of an expert on anything along these lines.  I often wonder how my husband and I managed to marry at such a young age and not completely botch it up.  And I’m not sure how much credit I get for the fact that somehow we haven’t.

But rolling across the grey highway among the grey trees,  asking my urgent question out loud in the empty car – “why should anyone keep trying to make a place better, when the whole system seems to be falling apart?”  something managed to dawn on me:

When we love someone, we focus on what’s good about them.  We know the bad stuff is there, and we try to help them with it, but that’s not what we choose to see first.  If you ask me about my husband, I will tell you about his kindness, his maturity, his self-assurance, his wisdom.  I’ll withhold the arrogance and the impatience, or make a joke out of them.  Hopefully he does that for me.

The work of setting up art shows, or fighting for better transportation systems, or cleaning up neighborhoods, or opening businesses, matters.  It matters furiously.  It matters a hell of a lot.

It matters because it shows us why these places are loved.  And they show us that somebody loves them, deeply loves them.  Which means that it’s OK for us to love them.  Despite everything.

It says, there is something, something profound, something deep here that Matters.  The old, the ugly, the despairing, the potholed… loving a place doesn’t negate those facts, or negate the need to fix them.  But our efforts at revitalization, however short of the Everything This Place Needs, allows us to see what’s good about it, what there is here that can engender that love.  And they allow us to connect to the place down in our hearts that wants to love our places ourselves.


Richard Rodgriguez, probably my favorite author, wrote a stunning essay in a book titled Brown: the Last Discovery of America.  You don’t realize this until the end, but the whole essay is actually about what you think is only one of its many themes: the death of his friend , a difficult and drawn out death, from cancer.  In one of those passages that you don’t know what it’s about until you’ve read the whole thing, he writes:

Adam and Eve were driven by the Angel of the Fiery Sword to a land east of Eden, there to assume the burden of time, which is work and death.  All photosynthetic beings on earth live in thrall to the movement of the sun, from east to west…. We know our chariot sun is only one of many such hissing baubles juggled about, according to immutable laws.

Fuck immutable laws.  Fuck mutability, for that matter.  I just had my face peeled.  I go to the gym daily.  I run.  I swallow fistfuls of vitamins. I resort to scruffing lotions and toners.  Anywhere else in the world I could pass for what-would-you-say?  In California, I look fifty.

You know that he realizes the ultimate ineffectiveness of his face peels and toners.  But he offers  no apology for them.  And taking that stance in the face of knowing that mutability – that audacious bird-flip to the universe… it does not stop death, but it asserts that Something Matters despite it.


Communities are not people – they live longer than any one person, and in most places, they never truly go away.  Cities in even struggling parts of Europe and Asia date back hundreds or thousands of years. So personifying a place – comparing it to a person you love – only works so far.

When you strive to make a place better, you are doing something that will have repercussions long past your own lifetime.  No one who built the Detrior-Superior Bridge, or the Civil War memorial on the square in Bedford, or the house where I grew up, is still alive.  But  the impact that those places have continues past their first humans.  Keeping those places working, maintaining and re-creating their relevance, empowering other people to take care of them and themselves, all of these things Matter.  They matter a hell of a lot.

Maybe what you do to revitalize your place is truly a violin in a void.  But maybe the violin in the void changes the void.  Maybe it eventually fills the void, makes the void no longer empty.  Maybe it enables the void to become something else.   Or maybe all you’re doing is flipping the bird to a world that says your place is dying.

And since places are not people, maybe you’re making that happen.

Fuck Mutabililty.

To those of you who fight this good fight, go get ‘em.  And thank you.


Business recruitment: Crap shoots and buying our own sales pitches

As we rethink how we do economic development, we need to give up the idea that the primary way to grow a local economy is through business recruitment. As much as we keep saying we’re really about the whole package–local businesses and entrepreneurs and all that stuff– let’s come clean, shall we? For lots of people who touch economic development, the trade shows, the sales pitches, making the deals…that’s still the primo part of the job.

This essay was revised and included in The Local Economy Revolution: What’s Changed and How You Can Help.  If you like this, chances are you’ll like that book.  Learn more here.

I’ve made lots of arguments before about how I think that doesn’t work. I’ve talked about the importance of little bets, shifting from direct-touch to ecosystem-building, of growing your own, yah yah yah. Fine. Whatever.

If that stuff isn’t convincing, maybe here’s one that will, straight from the world of those business types we keep wanting to attract:

Business recruitment is inherently costly, time-consuming, high risk work. For anyone. Even the best. And the best are at highest risk of wasted effort because they are the most likely to believe their own sales pitch.  So the less we put ourselves in the position of having to do business development, the better off we will be. And the only way to put ourselves in that position is by developing a niche.

To explain that, here’s my own business development story.

When I was in my 20s, I found myself running a consulting business. That’s not because I was some Mark Zuckerberg entrepreneurial hotshot, but because I didn’t have a hell of a lot of other options. I had gotten married to a guy with a good job, but in a place where my teaching degree was pretty much useless. Through a long and contorted process, I ended up turning my writing and research skills into a little business that did National Register nominations and tourism materials. I didn’t get rich, but I could stay afloat.

When I look back now, the piece that amazes me the most is how little money or time I had to put into marketing in order to get jobs. Through no fault of my own, I had landed in niche–both because of where I was located (I was one of few doing this work In my part of the state), and because I was willing to take on the weird or obscure or plain ugly. (I have the distinction of being responsible for listing many of the ugliest buildings in northern Wisconsin on the National Register of Historic Places. You’re welcome.)

The point is, though, that projects that fit me typically found me– at least in enough volume to keep me busy. The projects that found me, that cost me so little to acquire, were the ones where I had a distinct inherent advantage. The ones that fit my niche.

Fast forward 12 years, and I found myself leading business development for a planning practice in a large firm. We spent hours upon hours upon hours preparing proposals. If you work in local government, you probably know what a proposal looks like — a book-length account of how wonderful firm X is, and how firm X will do everything you need, and what it will cost and how quickly they will do it and so on and so on.

For the proposal preparer, it’s a hugely time consuming process. And nine times out of ten, all of that time goes into a complete, unmitigated crap shoot. You, oh hotshot consultant, might have a little different approach, or a grey haired eminence or some other kind of special sauce, but at the end of the day, you’re 90% the same as every other team going after that job.

I’ve seldom had a client tell me that selecting the firm to do the work was an easy or obvious choice. What I’ve often heard: any of the firms that submitted could have probably done ok.

But here’s the most telling part: I, myself, always believed that our team was the best. Hands down.

I wasn’t just doing a sell job… I deeply, truly believed it. Maybe there are people out there who can sell professional services without the belief that their team really is the best, but I don’t think there are many. In most cases, we deeply believe our own spin.

Every time I lost– and if for no other reason than sheer odds, I lost a lot– I don’t think I ever said that the other team was probably better. Instead: the client didn’t understand the benefits of our approach. We didn’t adequately communicate our obvious advantages. They weren’t sophisticated enough to see past the other guy’s flash and dazzle and appreciate our deeper value. Of course. Of course.

Think about that internal justification in terms of your business recruitment. Chances are, on some level, you honestly buy your own sales pitch. Economic development types spend enormous amounts of time and money selling their communities to the Big Deal Projects. And in the process, we sell them to ourselves. No wonder it’s hard to walk away.

Here’s the problem: the cost of landing those projects, especially when that cost is spread out over all the ones we didn’t win… it’s a lot. It’s a hell of a lot.

Consulting firms that chase requests for proposals know this…and they do their damnest to limit the company’s exposure to all those self-believers and the hours upon hours they would spend proclaiming that message. That staff that wrote the proposal for your last project probably did a decent proportion of it “on their own time.” That means time that they didn’t get paid for…often nights and weekends. Because whatever amount of time they were supposed to be able to spend on proposals within their paid time wasn’t enough to get those proposals done. A lot of planning and engineering consultants pull routine 60 hour weeks, although they only put 40 on their time card. It comes with the job, they shrug.

The worst part, though, is that the treadmill of proposals prevents you from taking stock, figuring out how to do it differently, how to find or build the inherent market advantage that I stumbled into with my first firm. I could never do that at the Big Engineering Firm, in part because almost all the time I might have spent building something special got sucked up by proposal after proposal.

And as project budgets got squeezed harder and harder over the years, the benefit of landing the projects that we did get shrunk as well. The value of what we won, compared to the cost of winning it, didn’t look like such a good deal after all. Which both pushed the company to cut back business development hours and pushed is to do more of it on our own time.

What consultants don’t usually admit: you can’t sustain this system.

Think about those two different marketing approaches within your own community and your efforts to build your local economy. Which one are you doing? Are you spending the limited money and time you have on expensive crapshoots, buying your own sales pitch and believing in your gut of guts that this time will be different, this prospect, this one will get it?

If you are, are you getting enough return on that investment any more to make it objectively worth it? Or are you caught in the tightening vise?

Would you be better off if you invested your business development dollars in finding or reinforcing your community’s market asset, its niche?

My first business(and this one) will never touch the total amount of money that the Big Engineering Firm made. But my expenses and headaches were a lot less, too. If we can gain benefit from our assets, then we will probably come out at least as well, and with less wasted effort. And once we stop buying our own sales pitches and learn to clearly see what our places uniquely have to offer, we can use what we have to build healthier economies…and communities.

Load up your dog sled and make Little Bets

Yesterday I wrapped up with an assertion that the speed of change in the world means that the kind of resistance to change that Aaron Renn noted in how economic development is done in the US is understandable, but pragmatically impossible because of the accelerating pace of change and the fact that we have almost no clue what the future will look like.  From where I sit, it looks like most of our most basic assumptions – down to the very definition of a job, a worker, a business – will be extensively disputed within a few short years of today.

Not buying it?  Check out this examination from one of the leading thinkers about emerging issues in business and marketing in the UK:

Era of Disposable Company?

[I]n the digital economy I wonder if as an entrepreneur or business leader
should we change our concept of corporate culture?

When the digital age is moving so quickly and consumers are gaining power, maybe the future trend will be towards a disposable company – it launches, it delivers, it morphs into something else or disappears?

In my lifetime I have seen clothes, TV’s, phone’s etc come to a price point that makes them almost disposable if you want them to be….

So why not a company?

When the digital age is combined with slow economic growth…..the hockey stick financial plans look redundant. Imagine the hockey stick becoming a 2-3 year project? Imagine such a lean, decentralised company that it can move quickly, fold and then come back as something fresh that embraces the new technology?

Maybe, just maybe, we should be focused not on growing structure but on growing flexibility?

From my own notes:

 A hell of a question….implications for economic development?

Implications indeed.  Think about not just this idea, but what it implies.

We know that employment looks for more and more people nothing like it looked for my father and my grandfather, to the point where even sessions at the IEDC Leadership Conference question whether the concept of a “job” still exists.  Fast Company described a Generation Flux where the most successful careers zigzag across business types.  High school students are advised that they may very well spend their careers in industries that don’t exist yet.

And the very concept of a business – the foundation of how we think about our local economies – could become an antiquated idea as well.

The woman who wrote for a newspaper 25 years ago on trash paper and a manual typewriter writes this on a glass screen that she holds in one hand and brushes with a finger.  And I do that as though I were born to it.

Don’t tell me that the world isn’t changing, or that we know what’s coming next.  If all that doesn’t make you very nervous, you might not have nerves.


Local governments are arguably the most slow-changing creatures on this landscape– and that’s partly prudent and partly by design.  If you live off the monies of people who are typically reluctant to give you more, and you have spent three decades in a zeigeist that suspects you of being wasteful sloths, you’re have a monsoon-scale tailwind pushing you take it slow, don’t get crazy, don’t rock the boat.

Add to that a constant, years-long, unrelenting squeeze on your budgets, loss of one co-worker after another who used to help you carry that burden, and a constant nagging cold fear about where the budget cuts will fall next, and its no wonder at all that we can barely get our heads around issues like this, let alone figure out how we meet our responsibilities in an upset-the-apple cart world like I just described.

I’ve said before no shortage of times that we need to fundamentally change how we do economic development and planning…but for me, just like for everyone else in the growing chorus singing from that hymnal, this picture hasn’t come into focus yet.  Whether you’re me or Richard Florida, there’s parts that become a little more clear, and huge swaths that lurk in the shadows.  Talk about seeing through a glass darkly.

But we can’t give up, we have to start figuring it out, unknowns or not.  But how?  We know the feds aren’t going to do this for us, or some well-funded research outfit, or our state’s economic development agency.

So what do we do?


Here’s a small way that we can all start sharpening the picture, for all of us.  And I do mean, small.

Businesses that remain successful for the long term continually look forward.  And based on what they see — but knowing that what they think they see could be a mirage or something much different than it appears today — they make Little Bets.

Little Bets sometimes sound like experiments, but I think that’s the wrong comparison.  They’re more like probes… they stick a toe into a place where we don’t know what we will find, they give us a little more insight into the situation.  But–and here is probably the critical part for the local government world– they aren’t intended to be permanent.

Robert Peary led the first team of explorers to reach the North Pole in 1909.  Think about

Robery Peary on ship
Mighta been cold there.

how you do an expedition like that.  You don’t send a team to the North Pole for the first time, but equip them to all stay there for 20 years.  The exploration team goes, they check out the environment and the landscape, they learn things, they come back, the next effort builds on that new knowledge.  In Peary’s case, the team actually built from a series of previous expeditions through the Arctic – earlier probes that, while incomplete in themselves, made the North Pole exploration possible.

Plus, come on, be practical: what would cost less, sending a few guys with sled dogs to the North Pole, or establishing a North Pole Program, setting them up to live in an unknown and dangerous environment for 20 years?   And as crazy risky as arctic exploration 100 years ago was, those risks were nothing compared to what they would have encountered if they tried to set up a city with what little they knew about the place.  Imagine all the things that could have gone wrong.  By comparison, going there and then turning around and coming back would have looked relatively easy.

Peary’s expedition to the North Pole was a probe.  It was a Little Bet.


A Little Bet strategy differs subtly but substantially from what we usually do, whether within a government or through a non-profit community partner.

We tend to try to build our programs full grown from day 1…staff, offices, missions, strategic plans, whole ball of wax.  And that means two things.

First, we sink costs into the new thing that makes it Permanent.  And Permanence creates both a barrier to starting (“Another program?”) and a barrier to changing (“But we don’t do that…”).

Second, we overestimate what we know and our ability to predict the future.  That’s human nature.  We got away with it when economies were more predictable and life seemed simpler- or at least, when we could let ourselves think that way.  But when we think we know what the future looks like, we invest more time, and people, and emotion, and money, into the thing we build.  And when something doesn’t work quite like we thought, we’re stuck.

Try to unpack and reload a warehouse, and then do the same with a dog sled.  You’ll see what I mean.

Here’s my perception, based on the blurry picture I can see today:

We would all be better off if every government, every nonprofit, every funder, put a tiny share of its budget–my first guess, less than 5 percent, or maybe no more than you spend on copy paper–and put that each year toward one carefully chosen Little Bet.  Treat it as an exploration–a probe into some space that you realize you don’t fully understand.  Don’t just throw it at a researcher…use it to try something out.  Make a bet.

Realize, and communicate to everyone over and over, that this is different from starting a new program.  And it won’t do everything everyone wants.  But we can’t count on someone else to give us an easy answer.

So we’re going to send out a probe.

This is the most important part–and it’s the piece that will require the deepest change from how we usually work (God knows we’ve all been stuck with Pilot Projects before):

1.  The results of the Little Bet have to undergo a clear-eyed evaluation.  What worked, what didn’t work, what did we learn.  And most importantly, What Do We Still Not Know. In the economic development strategic planning training that I did recently, I pushed hard at the fact that no one wants to be evaluated.  But we know why we have to.  So we have to put on our big kid pants and just do it.  No one said no.


2.  The results have to be shared…with your community, yes.  But also with your neighbor communities, your region, other places that grapple with the same issues that you do.

That’s not just being nice, that’s selfish self-interest.  You will never, ever put together enough copy paper budget to do all the Little Bets your community needs.  So you’re going to have to get serious about sharing your results, so that others share with you too, so that you don’t have to do them all yourself.  Scientists build their experiments based on the findings of others, and they share their information transparently.

Our methods in the local government world may be too disjointed, too catch-as-catch-can at this point to do that research-sharing as well as the scientists do. Which probably helps explain why what they know has changed faster than what we do.  We may need better systems for sharing our Little Bets.  But we can at least start with the organizations we have.

The key, though, will be to differentiate clearly between the Little Bets and the Our Successful Programs…and especially between them and the Look How Great We Are In My Town stories.  Both of those can be useful, but not in the same way the experimental notes from Little Bets would be.


3.  Change.  Expect change.  Assume change.

We have a hell of a time killing programs because someone has a deep stake in it.  Someone has benefited from it, invested in it, cares about it…has come to rely on it.  Little Bets have to be presented and understood from Day 1 as a learning tool, as a probe.  From whatever works, from whatever we learn from it, something will grow from it. But this is not a Program.  It’s a probe.  It’s not permanent.

My friend Chuck Marohn has written about Little Bets strategies in urban planning, part of an emerging trend that we sometimes call Tactical Urbanism.  But the level of uncertainty that we have to face goes far deeper than transportation and roadways…it challenges the fundamental underpinnings of how we structure our communities (economics, after all, being no more than the system for exchanging goods and services among humans).

At this point in our economic, planning and local government history, we’re 500 miles from the North Pole, and we have to be honest and admit that we have absolutely no idea what to expect. But we know that we have to go there, and do it in a way that helps us learn.

No one else is going to hand us a map.  All we can do is load up our dog sleds.  And learn from each other.




Why we don’t get economic development: we don’t really want it.

Ask any civic leader the number one thing they want for their town and
“jobs,” economic development, is what they …

If you are not reading the Urbanophile, I think you should.  Aaron Renn brings a new perspective to the discussion of local government, planning and economic development issues that should be required reading all over.

Aaron’s essays are usually detailed, well-documented and powerfully convincing.  In a recent short essay, though, I think he was exploring something that he didn’t completely unpack.  It’s unnerving to pretend you know what someone else meant to say, like I did to Matthew Turek last week week (Las Vegas bookies put it at 5-4 that I got something wrong).  But Aaron’s brief post generated such a response from people who I suspect were more equipped to read between the lines on this topic, that I think what he wrote is worth exploring a little more.  And from a sheer power and thoughtful provocation approach, I definitely think you should hear what he has to say.


Ask any civic leader the number one thing they want for their town and “jobs,” economic development, is what they will likely tell you. Yet when you look at the incredibly poor economic development track record across America, despite… billions of public dollars pumped into projects ostensibly designed to produce it, it’s enough to prompt one to question whether or not economic development is actually really wanted at all.

Jane Jacobs once said that “Economic development, no matter when or where it occurs, is profoundly subversive of the status quo.” This, in a nutshell, is why policies and programs that might actually move the needle and generate economic development are not implemented. The politicians, power brokers, businessmen, non-profit executives, etc. all at some level benefit from the status quo. Anything that disrupts the status quo is a threat to them….

Economists have a concept called “revealed preference” that suggests that consumers reveal their true preferences through the actual purchasing decisions they make. Applying this to public policy, it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that the real preference of the powers that be in most places is the maintenance of the status quo, not disruptive economic development. It probably also explains why every city obsesses over “talent” publicly, but almost none of them undertake actions that might actually attract it for real.  [emphasis mine]



I agree with Aaron’s assessment here, at least behaviorally (he doesn’t do any psychoanalysis of why, which would probably make a mess of the point of the passage anyways).

If the purpose of economic development is to change the economic direction of a community – whether subtly or profoundly – then the conflict between rhetoric and revealed preference that Aaron theorizes makes sense.  If nothing else, it’s the devil you know versus the devil you don’t.  If your work and your mission is about “profoundly subverting” the status quo, or at least of changing something in the hope that it will work better, fear of that change would logically create a headwind against any such efforts.  That’s a universal —  whether in economic development, transportation planning, your own sleeping patterns, you name it.   Welcome to Sociology 101.

And if you come to economic development from an old-fashioned sales-oriented approach – what I uneasily termed the “Old White Guy” paradigm – then you are probably not equipped to fight that headwind – or you might avoid venturing out into it.  If your only tool is a hammer, you’ll have a hard time cutting a bevel joint in the woodwork.

In this context, the ongoing incentives debate in economic development circles is both a central issue, and a red herring.  The money involved, and the lack of other funding sources, necessitates that we make certain that we are using those resources to get the most impact we can squeeze out of them.  And for me, the strongest takeaway from the light that has been shown on incentive practices to date has been that… we really don’t have the information we need to answer that question conclusively.

But the squabbles over incentives – yes-no-yes-no-yes-no – threatens to pull us away from the bigger issue, the realization that should keep you up at night, if it’s not already doing so:

The world in which we work, the world of the communities in which we have this responsibility to make something work better than it is…that world has changed and is changing.  With stunning, mind-blowing speed.  It’s changing from top to bottom, locally and globally.

And we don’t know where it’s going.

Any cause for confidence that we used to have, any sense that we can predict the future or make comfortable projections from today to tomorrow, should take a flyer out your window, if it hasn’t already done so.

2005, or 1995, or 1975, isn’t coming back.

It’s not surprising that electeds and staff and communities resist change. But the fact of the matter is, we don’t have that choice anymore.  It’s gone, or going – maybe not today, maybe not next week, but soon.  Way sooner than you think.   You and your community, and your electeds, can stick your collective head in the ground, or you can start to build your capacity to handle change.  And like anything else, it’s a matter of baby steps before you learn to run.

More tomorrow.


Old White Guys and Sales Paradigms

Matthew Tuerk (@matthewtuerk) tweeted at 10:15 PM on Wed, Mar 13, 2013:
old, white guys #econdevREV #mansplaining

Economic development as an industry has known about its “old white guy” problem for a long time. I may be wrong, but I would guess that some of the IEDC course materials have even codified the reality that death and retirement are the economic developer’s best friends (well-stated by an old, white guy here)….

Other, non-economic development initiatives seem to have a better grasp on building open communities. They haven’t totally figured it out yet, but they seem to grasp a fundamental principal of bottom-up….Let the old, white guys focus on recruiting on the golf course.

