Design won’t fix it alone

I like designers — urban designers, architects, landscape architect, even database and user experience designers.  I’ve had the pleasure of knowing and being befriended by and working with a whole lot of people who have that eye, that sense, that skill for making things look good and function.  As a very non-design-skilled person, I like to watch designers work: it’s a fascinating, mysterious thing to me, to create an image or a model of something out of thin air.  I can write all day, but I cannot do that.
But because I have spent so much of my life working with and watching design solutions unfold, I have reached a point where I can’t avoid saying this any longer:
Ladies and gentlemen, please stop thinking that you’re creating the Magic Solution to complex problems.  I’m especially looking at you, architects and urban designers and impassioned urbanist types.  Good design can help solve problems, but it does not do it alone.  And when you believe that — and worse yet, mislead the public into thinking your design solution will Fix That For Them– then you make it all the harder for all of us to actually solve the deeper issues: the ones that we cannot simply build our way out of.
Some of the designers that I have most admired are the people who work for a handful of downtown revitalization organizations across the country.  They get no CNU awards, they often don’t have letters after their names, and very few of them write books stuffed with glossy photos.
A lot of their job consists of drawing or Photoshopping a historically-correct facade onto an old building that has been altered – usually in ways that look awful, and are now decreasing the building’s value and that of those around them.  Their renderings are lovely, but they’re not High Art, or even particularly innovative.  Since they’re trying to return the building to something near its original character, there’s not a lot of room for out-of-the-box thinking.  Typically, their renderings are given to the owner of the building as a means of encouraging him or her to improve their property.
Here’s the important part: these designers don’t just draw something, dump it on the community or property owner, and expect Magic To Happen. The rendering is a door-opener for the conversation, the exploration of new possibilities, the collaboration. When this process works, it’s because the property owner comes to realize that there are options available to them beyond what they previously knew.  The drawing helps, but the drawing does not make that happen.

What we often fail to do in urban design and planning in involve the people who should and need to be engaged in a collaborative search for the best solutions.  We hold meetings, even charrettes, but too often, we simply give them a presentation, let them ask questions, or even ask them what they want, like we would ask a kid what they want for their birthday.
We do that because we assume that they don’t want to do any more, or that they can’t contribute at any higher level than we would ask of a first grader.  And both of those assumptions are wrong.
Here is my increasingly big concern: that we blame the failure of planning or transportation improvements on short-sighted local government executives, or greedy developers, or NIMBYs.  We do that without ever turning the thought process around, and exploring how changing the way we engage people might change the rest of the equation.
My personal hypothesis: we don’t do that, and as a result we default to If You Build It They Will Come, because we don’t know how to design or manage a constructive collaborative process, rather than a lecture, a hearing, or a “what do you want for your birthday?” initiative.
And we don’t do that because no one ever taught us to.
We need to start learning from the extension agents, the dialogue and deliberation experts, even good school teachers, to fundamentally rework the role of community members in planning and governance. Planning and architecture and landscape architects – anyone who designs for civic or public use – should be learning how to do constructive public engagement activities, crowdsourced collaboration, more transparent work, how to pull the public into the process as their own type of subject matter experts on their own communities, similar to the way that we include economists or zoning specialists or other related professionals.
And this needs to be a central part, not only of undergraduate and graduate training, but continuing education as well.  We require professionals to learn law and ethics; should we not also require them to know how to work with the public constructively?
That’s not some Polyanna sentiment, based on an idealized belief that everyone is important.  It’s a very practical sentiment, based on experience:
When I have built collaboration with the community into the planning and design projects that I myself have managed over the years, tensions have dissipated and misunderstandings had faded, and plans that no one ever thought would get approved have had unanimous adoptions.
That’s happened more times than I can count.
And it’s not that the plans themselves were better, or the designs more innvative, or the pictures prettier, than the ones on the project that fell apart in a cloud of fear and anger.
It’s been because the community helped build the plan, which means that they owned and championed it..  And because they were embedded, we found solutions to problems that a team of blue ribbon outsiders would have missed. And we found those before the draft plan was printed.
Those plans succeeded because we recognized that the people of the community are experts on their own community, and we because we knew that we needed to employ their expertise, just as we employed our own.
So my challenge to my design friends is this, borrowing a bit from the inestimable LaurenEllen McCann:
Design with, not for. 
When you do that, you’ll get closer to designing real solutions.

Two chances to support better entrepreneur/government relations at SXSW 2016

The international tech mega-conference South By Southwest Interactive has been showing more and more interest in how small businesses, startups and tech entrepreneurs can help make the places where they work better – but even though conference organizers pretty clearly want to address the relationship between startups and governments, they seem to get only a few submissions for panels or presentations on those topics.

Well, here at the Wise Economy Workshop, we’re all about helping people rattle those kinds of cages.

I’ve submitted two presentations along these lines for consideration at next year’s SXSW, and as is their usual practice, part of how they choose submissions depends on popular votes.  That’s where you come in.

Here’s the two sessions:

The first is a panel entitled How to work with your local government and succeed.  This session is geared toward entrepreneurs and startup folks who are newly encountering the world of government agencies – and not understanding why they work the way they do.

The second is a workshop called Lead or Feed: How Cities Can Truly Help Startups.  This session is a version of the talk/workshop that I have given in several states and online over the past few years, and it’s focused on helping city officials and staff rethink their economic development efforts to make a real difference in growing their community’s local economy.

The odds of either of these two sessions being presented go up if they get votes on the SXSW PanelPicker.  Voting is free and easy (it does require a very basic signup), and you don’t have to be planning to go to SXSW in order to vote.

You can vote for How to work with your local government and succeed here, and Lead or Feed: How Cities Can Truly Help Startups here.

Thanks for your help!  I’ll let you know what happens.

If you’d be interested in talks or trainings like this in your community or for your organization, just send me a note at


Planning Commissioner’s Journal / PlannersWeb articles now available free

My good friend and editor Wayne Senville posted the following last week:

As a service to the planning community in appreciation for over 20 years of support for the Planning Comm’rs Journal, access to all content posted on is now free to all.

No more subscriptions; no more membership. That means you can read or download more than 600 articles, including almost all content published in the Planning Comm’rs Journal since its founding in 1991.

Are you a professional planner? If so, tell your colleagues and (if you live in the U.S.) your APA chapter board that all of our content is now available at no cost.

p.s., to continue to maintain as a free resource, we hope you (or your planning department or business) will consider becoming a Friend of PlannersWeb. For details:


If you’re interested, you can search “Rucker” and find my contributions on the site.

Having had the privilege of writing for Wayne over several years, I think you’ll find this to be a valuable resource for all your planning-related work.  Wayne decided to discontinue PlannersWeb last year due to being ready to take on other adventures, and there is a cost associated with maintaining a database and website like this, so I hope you’ll consider becoming a Friend of PlannersWeb.

Questions and Answers about Online Public Engagement (Part 2: Chat-a-palooza)

Last week I had a great time teaching a webinar with Susan Stuart Clark of Common Ground for the National Council on Dialogue and Deliberation (NCDD).  We were talking about online strategies for getting people involved in local government planning and decision-making, and we had close to 100 people participation.

During the presentations there was a great chat stream going on the webinar platform where participants were asking questions and even answering each others’ questions — even when I ask the presenter couldn’t do the talk and keep up with them at the same time.   We only had an hour for the session so there were a lot of questions that probably got lost in the wash of participation.  So I went back through them after the webinar and made sure that I had at least given some kind of response to each one.  I initially did this so that NCDD could share it with the participants, but I figured many of you would find it interesting as well.

As most of you know, using online methods to improve how people participate in the life of their community is a major interest of mine.  It’s led me to edit EngagingCities, and it also led to the creation of a web site called the Online Public Engagement Emporium. If you’re interested in using online platforms but don’t know where to start, I might humbly recommend you start there… because I made it to fill the information gap and start to address the confusion and chaos that comes with a whole new field of practice that’s being populated by tech start-ups.  It’s a recipe for energy, and innovation, and a good deal of confusion, and a modest helping of chaos

I’m currently working on a new book about doing better public engagement, both on- and off-line, and I’m also talking with a publisher about doing a book about online public engagement methods specifically.  So if you have burning questions, or issues that you wish someone would address, or other general bright ideas, please let me know.


The participants’ chat lines are preceded by >.  Sometimes there’s more than one.  Names are removed to protect the innocent.  My responses are in bold italic type.


>I would be curious to know how many individuals on the call actually work with local govt officials. And if they are using online….we are main center in Illinois and there is little that is done electronically.

> It seems like a lot of communities are using online material, including twitter accounts to bring residents into the discussion

>We are not seeing that they are utilizing in decision making.

I’ve seen surveys regarding incidence of use of online tech platforms by local governments, but I can’t think of a methodologically robust survey of local governments asking about barriers – why they’re not.  A lot of us have our own working theories, but I don’t think anyone has been asking that.  Does anyone know of one – or know of an organization that might be talked into it?


>Won’t most jurisdictions want to purchase one tool and use it for all purposes?

>I think that in most cases that strategy would be ill-advised. there is no one-size-fits-all tool. some consolidation is natural, so maybe aim for a few select tools to cover your bases (think few-sizes-fit-most).

>I agree… I just know what happens in government

One question I have been asking myself has been whether we need a more sophisticated/robust system for fitting various platforms together.  Right now Granicus has an “app store” that offers a few things like Textizen, and some one-off combinations have been occurring, but it’s not systematic.  Very catch as catch can. 


>How do laws regulalting public meetings, such as the requirement of providing advance notice, affect online engagement, especially if it’s live (synchronous)?

I’m not a lawyer or a legal expert, but I am not aware of anyone trying to apply public meeting rules to an asynchronous online engagement.  My suspicion is that those situations are not legally differentiated from a survey.  If it’s live – and I don’t know of many significant live online engagements other than perhaps a tweet-up – I would assume that public meeting notices would apply unless some legal wizard tells you otherwise. At least, that’s the direction I would go for a truly live event. From a practical standpoint, however, I haven’t seen a live platform that I would expect to work very well with a diverse group.  A chat group like this one, dominated by professionals, is chaotic enough. 


>Would love to hear some suggestions/strategies on how to connect people, populations and places that are historically disconnected from technology.

>For any particular audience, first check their level of access. technology unevenly distributed, yes, but sometimes in surprising ways. homeless/poor/minority might still be on cell phones, so use of texting could be a good option. starts with research.

Exactly. I didn’t get very deep into this, but SMS (texting) is emerging as probably the most important strategy for reaching deeply disadvantaged populations.  This is a central component of the technology leapfrog that I mentioned that we have seen in Africa (we’ve covered some of that at EngagingCities).  As far as I can tell, many platforms have built platforms that work reasonably well on a mobile device (I think that’s a core need today), but Textizen is the only one I know of that has put significant effort into meaningfully including people who use non-smart phones. SMS is becoming kind of the universal language, in a sense. 


>Not to mention, public meetings can be scary!

Amen, sister.  J   We who deal with them all the time forget that.  I always remind myself of how my mother, who would have been 81 this year, would have felt about public meetings.  Scary is the right word for it.


>Also, something that I come up against is determining when in-person engagement is best and where digital engagement is the best strategy or more complementary.

This isn’t the definitive word on the topic, but for what it’s worth here’s my rules of thumb:  (1) Online options need to be available as much as possible for the sake of people who can’t do in person meetings, like the homebound or people who cannot speak in public.  (2) Deliberation – rich discussion, idea-sharing, collaborative decision-making—seems at this point to still work best in an in-person setting.  That doesn’t necessarily mean a large group or a town hall – I’m a big fan of cooperative small group activities myself, even with big crowds.  (3)  Online tools are great for sorting, prioritizing, voting – methods that rely on aggregation of individual results.    


>We have also had good success with libraries as venue to have small conversations that then let people enter their online input at the library’s computer.  This is why the community partners are essential conduits to help reach people where they are and help make the link to the online input mechanism.

>Don’t forget that almost ALL public libraries offer public access computers.

>But librarians need to be asked about how many people come into the library for the purpose of using the technology…

> Partner with public libraries to reach people who aren’t online

>We’ve had good luck engaging people using kiosks at libraries. We’ve also convinced the library to make the engagement tool the home screen of library computers and in that case we engaged about 13,000 people.

Yes – the only thing I would caution against is using the public library as the default method for reaching a non-computer-owning population. Again, the relative inexpensiveness of smart phones and tablets, and their ease of use, might cut into the need for reliance on a library computer, depending on the task.  And do remember that there is sometimes a time limit on using library computers. 

Like he said, the most important part is partnering – not just with the library, but with the population that you might _assume_ would be likely to use the resources at the library – to make sure your assumptions are actually borne out by reality


> Mulitlingual engagement?

>If you don’t have multi-language capcity in-house, consider partnering with other organizations and ask them to host your engagement process on their digital turf.


To be honest I haven’t seen many local governments handle this well.  I’m not sure how clearly this part came out in the presentation– there’s been a tendency to rely on Google Translate, but as I’ve learned at EngagingCities, about half the time you end up with total garble. There is no replacement I know of for actual human translation.  Interestingly, your local or regional economic development people might be a good source for translation guidance, as more and more of those sites are working on this.


>Conference calls using ordinary phone lines are another “virtual” way to engage, especially if they make use of some of the better call-management technologies out there.

Has anyone seen a local government use a conference call for general public engagement?  I haven’t.


>Seconding … that many “hard to reach” communities are online but their technology or platform of choice may not be one that municipalities are familliar with. At City of Toronto, we had good success connecting with graffitti community by building relationships with them on their own message boards. Unlikely they would have participated on a City-built platform

Excellent!  I was really glad to read this!  Marketing people always say that you have to put the message where the audience you want will see it.  Great example of that.


>Good ideas/points, folks…thanks. Generally, using multiple engagement methods is how I approach this…what works with who, and how. We’re after a balanced, representative data set…sometimes it takes a LOT of energy and resources to get thatr kind of data so the decision around what to engage the public on is a critical, early decision point. Has anyone experienced public engagement events using a large tech setup using clickers, which would get around the access issue for some.

The clickers have been around for probably 15 years. The problems I see with the clicker technologies are (1) you have to be there in person, which gets back to a lot of the core participation barriers, (2) they are only useful for basically real-time surveying, not for getting any richer feedback or ideation, (3)They can actually backfire on efforts to look “inclusive” because peoples’ only option is the multiple choices given in the survey.  I’ve seen them irritate an audience on occasion, rather than engage them.  Again, it depends on the context, including the level of public interest in the topic and the range of other opportunities to engage more deeply.   


>Shouldn’t government demand of its online engagement suppliers to make their technologies talk to each other better? I don’t see so many platforms integrations yet (UK perspective) but maybe this is the sustainable future for the industry and will make the customer choice easier and safer?

I think this is a very interesting point.  There is some early thinking in the online engagement supplier community around this, but frankly a lot are still trying to find their footing.


>Our regional transportation entity has been asking the public for their vision for transportation. However, an individual (IP address) is only permitted to respond once, so I couldn’t add second thoughts. Is this a good idea?

>Tracking/restricting participation via IP address is probably not the most elegant way to do this. however, the alternative is proper user registration, which may pose a sligthly higher barrier to entry. trade-offs, trade-offs… 😉 

I agree with Tim on this one – and an IP address restriction would be particularly more problematic because I would suspect that it would eliminate more than one person responding from a public computer, like in the library, or even in a household, where multiple people may use the same laptop.  So I’d definitely push back against anyone who proposed that.  Most of the commercial platforms I am aware of have some sort of login – a username, at the minimum. Obviously if someone really wanted to game the results, they could create multiple usernames, but they could use multiple IP addresses, too. 


>Is there a matrix of the different tools and what objectives they help with, such as geography?

I’m trying to work on one.  The Online Public Engagement Emporium was a first step toward getting all that information together.


>Oh, significant problem if people are participating/commenting and don’t see that their comments are being read/used…

>Like many things in digital engagement, this may not primarily be a technology issue. it’s first and foremost a planning/design and, ultimately, a culture issue. if you value letting your participants know how their input was used, you will find a way to do so. does not have to be tightly integrated with the same tool you’re using for collecting that input.

Absolutely!  A couple of the platforms actually have that built into them – they basically establish a way for a moderator to identify things like “we’re working on that” “we don’t have that power, but X does,” etc. 

The problem that I have encountered comes back to that capacity issue: responding like that requires that staff take the time to create those responses – and since the staffer responsible for that probably doesn’t have all those answers in his/her head, there’s a research and coordination requirement, which can be very time consuming.  Plus they’re afraid of giving out the wrong information.  I know that MindMixer, for example, pushes hard in its training to encourage administrators to do that, but I know that when I have managed projects I’ve also gotten significant resistance from the local government staff not wanting to. 

>In the evolving landscape of social media, what is ethical? Two attorneys look at the law as it stands and compare it with the AICP Code of Ethics. Explore the ethical considerations for both planners and planning commissioners  at:

I have not done this webinar myself, although I have taught AICP Ethics a bunch of times.  Here’s the short version that I always tell my clients: anything said on social media is basically the same as talking to a person who is recording you on video while you are talking.  A choice that would be ethical in that context is probably going to be ethical on social media.  Be transparent, admit what you know and don’t know, disclose any conflicts of interest ASAP.  My guess is that would cover the majority of situations.


 The most crucial piece I think is to make sure that people have both online and offlne options. One approach I’d like to see tried more often is to target in -person participation to higher level deliberation and use the online tools to gather the ideation .


