Beyond Digital Disruption: Creating Smart Retro Cities in Nordics and Beyond

I’ve written more than once about how we often deal with cities and communities as though they were separate, unrelated systems — physical development, technology, demographics, etc. — as though they were separate systems, simplyfying or ignoring how the issues that we know or intrinsically care about are tangled up with and impacted by everything else.  Which makes it easier on our brains, but at the cost of actually understanding or being able to effectively solve problems.  Kind of not a great tradeoff.

 

Late last year I was asked to review and give feedback on a report created by Demos Helsinki, a Nordic-focused think tank that examines an extraordinary array of issues relating to changes in businesses, societies and communities.  The report is called Nordic Cities Beyond Digital Disruption: a Novel Way to Redevelop Cities. Here’s what I wrote about it, which is included in a series of testimonials from experts worldwide:

 

The Smart Retro Communities Report accomplishes what very few publications anywhere have: it connects existing built environments, new economic and community models and digital technology, and it traces through how we can use them together across macro-to-micro scale initiatives to address the challenges of the 21st century.  An eye-opener for me, and a report that I’ll be sharing widely.

The report is quite straightforward, very easy to follow, well designed and really insightful — and useful for anyone interested in improving the future of cities, not just in Scandanavian countries.  Check it out.  My deep thanks to Demos Helsinki for the opportunity!

NCBDD

 

What it really means to be an entrepreneur: it isn’t easy, or safe

Last week was the 5th year anniversary of starting the Wise Economy Workshop– my second foray into entrepreneurship and my first that didn’t stem from a lack of conventional opportunities (meaning, this time I chose this path because I wanted to). Normally, that’s a cause for celebration, or at least a Facebook announcement to solicit some of those “Like” clicks that make you feel good even though you know they don’t mean all that much.

But I didn’t.  I said to myself that I had been too busy, too tired.  Too something.

But the fact of the matter is, at that moment it didn’t feel like much of a thing to celebrate. what success looks like

My business is in the middle of a pivot, a repositioning of what I do and what I offer. I added book publishing and sales, promoted myself as a speaker, built partnerships, tried to figure out ways to make money doing this work that can supplement the fee-for-services consulting that I have done for over 20 years.  From an income perspective, the consulting life can sometimes feel like a particularly nauseating roller coaster, and I wanted to even out some of the plunges.

Pivots are hard. Maybe harder than even a supposed small business economic development expert realized.  And certainly harder than then game plan I laid out a year ago looked like.

Entrepreneurship is hard.  Am I doing the right thing?  Can I trust that potential partner? What do my customers want? Do they know what they really want? (You’re supposed to ask them, but sometimes the answer they give you isn’t clear at all).

Entrepreneurship is scary.  Can I pay that bill?  What happens if I put that one off?  How the hell am I going to pay for (fill in the blank)? What happens if…

Entrepreneurship is tiring.  I finished this, but now that is overdue.  The list never, ever ends.  And the amount to do and the people and time you have almost never match up neatly, whether you’re on your own or managing employees. There is overwhelm and there is famine, and sometimes not much in between.

Entrepreneurship is risky.  What am I giving up? What do I lose, do others lose, if I fail?  We like to believe that anything is possible if you try hard enough.  But a high proportion of small businesses in every field fail to see the five birthday milestone that my business has somehow stumbled across.

And entrepreneurship is lonely.  You have to make the decisions. You have to put on the success mask, even when you might not feel so successful today.  You can’t admit to what’s not working, what you’re scared of, the wolf that seems to pace constantly just outside your well-painted door.  Even to your spouse, your partner, your friend, sometimes. They aren’t in your shoes, and trying to show them the dark places might scare them off.   There’s some evidence of a higher than average rate of depression among tech startup founders.  I would not be surprised if that trend covered a much broader small business population.

I’ve put a lot of thought lately into whether we as communities are really doing the right things to foster small businesses and entrepreneurs–and whether we aren’t unintentionally setting too many of them up for ugly and damaging failures.  Should we tell a poor person, a young person, a retired person that they can be an entrepreneur if they just want to enough, when they may lack personal savings, family support, mentoring, and more?

What do the entrepreneurs that our community really needv– needs that we aren’t seeing because we’re allowing us to be satisfied with feel-good stories, and not truly trying to understand?

How many of our entrepreneurship success stories actually end as a small scale tragedies, with failure lost savings, broken relationships, a deeper slide into the personal and community hopelessness that the “you can do it!!!!” of entrepreneurship was supposed to overcome…

Chances are we stopped looking shortly after the happy ribbon cutting, so we don’t find out.

We probably can’t avoid entrepreneurship failures – it’s part of the deal you accept when you start a business.  My suspicion is that we’re not doing enough.

But not asking the question, not paying attention to the full range of issues that differentiate successes from failures, and insisting that faith in yourself is all you need, you can do it if you just try hard enough…

I am pretty sure now that this is not enough.

If entrepreneurship matters, if healthy small businesses matter, if local ownership and investment matter, if economic opportunity for the historically disadvantaged through self-employment and minority-owned small business matter,  then singing our favorite songs from Sesame Street while tossing around a little money and some how-to-start-a-business classes is not enough. Nowhere near enough.

And that’s not a plea for more money.  The answers to small businesses’  needs are not all found in a pitch prize or a program grant.  And money without a sound underpinning can make the fall only that much harder if and when it comes.

I’m in an ideal situation.  I have a business with low costs, plenty of education, a household such that we will not starve when I have a bad month, good health insurance, a good credit score, friends, family… Not to mention a huge ego and an abnormal level of self-assurance.

And even with all those considerable advantages, I have bad months.  I struggle. I get scared.  I wonder if I made the right choice.  I doubt.

Imagine the situation I would be in if a few of those advantages were missing.

 

Entrepreneurship is also thrilling, exciting, empowering, and deeply self-actualizing.  On a deep, personal, fundamental level, I’ve been happier in the past 5 years than I ever was before that, because I can feel and see my own self moving into my potential, the potential that was there for a long time but got truncated and stuffed behind an employers’ priorities.  In a strange way, that’s a gut-level peacefulness that I didn’t start to realize until I took that brave (and, truthfully, kind of naive) step 5 years ago.  For the people whose guts cry out to be entrepreneurs, that is probably the most powerful intrinsic motivation.  And it’s what keeps you going through the lean times and the doubt and the fear.

We say that we value entrepreneurs and small businesses, that we want them to grow and prosper in our communities, for a bunch of reasons. But we don’t act on it very well.

We have to do that work of supporting entrepreneurship and small businesses  better, much better, if we are going to achieve any of those benefits.

We have to cultivate small business, the way we cultivate anything of value. Today we often do little more than throw some seed in a vacant lot (“you can do it!!!!), pass a watering can over the field once or twice (“here’s a loan!!!”), and then wonder why the garden doesn’t explode with produce.  As anyone who has worked a garden knows, successful cultivating takes much, much more.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what small businesses and entrepreneurs —  like me, I guess — really need if we’re going to get serious about growing that increasingly important small business sector of our local economies– you know, the ones that make most of the new jobs and all that.  But I’ve been putting off writing that down until I got some other projects out of the way.

Maybe I need to move that up the list. For myself as much as anyone else.

New Short Shot: The Secrets of Retail District Revitalization

I’m delighted to announce that the first in a new series I am calling Short Shots is on the street and available for you!  This brief, illustrated publication(this one is about 30 pages) functions like a quick, enjoyable, easy-to-read exploration of a topic, with pages that you can easily remove and share independent from the rest of it – for example, if you need to make a quick argument to a mayor or council member about how to do something. It’s more detailed than a blog post, but a much faster read than a book.  And easy on the wallet as well!

A Short Shot is a term used in manufacturing.  When you make a bottle or other container out of plastic or something like that you typically “blow” a small amount of the molten material into a mold.  If you do it right, the materials flattens out in a thin layer against the mold, and you have a container with an air space in the middle.  Of course, if you think about that very hard you can imagine all kinds of things going wrong – material is too thick, too much of it, doesn’t spread out right, etc.  And if you’re running a machine that makes a few thousand of these an hour, you have to make sure it’s right before you push the start button.  So a short shot is basically a test mold, one that you use to quickly and inexpensively see if a new idea is going to work.

I love that image, because I think of these Short Shots as a way for you to quickly and easily explore new ideas, without having to put them on that thick”reading list” of books that you know you should read, but …  Short Shot Business District Revitalization cover

This first one is on The Secrets of Commercial District Revitalization — it explores why some of the big ticket projects we put into our downtowns and other commercial areas didn’t make the difference we hoped for, and it looks at the challenge of making these districts work better from a whole different perspective – the local business owners.  If you’re looking for new solutions to making your commercial districts work better, and if you want to help your small business people become more successful, I think you’ll find this worth the very little effort it requires.

The Secrets of Commercial District Revitalization and all the rest of the Short Shots will be available in all of the places where you get your digital Wise Fool Press publications — Amazon Kindle, Square Market and now Gumroad, which works for those of you outside of the USA who haven’t been able to use the Square Market.  If you need print versions, send me a note at della.rucker@wiseeconomy.com and we’ll make it work.

This Short Shot and most of the upcoming ones are based on talks and trainings that I have done over the years, so if you’re looking for a presentation for an upcoming event, just let me know.

Here’s a sample inside page:

Short Shot Retail revitalization

Final (for the moment) part of New Role for Old Downtowns: Why are small (and really small) spaces important?

This is the last of the reasonably well-developed pieces of the long thing on a new economic role for downtowns that I churned out on a couple of flights over the past couple of weeks.  After this, the document goes more bit-and-pieces.  Probably because we were landing somewhere.

You can find the five previous parts under the “Resilient Communities.” tag.  I’m not sure when I’ll get back to this — I have two other things that I’m supposed to be writing, and this was not on the list — but I will at some point.  In the meantime, I’ll be glad for your feedback.

___

Let’s talk about an Asset: Small Spaces

 

Who would view a small space as an asset?

 

We’re used to thinking of space –floor space, acreage — as a if-some-is-good-more-is-better kind of resource.  New house sizes have more than doubled in the past 40 years, while our households get smaller.  We assume that everyone needs to be able to get away from everyone else, everyone gets their own room, their own bathroom. We want “elbow room,” which often ends up being Rooms Between Our Elbows.  In the western world, among people of even pretty modest means, we want to have more room than we absolutely need.

 

Except.

 

More room means more cost.  More room means more space to clean, to repair, more stuff to buy to make it look not empty, More space to monitor to make sure no one is breaking in or doing something they shouldn’t.

 

More space to pay rent or mortgage on, more space to heat and light and air condition.

 

So if you’re a business, in a world where your competitors seem to multiply every day and pressure to hold your costs in check never lets us, Elbow Room increasingly looks like money misspent.

 

We’ve seen this in office work for decades.  When I started my first planning job in a 1960s building, I had an office with real walls and a door that locked with a click and a wall of filing cabinets and two bookcases.  And I was not anything special; everyone’s office looked like that.  After a few years, we moved to a 1980s building with almost no closed-off spaces.  My office was enclosed by five-foot tall cubicle walls, which surrounded a desk, two side tables, a bookcase and a couple of filing cabinets. A couple of years later we moved to a newer building, and soon walls and bookcases had been reduced to a glorifed computer-holding wall and a three-foot sort of cubby. And while I personally missed the privacy (writers have to concentrate sometimes), I could collaborate with my colleagues a little more easily and it turned out that I didn’t miss the additional stuff  Today, many of my colleagues work in hotelling offices, their work contained in a laptop bag and cloud files and their office for any given day consisting of whatever chair and worktable the computer system tells them is avaiable when they walk into wherever they are today.  Since everyone isn’t in the building at the same time, you don’t need a separate desk for each person, and there’s no point in heating and lighting a space that’s vacant half the time.  As a result, office space per employeed and total office size per establishment has been dropping since the early 2000s.

Similarly, take a visit to the new workplaces of this century – co-working spaces, coffee shops, park benches on the plaza, spare bedrooms.  Look at how much space each person working actually consumes, and compare that to those Mad Men – era offices I described in the last paragraph.

 

The same broad trend holds for many types of retailers.  If you go to the Container Park in Downtown Las Vegas today (a sort of surrogate town center for a community whose downtown isn’t very traditional, constructed mostly of shipping containers), and you go up to the third level on the west side, you’ll find the Art Box.  Art Box sells jewelry, accessories, glass work — little items. They are housed in a half of a shipping container – a space that’s about 15 feet deep. They carry, incredibly, works by about 40 Las Vegas area artisans and crafters — individuals, mostly with full-time gigs doing something else, who made items and sold them at a local market, since there was apparently no other store in town that would sell locally-made crafts.

 

In a 15X10X10 space, Art Box is pleasantly well-stocked, with interesting things hanging or sitting everywhere you look.  In a larger space — say, the conventional downtown store, 30 or 40 feet wide and 100 feet deep or more — Art Box would look half-empty, depleted, dispiriting. It’s not like most of the artisans can make that much more stuff in their non-existent additional free time.  Mix that negative first impression with three or more times higher costs in a bigger space, and it’s not likely that an experiment like Art Box could have gotten off the ground.

 

Meanwhile, from a local and national public policy standpoint, increasing the amount of  entrepreneurship is quietly filtering to near the top of a lot of decision-maker’s priorities, especially as big corporations continue to cut jobs on a nearly-predictable basis and questions about whether jobs that require potentially automated work, like truck drivers, raises the specter of additional millions of people who cannot find employment.  This spurs lots of investment in one-off initiatives, but like in many other areas of social change, the scattering of well-intentioned efforts can create small nearby ripples, but lacks the power to shift the direction of the tide.

 

In addition to entertainment and amenities and all those quality of life elements that we love but would survive without, I think that downtowns can be the natural incubator for small businesses-not just cute retail shops, but the things that will grow your local and regional economy in the future, creating not just local destinations, but products and services that create something genuinely new.  That’s potentially retail, but it’s also tech, services, crafts, manufacturers.  It’s the future economy that includes stuff we can’t yet name, like the smartphone in your pocket if you were trying to imagine it in 1995.
Downtown is the place in your community most likely to have the parts that entrepreneurship incubators need already in place.  But you won’t get those benefits unless you manage and shepherd the district to help the community leverage those assets for the long-term benefit.

A New Role for Old Fashioned Downtowns: The Downtown Asset of Very Small Spaces

Man, I was a lot busier on that plane than I remembered… After posting the first few sections of the long thing that I started writing for no objective reason except that I’ve been thinking about downtowns and entrepreneurs and economics a lot lately, I am finding that I got a little farther into the analysis of opportunties than I thought I did.  You can read my earlier discussions of the challenges I’m starting to think downtowns are facing here, here, here and here.  And I’m still welcoming your feedback.

—-

Your Best Opportunity Stems from your Assets

 

There is a subtle counter-current in economic and community development that is often referred to as Asset Based Development.  It’s a pretty straightforward premise: What do you have to work with, and what’s the best thing you can make out of what you already have?

 

For a moment, let’s apply that strategy to our downtowns.  I probably upset some downtown supporters with that last section – pointing out all the things that being a traditional downtown prevent you from having (and that those governments thatwe want to help us, want to spend their time and money on).  So now let’s turn that around: what do downtowns have, and what could we do with them?

 

Downtowns and other traditional commercial disticts very typically have a few common assets (yours may have some level of these, and it may have others):

 

  • Buildings that look and feel different from other places (often older buildings with different kinds of details and finishes.

 

  • Buildings that are divided into smaller floor spaces than in other parts of town.

 

  • A relatively high number of business spaces relatively close to each other, which means that you can physically move from one to another with less personal effort than it might take somewhere else (especially if you had to do it by walking).

 

  • A relatively wide mix of people, probably wider than the typical office park or cul-de-sac neighborhood.  Old, young, weathy, poor, different looks, different sounds. Like you, not like you.

 

  • Public spaces – places where people can be without having to buy something or have someone’s permission to be there.  Sidewalks, benches, street corners, parks.

 

Note that I have defined all of these, not in terms of how they’re traditional or The Way Things Used To Be, but in terms of how they differ from other, often more recently-constructed places in town.

 

I did that on purpose.

 

I did that to highlight something that we all basically know, but we don’t think of as an asset: the scale of life in a downtown is different from other types of places.  Instead of

 

[graphic of a bunch of relatively large squares spread out]

 

our downtowns have

 

[graphic of tightly packed small squares]

 

Now, those of you who are already downtown/new urbanist acolytes, don’t jump ahead of me.  The message here isn’t the tightly packed small squares are better!!!

 

The message here is that the tightly packed small squares are different.

 

What I’m working toward here is an economic argument: That Which Makes You Unique Makes You Valuable [I wrote about this here].

 

What you are willing to pay for something – anything –  depends on something more sophisticated than the old Supply and Demand mantra we learned in high school.  I will pay more for something if it is unique or distinctive AND it promises to meet my needs in a way that other things can’t.  A price premium – the kind needed to make a real viable market when cheaper basic options are available —  requires both.  If it meets my needs but it’s not unique, the availabilty of cheaper, basically comparable products will push the price I am willing to pay for the unique thing lower.  If it’s unique but it doesn’t meet my needs, it’s price won’t matter to me because I don’t want it.

 

Therefore, downtown’s new market opportunties will be those types of uses that not only like downtown spaces –that appreciate ornate moldings and access to good coffeee — but will benefit from the full range of assets the place provides in a meaningful way.

 

Let’s talk about an Asset: Small Space

 

Who would view a small space as an asset?

 

We’re used to thinking of space –floor space, acreage — as a if-some-is-good-more-is-better kind of resource.  New house sizes have more than doubled in the past 40 years, while our households get smaller.  We assume that everyone needs to be able to get away from everyone else, everyone gets their own room, their own bathroom. We want “elbow room,” which often ends up being Rooms Between Our Elbows.  In the western world, among people of even pretty modest means, we want to have more room than we absolutely need.

 

Except.

 

More room means more cost.  More room means more space to clean, to repair, more stuff to buy to make it look not empty, More space to monitor to make sure no one is breaking in or doing something they shouldn’t.

 

More space to pay rent or mortgage on, more space to heat and light and air condition.

 

So if you’re a business, in a world where your competitors seem to multiply every day and pressure to hold your costs in check never lets us, Elbow Room increasingly looks like money misspent.

 

We’ve seen this in office work for decades.  When I started my first planning job in a 1960s building, I had an office with real walls and a door that locked with a click and a wall of filing cabinets and two bookcases.  And I was not anything special; everyone’s office looked like that.  After a few years, we moved to a 1980s building with almost no closed-off spaces.  My office was enclosed by five-foot tall cubicle walls, which surrounded a desk, two side tables, a bookcase and a couple of filing cabinets. A couple of years later we moved to a newer building, and soon walls and bookcases had been reduced to a glorifed computer-holding wall and a three-foot sort of cubby. And while I personally missed the privacy (writers have to concentrate sometimes), I could collaborate with my colleagues a little more easily and it turned out that I didn’t miss the additional stuff  Today, many of my colleagues work in hotelling offices, their work contained in a laptop bag and cloud files and their office for any given day consisting of whatever chair and worktable the computer system tells them is avaiable when they walk into wherever they are today.  Since everyone isn’t in the building at the same time, you don’t need a separate desk for each person, and there’s no point in heating and lighting a space that’s vacant half the time.  As a result, office space per employeed and total office size per establishment has been dropping since the early 2000s.

Similarly, take a visit to the new workplaces of this century – co-working spaces, coffee shops, park benches on the plaza, spare bedrooms.  Look at how much space each person working actually consumes, and compare that to those Mad Men – era offices I described in the last paragraph.

 

The same broad trend holds for many types of retailers.  If you go to the Container Park in Downtown Las Vegas today (a sort of surrogate town center for a community whose downtown isn’t very traditional, constructed mostly of shipping containers), and you go up to the third level on the west side, you’ll find the Art Box.  Art Box sells jewelry, accessories, glass work — little items. They are housed in a half of a shipping container – a space that’s about 15 feet deep. They carry, incredibly, works by about 40 Las Vegas area artisans and crafters — individuals, mostly with full-time gigs doing something else, who made items and sold them at a local market, since there was apparently no other store in town that would sell locally-made crafts.

 

In a 15X10X10 space, Art Box is pleasantly well-stocked, with interesting things hanging or sitting everywhere you look.  In a larger space — say, the conventional downtown store, 30 or 40 feet wide and 100 feet deep or more — Art Box would look half-empty, depleted, dispiriting. It’s not like most of the artisans can make that much more stuff in their non-existent additional free time.  Mix that negative first impression with three or more times higher costs in a bigger space, and it’s not likely that an experiment like Art Box could have gotten off the ground.

 

The Future of Old Fashioned Downtowns: What can Our Downtowns do (and not do)?

Continuing my series of  parts of … something… exploring a potential new future role for traditional downtowns and business districts.  You can read the previous sections here, here, and here.  Might as well see where this goes…

 

So what do we do?

So, here’s the key question:  how do we increase and demonstrate the pragmatic, real-world value of downtowns – not just to downtown lovers and entertainment – seekers, but to the entire local economy?  How do we make downtown a more integral, essential, necessary part of the local economy?