Matt is one of my favorite new voices in economic development.  He’s leading economic development, coworking and makerspace initatives in Allentown and the Lehigh Valley in Pennsylvania, and he’s launched a blog based on the Twitter hashtag he coined, #econdevRev.  I love the fact that he’s concise and not afraid to speak his mind.

In the rest of the entry I quoted above, Matt discusses some tactics for getting women more engaged in tech development, but I got the impression that there was more embedded in the portion that I have quoted than he fully unpacks.  And while I think the gender issues in both economic development and tech are things we need to talk about, there’s something deeper in his “old white guy” shorthand that I think we need to pull out into the light.   In this case, “old white guys” includes more than a few young white guys, a few older non-white guys, and some women both younger and older.  There’s also quite a few people in economic development and related professions who fit the old white guy demographic, but whose thinking and professional work indicate that they are about something else.

What I think Matt is getting at here is a paradigm — a set of largely unexamined assumptions about what we do and why we are doing it.  For many of us and our communities, the “Old White Guy” paradigm has become outdated and increasingly risks damaging our communities… and making our work irrelevant.


The problem comes down to this: The Old White Guy paradigm assumes that economic development is primarily about sales and marketing.  The skill sets for selling a community are, in essence, the same skill sets as selling television sets or cars: strategic information sharing, communication, persuasion, getting people to like you, persistence, closing the sale.  That is the nature of a sales job.  I have sold professional services for 20 years.  I get that.

But we have three problems with this paradigm today.  Economic development professionals who stick to this paradigm will make themselves increasingly irrelevant professionally, and hobble their communities in the process.

The first problem is that the nature of sales and related professions themselves is changing, and changing swiftly and profoundly.  If you don’t believe me, go hang out with some marketing or advertising people for a while (being in a national center of consumer marketing in Cincinnati, I get to be a fly on the wall for these conversations fairly regularly.  But a few issues of Fast Company will give you a taste).  The marketing and advertising professions are going through gut-wrenching changes — not just because of the shift in media consumption, but because of upheavals in popular expectations about how companies and brands and products should behave — how they should relate to customers and consumers.  Marketing gurus now insist that you have to have a dialogue instead of just talking at them, you have to engage them, be authentic…the basic ideas seem to be mostly in place, but advertising and sales people are still trying to figure out how to make it work. Read the industry coverage of the ads on the last Superbowl and you’ll see what I mean.

The second problem with the old sales model is that the nature of the businesses you’re talking to has changed.  To an ever-growing extent, they have more sophisticated expectations than they did 30 years ago.  They are more likely to look for detailed data, ask probing questions, look at issues like your community’s political stability.

And as economic development leadership has gotten better in the past decade at recognizing the importance of business retention and homegrown entrepreneurship, at least in theory, that traditional sales model becomes increasingly irrelevant.  Try to sell a used car to the person who used to own it, and you’ll see what I mean.

The third issue is that the nature of our responsibility is changing.  We as a profession and we as communities are finally starting to understand that it’s all connected–that our communities are interdependent ecosystems, not a thing with separate parts.  Housing and parks and community organizations and fiscal structures are all part of economic development–sometimes we call that by the overused term “Quality of Life.” When I taught a professional economic development course a couple of weeks ago and asked the students what they were responsible for in their communities, more than one said “quality of life” – an answer I would have never heard 10 years ago.  Quality of life is shorthand for “the stuff that we used to let the planners and park guys and whoever deal with, but now it’s what the businesses are asking us about.”

You cannot sell your way to quality of life…and you cannot put a sharp marketing effort on a place that doesn’t offer what people are looking for when they can go to and see the truth about you education rate, or go on Google maps and see how shabby your parks really are.


That used car reference in the second point probably tells more about me than I intended.  As I have written about before, my father was a casualty of the early 1980s recession, which I think marks the beginning of the economy that we live in today.  My father loved cars, and was devoted to both Chrysler and the local dealership franchise that sold Chrysler products.  So when he was offered a job selling used cars for that dealer, it looked like a dream come true.

He sucked at it.  In the days before Car fax and blue book prices on line, used car selling was closer to horse trading than what we have today.  Selling late 1970s and early 80s K cars meant putting a lot of lipstick on pigs, and a lot of haggling over prices.  I was pretty young, and he died many years ago, so I don’t know all the details.  But my theory is that he knew too much about what was under the hoods of these lemons, and as a reasonably upright guy, he couldn’t fully commit to what he had to do to sell them to rubes.


Many years later I bought Saturn (I think there is a rule against Chrysler families inbreeding). That was, of course, the first car brand to set its prices without haggling, so the sales process was more about educating the buyer and less about that dance.  Saturn put its salespeople in polos and khakis (groundbreaking in itself in the early 1990s), hired younger people and women, equipped them with detailed information on each model, purposely took a low key approach and basically turned your usual assumptions about buying a car on its head. Set pricing and polo shirts and the like are standard parts of the car buying process now, but if you remember the early days of Saturn, their approach was groundbreaking.

I bought my last Saturn in 2007, in the second to last year before GM shuttered the brand (I’m still driving it).  By that point, my dad had been dead for five years. And I one of those weird moments that hits you out of nowhere when you have lost someone, I choked up in the middle of filling out the paperwork.

The thought that flattened me out of the blue:

Dad would have been a hell of a good Saturn salesman.

The Saturn model of sales is hardly innovative anymore.  But it was a precursor to the issues of transparency and informed customers and demand for a relationship model that all of the sales-related professions are wrestling with today.

We in economic development, or anything that touches on economic development, cannot pretend this is the 1970s anymore…or think we can get away with blithely ignoring the disconnect between our daily work and assumptions and the world around us.

If we don’t disrupt ourselves, someone else will….and chances are, it won’t be someone who thinks like the stereotypical old white man.

Economic Impact Studies: The Number is not your friend

I’m excited today to introduce a new guest blogger, Peter Mallow.  Pete’s a one of a kind.

Really?  Really.

How many people do you know who have developed subdivisions, fought with small town planning commissions, run a civil engineering firm and completed a Ph.D. dissertation on the use of statistical regional analysis and modelling methods to link  health services to health outcomes within a geographic region?

I didn’t think so.

One thing that always strikes me about Pete is that he has developed this amazing ability to understand and work with data that is way over my head, but connect that back to immediate real-world planning and economic development issues in a way that shines new light on the whole scene.  Sometimes it’s like having a guide to the underworld of how we think… or don’t think… about the data behind our development assumptions.  And he isn’t afraid to call it as he sees it, or to tread in where others might fear to go.

Pete and I have done a very well-received presentation a few times called Don’t get Fooled Again: Understanding and Interpreting Economic Development Projections.    You can see an annotated version of that presentation here and listen to a podcast of that presentation here.  Now that Pete is an official Ph.D. as of a couple of weeks ago, he has kindly agreed to write here on a somewhat regular basis to help us think through the assumptions and mistakes that we make when dealing with economic impact studies… and how even us non-math types can handle them better.

So….I am delighted to introduce you to the esteemed Dr. Peter Mallow!


An article published in the Journal of the American Planning Association in 2002 by Brent Flyvbjerg suggested that economic evaluations for large projects – typically the kinds of evaluations done when public dollars are sought to support a project – are intentionally underestimated.  Flyvbjerg followed up this claim with a recent article in the journal Cities, in which he accused planners of deliberately lying about the projected economic impact of projects as shown in those evaluations and attempting to cover up these lies through its professional organization, the American Planning Association.

I think Flyvberg has identified a crucial problem regarding the economic evaluations used to support large projects.  But I think he focused on the wrong piece of the equation.  There will always be an occasional “bad apple” who has intentionally mislead, or a major miscommunication that leaves one side of a disagreement feeling cheated.  As I read these articles, I am reminded of a far more common problem that I see when it comes to understanding and using economic evaluations:


With all the demands on a planner’s or economic developer’s time, some ignorance is to be expected.  Almost by definition, these professionals have to be generalists first and specialists last.  Because of that, communities typically feel that they need an expert to tell them what economic impact the new project will generate, or how the cost and benefits will stack up, or how many TIF dollars will be generated.  In some cases, planners and economic developers simply rely on the project applicant’s own economic evaluations because the community doesn’t have the resources to hire their own number-generating consultant or buy the software package that promises to spit out that number for you.  In other cases, they get their own consultant or software, but the fundamental problem remains the same.

It’s easy, very easy, to rely on an expert or software package that promised to give you a “certain” answer.  That certain answer? It’s The Number, the one specific number that everyone clings to promote the project.

You have most likely encountered The Number. The Number tells you how many new jobs, how much investment, how much tax revenue, etc. is going to come as a result of the public investment.

People love The Number.  Decision makers love having a clear answer to point to, and the media loves having a number it can easily report.  The Number becomes its own living creature, and the project skeptics and detractors can only wait for the inevitable.

The inevitable?

The inevitable, unexplained, and unexplored uncertainty that is buried in the assumptions and methods behind The Number.  At some point in the future, a seemingly innocuous assumption will change and the actual impact of the project will change dramatically.  When that happens, the project skeptics and detractors will pounce.

And guess who gets caught in the crossfire.

So what do we do?  Too often, planners and economic developers think that their only choice is to run with The Number and deal with the inevitable down the road.  After all, they will argue, life is not certain, and time doesn’t allow us to pick apart the assumptions, methods, and the results embedded in The Number.

And many of you would probably add: Mallow, the money won’t allow it, either.

That’s all true.  But, let me propose an alternative.

If somebody, anybody, tries to sell you on The Number, the only thing you can be certain of is that The Number will be wrong.  Think about a stock investment for a minute.  You have no idea what the value will be in five years…or one year.  You hope it will be higher than today, but would a trustworthy financial advisor assure you that the $10,000 you invest in a stock today will be worth $15,552.35 in one year, or $32,535.97 in five years?

Of course not.  They will give you a range of the most likely future values under different growth or loss scenarios.

Instead of accepting The Number, demand to know the plausible range of jobs, tax dollars, economic impact, etc., given what we know.  Or ask for a range of scenarios — what happens to The Number if the building doesn’t fill up as fast as they project, or the average payroll turns out to be less, or the cost of steel spikes in the middle of construction.  What then?

You can do that.  And you and your community will be better off for it.  After all, you’re not evil.  And you’re not even really ignorant.  You just need to know what to demand, and demand it.


Community poison: Dichotomies

I wanted to share with you a great essay from CEOs for Cities that gets at one of the issues that worries me the most: our tendency to oversimplify our community challenges… and as a result, to set ourselves up for confrontation and failure.  This essay frames this issue as matter of buying into false dichotomies, or oversimplistic two-sided choices.  And it points out very well that when we buy into a dichotomy, we set ourselves up to fail.

When we only see the world in terms of us and them… we close ourselves off to a world of possibility and can in many ways sabotage the growth and functionality of our communities. Those of us responsible for making decisions, in particular, need to be cognizant of the harm we can do to the very people we are trying to serve when we perpetuate this ideology.

A recent example exists in the argument concerning density. The urban/suburban dichotomy is a hot one right now, as we rethink the ways in which we plan our communities. I have heard plenty of anti-suburban rhetoric among the planners I’ve met, talking about “those people” who drive their SUVs and fly away from the center so that they can lead insulated, affluent lives away from the realities of the inner city. I’ve also heard New Urbanism touted as a conspiracy threatening the rights of Americans to chase their version of the dream and live comfortably. I’ve listened to advocates cry out that if it isn’t rail, it isn’t good enough—and people rally against the institutions driving economic growth in an area because they are afraid these parasitic entities will come take away all of their homes.

Is there truth to any of this? Of course there is—because no one type of community, urban or suburban, is perfect. The problem isn’t that dense is bad or low-density is bad, but that they are not approached as ways to organize the built environment, they are approached as lifestyles that are considered completely different….

Neighborhoods are not strictly “urban” or “suburban.” There is a continuum of qualities that make up neighborhoods, and a range of densities that encompass this continuum…. we can certainly start framing these issues differently and breaking down the dichotomies that inhibit compromise and complicate the decision-making process.

How can we do this? It will certainly never be an easy task—but we can start by starting to eliminate oppositional thinking. In a city, region, or even country it shouldn’t be Us vs. Them….

We need to stop looking at “other” as a four-letter word. We need to open our minds and expose ourselves to difference so that we can also see similarities while celebrating our uniqueness. It is essential that we look beyond our own immediate needs to understand the system of the whole and how our decisions can affect it.

Because communities are made up of millions of interactions taking place spontaneously throughout space, within a diverse set of people with differing beliefs, talents, and preferences, it is easy to understand things in terms of us and them—because it’s difficult to be wrong. It takes a leap of faith to break free of our usual paradigms and open the doors for new ways of understanding and seeing the world we’ve categorized. When we do, however, we’ll find that possibility. Then it’s just up to us to seize it.

We can complain all we want about elected officials, or special interests, or “them,” whoever “them” is.  But we’re stuck together.  So we’d better grow up and start treating our communities like the continuum kinds of places that they are.   It’s time to go seize it.

Do you show your residents how the sewer scope works? Welcome to Piqua’s Citizen Government Academy

It’s no secret by now that Piqua, Ohio, is one of my favorite examples of a little city that consistently figures out How To Get It Done – thanks in part to my friend Bill Lutz, who has shown up on these pages several times.  During a recent visit, (the same one where we talked about the amazing program-combining, commnity-determination-showing Fort Piqua Plaza), I had a chance to learn more about a relatively new program – and one that won’t win headlines, but I think is making a real difference in this community’s resilience and civic engagement.


The Citizen Government Academy takes those spend-a-day-with-your-friendly-local-public-servant activities and turns it into something transformative… for both the residents and the city.  Imagine how differently your residents might feel about the quality of your local government services if they got a chance to try some of your toughest jobs for themselves, like:

citizen and firefighter using fire extinguisher
Piqua Daily Call
  • Chasing an armed suspect (in a simulator),
  • Driving a snowplow through an obstacle course,
  • Mowing the park
  • Writing a grant so that it has a chance of being funded

You want your residents to understand why you needed that sewer repair truck with the camera that crawls through the pipes and shows you where the leaks are?  You want them to trust you the next time you need a big expenditure like that?  Easy… show them what it does and what return on investment the community is getting.  All the City Council briefings in the world will never have the power of just letting a few people who care look through that monitor.

The power of the Citizen Academy lies in something simple and obvious, but almost never used in the local government context: people learn by doing, not by hearing or reading.  If you want your residents to actually understand the value of your services, and understand it in a way that emboldens them to help support good government, show them.  Show them what you do and how you do it.

Nuff said.  Go listen to Bill.  It’s 18 minutes you will be glad you heard… even if you don’t get to drive the snow plow.


Terrible Public Engagement: the Three (or 7) D’s


Good LinkedIn discussions are like sitting in on a dinner with bright and insightful people from all over the world (without trying to decide how to split the check).  One of the most consistently interesting to me right now is the Community Engagement group, which includes people involved in public engagement, community development, local government and lots of other related disciplines from all over the world.


The edited thread below is taken from a fascinating recent discussion on the page about examples of terrible public engagement.  Many of the respondents are working in the UK or Commonwealth countries, so some of the terms and programs are specific to their context…but the issues probably look familiar to any of us who have worked in communities.  Comments on LinkedIn are of course visible to the public, but I’ve removed their names to be safe.


As I reviewed this discussion, three themes jumped out at me… three root causes of terrible public engagement.  Taking a cue from the writer who articulated the last one, let’s call it


The Three D’s of Terrible Public Engagement:


  • Descend on the community.  Come in as the expert outsider, believe that you know more than the people you are supposed to be engaging, tell them that until they believe it.  Hint: you don’t have to be a staffer of an international relief organization, like in the example below, to Descend (and good relief organization staffers know how not to Descend).  You just have to be enough wrapped up in some kind of inside ball – a pet urban design theory, your local zoning code, what happened in your town 30 years ago – to convince yourself that you know better on all points than anyone else who might be talking.  Once you do that, you’re Descending on the community – and the mistakes that might result from your blind spots are yours and yours alone.


  • Disconnect from the community.  Don’t try to understand their context, or think about how successful engagement here will differ from what worked somewhere else.  One size fits all is easiest, right?  Until it blows up in your face.  The story about the utilities and the renter population below illustrates that well….as does our routine of holding all public hearings at 9 AM Fridays, or 7 PM Tuesdays (there has been a great conversation on the PlannersWeb LinkedIn group on the outsized impact of this and other mundane elements of our usual set-up).  We can Disconnect just by unthinkingly sticking to a 19th-century approach despite our 21-st century residents.


  • Decide-Announce-Defend (or, be Dishonest — I’ve also called this the Bricks or Roses approach before). The accounts of the “shame consulting” and the scripted Town Hall below should make us all squirm.  But no matter your country or your type of issues or type of community, we’ve all done this, been party to it, or been subjected to it.  It’s Defensive, and it’s Dishonest.  There’s no way around that.

But perhaps more urgently, in a world where people have more and more access to information about our community and its issues, and where it’s easier and easier for them to organize themselves to fight a proposal where their involvement wasn’t wanted, Decide-Announce-Defend grows more and more risky.  You might get away with a few situations where no one is paying attention, but if you don’t learn to bring people to the table at the beginning, help them to be part of the solution, the chances that they will passively accept your Descending will only grow more and more slim.

Enjoy!  And let me know what you think.


M • In the mid-80s I belonged to a well-established network for community and voluntary groups. One week a worker from the Council turned up and announced “I have come to coordinate you”. Oh how we laughed!

More seriously…the worst examples are those CD workers who have clearly no awareness of the history, values, principles or practice of community work. It is just a job title, and they are pursuing a personal or agency agenda under the guise of representing people.


G •  My personal favourite bad community engagement scenario is “Town Hall” meetings with Police commanders, where halls are largely packed with Police supporters, the public sits in rows, and Police explain what they have done well and why they can’t do more without “community support.” They then publish a report indicating that the community is concerning about rising crime ( it’s not rising) and the lack of “visibility” of police, under the title Community Consultation.


P • I was working for an Overseas Development Agency years ago. The ODA and its peers regularly parachuted in (almost literally) non-nationals for 6 month development stints. They did no end of damage. The lesson I learned is that development workers need to come from within the community they’re serving and should be supported to do so for a number of years, if not longer. Any resemblance to the government’s community organisers scheme is purely coincidental.


R • In my view terrible engagement is dishonest engagement. Sadly in our political context … increasingly Governments undertake shame consultations after they have made up their decision already. As consequence the community is becoming frustrated and in future it is much more challenging to authentically engage them.

B • The signs of terrible engagement are imposition of decision thought of by the initiator and action taken without involving others and doing everything on their behalf. Intending to benefit the people and implement a particular programme without obtaining their view point and force them to like things that were never discussed as collective by the intended beneficiaries.


Terrible engagements are counter productive to an extend that the intended beneficiaries can turn reactive and not proactive. It becomes terrible when such person engages hoping to make greater at the expense of other. Terrible engagement creates untrustworth[iness among] the intended beneficiaries.


L • Here is a small and simple example of public involvement/information sharing gone wrong: a utility company that held public meetings about a utility pole plan two years before the work began but did not timely update residents. The community is comprised mainly of renters, many of whom did not live in the vicinity at the time the meetings took place. Lesson: Know your community and plan your engagement/public participation activities accordingly.

R • Terrible engagement is bringing a pre made decision to the public and asking for their input with no intention of modifying the decision. Additionally think tanks and group forums to prioritize decisions where the public is steered to the desired outcome or worse the consensus decision ignored builds distrust.

Equally terrible are land use planning engagement strategies that offer the public a broad indication of what might take place in their community but provide no detail or future ability to comment once details are developed.

M • If this question is asked in reverse what will be the attributes of a successful engagement?


J • like the positive spin, M. I think it’s all the basic stuff which can sometimes be quite tricky to do… like having honest, open and transparent dialogue, being genuinely interested in the end goal of providing something of value to all ( and defining what ‘value’ means) , being flexible and reviewing the project on a regular basis and not being afraid to adapt the plan to ensure the project succeeds.

MS • “Decide-Announce-Defend” is all too often the norm where defending a decision is called consultation. In my view this situation leads to less than ideal engagement and certainly is not meaningful. On the other hand, successful engagement is linked to the alternative approach “Engage-Dialogue-Decide-Implement”. Notice there is no “Defend” in this later approach.


Introducing MIT CoLab’s Economic Development Innovators

I’m delighted today to launch a new podcast mini-series with MIT CoLab’s GEDI (Green Economic Development Initiative).  In 2012, CoLab hosted 14 Mel King Community Fellows, mid-career professionals from across the country who are doing ground-breaking work at the intersection of economic development, environmental sustainability, and social justice.  These folks work in the largest cities and the most rural regions, for shoestring nonprofits and massive governments, private sector, education… you name it.

CoLab Logo

Each in his or her own way is finding opportunities to finally put into practice that triple-bottom-line idea that planners and economic developers and community advocates have been talking about for a generation…and they are doing it in ways that are practiceable, replicable and moving the needle in a meaningful manner.

At the beginning of 2012, the Fellows met with staff of GEDI, who recorded one-on-one interviews with each of the participants, talking about their work, their challenges, the opportunities they foresee and how  the practices of economic development, environmental management and social justice can grow together to provide real benefits for communities.

I have spent hours listening to the raw audio of these interviews, and I will tell you that you can’t hear these folks without having a whole new perspective on what’s possible.

In this series introduction, you’ll get some background on the GEDI initiative and get introduced to some of the 2012 Mel King Fellows.  Upcoming installments will focus on issues like

  • How the Fellows are using unusual data sources to measure and demonstrate their impact, 
  • How the Fellows bridge gaps and break down silos between different kinds of professionals and interest groups, and
  • What the Fellows see as the future of sustainable economic development.

The podcast series is hosted by CoLab Radio.  The link below will take you directly to the Soundcloud upload of the series introduction, where you can listen or download it to listen to later.

I’m so grateful to Brendan MacEwen, Dayna Cunningham, Dr. Karl Seidman, and most importantly the 2012 Mel King Fellows for the opportunity to learn about and share their experiences.  Stay tuned!