>Can you say anything about the value of gaming in online civic engagement? I got the idea from World Without Oil…or encourage creative responses

We talked in the webinar about gaming as an incentive to get people to participate on an ongoing basis through points, leaderboards, rewards for participation.  MindMixer has done a particularly good job of that, although I don’t know that anyone has _proven_ that these tactics increased public involvement in the platform or changed the quality/frequency/type of participation.  I think that would be a very interesting study. 

The other piece of gamification that came up briefly are more scenario-navigating “games” that are designed to walk people through information and options in a more accessible manner than giving them a big document to read.  Any of the scenario-evaluating tools, including the budget simulators that a lot of platforms offer, can be considered “games” in this manner. We’ve covered some pretty interesting models in Brazil and eastern Europe that are using gaming strategies.

If people are particularly interested in this topic, I’d recommend two sources to explore.  One is the Emerson Game Lab at Emerson College —  The other is the United Nations Development Programme, which has been doing interesting work using gaming tools on a whole range of issues.  I’d search for the term “game,” which will get you a variety of projects if you look through the results.   


>ULI uses Legos for urban planning

Just as an FYI, I’ve found that old-fashioned wooden blocks work better than Legos.  People get to the essence of what they’re trying to get across faster and they don’t get as bogged down in whether they need an eight-bump piece or a ten-bumper to finish their masterpiece.  J



Questions and answers about Online Public Engagement from NCDD (Part 1: Pre-questions)

Last week I had a great time teaching a webinar with Susan Stuart Clark of Common Ground for the National Council on Dialogue and Deliberation (NCDD).  We were talking about online strategies for getting people involved in local government planning and decision-making, and we had close to 100 people participation.

In the week before the webinar, NCDD asked for questions from the people who would be attending, and man… we got a ton. We only had an hour for the session so there were a lot of questions that probably got lost in the wash of participation.  So I went back through them after the webinar and made sure that I had at least given some kind of response to each one.  I initially did this so that NCDD could share it with the participants, but I figured many of you would find it interesting as well.

As most of you know, using online methods to improve how people participate in the life of their community is a major interest of mine.  It’s led me to edit EngagingCities, and it also led to the creation of a web site called the Online Public Engagement Emporium. If you’re interested in using online platforms but don’t know where to start, I might humbly recommend you start there… because I made it to fill the information gap and start to address the confusion and chaos that comes with a whole new field of practice that’s being populated by tech start-ups.  It’s a recipe for energy, and innovation, and a good deal of confusion, and a modest helping of chaos.

Tomorrow’s post will share my responses to the very lively chat that occurred during the webinar –which I also think you’ll find interesting.  I’m currently working on a new book about doing better public engagement, both on- and off-line, and I’m also talking with a publisher about doing a book about online public engagement methods specifically.  So if you have burning questions, or issues that you wish someone would address, or other general bright ideas, please let me know.


The Pre-webinar questions about Online Public Engagement (my responses are in bold italics)

We use [a couple of platforms] but are looking at new options. We’ve done live chats but don’t get much response….much better with these tools.  The most challenging part of online civic engagement is developing the questions/format.

That’s very true…worthy of a whole ‘nother training!


Prior to moving to the US I worked with a number of local government groups in the UK who were utilising online engagement methods. I’m keen to hear about how Local Government is doing it in the US.

I’m no expert on UK and Commonwealth public engagement methods, but here’s my two shillings: UK and Commonwealth countries seem to be bound by a pretty formal definition of “consultation.”  As you have probably found, this isn’t a term that’s used in the US.  Without having memorized the details, it appears to me that UK/Commonwealth governments are required to do “consultation” on a very wide range of government decisions, but that the “consultation”  obligation is largely limited to public comment and surveying.  I’ve seen some idea-generating exercises (you’ll sometimes see the term “ideation” coming from some of the platforms developed in the Commonwealth, but it seems relatively limited in scope–more focused on generating responses to government-initiated questions than in generating totally new ideas. 

The downside in the US is that, except for transportation projects that fall under FWHA requirements, the obligation to do public participation is pretty scattered –higher in some places, all but nonexistent in others.  And depends a lot on the type of issue,the type of government or agency, etc.   The upside to that is that US providers don’t seem to be specifically trying to meet a mandated process, but rather trying to address a need that they perceive in communities on the ground.  So I think you get a rather wider range of  different approaches, once you start digging into them. 


I would be interest in some discussion about public sector transparency re: data collected via these web based tools. Can you provide examples of what you consider to be best practices regarding the ways in which government shares its findings or closes the loop by making stakeholder feedback available for stakeholder review?

Most web based tool providers would probably tell you that all of the results should be made available to the public – that’s basic good government and good surveying methodology.  Some of the platforms facilitate that more than others. In general, I think the best strategies are the ones that allow you to (1) connect the sharing of results directly to the initial idea or feedback, (2) makes it easy to generate charts and infographics, such as through a built-in wizard, and (3) allow you to generate a full report of the results easily.  You need to provide both a summary and a full detailed results for both accessibility and transparency. 


What are the best tools for online engagement and prioritization of issues (allowing for viewable conversation and ranking)?

A lot of them accommodate some form of ideal-generating, conversation and priority-setting.  MindMixer probably has the best overall interface right now – graphically appealing, well organized, lots of options for responses, and the ability to add on to or supplement someone else’s proposal.   But that doesn’t mean they’re the best fit for every situation.  BrightPages from Urban Interactive Studio, for example, allows you to tie feedback directly back into a bite-sized section of a document, and Crowdbrite’s sticky-note based interface makes feedback on physical planning issues pretty easy, even for people who don’t want to write a paragraph.  And there’s several others.


What barriers do you see regarding the open meetings act and Freedom of Information Act in utilizing on-line and virtual portals for government engagement. I’m concerned about how local government use of online engagement tools meets the requirements of “Open Meeting Laws” or “Sunshine Laws”.

I’m not a lawyer, but it has been my understanding that anything in an online or virtual platform is subject to FOIA requirements.  Since it’s all online, such a request should actually be easier to respond to than paper files, but unless there’s something really special going on, it’s as subject to public scrutiny as any public meeting record. With regard to open meeting requirements and public notice, so far it looks to me like it probably depends on whether the online activity is at a specific time or available to access on demand over a long period of time.  

 In the case of a specific online event (I can’t say I’ve seen many local governments do this, but I suppose it’s possible), my presumption would be that you should adhere to your usual public meeting notice requirements, including making provisions for anyone who may not be able to participate due to disability (for example, someone who can’t type or needs a translator).  In the case of  a site that invites participation whenever people want to and is available for a long period of time, it seems like it’s most likely to be treated like a survey.  But I’m not aware of any definitive case law yet.  


It would be great to have a list of online engagement tools and resources you use and recommend

The best source I can point you to is  I made that site because I couldn’t find anything else that summarized the current state of the industry – except for a white paper that I used to produce that was a pain in the neck because it was always out of date about three seconds after I released it. The web site doesn’t try to give formal recommendations, but it does try to give you a narrative sense of how each platform works and what it seems to be best suited for.  No guarantees it’s perfectly up to date either – in fact, I can more reliably guarantee that it’s not – but it’s the best source I can point you to.  We’ve got plans for more, but just keeping it reasonably up  to date is a big challenge. 


Do you know of any analysis of the ROI of online engagement compared to more traditional engagement tactics?

I don’t.  Like a lot of areas of local governance/public engagement, we as a profession generally haven’t done a great job of measuring impacts.  I do think that the overwhelming practitioner experience, however, has been that it’s not an either/or – online alone would miss some important voices, just like in person-only methods do. I thnk of it this way: we talk to people, and send emails, and tweet and text and use lots of different communication methods in the course of a day in our regular lives.  There’s no reason why an online/offline divide should exist in our community lives that doesn’t exist in our real lives. 


“Question 1: The City of Toronto is just piloting an ideas manager tool (e.g. Mindmixer, Ideascale, etc.) and so I’m especially interested in understanding success factors for this kind of tool – what issues are most engaging, what audiences are most engaged on this kind of platform?

Idea generation and management seems to need the following the most:

  • A clear and energetic interface that doesn’t look overly “official” – that gives the visual impression that new ideas are welcome.
  • A clear and energetic interface that is as intuitive as possible for people to understand and use.  You don’t want to create a big learning barrier – you want people to feel like they can get their ideas down without having to learn a whole software system first.
  • An interface that allows for types of input other than a big block of text.  We tend to forget that a very large number of people aren’t fully comfortable writing a paragraph of text.  They might find typing burdensome, or they worry about their spelling and grammar, or they simply don’t do that in their everyday lives and it looks like a huge an onerous chore.  Even highly-educated people can look at a web page that asks them to type a block of text and their immediate reaction becomes “Ugh, I don’t want to do that!”  Depending on the issue, strategies that allow people to upload photos or videos, write brief statements or lists, etc. can keep us from losing a big piece of what we do idea-generating activities to do
  • A system that allows people to respond to other people’s ideas in a whole variety of ways.  “Liking” is important because that helps generate support, but the opportunity to expand on ideas, extend them, challenge assumptions, etc. is critical to creating a rich and meaningful body of information. 
  • A mechanism for measuring the relative level of support for different ideas.  If you don’t have some sort of sorting process to identify the top priorities or the strongest areas of concensus, then what you come out of the process with is a laundry list – an undifferentiated assortment of demands, dreams, wishes, etc. that doesn’t give the people who have to make decisions about policy any intelligent place to start.  When that happens, the process is usually dead in the water. 

With regard to the types of questions that get higher levels of participation, obviously anything that has a clear and direct impact on their lives is going to get more response than things that are abstract or vague.  Most of the time, if we frame the issues in terms of things that people care about, rather than in terms of our usual technical jargon, we can get much more participation.  I did a project one time where we were trying to get people’s engagement in questions around a zoning code rewrite… about as boring as you can get.  But by shifting the questions away from the usual talk of density, non-conforming uses, etc., and focusing instead on how people live and work every day in your communities, we ended up getting a ton of very valuable engagement… and the final project had huge community support.  Participation in idea-generating seems depends more on the ease of use of the platform and the relevance of the issue than anything else.  MindMixer does a regular evaluation of the aggregate participation characteristics across all of the projects that are using their platform, and the average age of participant nationwide is usually around 40.  So it’s not particularly skewed to younger participants, like some people theorized early on.  


Question 2: One of the issues we sometimes have when using online engagement tools is an overwhelming response from one particular group/perspective. I’m interested in learning about strategies and tactics for managing that kind of situation within an online environment.”

There’s a mechanical  strategy, as it were, and there’s a tactical strategy.  And there’s a philosophical question as well.   

Mechanically, it may be possible to design the feedback so that people have to identify their areas of interest.  To use a relatively simple example, if it’s a survey tool, there might be a required question that asks people to identify whether they support a particular organization or perspective.  As long as it’s anonymous, that should not be threatening (although sometimes people don’t believe you when you say a survey is anonymous, so that may be a point that needs to be proven).  But you should be able in most survey tools to cross-tab responses and see whether two responses were highly correlated, which should make clear any bias.   

Tactically, the most important step is to make sure that a strong invitation to participate is made to a wide cross section of the community, including the particular group that is most interested and others as well.  This gets back to the in-person elements of good engagement: building relationships, partnering with organizations that represent overlooked populations, engaging with people in the way that has the most relevance to them, not just what has the most relevance to you. 

Finally—and this is probably controversial and doesn’t  fit everywhere – but it might be worth considering whether the overwhelming response from a subgroup might indicate that the issue matters to these people and not to others.  And sometimes that’s valuable information in and of itself. 


I am interested in hearing from people:  Which single online tool is sorely missing, in general, from use by local governments?

The biggest thing that is missing so far is a user-friendly, non-high-literacy-dependent platform for facilitating deliberation.  And no, I don’t know exactly what that will look like.  But I think we need it.  I’ve seen a little bit of use of things like Google Hangout, but that’s still pretty inadequate.  Ideally, I’d like to be able to see us do more online than ask for ideas and set priorities.    


How can we use technology to get citizens talking with each other, not just at government?

The MindMixer ideation strategy that I mentioned earlier is probably the closest thing we have to that talking to each other strategy that I’ve seen so far.  I’ve seen some interesting conversations develop on that platform as people respond to and expand on each others’ ideas.  And there’s one called Ethelo that is getting some limited use in government deliberations settings, and a platform in development that’s based on the National Issues Forum deliberation process.  And there is a platform called e-Deliberation that does do a methodologically robust deliberation process online, but it’s an approach that’s very text-focused and designed for smaller groups.   But all of those involve such a high level of fluency in online written communication that I’m not 100% comfortable recommending them for general public engagement yet. 


“Looking forward to dialing in. You probably know both these folks but they are two of my Herod of participating and tech, Tiago Peixoto and Hollie Gilman:

Two of the best.  I excerpt them both at EngagingCities all the time.  J


Is dumbing down a necessary part of public online engagement?

No.  Speaking in layperson’s language, yes.  Communicating clearly, yes.  Establishing a process that allows everyone who’s participating to understand what they’re trying to achieve and what the end goals are, yes.  Dumbing down, no. 


While so much is being done with technology to engage every day citizens there are still so many who are not “plugged in”. How do we use technology to reach those citizens?

I think the key thing to remember is that (1) people are much more plugged in than we might think they are, and (2) they’re plugged in in a whole host of different ways, from computers to tablets to touch screens in the supermarket to apps that let them pay bills and give feedback via text from a basic cell phone. 

The key is to reach in a multi-faceted fashion, and not assume that everyone who’s not sitting at a desk all day is somehow “Not doing technology.”  The assumption of a have/have not digital divide is pretty outdated now.  They’re probably using something – the key is to understand what they are using and how, and take the conversation to them there.  

I’m slow but I get there: new presentations and stuff now on Slideshare

Even a tech hound like me gets overloaded with “platforms” sometimes.  I’ve been resisting posting to SlideShare because… I don’t know, because I post a hell of a lot of stuff all over. And I could never get the login right.  And whatever.


So, I finally dragged my butt into the new millenium and uploaded several recent presentations to SlideShare.  As you know if you’ve seen me speak, my presentations tend to run to lots of pictures and few words.  So while I think the uploaded presentations will give you a sense of what the session was about, in a lot of cases that by itself isn’t going to lead you to a high level of enlightenment.  The good news is that for a lot of my talks, you can

  • view video,
  • listen to an audio recording,
  • read a summary of the thing that I had previously written on that topic, and (soon)
  • pick up a Wisdom Single that gives a brief but more detailed write-up on that topic.

I’ll try to do a better job of keeping the SlideShare updated.  Really and for true.  In the meantime, if you want to check out a few of my recent presentations, you’ll find a few embeds below.

Have fun!

[slideshare id=38456237&doc=ridingthewaveaug2014-140828102456-phpapp01]

[slideshare id=38458043&doc=leadersorfeedersrucker072314-140828111159-phpapp01]

[slideshare id=38456083&doc=publicpartic20ncdd082614-140828102108-phpapp01]

[slideshare id=38456707&doc=strategicplanningannotatedoedamar2014-140828103631-phpapp01&type=d]

[slideshare id=38456504&doc=economicdevelopmentsjunkfoodignite-140828103118-phpapp01]

Crowdsourcing Wisdom: the Introduction

I have been working on a new book about how and why we can do public engagement or public participation that actually develops useful information, doesn’t make most people miserable and actually helps people help make their communities better.  My evolving shorthand for that approach to public engagement is Crowdsourcing Wisdom, and it’s the probably title of the next Wise Fool Press book (there’s already one in the universe with that title so I’m going to have to mess with subtitles a good deal….)


As I continue to slog my way through this, I thought it might be interesting for you (and helpful for me) to have the opportunity to read my drafts and give me your feedback.  Think of it as a review committee of whoever feels like it.

The current draft of the introduction is below.  Feel free to tell me whatever you want to tell me in the comments, or you can email me at della.rucker at if you really want to take it apart but don’t want all the other readers to know how mean you are.  🙂

Thanks, and have fun!




This ain’t working.  We all know that.


The ways, ideas, methods that we use to do that day-to-day democracy stuff – figure out what people want their governments to do, try to get them to understand why we’re building this or that, get people involved in decisions the way we know we should…

It’s not working.  In all but a few rare cases, we get no response, or we get a useless response.  You know, The Crazies.  The Insistently Misinformed.  The Unicorn-Chasers.  People who have their own agenda , or (more often) haven’t had to think critically about the real world in which they want their bright ideas to live.

The bigger worry is the thousands that we don’t hear from.  Who may see and understand things that we, the Professionals, are missing.  Who have expertise and insights and experience of their own that could show us a door through the brick walls of the tough problems that We the Professionals have been slamming our heads through for decades.   Who are the very people that Good Ideas need to support them, to advocate for them, to carry them through the debates and nitpicking and indecision that come part and parcel with life in a democracy.

Those people are not failing to participate because they don’t care about the places where they live.   They’re not failing to participate because they don’t care what they do.  They’re failing to participate because we’ve given them a pretty clear message that we don’t want them to have a meaningful role in the process.

It’s easy to blame that message on Big Money Politics and the Big Media – dirty campaign ads, PACs, etc.  National and state stuff,  Not My Fault.

But look at what we do to those people who do try to participate in our own cities, our own counties – the places where political involvement is most direct, where it should be easiest.  See through their eyes for a minute, and see what it looks like from their perspective:

Meeting rooms that look and feel like courtrooms.  I must have done something wrong… did I do something wrong?  I don’t remember doing anything wrong.  But this place feels like I did something wrong.  I’m getting nervous.

