Come see us! Why This Work Matters hits the road

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Have fun!

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

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

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

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

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

Fall 2014 Speaking/Running Around Update

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


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


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


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


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

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


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


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



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.

Mini-Audiobooks available at Local Economy Revolution

Just wanted to make sure that you knew that I’ve been recording mini-audiobooks of selections from The Local Economy Revolution: What’s Changed and How You Can Help.  There’s close to an hour’s worth of content so far, including selections from each of the sections of the book.  If you are thinking about checking the book out, this might be an easy way to give it a try.

Take a listen and let me know what you think.

I try to record a new selection weekly, so you might want to bookmark it or download the Soundcloud app for easy access to this (and a ton of other good stuff).   Eventually there may be a full audiobook available.

Leverage Your Community: Interview on public engagement & economic development on Regional Business Talk

Regional Business Talk just posted an interview that I did with Ed Burghard of Strengthening Brand America a few weeks ago — you can read the summary and listen to or download the interview here.

As the wunderkinds behind the site wrote,

Ed and Della also discuss the importance of creating meaningful public engagement to support economic development strategies.  Della is not a fan of traditional public meetings and offers her thoughts on a more effective and efficient way to engage your community.

This interview provides you with a practical understanding of how to leverage the thinking and support of your community to achieve sustainable economic prosperity.

Interestingly, this was the second interview I’ve done focusing on the why and how of doing better, more meaningful  — and less destructive — public engagement around economic development(the first one was with my friends at Podcatalyst).  It’s a topic that I haven’t heard many people  in the economic development  world talk about, but people are clearly starting to realize how important that is.

I’m currently in the early stages of an upcoming Wise Fool Press publication that will give some specific tools for doing that, and I’m doing my second and third runs on a training about that topic this spring.  More as we get it done!


Notes from the floor: using a Triple Bottom Line sustainability perspective in economic development.

Back in October, I moderated a session for the International Economic Development Council’s annual meeting that focused on a subject that is so new to economic development that… we needed five people to talk about it.  I joked that I was going to need to bring my whip and hob-nailed boots to keep them all in line, but they all behaved well. ‘ Course, it was 7:30 AM when we started, so maybe they were just still sleepy…

The session focused on the challenges and opportunities facing communities that decide to pursue a sustainable approach to economic development.  For this session, we actually defined “sustainable” more broadly than just using green energy, or recyclable materials or anything like that.  Each of the panelists was using a full-blown Triple Bottom Line approach to drive their economic development work.  For those of you for whom this is a new topic, a Triple Bottom Line approach means that they are trying to balance economic, environmental and community concerns — for example, designing programs that are at the same time profitable, environmentally sensitive and beneficial to the residents of a community, especially those who have tended to be cut out in the past.    Sounds like an impossible quest, I know.  But as each of these panelists so well articulated, it’s a matter of maintaining consciousness of the interplay of these issues, and doing the best you can in a given situation, rather than giving up if you can’t do it all perfectly.

You can hear a full audio of the session at the bottom of this page or at  Since it’s a conference session, it runs well over an hour, but I think it’s definitely worth a listen.  Insightful and illuminating stuff.  But if you don’t have time to listen, I wrote out a summary version that I’ll paste in below.

I’m hoping to continue this conversation at future economic development events, with both these speakers and with the dozens of others who could have also been on that stage.  There’s good stuff out there — I think the main challenge right now is raising our understanding of what really is possible.  Enjoy!



As I told the audience at the beginning of the session, the question of how to do economic development sustainably is a new one for this profession, at least for this organization.  Although many of us have dealt with LEED building criteria or been charged with improving urban employment or had to find answers to site selectors’ questions about the sources of water or electricity provided to a site, the economic development profession as a whole has only begun to deeply grapple with what it means to do economic development sustainably.