CoLab GEDI Fellows Introduction with Wise Economy Workshop


Big Deals and coordinated small events: Challenges of Doin’ it Big (from

I’m delighted to introduce you to a new blogger who will hopefully be submitting to the Wise Economy.  Matthew Buccelli is a recent Georgetown grad who has impressed me with his writing and thinking. After talking to me about blogging, Matt sent me a link to the following piece, which was previously posted in the blog  I thought that Matt’s observations here contained valuable insights for all of us who work with communities — even if your “big” events don’t involve hundreds of people and Target’s sponsorship.

The meta-challenge facing us, as I have written about before, is that much of what we need to do to improve communities requires both a smaller scale and a higher level of coordination than we have historically used.  Whether we are talking about economic development incentives or urban renewal projects, we who work with communities have tended to take a big-project, magic-bullet approach and assume naively that we can manipulate our communities the same way we would tweak a machine.  Matt illustrates beautifully here that those big efforts often waste resources that could have been put to better use if we had shifted from an industrial approach to a small-scale coordinated effort.

Here’s Matt:


Like millions of my fellow Americans, I participated in the National Day of Service this year, which is held annually in conjunction with the Martin Luther King Day holiday weekend and which President Obama has tried, through each of his inaugural celebrations, to establish as a quadrennial presidential tradition as well.  Across the country on Saturday, January 19, groups of citizens large and small volunteered with a range of organizations, each different in its particular mission but contributing in its own way to the Greater Good.

After finding that a smaller event we had tried to sign up for was filled to capacity, my girlfriend and I ended up at the DC Armory, where thousands of volunteers helped to pack care kits for US military troops.  It was a huge event, sponsored most prominently by Target, and it even included a visit from Vice President Biden and his family.  There were DJs, musical acts by school bands and other groups who had traveled from locations across the country to be there, and a stage to accommodate all of this entertainment for the morning’s eager volunteers.

ImageThe scene inside the Armory

So many people showed up, in fact, that there was a 30 minute wait to even get inside the building, followed by some additional waiting indoors as all of the volunteers were funneled through metal detectors and given wristbands.  Once inside, volunteers stood in rows organized by letters and numbers, waiting another 15-20 to be ushered to the front of the crowd, where each volunteer picked up a plastic pouch and held it open while event coordinators stationed behind a series of carefully marked boxes smiled and deposited various personal care items – soap, toothpaste, etc. – inside.

It was, in many ways, assembly line volunteerism.  As one of the country’s largest retailers introduced its factory-style efficiency to the community service experience, volunteers waited in line to do their part, and if they felt as if they had more time when they were finished, waited in line and did it again.  When we left after about 2 1/2 hours, my girlfriend and I had been through the line twice and helped pack about 8 kits each.  In total, 100,000 kits were packed on the day.

The following is not to diminish what was accomplished on that Saturday, but merely to ask some questions.  Among them:

How many people does it honestly take to assemble 100,000 military kits?  Was there something more useful that the thousands waiting in line at the Armory to hold a pouch open could have done instead to better their communities?  Is waiting in line really volunteering?  Am I just being curmudgeonly? 

The answers to these questions will, of course, depend on who’s answering them, but here’s an honest reading of the situation that I think gives credit where it’s due: Target and other major sponsors put on an event that was intended to be big, it was successful in its mission, the event organizers did a great job running everything as smoothly as possible, and US troops got 100,000 care kits that they didn’t have previously.  A-plus all around.

Still, this leads us to a more complicated and fundamental question – was such a large, industrial-scale event the best way to get people out and volunteering on a brisk Saturday?  What else could all of those people packed into the DC Armory have done if they were dispersed instead of consolidated?

We live in a big country, and much of the national discourse revolves around our big institutions.  Big business dominates the economy, big banks hold most of our assets, big government is seen as hero or villain depending on who you talk to, all while big foundations increasingly present themselves as the saviors of those who fall through the cracks.  We live in big cities.  Most of us shop at big stores.  And when it comes to the political and economic decisions that affect the country and the communities within it, most subscribe to the logic of big.  A big federal program here, a big business recruitment success there, big new generating capacity and transmission infrastructure to account for our future energy needs, big companies that can operate at large economies of scale and offer big savings to the consumer.  A big service event on a cold day in January to help keep us all humble.

But what if this wasn’t the way forward?  What if the blatant inefficiency of all those people spending 80 percent of their volunteer time waiting in line was actually the ugly truth lurking behind most of the big assumptions we passively accept?  What if this was more or less a proxy for what we get when we trust that big, corporate-scale solutions are what’s needed to solve problems best dealt with in a smaller capacity?  A job-starved community spends countless time and resources to recruit a big outside company that promises to create hundreds of new jobs, offering a lucrative package of tax incentives to help seal the deal, while vesting all of its economic hopes with one business in one industry that will reinvest its profits elsewhere.  An environmental activist chooses to invest their time dreaming up big, utility scale energy projects in faraway parts of the country, seeking transformative solutions and seeing few alternatives.  The average consumer takes their business to a big box retailer, convinced that no one else can offer the same level of convenience and savings.  Are these the actions that will re-invigorate our communities and help us rebuild for the 21st century?

Big will always play an important role.  Some big businesses will remain large employers.  Some tasks are best done by large-scale entities.  Regardless of whose politics win the day, the federal government will remain big, because in a country of over 300 million, there really are few other alternatives.  And on Saturday, January 19, 2013, many of the thousands who showed up at the DC Armory needed somewhere to go if they wanted to help out; several of DC’s great service organizations had such a supply of volunteers that they simply had to say no to anyone else who asked.

But what if we could imagine the results of thinking smaller – and saw these not as feeble attempts to chip away at a problem that is beyond our solving, but as small pieces to a larger, more meaningful solution?  Thousands of rooftop solar installments.  Local support not for big businesses trying to locate but for small ones trying to compete locally – the source of a much larger economic multiplier when they are successful.  Policies to help leverage the economic impact of home-based businesses and self-employed professionals.  Education initiatives tailored to the needs of kids in specific schools rather than those determined by public bureaucrats and big private benefactors.  What if millions of these actions, undertaken by communities across the country, could collectively have a greater impact on our country than waiting for our big institutions to act?  What if acting locally were the only way to bring about positive change within many of the places most desperate for it?

As a country, we’ve been through the boom and bust cycle of big.  It sounds like it was a great ride while it lasted.  Either way, its aftermath has a name befitting of the scale at which our nation has chosen to operate: The Great Recession.  And as our big companies downsized and our big government saw its tax receipts drop while its obligations and deficits rose, it may have become even harder, for a brief moment, to see a way out of this mess that wasn’t as big as the way in.  But with big crises come new thinking, and with big longstanding challenges come the necessities of drawing up new solutions.  Mix in the internet, the most decentralizing force the world has ever known, along with an emerging recognition that many local problems will never be solved without local solutions, and there is a recipe for an entirely new model of development and prosperity that puts our existing political and economic institutions to far better use.

What if on a chilly Saturday morning, I could spend 2.5 hours truly maximizing my impact, rather than just waiting around hearing thank-yous that I may or may not have earned?  I contributed something on this year’s National Day of Service, but I think that everyone who was there in the Armory knows that we all could have done more.  When it comes to the decisions we make about our communities, we should be just as discerning.


Thanks, Matt.  I hope we’ll be hearing much more from you.


The impossible got done: restoring the Fort Piqua Hotel

When you work in community revitalization, you find yourself telling  a few stories over and over again, because they so beatifully sum up the possibilities that struggling communities can’t always see in front of them.  This podcast tells one of the stories that I have been using for years: the revitalization of the Fort Piqua Hotel in Piqua, Ohio.

It’s hard to demonstrate in pictures the outsized impact that this building has on the city of Piqua — both during its decades of vacancy, and in its restored state today.  For a smallish rural city, this sucker is massive — four stories of Richardsoniam Romanesque stone massiveness covering most of a city block.  Drive into town, and you see this thing miles before anything else downtown comes into view.  It literally dominates the landscape.  Imagine how it must have dominated the community’s self-perception during the years upon years that it sat vacant.

Since this building is so ostentatiously out of scale with not just the physical, but the economic landscape of a small city, finding a feasible mix of uses for it presented almost as stiff a challenge as finding the money in a small town to pay for it.  As the Fort Piqua story demonstrates so well, mixing uses (and funding streams) results in a more sustainable development, but it also requires a very steady hand in terms of managing all those moving parts.  As you will hear, working multiple funding streams also means working multiple funders — funders whose rules, expectations and plain old bureaucracy can undermine all but the most tenacious, persistent and savvy communities.

There’s a lot of awesome elements to this story — from the often-overlooked and potentially lucrative demand for banquet hall space in small communities (amazing how often that’s a niche that old buildings can fill profitably)  to the years-long determination of those who fought to make this happen, often in the face of people pointing to the long string of attempts that had failed before.  For me, perhaps the most amazing part of the story — and the part I didn’t know before this conversation — was the way that the community stepped up at the moment of need to fill the final gap and make this revitalization happen.  Piqua is a sort of mini-Rust Belt town — not a place where people or businesses have a lot of cash to spare.  But dozens of people put their own money into making this revitalization happen — not because it was some kind of venture capital bet, but because their community needed it.  And because they believed.

The great part of community revitalization consulting is when you get to touch the hem of communities like this — when you have the awesome priviledge of witnessing the power of people to make great things happen.  Sometimes it makes the rest of the trudge worthwhile.

Thanks to my friend Bill Lutz for sharing this story, and thanks to Piqua for giving us all a new reason to believe that revitalization is possible.  Enjoy!

Podcast: Owning Your Economy with APA award-winning Clinton County

I’ve been looking forward to doing and sharing this interview since back before I started podcasting – and the timing couldn’t be better, because this community just won the American Planning Association’s National Planning Achievement Award for Innovation in Economic Planning and Development!

I haven’t had a front –row seat for Clinton County, Ohio’s struggles and comeback over the past few years, but most of the time I’ve been watching from the wings beside clients and friends.  When international freight carrier DHL decided to end domestic US operations in 2008, more than 9,000 people in Clinton and surrounding counties lost their jobs – and the impact could only be termed a disaster.  With few other immediate economic options and very few other large employers within driving distance, Clinton and its county seat, Wilmington, turned into a poster child for the Great Recession.

But after the parade of celebrities (ranging from Glen Beck to Rachel Ray) and the national media go home, how does a community pull itself together and figure out how to move on?  And how do you protect your community from facing a blow like that ever again?

In this interview, Chris Schock and Taylor Stuckert tell the story of how their organizations are helping Clinton County address that question.  By focusing on a five-part strategy designed to keep spending local and grow local business sales and expertise,  their two organizations – the Clinton County Regional Planning Commission and the nonprofit Energize Clinton County – are changing the county, and (as Chris will describe), demonstrating measurable success.   And they’re changing it in ways that will have incredible long-term impacts – on money, and on the people who live there.

Here’s a couple of the great things that the Clinton County folks have done:

  • Redefined “Buy Local” to an intelligent system of being conscious about your purchasing choices — and supporting tiers of Local, not just giving up when what you need isn’t in your ZIP code.
  • Empowered businesses to work as an ecosystem through internet tools and old-fashioned network-building.
  • Came up with a meaningful way to encourage young professionals to return to a rural community by directly embedding them in businesses that need their skills and expertise.
  • Redefined energy choices and energy efficiency as a local economy issue — about getting better mileage from the community’s limited dollars
  • As Taylor says, the biggest impact may fall on the psyche: a growing belief that local residents have ownership of their local economy again.

These guys couldn’t be more poster children for a Wise Economy if they tried.

If you care about places and you want to see what meaningful community revitalization looks like, pour a cup of coffee and sit back for a great conversation.  Let me know what you think, and if you know of other stories like this, I’d love it if you’d send em my way.  Thanks.

Interview with Chris Schock and Taylor Stuckert, Energize Clinton County

Creating a Disruptive Model of Economic Development Innovation: New Community Paradigms at Work

This week’s posts are going to primarily reflect what I heard at last week’s IEDC Leadership Summit, which I think has the potential to turn out to be a sea change moment in economic development history.  Before I start dredging out my notes and recordings from the bottom of my suitcase (returning to Ohio from Florida mean that the warm weather clothes in there are kinda useless at the moment), I wanted to share with you a great post from Community Paradigms that hit last week — and that takes several themes I have written about recently and weaves them together far better than I have.

Brian at Community Paradigms writes:

LinkedIn colleague Della Rucker of Wise, who has been featured on these pages before with Seeing Economy and Community as Ecosystem.  Another Way of Shifting the Paradigm, and Breaking through the complications to face the complexities and coming out wholehad an article that dealt with issues of interest to this blog.
The article was – Go Find Some Non-Experts. You Probably Need Them which raises questions regarding the role of internal staff versus outside consultants and, what is more important, on the relationship of both as professionals or experts to non-expert pro-amateurs in the community.
Della believes that “we have an enormous supply of non-experts who can “approach challenges with a clean lens, bringing together diverse experiences, knowledge and opportunities. We call them the PublicThey know stuff. They’ve done stuff.”

He then goes on to link to a TED talk from Charles Leadbeater on Open Innovation.  Take a look at that — it’s awe-inspiring, and it will give you a window into how people are rethinking the fundamentals of how we get things done.

Brian also pulls out a better explanation of a term I used in that post–Disruptive (or Discontinuous) Innovation…and ties that into the question of engaging non-experts in the expert-laden world of local government better than I did:

Discontinuous innovation addresses the question “if we have to change our behaviour then why would we want to use such a new technology and the answer is that the new technology creates substantial new benefits for its users.”  
This gets to one of the basic concepts of disruptive innovation and that is the job-to-be-done.  More on that in the future but for now it means that if a discontinuous innovation creates a more convenient and cheaper way of doing things which is seen as creating substantial new benefits for a community, despite being labeled as “not as good” by the professionals in city hall, it has the potential of being disruptive.  Conversely, a disruptive innovation that finds a more convenient and cheaper means of doing the job-to-be-done sought by the community could potentially create the means of changing the behavior of the members of the community and therefore the community itself.  City hall does not have to be in the picture.

Brian lays out the challenge before all of us in no uncertain terms:

I am looking instead for disruptive innovation within the public sector, particularly at the local community level…The connection with Della’s focus on discontinuous innovation is that some communities may not be capable of discontinuous innovation until their institutions are innovatively disrupted, whether those institutions do it for themselves or it is done to them….
The conundrum is creating a sustainable albeit amorphous body of non-expert pro-amateursderived from the community that will effectively implement discontinuous innovation beneficial to the community.  First is the obstacle of getting far enough up the Ladder of Citizen Participation (Sherry R. Arnstein) to attain Citizen Control.  Then it is working within the complexities of local and regional economics development.  Assuming the city hall in question has not put up obstacles regarding participation, it is then a matter of accessing these community resources and effectively using them.  No simple tasks by any means.
Della recognizes that trying to find these living community resources through large, usually city hall sponsored, gatherings often only gives the illusion of participation.
We have to set them up to succeed Controlling axe-grinders ain’t enough.”  We have to start doing real public engagement.
As Della has said elsewhere:
“We need to give them the opportunity — and in many cases, a push. By push, I mean that we can set up public engagement activities to push people to think deeper — we can structure the feedback methods, for example, so that people have to identify their position’s ties to larger issues, or its potential unintended consequences.  I frankly think that we’re selling them short if we don’t create an opportunity for as many as possible to given the best insights of which they are capable.”
For myself, the next step is to create a disruptive model of such innovation that can be used by communities to create new community paradigms for themselves.  There will still be a role for the economic development professional though not based on a top down or outside-inside model. The function of the professional is going to have to change dramatically in relation with the community becoming more of facilitator for community empowerment while at the same time becoming all the more creative in community building.  More, however, needs to be said about creating community engagement.
Go check out Brian’s work.  It’s a good way to start a cold Monday morning.  More reports from sunny Orlando (via not-so-sunny Ohio) tomorrow.

What does Winning Matter?

I promised a couple of folks that I would write some blog entries trying to capture what I am hearing at the IEDC Leadership Conference in Orlando.  So what follows here and in later posts this week, in what will probably be all its disjointed glory, is an incomplete and highly biased take on what I hear between today (Sunday) and the conference close on Tuesday.  It will also be disjointed because it’s late and I’ve been talking or listening or tweeting for about 10 hours straight, and tomorrow will be no better.  So we’ll see what happens.  Put on your seat belt, folks.

I have to admit that I have come into this event with some mixed feelings.  There’s not much secret about my perspective on economic development — and my increasing conviction that we need to reboot, to rethink the most basic assumptions about what economic development is for and what we should be doing.  Walking into this, I knew that opinions in the field ranged the spectrum — the recent incentives debate has only brought that mix of perspectives into sharper focus.  So I both wanted to hear and see what the “official” economic development world was making of these challenges, and see what I could learn about how (and if) communities on the ground were making that reboot happen.

Here’s a slightly cleaned up version of my notes from today’s opening session.  The first formal event featured the usual assortment of political representatives:

  • First speaker (chair of host committee):  frames the challenge facing economic development organizations  as declining money.  Lessening capacity.   I tweeted that it would be interesting to see how economic development people respond to this challenge — my assumption being that at some point you have to change how you are working to fit the resources available to you.  I’m wondering what evidence I will see of a conscious shift in that direction during these couple of days.
  • The State Commerce Secretary, giving the usual introductory comments,  frames the challenge facing the state as “How do we win?”  I don’t think that this is the right question.  Too often we have thought that we “won” and the win turned out to be hollow, or have unpleasant side effects for the community.  Community building and growth is something more complicated than a foot race.  What does the model for economic development look like if we assume that the goal is something with more real meaning than “winning?”
  • Same person (I am purposely not using his name!) engages in lots of crowing.  Even claims at one point that Florida has the “perfect” business environment.  How can you be perfect for everything?    Better question: why do these folks always feel it  necessary to make such crazy claims to a crowd like this?  What’s to gain?  It’s not like anyone in the room is going to say “oh, it’s perfect here…it’d be a much better place for the businesses in my town… I’ll just pack em up and send em to Orlando.”
  • First direct mention of the incentives issue:  Commerce Secretary says that the New York Times story on incentives “enabled me to go to 9 legislative sessions in last 2 weeks.”  Ouch.  Speaker then tries to walk the apparently obligatory tightrope beween “yes, we should be more accountable” and “we have to have incentives or we can’t win the competition.”    That might be toughest barrier to resolving the incentives debate…and to coming to honest terms with the opportunities and limitations of how economic development is practiced.  If emphasis is always on competing and “winning,” and if there is no critical evaluation of what we’re trying to win and what we’re competing for,  then we have no opportunity to get out of the eternal loop.
  • The next speaker, from Workforce Florida,  says  “Human capital is our greatest advantage.” But then the talk is right back to competing.  He then says that he stopped talking about competitiveness in 2011, when they decided to shift their approach from workforce development to creating “talent pipelines” — meaning long-term focus on making sure people are in state who can do today’s jobs and tomorrow’s — a focus that includes the whole spectrum of education from pre-k to continuing education.  Personally, sounds like a good approach.  But according to the speaker, when briefing the governor, the question to him was, “If we do this, will we win?”  The speaker said he answered yes… of course.  But wouldn’t a more helpful answer for the long term have been “what do we need to win at?”
  • The keynote speaker, a local entrepreneur, described economic development as a function of knowing who your population is, what they are doing, and how they can connect to other resources to do better.  Essentially, he defines the economic development role as that of matchmaker — for example, helping his company understand how to  get from government contracting to working with the private sector.
  • Some of his concluding comments: “We businesses need [economic development]  organizations. We need them to help every segment of community to succeed.  We need the economy to have multiple legs.  Economic development should ask: what I can do to help businesses lash up with others?”

That last piece is, I think, part of the answer to an understanding of the purpose of economic development that is more beneficial to communities and less simplistic than “winning.”  When boats lash together, they tie up to each other broadside (long edge of the hull).  Usually you do that so that people can move from one boat to another easily, like you might want to do if you’re having a party.  The other reason you might lash together is to help weather a storm —  if you are anchored, you only have one or two points holding you down, but if you lash to other boats that have also dropped anchors, then you have much better odds of staying put.

When I talk about small business ecosystems, part of it is enabling that lashing together — creating an economy that directly supports its parts and whose interconnections increase the stability and safety of the whole.  But part of it is also growing an economy that has more than a couple of legs.

The most fascinating things I heard today, through, came out of people who have tigers by the tail in the shape of entrepreneur ecosystems that are taking off almost without them, and hackerspaces that are upending the very definition of what it means to manufacture.

But it’s midnight, I’m fried, and that one’s gonna have to wait until later.



Rebooting Economic Development: Getting Past the Incentives Debate

OK.  So we know that economic development incentives can have some benefit, but we also know that easily become too reliant on them.  We have too often viewed economic development as a one-trick pony, a grab-what-you-can-get-and-don’t-look-too-hard-at-the-costs, we-gotta-keep-up-with-the-Jones-even-if-it-kills-us kind of game.  Used simplistically, without carefulness, used as a pickaxe instead of a shovel, we can get our communities in big trouble.  And we have.

We can’t be that simple-minded about it anymore.  We know too much.  And we just don’t have the extra cash to fling around.  We have to get much, much better returns on our investments, on all dimensions.

So if overreliance on incentives, careless use of incentives, is a loser’s game, then what do we do?

I don’t claim to have all the answers (unless it’s telling my son why he can’t have an IPhone).  But we need to start a serious conversation.  It’s starting already, in bits and pieces.  But we can’t just ruminate, just lick our wounds and go back to the same old tomorrow.

So here’s my take on the agenda for that conversation, the things that I think we need to change.  I’d like to know what you’d add or take off.

  • Get serious about doing economic development better.  We have to take a leadership role – we as professionals, we as people who care about our communities, whatever our role.  We cannot afford to wait for some elected official, some professional development organization, someone else to stand up and say it.  If we know it, if we believe it, we gotta do it.  Anything less is telling ourselves an intellectual falsehood – and ensures that we all stay in this laugh-a-minute race to the bottom.


  • Focus on real community impacts.  People are starting to see past the happy job numbers we like to pronounce in conjunction with our incentive deals.  And as social media tools make it easier for the passionate and the thoughtful (and yes, the axe-grinder) to express themselves to a bigger and bigger audience, our ability to ignore the unintended impacts of our work, to pretend we don’t see the ramifications or to take shelter in “that’s not my job” … it just ain’t gonna work, people.