A stage-fright-inducing microphone in the middle of the room.   Dear God, I’m going to have to go up there and talk… my stomach hurts….  I’m afraid… Do I know enough?  Part of what that other guy said could be right in some cases…  I, uh… what do you mean, my three minutes is up?

Be there in Person or You Don’t Count.  I know I should go, but I’d have to miss my continuing ed class… who can I get to coach the kids’soccer team while I go?  If I ask for that night off from my job, will my boss punish me later?  Who can I find to watch the kids?

An agenda that could go on for hours.  Can I get there at 7:30, after my class, or do I have to be there right at 7?  How long is is going to take to get to… oh, no one knows?  What am I going to do if they’re still talking about other things when I have to leave to get the babysitter home?  Dear God, these chairs are uncomfortable….

A confrontational, argument-focused environment   I have to be right. They have to be wrong.  I’m white hat, they’re black hat.  I can’t admit that they might have some good ideas.   I can’t propose a compromise… what do you mean, my three minutes is up?


And even when we’re not doing the conventional zoning commission or City Council or other standard government meeting, we’re still sending that same message:

Welcome to the Open House!  Here’s a whole lot of maps, and here’s what they’re going to do.  I’m no good at reading maps… where’s my house?  Maybe finding that will help me make sense of it.   But this map shows the “Preferred Alternative…” In that case, why did I bother to come?  OK, the sign over here says “We want your feedback!!!”  So I guess I’ll give them some feedback.  Can I ask a question?  How would I ever know what the answer was? How the hell are you supposed to write on this card with this little golf pencil anyways??


Vague, disconnected-from-reality questions, like “What do you think this spot on the map should be?”  Geez, I don’t know… what’s there now?  What is around it?  What do we need?  Am I really supposed to just pick something out of the air?  I’d like an ice cream shop, but is that really a good idea for that corner?  Am I just supposed to say anything?  Are they just going to build whatever we say?


We make clear that whatever real opportunity to influence what we’re doing depends on you being at the meeting in person. OK, there’ no way I can make it to that meeting (thank God… only crazy people show up for those things.  I’m pretty uncomfortable with the whole idea).  They said I could send an email.  But how do I know if anyone ever read it or thought about what I had to say?  Will they use that online survey thing to actually maybe change the plan?  Does anyone look at that stuff?  Is anyone actually listening.


When we do try to open the doors of participation, we let a few people get crazy.  No way am I going to that public meeting.  The last time I went there was this guy who wouldn’t let anyone else talk.  He kept interrupting other people, he kept insisting that he was the only one who knew what was really going on, and the people running the meeting didn’t do anything to give anyone else a chance to talk.  It was totally frustrating – a complete waste of my time.


None of this works.  None of it makes our plans and decisions better, makes our governance better, makes our communities better.

In fact, it has probably made a lot of things worse.

Got a hated urban renewal project from the 70’s in your town? Then you’ve got an object lesson in the damage that a bunch of Experts can do without the moderating influence of residents who know the community.

Got a development proposal in front of your committee that is bringing out a rabid NIMBY attack from the neighbors?  Then you have a demonstrated case of inadequate or lip service public involvement when the project was first being developed.

Have an economic development strategy that’s been recruiting businesses that the residents fight over and over again? Chances are you have an economic development strategy developed by a Star Chamber that was, of course, way, way smarter than the average resident.

Have public meetings, Open Houses, council sessions, where only two of three of the same nut jobs as always ever show up?

Do you wonder where all the reasonable voices went?

The reasonable voices didn’t come because they are not dumb.

We have made public involvement miserable.   We have make it painful.  And we’ve held out to them a lousy return on the investment of their very limited time.  And we’ve been giving them that message for decades.

No wonder that they avoid us until something happens that threatens them.  And no wonder that when they do, they don’t trust us, they don’t want to cooperate with us, they get fearful and angry and confrontational.

It’s almost like that’s what we wanted to teach them.


What we really want, in the depth of our guts, in the place where the reasons why we went into this profession or ran for office or went on this commission still live, is to help make this community better.  We want to make the right decisions, anticipate and deal with the issues that might affect the community in the future, use the money and people and other resources that the community has as wisely as we can.

And if we’re really honest, we all have to admit: we don’t know how to do that.

Ten or 30 or 40 years ago, our predecessors in these roles hired Experts – Big Deal Architects, Big Name Economic Development Types, Big Budget Think Tanks, people who offered Big and Easy Solutions.

As you might have noticed, a lot of those haven’t worked.  When you look back on the projections, the visions, the promises, what they said and what came to pass very often don’t match up.  Not even close.  And for many of us, the great challenge that faces us today consists of trying to fix or undo the damage that those Big Solutions caused.

And as the era we live in becomes more and more unpredictable, as we start seeing ever so acutely how one issue in our community unexpectedly impacts another, and as we realize more and more that the future, whatever it will be, probably won’t be a simple linear extrapolation of past growth…  expertise based on the past has less and less relevance.   Even the leading business publications are questioning the purpose, the most rudimentary value, of expert advising.  They’ve been lead down the wrong path a few times as well.

Private sector businesses, from the largest to the smallest, are increasingly turning to crowdsourcing to try to get a handle on the emerging issues, the disruptions and the out-of-left-field new ideas that have the potential to catapult them into a market lead (or, if they miss it, shatter them to bits).  Crowdsourcing enables businesses to gather ideas, solutions, designs, sometimes even blueprints, from a wider range of people than they could every employ or contract on their own.  And even more surprisingly, businesses increasingly use the “crowd” to sift through the options and select the ones that will work best.  Academic research has been demonstrating for a few years that the Crowd does these two steps better than the Experts, and that crowd-designed and crowd-selected results tend to perform better on a variety of measures than when experts design and select them.

The funny thing is, many businesses have to work like fury to attract their crowd.  They put a huge amount of effort into reaching their crowd, convincing their crowd that it’s worth their time to participate, keeping their crowd plugged in and participating.  Their ability to provide value depends on their Crowd, and when you’re crowdfunding T-shirts or motorbikes, you’re competing for their attention with a lot of other shiny but not all that important products.

In our world, where we’re trying to make communities better, we’ve got a Crowd that’s eager and waiting for their chance to participate.  We’ve got what those businesses are spending so much money to build.

We just need to open the doors, to give them a way to participate, in a way that matters.

In preparing this book, I’ve been heartened by discovering people all over the world who are using both old methods and brand-new technologies to enable meaningful public engagement – to CrowdSource Wisdom from communities, to rebuild that trust.  But I’m  frustrated: these improvements too often happen in pockets.  One town Crowdsources Wisdom in a way that addresses tough challenges and makes the whole city better, but the next town over continues to operate like it’s 1850.  Or one organization figures out how to transform public engagement in their town, and their residents have a powerful and transformative experience, but the good ideas don’t get out – or don’t get any farther than an academic paper dutifully read by the author’s mother.

We don’t have time to dink around on the edges anymore.  Our ability to do the work we got into this to do – to make communities better – is being hamstrung by a toxic relationship between governments and the people they serve.  It’s squandering our scarce money, it’s choking off our ability to make rational collaborative decisions, and it’s draining the emotional reserves of people (public and private) who want to make communities better.

In this book, we’ll do a very brass-tacks examination of the ways that many of our public engagement assumptions and methods backfire on us.  We’ll then examine a high-level outline of some ways that we can reboot public engagement at the local/regional government level, and we’ll conclude with a section of step-by-step guides for activities to Crowdsource Wisdom.  These aren’t the only ways to do it – just enough to give you a taste and help you get started.  At first, doing these activities will probably feel weird – both for you and for your residents.  And they probably won’t all turn out right away.  Remember that we’ve been giving them a pretty off-putting message for a few generations.  One press release, one meeting, probably won’t change that.

But keep at it.  Both you and your community need to Crowdsource Wisdom.



Transforming Our Grey Towns

My friend Jason Segedy once again wrote something on his blog that everyone should read.  Where else will you find urban regional policy, Better Block and C.S. Lewis all in one place?  I didn’t think so.   Both he and I would love to hear your feedback.

Here’s Jason – check our his blog at


There is a widespread belief that Americans hate cities. I think it is probable that Americans hate city failure, but, from the evidence, we certainly do not hate successful and vital city areas. 

-Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities


An abandoned house on York Street, up the street from where my grandparents (both the children of Sicilian immigrants) lived in Akron’s North Hill neighborhood. The neighborhood is suffering from increasing blight and abandonment – although hope remains, as a brand-new wave of immigrants from Southeast Asia and Latin America is slowly breathing new life into portions of it.


A vacant lot on Vesper Street, in Akron’s North Hill neighborhood, where my wife’s great-grandparents lived after moving here from West Virginia. Her grandparents lived just down the street.  Both of the houses where they used to live recently became meth labs and had to be torn down.

The Grey Town

In C.S. Lewis’s book, The Great Divorce, an allegorical meditation upon the afterlife, many of the dead are denizens of a shadowy city called the Grey Town, which is either purgatory or hell (depending on how long one chooses to stay there).  The people of the Grey Town are free to leave it any time that they wish, but most, in their state of near-total narcissism, choose to stay.

The Grey Town is a place where (unlike Earth) anyone can get any material possession that they wish (although not of very good quality) simply by imagining it.  Unable to cooperate (or even to coexist) with others, each person finds their neighbors so intolerable that they simply wish themselves a new house, and continually move further and further outward from the town’s center, leaving nothing but abandoned buildings behind.

As each person continues to act in (what they mistakenly think is) their own self-interest, all semblance of community, civic life, social cohesion, and basic human kindness is lost; as the town continues to grow exponentially, ultimately consuming millions and millions of square miles, with an astronomically large central area of abandonment surrounded by a thinly-settled, ever-expanding urban fringe, populated by inhabitants that are increasingly estranged from one another.

What they end up creating is, quite literally, hell – a lonely and hopeless place extending out into infinity, in which each person freely chooses to remain utterly and completely self-centered.  It is a place of self-imprisonment, where the metaphorical door is locked from the inside:

“It seems the deuce of a town,” I volunteered, “and that’s what I can’t understand. The parts of it that I saw were so empty. Was there once a much larger population?”

 ”Not at all,” said my neighbour. “The trouble is that they’re so quarrelsome. As soon as anyone arrives he settles in some street. Before he’s been there twenty-four hours he quarrels with his neighbour. Before the week is over he’s quarreled so badly that he decides to move. Very likely he finds the next street empty because all the people there have quarreled with their neighbours – and moved. So he settles in. If by any chance the street is full, he goes further. But even if he stays, it makes no odds. He’s sure to have another quarrel pretty soon and then he’ll move on again. Finally he’ll move right out to the edge of the town and build a new house. You see, it’s easy here. You’ve only got to think a house and there it is. That’s how the town keeps on growing.”

“Leaving more and more empty streets?”

“That’s right. And time’s sort of odd here. That place where we caught the bus is thousands of miles from the Civic Centre where all the newcomers arrive from earth. All the people you’ve met were living near the bus stop: but they’d taken centuries – of our time – to get there, by gradual removals.”

“And what about the earlier arrivals? I mean – there must be people who came from earth to your town even longer ago.”

“That’s right. There are. They’ve been moving on and on. Getting further apart. They’re so far off by now that they could never think of coming to the bus stop at all. Astronomical distances. There’s a bit of rising ground near where I live and a chap has a telescope. You can see the lights of the inhabited houses, where those old ones live, millions of miles away. Millions of miles from us and from one another. Every now and then they move further still. That’s one of the disappointments. I thought you’d meet interesting historical characters. But you don’t: they’re too far away.”

“Would they get to the bus stop in time, if they ever set out?”

“Well-theoretically. But it’d be a distance of light-years. And they wouldn’t want to by now…

“Wouldn’t want to?”

“That’s right…

“Then the town will go on spreading indefinitely?” I said.

“That’s right…” 

C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce

Lewis’s description is powerful, regardless of whether you are the least bit religious, spiritual, or believe in an afterlife – for its power comes from what it says about human nature in the here and now.

His description is sobering:  a town full of people who are so completely self-deluded and estranged from one another, that they think they are acting in their own self-interest, when in fact, they are actually destroying the place that they live, and along with it, any chance that they will ever have for real happiness.

For those of us that live in shrinking cities in the Rust Belt, in regions with negative net-population growth and continued outward expansion that are simultaneously suffering from widespread abandonment, Lewis’s allegory is more than a little bit disturbing in its familiarity.


A dilapidated house on Carpenter Street, in Akron’s North Hill neighborhood

Increasing Abandonment in Northeast Ohio

Brent Larkin of the Cleveland Plain Dealer wrote two pieces recently, discussing the many problems associated with the ever-increasing spread of blight, vacancy, and abandonment in Cleveland and its inner-ring suburbs.

Larkin makes the case that this problem and its antecedents are not limited to the ones that are commonly perceived as only affecting city residents – crime, poverty, hopelessness, inequality, and paying more in taxes for less in services.  He reminds us that the holistic, interconnected nature of our modern world means that everyone in our region is ultimately affected by the abandonment of our urban core areas, in one way or another.

I addressed this same issue recently in a blog post discussing population loss in our region:

What goes on within a given city’s actual municipal boundaries has incredibly important ramifications for its tax base; its employment base; the performance of its schools; the distribution of everyday amenities like grocery stores, shops, and restaurants; the delivery of public services; and less tangible, but equally important things like its sense of place and its sense of itself.  As cities are abandoned, decline, and become hollowed out, access to social and economic opportunities diminishes along with the population:  the jobs disappear, the doctor’s offices disappear, the grocery stores disappear – relocated, often, to a distant and increasingly inaccessible locale.  To pretend as though the economic and social well being of city residents is not directly impacted by population decline is to turn a blind eye to reality itself.

But it is not just city residents that are affected by decline.  The health of the entire region suffers as a result.  The shrinking tax and resource base of City “A”, is not simply counteracted by economic growth in nearby cities “B” and “C”.  In a region anchored by a declining central city surrounded by dozens of separate municipalities, the redundant duplication and proliferation of local government services (education, public safety, public utilities, transportation infrastructure, social services) ends up costing all taxpayers more. 

The worst-case scenario is a shrinking central city and a shrinking region with an overall population decline, coupled with continued central city abandonment and continued outward expansion.  In a region like this, there is not only more costly “stuff” (redundant public services and physical infrastructure) than there needs to be, but there is more “stuff” with ever fewer taxpayers to pay for it.

It’s an issue that is hauntingly familiar to every resident of a shrinking Rust Belt city.  The statistics on abandonment in places like Akron, Toledo, Dayton, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, St. Louis, Cleveland, Flint, Gary, Youngstown, and Detroit range from the sobering to the horrifying.

As I’ve written before, there are explicable, rational reasons for why these cities are experiencing such high levels of abandonment – although no one seems to be able to agree on precisely what they are.

But I’m not so sure that agreeing on why the abandonment of our core city neighborhoods is occurring is all that important.  Yes, there is a logic (that I cannot argue with) behind the notion that understanding the root causes of the problem is important if we are going to address it.

On the other hand, I would argue that even if we perfectly understood why the problem is occurring (and for the sake of argument, let’s assume that we couldadequately understand such a complex socioeconomic phenomenon), I’m not sure that we would be any further along the path toward actually doing something to change it.

In my experience, the discussion of why our cities are being abandoned is largely a useless distraction, and I continue to believe that those who are the most dogmatic and reductionist in their account of how these problems came about in the first place, also happen to be those that are the least interested in actually doing something to solve the problems.

So what should we do about the decline of our cities and the abandonment of our neighborhoods?

The first step is for people to be aware of the magnitude of our vacant and abandoned property problem in Northeast Ohio.

The term “awareness” is itself, multifaceted.  It entails: a) knowledge of the facts; b) acknowledgement that these facts translate into an actual problem that we should be concerned with; and c) a sense of felt, shared responsibility for doing something to address the problem.

I would argue that (a) is somewhat widespread; (b) is debated by some, with many more people in our region simply living in denial; and c) is still virtually non-existent.

When I say that people lack a sense of felt, shared responsibility for doing something about the problem, I don’t mean that we simply need to throw lots of public money at the problem, or create a bunch of new, intrusive government rules and regulations, or transfer wealth from some communities to other communities.

I mean that citizens from all sectors, and all walks of life, from all over the region need to recognize their shared destiny as one civic community, and work together in myriad ways great and small (most of them yet-to-be-determined, because we don’t feel the collective sense of urgency yet) to solve an incredibly complicated, mutual problem that manifests itself in different ways, in many different places.

A common reaction to the abandonment of our city neighborhoods is the belief that it will somehow correct itself, and goes something like this: “Well, eventually the free-market will assert itself, and people working in the private sector will be able to buy these properties so cheaply that they will swoop in and rebuild the neighborhoods.”

This has happened here and there, to be sure, but it is very much the exception, rather than the rule.  For every gentrifying neighborhood like Ohio City, Tremont, or Highland Square, we have a dozen neighborhoods that are disintegrating before our very eyes.

There are a couple of problems with the theory that the free market will save the day.  For one, the market value of many of these properties is already at (or near) $0, and they can’t get any cheaper.  So it’s not just a matter of dollars and cents.

For another, the abandonment of our cities is largely a consequence of the free-market doing what it does, as it has always done it.

But, it is equally a consequence of short-sighted public policy decisions regarding infrastructure, education, housing, and other social services.

And, of course, we can’t leave out the untold billions of individual choices, great and small, which are incrementally making our cities places that are either becoming better to live in, or becoming worse.

If the free market were solely the answer (and I do believe, incidentally, that it is part of the answer), then the problem would already be solving itself.