 

I think the secret lies in claiming, reinforcing and articulating a new economic role for downtowns, one that can compliment and reinforce the dining/shopping/entertainment economy and the economic actors that come in search of that.  In a lot of communities, that role, that new opportunity, is as the incubator, the nursery, of the local economy’s future.  Downtowns already have the parts and the preconditions.  And increasingly, they’re fulfilling that role without anyone but a few insiders really realizing it. But people who care about downtowns and about the health of their local economy need to help downtowns step into that role, and communities need to give renewed attention to that role.

 

Not everything to everyone

OK, let’s not get too carried away here.  Clearly there’s a whole lot of roles in a local economy that downtowns aren’t really set up to do anymore, since we developed all those choices that we talked about before.  Brick and mortar retailers of basic goods and services – the stuff we need everyday – typically have to operate at a larger scale, a bigger physical footprint, than they did in the 1900s because all those choices means that they face enormous competition that holds their profit margins to the slimmest of amounts.  There’s a reason why it’s hard to find laundry detergent and paper towels in the little downtown groceries that sometimes take root in the wake of downtown residential development: there’s not enough profit margin in those products to make them profitable for the store, especially given the amount of precious shelf space they take up.  Even when a larger grocery store can make it work, such as in some of the most booming downtowns of the past couple of decades, you’ll find a much wider range of selection in high-end products, and fewer choices and smaller containers of basics.  That’s not just because the shoppers are generally more affuent.  It’s because the smaller spaces mean that the retailer has to move higher-margin goods, like prepared foods, to make enough profit.

 

Similarly, I think we all have to admit that the relatively tight quarters and small floor plates in downtown areas don’t lend themselves to assembly-line manufacturing. If building a product requires conveyor belts, robots, large machines, large quantity packing and shipping, rail spurs, loading docks, etc., there are very few spaces inside a traditional downtown that can accommodate them.  They just need too much land, in addition to any other unpleasantries that might not be appreciated by residents and diners (lots of cities have a sort of grey belt around their downtowns that historically included manufacturing, and may still today, but that’s a physically different area than the traditional downtown),

 

Obviously there’s other businesses that don’t fit in a traditional downtown — either they would have a hard time operating in that environment, or they would have negative impacts on other downtown uses.  Coal mine?  Warehouses?  A couple thousand office workers who all need immediate physical access to each other?  Most traditional downtowns would have trouble accommodating these.  They are types of uses that came along after the traditional downtown environment was established.

 

Here’s the deep challenge: these kinds of businesses – large retailers, manufacturing, warehouses, big offices, coal mines — that’s what people typically think of as “economic development.”  And it’s what a whole lot of city officials and mayors and members of council – and economic development professionals – think of as “real” economic development.  This is the stuff that they spend time and money on – sending staff on a trip to sell a business on moving to a community, building roads and sewers and running power lines to new development sites, giving incentives to get those businesses to move to town.  The size of business that they’ve been willing to tout as a “win” has been shrinking, but that’s because the size of businesses as a whole has been shrinking.  And sometimes these generally smaller businesses end up downtown because their employees want places to dine and drink and live the interesting city life.

 

But to many economic developers, government heads, elected officials, and the like, the purpose of the work is to bring in the biggest new thing you can get.  The measurement is volume: number of jobs, payroll,amount of new taxes.  How much the deal added, and how much it increased the amount available.  This is serious business.

 

I don’t mean that to knock my economic development colleagues – that is the job that many of them are charged to do. But for downtown supporters who want the places that they care about to mean more than novelty and entertainment, that purpose presents a challenge:

 

The types of economic activities that city governments and other agencies put their primary emphasis on, the types that make a real difference in the numbers they need to show…

 

Those, most of the time, don’t fit in a downtown space.

 

This is how we ended up with the downtown-as-entertainment-district. Economic practices and the impact of economies of scale changed, and the “serious” businesses moved where they could get more space, more land, bigger buildings, etc. The businesses that could fit in the smaller spaces were cast, and sometimes cast themselves, as niche, speciality, cute.  Appealing, but without “real” benefit, without substantial and easy-to-count impact on the entire local economy.

 

That’s why many more cities today have economic incentives for a new warehouse than they do for a new downtown cafe. From their perspective, the first is a need, the second is a nice-to-have.

 

The Future of Old Fashioned Downtowns: the Economics of the Situation

While I was travelling over the past couple of weeks, I found myself strangely sucked into writing this…I don’t know what it is yet…. about rethinking the economic role of traditional downtowns and other commercial districts.  This is Part 3 of the segments that I have more or less complete at this point.  And since I’m not on an airplane anymore and actually have to work on everything else now, it’s still a work-in-progress.

This section builds on the parts I published here and here and tries to tease out the economic implications of the fairly limited roles that we’ve often applied to downtowns.  Again, I don’t know exactly where it’s going yet, and I know it’s not going there fast.  So your comments are most welcome.

___

The Economics of the Situation

At its core, the kind of downtown I have been describing has an existence whose purpose is to capture disposable income.  It’s a place where the value that the place offers is dependent on its ability to offer novelty, to provide something that appeals to the consumer’s changing tastes and trends.  It’s a place marked by adependence on a narrow consumer niche, a narrow range of goods and services.  To borrow Nassim Taleb’s terminology, it’s fragile — lacking in options, short on Plan B strategies in the face of a Black Swan disruption. Easily broken. Lose your edge in that competition to Somewhere Else, for whatever reason, and you have nothing to fall back on.  There’s no other ecnomic game in that neighborhood.

 

We already went through this in many cities with the nightlife districts of the 1980s, such as the Flats in Cleveland or the Inner Harbor in Baltimore.  We can see now how that one-note tune doesn’t always age very well.

 

Don’t get me wrong. I love independent shops. Virtually every piece of jewelry I own (If you have met me, you know I have a vicious addiction) has come from an independent shop in some downtown in the US or elsewhere. Almost every painting or print or art glass or piece of ceramics in my house (same disease), plus a good deal of the furniture, same thing.  That dining and shopping for entertainment downtown thing I just disparaged? I do that All.The.Time. Did it this morning. It’s probably my only hobby. It’s the absolute only type of shopping that I will choose do.

 

But….

 

We have been leaning on our ability to grow a larger and larger collection of People Like Me.  And while the boutique economy definitely has a place in downtowns (and a place that’s I personally, selfishly want to have in downtown…)

 

I am getting the uneasy feeling that it’s not enough.

 

Needs versus wants

We have struggled for a couple of generations now with what downtowns mean, why they matter, why they are worth our investment and our attention in an auto-oriented, thousands of shopping options, buy it on the internet world.

 

The cold fact of the matter: while we may like downtown retailers, or restaurants, we don’t need them.  If our favorite coffee shop or craft store or high end shoe retailer closes up, we are not going to starve or go barefoot.  We’ll get what we need or want somewhere else–and if we don’t have that choice downtown, we have lots of other places today where we can meet those same basic needs.  We may not like them as much, relate emotionally as much, but we’re not going to starve or go barefoot.

 

This is the core economic shift, one that started with shopping malls and continues with Amazon, and it’s one that we have not yet fully figured out how to navigate.

 

Traditional downtowns were designed to be the place where we met both wants and basic needs. All those buildings stuck right next to each other grew up because we needed food, and shoes, and lodging, and entertainment, and places to talk with other people. Our great grandparents went downtown not because it was novel or interesting, but because that was where you got the stuff that you needed.  And if the shoe store didn’t have your size, or the dry goods store only carried a kind of soap that made you itch, you were more or less out of luck.  You had few other options.

 

As we discovered that we didn’t need those downtowns anymore — as our cities developed other options for selling people the goods and services that they needed– people had the ability to access new choices And most of them did exactly that.

 

Some of us like to tsk tsk and shake our heads and point our fingers at how foolish and short -sighted those people were, who gave up on their downtowns and moved to those tract houses and shopped in those souless shopping malls. But we can only do so because we weren’t there, or because time fuzzes up our memories. Our great grandparents wanted choices, more choices than they could have in their downtowns, with their one or two options. And especially after living through the privations of the Depression and World War II, with the country suddenly having choices again, we have to admit that we can empathize with how they felt.  And we as consumers have been enjoying ever-increasing choices ever since.

 

If a traditional commercial district’s primary economic niche today, is to provide a diversion, an escape, a mini-vacation for people in a certain segmente of the economy, the place may look good and generate good publicity for the community, and it will certainly generate some jobs and some revenue and some taxes.

 

But because it caters to a subset, and because it’s desirable to that subset but not essential to that subset (or anyone else), the traditional business district that fits that profile runs the risk of finding itself, sooner or later, back in the old fight for relevance that many of them thought they had won in the ‘90s.  When public budgets are shrinking, and demands on the nonprofit sector are exploding, and the very nature of what and how we buy everything from toothpaste to fine art is being subsumed into the Grand Shopping Mall of the World on the Internet…

 

Then making the public policy and state or municipal budget case for a part of the city that dominated by boutiques and interesting restaurants is not going to get any easier.

 

An interesting side element here: tax incentives for historic building rehabilitation and public or nonprofit funding of downtown programs were typically sold to politicians and the public,at least initially, as a way to fill a market gap, a way to get downtowns back to making substantial contributions to the community’s overall economy.  The promise was that filling the gap between what it costs to rehab a building and the value that an anti-downtown market would attach to it would give downtown businesses and building owners a chance to rebuild their piece of the local economy, to find a new economically-viable purpose and get back on their feet.

 

As I’ve written elsewhere, economic development incentives are typically assumed, at least in theory, to serve as a catalyst, a kick-start, a way to get over the initial market roadblocks facing a new idea and get on to fulfilling a place’s market potential. And as I’ll say below, I think there can be legitimate reasons for an incentive or public support to continue in perpetuity.  But the fact that we still need downtown programs, still need investment incentives, could be argued to indicate that we haven’t really made a dent in realizing most downtowns’ market potential.

 

The Economics of the Situation

At its core, the kind of downtown I have been describing has an existence whose purpose is to capture disposable income.  It’s a place where the value that the place offers is dependent on its ability to offer novelty, to provide something that appeals to the consumer’s changing tastes and trends.  It’s a place marked by adependence on a narrow consumer niche, a narrow range of goods and services.  To borrow Nassim Taleb’s terminology, it’s fragile — lacking in options, short on Plan B strategies in the face of a Black Swan disruption. Easily broken. Lose your edge in that competition to Somewhere Else, for whatever reason, and you have nothing to fall back on.  There’s no other ecnomic game in that neighborhood.

 

We already went through this in many cities with the nightlife districts of the 1980s, such as the Flats in Cleveland or the Inner Harbor in Baltimore.  We can see now how that one-note tune doesn’t always age very well.

 

Don’t get me wrong. I love independent shops. Virtually every piece of jewelry I own (If you have met me, you know I have a vicious addiction) has come from an independent shop in some downtown in the US or elsewhere. Almost every painting or print or art glass or piece of ceramics in my house (same disease), plus a good deal of the furniture, same thing.  That dining and shopping for entertainment downtown thing I just disparaged? I do that All.The.Time. Did it this morning. It’s probably my only hobby. It’s the absolute only type of shopping that I will choose do.

 

But….

 

We have been leaning on our ability to grow a larger and larger collection of People Like Me.  And while the boutique economy definitely has a place in downtowns (and a place that’s I personally, selfishly want to have in downtown…)

 

I am getting the uneasy feeling that it’s not enough.

 

Needs versus wants

We have struggled for a couple of generations now with what downtowns mean, why they matter, why they are worth our investment and our attention in an auto-oriented, thousands of shopping options, buy it on the internet world.

 

The cold fact of the matter: while we may like downtown retailers, or restaurants, we don’t need them.  If our favorite coffee shop or craft store or high end shoe retailer closes up, we are not going to starve or go barefoot.  We’ll get what we need or want somewhere else–and if we don’t have that choice downtown, we have lots of other places today where we can meet those same basic needs.  We may not like them as much, relate emotionally as much, but we’re not going to starve or go barefoot.

 

This is the core economic shift, one that started with shopping malls and continues with Amazon, and it’s one that we have not yet fully figured out how to navigate.

 

Traditional downtowns were designed to be the place where we met both wants and basic needs. All those buildings stuck right next to each other grew up because we needed food, and shoes, and lodging, and entertainment, and places to talk with other people. Our great grandparents went downtown not because it was novel or interesting, but because that was where you got the stuff that you needed.  And if the shoe store didn’t have your size, or the dry goods store only carried a kind of soap that made you itch, you were more or less out of luck.  You had few other options.

 

As we discovered that we didn’t need those downtowns anymore — as our cities developed other options for selling people the goods and services that they needed– people had the ability to access new choices And most of them did exactly that.

 

Some of us like to tsk tsk and shake our heads and point our fingers at how foolish and short -sighted those people were, who gave up on their downtowns and moved to those tract houses and shopped in those souless shopping malls. But we can only do so because we weren’t there, or because time fuzzes up our memories. Our great grandparents wanted choices, more choices than they could have in their downtowns, with their one or two options. And especially after living through the privations of the Depression and World War II, with the country suddenly having choices again, we have to admit that we can empathize with how they felt.  And we as consumers have been enjoying ever-increasing choices ever since.

 

If a traditional commercial district’s primary economic niche today, is to provide a diversion, an escape, a mini-vacation for people in a certain segmente of the economy, the place may look good and generate good publicity for the community, and it will certainly generate some jobs and some revenue and some taxes.

 

But because it caters to a subset, and because it’s desirable to that subset but not essential to that subset (or anyone else), the traditional business district that fits that profile runs the risk of finding itself, sooner or later, back in the old fight for relevance that many of them thought they had won in the ‘90s.  When public budgets are shrinking, and demands on the nonprofit sector are exploding, and the very nature of what and how we buy everything from toothpaste to fine art is being subsumed into the Grand Shopping Mall of the World on the Internet…

 

Then making the public policy and state or municipal budget case for a part of the city that dominated by boutiques and interesting restaurants is not going to get any easier.

 

An interesting side element here: tax incentives for historic building rehabilitation and public or nonprofit funding of downtown programs were typically sold to politicians and the public,at least initially, as a way to fill a market gap, a way to get downtowns back to making substantial contributions to the community’s overall economy.  The promise was that filling the gap between what it costs to rehab a building and the value that an anti-downtown market would attach to it would give downtown businesses and building owners a chance to rebuild their piece of the local economy, to find a new economically-viable purpose and get back on their feet.

 

As I’ve written elsewhere, economic development incentives are typically assumed, at least in theory, to serve as a catalyst, a kick-start, a way to get over the initial market roadblocks facing a new idea and get on to fulfilling a place’s market potential. And as I’ll say below, I think there can be legitimate reasons for an incentive or public support to continue in perpetuity.  But the fact that we still need downtown programs, still need investment incentives, could be argued to indicate that we haven’t really made a dent in realizing most downtowns’ market potential.

 

The Future of Old-Fashioned Downtowns: the public policy coal mine canary

This is the second part of…. well, I don’t know what it’s going to be, but something about downtown revitalization.  I posted the first part here, which kind of frames up the problem.  This part talks about what I’ve been seeing more specifically that’s starting to make me think we have a problem.  Your challenges, corrections and insights welcome.

What I’m Seeing: Public Policy as the Coal Mine Canary

 

This is what worries  me:  As I read and scan and talk to downtown colleagues nationwide, I’m seeing cities, both big and small, that fight internally, often over and over again, about whether the increasingly shrinking pot of money for making-the-community-better type projects should go to downtowns, or to other areas, which often claim (and often with a good deal of evidence behind them) that downtown investment only benefits Someone Else. In many cases, that Someone Else is richer, newer and sometimes differently-colored than the neighborhood. And downtown, it appears, is perceived as being mostly of benefit to Them.

 

The other thing I am seeing is that state programs that support downtown organizations, mostly by advising and training them and helping them connect to their peers in other downtowns, seem to find themselves with their heads on the political chopping block with depressing regularity.  Washington State recently became the most recent that I know of to write a draft budget that eliminates their Main Street program, a path that multiple states across the United States have at least taken a good hard look down over the past 15 years.  So this is not a new situation.

 

At the same times, states such as Ohio and North Carolina have looked at cutting, or cut, the tax credits that they have offered for historic preservation. My definitively non-scientific recollection has been that some state or the other has had to fight to maintain these programs pretty much every year for the last decade,or more — despite the fact that they can almost always point to great stories of landmark buildings rescued from being a blot on their communities, and all sorts of facts about jobs created and money invested of the type that politicians and advisors purportedly want to see.

 

(For those of you who are complete insiders on downtown issues, please realize that I’m trying to paint a picture of broad trends without writing War and Peace and losing everyone else. Every place, every fight, every story has its own details. They’re all special. I know that. That’s not my point here. Thanks.)

 

The macro-trend that I think I am picking up looks like this: Many downtowns are more vibrant and more interesting than they used to be, but, to a relatively large proportion of the people who are in charge at the city and larger level, those vibrant downtowns look like a happy piece of fluff: a positive and pleasant thing, but a luxury — a nice thing to have, but not a core need or something that the community cannot live without.  

 

I’m a diehard downtown advocate, but I’m also a practical person. And as I look at many of the downtowns that I encounter in my travels, I think I can understand what they are seeing, even if it’s not the whole story.

 

Too many downtowns, at least to the casual observer, look like entertainment districts for the relatively wealthy.  We’ve allowed a lot of downtowns to develop a one-dimensional, Flat Stanley economy: the place where all the hot new dining concepts land, and the one-of-a-kind homewares can be had, and where people still “shop” for recreation, the way kids of my generation would hang out in the mall and amuse themselves by spending money on sodas and CDs and maybe a pair of sunglasses.  Yes, we’ve helped many downtowns develop as places where people may now live in nice apartments, but the people who choose to live in them tell you that they moved there to be near the restaurants and the bars and the music and the cool little shops. Only later do they start complaining about the lack of stores that sell laundry detergent and paper towels.

 

The thing that concerns me is not that there are places where this exists. I want to shop and eat and live there, too.
What bothers me is that when our communities decide that this is enough.  When we decide that such a limited economic role for a downtown or commercial district is all we need, and when we focus on getting more and more of the same because it looks like it’s working.  We mean well, but when we do that, we are setting ourselves, our boutique owners, our restaurants and our residents up in a weak long-term position.

A new….something: The Future of Old-Fashioned Downtowns, Part 1

I have two books to get written, projects to do, audio to edit and a floor at the house that looks like the dog had a fur explosion.  So what do I do instead?  I start writing something completely unrelated to all of that. Genius.

At this point I don’t know what this is going to turn into.Right now it’s too long for a blog post, not long enough for a book.  But it seems to tie together several things I have been thinking about – downtowns, revitaliation and what hard work it is, simplistic solutions and their after-effects, small business and entrepreneurs and governement/ community organization policies and assumptions.  Urgh.

This is the first segment – I’ll post more of it tomorrow.  This part is simply attempting to identify the problem, so Spoiler Alert: no solutions provided.  Yet.  Hopefully we’ll get there. Thanks for going on the ride with me.  And I’ll look forward to your feedback.

We <3 Downtown

 

I’ve spent a lot of my adult life (and my childhood, come to think of it) dealing with the present and future of traditional downtowns and neighborhood commercial districts in the post-traditional downtown economy.

 

I’m not kidding. I’ve advised more downtowns than I can count.  I’ve served on boards and committees and task forces and written design guidelines and historic nominations and spoken at downtown conferences and written for downtown publications.  I’ve bought more stuff in downtowns than I would care to admit, I’ve gone out of my way to make downtown and independent purchases when somewhere else would have been more convenient for me, And I’ve done the obligatory Instagram post on Small Business Saturday from some charming boutique to remind whoever is bothering to look to go give some money to their local downtown and independent people.

 

Over the past few decades I’ve seen enthusiasm for traditional downtowns grow all over the country, and new restaurants and shops spring up in former department stores and livery barns, and new parks and sidewalks and farmers markeys and festivals take root, and town after town trumpet their downtown as their “identity” and a centerpiece of their great “quality of life.”  If you had asked me to make a prediction when I was in my first political fight for a historic preservation ordinance – or even earlier when I walked from my childhood home to the run down bookstore downtown on a block full of vacant storefronts and “SRO for Rent” signs – I don’t think I would have predicted that downtowns would become cool again.  But they did, and it’s right, and I’m incredibly glad they did.

 

But despite that happier picture, I’m seeing something in places across the nation that is starting to worry me. What I’m seeing seems to indicate that, perhaps, the things that I personally love about downtowns — the shops, the restaurants, the beauty, the fun — don’t give these places that I have valued so highly an important enough role in the economy and the life of our communities.

 

Here is my fear: we have allowed too many of our traditional downtowns to become extras, amenities, places of fun and entertainment, nice-to-haves.  And in an era of stiff competition for public and private money, and attention, and a time where we have totally disrupted our purchasing habits and given ourselves an explosion of options for buying and being entertained — and where many people’s incomes have stagnated and the demands on the money we have never let up, the nice-to-haves are the first things to go.

 

We who care so much about downtowns and neighborhood commercial districts and the like — we fought a long, often bruising battle over the last 40 years.  We fought to keep our downtowns, to prevent their demolition, to find some new purpose, any new purpose, that prevented them from falling to the bulldozer when suburbs and shopping centers had nearly made them irrelevant.  And even though we still fight demolitions, and we still have to convince individuals sometimes that a standing building is more valuable than a parking lot, you won’t find many people claiming that a downtown is obsolete and should be rebuilt in the model of a suburban shopping mall, as you often heard in the 1960s and 1970s — and in many places much later.