The general public doesn’t see a difference between your job and the guy down the hall  — you’re all part of the same thing.  And the public is going to be talking to each other, and the electeds, about the big picture they see of what’s going on.   The days of being able to hide are coming to a quick end.

That means we’re going to have to start looking at the impacts – not just the new inputs, but also the new costs.  Too many people have seen the new big box in town get followed by a lot of depressing empty storefronts, or the increase in police costs that doesn’t seem to be covered by those new tax dollars that they told us the new buildings would generate (“I can’t believe they’re asking for another tax increase! “).  The connections might not be as simple as the public thinks they are, but they are seeing connections.  And often we haven’t, or pretended not to.


  • Remember that there’s ways to grow an economy other than attracting new businesses.   Economic developers like new businesses, especially new businesses that we can claim _we_ made happen.   Frankly, it’s a hell of a lot of fun—it’s the same rush that keeps people in intense, commission-driven sales jobs, like cars.  It’s fun, that is, when it works – when we can get the sales to drop.   But in most cases, there’s a lot fewer deals than there were 5 years ago.  And the deals that are out there are smaller and less impactful.  Don’t believe me?  Find a copy of Site Selector Magazine from 2005, compare it to one from last month, and see what I mean.

We all know that there’s more, so much more, we could be doing to make a real impact on that local economy – you probably have a pile of books and workbooks and seminar binders on those other things.


The myth of the Big Deal keeps calling us.  It sounds so enticing.  But it’s more like the siren on the rocks in the Odyssey than the golden fleece that it (maybe) used to be.   We have to shift from selling to growing, from marketing to facilitating, if for no other reason than the fact that the big game are on the endangered species list.


  • Focus on making great places where people want to be.  People, more and more and more, make jobs.  They make them for businesses, or they make them for themselves.  That’s not just a hipster town factor, where impeccably sloppy-looking people in expensive glasses sit in coffee houses all day and do something mysterious that somehow earns them money.  It’s increasingly the factor that drives every aspect of the economy.  It’s the one location factor that consistently trumps the incentives game because it’s the one factor that businesses of all types (other than the lowest-paying) cannot live without.


But do not let the planners sweet-talk you into thinking that great places are created by  some magic called Urban Design.  Planners have been too focused on design for too long, as witnessed by hundreds of beautiful streetscapes fronting vacant storefronts and pretty parks that no one uses.   You who think about local economies have a central set of powers for addressing the missing pieces critical for making making great spaces.  And yes, a well-placed, well-considered, targeted incentive that helps a business happen that couldn’t happen on its own can make a key difference between creating a Place that Builds Your Economy and a very pretty, and very expense, collection of planters.


  • Stop trying to be everything to everyone.  Assets are all that matters.  Differentiation equals value. That applies to you, to your town’s businesses, to your town itself.  You know that you cannot be everything to everyone, and you’ve probably talked internally ad nauseum about “targeting” your efforts.  Do that.  Do it with a laser focus.  Being a commodity is useless anymore.  The only way your community adds value, commands the premium that you need it to, is by building on its assets.  And you may simply not have the assets for the latest cool thing (witness the 87,000 towns that were going to be world leaders in “biotech”).  You don’t have to be cool.  You do have to do the best you can with what you have.


  • Give the residents ownership.  In economic development, we’ve been able to hide from the public a lot more than many other local government professions behind the confidentiality requirements of Making the Deal.  But if deals dry up and if the people who elect and talk to your electeds don’t see (or believe) the value of what you are generating, what good was all that secrecy for you, anyways?


If you are truly going to make great places, build on your assets, do all this stuff we just said, then you’re going to need their help.  You certainly can’t incent your way there.  You will need a lot more, a whole lot more, than what you can generate out of your little nonprofit or City Hall.  Even more importantly, the people who live in your town aren’t dummies, even if they don’t know all the inside ball that you do.  Even if some of them have sounded like total dummies in some public hearing you had last year (it takes a very specific skill set to not sound stupid in that context).

They know things about the community, about how it works, what assets it has, what the connections look like, what opportunities are being overlooked.   They won’t be able to just hand you magic answers (like you, they could be wrong), and you will need to do like good teachers do and develop a structure to help them get out what they know.  And it takes a while to build those working-together muscles, for you and for them, and you might stumble while you are learning.   But putting your head together with theirs, collaboratively, can’t do anything but help.


So… let’s talk. Let’s figure out how to do economic development better, more constructively, more in tune with the era we live in.  Let’s get past wound-licking, past ruminating  over whether or not this or that program does or does not do what’s promised.  We need a deep re-thinking, a re-alignment with a world that has changed since the 1960s.  We need a reboot.

Let’s get to work.

Go Find Some Non-Experts. You Probably Need Them.

We have this deep-seated desire to believe that experts can hand us answers. We spend huge sums on consultants (the ones who claim to have 937 years of combined experience) in the hope that they will lead us to some promised land — or at least, figure out for us a palatable solution to the tough issues that our communities are facing.

And then we find out, sometimes a generation later, that they sold us snake oil, or that their answers created unintended consequences that chew away at  our communities’ strength.

There are an increasing number of voices that are challenging the assumption that past experience correlates to ability to solve current problems — especially those problems that are, as the academics put it, discontinuous — fundamentally different from what has happened before.  In that setting, relying on experience can hobble, rather than help.

One person who has written about this recently is Naveen JainNaveen can claim pretty decent cred on this topic — he has founded multiple tech firms, he’s a trustee of the X Prize Foundations…. when it comes to innovative problem-solving for complex issues, this guy knows his stuff. Here’s what he wrote recently in Forbes — I’m excerpting heavily, but do go read the whole column later:

Naveen Jain
Part of me wants to sign up for his job. Part of me thinks that’d be a good way to get sick.

…[P}eople who will come up with creative solutions to solve the world’s biggest problems…will NOT be experts in their fields. The real disruptors will be those individuals who are not steeped in one industry of choice, with those coveted 10,000 hours of experience, but instead, individuals who approach challenges with a clean lens, bringing together diverse experiences, knowledge and opportunities….

Experts, far too often, engage in a kind of myopic thinking. Those who are down in the weeds are likely to miss the big picture. To my mind, an expert is in danger of becoming a robot, toiling ceaselessly toward a goal but not always seeing how to connect the dots.

The human brain, or more specifically the neo-cortex, is designed to recognize patterns and draw conclusions from them. Experts are able to identify such patterns related to a specific problem relevant to their area of knowledge. But because non-experts lack that base of knowledge, they are forced to rely more on their brain’s ability for abstraction, rather than specificity. This abstraction — the ability to take away or remove characteristics from something in order to reduce it to a set of essential characteristics — is what presents an opportunity for creative solutions.

I also believe that the value of expertise is diminished in a world dominated by two trends: the accelerating pace of innovation and the ubiquity of information….The digital revolution has also meant a revolution in access to information. This puts more power and knowledge into the hands of non-experts… Granted, they alone don-t make us experts — but they give us access to information in abundance, giving us a greater base from which to “think big.”


Two implications for those of us who work with communities:

  1. Once we realize what Naveen is telling us, and realize that our communities are in a moment where they desperately need what the business world calls “discontinuous innovation,” the questions that we have to ask any consultant we are considering to work on our communities undergoes a sea change.  A large number of years of experience might be a liability, rather than an asset, if it means they will stick with the tried-and-true that may not work anymore, or may not work for your community. Crowing over success in an project somewhere else might obligate you to probe the consultant’s ability to pivot — can they shift away from the method they used before if it doesn’t fit here?

Intellectual flexibility, the ability to tap that power of abstraction and connect those dots, rather than start doing the Robot, may be the most important skill they can bring to the table. (As a consultant with more years under my belt than I’d like to admit, you think writing that doesn’t make me squirm a little bit? Ha.)

  1. The good news is that we have an enormous supply of non-experts who can “approach challenges with a clean lens, bringing together diverse experiences, knowledge and opportunities.” We call them the Public. They know stuff. They’ve done stuff. They have the power of abstraction that those of us in the weeds struggle to grasp. We have to set them up to succeed, but if we do, they might, just might, present our best opportunity for the discontinuous innovation that we need. After all, us experts haven’t solved the problems yet.

Maybe it’s time to bring in the real experts.


Economic Development Incentives: the deep, and deeper, and deepest challenge.


Trying to craft a cogent and fair assessment of the incentives issue and the responsibilities of those of us who care about communities is feeling like the Gorgon’s knot…you can’t fully untangle the mess in one setting. As my attempt to capture the debate over the topic yesterday (with its 12-page “summary” attachment) indicated, there’s dozens of issues mixed together, and dozens of perspectives with legitimate points and important contributions.

But having grappled with this for a few weeks, I’ve come down to the following conclusions:

  • I don’t think there’s any question that the principle behind incentives, as a rule, has legitimacy, and that incentives can be important. I can trace back to my days with On Broadway, Inc. in Green Bay, Wisconsin. We offered tiny little incentives — a few hundred dollars for a new sign or a building facade improvement — and those incentives made a difference. They enabled improvements that benefited the business and the district, and they helped make those improvements happen at a time when most of these businesses could not get funding or could not convince landlords that it was worth it. Those incentives helped move the needle for the district. Those incentives mattered.
  • I also don’t think there’s any question that we often use incentives badly. Very badly. As many of the commentators in yesterday’s post pointed out, we waste a lot of money on incentives that, if we honestly went back and evaluated the results, didn’t generate the payoffs we promised or were promised. Between the dozens of official reports and exposes that have been generated on the subject nationwide, there is too much of a preponderance of evidence on that point to come to any other general conclusion. Sometimes, like in the 38 Studios case, it’s obvious quickly that the incentive was a bust. Many times, we don’t understand how wasted the effort and the cost was until years later — if we are ever aware of it at all.


Here’s where it starts getting tough:

  • Both the scope of problematic incentives in the U.S., and the fact that incentive programs are developed in a keeping-up-with-the-Jones, you-gotta-play-the-game mentality, indicates that the problem with incentives isn’t incidental — it’s not simply a factor of some bureaucrats not doing their due diligence properly, or some short-sighted misunderstandings. It’s across the board.

It’s systemic. It’s not a melanoma, confined to a few spots and relatively easy to remove. It’s more like a leukemia, or a cancer that has metastasized.

  • That systemic problem is threatening the viability and resilience of both communities and the local government professions. Not just economic development, but planning and community development and administration and all the work and people who are tied into local development and funding. As local government and nonprofit finances get tighter and tighter, and as demands on the remaining funds accelerate due to everything from pensions to decaying infrastructure, the volumes of resources being allocated to incentives becomes more and more obvious. We all know that in most places we are well past cutting fat, and getting deep into muscle and bone.

And in a social media, networked, open data world where anyone with Excel on their laptop can analyze your funds and spending, the scrutiny focused on that funding is only going to grow.

Just the facts of the case, ma’am.


So what’s the source of the systemic incentives illness? And how does anyone solve this?

Here’s the deep problem: incentives are easy. They are an intellectually and (until recently) politically easy way to make it look like we are doing something good — something that justifies our professional existence. Company says they want incentives? You give them incentives, it makes them happy, you get a nice ribbon cutting and picture in the paper, the mayor is happy. Easy cheesy lemon squeezy.

Until people wise up to the fact that the golden ring they thought you had grabbed for them turns out to be painted plastic. Until they notice that the new retail center was followed by vacant storefronts in their neighborhood, or the cool tech company we all pinned our hopes on never lived up to its promises, or we got that great new office building that is supposed to lessen our tax burden, but we’re still being asked to pass a huge school levy and the park district is turning off the lights.

Or they don’t notice, but these things are happening, and then they cut your department to balance the budget.


Here’s the deeper problem: we haven’t been able to stop chasing those golden rings because we can’t (or don’t) figure out whether the ring is worth what it costs, or not.

Part of that has to do with the analytical problem that Bill and Ed and the New York Times have identified — the pervasive lack of postmortems, of doing the simple kind of look-backs that we know you have to do if you’re going to learn from your failures — or your successes.

But the bigger part of that deeper problem is that we have defined the cost of the ring too narrowly. One of the writers on the Economic Development 2.0 group said of his community’s residents:

“the impression is that we aren’t serving the public and second we aren’t held accountable.”

Doesn’t that make you cringe?

It made me cringe.


We like to assume that those new businesses and new jobs are having all sorts of benefits to the community. But what if they are not? What if they are cannibalizing another part of the local economy? Imposing costs on the local government that will cut its ability to support the community’s quality of life? Putting the community at risk of agony down the road because that company that we bet the farm on didn’t fit well, sold us snake oil or had no reason to stay when the incentives ran out? What if the cost of “progress” means destroying a heritage that the community will never be able to get back?

What if the costs are greater than the benefit? Did we look at both, or did we just see stars in our eyes at a bunch of pretty promises?

I’ve said this before: we want to think we can do our work in silos–that we are only responsible for our little bailiwick. It’s easier that way. It’s safer that way. But it’s deadly, because what we do in one silo affects everything else. If we don’t try to understand those interdependencies, or worse yet, ignore them in the name of “that’s not my department,” we dig ourselves and our communities ever deeper into the hole.


Here’s the deepest problem of all: fixing this systemic illness, and making a difference for the communities we care about, requires professionals and passionate community members to own their responsibility. We have no choice except to pull up our boots and exercise the leadership that we alone can claim.

We have to stop accepting simplistic answers from elected leadership, department heads, or ourselves. We have to take leadership in teaching our elected leaders, communities and bosses what we know. We have to screw our courage to the sticking place and hold to our course.

We have to finally, finally give up on “shoot what flies and claim what falls.” We have to admit what Kathy pointed out, what we know in our guts: deals that look like wins on paper can hide cancers that will eat at the lives of our communities.

Physician, heal thyself.


Small piece of encouragement: in a broad sense, this challenge doesn’t face economic developers alone. A couple of years ago, I took the urban and community planning profession to task for similar dangerous and damaging shortcomings — particularly the tendency to avoid worrying about interdependencies and to stick in the silo your boss told you to stick in. It’s strange to quote yourself, but, with a few word replacements, what I said to them fits here as well:

Stop allowing bad economic development. It’s damaging the profession, and it’s damaging the places that matter to us. Economic developers have had a tendency to avoid raising tough questions, to shy away from pushing for the right but difficult choices, to sidestep grappling honestly and critically with our decisions and alternatives.

That’s mostly, I think, driven by a very understandable desire for job security.  We have all be told somewhere along the line that some issues aren’t in your job description, that you don’t want to upset the politicians, the developers, the citizens, the client. Don’t rock the boat, the voice whispers, and your job and your future are secure.

If there’s anything the last few years have taught us, it’s that job security, for both public and private sector employees, is a myth. Public sector employees get laid off or put on furloughs, or they get stuck in soul-deadening bureaucratic jobs processing paperwork and accept that deal with the devil for the promise of future financial security that is turning out to be a mirage. The private sector doesn’t do much better: we deliver what the client wants, regardless of whether that’s what the community needs or not, in the hopes of winning more work and maintaining that ridiculously high utilization rate and not having to spend nights and weekends writing more proposals on our “own time.” And then we get laid off because of a “strategic realignment” or because the company wouldn’t let us pivot to where the necessary work actually lies.

If we can’t count on those promises, that security, and playing the incentive game is making it worse, then what is the price of our silence? Why not take reasonable, well- supported stands on issues that matter, when it matters? What have we really got to lose?

I say all of this because I have done all of these things. I did them because I was the consultant, it wasn’t in the scope, it wasn’t in the budget, they weren’t “ready.” I didn’t want to rock the boat.

At the end of the day, what you’re really left with is how you feel about the job you did. In some cases, I am proud of the work and how it helped move a community forward.  In other cases, I am not sure whether my work did any good at all. As I evolve, I am determined to repeat those mistakes as few times as I can.

There’s a piece of calligraphy in my office that sums up how I think we need to approach economic development in this generation — not in terms of business clusters or recruitment strategies, but in terms of how we think about the job and how we think about communities and their futures. There are two quotes on it, the first being from Henry Thoreau:

Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have always imagined.

The second is from Will Rogers:

Even if you’re going in the right direction, you’ll get run over if you just sit there.


Let’s not get run over anymore, ok?



Economic Development and incentives: a race to the bottom?

We’ve been picking up the ongoing debate over economic development incentives this week, starting with insights from Bill Lutz on analyzing the results of incentives and from Kathy Dodson on taking a leadership role and resolving to Do No Harm.  But the discussion over this issue has been much broader than two people writing in splendid isolation, and I wanted to share with you today a snippet of that debate, in all its messy glory.

Ed Morrison of Purdue University posted a power question on the LinkedIn group Economic Development 2.0 last month, shortly after the New York Times series analyzing the cost and effectiveness of incentives nationally hit the press.  Ed has been one of the powerful and insightful voices challenging the way the incentives game is often played for a long time, and he came out in full force in this discussion.  The interesting thing to me, though, was the range and diversity of the conversation that developed there, with about 20 people contributing to the debate.  Some supported incentives, some spoke against them, but the conversation makes for a fascinating examination of the state of the incentives issue among persons in the trenches.

This particular string of the discussion has, as of the last time I looked, runs to… over 120 comments.   That’s a lot to try to wade through (take my word on that one).

I’ve managed to distill the main thread of the conversation down to a few pages instead of the 60 I had when I first did the cut and paste, but it’s still considerably longer than anything resembling a normal blog post.  Instead of inserting it here, you can download a PDF of my edited version here.  Please note that, since I haven’t asked anyone for permission to reprint their comments, I have removed the names, leaving initials so that you can at least get a sense of the different voices.

Here’s the edited version of the discussion:

Economic Development Race to the Bottom (edited)

As I noted before, the NYT article and the debate hit in the Month of Total Rucker Chaos that December usually represents, so my personal ability to participate in this debate so far has been limited.  Lord willing and the creek don’t rise, that will change tomorrow.  Stay tuned.

Incentives: Seize the Opportunity to Do No Harm

As I noted earlier this week, the debate over the use of incentives in economic development has been hot and heavy for most of the past month – across publications, social media conversations and in-office debates alike.  The people who have been sharing their thoughts with me span the spectrum, which makes for an interesting (and sometimes overwhelming) vantage point.

One particularly interesting set of comments was sent to me by Kathy Dodson, an economic development professional in California with an impressive resume.  Kathy came at this debate from what I thought was a unique perspective, and one that makes particular sense in a Wise Economy context: Kathy focuses on improving the quality and professionalism of the decision making and evaluation processes within the profession as a whole.  As I wrote a few days ago, the quality of our decision-making processes has an outsized impact on the results of what we do, especially in a complex, interdependent environment – and we have got to stop flying by the seat of our pants when we’re trying to decide where to invest our community’s limited resources.  Kathy also makes an eloquent case for economic development professionals to claim a leadership position, to become proactive in helping communities understand their true needs and acting in the manner that builds them up, rather than waste their assets.

Here’s Kathy:


The best thing to ever happen to economic development

The New York Times articles have thrown economic development into the spotlight in a most unflattering way.  Just over a year, ago an NPR program, This American Life, did the same thing.

Let’s not waste a good crisis.  It is time for economic development to grow up and become a discipline, a serious profession.  What we do is too important to leave to guess work and to those with a vested financial interest in the outcomes of our decisions.

Economic development professionals rarely have economics degrees, not to mention economic development degrees.  More problematic, we rarely look to the academic science of economic development to guide our policies.  Academicians in economic development rarely collaborate with economic development practitioners.    We should use this opportunity to demand improvements in economic development professional education and research.  Economic development practitioners typically have well-developed skills in community building, outreach and collaboration.  We need to capitalize on these important skills that are rarely taught in our schools and universities and combine them with a true understanding of what drives economic growth in communities at the macro and micro levels.  We need to strengthen professional and academic understanding of what we can influence, and even why governments should support economic development.

Just as we in the economic development profession must become more educated, it is our responsibility to educate leaders in government as to the true benefits and needs of economic development.  Economic development is important because it supports our communities and our nation.  Just as we use taxes to provide for health, safety and welfare of the citizens who pay those taxes, we need to also provide for the health, safety and welfare of the businesses that pay into the system so that our communities will prosper.

This is not done by giving one of them a bunch of cash and ignoring the rest – can you imagine the outcry if we did this with residents?  Supporting our communities is done by building a quality place where all businesses can thrive.  That means very different things in different communities, and the discovery and delivery of this important aspect of community-building is the job of an economic development professional.

Just as medical students are taught “first do no harm,” we need similar thinking in economic development.  Deep down, most of us know that transferring a big box store from one side of the county line to the other does not create economic development, and the incentives used to accomplish this impoverish the community.  We know the difference between smart incentives that are used for training that builds the capacity of human resources in our community, and incentives that leave our community, and leave it worse off.  We know that paying hundreds of millions of dollars to move a US company from one state to another does not make America wealthier or stronger.

We must seize this opportunity and improve what economic development is and what we do.  Maybe we can do this through existing organizations; maybe we will unite online, but let’s come together and plan a future that will make a difference, bring respectability back to our profession, and truly build prosperity for the future.  That is our job.


Do no harm.  Seize this opportunity.  Build prosperity for the future.  That is our job.

I’m very grateful to Kathy for trusting me with her thoughts and allowing me to share them here.  Let’s continue the discussion.


Make better decisions: process matters

I have an longstanding obsession with understanding how decisions get made in complex environments, and how we can make better decisions in local government, non-profit and business settings. (Hey, I told you I’m a Northwestern University alum… I’ve got a lifetime membership in Geeks R Us).

Because of that interest, part of the answer to “What did I do over winter break?” involved… listening to 24 lectures on the Art of Critical Decision Making, a Teaching Company lecture series by Dr. Michael Roberto of Bryant University, while driving the 12 hours to the Gator Bowl.   Part psychology, part sociology, part organizational studies, it’s a fascinating exploration.

There’s lots to share from this series, but here’s something from Dr. Roberto to chew on as you get ready to ramp up the new year:

Many leaders fail because they think of decisions as events, not processes..We think of the decision maker sitting alone at a moment in time, pondering what choice to make. However, most decisions involve a series of events and interactions that unfold over time. Decisions involve processes that take place inside the minds of individuals, within groups, and across units of complex organizations.