But it isn’t.

Clearly, something needs to alter the behavior of the free market.  Just as clearly, our current public policy regimen is not working either, and needs to be altered as well. Ditto for our societal priorities and many of our present-day cultural norms regarding the individual, society, and place.

But how?  And, just as importantly, altered to do what?

Well, that’s a great question.  Because what do we want to see happen in our cities?  What is our vision for what they should look like in the future.

I’m not sure that we have one.


An abandoned warehouse on Cuyahoga Street in Akron’s North Hill neighborhood

Today’s Reality in Akron

Here in Akron, where I live, the problems of vacant and abandoned property, disinvestment, and depopulation get a little bit worse every day.

It’s an issue that has perhaps been more difficult for those of us living here to see as clearly as those living in other shrinking cities do – for a couple of reasons.

Compared to our neighbors in Cleveland and Youngstown, we have been relatively untouched by the scourge of abandonment and massive disinvestment in our neighborhoods.  Yes, we’ve seen our share of abandoned properties (there are roughly 2,300 right now) and population loss – we’ve lost 31% of our peak population, declining from 290,000 residents in 1960, to 199,000 residents today.

But most of the population decline has been very gradual, and has been relatively dispersed throughout the city.  Even our most distressed neighborhoods are nowhere close to experiencing the scope and scale of the abandonment that is seen across large swaths of Cleveland or Youngstown.

While I personally believe that a lot of this is due to a strong civic leadership culture and a solid history of successful public and private collaborations, some of it is also due to “dumb luck” – historical factors largely beyond our control.

Akron is a newer city than Cleveland and Youngstown.  By the time that Akron began to grow in earnest (around 1910, when the rubber and tire industry exploded), Cleveland was already a very large, established city; and Youngstown was well on its way to becoming one.

Akron was also able to annex many neighborhoods that were developed between 1920 and 1960, while many similar neighborhoods in Greater Cleveland and Youngstown ended up in outlying communities.

In addition to containing a newer stock of housing, Akron had the advantage of being home to not just tens of thousands of blue collar industrial workers, but to the white collar industrial workforce, which numbered in the thousands.

Unlike Youngstown, which contained numerous steel mills that were headquartered elsewhere, Akron was home to the production facilities and headquarters of four Fortune 500 rubber and tire manufacturers (Goodyear, Firestone, B.F. Goodrich, and General Tire).

This fact was incredibly significant for the city’s neighborhoods and for the quality of its housing stock, because the numerous executives, managers, engineers, scientists, and other highly-paid workers all built extremely nice houses within the city limits, especially in the neighborhoods located throughout the northwestern quadrant of the city (not coincidentally, uphill and upwind from the noxious air pollution generated by the rubber and tire plants).

To this day, roughly one-quarter of the City of Akron (primarily in the northwest) is still composed of neighborhoods that meet or exceed the levels of education and wealth found in all but the most affluent suburban communities.

So we’ve had a lot of advantages, and we have managed to weather the abandoned housing storm storm pretty well.

But our time is coming, and the chinks in our armor are appearing. They are easy to spot, especially if you know where to look.

Akron has enjoyed strong, visionary leadership from Mayor Plusquellic for close to 30 years now, and it has paid-off, especially in terms of the city’s economic prospects relative to its Rust Belt peers.  Job retention and economic development have been fairly robust compared to other cities in the region (the retention of the Goodyear corporate headquarters and the Bridgestone/Firestone Technical Center, serving as two recent examples).

The city has also done an admirable job of keeping up with the increasingly vexing problem of vacancy and abandonment, and has been quite proactive when it comes to tearing down abandoned properties.

While all of this is extremely important, I would argue that tearing down abandoned properties is a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for creating a strong, healthy, and vibrant community that people want to call home.

So, we’ve done pretty well with job retention and economic development, and we’ve done pretty well at tearing down houses.

But what about keeping people here?  Cities are first-and-foremost a place for people to live – and our population continues to decline.

The 2000s were a wake-up call in that respect.  After losing a fairly modest 6,000 residents in the 1990s, we lost nearly 18,000 residents in the 2000s.

Why?  I think a lot of it has to do with housing supply and demand. There is an over-supply of housing that people do not want, and an under-supply of housing that people do want.

Akron was the fastest growing city in the United States between 1910 and 1920, exploding from a population of 69,000 to 208,000 in that one decade.  This means that a very large proportion of the city’s housing stock, which was built during those boom years, turns 100 years old this decade.

Lots of that old housing is blighted, vacant, or abandoned, and much of it is being torn down right now – and at a much faster rate than new housing is being built.

So, we will continue to lose population unless we figure out how to do more than simply tear houses down – we need to figure out how to rebuild our neighborhoods from the ground up.  It’s simple math: less occupied housing units + less people per household = less people.

No matter how great of a city this is to live in (and it most certainly is), no matter how much we do right (and we do a lot that is) we will inexorably continue to lose population if we don’t learn how to build lots of marketable new housing.

Yes, a city can succeed if it is smaller.  Yes, things like urban gardening, and open space have their place.  But I would argue that for a city our size, with the types of everyday neighborhood amenities that we have come to enjoy and are currently in the process of losing (grocery stores, neighborhood retail, restaurants, doctor’s offices, churches, synagogues, schools, etc.) it is paramount that we figure out how to grow our population again:

Detroit is so far gone, the argument goes, that the only conceivable use for all that abandoned real estate is to re-ruralize it. This speaks to our lack of confidence in architecture and urbanism per se, and leads to the current default remedy whenever our cities fail: tear things down in favor of green space.

Such thinking is the result of architecture’s decades-long inability to provide buildings worthy of our affection; municipal planners’ design ignorance and extreme reliance on traffic engineers; the environmental movement’s focus on wilderness, wildlife, and disdain for human activities; and, of course, suburbia itself, which prompts most of us to despise any human imprint on the landscape. Detroit is rotting from the inside out. The inside, the old city center, the part closest to the river, is destined to be the urban site of highest value in the future. Although it may never resemble the Detroit of 1960, we have the skills and knowledge to rebuild something of appropriate urban quality there again….

But the USA doesn’t need more architectural fashion statements, moral status posturing, or art stunts. It needs places to live that are worth caring about and compatible with the capital and material resources that we can expect to retain going forward, which are liable to be scarcer than what we’re accustomed to.

I don’t think there’s any question that we have to return to traditional ways of occupying the landscape: walkable cities, towns, and villages, located on waterways and, if we are fortunate, connected by rail lines. These urban places will exist on a much smaller scale than what is familiar to us now, built on a much finer grain. They will have to be connected to farming and food-growing places. A return to human scale will surely lead to a restored regard for artistry in building, since the streetscape will be experienced at walking speed.

-James Howard Kunstler

Our only possible means for growing our population are: 1) increase average household size; 2) rehabilitate/renovate existing housing; and/or 3) build new housing.

Long-term demographic trends tell us that option #1 isn’t going to be happening anywhere in the United States.  As for option #2, however you feel about historic preservation (and that’s a topic for a separate blog post), it is clear that it’s an option that becomes more difficult (and impractical on a large scale) every year, as more structures succumb to the wrecking ball.

That leaves us with option #3.  We need to develop a replicable, scalable model for learning how to rebuild entire neighborhoods (both housing and commercial structures).  I think that Akron has the human capital, and the innovative and collaborative culture to pioneer something that we could transfer to other shrinking cities in the Rust Belt.

But we have to get intentional about it.  It’s not going to happen on its own.  On the ground, here in Akron, I don’t see much awareness of this fact yet.  I think that we still think that things are going to somehow take care of themselves.  We have not yet recognized that the greatest challenge of the 21st Century in this town is going to be to learn how to embark upon an ambitious, comprehensive, coordinated, collaborative effort to rebuild large parts of our city.


The abandoned corner of Cuyahoga Street and Mustill Street, just up the street from where my Sicilian immigrant great-grandparents lived in Akron’s North Hill neighborhood.

Thinking Big, But Doing Small

But when I say “ambitious”, I’m talking about something that is the polar opposite of urban renewal.  It’s not a top-down, big government, command-and-control, out-with-the-old/in-with-the-new approach.

I’m talking about something that is human-scaled, context sensitive, and collaborative – something that requires public, philanthropic, non-profit, and private sector leadership, in partnership with everyday people working together, one block at a time, one neighborhood at a time, to rebuild and transform their community.

I’m not sure exactly what that looks like yet.  But I’m starting to get a general idea…

Several weeks ago, I had the distinct privilege to meet Jason Roberts of The Better Block.  The entire premise of Jason’s work is to take one block at a time, start small, and actually do something.  It could be some temporary new bike lanes; it could be some temporary street art, or street furniture; it could be a makeshift coffee shop, or art gallery, or beer garden.  The important thing is to do something new in a neighborhood, let people see it, let people experience it, and, most importantly – let them participate in actually creating it.  People build, borrow, or (as a last resort) buy the materials that they need to transform their block.  The process of working together to build something is even more important than what is physically built, because what is really built are relationships and a sense of community.

At a recent event in Akron, Jason talked about the need (especially in the community-development professions – planning, engineering, economic development, public administration) to learn how to think small, and to implement modest, low-cost improvements that can lead to transformative changes later on.

Instead of simply talking about intangible future plans that will never be realized due to fiscal considerations or bureaucracy, people work together to accomplish small things that they can actually see and touch; and learn to savor that first taste of success, which leads to building the kind of trust and inspiring the type of hope that it takes to transform an entire city.

It’s a simple, but incredibly powerful and profound concept – get people working together on small, but significant and visible projects in their own community, and watch the trust build, see the relationships develop and grow, and watch the hope begin to infect other people throughout the community.

The Better Block concept isn’t a panacea.  But that’s kind of the point – there is no panacea.  We need to start somewhere.  The work of rebuilding our cities begins one person at a time, one block at a time, one street at a time, one neighborhood at a time.  When a grassroots effort like The Better Block is coupled with visionary and innovative leadership from the public sector, the private sector, non-profits, and the philanthropic community, the results can be truly transformative.

I am looking forward to being a part of it here in Akron – and I’ll be sure to keep you posted as it moves forward.


A potential Better Block location on Jefferson Avenue in Akron’s Highland Square neighborhood.


A potential Better Block location on Kenmore Boulevard in Akron’s Kenmore neighborhood.


A potential Better Block location on Aster Avenue in Akron’s Firestone Park neighborhood.

Audio: Open Data, Apps and Planning (APA 2014)

In my post of the videos from the Open Data, Apps and Planning session that I moderated at the American Planning Association national conference last week, I promised that I would post audio of the whole thing for those of you who are particularly gluttons.  You’ll find that audio at the end of this post.


But there’s an additional bennie: We had several excellent questions and answers in the second part of the session, and these are not captured in the videos. So if you haven’t watch the videos (or if my mad camera skills made you motion sick…), you might find it useful to listen to the whole thing. If you did, I’d recommend that you advance the audio to the 45:00 mark — you’ll hear some great insights that you won’t get from the videos. And no erratic zooming, either.

Here’s a few of the insights you’ll gain from the audio:

  • Planners tend to make a few basic mistakes in setting up public engagement.  One of them is that they forget that many people won’t read maps the way the planners intended.  Brad Barnett of PlaceMatters made a comment in his opening comments about the need to take a “layered” approach to helping people learn about the issues that planners want them to address played out in several people’s descriptions of using maps in public engagement: if you simply give people a big map and expect them to pull out big themes or trends, chances are many people won’t know how to do that — instead, they’ll go looking for their house.  That’s not where we wanted them to start, but that’s where they can find an anchor, a place to explore the map from.  No wonder they so often get obsessed over the parcel level – we didn’t help them start anywhere else.


  • Frank Hebbert of OpenPlans noted that planners have a “blind spot” when it comes to grasping the power and then game-changing potential of open data, since they already know how to find the information they want.  But that’s an over-simplified view of how communities work — and it overlooks what a powerful partner residents can be if they can get to the same information on their terms.


  • The tension between controlling participation and data and keeping it open seems to represent an ongoing issue.  Michelle Lee of Textizen noted that they think making data available to everyone is so important that they actually give a discount to communities that commit to keeping Textizen data open to everyone.  And Frank said that one of the first things they usually have to work through with planners is how open a process they should use.  Frank said that the planners usually want controlled access and sign-ins, Frank usually pushes back against that, and the planners and officials usually end up very happy with the amount and quality of feedback they get, even when they don’t exactly know where every comment came from. 


  • Sometimes people assume that there’s an either-or relationship between online and in-person engagement.  Once you’ve listened to these folks, you should realize that it’s not — online engagement is part of the continuum, just another set of tools for getting to the same big objectives.  Whether you buy a shirt in a store or on a web site, you still end up with a shirt, right? And even the most diehard techies still go to stores.  Similarly, online and in-person engagement are just different ways to enable people to participate.


  • Finally, Alicia Roualt of LocalData said that she thinks one of the biggest needs in this space right now is some guidance for people to help them identify which of the dozens of online tools best fits their community’s needs and their work’s objectives.  Having tried to get my head around the range and variety of platforms and apps through my white paper, I probably know as well as anyone how important, and how difficult, that is.  And I’m continuing to try to figure out how to do that.  If you have any bright ideas or want to be part of developing that solution, please let me know.

My deep thanks again to Alicia, Brad, Frank and Michelle for their great insights and willingness to schlep to Atlanta.  I’m looking forward to continuing the conversation with these bright minds sometime soon.

The Near Future of Open Data, Apps and Planning

I had the great pleasure and fun of moderating a great session at the American Planning Conference in Atlanta earlier this week.  The session was called “Open Data, Apps and Planning, and it featured four of the brightest minds in the field.  So I could introduce them, sit back and shoot some video of their comments, which you’ll find below.

Here’s a few of the bright insights that came out of this session (in a very, very dark room…)

  • We’re starting to realize the critical importance of not just creating an online widget thing, but making sure that it’s designed and presented in a way that makes it usable and accessible to the general public.  That sounds self-evident, but there’s a lot of online tools out there that only make sense to you if you’re an insider (for example, the person who designed the thing).  The importance of what tech people call the User Experience (UX) came through in comments from Brad Barnett, Director of the Decision Lab at PlaceMatters, who noted that we have to start designing for “layered learning” — the realization that people need to be able to start at an accessible place, such as a high-level overview or an issue that’s directly relevant to them, so that they can get a mental toehold, look around and understand their options for proceeding.  Think about how that differs from some of the things we often do, such as provide an online map with a lot of parcels and layers and other data.  No wonder people start looking immediately for their house — we haven’t given them a toehold or an orientation, so they go in search of one.


  • Just putting the thing out there is no where near enough, which is something we should have learned after decades of making jokes about legal notices.  Frank Hebbert of OpenPlans notes that “how will you promote the tool?” is one of the first questions they ask new clients — if you’re not going to promote it adequately to the people who need to know about it and use it, you’ve wasted your effort.  Similar to the issue raised in the previous bullet, this is such a critical element of effective public engagement — of this type or any type — that we really, simply, just have to do it.  We just do.  I don’t know why we’re so often reluctant to effectively promote our public engagement opportunities — whether we just don’t know, or we think that’s somehow too “commercial” an action for a civic event, or what.  But the fact of the matter is that we have to.


  • Several of the speakers demonstrated that use of technology-enabled tools and open data isn’t just a cool thing: propertly designed and enabled, open data and online tools allow residents to directly impact the things that they need — the things that make a community better.  Michelle Lee of Textizen told the story of how newly-integrated parcel and tax data was used to overcome an old assumption that chasing delinquent taxes would cost the city more than they would get — a realization that allowed the city to capture more of the tax money they had been missing, and lessen the burden on everyone else.  Frank also told a powerful story about a neighborhood in New York that responded to children being hit by vehicles to crowdsource a map of places where people felt unsafe — and then shared that map with local police officials to help them target speed enforcement.


  • Michelle also encapsulated the important relationship between open data and apps better than anyone I have ever heard: she described the need for apps to function as the “ViewMaster” for open data, which in
    View Master and photo discs

    the form that we get it is usually unusable to anyone except for the hard-code coder.  As she put it, “the data is like the disc with the photos on it.  You can hold it up to the light or throw it at your brother, but unless you put it in the ViewMaster, you can’t really benefit from it.”   And most importantly, when we can see the data through the ViewMaster, we can use it to create a meaningful outcome that will last.  This is one of the issues that I think the open data movement has struggled a little bit with so far, but all four presenters were able to clearly demonstrate the power that open data, combined with a good user interface app, can create.


  • Along the same lines, Alicia Roualt of LocalData very articulately noted that communities can actually use data to bridge between governments and citizens.  In describing LocalData’s work with blight surveying in Detroit, she pointed out that the on-the-ground surveying was done by people who live in the community using an app on a phone or tablet, and that the data in the main project databases and maps was updated in real time.  This allowed both staff and advocates trying to deal with the messy, multi-moving-piece, often immediate issues of the city’s vacant and abandoned buildings to understand the situation with the highest level of accuracy possible.

Videos of each presentation are embedded below.  By sheer dumb luck, this session was followed by another conversation about the larger issues of technology in planning.  Stay tuned for some selections from that.

Economics or Public Engagement? Yes I am… no I’m not…Yes I am…no…

Hi.  My name is Della, and apparently I look like this:

Sesame Street two headed monster
Hopefully I’m not this furry.

About every other week I discover that I have totally confused someone with my business.  Yesterday it was a longtime colleague (granted, he’s not known for his powers of observation).  He couldn’t figure out why I have a business with the word “economy” in its name, although his community has hired me to do public engagement.  He thought I should lose the economy part from my company name.  Like I said, he wasn’t the first one.