 

But too often, the public perception we’ve allowed to develop is of downtown as a land of fun —  an amusement center, a place that exists to separate people from their surplus disposable income.  When we accept and support that vision of downtown (even when we don’t say that out loud ourselves), we are consigning this incredibly rich and intricate collection of places and spaces and people to a certain level of irrelevance– the pleasantness but unnecessary-ness of the ruffle on the hem of the skirt.  You may prefer a skirt with a ruffle, but if you can’t find one, you can work with something else – and you can cut that ruffle off of the skirt if it becomes frayed or damaged.

More to come…

City Botox or Own Your City’s Flaws?

The awesome Andy Levine from DCI asked me to contribute to one of his new regular serioes of articles for Forbes magazine. He asked me and a handful of other people about our recommendations for an Extreme Makeover for Detroit.

As I’ve said elsewhere, I’m not trained as a marketer or a branding wizard, but I’ve spent enough years around the amazing cluster of those bright minds in Cincinnati that I guess I have learned a few things.  And, of course, I have a soft spot for Detroit as a sister Rust Belt city.

But that doesn’t mean I’m in favor of dolling a place up and trying to make it something it’s not

Since I’m assuming that Andy will only use a bit of what I wrote for him, I’ll share the whole thing here.

Hi, Detroit.  I’ve known you for a long time. I’m from the neighborhood.  And I think you’re great. But yes, the last few years — all right, decades — have been tough on you.

I know an Extreme Makeover sounds appealing.  You spend a lot of money, you get a brand new fantastic look, right?  We do that with houses… and people… all the time.  At least on TV.

But we know in our guts that Grandma was right: looks can be deceiving.  And we’ve been burned too many times by cities pulling glossy bait-and-switches. My hometown of Cleveland can tell you all about that. We can all see when it’s fake, now more than ever.

Your flaws make you unique. And real.  And you can’t hide them anyways.  So be honest about them.  Fix them, strive to address them, but own them. Trying to hide them, when everyone and their mother knows they’re there, just makes them all the more obvious.  It’s like putting a heavy layer of pancake makeup over a big scar — it might look better from a distance, but when you get close enough to connect, the caked mess says more about you than the actual flaw does.

The Detroit Homecoming that you all did last year… That was brilliant. The fact that you matter to important people who have made their name somewhere else gives you the kind of endorsement many marketers would commit felonies to get.

That’s meaningful. That’s powerful. That’s real. Do more of it, and publicize it.

Consumer marketing people say, “your brand is your promise.” Effective marketing isn’t about trying to be everything to everyone.  Effective marketing is about finding and connecting with your tribe — with the people who want what you can honestly promise.

The real question isn’t, how surface pretty we can make you or how much City Botox we can inject. The real question is, how do we show the world who you are and what you are striving to be. Because what you need, what we all need, is to be known and understood by the people who can love us.

Don’t Let the Recovery Fool You – A Mark Barbash Special

I’m delighted to be able to run this article from Mark Barbash, one of Ohio’s finest economic development types.  Mark and I have given talks together, run trainings together, staffed projects together and generally agreed with/argued with each other in lots of places over the last few years.  Mark combines an enormous depth of boots-on-the-ground experience with a strong ability to think independently and use that experience to get Good Things Done.

This article appeared briefly at LinkedIn, but through some dark evil magic disappeared from the site a couple of days later.  Who knows why.  But you should read it — and think about it.  A lot.

I’ll try to talk Mark into letting me run his upcoming articles in this series here as well, and I’ll forward any comments you want to leave here.  But you may also want to keep an eye on some of the economic development groups on LinkedIn, including Ohio Economic Development, Economic Gardening, Economic Development Specialists,

Here’s Mark:

————-

Executive Summary: While most indicators for 2014 are showing a generally recovering economy, millions of working-age American have been left out. This is an opportunity for pig with crutcheseconomic developers to make our work more impactful by adding value to our communities by not just growing jobs, but also growing family income and wealth.

 

The economic report for the end of the year provided encouraging news. About 252,000 jobs were created in December, and the improvement came across a wide range of industries. The national unemployment rate was 5.6%, down from 5.8% a month ago and down from 6.8% a year ago. (1)

But a closer look at the data makes clear that the current economic resurgence is a recovery for only some. And that should concern those of us who work in economic and community development.

Let’s look at several key economic indicators that tell a more nuanced story, and document a disconnect between the headline and the full story.

  • Long Term Unemployment Continues: While overall unemployment is down, there are still 2.8 million people among the long-term unemployed. Older workers and African Americans make up a larger share of this group, who also have a 20-40% harder time finding work.
  • Many People have Dropped Out of the Workforce: Many people who want to work can’t find work, and drop out of the labor market. The Labor Force Participation Rate actually dropped to 62.7% — an historic low.
  • While Productivity is Up, Wages are stagnant: Even if people can find work, because wages are not going up, many families continue to struggle to pay the bills.
  • Poverty Continues to be a Challenge: There are still 41.6 million Americans in poverty, in both rural and urban areas of the country. And 1 in 7 families have used a food bank in the past year, including many working families. (5)(6)

If this were a “normal” economic recovery, we would be seeing improvement in all sectors. But this recovery is not normal. It is very different than any previous recessions because these underlying problems — wages, part-time workers, discouraged workers — are not coming back as the same time.

One of the issues is that at the same time we seem to be coming out of the recession, the economy is going through a major transition, brought on by technology, demographics, risk aversion and globalization.

In short, this means that many people who would otherwise be able to get jobs are not able to do so. And when they do get work, wages are insufficient to really make any earnings progress.

 

What Does This Mean for Economic Developers?

In short, if wages and families do not grow, our communities cannot really grow.

We’ve all been working hard to be at the cutting edge of development (technology based economic development, creative class, economic gardening, global trade).

But when the job growth is not accompanied by wage growth and a reduction in poverty, it’s important that we step back, reevaluate, understand what’s happening in the lives of the people we have chosen to serve, and make sure our programs are responsive.

When I have this discussion with peers in the industry, I generally get two very sincerely held responses: The first: “Community development is not economic development.” And the second: “This should be left to the nonprofit human services and workforce sector.”

“That’s Someone Else’s Job”

The challenge with this response is NOT that there isn’t a need for specialized approaches to community problems. The people who work in human services and CDCs do indeed have important roles. And a community that doesn’t have a strong advocate for job training programs or for alleviating poverty has abandoned many of its citizens.

The real challenge is that by taking this hands-off approach, EDPros are missing opportunities to make our industry more impactful by infusing community value-add principles into our business attraction and retention efforts.

Here’s something to think about:

 

Value-Add Community Development

Building communities means adding value to the lives of its citizens. In my mind, Value-Add Community Development goes beyond just counting jobs. It’s about what makes for a good job that moves families toward a living wage, that enables a community to be economically and ecologically sustainable, and that helps to improve not just the businesses, but the community as a whole.

Many of these changes probably don’t involve turning the ship around (although I do think it’s time for a total reworking of the workforce development system).

It likely means making a course adjustment to keep us going in the right direction, but being more deliberate in linking our goals with our actions.

In several postings in the next weeks, I will take a look at what elected officials, policy makers and economic developers can do and are doing to help close this economic gap.

  • What does community value add mean to you? What are the metrics that show the health of our communities?
  • Do you agree that economic developers are missing the mark and not concentrating on the basics?
  • What “community value add” activities do you see in your community that have a focused effort to support strategies to assist all of our citizens

Notes:

(1) Report issued January 9, covering preliminary employment data through December, 2014.

(2) Al Gore

(3) While I don’t agree with a lot of their agenda, I do give a lot of credit to the work of Good Jobs First, a nonprofit group that focuses on promoting accountability in incentives.

(4) Even the Wall Street Journal has weighed in on this topic, highlighting among their posting “5 Reasons for the Slow Recovery in the Long Term Unemployed” from December, 2014.

(5) US Census Bureau

(6) Hunger in America Report, 2014

(7) Joe Scarborough in Politico points out that “but the .02 percent drop in unemployment was driven more by workers leaving the labor force than by new jobs.”

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

markMark Barbash has 30+ years of experience in community and economic development, in the public, private and non-profit sectors. He is Executive Vice President of Finance Fund, a non-profit Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) in Columbus, Ohio. Check out Mark’s LinkedIn Profile.

 

Instigatin’: An Informal Agenda for the Next Wave of Economic Development

A few weeks ago, I was invited to throw my hat in the ring  to be considered by the Board of Directors Nominating Committee of the  International Economic Development Council, an organization that I’ve been active in for several years.  I tend to balk at board invitations more than I used to these days, but given my interest in the evolution and future of economic development, I figured it was worth a shot.

But, given everything that I’ve written about my concerns with how we practice economic development over the past few years, I determined that I needed to go into this as transparently as possible — laying my concerns and interests on the table as directly as I could.  The application asked for two essays in response to questions, and I tried to write my responses so that…well, so that they know what they’re getting into with me, I suppose.  🙂  All in favor of truth in advertising.

 

Below are the two essays I submitted.  I’m sharing these with you because (1) I think I ended up with a pretty decent short summary of my take on the issues facing this organization and  the economic development profession, (2) I do seriously think it’s important to be clear about my agenda as long as there’s a chance I will end up on this board, (3) if I’m all wet, I’d like someone to let me know.  Thanks.

_____

  1. What is your interest in serving as a director and your anticipated commitment to the Council?

 

My interest in serving as a director stems from my observations of IEDC’s membership and organization leadership over the past several years.   Between collaborations with committee peers, close coordination with staff and general involvement in the economic development industry through consulting and published writing over the last few years, I have come to a few basic conclusions that led me to decide to take on this obligation:

 

  • The economic development profession, similar to other professions that have responsibility for the future of communities, appears to be facing a significant sea change.  Due to fundamental shifts in macro and local economic factors, an increasing understanding of the interconnection of factors like education, urban design and effective governance, budget pressures and the transformative effects of new communication technologies, the economic development profession as a whole must figure out how to provide meaningful benefits to communities, given these new factors.
  • IEDC is the most visible, most comprehensive and most well-managed organization relating to economic development as a whole. As a result, the needed growth and continued evolution of the economic development profession will need to be led by IEDC.
  • Figuring out how to pivot is hard for any organization, particularly one that has a successful history and members and staff who care about their mission.  As a result, addressing these challenges will require thoughtful and well-considered evaluation of options.

I think that my best benefits to my fellow Directors would be as follows

 

  • Through my work and writing, I have the opportunity to pay very close attention to emerging issues in entrepreneurship, small business, technology, local government management and urban planning.  I maintain close relationships with a very wide range of organizations, from the American Planning Association to emerging tactical economy and Buy Local interests.  I am in a unique position to be able to help Directors and staff identify emerging challenges and opportunities and build partnerships with others who may be addressing the same.
  •  Because of this range of experience, I have learned to think critically about the effectiveness and impact of conventional and new approaches, and have worked with communities in many states to sort through and select appropriate responses to economic issues. This sorting and analyzing skill should be of value to the Directors as they face future decisions.
  • Because I have written so much about my perceptions of economic development issues over the past few years, I am aware of a heightened responsibility to make sure that my statements and actions in real life are consistent with the assertions I have made in public.  For this reason, the Directors can be confident that I will participate actively, probe issues in a direct but sensitive manner, and play an active role in helping the Directors make sound decisions.  I do not have a reputation for being a passive participant.

 

  1. What do you believe are the most important challenges/opportunities facing IEDC today and how do you plan to assist IEDC to address the challenges and/or capitalize on the opportunities?

 

As I noted above, it has been my experience and my conviction that the economic development profession, like most of the other professions that have responsibility for managing the future of communities, is currently facing a strong suit of factors that will require significant change in the approaches and methods that professionals use.  Not making these changes appears from my perspective to risk losing relevance to other professions and approaches that are attempting to address the same fundamental issues that economic development is intended to address.  In many cases, these approaches have had their genesis in frustration over perceived lack of impact resulting from conventional economic development approaches.  As a result, it appears to me that IEDC faces the following opportunities:

  •  Building improved relationships with other community profession organizations, including the APA, Main Street, local goods and services interests and others, will help strengthen IEDC’s ability to access new effective ideas and broaden its organizational reach.  There have been several collaborations of this type that I am aware of, but the opportunity exists for much more effective collaboration.  I can use my broad national and international relationships to help enable that.
  •  I think that the organization is going to need to increase its visibility in the broader universe of community professions.  The relative lack of awareness of IEDC that I have encountered among people doing work that intersects economic development nationwide has been a surprise to me, and it appears that there is a perception that IEDC only addresses a very narrow range of economic development practices that may be increasingly out of step with what other types of community professionals are doing on the ground to impact economic issues.  Again, my relationships with these professionals should help understand and build awareness of IEDC’ potential connections.
  • Because of the above, it appears to me that the IEDC training manuals and the CEcD certification process are due for close evaluation and rebooting.  Between materials that are frequently acknowledged to be out of date and inconsistent training quality (due in part to the disconnect between the materials and practice), significant improvements appear to be necessary to maintain the organization’s relevance, particularly in the face of other organizations that are providing certifications.  Additionally, the very low pass rates that typically follow exam adminstrations, and my own experience grading all parts of the exam, indicate to me that the content and structure of the examinations need to be evaluated.  As an ex-teacher, I’m very aware that a flawed test results in an inaccurate measure of whether a person has learned the necessary content, and my understanding anecdotally has been that frustrating experiences with the CEcD exam may be pushing some potential members away from both the CEcD and IEDC in favor or other professional organizations.  From my perspective, this would appear to be an issue that the organization may need to evaluate to protect its own relevancy, if nothing else.

 

 

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 wiseeconomy.com 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!

___

Introduction

 

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 thestile1972.tumblr.com

___

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

image

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.

image

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.

image

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.

image

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.

image

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.

image

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

image

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

image

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

Missives from the Front Lines of Community Revitalization: the Las Vegas Downtown Project, Part 1

A few months ago I tried to quietly post some field notes from some time I had spent studying one of the most interesting new models of downtown and community revitalization that I’d encountered anywhere. I figured no one other than a few diehards would see them.

I was wrong about that – but the feedback I received from people in the Downtown Las Vegas community and elsewhere indicated to me that I had at least mostly gotten it right. Which was a relief, because it’s a much more complex, and much more relevant, story than much of the coverage that has run in main stream press has indicated.

The Las Vegas Downtown Project’s story, as it has been told by a small assortment of journalists to date, has been a pretty standard blend of the Rich Guy Throws A Lot Of Money At It story, with a bit of a techno-whiz kid, Next Silicon Something spin on it. You know, to keep it interesting. And of course you also get the classic newcomers-oldtimers squabbles, hipster kids mocked for drinking PBR, etc. etc.

Whoopie.  Unless you want to spend your time on another version of this old chestnut, nothing useful for people who are trying to revitalize their communities.
Of course, I’m not a journalist, despite my impressive cred of having been a stringer for the Bedford Times Register back in the day. Most of my life revolves around trying to figure out how people can help make their communities work better in a changing economy and changing technologies. I write about these issues from that background, because I don’t want to just tell a story, I want to help people find new solutions for their most wicked community problems.
I first started hearing about the Downtown Project probably two years ago. My knowledge of it started as a couple of interesting Twitter feeds and slowly turned into a minor obsession – to the extent that I was probably the only tourist in May 2013 taking photos of the dusty lot surrounded by chain link fence that was slated to become the Container Park. It’s on my Instagram feed, if you don’t believe me.
What I learned, through Twitter and e-newsletters, and later through phone calls and a visit tacked on to a delayed anniversary trip, was that the ground-breaking, transformative and potentially disruptive elements of what the Downtown Project was doing stemmed from something much deeper than a construction project or a pile of money.

In ways that I probably still don’t fully understand, the Downtown Project has been applying the lessons of the new technology-based economy to the social and physical work of revitalizing a community. In a certain sense, it’s the Hacker Ethic making an early foray into the world of special improvement districts and downtown festivals. And into figuring out how to find new economic opportunities for old business districts.

Thus begins an occasional series that represents me trying to make sense of what I have seen and heard in Downtown Las Vegas within the context of the other communities that I have worked with nationwide. Despite the national media’s focus on money and tech wizards, I think there is much here that we can take home to our communities.   And way more useful than those oversized cups on Fremont Street.

Part 1: The Holacracy Hive Hybridization

One of the first things you notice when you start paying close attention to the Downtown Project is that the centralized authority story that the big investments would seem to imply…break down pretty quickly in real life. While there are some centralized functions that are clearly run by a central organization, much of what happens on the ground is simply people doing the things that they think the community as a whole needs.  And doing so with a level of “go get ’em” from the organization’s leadership that implies an unusually high level of trust in relatively random volunteers.

Let me explain through a story that was told to me.

A few months ago, someone had the idea of establishing a dog park on the edge of the area of downtown that’s been experiencing some reinvestment. There’s a lot of vacant lots in this area – Vegas is an auto-era town, and the combination of vacant lots and demolished buildings means that open space, in general, unaesthetically-desirable terms, isn’t lacking.
In most towns, when someone thinks there should be a dog park, they start pushing their local government or downtown organization or some other Institution to do it. They agitate, they cajole, they might persuade.

After much debate, the Institution decides whether or this initiative has Merit, and if the Institution concludes that it does, the Institution puts the Park Projet on its Work Plan or its Capital Improvement Plan. Then Plans are Drawn, Designs are Vetted and Approved, Funds are Formally Allocated and, eventually, the Park gets Built.

Except, of course, when it gets stalled out or delayed or tangled up in complications over the course of all the time it takes to get through all those steps.

Perhaps more uncomfortably, the person who had the idea in the first place has to give up control of their vision, or even the ability to have any direct influence over it, in order to get it done.  Oh, they might get some credit at the ribbon cutting, or they might get invited to sit on the Institution’s board. But chances are, they become a footnote. But they have no real control over how it turns out, or whether it actually addresses the need that they perceived as a result of their life in the community.  They have to hand over complete responsibility for the park to the Institution, and… hope for the best. In most cases, for most people with good ideas and without deep pockets, that’s the only option.

What happened with the Downtown Project Dog Park put a very different twist on the model. From what I understand, the person who first came up with that idea had the responsibility within the local culture to run with the Dog Park concept as far as she could go on her own. She presented her idea to the Downtown Project leadership, but instead of saying,
“Thank you for your input. We will take your idea under consideration and decide what to do with it.”

they said,

“If you think the community needs this, great, go for it. Get as far with it as you can. If you reach a point where you need our help, just let us know.”

Do you see the difference there?

The Institution, in this case, was doing something that some of the more cynical among us might interpret from a distance as a subtle type of brush off. But that’s not it. The reason why the Downtown Project said
great idea, go do it, let us know if we can help,  wasn’t because it was a way to get out of responsibility for dog parks, or because they didn’t have the stomach to say no to her face.

There’s something very different going on here.

The Institution, in this case, assumed that the individual represented not just a squeaky wheel, but a member of the community who had insights into community needs and challenges and friction points that other members of the community, including the leadership, might not be in a position to see. The organization regarded the individual proposing the idea as a sensor, an indicator, a data portal indicating a need for the community that she was, for whatever reason, in a unique place to be able to sense and articulate.

Of course, we all know that individuals can sense wrong. So the response both gave her the power to move her perception of what the community needed forward, and it gave her and the organization the opportunity to further test whether her sensing was correct.  By pursuing her idea, perhaps raising some seed funds, finding a lot, seeing if a property owner would sell or lease for a dog park, identifying what furniture and features this dog park should have, both she and, by extension, the Downtown Project had an opportunity to test out whether this proposal actually did meet an achievable need before getting deeply embedded in designs, real estate negotiations, permits.

And because she knew that her ability to win the support she might ultimately need for the dog park depended on being able to show that the community needed and wanted it, she had an inbuilt motivation to reach out and include the community, After all, it was her own personal reputation, not only with the organization itself, but with the broader community surrounding it, that was in play. The power of reputation within a community – we’ll come back to that again in the future.

Eventually, the person who had sensed the need for the dog park reached a point where she needed funding and organizational support to get the project done. When she went back to the Downtown Project, she did so with the ability to demonstrate community support and with a plan of action.

Note: up until that point, all the organization “gave” her was, essentially, a little reinforcement.  A charge to go and do what she felt was right for the community.  A reassurance that if her idea did turn out to have the support of the community, that the community would support her in making it happen.

Not costly, difficult or dangerous stuff.

Zappos, which is the company where Tony Hseih made the millions that are helping to fund the Downtown Project, got a lot of ink in the national business and technology press a few months ago when they announced that Zappos would move to a holacracy model of management. As might be expected, reporters latched on to the obvious and foreign-sounding parts of the announcement – “No Titles!” “No Job Descriptions!”

Which of course then led to “They’re nuts!” And as usual, that missed the most important parts of the story.

I’m no holacracy expert myself, but when I was trying to understand the seemingly thousands of moving parts and these hive-like relationships associated with the Downtown Project, people I was talking to kept pointing me back to the principles of holocracy. We’re not actually doing a holacracy within Downtown Vegas, they told me. But it will help you understand.