When confronted with a tough issue, we focus on the question, what decision should I make? We should first ask, how I should I go about making this decision? (emphasis mine)


I’ve written before that we have a tendency to fall back on seat-of-the-pants, rules-we-learned-in-kindergarten methods when making decisions that will impact the future of our communities, whether those decisions have to do with economic development strategies, long-range physical planning, policy matters or pretty much anything else.  And then we wonder why our efforts don’t generate the results we wanted, and we get blindsided by unforeseen consequences.  In most cases, the trouble probably starts with how we made our decisions.


I don’t generally do New Years’ resolutions anymore, but I do try to set some priorities.  So one thing that I will try to do this year is continue to explore what business, psychologists, sociologists and others have learned about how we make decisions – about our blind spots, our shortcuts, our limitations and how we can consciously learn to work around them.  In the meantime, if you want to check out Dr. Roberto’s work, I’d recommend it – sometimes a little geekdom does you good.

Go U Northwestern….and do it the right way!

2013 is starting off pretty well for Northwestern University alumni like my husband and myself. For those of you not in the US, Northwestern is a relatively small, private, intensely academic institution just north of Chicago.  It’s consistently one of the highest-ranked universities in the world in everything from engineering to music to medicine.   The term “academic powerhouse” gets applied to NU by journalists so routinely that it’s a cliché.

“Football powerhouse,” historically… not so much.   Northwestern is a founding member of the Big 10 athletic conference.   Most Big 10 schools are what we in the US call land-grant colleges, and they include some places with impressive academic resumes, such as the University of Michigan and Purdue.  But Northwestern is the odd bird in that cage for at least two reasons.

First, size.  NU is half – less than half – the size of the next smallest school in the conference.  NU has 8,000 undergrad students, compared to 19,000 at next-smallest Nebraska.   Second, Northwestern as a whole has the highest academic standards of any of the other schools in the conference – that’s understandable, since the other schools were designed to serve a broader population.   And as college entrance competition increases, those standards get tougher and tougher.  I interview prospective NU students every year as part of the admissions process through the alumni association, and the refrain every year among the interviewers is, “Man, I don’t think I would have gotten in today.  These kids are impressive.”  Look at class rank, SAT scores, extracurricular leadership… any of the conventional measures.  Your jaw will probably drop.

But while many universities in the Big 10 and elsewhere will relax admissions standards for applicants that they think will star on the high-profile teams, or invent easier majors for those students, or look the other way when those students don’t do well in their classes or line up for graduation, Northwestern doesn’t.    NU football players have to meet the same academic standards as every other applicant.  And there are no cakewalk majors.  And that has always been the case.   The team’s best player when I was at NU 20 years ago majored in… electrical engineering.  That’s right.  In one of the best double-E programs in the nation.  Not only did he later play in the NFL, he graduated with that degree And that was completely expected.

Think about fielding a nationally-competitive American football team out of that kind of pool of applicants. Can you really expect the brightest students in the nation to also include some of the nation’s  best players in a physically punishing, massively time-consuming sport?

When I was in school, the tacit answer was, no.  My classmate the EE aside, it was assumed that you couldn’t really expect us to compete, to seriously compete.  We fell back again and again on the “that’s all right, that’s ok, you’re gonna work for us one day” geek cheer as Something State ran roughshod over our guys 56-0.

That attitude started changing a few years ago, and the team has gradually gained a winning track record and increasing respect.  The watershed came last Tuesday, when NU won its first bowl game in 64 years.   Yes…first time since 1949.   Granted, it wasn’t the highly prestigious Rose Bowl – I was there 17 years ago when we got crushed in that —  but it was the victory that, back in 1990, or 1960, no one would have said was possible.  And watching from the stands, with my throat in shreds and my husband choking back tears, as a bunch of kids in NU’s purple jerseys sang the fight song and hoisted a trophy, was a moment many thousands us will never forget.

Northwestern football team pic at 2013 Gator Bowl
Coach Pat Fitzgerald and team. Doing it right.  Reposted from

Here’s the important part of the story: Those principles of academic excellence, of expecting the highest level of classroom performance, haven’t changed.   At all.  The team’s coach, an NU alum and member of that 1995 Rose Bowl team, embraces those high standards in a way that I don’t think he could if he had come from somewhere else.  He gets it.

The other important part of the story is the culture.  I think I can speak for the alumni population pretty confidently:  Winning is great, but winning at the expense of those standards is not an option.  Not negotiable.  When’s the last time you heard the audience at a college pep rally cheer their team’s graduation rate, cheer a school’s academic rankings?  I did Monday.  And I cheered loud, but I wasn’t the loudest.

Standards matter.  Principles matter.  Sticking to what you know is right matters.  It’s not the easy way.  But it never stops being the right way. And it’s not just tilting at windmills.  It’s entirely possible to win on the right terms.


A lot of you who read my columns are trying to live your convictions, trying to change your communities meaningfully, deeply, profoundly.  In ways you know need to happen.  And you are trying to do it in the face of something in your surroundings that says….

You can’t do it.  You can’t expect that.  The system is what it is.  You can’t change politics, organizations, the boss.  It won’t work.  Live with it.  Settle.

Maybe not.     

Maybe it’s time for you, and I,  to put on our purple jerseys.  Maybe this is our year to show them all.

Go U Northwestern.  And Go U you.  Have a great 2013. Let’s go and do it right.

I need your help: does economic development make a difference?

The great fun of blogging is always the feedback.  But when you have thoughtful critical thinkers for readers, the way I do here, sometimes their comments shine a bright and uncomfortable light on one of those spots where it might be easier to just leave in the shadows.

One of those came up last week in response to my article about Consultants as Wizards [expletive deleted].  After discussing with the person who wrote this comment, I changed his name (just in case his department head or city manager stumbles across it).  But I felt that the questions he raised were too important to be left in the comment thread… and since these are questions that I am grappling with myself, I felt it was necessary to bring it out into the open.

I’m going to paste in the original comment from William P below, and then give you my perspective after that.


The more I see everyone’s comments and the original blog post, I am thinking that the profession of Economic Development is beginning to revolve around two universal axioms (neither of which are good in my opinion).

First, economic development seems to be more about the process than the product. From my perspective as a low-key half-time ED professional, economic development is nearly 85-90% about marketing and relationship building. I understand how those activities can play a role, but it’s role that seems too pronounced. What exactly are we marketing and how are these relationships going to help? Do we understand what differentiates us from our competitors in the economic development realm?

The second axiom is that economic development is more about outputs than outcomes. We get all excited when the new report comes out, or the new branding initiative hits or when the new restaurant breaks ground. And yes, that is important, but when do we go back and measure the effectiveness of those efforts? Are those jobs created by that restaurant moving the needle? Does that new watering hole instantly become a community asset? Did that new glossy handout convince anyone?


More process than product, and more output than outcome.  William’s point is pretty damning: from his perspective in the trenches, the economic development profession doesn’t seem to be actually making a difference.  Ow.

I received the following email from a friend (I’m also not going to use his name) at about the same time, and asked for his permission to reproduce part of his comments here, because I think he’s saying the same thing in a somewhat less… well, polite manner.


I really liked your last blog article on consultants.  What a hoot!

As I reflect on it, I don’t think I work in economic development.  I don’t subscribe to going to every [event] that exist and other activities that seem more social than actual work.   These types of activities seem to be what economic development is all about.  I often wonder if I should try to be one of those fancy certified ED professionals, but [the question in] my mind is why?

I am not trying to be insulting, but the practice of economic development doesn’t seem to have much “practice” to it.  It just seems to be a bunch of high level BS speak based on hopes, dreams and poor assumptions.  There has to be meat to these bones, right?


Cartoon of used car saleman
Is this what William P is seeing?

Scuse me while I squirm for a minute.

It’s hard not to see some truth in what these two are saying.  The profession of economic development started out, historically, as a sales job —  your mission was to entice businesses to come to your town or your state. Close the deal.   Get the win.  And you don’t have to spend a lot of time around economic developers to know that for many professionals, and many communities, selling is still the primary definition of the job.  Going and schmoozing and relationship-building…it’s fundamentally the same work that the business development director of a company does.  Make the sell, or make the connection that down the road might lead to a sell.  But the sell – the win – is the name of the game.   Sure, the targets are usually smaller now than they were in the halcyon days, and now we allocate at least some of our effort to trying to make that sell to our local businesses so that they don’t pick up and go somewhere else.  But fundamentally, for many economic development professionals and organizations, the sell is still the purpose of the job.


There’s a problem with sales, and I say this as someone who tries to sell professional services every day:  it’s can be pretty easy to sell someone something that they don’t need, and it’s awfully easy to sell someone something that you cannot or should not try to supply.


For economic development, it’s  that second element that’s making me more and more uneasy.  The purpose of economic development, fundamentally, isn’t just selling more and more and more.  The purpose of economic development is to support the places that we live and work and play in – to improve their economies, help their people make a living, build the tax base that they need so that places can be kept clean and safe and comfortable.   That’s why governments and communities and businesses fund these things.

But I think we’ve all had to admit in the last 20 years, at least to ourselves, that some of our economic development “wins” didn’t turn out to be wins at all – or at least not the happy, unambiguous wins that we might have told ourselves they were.  Gave a sweet deal to a big box store and now you’re discover that your other commercial spaces are going dark?  Recruited a distribution center and now you’re finding that the rate of police and ambulance calls there are far higher than expected?  Provided tax increment financing for a shiny new office building, and now your city council is cutting the budget because tax revenue isn’t keeping up with service demands?

In a lot of cases, it’s pretty clear in hindsight that we sold something that we shouldn’t have sold – at least, not for the cheap price or with the bells and whistles that we sold it.   And sometimes it seems like we’re not learning from our mistakes.


There are a lot of people who are doing good, thoughtful work in economic development – who are connecting the importance of their work to the health of their communities.  There are people and communities who are trying to anticipate and head off the potential unintended consequences that some economic development projects present, and there are people and communities who are shifting toward a holistic perspective, toward growing a local economy that can provide its residents with long-term stability and resilience.

But then… there is the view from William P’s window.  And it’s not the view I want to be shown.  It shows an uncomfortable lack of critical thinking, a failing to learn from the past mistakes of the profession, and a tendency to overlook or ignore the ways in which new projects and exciting proposals can create more problems for the community we’re working for than they solve.

Instead, the view from William P’s window shows a playground-style tally sheet: points for me on this side, points for you on that side.  Get more points in my column than yours, and I win!  Simple as that.

Except that winning at that game may actually do no good at all.


So…I need some help here.  Who is going to come to the defense of economic development?  Who is going to tell William P that marketing and networking is actually worth that 90% of our economic development effort?  That the sale is truly the thing that economic development needs to do – that the pursuit of the next score isn’t just about the ego trip of winning the game?

Who’s going to tell him that it’s someone else’s job to worry about what happens after the sale is closed?

Some of you might assume that the last two paragraphs are rhetorical flourish. And there’s probably a little of that.  But I truly need answers to those questions.  I need to understand, for myself and for the people like William P and my email correspondent that I encounter regularly, whether or not that approach to economic development has legitimacy.  I don’t see it, and I want very much to understand whether I am missing something important.

So please, I’m serious, tell me in the comment box below.  Help me stop squirming… and help me help William P see the benefit of the economic development profession.

Economic Development: Does your place matter?

My oftentime contributor Bill Lutz pointed out to me the other day, as part of a conversation about how traditional economic development methods often don’t seem to be working well, that “maybe we shouldn’t be so worried about doing new things that might work, but rather stop doing the things that we know don’t work.”  As is often the case with Bill, my immediate response was, “Great… wanna write about it?”  Here’s what came back to me half an hour later


The Underused Power of Belief in Economic Development

Here at the City of Piqua, city employees received new cell phones.  We had a choice between a Droid and an iPhone.  To help our employees make the decision, our Information Technology Department sent out a specification sheets with attributes of both phones.  From my amateur perspective, the Droid seemed the superior phone, yet, most of my fellow employees went with the iPhone.


This got me thinking, “Why did my fellow employees choose iPhones?  Why do people buy Apple’s products?”  As I gnawed on this question, it became obvious: people buy what we believe, not just what we do.  Apple makes products that are intuitive, easy to use and well designed — they just happen to make computers and phones and other consumer electronics.


People aren’t swayed by the details of the spec sheet, they are moved by how Apple’s beliefs are presented through their products.   If people are motivated to make decisions by what we believe, what messages are we sending out in terms of economic development?  It certainly is not a message of beliefs or values.


A review of our economic development website indicates that we take the most pride in things like location, sites, incentives and community assets.  Granted, all those things have a role in economic development.  But let’s face it: every economic development organization plays up those things — we all have sites, locations, incentives and assets that we are proud of and promote.


Yet, we are universally silent about beliefs.  We never talk about why we want companies to come to our town.  We rarely talk about our community’s history and how we grew.  We talk about plans, but never our dreams.  To tell the world about our beliefs, we have to discover what they are and spread the word.


In the end, I don’t want a business here because we gave them the best deal —  I want them here because they share our beliefs.  If a business is here because they share our beliefs, I bet they will stay here and be more invested in our community than the company that came here just because they got the best deal.


From where I sit, Bill’s “beliefs” sound like what I would call the “vision.”  Maybe that’s a word that has been disparaged too much – maybe “belief” fits better.  But the point is the same: meaningful investment, whether in the person you date, the phone you buy, or the community you choose for your business or your home, is usually based on something deeper than just a cost-benefit analysis.  Real commitment requires that we find a resonance, some sort of sympathetic vibration between who we are and what we value and what we understand of the other.

In economic development, there’s a tendency to pooh-pooh that kind of talk.   I’ll be blunt: it’s a flaky planner thing, like that mushmouthed vision they put in the comprehensive plan that no one reads.  What do businesses want, you ask?  Oh, easy.  Low taxes.  Big incentives.  Access to 75% of the nation’s population within a 600 mile radius.

What’s the likelihood that you can really compete on low taxes and access to the same blob of population as every other city within 60 miles?

How does that make you special?

grocery store shelf
Lots o stuff

This is an old industrial-era economic development paradigm.  It assumes that everyone shopping for a business location just showed up at Wal-Mart: we are looking at a shelf of indistinguishable gadgets, rows upon rows of detergent or paper towels, each with some different buzzword or bright package or stupid bear on the wrapper than has nothing to do with what the thing is supposed to do.  We need one, so we grab one – maybe the one we’ve used in the past, maybe the one Uncle Joe works for, maybe the cheapest or the biggest.  But most of the time, it’s a purchase without loyalty.  It’s functional.  It’s the one we pick because it takes the least effort.  Whatever.

But what’s the likelihood that we’ll make any effort on behalf of this purchase?  Will we make a special trip to a different store if they stop carrying that brand?  If they change the formula and it doesn’t work as well with my tap water, will I storm the stockholder’s meeting to insist that they change it back?

Nah, I got other things to do.  I’ll just grab something else.

Consumer brands spend literally billions of dollars per year to try to build loyalty to a one-dimensional, interchangeable, disposable thing.  We see how well that works.

We who work with communities live in a world of the fascinating, the unique, the irreplaceable.  That’s what your mix of people, places, history, culture, economics, etc. gives you.  I’ve said this before: that which makes you unique makes you valuable – whether you’re a detergent that really does make whites whiter and brights brighter, or a community with a unique character and a unique place in the world that can provide something of value to a specific type of person or business.  Those seeking a place that will give them that resonance

Why on earth would we settle for being just another of the hundreds of places that has sites, a handful of incentives, a great “work ethic” (whatever that is), and access to some undifferentiated mass of people that are irrelevant to the vast majority of businesses?  Blah blah blah.  Throw money at ‘em – the only way to stand out from the competition is the way Wal-Mart does: make yourself cheaper, and cheaper, and cheaper than everyone else.  Welcome to the Race to the Bottom.

Why not claim who we are, what we value, what we want to be…. Put that message out there, start exerting a pull on the people and businesses who might actually want us, not just the cheap inducements we offer?

Then, our places matter.  Then there’s a reason for people to have loyalty, to care what the hell happens here.    How’za bout it?

Won’t Get Fooled Again: annotated slides from presentation

At long last, here are the annotated slides from the presentation that Peter Mallow and I did on deciphering an economic impact study and finding the key assumptions and trigger points that will allow you to evaluate whether the economic impact study, fiscal impact study or pro forma you are looking at… actually means what you think it does.

Here’s the slides — a summary of what Pete and I said is written in the bottom half of each page:

Understanding and interpreting economic projections 2012 oki apa with annotations final

If you really want the full experience, here’s the podcast of the presentation.

And if you want to find out what happens when a redhead who believes what she said here encounters a consultant who apparently doesn’t, and you don’t mind a couple of cuss words, here you go. 

Bon appetit!


Consultant as wizard: [expletive deleted]

It’s very hard to type and pace around fuming at the same time.

I just left a session at a national conference that shall remain unnamed. I left because I am too mad to be civil anymore.   I am beyond tired of consultants feeding community professionals bullshit in the guise of wisdom. No wonder they don’t trust us.

The session I left is on using economic impact studies to determine whether financial incentives are appropriate in economic development.   I just taught a class on unravelling economic impact studies with Pete Mallow, so that part was somewhat of interest, and I’m teaching a training on use of incentives next month, so that part was the reason I went.

I had to leave halfway through before my budding anger and bad behavior got me in trouble.

The speaker, who I don’t know, carries that slick all-knowing persona that’s de rige ur ( along with a head of gray hair).  His message?  “Look how nice and straightforward and objective all of your incentives negotiations will be if you base them on the crystal clarity that an economic impact study (especially if done by us or using our software) gives you.

“”You want to know what an economic impact study includes?  Well, first you take your direct costs, you plug them into the magic calculator, hocus pocus and…

“Voila! Here’s your number.  Now you know what your incentives should be.  Doesn’t that make you feel good?

“Want to project it out 10 years into the future?  No problem.  How easy we’ve made it for you!

“How did we get that number, you ask?  Here’s the name of our magic multiplier source…that’s all you need to know, you know.  Don’t worry about it.  Trust us… We’re the experts.”



There is no way that an economic analysis is worth the memory it takes up in your inbox unless you understand exactly how that magic number was calculated and why the multipliers used were used.  If the multipliers are straight out of some standard source, and your community is not identical in time and space to the geography used in that source, the analysis will not fit.   Worse, there is no way in hell that a 10-year projection that lands on one number can be right.  It’s statistically impossible.  Any honest person who passed college statistics can tell you that.

Common sense when you think about it.  And yet, people keep buying it.  A roomful of people sat and listened and took notes and bought it.



Is it any wonder why consultants who work with local governments have such a bad reputation?  In a complex, unpredictable, variable world, how can we offer simple, easy, prepackaged solutions… and sleep at night?  How can we stay behind the curtain of the wizard facade in Oz without constant fear of being uncovered?

Dorothy, Tin Man, Scarecrow and Lion pull back the curtain and discover the Wizard.

How much of the physical, fiscal, economic mess that our communities face can be laid at the feet of know-it-all consultants who offered easy, unrealistic answers… and never addressed the alternative outcomes, the unintended consequences?  How many times can we leave a mess in our wake, relying on the fact that we can find another sucker down the road who won’t know about how badly we got this one wrong?

What’s it going to take before communities start to call us on it?  What’s it going to take before we come to terms with our own lack of omniscience?  When are we finally going to shift from arrogant know-it-all to what we should really be: wise advisors and facilitators.  Listeners.  Resources.  Sources of perspective.  Guides.  Teachers.

Until then, what good do we do?

I have been trying to do the right thing for a long time, and I’ve described before how sometimes I’ve been guilty of telling a community what they want to hear instead of what they need to hear.  I try not to do that anymore.

But it takes two to polka.  Community professionals have a role to play here, too. And that role is…. To not accept the bullshit.  To not assume that a grey haired dude in a suit automatically knows how to lead you to the promised land.

Ask questions.  Ask a lot of questions. Ask the stupid questions.  Ask more questions if you don’t fully understand the answer.

Under no circumstances accept anything that even hints at “we’re the experts, trust us.”  We should have learned by now that that dog don’t hunt.

If your consultant gives you a magic number out of a black box, run away.  If your consultant makes it sound too easy, push for the details, probe for the grey areas. And if your consultant even begins to condescend to you, fire their ass.  Period.  They are not doing you any good.

So help me out here, folks: if I ever say I have the magic answer, if I ever say,  just trust me….  Apply a blunt object to my head, ok?

Thanks…. Knew I could count on you.

What does a small business ecosystem look like? Part 1: Interdependence

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about our need to rethink how we do economic development in a world where small businesses play an increasingly pivotal role — in both economic activity and our communities’ ability to attract talent.  We who work with communities, whether as planners or economic developers or commercial district managers or whatever, tend to default to the time-honored tricks of our professions to try to grow small businesses.  But if we’re honest with ourselves, we have to admit that dealing with the multitude of small businesses the same way we dealt with a few big economic players….well, it just doesn’t work.  We run ourselves to exhaustion trying to give them all the attention or intervention we think they need, or we discover that their needs far exceed what we have any prayer of providing ourselves.  Or we simply get overwhelmed with the scope and complexity and the apparent chaos and…go back to hunting big wins, or making master plans, or planning festivals.  To each his or her refuge.

The premise I laid out last time was, on the surface, pretty simple:  We can’t manage complex, interdependent systems as a command-and-control exercise.  As humans, let alone in the community-building professions, we have a pretty good history of, frankly, suckingat that.

biologist observing eagle
This is a biologist. But you probably won’t have to tie yourself to a tree. From

Instead, we have to shift our thinking:  instead of pretending we are master architects creating grand structures, we have to think of ourselves as more like biologists: professionals who manage the interrelationships and monitor the indicators that build the health of an ecosystem.

If we think of our small business communities, and by extension our local economies as a whole, as ecosystems rather than mechanical machines, the nature of the problem we’re facing changes.  It’s both simpler and more complex – but it sets us up to finally have a chance at making a meaningful difference.

To get there, though, we need to make sure we understand what a small business ecosystem looks like.  I’m going to start describing what I think below, and continue it over the next few blog entries– I’ll be interested in hearing what you think and what you would add.

From my perspective, a healthy small business ecosystem has several traits.  Here’s the first of them:

Interdependence.   Yes, yes…. ideally a community’s small businesses should pursue lots of opportunities to buy from and sell to each other.  But that’s just one little corner of what they need (and for many, like technical product designers or highly specialized retailers, assuming that they need to buy and sell locally overlooks the fact that they might operate across the world.  Even a tiny business can have an international reach, and international dependencies).