I know.  It’s all weird.  But it’s not.  Really.

When I starred this business a couple of years ago, I settled on the Wise Economy name because I tend to see everything I do through the filter of whether or not it fosters long term economic health. The original business plan included a cumbersome five service lines, one of which was traditional public engagement. It’s turned out that most of the consulting work I’ve been doing has had more to do with in person and online public engagement.

I’ve learned in the process that there’s almost no overlap between the public engagement people and the economic development types.  And that those are commonly seen as completely unrelated professions.  Even after spending a lot of years In local government consulting, that surprised me.


Here’s the thing: in my head, at least, economic revitalization and public engagement aren’t two unrelated things.  They are critically intertwined, and we screw both of them up when we try to do one and don’t deal with the other.

We depend on our economies.  We live in a world where economic decision making either sets a community up for success or drives it deeper into a hole.  And we live in a world where the economy that we all depend on doesn’t look much like it did 10 years ago.  If we want healthy, desirable communities that will stay that way for a long time, we have to deal with that set of conditions.

And yet, when we do economic development, we tend to treat that as an insider game.  We claim confidentiality or that “it’s too complicated,” and we confine our planning and strategy to a star chamber of ED types, elected officials and a few Blue Ribbon Committee business leaders.

Then, when we propose The Big Project, the community fights it, raising ill-informed (or maybe just uncomfortable) questions about real economic impacts, or community side-effects.  They don’t make it easy, and sometimes their scrutiny kills our pet project.

Rubes. Don’t they know anything?


Similarly, when communities do “public engagement,” we tend to ask people questions in a way that’s divorced from economics, as though dealing with the dollars and cents that determine whether a choice can become reality or not would somehow sully the truthfulness of the public input.  Long range planning is the worst for this– “what do you want to see here?”  Not surprisingly, we get dreams, we get idealistic visions.  We get Santa Claus lists.

Then, when the plan comes out, those residents turn out torqued that the economically impossible answer they gave didn’t make it into the plan.  Our if we go with the Kum Ba Yah theory of plan-writing, we put the fantasy in with full realization that there’s nothing in there to help make it happen. In either case, the damage is done:

“They didn’t listen to us.” “They didn’t really want our feedback.” “Planning and public meetings are a waste of time.”


We need to do a lot of things better in public engagement, but perhaps the most important is using the process to help people apply the creativity we know they can provide within realistic economic boundaries.  And we need to do a whole lot better at economic development planning, but our most critical need may be to help people clearly understand and evaluate their community’s economic options and the potential consequences of those choices.

Most important, whichever we’re doing, we have to admit that we don’t have all the answers, and that we need to crowdsource as much wisdom as we can get.   That doesn’t mean the public has some magic set of answers, but it does mean that we need the community’s perspective and experience, just like they need our expertise.

We need both wise community engagement and wise economic decision making.  They’re part of the same mission. And we have to get them working together.


As some of you know, I just became managing editor of an online magazine that I’ve admired for a long time, called Engaging Cities.  Engaging Cities has focused for years on the fast-evolving interface between internet technologies and public engagement or community participation.  It’s a thrilling opportunity for me to get back to my journalism roots, do more writing and play a role in the evolution of a field that I find fascinating–and critical to achieving the kind of working together that I described a minute ago.

The Wise Economy Workshop isn’t going anywhere…I’ll still be writing and sharing great thinkers with you here and on the podcast, and I’ll continue to do speaking and writing and consulting from this platform. So stay tuned!


Ooooh…pictures: Videocast with Urban Interactive Studio for PlannersWeb

I’m delighted to announce a new partnership with PlannersWeb (the new online incarnation of the Planning Commissioner’s Journal) to share interviews with people who are leading us into the future of  public engagement and public participation — improvements that you can use in your community.

We’ll interview people who are

  • improving our understanding of how to do public engagement more effectively;
  • developing online and in-person tools to improve our residents’ ability to engage constructively; and (occasionally)
  • people who have a bright ideas in the hopper that are close, but not quite ready, to hit the street (everyone needs some you-heard-it-here-first, right?)

You can watch and listen on a computer, smart phone, tablet  or other device — anything that can show you a YouTube video.

Urban Interactive Studio logoOur first interview, which you can watch below, is with Chris Haller, CEO of Urban Interactive Studio and developer of several online engagement platforms, including Engaging Plans, which is demonstrated here at about minute 10. Chris and Della talk about the new world of planning project web site development (hint: it’s much easier and more powerful than it used to be!), as well as the challenges of engaging our residents in the mobile era … and the importance of bringing online and mobile engagement face to face with real world spaces.

If you know of people we should talk to or issues you’d like to see addressed, let me know.  Enjoy!

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.

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


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.


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.

Podcast: A CDC Becomes a Savvy Negotiator at the East Liberty Development Corp., Pittsburgh

building under rehailitation
The building across the street, In process.

Talk about fascinating… One of the most successful community development corporations in the country once has a balance sheet of zero.  What do you do to help an organization like that get its footing — and get some much-needed redevelopment going in a hard-hit neighborhood at the same time?  Make them an investor in the project.

I interviewed Skip Schwab, Director of Operations for the East Liberty Redevelopment corporation in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in mid-September.  East Liberty was once the third-largest shopping district in the state (yes, state), but got hit with a massive dose of disinvestment and well-intended but incredibly destructive urban renewal in the 1960s.   So this is the story of how a relatively small amount of well-placed redevelopment money and a commitment to meaningful public engagement around a plan set the stage for revitalization… and took years to play out.

The sound quality on this recording isn’t idea — finding a place in East Liberty that was relatively quiet on a hot early fall day turned out to be more of a challenge than either Skip or I planned.  And there are some tapping noises occasionally that I can’t trace.  Sometimes you gotta work with what ya got.

A couple of things to particularly look out for in this story:

  • During his time at LISC, Skip set up the CDC for its long-term success by giving them a seat at the table during the redevelopment discussions–but not putting them in a position of having to manage it, a task that the organization at that time would have found impossible.  When we work in a nonprofit setting, we sometimes assume that we have to be in charge in order to meet our mission, but I would propose that it’s better to be a savvy negotiator than a helpless and over-extended recipient.  The revolving loan that has grown out of that first investment and intelligent follow-ups says volumes about the wisdom of that approach.

    church building
    The Cathedral of Hope. At least, part of it. It’s huge.


  • The building that we discussed as being under construction at the time of the interview, and is literally across the street from the alcove bench that Skip and I were sitting on, was identified as the neighborhood’s top priority for redevelopment as early as 1999.  Almost 15 years ago.  Between then and now, at least four reputable, experienced developers tried to get the building rehabilitated… and failed.  The market could not support a reasonable use for it yet.  It is only now, over a decade into the area’s revitalization, that someone has been able to make the project work.  I haven’t investigated the project in detail, and I won’t claim to know if there might have been some creative way to make something work in the intervening years.  My suspicion is that if there had been a way, in this particular environment, with all the activity and pressure surrounding the building, someone would.

Most organizations would have flogged at that project because of its high priority and visibility, even as it clearly wasn’t working and as other, more achievable opportunities developed.  Revitalization isn’t a game of perfection, and from a position of relative hindsight it appears that they made the right call in letting this one sit on a back burner until other factors, including other high-profile developments, enabled enough change in the market to make a rehabilitation possible.  But….imagine the organizational guts required to keep it on that back burner, to fight the urge and the political pressure to try to force it to happen.  Imagine the tough questions, the snarky comments in the press.  And imagine the potential self-doubt among organization leaders.  That’s bravery, that’s grit.

  • Notice the importance that Skip places on the fact that the neighborhood had a plan — not the importance he places on it today as a staff member, but the importance he placed on the plan back then when he was the funder.  When he was trying to decide the reasonableness of an investment in a neighborhood with an urban renewal mess — and more importantly, a mess of an organization — the existence of the plan made the difference between funding and not funding.  And note that the plan he cites as making that difference wasn’t the urban design plan, with its pretty pictures and lovely renderings of some perfect future state.  At least in this interview, Skip doesn’t give that much attention.  His decision to pull the trigger, to make the investment in one of dozens of neighborhoods that were probably crying out for help at the same time, was driven by a community plan — by a document that demonstrated where the people of the neighborhood stood, what their priorities were, what problems they perceived and how willing they were to support change.  It was that plan, not the one with the pictures, that gave him as a funder the confidence that this was an investment with potential.

So again, please forgive the sound goofiness, and enjoy.  I had a blast with this interview, and I’d encourage you to check out  You can also find an interesting article on the district’s urban renewal legacy at


And of course, you can read about or listen to my interview with East End resident Rebecca Maclean of Food Me Once, Digging Deep  and Salt Pig Chicken Something fame  as we talk urban revitalization, entrepreneurship and hot dogs in East Liberty.

The Logic of Failure: Making better plans

Don’t loan me a book.  At least, don’t loan me a book unless you’re willing to get it back with pencil scribbles all over it.  Just ask my husband.

In the last post, I talked about the often-fumbling search for more meaningful solutions that I think a realization of the need for a Wise Economy forces upon us.   Abstract ideas about communities as ecologies and beware-ing of magic bullets and the like is all fine and good, but what do you do with that?  How do you make change happen in the places where you live and work?

That last post talked about some baby steps that we can be taking to start to shift toward a Wise Economy, and it talked a lot about the assumptions we make about the Way Things Work and how those Cannot Be Changed, Ever.   In another post recently I referenced Thomas Kuhn’s idea of paradigm-breaking: how breakthroughs requires that one somehow learn to see where the false walls are around them and what opportunities might lie beyond.

Within a Wise Economy context, the rubber-meeting-road moment is when we make plans for the future of our communities.  Comprehensive plans, strategic plans, action plans, organization plans…whatever we do to set the direction of the organization that we are counting on to make the community’s future happen,  that’s where a Wise Economy either begins to take root or falls on the stone and withers.   And after many years of making these kinds of plans, it’s clear to me that when our plans fail us, it’s often because our blind spots, our limited assumptions and our overlooked mis-interpretations equipped us with a wrong or faulty plan.  We often set ourselves up for that failure because we didn’t know and could not see all the things we were missing.

One of the books that has been most influential on my thinking over the past few years is a 20-year old volume with the catchy title, The Logic of Failure: Recognizing and Avoiding Error in Complex Situations  by Dietrich Dorner.  I’m going to assume that it sounds more appealing in the original German.  Recommended to my husband by a very wise boss, this book details the results of a series of studies examining how people made decisions in complex and ambiguous environments.  Complex and ambiguous… sounds nothing like the communities we work with, right?  Add  to that the fact that the participants were typically dealing with economic development and public policy scenarios, and it starts to hit uneasily close to home.  So Dave bought it, but I read it… and found it so insightful that I marked passages on nearly every page.  He doesn’t share books with me much anymore.

In some respects, it’s a depressing read.  Participants in Dorner’s studies make a lot more mistakes than correct decisions, and much of the time they fail miserably.  By studying the participants’ choices and assumptions closely, and doing that a mind-numbing number of times, Dorner does develop a pretty reliable differentiation between those who made consistently good decisions, and those who set themselves up for disaster.

Dorner illustrates a large number of differences in how successful and unsuccessful participants approach and manage the tasks, and I’ll continue to write about those.  Here is one that particularly stood out for me:

Both the good and the bad participants proposed with the same frequency hypotheses on what effect higher taxes, say, or an advertising campaign to promote tourism in Greenvale would have.  The good participants different from the bad ones, however, in how often they tested their hypotheses.  The bad participants failed to do this.  For them, to propose a hypothesis was to understand reality; testing that hypothesis was unnecessary.  Instead of generating hypotheses, they generated ‘truths’ (p.24)

How often do we test our hypotheses?  How often do we assume that a project will have a certain impact without taking a hard look at whether those assumptions are sound?   How often do we go back and re-examine the basic assumptions that we built our last plan on?  How often in the history of the last 60 years have we as planners and economic developers and administrators and communities generated our own “truth,” expended enormous resources on that truth, and then acted surprised when something hits us that we didn’t see coming?

Admitting that we might not have the truth takes bravery.  Taking apart and examining the foundations of the structures we have built feels rightly dicey.  But the termites work silently until the structure falls down.  There is a kind of vigilance that we have to maintain: anticipating and expecting that the world will change, that we might have gotten something  wrong back when we made that plan, that we cannot just finish the plan, sigh with relief and move on to getting it done.  We have to regularly test our hypotheses – and be ready to change what we are doing when those tests show us that we are setting ourselves up for trouble.

That is generating wisdom.  I’ll take that over “truths” any day.

The Wise Economy Manifesto, Version 2.0

Over two years ago I wrote down something that I called the Wise Economy Manifesto (first draft).  The purpose of that statement was to try to capture the sea change that I think we need to make with regard to how we manage the world of local government.  I have worked with communities for about 20 years, and I’ve stood in the midst of places that were thriving and places that were collapsing.  From what I saw and what I know about economies, planning, organizations and psychology, I ended up joining the small but growing army of folks advocating for a a deep-seated reset to how we do the important work we do – convinced that the needs are bigger than a new program or a new method.  And because my experience has crossed many professional boundaries, I was inclined to seek a holistic approach – a sort of universal theory that takes the work of many who strive to make communities better and sets their efforts in a deep-structure context.

So I wrote a thing called the Wise Economy Manifesto, and in it I tried to encapsulate everything I was thinking.  And I think it did that.  But as I have been living with it, and speaking and writing from it over the last couple of years, I have been coming to the conclusion that I made that first attempt more complicated and more fragmentary than it needed to be.  So I’ve taken another whack at it, and I’d be grateful for your feedback.  In the coming months, I plan to be developing some tools to help you put this into action, so the secondary question I have for you is, what can I provide to help you get there?


Here is the Wise Economy Manifesto (version 2.0):

  • Communities are human ecosystems.  Everything we do, whether a land use plan or an economic development incentive, or any other public policy, isn’t going to stay in the silo where we put it.  What we do will have wide and deep, and often unintended, repercussions, and we need to change how we work and think to anticipate those as best we can.


  • That which makes you unique makes you valuable.   Communities cannot offer everything to everyone, and they shouldn’t try to.  The great challenge of planning and economic development is to uncover, brush off, and illuminate those characteristics that make a place deeply, meaningfully unique.  There is little value in being a commodity, but much opportunity in a well-defined niche.


  • We must focus on cultivating our native economic species.  The thing that grows naturally where you are can, with a little help and protection, provide more long-term benefit (and fewer of those unintended repercussions), that the exotics that we try to transplant at great cost.  In this era, the chase after the flashy, the big, the long shot, is too costly and too risky to deserve the lion’s share of our attention.


  • Beware the magic pill.  We all want easy answers; we all want there to be a simple solution.  There isn’t one.  Get used to it, and commit yourself to incremental, complex, messy change.


  • Crowdsourced wisdom is the best way to find a real solution.  We have tough challenges in front of us, and we need all the bright ideas that we can get.  But just like water needs to be guided into a channel before it can drive a turbine, we have to take the lead in guiding our community’s wisdom into fruitful efforts.  An open mic in the middle of the room ain’t gonna cut it.


  • We whose have the job of helping communities work better have to be brave.  We have to reconnect to the reasons why we got into this, before the rules and bureaucracy and politics tried to beat it out of us.   Whether we want to or not, we are going to be on the front line of the fight for new solutions, and we are going to be useless if we are just punching the clock.  We have to critically re-assess our professions and organizations and communities, and find the fortitude to break through the walls that are keeping our communities from being successful.  We cannot be foolhardy, and we must admit that we don’t have all the answers.  But we have to be brave enough to do our job, and lead the expedition.


I’d be grateful to know what you think, if I am missing anything, etc.  Thanks.

Step into the spotlight

This article is not one of my usual sources (I hate to sound like a snot, but pink type and multiple exclamation points are usually a cue to fast forward for me), but it was sent to me by someone who thought it resonated with the angle I have been taking over the past few months on the need for bravery in rebooting planning and economic development. While I doubt a whole lot of us are aspiring to be the next Lady Gaga (and I can’t say I’ve pursued a career as a psychic with a lot of vigor), there’s a kernel of truth in here that I think is worth pulling out.

We are conditioned as community professionals to be part of a team, to stick with the instructions handed down by Them, to avoid rocking the boat if we can help it. For those of you who work with local governments, elected officials, nonprofit boards of directors, etc., you’ve probably gotten that message for years in no uncertain terms. It’s no wonder so many of us give up on that first impulse we had, to go into this work because it seemed like doing something that matters. After a few years of perpetuating a status quo that you know is limping, it’s no wonder so many start counting the days to retirement.

The author of this post goes a little deeper, and summarizes the most primal, fundamental fear that keeps people from doing what in their guts they know they should do:

The fear that if you actually stand in all your glory and say “Maybe I AM good enough! In fact, maybe I’m completely awesome…that all of a sudden the people in the shadows start looking at you differently and whispering “Who does she think she is?!”


As grown-up professionals, we don’t like that “who does she think she is?” prospect any better than anyone else.  And add to that the fear that stepping out like that could conceivably impact your career and your personal economic sustainability, and it’s no wonder that we shrink from the spotlight.

But we need planners and economic developers and passionate community people to step into the spotlight in the world of local government and planning and economic development as much or more than any other field. Where else do you touch so much of what makes communities worthwhile? What other fields have such an impact on the places that form everyday life?  We so easily underestimate how much we know and how important our contributions are for the long term viability of the places that we care about.