So I read, and even sat through a webinar put on by the consulting firm that sort of formalized the holacracy idea into an actionable process. And while I can’t say that I’m ready to go consult on it myself, I think I get the principle:

In a holacracy, everyone has a role to play in terms of advancing the mission of the organization. You know specifically what your role includes, and what your role does not. Within your area of responsibilities, you are entrusted with the power to go and do what you understand to be needed for the success of the mission, without having to ask permission or play politics or jockey for resources, because you are trusted to be a sensor of where friction or pain points are arising that are impeding the organization’s ability to meet its objectives.  When addressing the issue that you have sensed extends beyond your area of responsibility, you are charged to reach out and engage those of your colleagues who have the other responsibilities that need to be brought to bear to address the issues that were sensed.  You do all of that because you know exactly what your responsibilities to the larger organization include, and your ability to build the collaborations that you need in the future depend on the degree to which you have demonstrated that others can trust you to fulfill your role with integrity.

That’s necessarily oversimplified – the holacracy system itself includes a whole elaborate trusswork of rules and spelled-out procedures and specific processes for resolving conflicts, and people who are embedded in holacracies apparently spend a great deal of time refining the rules of the process.

But the result, at least ideally, is an elimination of many of the reasons why we end up having to defer to authorities and organizations to get things done: lack of trust, uncertainty about responsibilities, and perhaps most importantly, lack of a clear and relatively frictionless way to engage the resources that we need beyond those that we directly control in order to meet the larger mission.

There’s a significant challenge in applying a system based on clear roles and clear missions to a community-driven organization, where even the best-crafted missions probably mean something a little different to everyone (just try getting everyone to exactly agree on what “community” means.  Be my guest.)   Not to mention the fact that we all know that community volunteers don’t always want to play exactly by the established rules.

But I learned about dozens of initiatives similar to the dog park story – situations where regular members of the community sensed a need and felt empowered to go pursue it as far as they could, knowing that if they could get some community traction, the Institution would help them carry it to completion. It’s a partnership, a surprisingly respectful and trusting partnership.

 

In a sense, this essay is attempting to understand the Downtown Project by looking at just one slice of it, which means it’s almost guaranteed to be inaccuate, since there are so many elements that seem to play into its unique perspective and its success to date. So do realize that this is an incomplete picture. I’ll try to unpack additional elements in coming posts.

But I’d be interested to see whether this makes sense to you – and how (or if) you think this model might work in your community.

 

 

 

Economic Development as Junk Food?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

New Book: Why This Work Matters launched!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Elie Wiesel

 

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

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

I think that covers pretty much all of us.

You can read more from Jason at thestile1972.tumblr.com.  And you should.

Here’s Jason.

_____


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

-The Secret Sound of the NSA, Captain Future

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

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

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

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

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

Que sera, sera.

The Gathering Storm

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

-MetricSpeed the Collapse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

image

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

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

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

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

image

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Death By A Thousand Cuts

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

-Death Cab for Cutie, Marching Bands of Manhattan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Metric, Speed the Collapse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Metric, Speed the Collapse

It’s a death by a thousand cuts.

Who Cares?

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

-Elie Wiesel

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

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

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

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

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

So where are we in Northeast Ohio today?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who cares?

Not everyone.

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

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

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

What is society?

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

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

And what is place?

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

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

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

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

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

-Matthew 5:13

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

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

-Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged

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

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

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

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

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

Robert Frost, Reluctance

It is a decision point for our region.

Happy New Year, everyone.

Field Notes: Downtown Project, Las Vegas

Note: for regular readers of the Wise Economy Workshop, the following is going to look like…

well, a rambling mess.  

The purpose of Field Notes is to be able to put out some early observations about a community or orgainzation that is doing something interesting and new in the world of community revitalization, but to do it at an early stage where you can be part of the conversation (and while I’m still at the point where I haven’t figured out what I’m saying yet…)

If your dedicated enough to find this and slog through it, you’re definitely someone whose opinion I want to hear.  I know you will probably have lots of unanswered questions, but…

  • what looks interesting or intriguing to you?
  • what sounds crazy?
  • what just plain ‘ole doesn’t make sense?
  • what else would you want to know?

These are always a little bit of an experiment, so who knows what will happen next.  But as you will be able to tell, I’ve been looking very closely at what the Downtown Project is doing, and there’s something — really, a lot of somethings — here that I think we could all learn some very valuable lessons from.  And I think they’re showing us a new way to do this work — one that probably makes more sense with the sea changes going on in the world than the way we have been approaching community revitailization.  But at this point, I am mostly checking my understanding and my early interpretations.

If you don’t know what I am talking about, you might start by browsing through http://downtownproject.com/

So, I’d love it if you’d leave your comments below.  If you want to say something to me that you don’t want to go all public, however, please feel free to send me an email at della.rucker@wiseeconomy.com.

Also, for truth in advertising, I made some revisions to this on March 21 – partly to make sure I caught some things from a conversation that I had neglected to include in the first version, and partly to include a few observations from a conversation I had after this was initially written…. well, perhaps I should say regurgitated.  And then I went back and tried to start organizing around some broad themes, which may have helped or may have made it more confusing to anyone not inside my head.  There’s still a pretty good mess going on here — I mean my writing, not the project.  

Per my usual habits, my commentary is in brackets [.]  Well, at least some of it, since this is partly notes on things people told me and partly my ruminations.  My old journalism professors would be unhappy.  But I dropped out of journalism school, so who cares…

Thanks.  You’re awesome.  Enjoy.

 

Field Notes From Downtown Project Las Vegas

 

Philosophy/Objectives

“we think of what we are doing here as increasing efficiency, productivity, happiness.”

There’s an emerging awareness: in larger companies, as you grow, how do you stay innovative?  One important way is to seek innovation from the outside. Emphasis on working with and integrating with a wide variety of people.  In a sense, vision is to apply that to a city.

[That certainly jives with the strategy I’ve seen Procter & Gamble and other big corps using.  But I think it’s critical not to forget how much that upends conventional bureaucracy and hierarchy — it’s been hard enough for companies to make that shift.  For community-based initiatives, with at least some who have interest in stability….interesting perspective to consider why this kind of collaboration becomes so hard]

Downtown Project is really a start up itself.  There was no way to really exactly know how to do this [that’s refreshing, given all the supposed experts who claim that they do!].  So the mandate was always Go, Go and Figure it Out — figure it out while you are doing it.  That implies an assumption of iteration, an expectation that some things will not work out as planned or outright fail.

 Goal of DP as articulated by city ED staff: try to get 10,000 additional people to live and work in downtown in the next 5 years. 

The concept of organizing around collisions takes what we have heard from people like Glaser and Jacobs to a new level. Instead of passively assuming that the power of a city is in some inherent, natural ability to foster connections, DTLV seems to be purposely designing the spaces and the experiences to generate interactions.  And I think it’s important that attention is being given to the physical spaces and to the events, like the Speaker’s Series.  A lot of downtown organizations do special events, but they’re usually designed to attract attention, not to build internal capacity/collisions.

Organization, strategy, culture

Observation of what’s unique about DP: “It’s not operating as a closed system.”

 

This basic decentralized model seems to drive the whole range of activities.  At least some of the space improvements have been driven by people—e.g., the dog park.  Process as described: someone says “we need X.”  Community, including Tech leadership, takes the fact that a person raised that idea as an indicator that it’s worth pursuing (a lot of trust in the people on the street!).  Person with idea is encouraged to go do it.  Person with idea gets as far as they can with it on their own resources, comes back to the DTLV organization when they have hit the limit of how far they can go and lays out what is needed to complete.  Then, only then, DTLV helps. As it was described to me: you get as far as you can with what you can muster and then get help to get over barriers… “I need a check for X in order for this thing that’s going to be good for the community to happen.”  People are expected, it seems to take the initiative to make the place better.  Italics are my emphasis.  People are expected to take the initiative!

 

Compare that to how communities usually do physical improvement projects….that’s a massive, revolutionary, almost inverted model compared to what we usually do.  It implies that the person on the street is just as likely to know the right answer as the leadership, and that’s a huge leap of faith. It implies that everyday people can and should take that initiative.  It implies that trying and risking failure is OK, and that a messy, maybe fumbling, maybe disorganized start as the people who want to do it try to figure it out, is OK.

 

Part of me thinks this should be applicable anywhere, but I also wonder a little bit what happens when you try a model like this in a more dense environment, where the experimenting and fumbling, at least with some activities, could have a much more direct impact on other people.  Part of what might make that a little easier here is that there is a lot of open space – vacant apartments to shoot the podcast in, vacant lots to figure out how to do a dog park without causing chaos for the house next door.

Tech funds select projects based on peer assessment of compatibility.  Firms being considered spend time with others who are already in the system so that its peers can determine whether the potential founder is “compatible.”  For the Tech Fund, that is putting a lot of faith in the feedback of people to whom your ties, at least conventionally, are relatively tenuous (of course they are getting funding from you…but a fund like this does not imply a long-term relationship.  It’s not like the conventional employee relationship).

There’s high emphasis on very intensive seeking of collisions. High emphasis on being engaged part of the community – for Tech Fund people, clearly being part of that community, but there seems to be an intent to at least blur those boundaries as much as possible.  I wonder how the social pressure to do that falls out – there’s clearly a strong internal set of norms around that.  How much do the people who are not funded by the Tech Fund or are not seeking funding buy into that?  The funding element definitely puts a different angle on it compared to the conventional community-building strategies.  It’s an intensification of the conventional culture building method.  Was that part of the intent?

Person from Tech Fund business said that funded businesses were not obligated to locate in DTLV, but that they did so from being convinced of the value of the environment and the network.  He described it as being a vision that was laid out to them that they decided that they wanted to be a part of.  It was an invitation, not a requirement.  If that’s true, that’s a powerful testimony.

At this point, about half of the companies in the ecosystem are not connected to the Tech Fund—they just came. Some are probably trying to get in position to get Tech Fund funding in the future, but some, like the woman working on the real estate thing, aren’t.  And I met at least a couple of guys who were sort of freelancers, who could live anywhere but chose to come here, even though they aren’t formally associated with one of the businesses.  That sounded like a very new development.  Is it just going where you think the jobs will be?  Is it some kind of cachet?  Or is it attracting the people who understand and want the environment that is being built?

Cultural difference implied by the hug vs the handshake…you never get hugged by a person you’ve just met back east.

Still amazing how strongly they cite the Speaker Series as this collision creator.  The new ideas cross fertilization.  Interesting that the low tech approach is so effective in this context.

Activities, Programs, Events

There is a lot going on here.  The sheer number of specific programs, initiatives, activities, going on far outstrips any other downtown I know of.  And if you look at it from the entry point of those activities, you see pretty quickly that they’re connected, aligned somehow, but they’re not coming from a central source.  Different things have different leaders and participants, not all of whom are formally obligated to be doing what they’re doing in the traditional sense (for example, the podcast).

“Companies” within the project [I’m not sure if they’re officially established as conventional separate corporations or if they’re sort of subsidiaries or departments]:

Gold Spike [former casino, gathering space and restaurant].

Bunk House [temporary visitor lodging; is this the upstairs of the Gold Spike?]

Mixed Use [I don’t know what this means in my notes]

Container Park

TechFund.

Also communication team — “People Ops” and construction management

Around this group — sort of the nucleus — are the companies that the TechFund etc. have invested in.   And there are an increasing number of new people coming in as well.

—-

Connecting to the rest of the city

There seems to be a priority on building that web of connections beyond the tech community.  Based on the information that goes out from the Ticker and the Downtownzen magazine, there’s a lot of performers and musicians and artists who seem to be pulling into this.

Note importance in approach of restaurants and coffee shops — building and engaging community.  Gives people a reason to come downtown.  Also note the fact that young families come downtown because of the Container Park — a “sea change” in how residents view Downtown!  [Note that this observation came from DTLV staff!]

Relationships with other parts of the Vegas community: Bridge-building with the arts community, which is about a mile away.  There was an initial sense of competition or overshadowing, but there’s been work on building bridges.  DTLV took over the First Friday event from the people operating it [not clear if that was a person or an organization] because they didn’t have capacity to keep it running.

It’s been easier for DTLV to connect to younger [assuming non-tech embedded] young people  “seems natural.”

As a whole, this is definitely a town that has come recently to a pretty sharp awareness of its own history.  There’s a marketing sensibility that perhaps people here might pick up on more intuitively, so perhaps it’s simply a matter of pragmatically realizing what they’ve got to work with.  But it seems like a very different sense of itself than during the era when things were imploded without concern.

Relationship with other organizations and government

Trying to convince the community that they are not taking over!  Hence shifting focus to connectedness and collisions, and away from “community.”  [They were hitting that old problem of everyone thinks they know what the “community” is and what the “community” needs, but they’re all actually looking at different communities within the space.]

Staff noted that people started coming to them “like we were government.” [Given pressures on the local government in recent years and the length of time where there’s been this lack of investment in the downtown area, that’s not surprising.  Happens a lot, even when it’s not widely know that an organization has money.] Staff noted that the City has been a great partner [not a funding partner, of course — no public funds in any of this.  Wonder how that changes the actual work and choices…].  City has been willing to learn and change.  When started the Container Park, zoning wasn’t anything near what was needed.  Worked through all the waivers and variances… joke was that is was “waiver world”  [The fact that a City was even willing to take this on, and didn’t just shut it down with no’s, says something very profound..]

City identifies its econ dev strategy as “young tech” firms — past the VC stage, in need of an environment where they can access talent [flexibly and efficiently]

City treats parking as an economic development service, not an a utility.  Effort to increase willing payers and decrease citations.  [interesting angle on it — not sure how /if it fits in with the rest, but interesting insight and a potential good idea for elsewhere.]

Emerging issues:

  • Lack of empty building inventory [especially building types that can be readily adapted to white collar tech].  Mostly not there, but City concerned with marking sure new development occurs at the right scale.
  • Current downtown-convenient housing = mostly “inner ring single family neighborhoods.” Conventional western city scale.  Much old [meaning, in that awkward age between not new and not old enough to be charming.  Also, since most of it is post-1930, my guess would be that quality of construction/materials may make revitalization harder.] Need for urban infill and rental at different price points.
  • Transit [discussed Cleveland BRT]
  • Higher education: UNLV not downtown, not dowtown higher education presence yet, UNLV “aspires” to be a Tier 1 research institution.

But what happens when the rest of the city catches on, when they want it to be “their” downtown too?  My guess would be right now that most City residents don’t go near downtown unless they work there.  Which is the case in lots of towns.  But is there a risk that this downtown approach makes downtown a district for one subset of the population — more like a district than the idealized downtown?  Certainly the Container Park sort of pushes against that with its inclusiveness of children, but what happens if you don’t look like the rest of the clientele?  Is a lower income African American family going to feel welcome going in there?

It’s not technically a public space.

But in a downtown that maybe hasn’t had that idealized “downtown” since before World War II, is that actually a loss?  Or is it a loss that anyone will care about?  Or is it just another piece of the mosaic, fitting one niche, like Eastern Avenue or Chinatown fit their niches?

There is a certain irony in the fact that the critical (and rather vacuous) general media coverage lately (the  Las Vegas Sun article and the  LA Times article) both cast everything in the same molds that I’ve heard in the Downtown PushMe-PullYou in I think every town I have ever encountered.  Everyone bemoans what poor shape downtown is in, New Guard comes in and starts making change, old-timers protest about being pushed out.  New Guard is the hero of one side and the demon of the other.  It’s Cincinnati’s Over the Rhine, Cleveland’s Euclid corridor, Pittsburgh’s south side, Chicago, Louisville, Boston, etc. etc. etc. over again.  In terms of the complaints in the articles, they could have been talking about 3CDC, or the Gateway, or any of a thousand other urban revitalization projects in a hundred cities.

The really strange thing here is that the coverage to date (at least those two articles) has been so intensively personality-driven – completely insisting on a Puppeteer somehow pulling every string.  Usually the spin is that there’s some cabal of somewhat shadowy figures who are supposedly pulling all the strings.  But it doesn’t take long, actually paying attention to what’s going on on the ground in DTLV, for that story line to come apart.  This is the most non-Big Money Guy Forcing Everyone To Do What He Wants revitalization in a city of this size that I have ever seen.  The level of decentralization – the acting out of, really, the basic principles of holocracy in a community environment – that I think is what actually sets this apart.  For DTLV, money buys speed of change,  but not all that much control.  Compare that to most places – most efforts spend the bulk of their money on controlling and molding the environment into what they want. Midtown Detroit is probably Exhibit A.  There is stunningly little master-planned activity, seemingly of any type, going on in DTLV.

What is going to mean to the regular (non Zappos) residents?  Does it remain just a little foreign thing that they’ve heard about?  Does it change the perception of career choices for kids?

As a whole, this is definitely a town that has come recently to a pretty sharp awareness of its own history.  There’s a marketing sensibility that perhaps people here might pick up on more intuitively, so perhaps it’s simply a matter of pragmatically realizing what they’ve got to work with.  But it seems like a very different sense of itself than during the era when things were imploded without concern.

The big question for Hsieh himself, I think, is what’s going to happen when he finds himself in Gilbert’s shoes.  There’s no one else in this town to do that — not the Wynns or any other old guard—there’s been a definite community leadership vacuum, and Hsieh is about to find himself thrust into that whether he’s ready or not.  Gilbert in Detroit took that on willingly – he was ready to step into the void, probably because he was tired of the downward spiral and had the conventional CEO type mind set of making it happen.  I think there’s a very different model between these two.  And Hsieh is clearly more at the beginning phases, and in some respects working in a less ossified, less clearly formed environment.  But there will be a cry out here for broader help – so much vacancy, so little educational attainment, etc.  It already appears to be happening around broader downtown things – the water fountain story being a key example.  At least that part of the community has moved to that phase pretty fast.    What happens when he gets dragged into a citywide initiative?

His little bet, light-touch, community-led and community-enabling strategy might work.  It will probably not look real glossy, but it might work.

Physical Spaces

The treatment of physical spaces is fascinating to me.  All kinds of space treatments, from the offices to the Container Park, generally treated very flexibly, temporary, inexpensively.  There is an implied expectation of flux.  Emphasis seems to be on use and repurposing of temporary spaces – intentional design and construction of Container Park, description of how space is allocated for the Tech Fund businesses, Use and relatively minimal changes to buildings with a different past.  The Gold Spike is fascinating on that point.  It’s cleaned up, but it hasn’t been massively reworked. They didn’t even take down the “Casino” part of the sign, even though there’s no casino activity anymore.  I don’t know if that’s coming from a preservation ethic – I think it’s a very pragmatic, tactical approach to using what’s available, what you can get your hands on and rework quickly.  Remnants of the past remain because there’s no compelling reason to remove them, I guess.

Part of the reason this is happening in Vegas is probably because you can do it so damn cheap.  And cheap, adapted, small, flexible…

Is it because it’s cheap, or because it can be done quickly?

Is the Ogden, Container Park, Gold Spike etc. more about the time value of showing progress, rather than making showplaces?  $350 Mil could build a pretty decent-looking building….

Is rough around the edges, adapted, temporary, small… about facilitating innovation, about not allowing things to get stuck in stone? About maintaining the ability to shift?

Temporary in this context doesn’t mean short-lived.  It means stepping stone.

Pragmatically, I think the provision of little spaces is more critical.  My guess is that the “small” spaces in Ogden are a lot bigger than the ArtBOX half a container.  But that tiny little space, allowing 31 (!) artists to make at least part of a living…that’s a huge impact.  And the fact that they had nowhere else to sell before indicates what a game-changer that is.

Perhaps this is the challenge to city planners: the space isn’t in itself the thing that matters.  The think that matters is how the space enables the people.  Dammit, I’m spouting PPS’s line again.  🙂

In both planning and ED, physical building becomes less and less important (and this at a time when we have so massively overbuilt…).  Flexibility becomes even more so.  And connecting people, enabling collisions, building intellectual capacity seems to become most.  Maybe that’s the real paradigm shift.

Relationship to Vegas reputation/cachet

The placement of this connection/collision-focused model in the context of a place whose reputation is built around the relatively anonymous good time…that’s an interesting contrast.  Impact of Gold Spike –even before I knew that it was actually owned by the Downtown Project, I noticed pretty quickly that it’s the only public space around without slot machines.  Note that D said that the reason isn’t anything against gambling, it’s a desire to preference conversation and interaction.  Which is interesting given that this is a generation for whom video gaming is a fact of life (and Dave thought Caesars reminded him more of Dave & Busters than anything else…or maybe I said that…).  But I’ve also noted with my kids that a large part of video gaming is an intensely social activity.    That’s a sea change, probably even from when we were kids, and it may explain the lack of interest in slot machines.

Do the tech people even play the in person games, or does the social structure frown on that?  Do you lose “Trust points” if someone sees you in a casino?  Keep in mind that a lot of these people are living on Tech Fund money, and that would be seen as frivolous and certainly wasteful or irresponsible. At what point do people start realizing how much potential energy, funding etc. the whole gaming entertainment thing siphons away.  Probably not because right now they are using this environment’s underused resources but drawing markets and talent from other places.

 

My Other Assorted Rambling Observations

Part of the challenge here is that the folks most closely associated with the Downtown Project are all newcomers.  That may be less of an issue overall in a western city, which has had so many newcomers over the past few years (in an eastern city it would have probably been hard to get this level of traction at all in the face of the often inherent distrust of outsiders).  But one of the other trends that I have been noticing in Vegas is that there is at least a subsection of the community (largely outside of DTLV) that is clearly thinking a lot more and a lot harder about the city’s history, its heritage, its meaning and their relationship to it, than probably would have been the case 30 years ago.  The guy I met at the Mormon Fort site who was telling about how they would come to that hill from the city as a kid… I bet there were few people who were at the age to reminisce like that and had been in the city long enough to have that length of memory 20 or 30 years ago.  Post-2008 Vegas seems to have a much different relationship to its past, more of a sense of self-identity based on its heritage.  So perhaps the city as a whole is starting to develop that characteristic of older cities that we see in lots of eastern revitalization efforts: people who have a long-time stake in the place, who do not relate to change easily because they have internalized something of the place that you’re proposing to change.  God knows that’s a tough challenge… and probably more so in a place where the very act of claiming that heritage, instead of acting sheepish about it or imploding it, has to still feel unfamiliar.