As I talked about before, small businesses most differ from larger businesses because of the repercussions of their limited capacity (capacity for management, bookkeeping, marketing, anything involving a need for human time).  Small businesses, regardless of industry, need to be able to supplement their limited capacity by being able to reach out for help.

Here’s two simple examples – one a business, one not (well, not entirely).  Let’s take the second one first.

My husband broke his shoulder blade when he wrecked his bicycle on a trail a few days ago.  He messed it up pretty good – fractured in two places and partially out of joint (I told him that the front-double-somersault-over-the-handle-bars dismount was best left to the professionals, but…).  So the last few days have been, from a work and home front standpoint, pretty garbled.  Things are Not Getting Done… whether it’s that presentation that I have got to get written, or attending my son’s school open house tonight.  We just can’t keep all the balls in the air with three functional adult arms and one out of two brains trying to fall asleep from the medications all the time.  If we had family in town that could manage some of the kid logistics, or if this presentation was of a type that I could hand off to someone else, we could tackle everything, or at least more of it.  If we had a higher level of interdependence, we would have more capacity now, when we need it.  The issue isn’t money, entirely, or time, entirely.  It’s capacity, and particularly flexible, available-when-needed capacity.  And right now the Rucker household ain’t got enough of it.

Here’s another example of the impacts of limited capacity and interdependence: yesterday I spent a couple of hours sitting in a coffee shop a few minutes away (it was patient nap time and I didn’t want to risk waking him).  It’s a great little independent coffee shop, and as far as I can tell, the only person who works there is the owner.  Think about that for a minute.  If you are trying to run a coffee shop without employees, what do you do when there is a delivery at the back door?  When do you clean the bathroom (when do you use the bathroom, for that matter)? How much of your total personal capacity does the business consume, and how do you deal with those limits?  And what happens when that well runs dry?  Perhaps he gets the Subway employees at the end of the block to accept his deliveries when he is busy, or perhaps he pays someone to clean the place or balance his books after he closes.  I don’t really know.

But this, in a nutshell, is the real reason why a healthy small business ecosystem needs to foster interdependence: they need to be able to draw on others to supplement their own capacity, especially in a flexible way that enables them to get that when they need it without carrying an unsustainable and not-always-needed cost on their backs.

That all sounds nice and happy.  But there’s one more piece to Interdependence: in a healthy small business ecosystem, people understand that others’ success or failure will directly impact their own thriving or struggling.  When it flourishes, that awareness that leads to a strengthened sense of responsibility to and for the community.  And that’s an ethos that we as a culture often haven’t done much to build up.

Small business owners, understandably, tend to think of themselves as independent  — “I built this business, it’s mine, I am king of my castle, don’t you mess with me.”

That’s all fine and good when you work on a 3,000-acre spread, miles from anyone else, but for the typical small business, that’s a dangerous stance– for themselves and for others.   Here’s an easy visual: picture the stereotypical downtown eyesore owned by the 79-year old guy with the pawn shop that hasn’t had its front window washed since Eisenhower was president.  Not only is he not doing himself any favors, but he’s probably having a negative impact on the businesses and property owners around him.  Again, that’s an overly easy example, but you can sing the same tune with a lot of different words.

In a healthy small business ecosystem, owners and managers understand that, like it or not, they are to at least some extent interdependent on other businesses in their district or cluster.  The degree and type of interdependence varies depending on the type of business activity, the type of business space, whether or not customers see the location, how spread out they are physically, etc. etc.  But to be optimally successful, a small business cannot pretend that it is an island unto itself.  Cowboys

cowboy painting
He don’t need no interdependence…

can’t work in storefronts or warehouses or office cubicles – and small businesses need neighbors who understand that they all are, will you or won’t you, in this together.

Building  (or re-building) interdependence takes hard work.  It takes consistent communication, illuminating those interdependencies, probably pointing them out to some individuals over and over.  And it takes the sometimes-unpleasant work of challenging assumptions and changing how people think about the environment in which they operate.  It’s work that takes time.  It’s work that takes grit.  But it’s the right work.  It’s building that healthy small business ecosystem.

Next time: building (or re-building) networks.

Why we like communities with hearts that aren’t hollow

Deep in December, it’s nice to remember

Without a hurt, the heart is hollow.

–          “Try to Remember” (from The Fantastics)


Loss sucks.  We’d all rather just go on without it, thanks.  But that’s not really an option.  And I think we are probably better for it.


For some reason I have been thinking a lot about my parents lately, who both died when I was in my 30s.  That’s in itself not that interesting of a story – lots of people lose parents in their young adult years.  But I have been noticing lately that my relationships with my family, the way I talk to my kids, what I react to and what I don’t think to do, diverge from my friends and my husband, whose parents are very much a part of our lives.

A small example:  I talked on the phone the other day to a friend who lives several hours away, who I don’t talk to very often.  I spent probably 20 minutes catching up with her, and when I hung up, I felt a very strange sense of disconnect.  I don’t talk to people socially on the phone often anymore….seems like we tend to do everything via internet and only speak directly if there’s something specific to talk about.   But this friend doesn’t use social media.   And as I looked at the clock, I realized that I was getting off the phone with her at the same time when I always had my standing calls with my mother.  Who never learned to use email.  A call I haven’t had in nearly 6 years.


It’s funny how that old ache that you had forgotten, in the rush of to do’s every day, comes back and taps you on the shoulder when you don’t expect it.


We tend to paint our communities in terms of the happy stuff – our festivals, our pretty buildings, our lovely parks and that ever-important “work ethic” that is supposed to make our community a desirable place to live or move your business.    The vacant storefront?  The boarded-up  factory?  The down-at-the-heels neighborhood?  Don’t put them in the brochure.  Make sure you leave them off the fam tour.   We don’t need to talk about them right now.   Don’t mess up the PR.


But think back on places where you have lived and worked and visited.   I think you can make the opposite argument: places that have seen hard times are often more interesting, more engaging, easier to get excited about and care about than places that have not.    Buildings and places that hint at struggle and transition and loss speak to us, as people, in our guts, about more than just the usual utility issue that we talk about at work – can this building be rehabbed, how soon can we demolish that old warehouse?


These kinds of places indicate depth.  They whisper to us the prelude to a complex, interesting story – one that isn’t finished yet, and one where we, perhaps, can play a bit role in the play.


Much of the national conversation about the fact that people are returning to cities seems to grasp for the reasons why – walkability, character, good bars and restaurants, etc.   Maybe there is something deeper as well.  Perhaps what we are seeing is a seeking after places that have depth, whose hurts have created a heart that is no longer hollow.


When I wrote about my dad and his favorite saying, “I see usability,” a few weeks ago, I noted that maybe part of the reason why we as people so often resonate to old places is because we sense in our guts that places can be redeemed from deterioration, that tapping the usability of these places does something more profound, more germane to what it means to be human, than we imply when we say our usual lines about economic impacts and tax revenue .   If that’s true, if that’s the case for at least the portion of the population that seems to want our urban places, maybe we need to rethink how we talk about, and even present, our uglier parts.  Perhaps, in addition to the tag we place on them as Stuff We Must Fix, these places also represent How We Became the Way We Are.

And the Way We are Becoming.

Controlling axe-grinders ain’t enough: Doing real public engagement

A week or so ago I wrote about the tactics I used to manage a public question and answer session for an agency that was putting on this event as part of the lead-up to their comprehensive plan update.  The response, as I wrote here, has been amazing – and a lot of people had additional great ideas to share.

A couple of people noted very astutely that the specific situation I described wasn’t adequate to do what I would term meaningful public engagement – getting the full cross-section of people deeply involved in understanding and trying to find the solutions to the community’s big challenges.  As Al Jones wrote, if Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton had been limited to asking a couple of short questions and listening to some powdered wig answer, there would have been no Federalist Papers… and probably no functional United States.  And as Don Broussard noted, “Attendees who invest their valuable time often do not merely want to ask questions and they deserve to make comments.”

Gold star to both gentlemen.  If the only public engagement that any agency does is a half hour Q and on the tail of an hour long panel discussion, that’s lip service to the idea of public engagement.  And it would be no surprise if the special interests that were prevented from dominating that meeting (to the detriment of every other point of view in that room) came back more determined than ever the next time.

I’ve written before about the fact that our usual methods for public engagement miserably fail to do what we actually need – engage our residents, our local experts, in the real search for solutions.  If people come into a public setting with an axe to grind, that should indicate to us their massive pent-up demand for real, meaningful participation.  And if the only time we open the doors to our residents, business owners, people who care about our place, is when we want them to listen to us, then we have made our own bed.  And it’s an increasingly uncomfortable one to lie in.

The International Association of Public Participation (IAP2) has developed what they term a Spectrum of Public Participation.  It’s copyrighted, so I can’t reproduce it here, but you can see it at this location.  The Spectrum identifies five potential levels of public engagement:






A panel discussion/Q&A such as I described is designed to Inform – to help the interested public increase their understanding of and capacity for the other levels of engagement.   It’s supposed to be an introductory session, a What’s Going On 101 survey class like the kind you probably slept through a few times in college.  And in that case, the meeting management goal is to give everyone a fair chance to get their heads around the information.

But if we do only that – even if we add on the written feedback we talked about – we haven’t “done” public engagement.  We haven’t created an opportunity for anyone to “participate,” let alone “engage.”

And make no mistake: Your residents want to engage.  They want to engage as deeply, as meaningfully, as powerfully as they can.  They want to be part of the solution.  They may come in with a contorted or misinformed idea of what the solutions look like, and they may come in with a sense of mistrust – deep suspicion that whatever you’re doing is a sham.  They’ve built up a few decades of scar tissue to get to this point, so if they don’t trust us, you honestly can’t blame them for that.

It becomes our responsibility to break through that distrust, to re-stitch our community’s meaningful engagement.  And that’s not something we can do with a moderated Q&A, or one meeting of any type.   When we plan, or make decisions of any type about the futures of our communities, we need to do much more than Inform.  We need to extend as far up that engagement hierarchy as we can go.  And we can’t do that in one meeting, or with one method for letting a few sample people talk.  We have to design our public engagement consciously, drawing on a continuum of methods and tools to enable and guide people to real participation.  I’ll write more about how exactly we can do that in the future.


I just found a comment posted in an online forum, apparently from one of the members of the special interest group who spoke at that meeting.  The gentleman asserted that two younger people who spoke in favor of public art and bike trails were “obvious plants.”  I’ll swear on anything you give me that I had never seen those two before.

It took a long time for us and our predecessors to get to this point, where people who have the bravery to stand up and state honest diverging opinions are taken for plants.   We didn’t necessarily make this mess ourselves.  But if we are going to fix our communities, we have start by fixing the relationship between our residents and their governments.  It has to start with us.  And that will take more than just managing a few people with an axe to grind.


More great ways to manage public meetings – crowdsource-style!


As I am writing this, more than 1,500 people have read the article on strategies for managing public meetings – blowing the previous record for this site way out of the water.  Thanks for the boost to my (enormous and ever-hungry) ego, folks!

Here’s the cool part:  the comments – both here and on various LinkedIn groups where the article link was posted – have demonstrated an awesome level of wisdom.  The commenters have raised observations, identified strategies and uncovered general good practices that we should all stick in our back pocket for next time.

So instead of leaving them scattered all over the Internetz, I’m excerpting them here. I’ll add my comments in italics  below each quote.

Thanks so much to all of the people who took the time to share their expertise.  If you have other good ideas, please feel free to post them in the comment box at the bottom of the page,  It would be great fun to keep this conversation going.

Y’all are smart cookies.  Thanks again.   🙂


Part of the delusion of public meetings is [that] the folks with an axe to grind, a vehement agenda, compelling self-interest in the decision, etc. are the ones who make the time to go and then participate.   It gives the ready illusion of a majority opinion, a consensus, the will of the voters or at least a powerful voting bloc’s pique or placation, and of course that’s the whole point…. I’ve noticed in town assessment sessions of 8-17 separate listening sessions in a couple of days, most of the insightful stuff came from quiet people thoughtful personwho shared their thoughts at the end as the noisy ones filed out, proud that they’d restated the obvious or their passion loudly and publicly yet again.

–       Al Jones

You got that right, Al.  One of the major reasons for not moderating passively — letting whoever say whatever, like many public meeting leaders do — is that you will probably end up with a less accurate representation of what the community thinks than you would if you made a more active effort to hear from a mix of participants.

We who live so much of our lives in the public realm have an incredibly hard time remembering how many of our citizens quake in fear of the idea of going near that mic.  But give them a chance to talk out of the spotlight, and it’s amazing what you will learn from them.  If you don’t believe me, ask the other parents on your kid’s soccer team or your mother’s bridge club friends how they would feel about talking to an auditorium full of people.  You’ll get an earful.   


My observations in public meetings is that many people do not know how to be civil during the process. This includes elected and appointed officials. I believe that moderators definitely help, but they are not utilized often enough.

– Denese Neu, Ph.D

 [One of the things I have learned] from my experience in some extremely tough positions and environments is that the up front keys to not let a meeting get out of control is to set your own expectations, know as much about the attitudes of the potential audience and prepare to accept an outcome that is reasonable to the situation.

-John R. Zakian, CEcD


Great point, Denese and John.   

When teachers start a new school year, one of the first things they do is discuss classroom ground rules with the kids.  That’s critical to setting the expectations where they need to be, and it gives everyone a common reference point when someone doesn’t behave. 

We can definitely do that in a public meeting setting – in the meeting that I described, I actually did start by reminding the audience what we were there to talk about and pointing out that we needed to keep the comments on that track because that was what others had come for (additional point: invoking a little peer pressure doesn’t hurt – I got the definite sense that some of the agenda people did a quick reshuffling of what they wanted to say because of it). 

teacher in front of classroomOne really good teacher trick that we can use in some settings is to ask the participants what the ground rules should be.  You get 90% of the same rules that you would have if you just imposed them, you might get some others that are beneficial to the particular setting and group, and the whole audience becomes part-owners of the civility and quality of the conversation.  The downside is that this process takes a little longer – I tend to use this for groups that will meet multiple times, like a steering committee, rather than a public Q &A.       


Acknowledge the person and repeat the question or statement to the wider audience;
It is sometimes useful to ask a counter question instead of trying to defend e.g. “What do you think is the solution?”;
Suggest to them to discuss the issue in more detail after the meeting.

– Déan Jacobs

A couple of people pointed out the benefit of asking people to propose solutions, rather than just complain.  That can definitely lend a much the higher level of constructive value to the conversation – and after the first couple of times you do that, people will think twice about pure bellyaching because they realize that they will be asked for a solution. 

I would be careful about where and with whom you use this strategy, however… in some cases, that approach could open the door for the off-topic agenda that someone is hiding below the surface.  If your Spidey-sense tingles at the idea of giving the commenter an opening to lay into their agenda, you can ask the rest of the participants to propose solutions.  That has the additional benefit of broadening the conversation beyond one interest group as well.   


One other tip:  When someone is getting fired up on a rant, stop them with a compliment about whatever they said that is closest to the topic on hand (“That’s an interesting angle on what we heard about earlier from the other side of the room.”  or “Thanks for bringing up….  I was going to bring that up later, but let’s stay with that.”)

Then restate if neccessary.

Then say, “I want to hear more about this topic.  Who else has a comment on …?”

–Steve Schoeny

Great tactic, Steve.  Love how this end the rant, shifts the attention away from the ranter and back to the whole audience… all while making the ranter feel like he/she might have just gotten a compliment!


One of the best examples I’ve heard of comes from Tom Hudson… who would never toot his own horn. He’s told of his experience in a public meeting that he was facilitating where they expected the appearance of a man who had made threatening calls to the city. Sure enough, the guy showed up drunk and belligerent. He did some ranting and the police removed him.

After things settled, Tom, who is one of the keenest observers of human nature I’ve ever met, concluded: “Now there’s a person who really cares about his community!”

Tom suggests turning a crowd into your friends, because both positive and negative comments should be shaping outcomes and solutions.

I couldn’t agree more!

-Gary Hanes


Gary and Tom (agreed – Tom is outstanding!) point out two very valuable lessons:

  • Yes, definitely make friends with the audience.  Channelling your inner standup comic can take a little practice, but few things gentle up a potentially confrontational meeting like a laugh. 
  • Sometimes, despite our best efforts, having police as co-workers comes in handy …


I only wish we had microphones in some of my meetings. I’ve had to resort to other strategies to keep control. Moving around the audience — even turning my back to loud mouths — has been essential to keeping the discussion (or dialog) distributed.

A meeting is a process for learning, and people change their positions. Extroverts speak loudly too soon; introverts wait too long and speak too quietly. A good facilitator must keep track of the different personalities and engage them all frequently summarizing and rolling this “dough” around as the dialog takes shape.

-Paul Aydelott

Nice tactic — gotta be a little careful about how exactly you do the back-turning, but sometimes it’s all in the finesse, eh?  

I like your definition of a meeting, and I think that gives us a basis for re-designing how we set these kinds of sessions up.  I think there’s a risk for the people who do speak that the moment at the center stage can make it impossible to change your mind.   In many cases, the usual format could push people into feeling that they must cling to the position they staked out at the beginning, rather than being able to reconsider.  But again, we have to keep in mind that the people who speak are not the only ones who have opinions.  Follow-up surveys — paper, online, raising hands — can help that “dough  rolling” process.  


When I’m running a public meeting over a controversial topic, I use note cards and have people write down their questions. Then staff members will shift through questions and read the most relevant ones out loud. This also helps people collect their thoughts rather than just rambling at a microphone. I also agree with your point that you don’t have to call on everyone! :> Especially if you’re running on a schedule. Facilitators can always take questions and post answers online or send them out to the group. I also make myself available for questions after the meeting.
-Tifinie Capehart, MUP

Both good ideas.  The note card tactic gives tighter control and doesn’t allow for much participant conversation, but requiring people to organize their thoughtsin writing can often benefit the overall quality of the feedback. 

You do need to be a little careful about whether everyone in attendance can participate in this manner – someone who cannot write because of disability or illiteracy, or someone who doesn’t work in written English well, can be essentially muted in this situation.  So it’s critical to provide another alternative method for feedback – even if that’s just talking to a staffer afterward. 

One of the pieces we do often fumble is the follow-up.  Posting answers to questions that were not answered during the meeting, follow-up on factual questions, etc. can go a long way toward demonstrating that your agency was paying attention.  Just sticking that on your website, however, can be like sticking the memo in the back of the file cabinet – if you did it and people don’t know that you did it, you probably shouldn’t have wasted your time.  It needs to be not only accessible and readily visible, but the fact that it’s there needs to be publicized.   


I don’t know if some of  [the methods described] — like never letting go of the microphone (a really good idea) — could be used at a formal public hearing like on a special use permit.

– Daniel Lauber

That’s a good question, and it’s going to depend a lot on what your local regulations and policies prescribe.  Certainly, if you’re going to use that kind of strategy in a public hearing format, you would need to make sure that you take the mic to every single person who wants it, and that everyone has access to methods for feedback other than the in-person, in-meeting comment.  You certainly should make those kinds of options available in any situation. 


A big issue with the uninvolved facilitator I’ve noticed … was that they often focus too much on the process…[you have a] big thorny issue, [the facilitator gives you]15 minutes of one-liner brainstorming with no time for evaluation or thoughts too complex to take more than a catchphrase or 10 words, and [the facilitator assures that] we’ll wrassle through this in the meeting time allocated. Think of all of the thoughts in the Federalist Papers compressed to an hour with Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson each restricted to being called on once or twice.

–Al Jones


Al raises an uber-issue here: if we are sincere about public engagement, a two-hour public meeting with half an hour of controlled Q&A isn’t enough to get the job done.  When we design a site, we go through multiple steps that each add something different to the final result.  When we negotiate an economic development deal, we do the same thing – several steps, each for a different purpose          , the whole is the sum of the parts.  Useful, constructive, meaningful public engagement is no different.  We need to craft a multi-prong, multi-step approach.  More on that next time. 


Podcast: Buy 25 Tuesdays with Walnut Hills Revitalization Fund

We’re getting ready to launch a new addition to the Wise Economy Workshop — a podcast series that includes both readings from blogs and interviews with people who are doing interesting things to create Wise Economies in their communities.  The series will be available as an RSS feed from I Tunes and Stitcher shortly — as soon as we reconfigure a couple of things on the web site to make that feed work correctly. We’re looking for great stories to tell, so if you know of one that illustrates how to put the Wise Economy idea into action, please, drop me a line.


A couple of weeks ago I had a chance to sit down with Kevin Wright, the executive director of the Walnut Hills Redevelopment Fund in Cincinnati, Ohio.  Kevin’s organization serves a storied urban neighborhood that was the second-largest retail center in southwestern Ohio 75 years ago – but one that now experiences much of the vacancy, the deterioration, the challenges and the temptations of hopelessness that dog so many urban communities.  And like many of those neighborhoods, the local grocery store – both a basic service and a center of the community – has been at risk of closing for a long time.

But that’s where the story changes.

Kevin’s organization has been leading an initiative that takes the cash mob idea to a whole new place – and in the process started to shake up assumptions about urban neighborhoods and ways to get things done.  The initiative, which is a new one, is called Buy 25 Tuesdays.  Listen to or download the interview below, and you’ll discover a whole new way to change the discussion about your community.


Buy 25 Tuesdays Podcast

Here’s a few things I think we should take away from Kevin’s story:

  • This initiative didn’t work because the Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation made it happen.  it works because it has drawn together the full range of the community’s organizational capacity.  The Redevelopment Fund could not do this on its own – it does not have that kind of connection to the people they need to do the buying.  In years past, the Redevelopment Foundation and some of its partners might not have even considered collaborating like this – this is your turf and this is mine – but when they threw away those assumptions, this solution became possible.


  • When the organizations started looking to recruit those $25 buyers, they didn’t scattershot – they didn’t do what most urban planners do, which is to try to talk to everyone.  Instead, they focused on a small number of populations that they suspected would resonate to the idea.  Everyone who uses that store benefits, but only a targeted subset of the most motivated were mobilized.