It might not look the same for us as for the astrologer or Lady Gaga or whatever, but we need to claim that same spotlight. We need to stop being beaten down by fear and step out there in the service of the good work that we know better than anyone else needs to be done.

We can do this.  We gotta do this.  Let’s get at it.

I wasn’t nice to the Little Napoleons, but I guess that’s OK.

When you’re a woman who writes and speaks her opinions about issues, there’s a certain

zipped lips

voice in the back of your head that pushes back any time you’re inclined to be “not nice” to someone.  Even today, we all still deal with a deep-set acculturation against anything that might make someone else feel bad or sound like you’re being mean.  That’s why characters in a movie like Mean Girls never say things straightforward, like “you suck rocks,” but instead do all these sneaky twisty things to get back at someone they don’t like.  And that’s why people go see that movie.  Maybe that’s why the number of women who are thought leaders in local government, planning and economic development is relatively small.

I think the question of whether my acculturation as a “good female” ever took is pretty well open to debate… but that sense of not wanting to cut people down unfairly, of wanting to be perceived as “nice,” continues to hold.  And when I wrote a very heartfelt post last year based on an interview with Andreas Duany, in which I wrote rather passionately about the impacts of a short German architect in a cape whose lack of hubris resulted in irreparable damage to dozens of American downtowns, I was both stunned by the attention that the post received, and uneasy.  After all, I have nothing personally against Duany… and there is much good that has come out of his work… and, well, I don’t want people to “not like” me.  Scuse me while I go put my hair in pigtails and brush the dirt off my knees.

I saw a lot of the responses at the time, but I recently found the courage (and time) to go back online and search for responses to that post, and found a few that I had not seen the first time around.  One of my favorites is from the blog of a councilman in Alpharetta, Georgia.  I don’t know GAJim, or his political platform or why this resonated to him, but the post clearly gave him some encouragement.  Since much of his post is about the Duany article, and since, well, I like and still strongly agree with the quote he pulled from me, I’ll repeat here the part that he used:

Public participation is important not just to try to get people to go along with our vision, to give us a chance to yell loud enough to drown them out, or to allow us to demonstrate the superiority of our Grand Vision over their piddling little concerns…

Understanding the real reasons why people oppose a project requires the willingness to do so, the humility to listen, and the internal fortitude and self-assurance to admit that possibly, oh just possibly, we don’t know everything that there is to know.   That is the real mark of wisdom.

Napoleon PortraitIf the people who live around a proposed development oppose that development, chances are those people know something that is important to the health of their neighborhood and the larger community. If we think that we know more than to have to listen to them, then we are no better than little Napoleons in big capes, creating monuments to our hubris that our children and grandchildren will have to clean up. The lessons of the damage caused by our ignorance are all around us.


Somehow, despite my own wavering bravery, it seems like I might have done some good.

I think I’m gonna take out the pigtails and stand by that one.


We all need to Turn Pro

The blog seems to be taking a turn toward the…I don’t know, motivational?  Metaphysical?  lately, with a lot of posts about making the choice to be a force for change — a force in our communities and organizations for creating a Wise Economy.  Perhaps it’s because of my reading and music diet lately, or the fact that I have been recovering from an intensive phase in the weeds of a project.

But I find myself consistently grasping for ways to articulate something that is hard to say to anyone without sounding stupid — and especially hard to say to people dealing with the tough realities of local governments and organizations.  What I am trying to get at is the fact that we need to be active forces in the movement toward solutions to the tough issues facing all of us.

A blog post in my morning reading today, as a result, was in the right place to twang all of my strings pretty hard.  Todd Henry’s The Accidental Creative is one of my favorite business world readings and podcasts, and his ability to see and cut through the barriers that hold us back is a delight.  Todd and several other bloggers lately have posted about a new business book called On Turning Pro: Tap Your Inner Power and Create Your Life’  Work, by Steven Pressfield.  I haven’t read it yet, but when I do I’ll let you know.

Todd, however, took off on this, and wrote a really beautiful little confessional (there I go, sucker for a good writer again…).  Here’s a piece of it:

I spent much of my life as a paid amateur. I was doing what I needed to do to get the work done, but I was secretly waiting for someone to come along and “pick” me.  I was saving myself for a marriage that would never arrive, while unwittingly giving myself over to anyone who came along. I worked hard, but I wasn’t a pro. I was auditing my own life. I was a ghost.

In short, I lacked grit. I hadn’t yet developed the “you will have to pry this work from my cold, dead hands” mindset to which I now aspire everyday. My resolve wasn’t yet steeled.

I remember the day it flipped. I went pro. I decided that I was going to do whatever it took to get my work out each day, and to develop my mind for wherever life led. The change was subtle, but it was marked by three little words that I swear are inscribed somewhere on the inside of my cerebral cortex: “Here I Stand.”

Against the turmoil, here I stand.

Against the critics, here I stand.

Against the scoffers and cynics, here I stand.

Against my own fear, here I stand.

Against exhaustion, pettiness, and excuses, here I stand.

Against compromise and short-cuts, here I stand.

Against the seductive love of comfort, here I stand.

Here I stand, and neither your words, nor your threats will move me. I am a pro, and while I may not always produce great work, I produce, so deal with it.

Awesome.   And an additional pleasure to see someone else fingering the need for “grit.”

Planners and economic developers and community professionals are creative professionals, in the purest sense of the word.  Our mission is one of the most fundamental and noble: to make human communities better.  We get mired in the details of meetings and projects and personality conflicts and politics, but you know what?  So do  people who do more conventionally “creative” work, like artists and writers.  Creating is tough, whether it’s a new painting, a new song or a new way of making local economies work.

Fear?  Insecurity?  Rejection?  What else is new?

We need creativity in local governments, organizations, agencies.  We need it more than ever.   We need to embrace our own creativity, and that of our communities,  if we are going  to find solutions to those very tough questions, and more and more urgent.  We need to claim our own commitment to working toward those answers within the messy world of everyday distractions and limitations if we’re going to in any way be true to the good intentions of our choice to do this work.

One of my favorite songs right now includes these lyrics: “I got this feeling underneath my

javelin thrower
Maybe what we love about pro athletes is that we can see their commitment to making something happen.

feet/like something underground’s going to come up and carry me.”  (15 points to the first person to name the song!).    Maybe that’s another way to say what it means to turn pro.  A pro taps his or her own energy and commitment for the good of something bigger.  You can’t get bigger than what we deal with.  We can’t afford be paid amateurs anymore.

Doing public participation right!

Just when you think maybe you’ve been shouting into the void, it’s always great to find out that someone else gets it.  J.M Goldson wrote a lovely post on her blog  last week about the methods her firm uses to support good  public participation in their projects, and we were grateful here to find that she opens with a quote from my post, “What Planners can do to help the Economy.”  Here’s the quote she used:

Model your public participation after the best teachers. Don’t just lecture or allow others to lecture.  Don’t do the minimum necessary to get by.  Give the process structure so that people stay on track and so that you hear from everyone, and engage them in the search for solutions, rather than presenting them a grand vision and waiting for them to applaud or throw tomatoes.

She goes on to describe how her firm focuses on helping community members  “think through the issues and the structure they need to search for solutions together.”  Sounds like good Wise Economy talk to me!

The big challenge of the Wise Economy approach, of refocusing how we plan for and manage our communities, is making the conscious choice to move away from the old methods that we know aren’t working and… do something else.  We’re all still trying to figure out exactly what that something else is.  I know I am.  But I do know that when we pull it off, it’s going to be a sea change, a gradual and almost imperceptible evolution to those of us in the middle of this.  But as more of us follow the trail of crumbs that people like J.M. are helping us lay out, the sooner we’ll get there.





Why community involvement requires a structured approach, even when we’re seeking new ideas

One of my ongoing frustrations within the public engagement practice of the Wise Economy Workshop is the assumption in some corners that good public engagement means letting people recommend or promote any idea they want.  Free from the bounds of real-world constraints, we let them spin their wildest ideas….and then, when they find out that the recommendations didn’t include their ideas, they accuse us of “not listening,” while we roll our eyes and mutter about how “unrealistic” the public is.

In my presentations, I often refer to this as the Santa Claus approach (“I’ve been a good girl this year.  I want a pony….and a rocket launcher… and a Ferrari…”)  A current client of mine has taken to calling an event with this kind of participation the Rainbows and Unicorns Summit.

Like most things that don’t work as we intended, the root of the problem is in how we structured the engagemetn, because that’s what set the stage for what we did.   Teachers and business coaches know that generating effective creative ideas requires working within a structure.  People need a realistic context, real-world sides on the box, if they are going to create something that is both new and useful.

If you don’t believe me, try this exercise at your next staff meeting or coffee klaatch:

Step #1: Ask people to list a number of ways in which they can use a brick. They can use

a brick
What can _you_ do with this?

it anywhere, anytime –there are no restrictions. Give them about a minute. Typical answers will involve using it as a paperweight, a door stop, or a weapon.

Step #2:Identify a specific place or context (e.g.,  in the kitchen, in a park, your kid’s room) and ask the same people to list all of the ways they could use a brick in that place. For example, if “a kitchen” is the context, people may find uses like heating it up to make paninis, flattening a lump of dough, or using it as a trivet.

Step #3: Ask the group which approach – #1 (unbounded) or #2 (connecting to something ) – yielded more creative solutions.

As Stephen Shapiro, the source of this exercise wrote, “Nearly 90% of audiences choose the second way.   In fact, when we take the time to evaluate the uses, there is indeed much greater divergence when using the second method. The first approach tends to yield a lot of common solutions.”

So we generate more creative ideas, and more directly useable ideas, when we ask people to think about solutions within a realistic content than when we just throw the doors open for ideas.   That means that if we want to honor and respect the time that our residents and business operators and others are giving us when we ask them to participate, we need to stop putting them in situations where all they can come up with are Santa Claus lists.  We own them, and ourselves, a better way than that.


Looking forward: thoughts for the next 20 years from the final edition of the Planning Commissioners’ Journal

I have had the privilege for the past couple of years of writing a regular column for Planning Commissioner’s Journal, a publication geared toward citizen planners and the professionals who support them.  After more than 20 years, the publishers are ending the print publication and moving to a new online platform, PlannersWeb.

For the final print edition, I and several other longtime contributors were asked to write about how we think the work of citizen and professional planners will evolve over the next 10 to 2o years.  I’m printing my contribution below, because I think that it’s a good summary of the issues a Wise Economy approach has to address.   I’d encourage you to check out the good thinking that runs all through this Planning Commissioner’s Journal edition.

Although Planning Commissioner’s Journal is changing, it’s definitively not going away, and I think the next chapter of will be an exciting and engaging opportunity for folks to not only learn, but be part of a great lively community.  Check out for more details on the new platform, purchase the current edition or stock up on back issues and special publications.

And I will be along for the new adventure too — writing a new column about tools and tricks for doing better public engagement.  The editor and I are also talking about new methods for doing fun and enlightening events, such as a chat room or Google Hangout with experts, so stay tuned.  It’s going to be a great adventure!

Here ya go… enjoy, and don’t forget to check out


Engaging in Planning
Della G. Rucker, AICP, CEcD
As we plan in the years ahead for vibrant and resilient communities, we will be grappling with the impacts of seismically shifting demographics and major changes in retail and commerce. Our challenge will be to develop the wisdom to admit what we don’t know — and the intelligence to make the best use of the resources we have.  Here are some of the uber-issues I think we will face.
1. Dealing with an uncertain world. The future will not be a straight-line continuation of the past. We’ll need to learn to plan in terms of scenarios, examining what we know in light of major factors that may impact our community’s future? We need to learn to ask: How can we set ourselves up to succeed in the event that we lose major employers, our population explodes from immigration, or the cost of gasoline climbs? How can we regulate mature neighborhoods to protect their character and help them be economically flexible?
2. Managing economic data better. Economic issues are central to our quality of life, and unless we specifically address them, our plans will mean little. This does not mean building our plans around market analyses, which are too limited and short term in nature. What it does mean is gaining a deep understanding of the long-term trends impacting our local economy, and assessing how our community fits into the world around it.
3. Enabling people to participate meaningfully in planning. Public processes must do more than enable “he-said-she-said” arguments or allow people to yell past each other. If our communities are going to work — and if our planning commissions are going to have the public support to make tough decisions – we’ll need public participation processes that engage our residents in the search for solutions and the hard work of making decisions.


Della Rucker is Principal of Wise Economy Workshop based in Cincinnati, Ohio. Her columns for the PCJ have focused on the relationship between planning and economic development.


Don’t forget what success looks like.

The following blog post from hit my inbox a couple of weeks ago during an intensely busy period.  We talk a lot in the Wise Economy world about the necessity of taking the long view, and that’s critical — especially when the near-term is seldom as straightforward and rational as we’d like.

It is very easy for ourselves, our communities, our local governments and our organizations to become demoralized by setbacks and misssteps — and if we are truly trying to get past old, ineffective approaches and move to something new, we’re going to have those all the more.

So the Hump Day message of this blog post is deceptively simple: focus on the long term, see the big picture, anticipate the unexpected the best you can, and keep pushing forward.  

Hang in there.  There’s a lot of us stuck in the tangle, but we won’t get out if we don’t keep going.



This napkin sketch was tweeted this morning by Babs Rangaiah of Unilever (@babs26). It has been attributed to Demetri Martin, the author of a book called This Is A Book.

It’s wise:




Cost benefit analysis: Simplistic R Us

We have a plethora of wisdom available to us in this era.  We have developed tools to allow us to access unprecedented volumes of information and ideas, and you would think that this volume would allow us to find new solutions to our most complex public policy problems.

But obviously we haven’t.  Why?

My theory: we keep using simplistic methods for drawing meaning from that information, and that’s stunting our ability to make strides forward. The next level of challenge that all of us in public policy face is to learn to use the information we have in a way that reflects the real complexity and interrelated character of the world around us.

Last week, one of my Twitter contacts tweeted this:

While RI spent the last 5 years debating the extension of 1 airport runway 33 new airports have been built in China.

The simplicity of the statement bugged me – you don’t have to be an international relations whiz to recognize that the comparison’s not that simple.  In usual Della fashion [that is, more to say than I can wedge into 140 characters, let along wedge in and be legible about it], I responded:

respectfl challge re China runways: @ wht cost? # Lost homes? Habitat, archeology etc destroyed? That’s the impt diffce RI/China.

(Translation: Respectful challenge regarding China runways: at what cost?  Number of lost homes?  Habitat, archeology, etc. destroyed?  That’s the important difference between Rhode Island and China.)

My correspondent, very understandably, noted that “cost/benefit analysis should inform not block all new initiatives.” 

The more I have turned this over in the head, the less I am sure how that informing process should work.   There’s two possible ways to do this informing:

The first would be the conventional approach implied by cost/benefit analysis – economic issues, such as demand for air travel, have to be somehow “weighed” against intrinsically non-economic issues, such as environmental degradation.  Both fine, and important, but different.  The image we often use is one of “balancing.”  To see what I mean, picture the usual picture: two items on a mechanical scale:

balance scale


When we use cost-benefit analysis, what we are trying to do in essence is find a balance point between competing interests.  The two items we are comparing are fundamentally different and fundamentally separate, things on opposite sides of that fulcrum. We put an apple on one side and a rock on the other, and we wait to see if what the balance does actually tells us something useful.  But what does that comparison tell us?

(a rock is heavier than an apple)


What doesn’t it tell us?

(which one can I eat?)


Which answer gives us something we can use?

No matter how fancy the graphs and tables, no matter how elaborate the calculations, the root method is the same: try to weigh the economic thing against an important but somehow non-economic thing, and hope that the numbers we get tell us something more useful than whether an apple is heavier than a rock.

This is part of why cost-benefit analyses of policy issues often fail to persuade people – they understand intrinsically that a simple comparison probably misses important parts of the story.

Our fundamental approach to public policy analysis needs to be re-evaluated – not because you can’t make comparisons, but because the assumption that non-economic things, such as environments or social opportunity, are in themselves not the same as economic things is a fundamentally false assumption.  What we so easily forget, and what we increasingly must not forget, is that these things are not discrete lumps sitting on separate trays: the issues that we are inclined to call non-economic are intrinsic to the function of a vibrant economy.

In other posts, I have talked about externalities, and the fact that the classical economic definition of externalities doesn’t work in real life anymore, if it ever did.  We live in a world where the impacts of my choices don’t just vanish into some magic ether…they have a very real and powerful capability to directly or indirectly affect everyone around me, and by extension directly or indirectly bite me in the butt.  The choices that we make on the basis of our personal calculus (like the story I told about my father’s paint company using the hill above the creek as a landfill) doesn’t just abstractly impact someone else: they have a real and direct impact that one way or another will probably circle back to us.  If it’s not a matter of directly damaging me (by impairing my health or making my children sick), the externalities of my choices cut into the limited capacity of my community to do the things I want or need it to do.  Our myth of infinite resources, whatever kind of resources, has been pretty well disproven, and the fact that we don’t all live on 300-acre spreads in Montana means that we are all directly impacted by each other’s externalities.  That’s not a political or metaphysical stance – it’s an observable fact of life.  And it’s more pervasive than I have indicated – even the rancher in Montana finds his ability to make an economic living directly impacted by factors like water quality that are beyond his control.

The English poet John Donne wrote hundreds of years ago that “no man is an island.” Not a new concept. But we persist in simplistic thinking that blinds us to the interconnections, the real story, the most important impacts.