The conventional media is clearly still trying to fit this into the conventional Great Man/Big Money storyline.  And that’s really getting under my skin because there’s clearly so much more going on here.  The tech money is definitely a driver, but it’s a feeder, not leader. There is something profoundly different in how this is being organized, led (or not led), managed, than the kinds of downtown initiatives I have seen over and over again.  I found this insight from a Tech Fund entrepreneur pretty revelatory: the Tech funds select projects based on peer assessment of compatibility.  Firms being considered spend time with others who are already in the system so that its peers can determine whether the potential founder is “compatible.”  For the Tech Fund, that is putting a lot of faith in the feedback of people to whom your ties, at least conventionally, are relatively tenuous (of course they are getting funding from you…but a fund like this does not imply a long-term relationship.  It’s not like the conventional employee relationship).  What is the benefit to the tech fund members?  They clearly take this job seriously – it’s part of the value of the environment and the collisions, I guess.

 

What the hell are they trying to do here anyways? Build a tech-talent-attracting magnet?  Test out the business organization ideas on building a community?

 

It seems like there is some synergy developing between the creatives and the tech folks, and that’s probably not surprising.  Ticketcake would be most tied into that of the startups, but Life is Beautiful and etc. are probably part of that too.  LIB isn’t directly connected but clearly allied.  And both tech and artists are all kind of startups, so there is probably at least some sense of kindred spirits.

I think the story from the Tech Fund veteran contains an important kernel of wisdom: he referenced the need for a champion — someone who makes you feel like it’s possible, reinforces, encourages, promises to have your back as you go out and try something.  But then you realize that you didn’t really need that support, that you can do it yourself.  That’s potentially very powerful.  It’s almost an inversion of how we have conventionally handled city leadership and community revitalization.

Is there any connection between this and the educational systems yet?  What potential is there to start growing local talent — especially when so much of the talent that is there holds, in some sense, to the idea of being from a Place so lightly?  They are all from Somewhere Else, and they seem to take the ability to move easily from one town to another for granted.  Is the community they are building among themselves enough to keep them here if something falls down?

Important parts:

Building trust in members -holacracy model

Highly flexible strategy

Catalyst, rather than seed funding (or do-it-all funding)

Small flexible modular scalable spaces

Temporary as stepping stone

Collisions

Role of leader-encourage enabler.  A little wizard behind the curtain (Oz) in the good way.  You could do it all along

Conscious building of cultural norms

Culture of organization as a niche

Pragmatic approach to using what’s available-money and time.  Existing allows fast adaptation.  Avoid getting stuck.

 

 

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

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

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

Building resiliency and community

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

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

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

Selections From new Book: Why This Work Matters

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

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

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

Thanks.  Here’s Jen:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s where it gets messy.….

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

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

Someone needs to do Something about this town…”  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

What the Berlin Wall Taught Me

My dear and admired friend, Jason Segedy, ran a lovely post on his blog, thestile1972.tumblr.com the other day.  It does a beautiful job of tracing out how our assumptions about the future can so readily turn out wrong — and why the fact that they so often turn out wrong means that we never have an real excuse to say that thing we often say:

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

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

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

Maybe you do, after all.

Here’s Jason:

___

Meine Reise nach Berlin

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

 

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

 

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

Berlin wall
West Germany side of the Berlin Wall (there were actually two walls a few hundred feet apart). From thestile1972.tumblr.com

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

The Scourge of Fatalism

 

So what did the Berlin Wall teach me?

It goes back to that “Who knew?”

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

We never know.

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

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

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

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

We have met the enemy and he is us.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Sound familiar?

 

How about these:

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

By May 1945, the Reich was gone.

 

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

 

By November 1989, the Wall was gone.

 

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

 

We’re not.

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

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

 

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

 

Fatalism.

 

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

 

Live it out.

New Learning from Las Vegas: Fight, Survive and Thrive

I’m not supposed to like Las Vegas.

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

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

Hell, I don’t even like to gamble.

And yet I am falling in love with Las Vegas.

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

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

—-

 

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

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

–Richard Rodriguez, Darling: A Spiritual Autobiography

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Container park shop.  From Local Motors, www.localmotors.com
Container park shop. From Local Motors, www.localmotors.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

interior sewing factory
The Stitch Factory. From www.localmotors.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Wise Fool Press Update: Why This Work Matters entering production

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hate to break the news, guys:

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

Moby Dick illustration
Um, yeah. That happened.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“Call me Ishmael.”

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

We’re going to give mega-incentives?

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

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

How long before Moby Dick turns into Mutiny on the Bounty

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

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

 

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

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

Except for one thing.

He’s a guy.

They’re all guys.

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

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

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

Jane Jacobs.  From Wikipedia
Jane Jacobs. From Wikipedia

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

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

Because she was a woman.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And frankly, it’s getting lonely out here.

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

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

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

Thank you!

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

Figure something out…

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Preferably before we finish all that planned demolition.

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

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

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

 

 

Peek behind the curtain for Wise Fool Press

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

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

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

 

 

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

A slightly different version of this essay appeared about a week ago at my friend Jason Segedy’s blog, thestile1972.tumblr.com, and then (to my delight, because he deserves a much broader audience) at Rustwire.com.  In the meantime, I had done a little tweaking to the original post, since everyone benefits from an editor, myself definitely included.  So I’d like to share this with you as a very moving and profound response to my Rust Belt essay here not too long ago.

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

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

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

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

Thanks.  Here’s Jason.

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

-The Secret Sound of the NSA, Captain Future

In the Beginning…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Percy Bysshe Shelley, Ozymandias

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Times Change

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Love is watching someone die…

-Death Cab For Cutie, What Sarah Said

 

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

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

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

It is so true, and it is so misunderstood.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

___

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

Tyler Durden, Fight Club

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

But, then again, maybe it shouldn’t.

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

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

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

-Radiohead, Fake Plastic Trees

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

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

 

Whither the Future?

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

So where does this all leave us?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whatever it is, we need to stop doing it.

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

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

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

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

 

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

It all rings true.

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

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

-F. Scott Fitzgerald, Winter Dreams

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

sparrow with cricket in beak
Bird Lunch. From http://www.backyardbirdcam.com/

means they end up as Bird Lunch.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Tornado at work: excepts from my interview at Strengthening Brand America

I was so honored that Ed Burghard of Strengthening Brand America asked me to do an interview with him about The Local Economy Revolution: What’s Changed and How You Can Help.  That interview ran this morning.

A lot of SBA’s work is structured around the idea of reframing economic development work in terms of how it will impact existing local residents, and (being a good branding guy), he refers to that as helping residents reach their “American Dream.”  I wrote last week about how my own experience makes me deeply uneasy with even those words, and I think you’ll pick up on that if you’re paying attention.  That tension between Ed’s vision and my past experience creates a question that I’d like to hear from you about sometime: Do we know what residents are looking for, and do we actually have the ability to help them achieve it?  And should we?

Ah, yes, the interview.

The Local Economy Revolution is one of those packages of ideas that’s simple on the surface, but sometimes hard to fully get your head around.  As a result, I’ve been slowly learning how to explain what this book is about,, and do it in a way that balances the hearfelt and the head-worthy.  I think I’m getting better at it.

You can read the whole interview here (including the part where Ed describes me as a terrible destructive force feared by all Midwesterners…hm), but here’s a taste:

So what I most wanted to do with this book was peel back, get underneath the level of the programs and methods that we tell people they should be using, and get to the deeper place of why it matters.  Why is it that we need to change what we do so fundamentally?  What’s driving the need to discard some of our familiar old approaches and strike out in directions that are unfamiliar and scary?  Why should I keep trying when it’s hard, so very hard?

The book was designed to give people an underpinning, a deep framework for understanding why all the new methods and change are necessary. And hopefully find some encouragement to keep at it when the work of being a changemaker gets tough.

…I am starting to conclude that the attraction model of economic development, at its core, has largely outlived its usefulness, and I think that simply transferring economic development’s historic dependence on attraction strategies from businesses to people… doesn’t fundamentally impact the root of the problem.

Here’s what I mean:  If a community is going to focus on “becoming a magnet for top talent,” it’s going to find itself in tighter and tighter competition for a pool of “talent” that, if it’s growing, isn’t growing at anywhere near the rate necessary to appease the huge and growing number of places trying to jockey for a piece of that action. ….

The goal can’t be simply making your community a magnet for talent. I think we have to shift internally, to focus on making the best possible use of the community and human assets we have in our communities. That means growing our own talent based on the unique environment that each place individually offers.   And we have to start with the raw materials that we have to work with.  Otherwise we have just shifted the hunt for big businesses to the hunt for fancy degrees, while the places we are trying to attract them to fall apart.

I want to not only see the denizens of the other local government silos at the economic development plan table, but I want to see the shop teacher, the high school student, the immigrant mom, the environmental whacko who opposes everything….they all need to be part of it, or at some level, it doesn’t work.  It won’t work, it will miss something important. That doesn’t mean that they’re allowed to drag the work off track or overturn the objectives. It does mean that a structure is used to engage them in the search for solutions that everyone knows we need.

I don’t claim to have a magic answer to all our community economic woes.  What I have concluded is that our usual simplistic approaches – shoving on two or three levers and insisting that our tweaks on those will generate the complex results that we said we wanted – that’s not working.  As humankind, we have methods for understanding and dealing with complex interrelationships, but we’re not using them on the public policy level yet.  My long-term objective for the Wise Fool Press is to help us do that better.  But we have to make that mental shift, step out of that simplistic paradigm first, before we can do the rest.

 

Thanks again to Ed for the very kind opportunity to continue to share this message.

The elder children of the Rust Belt

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

 

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

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

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

–  “American Made. ” American Craft Magazine http://craftcouncil.org/magazine/article/american-made

 

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

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

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

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

 —

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

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

But I’m not yet sure what it is.

 

Is it an ambivalent relationship with American Dream idea?

A background expectation of uncertainty?

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

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

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

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

Awareness of risk of romanticizing?

Hm.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Maybe it looks a little like this:

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

 

 

The Last of the Yankees

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

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

 

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

 


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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 


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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

I know.  A lot easier said than done.

 

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

 

—-

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to Jason:

_____

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

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

Akron Neighborhood
Akron Neighborhood. From thestile1972.tumblr.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

——–

Well said, Jason.

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

1)    How do we support this place fiscally?

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

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

False Choices and the Only Differences Worth Exploring

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

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

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

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

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

____

Over at New Geography, Joel Kotkin says this:

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

I agree with him.

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

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

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

What gives?

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

Nevertheless, I feel compelled to respond. Why?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

-Aldous Huxley

Get better stilts: Uncertainty and The Number

Here’s the latest from my friend, regional analysis wizard and former real estate developer Dr. Peter Mallow, in our series of explorations about how the way we do economic analysis often sets us up for trouble.

In this one, Pete is taking on one of my favorite we-all-know-it-but-we-don’t-want-to-admit-it-and-then-it-bites-us topics: the fact that even our best predictions are built on inherent uncertainties.  We can’t avoid that, but we can’t pretend it doesn’t exist, either.  So we ought to know what we’re looking at, and deal with it.

 

You can read Pete’s previous work here and here, and your can review an annotated version of a presentation we do here, and if you’re really a glutton you can listen to one of our presentations here.

Take it away, Pete!

___

If you read the past couple of posts on this topic, you learned that The Number can often be misleading or plain wrong.  For those that missed those posts, “The Number” refers to the new dollars, jobs, and taxes that an economic impact analysis claims will materialize from a new public project or a company coming to town. The expert or software has done some kind of magic with the data and returned a single Number that supposedly best describes how great the public project or company will be for the community.

People like The Number because it’s simple and it’s easy to understand.  However, it is almost always, by definition, wrong.  Even the best intentioned, well-meaning analysis is most certainly wrong when it reports one Number – that’s Statistics and Probability 101. We often excuse our Number’s lack of accuracy when we realize how far off The Number was through some variant of “garbage in, garbage out.”  We easily claim that the data or assumptions driving the analysis were flawed, and we can blame some combination of uncontrollable factors.

But this is an over-simplification of the problem. Uncertainty is, fundamentally the real problem, and most of the time uncertainty is the root cause of the Number turning out to be wrong.  Uncertainty exists everywhere in the analysis, whether the data is finely tuned or back of napkin.  Yet we give the uncertainty inherent in our analyses very little attention.

To better understand uncertainty, think of walking on stilts.  The smaller the base of the stilt the harder it is to balance and walk. The width of the base of the stilt represents how certain you are that The Number is actually correct.  In this case uncertainty takes the form of four different stilts – more on that in a moment. But think for a minute about the width of those stilts – how strong or weak, stable or wobbly, each one of them could be.

people on stilts
I think these guys need wider stilts. From Flickr Creative Commons

The more certain you think you are of your analysis results, the more narrow the range of results you will consider as possible outcomes.  If you’re so sure of your analysis that you can say, “this number is, most definitely, absolutely, the thing that is going to happen!”  then the stilt holding you up is very narrow- in fact, it’s only one number wide.  If you know that there’s a range of possible outcomes – if the results could vary – then admitting that range of possibilities means that your stilt is wider and more stable –its strength does not depend on just one number.

We know instinctively that wider stilts mean a stronger and safer walking experience.

If we build our plans on the basis of one Number, and we don’t account for other possibilities, then it is as though we are walking on very skinny stilts.  All it takes is a little variation, something relatively minor to go wrong, and the plans we made on the basis of those assumptions will go all to pieces.

 

There are four of these stilts, or types of uncertainty: The economists have defined them with the following words:

  • Stochastic,
  • Parameter,
  • Heterogeneity, and
  • Structural.

Don’t worry, we will peel back the jargon.

Here’s the main thing to remember: uncertainty is always present – you cannot escape it.  But by understanding the types of uncertainty, and carefully checking your “stilts” to make sure they are as wide and solid as possible, you can have greater confidence in The Number.

Here are the four basic types of uncertainty that we need to check our stilts for:

 

Stochastic Uncertainty (aka randomness)

Stochastic uncertainty is the randomness of life.  It basically means that you don’t know exactly what will happen until after the thing happens.  Here’s an example: if you toss a coin into the air, you know it will either be heads or tails. But which one?  You won’t know the answer until you toss the coin.

In terms of economic development there will always be some randomness about the project or new company that you cannot control nor predict – at least, not until after it has happened.

 

Parameter Uncertainty

A parameter is a set of measurable characteristics that define an object. How you define these characteristics is not set in stone, and if what happens differs from the parameters, then the results will be different as well.

For example, a high tech industry can be defined the types of jobs it contains (i.e. computer scientists, executives, sales people, administrative, engineers, etc.).  The specific mix of these jobs will be different for every company.  However, when you are looking at the economic analysis of a high tech industry, you will be working within a parameter – you will be using an assumption about the types of jobs that a new company within that industry will employ.

If a new company says it will bring in 1,000 new jobs, it’s possible that their employment could include any possible combination of job types that equal 1,000. But based on the type of industry, the economic impact analysis will probably assume a certain set of parameters – a typical or average or idealized mix of job types that it assumes the new business will create.  But this specific business might not fit those parameters.  If the new company ends up with a larger than typical number of remote sales jobs and administrative people, for example, then the parameter assumptions that fed into the economic impact analysis.  When that occurs, The Number will not reflect what actually happened.

Another way to think about parameter uncertainty is our coin example from before.  We know a fair coin has a 50 percent chance of landing heads.  However, if we toss it 100 hundred times and find that 54 were heads.  Is this wrong?  No, it is parameter uncertainty.  Just because we know the odds are 50-50 doesn’t mean that 54-46 isn’t entirely possible.

 

Heterogeneity Uncertainty

Heterogeneity is a complex way of saying no two jobs are the same. Take, for example, a cashier job at Costco and one at Wal-Mart. Both positions require the same tasks and responsibilities, but people working in those jobs may be making very different wages for doing fundamentally the same work. In the economic impact analysis, we usually assume an average or typical or idealized income, but what actually happens can vary widely from that assumption.

 

Structural Uncertainty

Structural uncertainty is inherent any type of methodological approach, like the process used to develop any kind of economic study.  Economic impact analyses can be done in a number of different ways, ranging from complex input/output methods, to simple arithmetic estimates, and any number of methods in between.  They can also be done for different time periods. The choice of the method, the time period and how the parameters interact cause structural uncertainty. Remember every model is an abstraction of reality. Yet all too often only one model and its parameters are provided as the best abstraction of reality.

Uncertainty is always present. If you don’t analyze how uncertainty impacts the assumptions that are holding up your studies, that uncertainty will eventually make matchsticks out of the wooden legs that you’re standing on. But there is good news: you can make informed decisions to reinforce your analysis based on your analysis of uncertainty.

Most importantly, exploring and admitting uncertainty will probably lead you to report The Number as range of possibilities – a set of numbers, rather than a single one.  Think of that range as the width of your stilts — the wider the range, the stronger the base, the less the uncertainty, and the more credible your estimates of jobs, dollars, and/or tax receipts will ultimately be.

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

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

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

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

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

You like to eat, don’t you?

Hm.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now I’m not sure what to get madder about.

Years ago, I managed comprehensive planning projects for a consulting firm.  When you start one of those, you get to review pretty much every plan that town has ever done.  And sometimes what you find yourself reviewing is a case history in delusion.

One community, struggling to find a bright future for a run-down suburban strip, spent a huge sum on a beautiful drawing of lovely new buildings lining the streets.  They also bought a rudimentary market analysis that indicated nothing about whether the lovely buildings could ever be funded through the private investment that the drawing promised.   And then the community threw significant sums of money and effort into finding the people who would build that grand vision.

Thirteen years later, the corridor hasn’t changed, except for continuing to fall apart.  I drove down it last week.

If you’re a former client of mine, and you think this is your town, it’s probably not.  I can tell that same story about 15 different communities.

So, Consultant as Wizard doesn’t work.  Should you ditch them entirely, rely just on yourselves, figure out all out the best you can?  Are the non-experts enough?

No.  Chances are you definitely need outside help.  You just need a different type of help than many consultants have been giving.

In this era, I think an intellectually truthful, community-benefitting consultant has to hang up the cape, drop the all-knowing charade, and take on jobs like this:

  • Trackless Waste Guide.  Adventurers like Robert Perry, who trekked to places people had never been, took people with them who had experience in that type of environment, although not in that exact situation.   Chances are, you Ms. Consultant don’t know the path any better than they do, but you’ve at least moved through an environment somewhat like this before.

So you don’t charge into the underbrush, pretending that you know where all the rocks and rattlesnakes lie, but you walk with them and help them figure out how to best navigate.

  • Framework builder.  When we can’t plug and play easy solutions, when we have to find our way through unknown territory, building mental frameworks gives us a way to evaluate options, think through the potential impacts of our choices and plan ahead for risks.  A consultant’ s experience can help build intelligent and flexible frameworks.  But a framework is not a blueprint, and it’s not a Magic Solution.  It recognizes that it might be wrong and it might have to shift and evolve over time.  It’s an exercise in managing uncertainty with the best intelligence we can bring to the table.   And since the framework is designed to enable shifting and evolving, it might actually continue to fit more than three weeks after the consultant’s last bill gets paid.
  • Tough question asker.  People who lead communities often fail to ask hard questions — you know, the unpleasant ones where we suspect the answers are not what we want to hear, or where the answers aren’t clear at all.  In far, far too many cases, communities get into deep trouble because no one asked the hard questions–either because no one knew what to ask, or because no one summoned the bravery to ask it.

By rights, and as a matter of integrity, the consultant should be the one to ask the hard questions when no one else can or will do it.  After all, the consultant is the one who gets to go home to Somewhere Else when the meeting is over.  More importantly, thought, the consultant can draw on that expertise, that guiding capabilty, to call out and articulate the questions that no one from the community wants to own.

But too many consultants never ask the tough questions — because they don’t want to piss off the client, they don’t want to knock themselves out of consideration for the next project.  Mostly because, at the end of the day, consultants really, deeply want you to like them.

So they let the client believe what they want to believe, and avoid the problems they don’t want to face.  After all, the consultant is the one who gets to go home to Somewhere Else when the meeting is over.  And there’s always another rube, some town we can convince that this project was Fantastic!! somewhere around the bend.

  • Decision pusher.  Communities often don’t ask tough questions, and lots of them try to avoid making decisions.  That’s where the laundry list comprehensive plan failure that I’ve talked about before comes from, as well as a lot of other problems ranging from underfunded pensions to broken water lines.  Decisions are hard, you know… they mean saying yes to some things and no to others.  And we won’t even talk about setting priorities.  Ow.

The consultant’ s job has to include guiding, structuring, pushing and cajoling a community to make a decision.  It just has to.  It has to be done, and I don’t know an honest consultant who hasn’t been around the block enough times to know that in their guts.  If the community doesn’t make important decisions, if you haven’t done everything in your power to get them to do it, I don’t think you’ve earned your fee.  If they flat out refuse, so be it.  But too often we who have the experience and framework to make out the rocks in the water ahead are too timid to tell the captains that they need to change course.