  • When they developed that targeting strategy, they didn’t limit themselves to the arbitrary boundaries of neighborhoods. They understood that to find enough of the people who cared about that store’s viability, they needed to go beyond Walnut Hills proper – they needed to cover the store’s functional trade area.  Shoppers don’t worry about whether the grocery store is in “their” neighborhood or not, but people who work in community revitalization often feel obligated to stick within their official boundaries.  In this case, such an arbitrary cut-off would have probably killed the effort from the start.


  • Even though you might have assumed that Kroger leadership would leap with glee (“Hi, we’re coming to spend money in your store”), the neighborhood organizations experienced an initial wave of pushback from Kroger, which was probably understandably confused by such an out-of-the-box initiative coming from a neighborhood that seemed to present few opportunities.  Corporate leaders have come around and are beginning to partner meaningfully with the neighborhood, but that was nowhere near guaranteed even a few weeks ago.


  • The media coverage that got the corporation’s attention did not come out of the newspaper or TV broadcast. At the time I talked to Kevin, none of the traditional media had covered the Walnut Hills Buy 25 yet .   What got their attention?  A blog and a volunteer-posted video.   A lot of us still assume that we have to get coverage in the paper, on the TV news, whatever was historically the Big Media Gun in our community.  But that’s less and less the case, and in many cases might not be necessary anymore at all.


Keep in mind that what you are hearing here is a long-term initiative that is only a few steps off the blocks.  As Kevin indicated, it’s a very good start, but a start.  And the deep challenge facing this coalition of little organizations will be how to maintain the necessary consistent effort.  We have tendency to want that quick solution, and it takes a special breed of dedication to maintain focus and energy around an initiative that may take months or years to achieve its goals. But the issues that matter, these aren’t magic bullet solution kinds of issues.  We have to keep long game in mind.  So far, the Walnut Hills Revitalization Foundation and its partners are doing just that.  I hope they keep at it.  And I’ll look forward to checking in with them again in a few months.


How to run an effective public meeting when dealing with people who have an agenda.

The other night I served as moderator for a panel discussion and audience Q&A that is part of a local organization’s efforts to update their comprehensive plan.  Like many planning organizations, this agency has had some ugly run-ins with a particular interest group, and they wanted someone to manage the meeting and keep the conversation on track.

I’ve been running public meetings and discussion groups and classrooms and focus groups and God knows what else for decades – I earned my stripes on that front long before I knew what a zoning code was.  So I agreed to help them out.

I’m a little more reluctant than a consultant probably should be about blowing my own horn, so the rest of this blog post sits a little uneasily with me, with all those “I’s” in there.  But, as staffers and Planning Commission members and participants on the panel came up to me afterward, it became clear to me that I had done certain things in the management of that meeting that might be more unexpected, less in line with usual practices, than I often assume when I am living inside my own mind.  So I did a little self-analysis, walking through the meeting and the choices that I made while moderating, and identified a few decisions that probably led to the meeting’s success.  So, here’s what I think I (and the agency) did right:

  • An outside moderator ain’t a bad idea.  As the outsider, I had a lot of aces up my sleeve.  Since I didn’t know any more than the broad outline of the previous confrontations, I could plead innocence (and get away with acting a little more innocent than I probably am).  I didn’t have any stake in the ground, so no one had any reason to accuse me of bias.  I didn’t know exactly who the potential troublemakers were, but I had a sense of where they were concentrated, so I could make sure that the question opportunities were spread around with little risk of specifically ignoring one person or another based on some history they had with the agency.


Most importantly, I could take a strong leadership role because I didn’t have to worry about offending anyone.  After all, when this is over, I am going home, people.   If I had been in the city I live in, with people I knew in the audience, I would have found myself in a very different situation.


  • Never let go of the microphone.  I almost never take public questions via a stand mic or podium in the front of the room.  I almost always go at it Phil Donohue-style – I wade as deep into the audience as the cords will let me and either hold the mic for speakers or repeat their questions over the sound system (which also allows you to rephrase – valuable if someone has an axe to grind and wants to talk about something that is off topic).   


I made the mistake with the first public question of giving the microphone to the guy (he was a lot taller than me), and I realized almost immediately that I had put us at risk of substituting a soapbox speech for a constructive question.  Fortunately, that didn’t happen.  The rest of the time, I went back to my usual modus operandi and told each person “that’s OK, I’ll just hold the mic for you.”  That makes it easier to control the sound quality, too.


  • Just because someone puts their hand up doesn’t mean you need to call on them.   We have this assumption from our days in school that the first one with the hand up is the one that should get to show off his or her knowledge — but we all know that teachers select who they will call on, and after a while the kid who knows all the answers doesn’t get called on anymore.  Only calling on that person wouldn’t do the rest of the students much good.  We don’t want to ignore people if we can help it, but a forum where we need to understand the cross-section of public opinion is not going to fill that purpose if we play by those elementary school rules.


It is crucial to cover the meeting space – both in terms of taking questions from all over the room, but also taking questions from people of different ages and genders.  I was very careful to select for both of those from the raised hands.   If I had simply stuck in the corner where the most hands went up, I would have both turned off the rest of the crowd and prevented us from getting a useful picture of the full range of public opinion.


  • If you don’t want a special interest to run your meeting, you must run it, you must control it yourself.  The room included several (I was told later that it was about 10) members of the special interest group that I described, and they clearly came with the intention of taking over the conversation.  I am not sure exactly what was on their agenda that night, but it was pretty clear that they wanted to turn it to the issues of interest to them, rather than the issues everyone else came to talk about, if they got half the chance.


I wasn’t going to give them that chance.


I chose which of the several raised hands from that group got to speak, just like I made that choice with everyone else.  I kept control of the mic (which meant I was sort of holding hands with one guy at one point – a little weird, but oh well),  and I made a point of restating a question that veered off onto a rant about a federal agency to how the local community can best cope with uncertainty over federal regulation impacts.

photo of Della and public speaker
Me and my new boyfriend…


If I had let them have their way, if I had not pulled the relevant element out of a largely off-topic question, the meeting would have degenerated into an unproductive verbal fight.  A moderator must keep that from happening.  In this case, controlling the situation required a pretty soft touch – but I have scolded confrontational or rude participants before.   Sometimes it is simply necessary for the good of everyone else in the room.  It is simply part of the job.


  • Never, never allow a special interest group to command all your attention.  If you focus on the people you are most worried about, you do a gross disservice – an insult, really – to the people who came to be part of a real conversation.


When I was a young teacher during my short education career, I learned pretty quickly that every class had three or four students who were inclined to “act out” – you know the type.  When you are the teacher, your instinct is to spend all your time trying to intervene with those kids – get them to pay attention, prevent them from doing something troublesome, whatever.   It’s like having an attention black hole in the back of the room.  But if you give into that instinct, that means that the 15 or 20 kids who weren’t acting out, who weren’t demanding your attention, get… next to nothing.  No wonder so many hate school.   And public meetings.


People who come to public meetings are taking precious time out of their lives.  They are choosing to come.  If we do not honor their contribution and commitment, if we instead let a disgruntled clique take over the classroom, we have done the same damage to our relationship with our residents as I did to the good students in the classroom when I ignored them in favor of the troublemakers.


What tricks of the trade do you use when moderating public meetings?  I’d love to hear your good ideas… after all, next time I might have to break out the brass knuckles.   Ya never know.

We have animals more equal than others.

All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.

-George Orwell, Animal Farm.

person in pig suit

That might be the most uncomfortable quote many people remember from high school English.  I suspect you at least sort of recall the story: barnyard animals, attempting to create an egalitarian society, end up with a pig-driven dictatorship.

Paul Davidoff does not approve.

Planning 101 is pretty adamant on this point: everyone participates, everyone has a stake, if you’re going to bend over backward for anyone, it had better be those who feel like outsiders – the poor, the less-educated, the minority.   Everything is open, every voice has the same weight.  Democracy at work.

But we have a problem.  Actually, we have two problems:

(1)    The way we do public engagement cuts off large numbers of our residents.  If I work in an emergency room, or have my shift at Old Navy that night, what’s the chances I can get to your public meeting?  If I cannot speak because I am autistic, or I have a heavy accent, how am I going to give you the feedback you want if all you give me is a microphone?

I’ve flogged that idea before— it’s important enough that I don’t want to miss a chance to mention it.  But that one is fixable – it’s simply a matter of using more of the tools in our toolbox.  Fundamentally, at least, not a big deal.  We can do it.

But what do we do with this one?

(2)    We live in a world where the economic potential, economic growth and long-term economic vibrancy of a community – really, its ability to stay alive–  depends more and more on that place’s supply of talented, creative, innovative people.  From academics to local staffers, local economy discussions return over and over and over again to the same refrains:

We aren’t attracting enough talent. How do we get more talent?  Where do we find more talent?  How do we keep talent here? 

I moderated a public forum on economic competitiveness for a local agency last night.  Among seven economic development professionals and a large audience, the entire night’s wide-ranging conversation came back again and again to the question of retaining and attracting individuals with talent.  It didn’t matter if we were talking about scientists or machinists: talent was the scarce and precious resource, like water supply or electricity or rail lines might have been in another era.  That meant that we spent as much time talking about housing and sidewalks and education and trails as we did about industries and finance.  The purpose: attract and retain the talent.

There is not a shortage of humans.  There is apparently a shortage of talent.  Which means there is a shortage of economic fuel, of the stuff that will determine whether we can pay for what we need or not.

We have a problem.

We say that all participants are important, but only some of them are keeping us afloat.  We say that everyone matters, but the cold hard fact is that some people have more economic value than others – not just for themselves, but for communities and regions and nations.  The engine driving the economy is people, but it’s not all people.  It’s the talent.

We are moving from an economy based on building things with interchangeable widgets (or people), to an economy where value comes from creating something new.  We find ourselves in a situation where education, initiative, and the discipline or good luck to have not made bad decisions in the past separate a valuable economic input from a dead weight.  Richard Florida speaks of cities as being “spiky” – places with talent attract more talent and have faster and stronger economic growth, while everyone else loses what talent they had and fall farther and farther behind.  To those who have much, much will be given.  To the rest of you…good luck.

And here is the heart of the struggle: people who deal with economic development, whether they call themselves economic developers or planners or administrators or whatever, know that all this is more and more true.  Your economic future depends on your talent, and not everyone in your community is talent.  And we have less and less flex in the system, less and less margin of error.  We can’t give everything to everyone.  But when you have to decide on the strategies you need to develop for your community to thrive into the future, you find yourself in a damned hard place.

Some animals are more equal than others.


When you are a consultant, you are supposed to have all the answers.  People look at you with expectant eyes: Tell us how to fix this.  Show us how to solve this.  Make it better.    And God knows, us consultants, we want to fix it.  We do.

I don’t know how to fix it.  I don’t know if it can be fixed.   There’s an inherent conflict here between the belief that all people matter and our need for self-preservation, between democratic ideals and economic realities, between Paul Davidoff and Richard Florida.  Somehow we have to hold both, deal with both, accept the contradiction and not let it put us in a chokehold.  But how?

I don’t know.  Maybe you do.  What do you think?

Where is the place for engineering-think?

Hi. My name is Della, and I work with engineers.  I also married one.   Anyone know of a good support group?

Engineers have a unique handle on the world, one that non-engineers  like me often struggle to understand. Engineers face their world with a certainty — I don’t know how much is genetic and how much is taught — that seems to far exceed what the rest of us can muster.  There is a certain optimism to the engineer’s approach: all problems have a solution, we just have to figure it out.

Heroic poster of  US Corps of Engineers
Yeah, most of the engineers I know don’t look like this either.

It’s almost an Enlightenment perspective. The world is fully knowable, we just haven’t got it all worked out yet.

If you have read or heard me speak before, you might have started with the assumption that this essay would do a nice job of snarking on our friends with the pocket protectors and the black-and white pen sets.  I’ve certainly made it clear before that my own angle is all about mess and complexity.  And I haven’t typically shown much patience for people who believe in simple solutions.

But we who try to make communities work better need to maintain, some piece of the engineer’s approach.   It’s so easy for us to become cynical, to give up on the hope of finding solutions, out here on the hairy edge of the most complicated systems in human existence.

We can’t control (fill in the blank),

The (fill in the blank) won’t let us do it,

The (fill in the blank) will never understand.

Twiddle at the margins, shrug the shoulders, punch the clock and go home and forget about it.


It is legitimate and necessary to call out the engineers when their search for a logical solution leads to building walls between one issue and another (“the purpose of this project is to improve traffic flows.  We can’t predict what kind of development will occur”).   The easiest path to a clear world view is to limit what you are looking at to a manageable subset of the whole convoluted thing. From a cognitive perspective, the limited, the technical, approach makes sense.   But we all know that we have made enough of a mess, created enough unpleasant unintended consequences for our communities by allowing such simplistic approaches to rule the day.  We do have to assert that solving one problem while ignoring the whole ecosystem cannot be the acceptable choice anymore.

But that doesn’t mean that we can’t find better solutions.  We have access to more and more information every day from our colleagues in the social sciences about how people behave, how groups of people work, how effective decision-making in complex settings can be structured to do it right.  And we have access to more, and better, and more immediate data on how exactly our communities are working than we have ever had before.

From where I stand, the greatest challenge of our era is to figure out how to use new ideas, tools and information to manage communities in their entirety, as complex ecosystems rather than as a set of specialized machines.   We might not be able to do it perfectly, but we can do it better and better.  That’s an approach that the engineering profession has learned through hundreds of years of  bridges and roads and steadily improving methods for making them stronger, less costly, and better.  That’s a pretty powerful reason to be sure of yourself.  Instead of snarking, let’s recruit them to the cause.


Filtered mirrors and Hunger of Memory

I’m not a scholarship boy.  But I am.

The summer before I started college at Northwestern University, I was assigned to read an autobiography by Richard Rodriguez called Hunger of Memory.  I read it (I was a good kid who did her assignments even when I had no idea why), participated in the residential college discussion group (no idea what we discussed), and then stuck it on a dorm room shelf.

Months later, somehow, I ended up reading it again.  That first year of college was one of the toughest in my life – not only was I far from home and discovering that the career I had assumed I would follow since middle school was a poor fit for me – but I dimly understood that somehow I was way out of place, fundamentally disconnected from the ease, the comfort, the relaxed assumption of privilege that I sensed in the kids around me (but there is no way I could have told you all that then).   I was miserable, isolated, and could not figure out why.

The life that Rodriguez described didn’t look much like mine.  Child of Mexican immigrant parents, product of a rigorous Catholic education, growing up in 1950s California, the world he described bore little resemblance to my Yankee and Appalachian parents, my scruffy public high school or 1970s Cleveland.  But, on that second reading, some things did resonate:

His sense of isolation resulting from being smart and finding yourself defined in terms of your perceived brains – defined with pride and preening from adults and distance and distrust from other kids.

The conflict between that identity and the more routine messages directed to your peer group (Mexican boys, or working class girls, should get their noses out of books and work on fitting in.)

The experience of being a given an incomprehensible gift, in terms of an education far beyond what you should have aspired to, and the nagging underlying panic of insecurity over whether you could do it, whether you really belong in this place after all.

I never understood my background as blue collar or rust belt or working class until I went to Northwestern.  I had no sense of where my blind spots were, of how what I knew and assumed differed from what others knew and assumed, until I landed unceremoniously on the shore of a lake and in a big city I had only seen once before.  I had never read a Latino author.  I had never met someone who was Orthodox Jewish, Taiwanese, Bulgarian, or rich, until I went there.  If I had stayed close to home, attended the local state school that was my backup plan, stuck with people who looked and sounded like me, my understanding of my own life and the world around me, even today, would be very different.   In a sense, Rodriguez, and Hae Won Lee, and Bodgan Vacaliuc and Gail Holmberg, held up a mirror to me and the world behind me – one that didn’t show a picture-perfect reflection, but one that applied a filter, like on a camera lens, to draw into sharp focus a color in that image that I had not seen before.  And because of that, I understood who I was and what the world I had come from was like in a way that would have never occurred to me otherwise.

A couple of weeks ago I retweeted the following from Saul Kaplan:

Don’t fall into narrative fallacy trap. We select stories to fit our current mental models.

The statement appealed to me, but I wasn’t sure I understood.  So I added “Great – how?”  Saul responded:

Avoid narrative fallacy trap by selecting for stories that make you uncomfortable and challenge your thinking.

My experience at Northwestern had selected those kinds of stories for me.  I had a whole lot of uncomfortable in that time, and my entire frame of reference was deeply challenged as a result of it.

I have written a few times lately about the need to break through our paradigms, our usual assumptions about how our communities work and what they need and what our job within them is, because our old solutions have generally turned out to be ineffective and we need to undertake a broad-based reboot.   But I’ve struggled with trying to imagine how exactly we can do that.  I’m thinking we need to take a page from Richard, and from Saul.

We have a tendency, in our lives and in our work, to listen only to the people that we perceive as being “like” us.  We value the opinions of other planners or economic developers or administrators, we read the books and the blogs that profess the beliefs that we are already talking about, and we assume that people whose opinions fall outside that narrow range are ill-informed, malicious or just plain stupid. I don’t think this trend is a new one;  19th – century Americans certainly didn’t have much exposure to people who hadn’t come up through the same culture.   But if we assume that building the kinds of economies and communities that we want requires new solutions that address the interdependent and intertwined nature of modern communities, then sticking within our own echo chamber probably just means that the walls of our ineffective assumptions continue to ossify, like a fossil.

Here is the great challenge, the summer reading assignment for you and for me: let’s try to broaden our perspectives.  Let’s try to find and listen to some of those stories that come from outside our usual sources, that make us at least a little uncomfortable.  Maybe that’s a different political perspective, a different profession, a  different type of place.  An economics-focused person if you are a designer; a designer if your life revolves around money.

Listen to experts and normal people, people who live in your community and people from Somewhere Else.  Most importantly, let’s do our best to listen with an open mind.  They may use words we don’t get or find unnerving, they may focus on experiences that we can’t envision, they may make their own set of assumptions that crash violently into our own.  But let’s not just ask, but get in the habit of asking:

What does this person see that I haven’t been seeing?

Where are the unlit corners of my assumptions, and how does this person’s ideas fit into those?


What mirror is this other perspective holding up to me?  What does that mirror show that I haven’t noticed before, or maybe that I don’t want to see?

If I assumed for a moment that this person was completely, perfectly right, how would that change my understanding?  What change would that necessitates in how I, my department, my organization work?  Are any of those changes good ideas regardless?


This isn’t just a philosophical exercise.  It’s a way to start to get over the barriers that have been holding us back, that have been leading us to believe that This, whatever This is, Is The Only Way To Do It.   We need to increase our access to filtered mirrors, we need to re-see our own situations through the eyes of someone from outside our own frame of reference, to understand where our blind spots have been —  where the brick walls that have been preventing us from finding new solutions will turn out to be no more than narratives, stories of their own.





Tolerance in an unpredictable economic world

What is it about human character that makes it so easy for us to judge one another?  It is so easy, dangerously easy sometimes, for us to assume that we understand what another human being is feeling, why they are reacting the way they are, and to immediately swing into that you-should-do-this, I-know better-than-you mode of thinking and talking.

We mean well, at least sometimes – many of us certainly have an at least somewhat altruistic urge to help other people, to try to fix their problems.  But how often does the way we go about it have more impact than the guidance we are actually trying to convey?  How often does our approach scuttle our potentially useful information?  How often do we inadvertently hurt more than we help?

I’ve got a microcosm of this in front of me right now.  I recently described my husband of 20 years in this space as a personal bulwark and my secret weapon, which he is.  He is also, and has been since I first met him when we were 20, the most self-assured person I have ever known.  Not generally arrogant, not pompous or anything, just quietly, fundamentally self-assured.   He is a very bright man, a very good thinker, highly analytical and highly articulate.   He’s right about things a whole lot of the time, and he knows his own history on that front.  And because of that, he tends to say what he means pretty directly.   Dave sees the world in pretty clear distinctions of black and white, and how you couch the facts is less important to him than the facts themselves.

This has never been a problem for me – I’m not exactly a shrinking violet myself, and I can certainly hold my own with a strong personality most of the time.  But our two sons are 10 and almost 14, and I don’t know if it’s the age or their own personalities, but they are much more thin-skinned than Dave and I are.  At this moment, both are nursing resentments toward him over offhand comments that they interpreted as cutting.  I know that Dave intended the comments as a joke – but also as a way of pointing out to them where they had made a mistake.  In both cases, however, I happen to know that Dave was missing part of the story.  And the kids know that, too.  And it worries me that there is another tick mark in the “Dad doesn’t understand me” column inside their heads.


Several researchers, most notably Richard Florida, have documented that tolerance toward people who are different from ourselves is one of the marks of the most successful places in the modern, post-industrial economy.   Tolerance is hard to define, but it has at least two levels.

One is co-existence – live and let live.  You live, work, have fun in a different way than I do, and that’s OK.  To each his own.

The second level is a little deeper, but I think becomes a logical outgrowth of that first level: the willingness to accept that there might be some truth, some validity, something that I can learn from in the fact that you do and believe something different from me.

The first level is a cultural norm: in a modern environment, it’s the social equivalent of good table manners.  If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything.

The second level is something more profound, with more risk of leaving us unsettled, cut off from what we were certain about – and more risk of discovering vistas we didn’t know existed.  If I allow myself to consider your different way of thinking as not only something I should put up with, but something that could have a grain of truth to it, I have to come face to face with the fact that something I assumed was true…might not be.

That second level of tolerance requires perhaps the deepest type of self-assurance – acceptance that we might not know all the answers, that we might have something to learn from others who are different from ourselves.  That we can shift our assumptions, change our perspective, try something fundamentally different,  without losing the important stuff of who we are.

I have become convinced that we are in a new economic epoch, and that our cities and towns and places of all types are going to have to come out of the other end of this process fundamentally different than they are now.  I think the practical fact is that we as community leaders can either summon our bravery and lead a search for new ways of managing our communities and economies, or we can drag our feet.  Either way, the world is changing: the question is whether we work at trying to ride the wave, or pretend we don’t see it  — and let it swamp us.

As I’ve said before, neither I nor Richard Florida nor whoever know exactly what that’s going to look like (if someone tells you they do, you can be certain they’re probably wrong).   A world that is changing necessitates that we  re-examine our assumptions and learn new ways to operate. Just like Dave needs to re-examine how he relates to his kids and do the hard work of learning a new way to do that.