Here’s the kicker: if we see beyond the crayon drawing of discrete things on a balance, and we start thinking instead in terms of the externalities, the impacts and the unintended consequences of the choices we make, then we _can_ make real sense about whether one choice or another is the most wise.  If we focus on the connections and the impacts, we end up with more and better information than whether an apple is lighter or heavier than something else.   If we think about supposedly non-economic impacts in terms of their pervasive, direct and indirect potential economic impacts, the value of those non-economic things changes substantially. There are direct and an indirect impacts of the different methods that Rhode Island and China have taken to address their air travel needs, and the impacts of those choices on the long-term health of their economic system.  That’s the important question – -what’s the entire impact on the vitality of the economy, not just who builds more runways.

Suddenly we are evaluating two elements of the same system – two species of apples, not an apple and a rock.  And with that manner of observation, we can finally use the information we have to make wise decisions.


Here’s a quite well done review of a neighborhood in Chicago and how a magic bullet called Tax Increment Financing (TIF) didn’t create the revitalization funding that was projected. Two lessons here: 1) Not surprisingly, TIFs are not the sure-fire solution that they have been sometimes touted as. If the TIF district does not generate property tax increases naturally, it ain’t gonna work. 2) If a consultant generates a one-point, single-number projection of the future economic impact of any project, don’t accept it. Demand a range of potential outcomes that cover a range of possibilities – what happens if there is less development that full buildout? What if there’s a lot less? What changes to which factors in the assumptions will have the biggest impact on the outcomes – for example, if the land use mix changes from the initial game plan, how will different possible mixes affect the projected outcome? At this moment in history, we should be acutely aware of the fact that simple linear projections of the future aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on. If we settle for that kind of intellectual laziness, from either consultants or ourselves, we cannot pretend to be surprised when the results don’t turn out as we hoped. We must be more practical and more aware of the full range of possibilities if we are going to create wise – or just reasonably functional- communities. Hat tip to Storm Cunningham of for this link.

RT @restorm Chicago discovers TIF can’t revitalize all by itself in poorest neighborhoods.

Slides from APA Ohio, National Trust and Downtown Colorado presentations (also known as the Dry Throat Tour)

 For those of you that attended sessions with me at conferences in September or October, I am glad to say that I finally got the slides posted to Slideshare so that you can download them whenever you want.  As a gentle reminder, I am available for your conference, workshop, training, Little League 7th inning stretch…. maybe I should reconsider that last one….


Here’s the link to the session I did with Peter Mallow on economic evaluation methods.  I owe you all some examples, I am still trying to round up some good ones.  We also do have video of that session, which needs some editing… we’ll get that posted as soon as I figure it out.  🙂

 Here’s the session with Mark Barbash and Jim Kinnett on National Trends in Economic Development.  I also need to find some illustrative examples of a couple of things from that session, which I will work on.  We do have video of most of that session, but it’s mostly the backs of people’s heads, which is what happens when you have three vertically-challenged presenters.   As an FYI, this session for us was a proof of concept for a broader training program that we are developing, so if you think some help with Economic Development for Non Economic Developers might be something your organization would find useful, please let me know.

 Here’s the session on Public Participation.  I don’t have video or audio of this session, but I am doing a reprise at the Northeast Ohio Planning and Zoning Workshop on November 18, so we’ll try to rectify that.  Stay tuned.

After my stint in Dayton, I made a mad dash to Buffalo to present on You Can Do the Math: methods for demonstrating the economic benefits of historic preservation policies.  Here are those slides — both the slides and an audio recording will be available from the Trust.  I’ll post the links here as soon as I get them.

 Finally, I realized that I never posted the slides from the Downtown Colorado Inc. plenary session I did in September in lovely Durango.  This presentation is a macro-scale overview of what I am thinking about lately, and what I think we need to do to reboot planning and economic development so that our communities are vibrant and resilient for the long term.  Again, I am  available for your annual conference, initiative kickoff or five year old’s birthday party.  Scary clowns and balloons not included. 

If anything does not work, or if you have any questions, please feel free to ping me.  And remember, I supply my own batting helmet.

Why we need better public participation: Complex issues and how structure makes us think better.

This article on innovation research captures a critical truth about public participation: if we don’t create a clear structure for people to think within, their thinking won’t be worth very much. 

Here’s an easy demonstration of that point (but no peeking ahead!)

1. Set a timer for 30 seconds.  In those 30 seconds, think of as many uses for a brick as you can.  Jot them down as you think of them. 

2.  Set the timer for 30 seconds again.  Now think of as many uses for a brick in the kitchen as you can (if you don’t hang out much in the kitchen, substitute the garage).  Again, write down what you come up with.

3. Compare the two lists.  Which one had more answers?  Which one had more creative –or more useful answers?

For most people, it’s both easier to come up with ideas when you are thinking about a specific context, and the ideas that you come up with in context have more potential for use than the ones that were created generically.  If it didn’t work this way for you, try it on your co-workers or family members and see what you get (you know you’re the special one, of course!)


Our conventional way of doing public participation in this country tends to fall at one end of the freedom/constraint spectrum or the other.  We either present people with a pre-determined, pre-endorsed plan (or a couple to make it look more like a choice), or we just  throw open the microphone and say “what do you think?”  I don’t know why we’re surprised when we get protest, or most likely apathy, in the first case, and crazy or irrelevant feedback in the second.  With too much structure, we are squelching their ability to make the constructive improvements that they know they could if they just got the chance.  With too little structure, we are throwing people on their own resources, which on certain issues might not be very deep or loaded with unconstructive, unquestioned assumptions.  We stick them with a feedback method that requires them to operate by the seat of the pants about something they probably don’t know that much about.  No wonder we get crazy, off-target and useless.

If you’re just doing public involvement because your boss or a regulation says you’re supposed to, you might as well stop reading.  Sorry to have wasted your time.  If you believe, at least somewhere in your guts, that your community’s public participation should build something, should help make the future of your community better, then listen: We have got to learn to do this better.  We have to find the right balance of openness and structure, of inviting feedback and keeping people on track, of getting people as deeply and constructively involved as they can be instead of settling for a lousy experience on both sides of the table.  If the only people who are benefitting from public involvement are the list-checker-offers and those who came to hear their own voice resound, then we are wasting our limited time and our more limited money.  Period

None of this has to be the case, and it’s not just a matter of happy kum-bah-yahing.  We will plan and develop better communities if we can access the whole spectrum of good ideas, not just the few that we might figure out on our own.  But to get that, we have to not only open the process, but we have to lead it, and leading means creating the structure in which good ideas can come to the top.  Successful businesses, such as P&G and Merck and Google, are already doing this.  And what we are doing in communities is far more complicated than building apps or making Crest.  We in communities have to open our eyes and learn how to do that, too.    




Dust, Bravery and the Usual Suspects: Q&A with Planning Commissioner’s Journal

Ah, July… I’d like to say that I haven’t blogged lately because I have been working so darn hard, but there’s too many pictures of me at a U2 concert floating around Facebook to make that very convincing.  As I try to get back to the grind, here’s a Q&A that I did recently with Planning Commissioner’s Journal as a follow-up to an article I wrote on Comprehensive Planning for the current issue.  I think it gives a decent and hopefully interesting take on some of my favorite issues, including meaningful public participation.  If you’re not a Planning Commissioner’s Journal subscriber, you can download a special free copy of the last (spring) edition through the publisher, Wayne Senville’s LinkedIn profile.

Q & A to post on PlannersWeb

about Della Rucker Summer 2011 column, Why Comprehensive Plans Gather Dust

Wayne: In your column in the Summer issue of the Planning Commissioners Journal you focus on a topic that I’d guess most planning commissioners have wrestled with — how to make sure their city or town’s comprehensive plan actually gets used and is meaningful to the community. You describe the kinds of plans that you say typically end up sitting on a shelf gathering dust — ranging from “the Encyclopedia” plan, which you describe as “covering everything whether it matters or not,” to “the Laundry List” plan, which, as you put it, “presents such a disorganized stream of recommendations that no one knows where to start.”

You then outline some of the elements that you feel are vital if a plan is to be useful: using data to understand the most important issue the community will be facing; having meaningful public participation; setting priorities; and focusing on what’s necessary to get the plan implemented. It’s this part of your article that I’d like to explore further with you. I also want to get your reaction to some of the many comments we received on our Linkedin group page about the first draft of your column.

One of the points you make, as I noted, is the need to have “meaningful public participation.” In your column you say that we have “to do more than let the public spout” and that those participating in the planning process need to have “real-world challenges to grapple with, so that the feedback you get has meaning.” Can you flesh that out a bit?

Sure, Wayne.  One of the biggest sleeper challenges I think we are facing today is that our traditional public debate model of public involvement isn’t working well and has probably outlived its usefulness.  I think there’s at least three reasons for that.  First, the traditional stand-up-and-make a speech approach was designed when public participation was limited to a much more narrow portion of the total population than we know we need to involve today.  Nineteenth – century politics (back to the ancient Greeks, actually) was limited to reasonably educated white men.  So even when there were differences of opinion on local issues, everyone in the room was coming from, in very broad terms, the same perspective.  Today, we have a lot more voices, a wider range of voices, and not everyone can express themselves adequately within that oratory model.  So we get silence from a large part of the population, and often less than enobling wisdom from the small number who stand up to speak.

The second reason is that the issues we have to grapple with have become much, much more complicated because of the interdependencies and interrelationships that we live within in a modern community. You can’t deal with too much complexity, address too many nuances and acknowledge that there may not be a perfect solution when you are at a podium for three minutes and the situation has been cast as a for-or-against debate.

The third issue is that the ways in which we gain understanding and grapple with decisions are changing, and I would argue, need to change ASAP.  K-12 educational methods (how teachers are being taught to teach) have largely discarded the lecture as a useful means of building knowledge.   Instead, teachers are shifting to methods that engage the students directly in dealing with the information, making sense out of it for themselves – which means that they develop better and more meaningful solutions to the problems they are presented.  Frankly, that should have happened a long time ago.  Cognitive psychiatrists have known for generations that only a very, very small part of the population learns best by listening to someone talk.  And the more we become used to living in a world rich with information of all types, the more we need to be able to do more than parrot back what we hear.

What does educational methodology have to do with public participation?  I’d argue, everything.  What we desperately need is for our citizens to do much more than spout ill-informed NIMBYisms or buy into knee-jerk, simplistic cause-effect assumptions.  We need to draw on the unique knowledge, perspective and expertise of everyone we can get, we need to get them reasonably up-to-speed on the issues, and we need to engage them – get their hands deeply into – the search for solutions, solutions that are realistic and address the complexities and ambiguities of real community life.

That might sound Pollyannaish, but I’m not saying that some kind of “everyone is special” happy-talk.  I am drawing that conclusion from what we know about how people learn and from the corporate world, where major companies are putting massive amounts of effort into broadening their employee base to include the widest range of people possible and then creating team environments to work on solving complex challenges.  If they’re finding it necessary to use diverse team problem-solving to deal with stuff like getting shampoo into a bottle, how much more do we desperately need real, deep involvement to deal with the massive complexities that make up a community?

One thing that I always feel like I have to say as a follow-up to that idea is that it’s not simply a matter of throwing a bunch of people in a room with a problem and hoping that they’ll figure something out.  That’d be foolish.  Instead, we who work with communities have to borrow a page from good teachers and good business team managers: we have to carefully create a structure that moves people through the information they need efficiently, channels their efforts into the right direction, makes it safe for everyone to participate (including your sweet grandmother who never speaks in public), and leads them to the creation of something that has value to the community and makes the time and effort they spent worthwhile.  The tools to do this are out there… we just have to learn them and use them.

We also all know that planners and planning commissioners often struggle with getting more than “the usual suspects” to participate. Are there strategies you’ve found that can help better engage more members of the community?

I can think of two different broad categories of “not the usual suspects,” and both of them will need a different strategy.

First, the public participation methods we traditionally use tend to exclude the less educated, immigrants, those who do not speak our language well.  Again, the need to include them isn’t because it’s the “right” thing to do – it’s because these people have a particular knowledge of the community that we will never be able to access if they don’t share that with us.  If we remain blind to those issues, we’ll miss the opportunities to address them, which is likely to have a direct impact on our community’s tax base growth and the demand for community services. I’ve done public involvement sessions co-led with a trusted community translator or liason to draw out participation from emigrant communities, and if there is any expectation of persons who are illiterate or disabled , I make sure that it’s known in the information that goes out before the event that people will be available to help those who have trouble reading or writing.  I’ll often also station a person at a table to write down any comments or ideas that anyone has.  That helps not only people who cannot write or elderly people who have trouble seeing, but it also helps people who can write but would rather just proclaim their ideas.  That way we get their thoughts down, they feel like they’ve said their piece, but we haven’t let them dominate the entire community’s discussion.

A second type of resident that is typically underrepresented is younger adults. There’s at least two barriers to their involvement, and both of them derive from our continuing to use these outdated public involvement models.  First, you’re dealing with a population that has a lot of demands on their time — jobs, kids activities, social events, etc.  If I am in that boat (and it happens that I am), asking them to sit in an auditorium and listen to someone drone about what may or may not be a key issue to them…that’s a luxury many cannot afford, and it’s a very unclear return on investment for giving up a very valuable commodity — their time.  I am probably more aware of the impacts that local government decisions have on the rest of life than 90% of people in my age group, so you would think I would be at my community’s council and planning meetings all the time.  But given the choice to spend two hours of my evening sitting in a meeting where I might or might not be able to give meaningful participation, while at the same time I have kids who need to get to practice, a house that needs cleaning, flower beds that need weeding and a report to write that I should have done last week…’s extremely hard for me to make that equasion work in favor of going to the meeting.  The second barrier is the changes I alluded to before in how people think and interact with information.  For people — let’s say generally 45 and younger — the combination of inefficiency, lack of ability to actively engage in the process and, lets face it, the often confrontational and overly simplistic rhetoric you hear in the typical public meeting is completely off-putting.  I think this generation is particularly aware of the ineffectiveness of this approach because they haven’t come up that way – they have come of age and entered the workforce in collaborative problem-solving teams — and have more clear memories of how often they fell asleep during college lectures.  Needless to say, if I have anything better to do with my time than go to that public hearing and listen to the crabby people ramble, I’ll take it.

Engaging this population takes an entirely different approach.  First, we need to make it more convenient to accomodate the busy.  This is where online methods become so important — not just because they are cool and whiz-bang, but because they do not require me to be in a certain place at 7 Pm — I can participate at midnight after the baby has gone back to sleep, or at 6 AM while eating breakfast, or wherever.  That’s increasingly an expectation of the majority of Americans — just look at the number of people relying on the internet for work and using social media on their smart phones.  If I can expect to be able to buy a pair of shoes online from my phone at 2 AM , certainly I am going to expect that I can interact with my local government at any time of day or night when I can.   Second, that interaction has to be more meaningful than just “I like it” or “I hate it.”  This population expects to be able to be part of the conversation, and they increasingly expect a rich, interesting and well – managed online experience. Again, all of this is not nearly as hard as it might sound — it all depends on finding and using the right existing tools.


On our Linkedin group page, there was at least some disagreement with your criticism of Encyclopedia style plans. For example, one planner said, “I am glad my comp plan had an encyclopedia element to it because when people say to me ‘why are we doing this particular ordinance change? I can respond to say ‘this is the information we had at the time that led us to this conclusion.’” This planner also said that you don’t need to broadly circulate the whole plan, including the Encyclopedia component. Instead, she said their planning staff “did a newspaper that was dubbed ‘the Reader’s Digest version’ of the plan and this was very helpful to communicate what’s in the plan.”

How would you respond to this? Does it make sense to have both a highly detailed and a condensed version of the comp plan? Or does that create more confusion?

Completely.  I have done a lot of plans that had a recommendation document and a companion information document.   You definitely need to understand where you have been and where you are today, and if it makes sense to have two volumes, or an Executive Summary and an exhaustive version, great.  Just make sure the covers show that clearly and that you indicate that there’s another version available.

The point I made in the article, however, was that I see a lot of plans that are 95% Encyclopedia, and maybe 5% recommendations if you’re lucky.  You end up knowing a ton about the community’s past and present, which is of course valuable, but you have very little guidance about the direction and priorities for the future.  I spent part of my early career as a public historian, so I am a complete junkie for community histories, but knowing the past is just a small piece of what you need to shape the future.

In a lot of cases, I think that the plan that is entirely Encyclopedia (lots of facts, not much recommendations), is the result of a situation where no one involved had the power or the willpower to stick the neck out and assert a vision of the future and how to get there.  So you write a lot of pages on the stuff that’s not controversial.  And as I indicated, as a consultant, I’ve been guilty of that myself.

But that’s a big piece, I think, of how planning gets a bad name.  If the encyclopedia part of the plan informs and guides a good, specific, prioritized set of recommendations for the future, fantastic.  If it doesn’t, you might as well just donate it to the local history department.


We also received some comments about the political nature of developing a comp plan. One commenter, for example, wrote: “Great article, but where do politics fall in this?” I know it’s something you didn’t really have space to delve into in your column — and, in fact, we’ve devoted three past articles in the Planning Commissioners Journal just to the topic of “the politics” of planning. But I’d still be interested in hearing your thoughts on the role of local elected officials in developing the comp plan. Should they just stay out of the process till a recommended plan is forwarded to them by the planning commission, or is it important to involve them earlier on? And related to this, how can a planning commission effectively identify priorities — as you recommend — unless they know what’s likely to receive funding from local elected officials?