Consultants don’t want to push people to make decisions,either, for all of the same reasons as above.  But unless they do, the effort is probably wasted.


Communities definitely need consultants.  The difference I see is this:
The consultant communities need is a collaborator, a fellow-seeker who brings a new set of expertise, a new collection of tools, to the work of improving your community.

We who do consulting work for communities have to deeply rethink what we provide as consultants, and we who work for communities have to deeply rethink what we demand from our consultants.  Settling for a pretty picture of an imagined future, or a kum-ba-yah list of all the happy things everyone in town said they wanted,  is worse than a waste of money.

It’s setting up the community for a future crushing of hope, a long-term trend of growing cynicism and tuning out.  And it’s setting up the community for painful opportunity costs- wasted resources chasing unachievable pipe dreams.
Letting a community persist in mistaken optimism or pessimism or inertia is not morally, ethically or fiscally acceptable, for consultants or for community professionals.  We simply don’t have that much slack in the system anymore.  Consultants should — and must — help fill a community’s gaps in capacity to make wise choices and tough decisions possible.

Economic Development’s Junk Food?

My good friend Bill Lutz has been on a tear lately… and once again I think he’s onto something.  I’m always glad to be able to serve as his editor and publisher.  Here’s his latest: 

 

—-
I fully believe that LinkedIn is a very powerful tool, and I find myself drawn to the discussions in those groups that I work in, most notably those groups in economic development.  There are very few forums that provide a real-time discussion on relevant issues with input from every corner of the world from highly respected individuals.

 

On one such occasion, I was looking through discussions and saw the following comment dealing with issue of incentives in economic development:

 

A monetary incentive is the easiest way for elected community leaders to say “we respect you, want you and invest in our community.” Incentives bridges the gap between “saying” you will do something and actually “doing” something for the company. 

 

In all fairness, this was not the complete comment, but I pulled out the two sentences that struck the loudest chord with me.

 

The comment left me speechless.  It sounds like the author is all for selling out a community to land the big win… you want the big business to come in, you have to respect them and that respect can be bought, for the right price.

 

As I think about that string of logic, it gets me to one of the great paradoxes I see in the way economic development is being practiced.  Our local governments, local chambers of commerce, local economic development organizations, are charged with hiring men and women of high caliber to lead economic development efforts.  In this line of work, economic development professionals are careful to use vague code words to describe leads, they safeguard the business intelligence and trade secrets that they know, they understand that relationships are built on trust and they do everything they can to earn and keep the trust of the business clients that they are working with.  Yet, according to this author, the “sell out” is the key.  Of course, we are not selling out the business, we are selling out the community, the state, the taxpayer and whoever else might be footing the bill for the incentive.

 

The paradox lays in the fact that economic development professionals are hired for their ability to earn and keep trust, but not with the people that hire them. Rather, you might conclude that the trust they are responsible for maintaining belongs to the businesses they work with.

 

But, as I re-read the comment, I realized that there is more to it.  The author tells us that the monetary incentive is the “easiest way.”  Maybe that is the operative word – easy.

 

But easy for whom?

 

Of course it is easy for the business to accept the incentive, and it may be easy for the local government, the local chamber of commerce or local EDO to give out the incentive.

 

But is it easy for the community?

 

 

If a community get used to relying on the “easiest” way to bring in business, what’s going to be the strategy when it requires hard work?  Any community that is willing to shell out money to a business is not fooling a soul when it claims that it just bought itself a long term commitment.

Do you really think the business you had to pay to come to your community wants to stick around if there is a better deal somewhere else?

 

burger
Incentives = Big Bacon Bomb (or whatever this is)?  From salon.com via Creative Commons

I am beginning to think that economic development incentives are analogous to junk food for our communities.  In the short term, they might satisfy our hunger and we might even feel better about ourselves and our community.  But in the long run, the questions remain:

 

Is it worth it?

 

Will our communities continue to bloat up with empty buildings?

Could have the dollars that were used for incentives been better used elsewhere?

 

Was the easiest decision the best decision?

 

 

Can she talk any faster? Della’s 5 minutes on Small Business Ecosystems

This video apparently just surfaced…. back in February I participated in an Ignite session at the International Economic Development Asssociation’s Leadership Conference.  If you’ve never seen an Ignite presentation, it’s a series of 5-minute presentations from different speakers.  Each speaker is allowed 20 slides (no more, no less), and they advance automatically every 20 seconds, which is an effective, if slightly evil, way to make the session end on time.

This presentation gives a brief outline of my theory of small business ecosystem development…the premise being that the fact that businesses are different than they used to be means that we have to change the way we do economic development. That is, instead of thinking that everything we do in economic development has to be about twiddling the levers of a big machine, we need to realize that this isn’t working, and shift to a focus on creating opportunities and connections for smaller businesses.

Confused?  Seriously, it’s five minutes.  Just take a look.  And while you’re at it, check out some of the other Ignite sessions. They were good.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mAXScjX3edc

 

Deep Thoughts: the future of economic development, generations and big change (and Bill Lutz)

Here’s a podcast that I’ve wanted to share with you for a long time: last December I sat down with Bill Lutz in Piqua, Ohio to record three podcasts: one about the redevelopment of the Fort Piqua Hotel, one on Piqua’s Citizens Academy, and this one (I guess you can think about it as the lost third chapter of the trilogy…or not.  Nevermind).

Bill has written here and here and other places before about how economic development practices increasingly don’t make sense in the context of what people, especially, younger people, are looking for.  He’s a great observer, and he articulates it so well.  So rather than steal his thunder by trying to write a Cliff Notes version, let me pique your curiosity with a few good quotes that you can find in this recording:

“Do people my age really want to work for a big company?”

“This generation watched our parents get pink slips.  This generation has seen the previous generation get burned.”

“They weren’t invested in us…. This generation is looking for more.  They also have the tools and the skills to not have to settle for what the big businesses offer”

“I think of community development as being like a general practitioner.  I don’t know much, but I know a little about a lot of things.  And I know who to ask.”

“If we know that statistically those local businesses are more likely to stay here, then let’s talk to them.”

“Community Development has been defined as being all about housing.  That’s not right at all.”

“I live in all three worlds.  You can’t recruit or zone your way to a better community.  You can only do that if you take a community development perspective.”

 

Take a listen.  Enjoy, think, and tell us what you’re thinking below.

 

It’s Time to Re-Make Incentives

We’ve been talking (or, well, not talking) about incentives in economic development a lot lately.  They work, they don’t work.  They’re necessary, they waste money.  You need this control, that recapture method, no your don’t, that’s gonna backfire.  So on and so on.Perhaps it’s time to take a big step back– to revisit what an incentive was supposed to do in the first place.  And perhaps it’s time to screw our courage to the sticking point, confront where and how our practices are going awry, and re-formulate incentives programs– not throw them away, not just control them better, but fix them, so that they do what our communities need, and so that they are worth the money we invest in them.

First, let’s take the Wayback Machine to Econ Development 101:

The purpose of a tax incentive is to make something happen in the free market that market forces alone can’t do.  An incentive is supposed to exist to give the market a push in a direction that it can’t/isn’t going by itself at this moment.  It’s there to fill a gap.  Typically, says Econ Dev 101, the incentive is needed because the market can’t see or isn’t aware of an opportunity — because it’s a new opportunity, because the market is overlooking a location’s potential because of negative assumptions about it, etc.   The incentive is designed to kick-start the change, to get the market opportunity over that initial hump.  That’s why we started giving out incentives — to overcome barriers to entry so that the potential of a labor pool or a technology or a place could be discovered by the market.

No one would say that goal of an incentive is to replace the market, or fake up the market.  But it’s hard to miss that this is exactly what many incentives do.

So, if an incentives is supposed to do what Econ Dev 101 said, it follows that any incentive should have the following characteristics:

 

  • Time limited–not just in terms of a specific deal having an expiration date, but time limited in availability.

If the purpose of the incentive is to change the market, eventually the incentive should facilitate a change in the free market by demonstrating that a business type or a business location can actually work economically.  If that case has been made — if businesses can make a go of it — then the incentive has done what it was designed to do, and it should not be offered anymore.  Extending the incentive might be OK if that market opportunity still exists but hasn’t fully taken off yet, such as might happen if an area experiences a natural disaster.   But the incentive has to stop being available at some point.  If it continues after the market no longer needs it, it’s not levering the market — it’s distorting it.   And a market that can’t survive without the incentive is probably too risky to the surrounding community to be worth supporting.

  • Grow a market.  The incentive has to be targeted specifically to emerging or sleeper market opportunities–like the “but for” test that many incentive programs at least give lip service to, but more.

 An incentive should be available, not just when Project X won’t work without it, but when the larger market opportunity, with all of its potential, can’t take off without it.   The incentive shouldn’t be about that specific business, although it may technically get applied to one business.  An effective incentive will demonstrate potential to grow the opportunity — to grow the market segment, the market ecosystem.  To grow something that is bigger and more impactful than any one business.  The argument (the provable, demonstrable argument)  has to be that incentivizing Project X will facilitate the growth of a whole sector, not just one firm.

Part of the reason why the incentive focus has to shift from incentivizing one business to growing a market is that most of us ain’t gonna see many individual business opportunities that can single-handedly make a big impact on the local economy.  We all know that businesses are getting smaller and smaller, and almost no one is seeing the four-digit employment investments anymore, no matter how much sugar they throw in the pot.  If from nothing other than a pragmatic point of view,  the purpose of an incentive has to be building an economic sector, not just one individual business, because any one individual business is going to be just one drop in the bucket of the job and investment growth our communities need.  I’ve talked before about the need to shift economic development thinking from doing projects to building an interdependent, interconnected ecosystem.  Same idea here.

A nice side benefit: an incentive that’s focused on building a sector rather than a business spreads the risk.  Instead of chewing our fingernails worrying that Business Y is going to renege on its incentive agreement, or move the day after the incentive runs out, or somehow otherwise break that supposed bond of trust and smear a lot of egg on our faces, an incentive strategy that focuses on building a sector should lessen the economic development initiative’s dependence on any one business.  If Business Y pulls something down the road, a strategy that has focused on using incentive money to build a sector, rather than just make Business Y happy, should have a decent chance at having created a larger system in which Business Y’s employees, suppliers, etc.  can find other beneficial options.

The question to ask isn’t

“Do we need to do this incentive to get this business?

The real question is,

“Are we building a base of human capital, expertise, relationships that can outlive any one business?”

 Remember, businesses aren’t just getting smaller, but there’s lots of evidence that the life span of the average business is shrinking as well.

  • Grow Workforce capacity.  This point follows on to the need to feed the growth of a sector, not just a business.  Whether we’re talking about office, service, manufacturing, tech, whatever, we know more and more that the most valuable and most critical asset we can offer is the skills and capabilities of our workforce.  If we need businesses to help us understand the sector’s workforce needs, and people’s capacities are at least partially built through their work experience — and those businesses where they work become smaller and shorter-lived and generally more fluid everyday — how much sense does it make to just hand businesses a piece of our precious funds and hope that something good will happen?

Why not structure some conditions around building the capacity of their employees?  Why not have an agreement about how they will support or participate in the training, networking, connection-building needed to grow their sector in your community?  That’s not going to ask much of them beyond basic good business practices (retain your employees because that’s cheaper than hiring, build good relationships with your suppliers so you can get credit if you need it, etc.)   You might as well give them a little extra push in that direction  — especially as businesses get smaller and owners and managers may not always fully realize how much they need to be part of the larger system.

 

  • Directly improve the community.   Here’s one you know, but maybe don’t want to say out loud:

Your citizens are sick of throwing their hard-earned tax money at businesses that they don’t think give a damn about their community.

Popular pressure is probably the biggest single threat to current incentives practices — and as people get better at self-organizing, and as anyone with a mobile phone becomes their own broadcast network, that pressure is going to build.  That’s the nature of the social media, internet world.  So why not give yourself some cover from the public watchdogs, and use incentives to prod businesses to be better community citizens?

Plus, you’ve got precedent.  Planning commissions routinely require developers who want a variance or special zoning to do a little extra — more landscaping, higher quality facade materials, etc.  If you, Madame Developer, don’t want to do that, you can use the standard zoning without going through any extra process.  But if you give us a little extra, you can use our expedited process or get special exemptions.

Why not ask a potential incentive recipient, explicitly, how will you give back?  How will you help build our community?

After all, it’s your taxpayers’ money. They want more return on the investment.

So…that’s what I’m thinking.  We all know that the devil usually lives in the details, but I think we in the economic development and local government world need to start talking about deep and fundamental changes to how we do incentives…. before someone else makes those decisions for us.
What do you think?

The Economic Development Incentives Debate: It’s running away without you

I heard a story this week, and I’m trying not to be disturbed by it, in part because I don’t know if I’m getting it right. . But if it’s at least part true, it indicates how far behind we are on dealing with the economic development incentives issue… and how the world has changed in ways that we may not always want to admit.

The story comes to me second hand, and in a very sketch manner.  Somewhere on the order of 20 years ago, a major economic development organization saw that the trend in the money value associated with high-profile incentive deals was becoming worrisome – growing higher and higher (since, again, I only have this story third-hand, and probably incomplete at the moment, I don’t want to name the organization).  Staff and some of the membership, wanted to take some kind of position on this, possibly because they could anticipate the degree to which incentives at this level could distort the market and suck up resources that they felt that they needed for other purposes.

According to what I heard, this effort was outright opposed by a large component of the organization’s leadership.  Even a proposal to simply identify the characteristics of a “good” incentive went down in flames.  The final version of that proposal received only two supporting votes out of something on the order of 40 or 50 total.  I don’t know why so many opposed it – I can only presume that they felt it would put them and their community at a disadvantage.

Again, this is a thirdhand eyewitness account, and I’m only putting in the details that seemed pretty solid.  I don’t much like sharing stories with so little substantiation, but if I wait until I can corroborate all the details, I might not get this written for years, if ever.  If you have first-hand experience with this decision and you’d like to share your experience, either on or off the record, please let me know.  I’d like to talk to you.

___

Here’s the point: regardless of the details, a decision like the one that apparently went down relies on a critical assumption – one that simply does not work anymore:

We the professionals control the information. We control the decision.  This is our domain and we have the power to lock the door to the sanctorum if we want to. And if we do, we have closed the subject.  Phew.

There might have been very good reasons why the people involved opposed the content of what was being proposed.  I have no idea what was in that definition of a good incentive.

But look what’s happened:

 

  • In late 2012, the New York Times blew the cover off of one of the industry’s biggest dirty secrets: too many places can’t prove what much of their incentive money bought.  And they did that using what’s called Big Data journalism – using the internet and analytical tools to aggregate and analyze records that were previously impossible to make sense of.

 

  • Thoughtful types like Strong Towns have helped thousands see the unintended consequences of how communities bought into a “Ponzi Scheme” to build infrastructure that was promised to improve local economies — but eventually left us deeper in the hole than we were before.  And Strong Towns has done that without a major media mouthpiece: they’ve done it primarily through blogging, podcasts, YouTube –the tools of social media available at little or no cost to anyone who wants to take on an issue.

 

  • The nonprofit organization Good Jobs First has arguably taken the lead in articulating how incentive practices should be changed to create more transparency and accountability – to the point where my colleagues who conduct trainings on using incentives use Good Jobs’ checklist.

 

These are all issues that the leadership of that organization could have addressed back then. For whatever reason, they decided not to.

 

But not addressing it did not make it go away.

 

What not addressing it did was much more profound: it took that economic development organization out of leadership of the debate.  Instead of using its real-world expertise to guide an intelligent debate, the organization and its members today find themselves in a painful situation: they can try to defend practices that are increasingly hard to defend, or they can place themselves in opposition to the leadership of their chosen profession.

I’ve said in other places that we need to get past the incentives debate — that obsessing over the incentive issue distracts all of us from the other important work that we need to be doing, like growing entrepreneurship and improving our planning and decision-making.  But “getting past it” does not mean “pretending it’s not there” or “sweeping it under the rug” — precisely because it will not stay under the rug.  We have to deal with it.  We have to stand up like adult, admit the problems, and start actively participating in the search for solutions.

And we have to do that, if for no other reason than to prevent this issue from eating us alive, to keep it from undermining all of the other important work that economic development does.  We cannot get past the incentives debate until we deal with it.

___
Here’s the key message for everyone who classifies him or herself as an ”economic development professional,” regardless of what credentials or memberships you carry:

 

The world’s has changed on you.  You are losing  control of the incentives debate, you’re losing ownership of the incentives issue.  Others are defining what’s wrong with incentives and what should happen to them,  — in some cases, perhaps, leading the discussion into places where you didn’t want it to go.  And because anyone who can run a basic Google search can find what they are saying about as easily as they can find what you are saying – or share what they think about it with thousands — you simply cannot afford to pretend that your opinion is the only one that matters.  It just doesn’t work.

 

We talk a lot in economic development, and in any kind of public policy arena, about breaking down silos.  In reality, it’s too late to even assume that we have the option of keeping the silos in place.    The silo walls may still appear to stand, but they are riddled with holes and as porous as a sponge – what lies within “our” domain will seep out, and what’s outside our area of expertise is already seeping in.

 

That’s not a judgment, that’s a practical fact. castle tower ruin

 

You’re going to have to choose to join the debate, honestly and transparently, or give it up and resign yourselves to irrelevance.  Because if you continue to pretend that all you have to do is guard your watchtower, you will watch it crumble.  The incentives debate is already in the process of running away without you.

 

 

 

In the Workshop: moving local government innovation from the Skunkworks to Center Stage

But when you look closely, you find that many of these [local government innovations] happen in spite of the prevailing culture. Savvy bureaucrats find clever ways to reach across organizational silos to make things happen. They scrape together private funds to launch a pilot. Or they leverage a crisis – and the self-examination these moments can create – to advance new thinking.

While that’s good, it’s clear that relying on opportunism, bureaucratic heroism, and luck to drive the innovation agenda isn’t good enough. There’s too much at stake. Cities today are being called on to do more with less – and these trends will likely accelerate.

 

This essay does an excellent job of pin pointing the great problem facing community innovators today.  Thousands of dedicated people in large and small communities worldwide are making Herculean efforts to transform their communities– often from the inside, often with minimal or shallow support, often in a context of bureaucracy out politics or just a sort of cultural inertia that makes a seemingly simple improvement a test of determination.  And as they keep striving, in many, many places, the vise continues to tighten.

In the business world, many of the most successful corporations have been documented to work innovation, not just as a covert activity done in some hidden skunkworks, but as a consistent part of how work, from top to bottom, gets done.  I suspect that awareness underlies this assessment:

 Innovation, here, isn’t some mystical process. It requires neither rocket science nor light bulb moments. Instead it’s about a set of sequential steps and techniques that, when implemented with fidelity, help city halls come up with better ideas more often. It’s about increasing the hit rate for innovation – while recognizing that some degree of failure is inevitable (and important).

I think this is the great challenge, the deep need that faces is over the next 10 years.

We’ve actually gotten pretty good at inventing cool new little programs, at Doing Something Neat, even when (or maybe sometimes because of) local government systems that stifle more than support.

But it’s not enough.

We have to figure out how to come up with–and carry through on- better ideas more often.  We have to increase local governments’ hit rate for innovation, or we’re not going to be able to meet our communities’s needs.

I know everyone is tight on budgets and time, but so are your private sector neighbors.  So how do they do it? How do we translate those processes to local government?

What do you think?

 

The Divergent Creative and the Kid Who Won Everything Else

It’s strange how watching your kid face a defeat means more–and hurts more–than anything that could happen to yourself.

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

I have two kids, who I’ve generally stereotyped here before (and in a lot of conversations), as the Good Kid and the Mad Scientist.  The older one has all sorts of great qualities–intelligent, good grades, well behaved, respectful, etc.  Classic firstborn.  Good Kid.

The second is… well, he’s…yeah.  He’s the one that leaves a trail of chaos in his wake.  Remnants of projects and drawings and creations litter half the house.  Fifty percent of all the food storage containers and reusable water bottles that have ever crossed our property line end up as bug habitats.  Pretty much anything… scrap wood, tinfoil, sticks, my office supplies, silverware, you name it… gets conscripted into his projects.  When he’s working on something, he goes at it with a single minded devotion that verges on obsessive.  Fat chance getting that dishwasher unloaded

Granted, they’re amazing projects.  I know, Mom is supposed to say that, but even given my bias…  The kid makes clay fish the size of your fingernail so detailed that you can identify the species.  He makes reefs with dozens of types of corals that fit in your palm. He draws birds with all their plumage. The kid has sold his work at art shows, exhibiting next to adults.  He’s been the youngest exhibitor every time.  He’s 11.

Today was Awards Day, the culmination of his years in elementary school.  He won…nothing.  The award for achievement in art went to the Kid Who Won Everything Else.

Jon knows how the quality of his work compares to his age peers.  You can’t help but notice at the school art shows.  But he doesn’t always do the art class project exactly the way he was told.  Sometimes he figures he knows a better way. I don’t know if he actually does know a better way or not.  But he’s usually quite sure of his vision.