It’s not easy.  If it were, we would have done it already.  But we can, and we will.  We just gotta do it.

Just don’t tell Dave that I ratted on him…. <shhhhhh>

Cultivating the Small Business Ecosystem (part 2)

To continue where we left off last week, talking about small business ecosystems:

When you grow a garden, you don’t build the plants out of rocks and plastic.  You create the environment where those tiny, threadlike little seedlings have the best chance you can give them of growing into strong and resilient plants.  Some plants grow faster than others, some are inherently hardier.    You can’t do it for them.  Your job is to give them the best chance you can give them to grow. 

Just like gardeners work at giving their plants the best odds to thrive, we who care about communities can build an environment where our small businesses have the best chances to grow.

Fine.  So you can’t build seedlings out of rocks and plastic.  So what the heck are we supposed to do?

If you want to build a healthy small business ecosystem in your community, you have to

children at white house working on garden

put in a significant amount of work ahead of time, and maintain diligent attention once the seedlings start coming out of the ground.

Okaaay…and the prep work looks like…what?

  • Helping potential entrepreneurs select the right seeds.  One of those capacity issues we talked about the other day has to do with market knowledge.  Entrepreneurs tend to start businesses on a gut sense of an opportunity – or on a “gee, it would be cool to do that” sort of model.  A lot of time that works out just fine, but there’s also a big risk of wrong moves or mistaken choices that can cut into the entrepreneurs’ reserves.  As we discussed, one of the biggest differences between small businesses and larger businesses is capacity, whether that’s cash reserves, hours in a day or knowledge.  Missteps in the beginning can set a business up for failure, and anything that wastes capacity cuts away at a very thin layer of reserves.


Communities can help select the right seeds by sharing real-world information about their assets and their opportunities.  What’s our economic makeup?  Where are we over-supplied or undersupplied?  What are the hidden, maybe small-scale opportunities that result from population subsets or unusual regional destinations that out-of-towners might not know about? This information isn’t hard to come by, if you know where to look.  But it can make all the difference between a hometown success story and a could-have-been-if-only.


  • Preparing the soil.  If you are starting a garden on a vacant lot, you don’t just throw seeds down and hope for the best.  You have to make sure that the dirt can nourish the plants you’re planning to grow, and of course all dirt is certainly not created equal.  What you need to add or do depends on what you are planning to grow.  Peat moss?  Mulch?  Compost?  Fertilizer?  Lime?  One seed needs one, one seed needs another.


Some business types benefit from opportunities to build strong local networks, while others need international connections.  Sometimes they need help with inventory management, human relations issues, finding funding to grow into their potential.  None of these require a degree in rocket science, but again, remember capacity: if I am an overwhelmed small business owner, chances are I will stumble along by the seat of my pants….until the crisis that has been building up through my inability to manage that issue effectively takes front and center.  And by then, it may be too late.   If we want to build a small business ecosystem, one of the easiest and simplest things we can do it to make this assistance easily available.  Chances are someone somewhere is providing the information your local businesss need… they just aren’t aware of it or able to get it with what little energy they have to throw at it.  Putting that within reach isn’t hard…but it takes consistent effort and lots of repetition.  Just like with fertilizing, once is never enough.


  • Monitoring the ecosystem’s development.  Biologists don’t just look at an ecosystem once – they identify key measurable indicators, and they check them regularly.  What’s the water ph?  How many songbirds did we count this year?  Are we above or below the average for rainfall?  How else are you going to understand where things are going – or what we need to change in order to nudge trends in a better direction? 


We do a particularly lousy job of monitoring our local small business ecosystems.  We tend to assume that everything is fine based on a few overly-simplistic indicators, like the number of new businesses, without digging deeper into the data to understand whether those factors are actually signs of growth or decline.  An increase in the number of birds might look like a good sign to a biologist, but if most of the growth is invasive species who compete with the natives, that numerical increase might not be such a good thing.  Similarly, adding jobs that pay minimum wage or require only minimal skills could be less something to crow about than something to take as a warning signal.


None of these tasks are hard, and none of them require skills or information that we don’t already have or can borrow from other professions.  What we do need to bring to it is the diligence and the long-term perspective to cultivate our small business ecosystems.  It won’t happen overnight.




Building a human ecology (plus a lot of gorillas)

What does a community ecology need?

I have been musing a lot lately over what I think is one of the most critical challenges of this era: what can we who work with cities and villages and neighborhoods do to build better community ecologies?  That’s a strange way to put it, but I used the words I chose on purpose.

As I’ve talked about here before, the challenge of building a Wise Economy requires us to shift how we think about our communities away from separate systems (parks, economic development, planning) and toward a community as an ecosystem.  I’m not particularly environmentally-minded (or good at not killing plants), but for me, the metaphor makes the most sense:  communities are human ecosystems, and it is the health of whole system, and particularly the relationships between the parts of the system that make the biggest difference between places where people choose to live and thrive, and places where people get stuck because for one reason or another they have no choice.  A community with great jobs  but no community leadership will not stay healthy for long, but using the need to protect and grow the community’s economycan create an environment in which better leadership can also thrive.

We have sometimes done a lot of damage to our human ecosystems in the name of planning and economic development.  We have demolished vibrant neighborhoods, wasted millions of dollars on projects that demonstrated little long-term benefit, and too often demonstrated that our mental model of how a community works  looked more like a simplistic mechanical model than it did like the complex, organic, constantly-changing places that we could have observed is we’d been paying attention – and that people from outside our box, like Jane Jacobs, pointed out to us.  We need to learn those lessons and view our communities as human ecologies,  not only for the hard-core economic reasons having to do with jobs and tax revenues, but because we need to do a much better job of leveraging our communities’ capacity to do the hard work of making the place work better.

Today we have an economic environment surrounding most communities where the Big Players, the Big Businesses, the Big Leaders that we relied on in the past simply aren’t around the way they used to be.  I spent time recently working with a classic Rust Belt city where we had a variant of a conversation I have had more times than I can count:

In generations past, a small group of 800-pound gorillas in town Got Stuff Done.  Need to raise money for a project?  Need new blood on City Council?  Need to set priorities, kick someone into gear, make something happen?  As long as you could get their attention (and you were willing to let it be done their way), you had it made.  Stuff Got Done.

In this community, as in hundreds of others, the 800-pound gorillas, for better or worse, are gone.  Instead, we have communities with a large number of smaller players – 100-pound or 50-pound gorillas, if you will.  Capacity is still there, but it’s not as simple to get it in motion as it used to be.  Since we have tended to think so simplistically, we don’t know how to harness those gorillas together.   So we underestimate the capacity we have, we decry the loss of the Old Days, and we assume that we are stuck, that we can no longer make our communities better.

Like so many of these issues, we have to evolve beyond seat-of-the pants assumptions and the rules for playing together that we learned in elementary school.  If we are going to create better human ecosystems, and if we are going to do so in a world where we can’t be passive, where we cannot simply rely on someone with big muscles and deep pockets to do it for us  We have to actively engage the smaller gorillas and lead them to harness

harness for bowhunting
This thing is actually called a Gorilla harness. I have no idea why.

themselves together.  That means that we have to:

  • Pull them together.  Gorillas are territorial, so this in itself has to be done in a way that makes them feel safe – and doesn’t create an opportunity for any particularly ambitious gorilla to try to assert dominance.


  • Paint for them the picture of the community’s deepest needs.  Gorillas are smart, but they know their own territory better than anything else.  We need to help them see the whole picture through facts and through stories, and help them understand how their most urgent issues, their own piece of ground, relates to the health of the rest of the environment.


  • Lead them through the process of identifying priorities.  With so many gorillas and no silverbacks, consensus is essential but seldom comes easily.  Someone, perhaps you, has to lead  — but not the old way, with growling and chest-pounding and intimidation.  Lead from within.


  • Don’t leave getting it done to chance.  Gorillas can be powerful, but a lot of other issues are demanding their attention.  The most successful communities not only plan, but set up the process for making it get done.  One current client that has  an impressive history of successes in the face of tough challenges  set up a committee of Council, consisting of electeds, staff administrators and key members of the community.  Their job?  Literally, hold the feet of the City and other agencies to the fire of doing the work that the community set out for itself through the plan.  No shirking.  We are watching, plan in hand.


We no longer live in an era where we can take healthy, vibrant human ecologies for granted.  We who work with local governments and nonprofits are our communities’ biologists – we see the warning signs of trouble before almost anyone else.  We don’t always know how to solve it, and we don’t always do a good enough job sending up the alarm.  And sometimes we get scared and don’t send up the alarm at all, or we raise our concerns timidly and back off when the gorillas growl.  But we know what’s at stake.

C’mon, everyone, time to stop chest-thumping and put on the harness.

Helping places make room for What We Will Be Next

Damn movie.  There’s another one on the list.

I learned a long time ago that I am way too good at buying into what theater people call the willing suspension of disbelief – what you do when you get caught up in an acted-out story and react to it as though it were real, even when you know darn well that it’s make believe.  I have a ridiculously long list of movies that hit me so hard when I watched them, got me so worked up, that I know I can never watch them again.   What Dreams May Come?   Forget it.  The Mission?   No freakin way.  Up?  It’s a cartoon, after all… crap.

I knew the first time I watched Up that I needed to skip the first five minutes about the main character’s life with his wife and his losing her after a long happy marriage.  Bull’s eye on Pressure Point  #1, but we can handle this.

Of course, near the end of the movie, that character has to re-confront his loss, accept it and let go.   I walked in on my 10-year old son watching it last night (I had purposely avoided the room all evening, but it was getting late and I wanted him to go to bed), and ended up watching the last five minutes with him.  Cue the waterworks.

In his recent book The Great Reset, Richard Florida writes most eloquently about the underlying sense of loss and struggle to move on that pervades many communities, particularly in the Rust Belt and other areas that have struggled to transition to the new economic epoch that is unfolding.    As I have mentioned here before, many of the places I know best have been struggling to deal with that loss, and make that transition, for decades.  I watched my parents and many others where I grew up come face to face with the consequences of a changing world long before I had ever heard of Lehman Brothers.

Florida includes a lovely quote from John Craig, former editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

“Fundamental change will be much longer in coming than you can imagine.  You’ll survive.  But there’ll be no ‘getting over’ your past, only moving beyond it.”


You also can’t get back your past, as much as you might want it.  It just doesn’t work.

I have spent more time than I can count with communities where leaders – council members, Chamber of Commerce officials, and others – have said to me with complete sincerity, “we just need to get the shoe factory back.”  Or, a slightly more sophisticated approach to the same idea: “We just need to land another big factory/a new shopping mall/a new…something.”

Go find that unicorn, and when we bring it back to our community, we will all live happily ever after.


We who work with communities know, or should know by now, that this is a fantasy.   The world has changed, and is changing.  We have to get on with it.

The psychologist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross described grieving as a five-step process:  denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally, acceptance.   In Up, the main character reaches the point of acceptance when the house in which he lived so happily with his wife, and which he has clung to and protected throughout the movie, floats away into the distance  (If you haven’t seen it, trust me on that one.  It involves a lot of balloons.)    

For some of us, the greatest challenge we face is to help our communities allow their past identities – industrial heart, shopping mecca, favorite tony suburb– float away.    In the community context, that requires a combination of

  • Data that puts the change and the opportunity in front of our eyes,
  • An empathetic, collaborative approach that makes everyone, not just a few, the owners of our future, and
  • A clear-eyed, pragmatic strategy for doing the tough, long-term work that has to happen to make that transition happen.

Florida also paraphrases and then quotes Howard Fineman of Newsweek:

[The lesson of resurgent places] is to pick yourself up and get back to work.  Don’t expect the federal government or anyone else to save your city or bring back your industries.  ‘It is that the old world will inevitably disappear, and that creating a new one is up to you, not someone else.’

We have to remember, honor and love our pasts, but not cling to them.  That’s true for us as people and use as communities.  Only when we can help our communities do that work of letting go do we allow ourselves to have space for What We Will Be Next.

salt, pig, chicken something…re-learning how to grow a community.

This post is adapted from one titled “Salt of the station street pig and chicken” that originally appeared on the blog of a dear friend and a woman I admire.   Rebecca Maclean is both the blogger behind Food Me Once, and also one of the editors and primary authors of the Digging Deep Campaign.  Becky and I don’t always see eye to eye, but she understands successful urban environments as both a planner and as a person who has made the dedicated choice to live in the city, small kids and husband in tow.  She’s quite an asset to Pittsburgh.  I hope they’re starting to get that.

When I tweaked this entry, I did so to highlight Becky’s message about something that can be tough for economic developers and planners to hear: the places that do best are often the places that do so despite us.  There’s something that happens in successful neighborhoods that a zoning code, an incentive package, or a nice maps with lots of colors…doesn’t.  The critical challenge to our professions in this era is to drop our top-down assumptions and get deep into the understanding of how exactly these places thrive — and how, tactically and incrementally, we can help make that happen.

My distaste for the short-man-in-the-long-cape approach is pretty well known by now, but that’s not the point here.  The point is that we need to start looking closely at case studies like Kevin Sousa’s in Pittsburgh: put some effort into taking them apart and understanding the moving parts.  We need to analyze the details and the myriad of factors that go into these kind of places, and figure out how to support them —  more tactically, more delicately .

We need to regard planning for the revitalization of communities as a social science, not a mechanical, this-goes-in-one-end-and-that-comes-out-the-other process.  There are no magic levers, no simple buttons that we can push to make it go.  Long-term, resilient, successful places need to grow, with all the messy complexity that comes with that.  And if communities seeking revitalization don’t need a Grand Design, they most certainly need a good gardener.  One that doesn’t squash or over-water the seedlings.

That is our job.  Here’s Becky:

Gentrification. Revitalization. Stabilization. All words that come to mind when you’re thinking about what to do, exactly, with declining urban neighborhoods. But at the core of that “what to do” lies a mental barrier that urban planners (myself included) often fail to address.

At the end of the day, we can’t “do” anything with property that we don’t own – at least not easily or without great cost (financial and otherwise) to the community. This is why many of the best-loved neighborhoods, those that have revitalized and stabilized, are organic ones – places that developed, regrew and thrived for reasons that no planner ever planned.  Perhaps they were steered or supported by community development corporations, neighborhood plans, or local planning departments, but, at their core, these places have been driven forward by people on the ground who were willing to take risks, pour their money (and those of their investors) into a place, make connections, and hope it sticks.

Here in Pittsburgh, I’ve had a soft spot in my heart for the East Liberty neighborhood for years. Once the third largest shopping district in Pennsylvania, East Liberty has great history, classic architectural gems, a decades-long period of decline, and some fantastically awful centralized planning decisions. Due to hard work and boots on the ground from the neighborhood Community Development Corporation and other stakeholders, this area is hopping once again. The smaller spaces in the neighborhood have for the most part been slowly rehabbed and now include a mix of established and relatively new businesses.


Here’s the sticky part: who’s the most important stakeholder in this process? The neighborhood resident who stuck it out here through the decline and rebirth? The chamber of commerce? The CDC, which busted its butt trying to get vacant buildings filled with a sustainable mix of tenants, only to get flack because they’re the ‘wrong kind’?

The mix is critical to success, but everyone is always critical of the mix.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately as I frequent businesses in East Liberty. So many are food-based  – two Ethiopian restaurants, a Jamaican place, the cupcake bakery, the pizza shops, the Parisian bistro, the hip local dive bar, the waffle-centered performance art space, the conflict kitchen, the barbeque place, the hot dog shop, the burger bar, the modern American restaurant. As I write this list off the top of my head, I’m struck by the fact that most of these businesses are relatively new. One of the pizza shops is a long-timer; the rest have been operating a decade or less. And although most business owners are happy with any patrons, for the most part the clientele seems to be young, non-minority, hip, with disposable income. I think it’s safe to say that the immediate neighborhood residents would not fit that description. So East Liberty is back to being a destination – which, to be fair, is its historical role.


A conversation with a fellow local food blogger raised a tough question: what level of new investment in a neighborhood is appropriate for someone to bring into the community from outside? Does that level change if the business owners are from the neighborhood, the city, the region – or if they’re a complete outsider? What if they bring with them a certain caché, a cult of personality, a track record for excellence in their world?


Local foodies know by now that I’m talking about Kevin Sousa and his East End restaurantSalt of the Earth logo triumvirate (two of which are in East Liberty, and one in the urban core of the neighborhood). His first restaurant, Salt of the Earth in nearby Garfield, earned major accolades from the broader culinary community (Food and Wine and the James Beard Foundation, among others) and has been lauded locally. Rehabbing that building was seen as a Good Thing too, turning a historic Harley Davidson dealership from the 1920s into a hot spot on a stretch of Penn Avenue that sorely needed some eyes on the street at night.  He’s followed that up with two restaurants opening almost simultaneously: Station Street Hot Dog Shop, and Union Pig & Chicken.  And the grumbling has grown along with his foodie empire.


I just don’t get it. The hot dog shop had been vacant for over a year, and is carrying on the tradition of a hot dog shop in that vicinity (with that name) since 1915. The barbeque place bore the brunt of the complaints, both because people are very opinionated about their barbeque and because a white dude from McKees Rocks is cooking barbeque in the ‘hood (haven’t heard it in quite those terms, but that seems to be the general sentiment).


Food preferences aside (though I admit to being an avid fan of Kevin’s cooking), I keep wanting to ask the naysayers these questions:

  • What would you have put in place of those restaurants?  Both storefronts were vacant. Both places are continuing the traditions of their locations.  While neither place is the cheapest place I can get a hot dog or some fried chicken, they’re not overpriced.   If $22 is too much to pay for a really good rack of ribs, why would you willingly pay $20.99 at a chain restaurant for a mediocre rack?


  • If you don’t want a Local Boy Done Good to bring restaurants to your vacant storefronts, where should he go? He’s a successful businessman with a solid following who chose to try new things in a neighborhood that needed it, and said they wanted it (one of the goals in the neighborhood plan is to become a dining destination, after all). He could have rested on his laurels and replicated his brand in the suburbs, and he didn’t.

Me, I’m happy to support a local businessman who serves food that I feel comfortable feeding to my kids in an area of the city that I love. Obviously, a lot of other people feel that way too.

This debate isn’t unique to East Liberty, or Pittsburgh.  I lived in another city neighborhood a decade ago whose parochial blue hairs tried to run the Hispanic businesses off the main street – apparently they liked vacant storefronts more. But if you alienate the small business owner, who is supposedly the lifeblood of the American economy, sooner or later you’ll end up in a chain store (or vacant window) wasteland. That’s not what I’m interested in, at all.

Thanks, Becky.  Take me to lunch the next time I’m in town, OK?



One of my favorite pictures in a plenary presentation I often give is a stock photo of a yellow crocus blooming through a melted patch in the snow.  Growing up in the Cleveland snow belt, plants weren’t much on my radar… except for that first crocus of the year, which came up at a time when spring was still imaginary and the black crust along the edge of the roadway made you think more of something dead than something coming back to life.  Despite blizzards, despite ice, despite unending leaden grey skies, that impossible little patch of color came back year after year.  There is something audacious,crocus in snow even ridiculous about a crocus… tiny, flimsy little thing with its blossom too big for its stem, pushing in when larger and prettier plants won’t grow, and taking on the same battle year after year.

Crocuses is nuts.

What do we want for the communities that we care about?  It’s fair to say that we want them to be healthy – to thrive and succeed for the long term.  No one goes into this business wanting to make short-term wins that will set the community up for disaster down the road.  But even with our best efforts to create a Wise Economy, we know that blizzards and long stretches of black snow will probably show up.

What we really want, then, is to build resiliency – to equip our communities to be able to bounce back from setbacks — to overcome lost businesses and political fights and bad development decisions and continue to provide great places for people to live and work and all that other stuff we talk about.

Here’s the kicker, though: resilient isn’t flashy.  Resilient isn’t necessarily dinner-plate-sized blossoms, neon colors, explosive growth, front-page news.  Resilience requires the right fit with the environment it’s in, with all its limitations and dirty snow and lack of sunlight. In most places, growing resilience requires a long-range, fine-grained strategy.  Community resilience requires careful attention to issues like business mix and diversity, places for many different kinds of people to live, plentiful options for getting around, systems for food and water and travel and people’s livelihoods that spread the risk, lowering the odds of a catastrophic blow.

About the time I became aware of the crocuses, the economy where I grew up was falling

Cleveland in the1970s
the Cleveland I knew then.

apart.  We in the Rust Belt had learned to depend on a few industries, a few leaders, a few simple assumptions about the world, and we concluded that things would go on that way forever.

It didn’t.  Cleveland today is a different place than it was in 1980 – better in some ways, more challenged in others, but in terms of many measures, a place facing much harder times than it used to.  If we’d had our eyes open, if we would have lessened our dependence on those few industries, leaders and assumptions, maybe things would have been different.  Maybe, at least, we could have weathered that blizzard better.

A resilient community might not make a Million Places to See Before You Die list.   It might not feature the showplace blossoms or the tallest stems, and it might look stupid on your dining room table.  But if what you really want is a place that lasts, a place that people will care about and care for through generations…if you want your community to be able to bloom again after the winter…perhaps we should take a closer look at that crocus.  Maybe it’s on to something.

What can planners do to help your community’s economy?

We all know that most of our local economies are in some form or another of mess.  Draw the border around your town, your county, your region, your state, doesn’t matter – our news stories and discussions are full of closing stores and vacant boxes, houses and 401k’s whose value has plummeted, massive holes in government budgets and previously unthinkable choices about promised future payments and services.

If you’re a planner, just try going to a party at your neighbors’ house.  What do you get asked, sooner or later?

“What are you guys doing to fix this mess?”

We know that our agency or firm couldn’t fix it all in a million years, and we know, at least intellectually, that we aren’t solely responsible.

But the question is a nagging one:  “What are you guys doing to fix this mess?”

Planners have no magic wand, and we can’t make businesses appear out of thin air.  But if we take our responsibilities for our communities seriously – if we embrace our training and deeply believe that good planning matters– then we have an important contribution to make: a contribution to solving the long-term, structural problems that have played a big role in landing our communities in this mess.  To do that, we need to approach our plans and our planning with wisdom.  We need to think ahead, anticipate the consequences of different