Elected officials really should be involved during the planning process.  I have seen a lot of situations where the elected said “oh, we don’t want to be involved, we don’t want to influence the process,” but then they had heartburn over some of the recommendations and didn’t want to approve it.  Not only is that ineffective, but it’s incredibly bad press.  On the other hand, though, the electeds cannot appear to be running the process or overly influencing it, or that will set the plan up to be ruled arbitrary and capricious.

Like I said about all the rest of the citizens, elected officials have specific knowledge that is critical to a useful plan.  They tend to know details of government operation, budgeting and funding issues, and other items without which, the plan would lack an important grounding in reality.  So they need to be involved.  But they need to be prevented, sometimes actively prevented, from dominating the conversation, or their insider’s perspective may blind the plan to issues and opportunities that the insider can’t see.  Managing that process requires very, very strong leadership from the planners.  That can be done, even if the elected person is the planner’s boss, but it again requires a process that decentralizes the process, treats all the participants as equals, and avoids the soapbox model.  Most electeds can run circles around other citizens when it comes to making speeches if you give them that chance.  But if we make sure that the elected officials have ample opportunity to hear and work with other citizens, chances are they will become profound supporters of the plan because they both understand the objectives and understand that the impetus is coming from real citizens grappling honestly with real issues.

The same balancing act applies to your planning commissioner question – if elected officials are not involved, you may be whistling in the wind when it comes to figuring out what can be funded or supported.  Much better to have that perspective in the mix while you are still working it out than to have to throw out an important idea after doing all the work on it.  However, don’t let the funding question completely dominate the decision.  As people, and especially as planning commission members and elected officials, we tend to have very short-term and narrow perspectives: if I don’t immediately know how to fund it, it must not be fundable.  What we often fail to realize is that there are many more potential funding sources for any initiative than simply the three or four we are used to using.  If an idea is important to the community, you can find a way to fund it.  It might take some work, and there may be tradeoffs, but on the fundamental level, it can be done.  So don’t toss out a potential recommendation on the basis of “how will we pay for it?”  Make figuring out how to pay for it part of the implementation.


Finally, there’s the important point that several on our Linkedin group raised about plan implementation. And I know it’s something you touched on in your column. From my own experience, I’ve seen that there’s often an enormous amount of energy put into developing a plan and getting it wrapped up and over to the governing body for adoption. How do you keep the momentum going once the plan is adopted, and what sort of steps can be taken to make sure the plan’s recommendations are followed through on? I know those are big questions that you could probably write two or three articles on. But can you highlight some ideas for us?

Sure – that sounds like a good topic for my next article for Planning Commissioner’s Journal. To highlight here: we need measurable performance benchmarks, a clear understanding of who is responsible for what and when, a structure or mechanism for regularly checking those benchmarks and progress on the intiatives, and lots of public information and transparency about what goes well and what doesn’t go the way the plan intended.  And all that requires a level of local government bravery, for lack of a better word, because that’s what’s going to be necessary to build real support from the citizens to make the hard decisions down the road.

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 choices, accept and work with the limits of our knowledge and try to see our blind spots so that we are not sideswiped by a future that we did not see coming.

Tall order, right?  We can do this.  In some ways, it is getting back to the ideals of the planning process that get lost in the scuffles of politics and self-preservation.  In other ways, it’s about learning from other disciplines – not just the business world, which we’ve heard about ad nauseum, but from psychology and sociology and history.  The disciplines that study how people think and work together.  To make wise decisions for the futures of our communities, we need to lay the right groundwork by doing wise planning.

What does wise planning mean?

  • Goals that are real, concrete and measurable. That’s Planning 101. We know we need that.  What we don’t need is the mealy mouth stuff we often end up with as our plan’s goals.  We need goals that our communities can understand, rally around and work toward.  If a goal does not make people want to act, then that goal is useless.

Regional initiatives like Agenda 360 in Greater Cincinnati, and similar regional action plans that have developed in Boston, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Indianapolis, and elsewhere, draw their power and their potency from their goals.   They set a high bar for the whole region to meet, and they set it in measurable terms so that it is real to the people who read it and the people across the region who are in a position to do something about it.  One of Agenda 360’s main goals is the creation of 200,000 net new jobs in the region by the year 2020.  Now everybody knows what the goal is, and a little research makes clear where we are on the road to getting there.  Could the region miss it?  Sure… but now we know what we are going after and have something to measure against.

How much more effective, how much more of a catalytic force for change is putting that stake in the ground, rather than what professionally-written plans usually include?  How catalytic would “Encourage the creation of new jobs” have been?

I think the word “Encourage” should never, ever appear in a plan’s goals or objectives.  Never.   If I encourage my son to study his math assignments, my primary goal is not to “encourage” him.  It’s to push and prod him to do what he has to do to pass the test.  “Pass the test” is the goal, not “encouraging” him.

And what is “encouraging,” anyways?  Sharing information, establishing expectations, outlining the consequences of not meeting the goal, monitoring his progress…. That’s the actual work that “encourage” means.  So say that.  In plans, “Encourage” is nothing more than a cop out.  It means….nothing.  Zip.  Which is why elected officials sometimes like that word for things that they don’t want to actively support.  If you cannot get leadership to go beyond “encourage” as the verb in a goal statement in a plan, go back and define what exactly all the parties involved can  support, or cut it out.  You’ll probably do more good by leaving it out than by giving it lip service.

  • Don’t assume that the future will be a direct extrapolation of the past. It won’t be.  How many 20-year population projections have you seen?  How many plan decisions do we base on those numbers?  How often do they turn out to be right, or at least close to right?  Not often.  And yet we create plans that designate broad new swaths of development because that’s what the population projection indicates.  Never mind the fact that socioeconomic changes may drive that growth elsewhere.  And never mind the fact that if you don’t house all those new paper people, they will just go somewhere else.  They’re not going to create a tent city in your vacant lots.

The future almost never works out the way we thought it would, or I would have a hovercar in my garage by now and a jet pack in my closet. Our projections of the future need to accommodate multiple scenarios, and deal with those scenarios, not just average them out to make it easy to do the math.

Even more important, we need to not treat those projections as a fait accompli.  What matters is not the numbers, but the influences and factors that will drive how the community evolves, and how we monitor, influence or adapt to those changes.

  • Don’t assume that projected population growth automatically requires new housing, or that new residents automatically mean new commercial development.  You probably have a number of vacant or underused houses, and probably no end of vacant retail spaces.  Why plan for more?

Most communities (with a few special-circumstances exceptions) should stop assuming that we need anything new at all.  Either the economics don’t work or we don’t really need it.

When I did a comprehensive plan for the village in which I live a few years ago, all of the surveys and public feedback said that people wanted an Applebee’s-type restaurant in town.  The numbers don’t work for this village alone – it’s not big enough to generate enough customers to support that business model.  But because this is a metro area, this village isn’t the only source of customers.  There’s are four restaurants in that price point within a five-minute drive of most residents, and if someone opens another, one of the five would probably go out of business, leaving us with another vacant space.  ‘

In a sense, it’s a little like dealing with my kids – they don’t “need” another Nerf gun, although they tell me they do when they see the ads.  It’s my job to guide them to the realization that the six they have are more than enough.

  • Be conscious and explicit about fiscal impacts. You may not like tax laws or tax calculations, but your community needs them to survive.  You know that. It’s a necessary part of the system, and we have more than enough evidence now to demonstrate that if our development patterns cost more than they generate in taxes, we have a problem.   If you can’t pay someone to calculate the fiscal impacts, pull out your college textbook and figure it out. Your best attempt will be better than wild guesses or permitting officials to keep their head in the sand.  And if you do pay someone to do it, don’t take them at their word- make sure you understand exactly what they did and why.  If the root problem is with the tax structure, say that loud and clear.  You may not be able to change that alone, but you can issue the clarion call so that it can’t be ignored.
  • Model your public participation after the best teachers.  Don’t just lecture or allow others to lecture.  Don’t do the minimum necessary to get by.  Give the process structure so that people stay on track and so that you hear from everyone, and engage them in the search for solutions, rather than presenting them a grand vision and waiting for them to applaud or throw tomatoes. The public has to be part of the solution, too, and they need to both more deeply understand the issues that we are grappling with, and lend their expertise to the search for solutions.  If you give them a real chance, they’ll do it.  And if we don’t give them a real chance, we will stay in the morass.
  • Recognize and admit that putting colors on a map and writing a description of what it’ll be like in the future isn’t doing enough.  Even laying out zoning revisions isn’t good enough.  If we are serious about making our communities better, we need to plan for the whole social and political ecosystem, not just what the planning department, or even the government, can do for you.  Who else — what other organizations or agencies– are part of the solution?  What can they do?  Who should they (or you, oh City) be working with?  How do we really move the needle, and how do we know if the needle has moved?

Your colored map isn’t going to tell you that.  Making a difference in the future of the community requires much more.

  • Think critically – about everything. We haven’t been rigorous enough in our thinking.  We have had a tendency to buy the new gadget, whether it’s Urban Renewal or New Urbanism, without taking it apart, examining the assumptions, and understanding that every idea has limits, exceptions, and unexamined consequences.  That’s a natural limitation of human thought processes- cognitive psychologists document how much we cut corners in our thinking.

But if we don’t understand the limits of an idea, we cannot use the tool correctly. If you do not know that a claw hammer cannot drive a rivet into a piece of sheet metal, you will do a whole lot of banging and make a real mess of the job before you figure that out.  One can argue that the repercussions of the urban renewal initiatives of the 1960s should have taught us that by now.

  • Stop allowing bad planning. It’s damaging the profession, and it’s damaging the places that matter to us.  Professional planners 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 planners, is a myth.  Public sector planners 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.  And we all know that, in one way or another, that promised security is turning out to have been a mirage.

Private sector planners don’t do much better: they 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 their nights and weekends writing more proposals on their “own time.”   And then they get laid off when the big firm that swallowed the planning firm decides that planning isn’t part of their new strategic direction.

If we can’t count on those promises, that security, 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?


One more thing: I say all of this because I am a planner and I have done all of these things.  I have allowed communities to get away with meaningless goals, drawn maps that could not make anything happen, overlooked fiscal impacts and treated population projections like statements of fact.  I did that 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 the plan I wrote did any good at all.   As I evolve and move forward personally, I am determined to repeat those mistakes as few times as I can.

There’s a piece of calligraphic art in my office that sums up how I think we need to approach planning in this generation – not in terms of building styles or transportation modes, but in terms of how we think about the job and in terms of how we think about communities and their futures.  There’s 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?

How to keep your community from eating the ice cream

It’s that time of year when even the most laissez-faire of us get hit with the Set  Goals bug.  We all resolve (myself included) to lose more weight, eat better, spend more time with our family, yadda yadda.   And we all swear that This Year Is Going To Be Different… although we know in the backs of our heads that chances are we will be on the couch eating out of the ice cream pint by February.   Even though we know that setting those goals are the first step to success, we also know that setting those goals is only the first step, unlikely to catalyze any long-term changes unless we do a lot more.   

Since our communities and governments are creations of people, it’s no surprise that they do the same thing.  Every strategic plan and comprehensive plan has a laundry list of goals and objectives, and the really good ones might even give a game plan for getting there.  But we all know the old saw about plans that sit on a shelf and collect dust. 

Despite that cynicism, we know that there are communities out there that get it together, that enact positive change, and that maintain that positive momentum for multiple years — sometimes, decades.  So what makes the difference between the communities that keep their New Years Resolutions and those that end up on the couch eating ice cream?

After working with communities for a couple of decades, and getting a front-row seat for both great successes and some pretty spectacular failures, I think it comes down to a pretty simple principle:

The long-term successful communities are the ones that not only set goals, but remain consistently conscious of and actively use their goals.    That means that they:

  • Maintain a clearly-articulated, shared public commitment to those goals.
  • Refer and review those goals frequently (and tweak them if they have to).
  • Use their goals as a primary criteria for selecting among the choices that they face.
  • Use their goals as a yardstick to measure their progress over time.

Sounds pretty simple when you put it that way, right?  So why are the success stories so rare?  

Part of it stems from the  same reasons why our New Years resolutions fall apart.:  we don’t make it A Priority, we get distracted by other issues, we make short-term choices that satisfy immediate desires but go against long-term goals… Oversimplify a community and  pretend that its political and economic decisions were made by one person, and it will sound like the first 15 minutes of every How I Lost Weight/Found My Dream Job/Became a Triathlete TV show you have ever seen.

But our communities aren’t one person — they are made up of many people, and even the most homogenous community will include many more differences of opinion than we tell in our February good-intentions-bad-follow-through self-improvement stories.  We want our communities to move in a coordinated fashion toward common goals, like an ant colony, but most of our members, and almost all of our leadership, would make lousy ants.   Our brains, our opinions, our traditions of independence and democracy, means that most analogies comparing communities to a person or an ant colony don’t hold up for long.

A lot of the time, Our Community’s Goals are not the community’s goals — they are a person’s goals,  or a group’s goals.   Because we fear conflict, because we don’t want to take the time or spend the money, because we shy away from disagreement, because we who were invested first don’t want to consider that others might have valid ideas, we often fail to have real, meaningful community discussions about what our goals should be.  Then we act surprised when we discover that people, whether in leadership or in the community, will not support the actions we need to take to meet those goals.  They were never the community’s goals to begin with. 

Of course, if we _do_ deeply and meaningfully engage all the people for whom an issue matters (and believe it or not, there are ways to do that), we will discover that there are some issues where we cannot find agreement.  Whether it’s political or philosophical differences or simple practical disagreements, we will not be able to agree on some issues.   Because we fear that we will not agree on some issues, we do not attempt to agree on anything . 

 But here is the part we often overlook: if we did engage  all the people for whom an issue matters, we would find a lot of agreement.  We live in the same place, we see the same situations. we have, or can have with a little additional effort, the same base of information.  Because of that, we will find areas of agreement — they may not be the Exciting Ones or the Big Ones, but we will find some.  And if we focus on those points where we can agree, if we make those our goals, and they are truly shared goals, then we _will_ make progress.  Goals that don’t solve everything but allow us to make progress are, at then end of the day, more effective than goals that cover everything but do nothing.  An empty placeholder in the Goals for Everything structure simply means that that one needs more work. 

As we make progress, two things will happen:

  • We will build our community’s capacity for planning and working together.   If we fear that distrust or disagreement will derail us, what better way to convince both sides that the other is not evil than to find and work on the things that they can agree about? 
  • That experience will allow us to learn and discuss and find consensus on those issues that we couldn’t deal with at first.  

 Making this work, of course, also requires leadership that understands this reality and is self-assured enough to lead this way — an issue I hope to talk about more in the future.

Sounds Pollyannaish, I know.  And maybe it is.  So here’s a challenge for you: look at communities you know that have been successful over the long term.  They can be local governments, neighborhoods, business districts — whatever works.  And let’s share your thoughts here.  

In the meantime, if you are trying to choose the salad over the Lardburger on the lunch menu from now on, or setting the alarm for the 5 AM Boot Camp class at the gym, good luck…. and be glad there is only one of you!

Would we make better plans if we knew whether our plans work?

My post last week about whether comprehensive plans are worth doing and what goes on with them generated a lot of very thoughtful feedback, both in the blog comments and on various LinkedIn forums.  One particularly thoughtful comment came from Storm Cunningham, author of ReWealth:

communities seldom do any forensic work on dead plans, so the whole process lacks the kind of feedback that other industries have, which leads to exactly the same behavior–and quality standards–decade after decade.

The planning industry desperately needs to have after-action reports (like the military) analyzing what went wrong and right. But neither the public client nor the private provider are interested in seeing their failures exposed, so the industry languishes in “going through the motions” mode.

 This really caught my attention — resonating with something that has always bothered me about how we practice planning.  IMHO, the inability of planners (or economic developers or other local government administrators) to post-mortem a plan  — to understand what did work and what didn’t work —  is one of the critical shortcomings of the way we do planning in this country.  Other than anecdotes and our gut sense, we don’t really know whether a particular recommendation was a good idea or a bad idea, even years later.  We don’t know if what we proposed had the intended effect or unintended consequences.  As I’ve discussed here with regard to the urban renewal approach that characterized downtowns in the 1960s, we know that our big ideas can go badly awry, but we don’t fully know when or why that might have happened.  

I think that substantially cuts into the credibility of planning as a profession. There is a lack of intellectual rigor in a situation where we praise the process and the product, but have no idea what the results will be, that has always sat uneasily with me. 

Of course, there’s three very practical reasons why that doesn’t happen.  The first is, as Storm pointed out very wisely, no one likes to see their mistakes exposed.  More gratifying to just let it be water under the bridge.  The second is that local and regional governments are generally hard pressed to accomplish the day-to-day requirements to keep the place running — going back through the records and teasing out how the plan did or didn’t influence development or decisions has to look like a deadent luxury to many local government types.  The third is that a lot of time has to pass — probably 5 to 10 years in many cases — before the recommendations of a comp plan substantially play out.  Which means that there may be no one left who remembers the plan to begin with, and if they do, they are probably ready to move on to the next iteration and not mess around with the old one. 

All of which makes me think that evaluating the effectiveness of long-range plans might be one of the most influential activities that university planning programs could undertake.  If academics and students devoted at least a portion of their time to understanding how past plans did and didn’t work, instead of focusing exclusively on how they _ought_to_ work, they would not only fill in some glaring holes in planning theory and practice, but the students would come out of school with a more rounded understanding of what planning can – and does, and does not – do.  That would make them better planners, and it would make them more effective planners, and the insight that they helped create would make urban and community planning a more respected profession, with a higher capability to actually make something happen.

I’d be particularly interested in what those of you who are in academia — or have touched on academia — think about this idea.