 

I watched from the other side of the room as Jon congratulated his classmates…generous kid, sweet disposition.  I watched him jump forward,then sit back down as a kid with the same first name as him was called to receive the science award (Jon’s also a biology wizard, which explains the fish and the bugs and the birds).

But after the art teacher gave her award, Jon sank into himself as though someone had let the air out of his body.  Across the gym, I tried to catch his eye, give a thin smile of encouragement, but he looked at no one.

After school, in the car alone, tears, dashed expectations, I try and try but I’m never good enough.  Why don’t they understand me? What’s wrong with me?

Moms experience heart breaks that feel like nothing else in human experience.

—-

I have an undergrad degree in education.  About a year ago, bewildered about how to deal with this kid, I pulled out one of my old textbooks and reviewed the one chapter I could find on gifted education.  The book listed six types of gifted kids.  First up: standard good student. Check.

Second: Divergent Creative.  Characteristics: independent thinker, resist playing by the rules, challenge authority, driven by deep need to create.

Student is at significant risk of tuning out of the education process.

Look what I got.

The ironic thing here is that I started out as the Good Kid, but turned into the divergent.  I was the Kid Who Wins Everything when I was a kid.  Now I’m the one who challenges authority, who ignores people at the community pool when I’m writing. Who says stuff that isn’t always popular with my peers.   At least some of the time.

I can’t in clear conscience anymore tell him to conform, do everything you’re told, play the game without question.  That’s not true to me, and its not true to him.  And he knows that.

Kid is also pretty good at reading human behavior, including his own.

—-

Why do we crave reinforcement?  What makes us so desperate for praise,  for approval, to hear that “good job?”

I don’t know.  But we have to make a choice sometimes: try to fit the system in the hopes of winning the award, or obey what we are, what speaks to us, do what it seems like is our role in the world to do.

Part of why I think I have been evolving from Good Kid to Divergent is because I realized that I had nothing to lose.  And that’s something I’ve talked about here before— it’s not like job security is a reality for most of us anymore anyways.  And I’ve talked plenty of times about the need for bravery, for grit, and for determination to do the right thing and lead change in the face of discouragement.  If you need a dose of that, click some of the links in this paragraph.

Sometimes, though, that’s a lonely and misunderstood road.  Sometimes that just feels like shit.

But it doesn’t change who we are.  Or what we have to do.

Ironically, I stumbled across a music video yesterday that I hadn’t seen in years.  I never like it when it first came out.  But it’s kinda growing on me.

So this one goes out to all you change agents, community leaders, Mad Scientists and tap dancing bumblebee people.  Hang in there, guys.

And as Jon told me after he got the tears out of his system, none of today’s crap will matter a week from now.  He’ll try to play by the rules better, but he’s not giving up what matters to him.

Wise kid, that Mad Scientist.

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?” http://t.co/lCrdPWdQQq

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. www.lollapalooza.com.

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. www.branded4good.com

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.

Changing Your Culture of Public Participation (or, Not Giving the Chance to Say Stupid Things in Public)

In a true display of democracy, a town hall meeting held at the New Bedford High School auditorium Monday gave the crowd of approximately 550 residents the opportunity to publicly voice every last one of the inane thoughts and concerns they would normally only have the chance to utter to themselves.

Though the meeting was ostensibly held to discuss a proposed $21,000 project to replace the high school’s grass football field with synthetic turf, City Councilman Thomas Reed inadvertently opened the floodgates to a deluge of ill-informed, off-topic diatribes on inconsequential bullshit when he allowed those in attendance to demonstrate their God-given gift of language.

–“Town Hall Meeting Gives Townspeople Chance To Say Stupid Things In Public.”  The Onion (everyone knows that this is a satire/fake news web site, right?  

Right??  

Just checking.)

__

This fall, my son starts a new high school.  After a lot of deliberation, my husband and I decided to acquiesce to the kid’s wish to attend an academically rigorous Catholic high school.  For a former public school teacher and career public education kid, this was a hard decision.  Our kids have gone to public school since kindergarten.  But in the end, we concluded that this was the right choice for this bright, serious, disciplined kid.  We decided that he needed an environment that would build on those assets.  And he wanted the challenge.  Hard to argue with that.

The kid was accepted in January.  By the time he starts school in August, he will have had one Saturday morning with the music program, a one on one with an assistant principal, two weeks of band camp and a two day freshman orientation.

He had the meeting with the assistant principal last Saturday.  It was not what I expected.  There’s my 14 year old, sitting across a conference table from a massive, intimidating-looking man–300 pounds of tie-you-in-a-pretzel-if-you-mess-up.  Generally a good trait in an assistant principal, thinks the former substitute teacher turned mom.

 The assistant principal places a binder full of information In front of the kid.  Mr. Intimidating then starts asking James questions (note that he had already been accepted). The questions start off with unsurprising stuff…what’s your favorite subject in school, what do you do outside of school…easy for the kid to answer. Then, the questions take a surprising turn: what kinds of situations stress you out? How do you deal with stress? What are you passionate about–what gets you out of bed in the morning?  If I asked your best friend to describe you, what would he say?

Find yourself a 14 year old boy and try those questions on him.  Or try them on yourself.

James stumbles through them, and Mr. Intimidating takes notes.

Then the assistant principal asks James to open the binder.  Sitting to the side, I steel myself for a marginally painful review of rules and requirements and consequences.  Instead, Mr. Intimidating spends the next 20 minutes conversing with James about the core principals of the school’s educational philosophy.

Critical thinking.  Self-awareness. Compassion towards others.  Integrity.

Deep stuff. Foundational stuff. Not a single rule or regulation.

As I listened, it dawned on me that this wasn’t a one-off thing.  It was just more obvious because of the setting.  When my son did the music department event a couple of weeks ago, the entire group of kids ended by singing the alma mater.  The incoming freshmen put arms around each others’ shoulders, exactly the way the upperclassmen do, while they tried to read the words off a piece of paper.

Find yourself a 14 year old boy and try to get them to put their arm around the shoulder of another boy.  Good luck.

And yet I watched my kid do exactly that.

__

Think for a moment about how we complain about the public’s involvement in our planning and economic development and local government–in person and online.  I opened this piece with a purposely over-the-top piece of satire, but…come on.   Hits a little close to home, don’t it?

We gripe that they don’t behave themselves, that they say nasty or off topic things, that they pound soapboxes…or worse yet, that they just don’t show up.

No wonder our meetings are so miserable.  It’s all their fault.

Now think for a minute about how much effort we’ve put into establishing our community’s culture of public engagement.  What have we — and our predecessors– done to convey, to demonstrate, what effective public engagement looks like?  What have we done to set the tone, to establish the environment we want?

Do we even know what the public engagement we want looks like? Or would we sound like a 14 year old trying to answer a question about how his best friend would describe him?

What public engagement culture do we have?
__

If all St. Xavier High School did was a 20 minute discussion of principles, I would never expect it to take.  A 14 year old would forget that stuff before he got out the door.  But when every aspect of the culture reinforces those principles– alma mater sung with arms around each other, freshman applauded by upperclassmen when they enter the assembly on their first day of school, senior mentors in freshman homerooms, band camp that welcomes new students instead of hazing them–then those principles come to mean something.  That’s how a culture–especially a culture that is radically different from what newcomers might expect– sticks.

The most successful companies all know that. Edward Deming, the father of modern manufacturing, gets quoted in business schools every day:

Culture eats strategy for breakfast and process for lunch.

Show me a Fortune 100 business, and I will show you how that company has built its culture through and into everything it does.

__

Last year I wrote a blow-by-blow account of how I managed a potentially contentious public meeting.  That post has now been read by 3,500 people.  Obviously that essay addressed something that a lot of people needed or wanted.

But keeping a meeting from blowing up….that’s simply classroom management.  That’s the very basics.  It’s not creating a constructive environment.  it’s not enabling a constructive culture.  It’s not in itself moving us forward at all.

We have to change the culture of community participation, and we have to do it top to bottom.  Organizations that take on culture change know that they have to do it intentionally…they have to build it into every interaction, every communication.  They need to consciously reinforce the principles of the culture they want–not just by saying what the principles are, but living them through every interaction.

What are your community’s public interactions telling people about how you want to relate?  What does the room setup say?  The rules…or lack of rules? The options and opportunities for involvement?

Is meaningful public engagement built into your processes, beginning to end?  How do you involve people upstream– in setting policy and deciding priorities? Do people have real opportunities to be part of the solution, or do your just invite them in when there is a fait accompli to argue against?

Do you give them the ability to do something other than say no, no, no?  Do you channel them into being part of the solution?

If you don’t, don’t despair. Culture change is a long and difficult process.  That’s why my son’s new school starts on this work long before they get their books, and why they build it all the way through the experience.  The more I think about it, I suspect it’s not luck….it’s got to be intentional.

___

Like more most analogies, this one breaks down. A 14 year old, to at least some extent, goes where you tell them to go and does what you tell them to do.  Especially if you are a 300+ pound assistant principal.  But your residents will participate only if they perceive that the value of doing so will exceed the c cost of their time and energy.  Which makes a culture of meaningful public engagement all the more important.

So you might as well get started.  Ask yourself: what would meaningful public involvement look like here? What do we need to learn from our residents? What do we want our public meetings to look, to feel like? What character, what principles do we want?  How can we build that into everything we do?

It won’t happen overnight. But goofy 14 year old boys don’t turn into men overnight, either.  So go ahead and get started.

Incentives: No more yes-no-yes-no.

I wrote the following as a response to an ongoing debate on incentives that has been occurring on one of the LinkedIn groups that I follow.  There’s been a strong yes-no-yes-no tone to the conversation, with a few people who oppose the use of incentives on principle butting heads with a few who adamantly believe that incentives are important and valuable.

I’m posting this here because that conversation seems like a microcosm of the ongoing debate.

And if you’re going at it as a yes-no-yes-no, on-off switch kind of choice, stop it.  You’re not doing anyone any good.  including yourself.

Instead, we have to start asking:

What are we trying to do?  What are the tools we have available?  What does our data tell us about how they’re working or not working?  How do we get better information on that?

And if it doesn’t seem to be working, how can we adjust our tools or add to the toolbox to give us a chance of doing what we’re supposed to do?

That’s the right conversation.  That’s the conversation that addresses the sober responsibilities that we have to our communities.  Time to grow up a bit.

___

Thank you again for leading the charge into this critical element of debate.  We need this debate.  We need it.  And we need much more invested in the debate than we’re-just-fine-don’t-rock-the-boat.

Every business and every profession has to grow and change — we of all people should know that, given the amount of time we spend with people who live in the business world.  And given the intersection where economic development lives — of government pressures and blinding business change — we absolutely have to take a cold-eyed, critical look at what we do, how we do it, how that needs to change and how that can be done better.

Part of the problem that surfaces here and in the previous debates on this group about incentives and the like is that we are looking through an insect’s compound eyes: we as a group represent a thousand differing perspectives, and we are being pushed harder than ever to make a coherent whole out of the picture — by voices outside and inside the profession.  And it’s a lot easier for any of us to just insist that the view through our little lens is the right one.

But we are reaching a point, whether it’s due to techology changes or government pressures or the information that the general public can grab and use and share without our spin control, where we can’t pretend not to hear those voices anymore. The profession has to turn a critical eye on itself, clearly understand its strengths and limitations, and change,

It’s not a binary choice — it’s not “Everything is fine!!!!” or “Everything stinks!!!”

Critique is a part of growing up, and in times of pressure you have to grow up faster than at other times.  We all have some growing up to do – in this and in all the other professions that are on the hairy edge of our understanding of how communities and economies work.  But we can’t rest on some claimed laurels today, more than ever.

 

So, new questions:

What do we have to do to make the real estate component part of economic development more valuable, more meaningful to communities?  What else do we need to be accounting for if we intend to have a positive impact?  Are our current methods creating unintended negative impacts — impacts that have hidden consequences for communities?

 

In the Workshop: What happens when an employer goes out?

I’ve got a new item in the Workshop that I’d like your feedback on.  My friend and collaborator Pete Mallow took an initial stab at trying to identify the types of basic responses that we are likely to see in communities after a major business pulls out.  I think he’s in the ballpark, but I don’t think in economics charts the way he does.  So I’d like to see what you think.  Is he missing any other possible reactions?

Obviously this doesn’t answer the critical questions of why these responses happen or how communities should deal with it, but it’s a way to start to understand what we might need to evaluate.  And it’s a baby step toward answering my most vexing question: Why do some places bounce back from disasters, and some don’t?  What makes the difference?

 

I’d like to continue to turn Pete’s brainpower to this issue, so let me know what you think of this framework.  Thanks.

The Rust Belt Bird-Flip to Dying

Sometimes you have to force yourself to walk with your ghosts so that you know who they are.   And who you are, too.

 

I always say that I am from Bedford, a small town outside Cleveland.  But “from” might be the most telling word.  After growing up there, deeply embedded in the community through my father and my grandfather and my own activities, I left that piece of the Rust Belt to go to college in Chicago.  I came back for three summers, and then…left.

When my parents were alive, I would visit every so often.  But not that often.

They died years ago.  The last time I was in the house I grew up in, my brothers and I went through all of the furniture and dishes and tools and all of that detritus of a life, and divided it up.  I continued to co-own that house with them for years, and my one brother still lives there.

I have never gone back inside.

I don’t want to go back to my hometown anymore.  I don’t want to go back to the place that formed me, that played such an integral part in making me who I am that I put a picture of 1970s Cleveland on the introductory slide of every presentation I do.

It’s one thing to talk about it.  It’s another thing to go there.

Don’t get me wrong.  Bedford is a charming little Western Reserve Yankee kind of town.  Lovely square with gravel paths and dignified war memorials, grand Victorian buildings around it.  Gazebo that supposedly has a brick with my name on it somewhere (I’ve never found it… who knows if Granddad told the truth…he didn’t always do that).   Solid buildings lining Broadway.   Stately houses on streets with real sidewalks.   The Old Urbanism, Exhibit A.

But…

Drive around after a few years’ absence, and you notice the potholes.  You see the vacant lots where something’s gone… what?  I don’t remember.   The post office on the site of the old Marble Chair factory – the one that shut down in the late 70s so abruptly that workers left their lunches on the tables – still looks too small.  Then drive through downtown and out into the non-quaint neighborhoods, and…vacant storefronts.  Empty buildings.  Dried weeds in lots.  Houses that might – or might not – have people living in them.  Who might or might not be able to leave the house under their own power.    You can’t quite tell by looking.

There’s a lot of that.

___

I went to Bedford last week, not wanting to visit my own ghosts, but to see a friend who has been visiting hers.  One of my oldest childhood buddies lost her mom a couple months ago.  I had to skip the funeral, in the funeral home on the corner of the cemetery where my own parents are buried, because I had a cold/flu kind of thing.  I wasn’t all that sick, but I didn’t want to risk infecting a room full of old people.  You think about that in this context.

I felt guilty about not supporting my friend.  And I did seem to have something.  But I was kind of glad not to have to go.

I didn’t want to go there.   I really didn’t want to go.

My friend lives in Alaska.  Seldom gets to Ohio.  It’s expensive.  She came back for two weeks to help her Dad move and help clean out the house she grew up in.  I promised I would come and see here.  I figured a friendly face might do some good.

I stood in the front room of the tiny Cape Cod, the one that I could almost find without the address, although I hadn’t been there in 25 years.  The trees in the front had gotten bigger, which made the house look smaller than I remembered, and that threw me a little. But that wasn’t as confusing at the thing that looked like a brick bunker at the end of the street —  that made me think I had taken a wrong turn.  Renee told me that the city had built that years ago to block off an alley – to keep drug dealers from the next town over from running their supplies down this little street.

The front room felt smaller, too, because of the boxes and bins and piles of papers and photos and phonograph records and who knows what else.  I’d stood in rooms like this before, so I brushed off my friend’s apologies.  I’ve been there, don’t worry about it, this doesn’t look too bad, you’ve made a lot of progress.  I know.  It’ll be OK.

When you sit there in the middle of all of that, with the ghosts of your own long-ago life racing around you disjointedly, you don’t know if you will ever get done.  Or if it will ever be ok.

—-

Later that day, I made the call that I didn’t want to make.  I called my brother, the one that still lives in the house where we grew up, who lives there alone and survived a long period of unemployment by selling off almost everything that my other brother and I didn’t claim.  Knowing how little he had, we didn’t claim much.

The one who never visits, never talks, with whom a 15 minute phone conversation feels like a mental battle to say something not stupid.

I apologized for the short notice, said I hadn’t known sure that I was coming until earlier that day (that was true – my friend had been sick), and asked if he had time to go grab dinner.  He said yes.  I hadn’t talked to him for over 8 months.

I proposed to meet at a little pizza shop that I had noticed on the way through town – in the storefront that used to hold the magazine shop at the foot of our street.  Two doors down from the newspaper where I had my first job, across the street from the shop where I got my first haircut.

The ghosts swirled.  I couldn’t get any closer.

Brian walked down the street, met me on the corner, hug.  It’s 8:30, pizza shop looks like it’s closing, everything else around is dark except for a bar (he doesn’t drink).  We get in my car and go to Applebee’s out past the high school, just this side of the shopping mall where I bought my first record, where I wrote a big feature spread for the paper when the mall turned 30 or 40 or something.  The place that I was warned on a trip home after college not to go near, because I was sure to get mugged.  I forget who told me that.

I mostly remember how to get there, but have to double-check myself with him a little.  He has lived in Bedford for most of his 41 years, never lived farther than an hour from here.  He doesn’t have that problem.

Under the pendant lamp at the Applebees booth, Brian looks a little less thin than he used to be.  I am probably thinner than the last time I saw him – I was supposed to run my first 5K tomorrow, but cancelled that to come here.  We have the same face, primarily our dad’s face.  Same hair, same shape, same wrinkles, even the same cleft lip scar, except that his is the mirror image of mine.

Same eyes.

Brian talks some about his job, asks politely about my kids, but talks for a long time about the church we grew up in.  They’re losing population fast, can hardly afford to pay a pastor.  When we were kids they had two pastors, and two parsonages.  They sold the one next door back when our dad was the church council president.  Now they are looking at a merger with three or four other churches, most of which are even smaller.  There’s no one left except old folks.  Brian says he’s the only one in his generation who shows up on Sunday.  And in a brief flash of something interior, he says: “This is the church I grew up in.  I don’t want to see it die.”

There’s a sadness in his eyes all the time.  He hasn’t had it easy.  That sadness intensifies in that second.

I drive him to the house I grew up in, note in the dark that it’s still standing, nothing obviously wrong, landscaping is overgrown.  Hug, goodnight, let’s do a better job of staying in touch.  A string of apologies from me.  He doesn’t invite me inside.  I head for a hotel downtown – I’ve scheduled a meeting with a colleague in the morning.

At the hotel, I look in the mirror.  And notice, not for the first time, the way my eyes look vaguely sad when I am not talking to someone.

“What kind of culture lets this happen to its cities?  How are people okay with the post apocalyptic Mad Max hellscape that is Detroit?”

One of my Twitter correspondents runs a regional planning agency in Akron.  He has been reading  Detroit: An American Autopsy by Charlie LeDuff.  Jason lives the Rust Belt experience every day, and I know he’s a thinker.  I checked my Twitter over breakfast before leaving for Bedford.  This book is clearly working him over.   I read the review he tweets.

Cringe. I don’t add the book to my reading list.

____

 

Driving out of downtown Cleveland heading home after my last meeting, I glance sideways from I-90 to glimpse the Detroit-Superior Bridge over the Cuyahoga Valley.  That’s the two-decker one – the one that 70 years ago carried streetcars on its lower level.   That level hasn’t been used for decades.  My father, a self-taught paint chemist who always had bigger dreams that never happened, used to talk to me about his vision for a tourist experience in that lower level – a little fragment of streetcar track and a car to take people out over the river valley to take in the view and get a little meal in the old canteen at the stop down there.  He even took me at some point when someone did a tour of that lower level – I forget whether I was in college or if that was after I got married.  His love of places like that – and his inclination to proclaim “I see usability” – probably had a bigger impact than I know on my career.

The space was dark, full of debris, lit by only sunlight.  But it was a heck of a view.

It’s still not used, except for once in a while when someone holds an art fair or something like that on the old streetcar level.  I haven’t been, but my other brother, an illustrator, has exhibited there.  He says it was  fun – all sorts of exhibits and dance and performance art under temporary lights run off generators and extension cords.

I just bought one of his local prints from a proud-of-everything-Cleveland shop downtown.  It’s the names of the city neighborhoods arranged in the shape of the city.  I told myself that I bought it so that I could keep track of where the neighborhoods are if I end up with a consulting gig in Cleveland.   But I don’t really know why I bought it, other than I like his work and I want to support my niece and nephew…and this little store.

Random quote in my head: A violin in the void.   Vladimir Nabokov, describing his stories about dislocated Russian exiles before and after World War II.  I tell myself that’s the wrong quote for Cleveland, the Comeback City.

___

Past the bridge, it’s a minute or two til I pass the remaining steel mills – I catch the old familiar scent, but it’s not the overwhelming miles-away smell I remember – then into a grey landscape of highway, warehouses, suburbanish buildings, more spread apart buildings.  A landscape eventually dominated by the dark grey trees and brown grass of late Ohio winter.  I debate turning on the radio, but end up talking to myself instead.

Why does this place feels like the Valley of the Shadow of Death?  Am I just doing some kind of long-suppressed grieving – for parents who died too early, for tenuous family ties, for roots that have mostly shriveled, for my own realization that my time slides away?

Is it Renee in her family detritus?

Is it Brian struggling to hold together the family that I have never been for him, in the face of a community where old people die or move away, and new people never come?

Is it potholes, vacant stores, vacant lots – the physical in-my-face manifestations of all of the grim statistics and trends that I have read so long, that I know so well?  I follow news from Cleveland, from Detroit, from Buffalo, and so on, pretty closely – I am From Here, after all.

Is it Jason’s anguish for Detroit, for its sister communities he works so hard for, seeing in the brutal struggles of Detroit a mirror or a prophecy for the places he cares about?

That I still care about?

What audacity animates the people who are trying to build something here – the hundreds of people that I know, or that I know of, who are working in some way to turn Rust Belt communities around? The people who do the art thing under the bridge?  The people who fly in the face of Where the Market Looks Good  to open a shop in a struggling neighborhood, or run a downtown revitalization program, or make pictures that show happy local landmarks?

People like Jason?

I used to do that – I helped start a downtown revitalization program for a downtrodden neighborhood in Wisconsin, when I lived there in my 20s.  I still talk to and advise and support and encourage people all over the country who are trying to make their places better.  But I don’t do it myself anymore.  Where I live now, no one needs me for that.  And I know that it’s exhausting.

In some ways, it’s very easy for me to encourage people to be Brave.  If it were easy, you’d have already done it, I tell them.   Go get ‘em – go make it happen.

 

How do you maintain that bravery in the face of decline – decline that is everywhere you look, decline that goes back decades, decline all around?   How do you maintain it for the months and years and decades where you take a step forward and then (if you’re lucky, only) a half-step back?

___

The morning after my visits with Renee and Brian, while I was still standing in a hotel room that had been created from an old bank building on Euclid Avenue, Jason tweeted this passage from the same book.  When a quote matters so much to someone that they send it despite having to divide it into five tweets, you know that they think it matters:

#1 “The small, white ‘art community’ in Detroit complained that I was focusing on the negative in a city with so much good. What about (ctd)

#2 “all the galleries and museums and music? they complained in a flurry of e-mails and blogs. What about the good things? (ctd)

#3 “But these things are not supposed to be news. These things are supposed to be normal. And when normal things become the news, the (ctd)

#4 “abnormal becomes the norm. Writing about shit like that [galleries and museums] in the city we were living in seemed equal to (ctd)

#5 “writing about the surf conditions while reporting in the Gaza Strip.” -Charlie LeDuff “Detroit: An American Autopsy”

 

I felt like I should respond.  But I had no idea what to say.

 

When  we love a person – a parent, a spouse, a friend, a sibling – we know that we love something that is imperfect.  We know where the bad stuff is, where the baggage lies, we have a clue where the dark places sit and at least a little bit of an inkling of what might be in there.  We choose to love despite knowing that.  Sometimes the bad stuff is too much and we walk away.  But when we do choose to love someone,  we know that that’s going to be there.  And we’re going to just have to live with it.

But why do we ever make the choice to live with it?

I’m no psychologist, or pastor, or much of an expert on anything along these lines.  I often wonder how my husband and I managed to marry at such a young age and not completely botch it up.  And I’m not sure how much credit I get for the fact that somehow we haven’t.

But rolling across the grey highway among the grey trees,  asking my urgent question out loud in the empty car – “why should anyone keep trying to make a place better, when the whole system seems to be falling apart?”  something managed to dawn on me:

When we love someone, we focus on what’s good about them.  We know the bad stuff is there, and we try to help them with it, but that’s not what we choose to see first.  If you ask me about my husband, I will tell you about his kindness, his maturity, his self-assurance, his wisdom.  I’ll withhold the arrogance and the impatience, or make a joke out of them.  Hopefully he does that for me.

The work of setting up art shows, or fighting for better transportation systems, or cleaning up neighborhoods, or opening businesses, matters.  It matters furiously.  It matters a hell of a lot.

It matters because it shows us why these places are loved.  And they show us that somebody loves them, deeply loves them.  Which means that it’s OK for us to love them.  Despite everything.

It says, there is something, something profound, something deep here that Matters.  The old, the ugly, the despairing, the potholed… loving a place doesn’t negate those facts, or negate the need to fix them.  But our efforts at revitalization, however short of the Everything This Place Needs, allows us to see what’s good about it, what there is here that can engender that love.  And they allow us to connect to the place down in our hearts that wants to love our places ourselves.

____

Richard Rodgriguez, probably my favorite author, wrote a stunning essay in a book titled Brown: the Last Discovery of America.  You don’t realize this until the end, but the whole essay is actually about what you think is only one of its many themes: the death of his friend , a difficult and drawn out death, from cancer.  In one of those passages that you don’t know what it’s about until you’ve read the whole thing, he writes:

Adam and Eve were driven by the Angel of the Fiery Sword to a land east of Eden, there to assume the burden of time, which is work and death.  All photosynthetic beings on earth live in thrall to the movement of the sun, from east to west…. We know our chariot sun is only one of many such hissing baubles juggled about, according to immutable laws.

Fuck immutable laws.  Fuck mutability, for that matter.  I just had my face peeled.  I go to the gym daily.  I run.  I swallow fistfuls of vitamins. I resort to scruffing lotions and toners.  Anywhere else in the world I could pass for what-would-you-say?  In California, I look fifty.

You know that he realizes the ultimate ineffectiveness of his face peels and toners.  But he offers  no apology for them.  And taking that stance in the face of knowing that mutability – that audacious bird-flip to the universe… it does not stop death, but it asserts that Something Matters despite it.

 

Communities are not people – they live longer than any one person, and in most places, they never truly go away.  Cities in even struggling parts of Europe and Asia date back hundreds or thousands of years. So personifying a place – comparing it to a person you love – only works so far.

When you strive to make a place better, you are doing something that will have repercussions long past your own lifetime.  No one who built the Detrior-Superior Bridge, or the Civil War memorial on the square in Bedford, or the house where I grew up, is still alive.  But  the impact that those places have continues past their first humans.  Keeping those places working, maintaining and re-creating their relevance, empowering other people to take care of them and themselves, all of these things Matter.  They matter a hell of a lot.

Maybe what you do to revitalize your place is truly a violin in a void.  But maybe the violin in the void changes the void.  Maybe it eventually fills the void, makes the void no longer empty.  Maybe it enables the void to become something else.   Or maybe all you’re doing is flipping the bird to a world that says your place is dying.

And since places are not people, maybe you’re making that happen.

Fuck Mutabililty.

To those of you who fight this good fight, go get ‘em.  And thank you.

 

Load up your dog sled and make Little Bets

Yesterday I wrapped up with an assertion that the speed of change in the world means that the kind of resistance to change that Aaron Renn noted in how economic development is done in the US is understandable, but pragmatically impossible because of the accelerating pace of change and the fact that we have almost no clue what the future will look like.  From where I sit, it looks like most of our most basic assumptions – down to the very definition of a job, a worker, a business – will be extensively disputed within a few short years of today.

Not buying it?  Check out this examination from one of the leading thinkers about emerging issues in business and marketing in the UK:

Era of Disposable Company?

[I]n the digital economy I wonder if as an entrepreneur or business leader
should we change our concept of corporate culture?

When the digital age is moving so quickly and consumers are gaining power, maybe the future trend will be towards a disposable company – it launches, it delivers, it morphs into something else or disappears?

In my lifetime I have seen clothes, TV’s, phone’s etc come to a price point that makes them almost disposable if you want them to be….

So why not a company?

When the digital age is combined with slow economic growth…..the hockey stick financial plans look redundant. Imagine the hockey stick becoming a 2-3 year project? Imagine such a lean, decentralised company that it can move quickly, fold and then come back as something fresh that embraces the new technology?

Maybe, just maybe, we should be focused not on growing structure but on growing flexibility?

http://www.theengagingbrand.com/2013/03/era-of-disposable-company.html

From my own notes:

 A hell of a question….implications for economic development?

Implications indeed.  Think about not just this idea, but what it implies.

We know that employment looks for more and more people nothing like it looked for my father and my grandfather, to the point where even sessions at the IEDC Leadership Conference question whether the concept of a “job” still exists.  Fast Company described a Generation Flux where the most successful careers zigzag across business types.  High school students are advised that they may very well spend their careers in industries that don’t exist yet.

And the very concept of a business – the foundation of how we think about our local economies – could become an antiquated idea as well.

The woman who wrote for a newspaper 25 years ago on trash paper and a manual typewriter writes this on a glass screen that she holds in one hand and brushes with a finger.  And I do that as though I were born to it.

Don’t tell me that the world isn’t changing, or that we know what’s coming next.  If all that doesn’t make you very nervous, you might not have nerves.

___

Local governments are arguably the most slow-changing creatures on this landscape– and that’s partly prudent and partly by design.  If you live off the monies of people who are typically reluctant to give you more, and you have spent three decades in a zeigeist that suspects you of being wasteful sloths, you’re have a monsoon-scale tailwind pushing you take it slow, don’t get crazy, don’t rock the boat.

Add to that a constant, years-long, unrelenting squeeze on your budgets, loss of one co-worker after another who used to help you carry that burden, and a constant nagging cold fear about where the budget cuts will fall next, and its no wonder at all that we can barely get our heads around issues like this, let alone figure out how we meet our responsibilities in an upset-the-apple cart world like I just described.

I’ve said before no shortage of times that we need to fundamentally change how we do economic development and planning…but for me, just like for everyone else in the growing chorus singing from that hymnal, this picture hasn’t come into focus yet.  Whether you’re me or Richard Florida, there’s parts that become a little more clear, and huge swaths that lurk in the shadows.  Talk about seeing through a glass darkly.

But we can’t give up, we have to start figuring it out, unknowns or not.  But how?  We know the feds aren’t going to do this for us, or some well-funded research outfit, or our state’s economic development agency.

So what do we do?

____

Here’s a small way that we can all start sharpening the picture, for all of us.  And I do mean, small.

Businesses that remain successful for the long term continually look forward.  And based on what they see — but knowing that what they think they see could be a mirage or something much different than it appears today — they make Little Bets.

Little Bets sometimes sound like experiments, but I think that’s the wrong comparison.  They’re more like probes… they stick a toe into a place where we don’t know what we will find, they give us a little more insight into the situation.  But–and here is probably the critical part for the local government world– they aren’t intended to be permanent.

Robert Peary led the first team of explorers to reach the North Pole in 1909.  Think about

Robery Peary on ship
Mighta been cold there.

how you do an expedition like that.  You don’t send a team to the North Pole for the first time, but equip them to all stay there for 20 years.  The exploration team goes, they check out the environment and the landscape, they learn things, they come back, the next effort builds on that new knowledge.  In Peary’s case, the team actually built from a series of previous expeditions through the Arctic – earlier probes that, while incomplete in themselves, made the North Pole exploration possible.

Plus, come on, be practical: what would cost less, sending a few guys with sled dogs to the North Pole, or establishing a North Pole Program, setting them up to live in an unknown and dangerous environment for 20 years?   And as crazy risky as arctic exploration 100 years ago was, those risks were nothing compared to what they would have encountered if they tried to set up a city with what little they knew about the place.  Imagine all the things that could have gone wrong.  By comparison, going there and then turning around and coming back would have looked relatively easy.

Peary’s expedition to the North Pole was a probe.  It was a Little Bet.

__

A Little Bet strategy differs subtly but substantially from what we usually do, whether within a government or through a non-profit community partner.

We tend to try to build our programs full grown from day 1…staff, offices, missions, strategic plans, whole ball of wax.  And that means two things.

First, we sink costs into the new thing that makes it Permanent.  And Permanence creates both a barrier to starting (“Another program?”) and a barrier to changing (“But we don’t do that…”).

Second, we overestimate what we know and our ability to predict the future.  That’s human nature.  We got away with it when economies were more predictable and life seemed simpler- or at least, when we could let ourselves think that way.  But when we think we know what the future looks like, we invest more time, and people, and emotion, and money, into the thing we build.  And when something doesn’t work quite like we thought, we’re stuck.

Try to unpack and reload a warehouse, and then do the same with a dog sled.  You’ll see what I mean.

Here’s my perception, based on the blurry picture I can see today:

We would all be better off if every government, every nonprofit, every funder, put a tiny share of its budget–my first guess, less than 5 percent, or maybe no more than you spend on copy paper–and put that each year toward one carefully chosen Little Bet.  Treat it as an exploration–a probe into some space that you realize you don’t fully understand.  Don’t just throw it at a researcher…use it to try something out.  Make a bet.

Realize, and communicate to everyone over and over, that this is different from starting a new program.  And it won’t do everything everyone wants.  But we can’t count on someone else to give us an easy answer.

So we’re going to send out a probe.

This is the most important part–and it’s the piece that will require the deepest change from how we usually work (God knows we’ve all been stuck with Pilot Projects before):

1.  The results of the Little Bet have to undergo a clear-eyed evaluation.  What worked, what didn’t work, what did we learn.  And most importantly, What Do We Still Not Know. In the economic development strategic planning training that I did recently, I pushed hard at the fact that no one wants to be evaluated.  But we know why we have to.  So we have to put on our big kid pants and just do it.  No one said no.

 

2.  The results have to be shared…with your community, yes.  But also with your neighbor communities, your region, other places that grapple with the same issues that you do.

That’s not just being nice, that’s selfish self-interest.  You will never, ever put together enough copy paper budget to do all the Little Bets your community needs.  So you’re going to have to get serious about sharing your results, so that others share with you too, so that you don’t have to do them all yourself.  Scientists build their experiments based on the findings of others, and they share their information transparently.

Our methods in the local government world may be too disjointed, too catch-as-catch-can at this point to do that research-sharing as well as the scientists do. Which probably helps explain why what they know has changed faster than what we do.  We may need better systems for sharing our Little Bets.  But we can at least start with the organizations we have.

The key, though, will be to differentiate clearly between the Little Bets and the Our Successful Programs…and especially between them and the Look How Great We Are In My Town stories.  Both of those can be useful, but not in the same way the experimental notes from Little Bets would be.

 

3.  Change.  Expect change.  Assume change.

We have a hell of a time killing programs because someone has a deep stake in it.  Someone has benefited from it, invested in it, cares about it…has come to rely on it.  Little Bets have to be presented and understood from Day 1 as a learning tool, as a probe.  From whatever works, from whatever we learn from it, something will grow from it. But this is not a Program.  It’s a probe.  It’s not permanent.

My friend Chuck Marohn has written about Little Bets strategies in urban planning, part of an emerging trend that we sometimes call Tactical Urbanism.  But the level of uncertainty that we have to face goes far deeper than transportation and roadways…it challenges the fundamental underpinnings of how we structure our communities (economics, after all, being no more than the system for exchanging goods and services among humans).

At this point in our economic, planning and local government history, we’re 500 miles from the North Pole, and we have to be honest and admit that we have absolutely no idea what to expect. But we know that we have to go there, and do it in a way that helps us learn.

No one else is going to hand us a map.  All we can do is load up our dog sleds.  And learn from each other.

 

 

 

Old White Guys and Sales Paradigms

Matthew Tuerk (@matthewtuerk) tweeted at 10:15 PM on Wed, Mar 13, 2013:
old, white guys http://t.co/8DpPe4nclQ #econdevREV #mansplaining

Economic development as an industry has known about its “old white guy” problem for a long time. I may be wrong, but I would guess that some of the IEDC course materials have even codified the reality that death and retirement are the economic developer’s best friends (well-stated by an old, white guy here)….

Other, non-economic development initiatives seem to have a better grasp on building open communities. They haven’t totally figured it out yet, but they seem to grasp a fundamental principal of bottom-up….Let the old, white guys focus on recruiting on the golf course.

Matt is one of my favorite new voices in economic development.  He’s leading economic development, coworking and makerspace initatives in Allentown and the Lehigh Valley in Pennsylvania, and he’s launched a blog based on the Twitter hashtag he coined, #econdevRev.  I love the fact that he’s concise and not afraid to speak his mind.

In the rest of the entry I quoted above, Matt discusses some tactics for getting women more engaged in tech development, but I got the impression that there was more embedded in the portion that I have quoted than he fully unpacks.  And while I think the gender issues in both economic development and tech are things we need to talk about, there’s something deeper in his “old white guy” shorthand that I think we need to pull out into the light.   In this case, “old white guys” includes more than a few young white guys, a few older non-white guys, and some women both younger and older.  There’s also quite a few people in economic development and related professions who fit the old white guy demographic, but whose thinking and professional work indicate that they are about something else.

What I think Matt is getting at here is a paradigm — a set of largely unexamined assumptions about what we do and why we are doing it.  For many of us and our communities, the “Old White Guy” paradigm has become outdated and increasingly risks damaging our communities… and making our work irrelevant.

 

The problem comes down to this: The Old White Guy paradigm assumes that economic development is primarily about sales and marketing.  The skill sets for selling a community are, in essence, the same skill sets as selling television sets or cars: strategic information sharing, communication, persuasion, getting people to like you, persistence, closing the sale.  That is the nature of a sales job.  I have sold professional services for 20 years.  I get that.

But we have three problems with this paradigm today.  Economic development professionals who stick to this paradigm will make themselves increasingly irrelevant professionally, and hobble their communities in the process.

The first problem is that the nature of sales and related professions themselves is changing, and changing swiftly and profoundly.  If you don’t believe me, go hang out with some marketing or advertising people for a while (being in a national center of consumer marketing in Cincinnati, I get to be a fly on the wall for these conversations fairly regularly.  But a few issues of Fast Company will give you a taste).  The marketing and advertising professions are going through gut-wrenching changes — not just because of the shift in media consumption, but because of upheavals in popular expectations about how companies and brands and products should behave — how they should relate to customers and consumers.  Marketing gurus now insist that you have to have a dialogue instead of just talking at them, you have to engage them, be authentic…the basic ideas seem to be mostly in place, but advertising and sales people are still trying to figure out how to make it work. Read the industry coverage of the ads on the last Superbowl and you’ll see what I mean.

The second problem with the old sales model is that the nature of the businesses you’re talking to has changed.  To an ever-growing extent, they have more sophisticated expectations than they did 30 years ago.  They are more likely to look for detailed data, ask probing questions, look at issues like your community’s political stability.

And as economic development leadership has gotten better in the past decade at recognizing the importance of business retention and homegrown entrepreneurship, at least in theory, that traditional sales model becomes increasingly irrelevant.  Try to sell a used car to the person who used to own it, and you’ll see what I mean.

The third issue is that the nature of our responsibility is changing.  We as a profession and we as communities are finally starting to understand that it’s all connected–that our communities are interdependent ecosystems, not a thing with separate parts.  Housing and parks and community organizations and fiscal structures are all part of economic development–sometimes we call that by the overused term “Quality of Life.” When I taught a professional economic development course a couple of weeks ago and asked the students what they were responsible for in their communities, more than one said “quality of life” – an answer I would have never heard 10 years ago.  Quality of life is shorthand for “the stuff that we used to let the planners and park guys and whoever deal with, but now it’s what the businesses are asking us about.”

You cannot sell your way to quality of life…and you cannot put a sharp marketing effort on a place that doesn’t offer what people are looking for when they can go to citydata.com and see the truth about you education rate, or go on Google maps and see how shabby your parks really are.

___

That used car reference in the second point probably tells more about me than I intended.  As I have written about before, my father was a casualty of the early 1980s recession, which I think marks the beginning of the economy that we live in today.  My father loved cars, and was devoted to both Chrysler and the local dealership franchise that sold Chrysler products.  So when he was offered a job selling used cars for that dealer, it looked like a dream come true.

He sucked at it.  In the days before Car fax and blue book prices on line, used car selling was closer to horse trading than what we have today.  Selling late 1970s and early 80s K cars meant putting a lot of lipstick on pigs, and a lot of haggling over prices.  I was pretty young, and he died many years ago, so I don’t know all the details.  But my theory is that he knew too much about what was under the hoods of these lemons, and as a reasonably upright guy, he couldn’t fully commit to what he had to do to sell them to rubes.

 

Many years later I bought Saturn (I think there is a rule against Chrysler families inbreeding). That was, of course, the first car brand to set its prices without haggling, so the sales process was more about educating the buyer and less about that dance.  Saturn put its salespeople in polos and khakis (groundbreaking in itself in the early 1990s), hired younger people and women, equipped them with detailed information on each model, purposely took a low key approach and basically turned your usual assumptions about buying a car on its head. Set pricing and polo shirts and the like are standard parts of the car buying process now, but if you remember the early days of Saturn, their approach was groundbreaking.

I bought my last Saturn in 2007, in the second to last year before GM shuttered the brand (I’m still driving it).  By that point, my dad had been dead for five years. And I one of those weird moments that hits you out of nowhere when you have lost someone, I choked up in the middle of filling out the paperwork.

The thought that flattened me out of the blue:

Dad would have been a hell of a good Saturn salesman.

____
The Saturn model of sales is hardly innovative anymore.  But it was a precursor to the issues of transparency and informed customers and demand for a relationship model that all of the sales-related professions are wrestling with today.

We in economic development, or anything that touches on economic development, cannot pretend this is the 1970s anymore…or think we can get away with blithely ignoring the disconnect between our daily work and assumptions and the world around us.

If we don’t disrupt ourselves, someone else will….and chances are, it won’t be someone who thinks like the stereotypical old white man.

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.