And as the panel’s participants noted, “sustainable” does not mean just energy efficient or constructed out of renewables. Around the world, “sustainable” development has been understood in terms of its impact on three major elements–the economy, the environment, and the communities of people impacted (often referred to as the “Triple Bottom Line“).  Honored sometimes more in the breach than the doing, a truly sustainable effort asks for the best possible balance between these three, sometimes opposing, forces.  So this was the challenge facing both our panelists and our audience.


Here’s some highlights of the discussion:

  • Several of the speakers talked about sustainability and the Triple Bottom Line as a lens or filter–a shift in perspective that allowed viewers to identify new ways of doing conventional tasks, changing the approach or the strategy just enough to generate a more sustainable result.


  • Andre Pettigrew, CEO of Clean Economy Solutions and former director Office of Economic Development,City and County of Denver, emphasized that sustainable growth isn’t just about “minimizing the footprint,” but about finding new opportunities through the new markets that the worldwide shift to sustainability creates– opportunities for economic growth and for new employment..


  • Cathy Polasky, Director of Director of Economic Policy and Development for the City of Minneapolis, described the evolution in her own thinking and how her department and others have changed how they work as a result of a need to address sustainability. Starting out as “mortal enemies” fighting for a slice of the budget, Cathy’ s department learned to get their sustainability mandates inserted into other departments’ work.  But as budgets shrank, it became increasingly evident that all of the City’s departments needed to work in concert if they were going to hit all of their targets, leveraging all their projects and initiatives to hit the full range of sustainability-related goals.  As a result, all of the City’s investments became informed by Triple Bottom Line priorities, creating what Cathy called “a pragmatic coalition” that incorporated a sustainability perspective.


  • Janet Hammer, Program Director of The Initiative on Triple Bottom Line Development at Portland State University, noted that economic development does not necessarily have to mean economic growth, and that the more important question has to do with creating jobs and prosperity that support individual and community well-being.  She noted the importance of looking for interconnections and ways to seek collaboration.  Janet also cited a survey of economic development professionals, in which a high proportion of respondents identified sustainability issues as highly important to their community. But the survey respondents also noted that they didn’t have any training on that topic, that they weren’t rewarded based on their impact on sustainability issues, and that, in many communities, sustainability didn’t seem to be anyone’s particular job.


  • Mark Newberg, Managing Director of Impact Investment Strategies at 5 Stone Green Capital, described his company’s “layered impact strategy” for evaluating opportunities to fold sustainability priorities into an investment.  As he noted, “this stuff had to make sense from an economic perspective,” but he went on to demonstrate that a shift in perspective, in time frame, or in understanding of the purpose of a project can open up new approaches that can enable more sustainable building, programming and financing.  He concluded that the key challenge was to set sustainability-relevant goals for a project and then find others with similar goals, underpinned by sound economics.


  • Karl Seidman, Senior Lecturer at MIT and director of MIT CoLab’s Green Economic Development Initiative, noted that recent research on sustainable economic development identified a three-point framework for shifting an economic development organization to more sustainable approaches.  According to Karl, the first step lies within the organization itself, with bringing a sustainable perspective into its mission and priorities, since these will drive what the organization is enabled to do.  The second step requires incorporating sustainability properties into existing work, adjusting day to day operations (for example, strengthening the sustainability impact of new business recruitment by proactively sharing information about sustainable building methods and suppliers).  The third step, then, is to look beyond the economic development organization and identify broader policy and system changes needed to meet sustainability priorities more effectively–an important but particularly hard challenge for economic development organizations because they are so used to working on transactions.

I started the discussion part of the session with two basic questions.  In the first, I noted the less-than-enthusiastic reaction that one economic development professional had given me the previous night when he noted the speaker ribbon on my name tag and asked what I was going to be talking about.  How, I asked the panelists, do you get past the first reactions to the word “sustainability,” which can either mean nothing in particular, or get attached to a simplistic political agenda?


  • Mark noted that businesses often seek goals that are consistent with “sustainability,” but for reasons that have to do with their own operations, rather than an abstract environmental benefit.  Mark told the story of the development of concentrated laundry detergent: the driver for this evolution was large retailers’ desire to get more sales units out of the same unit of transportation.  By lessening the amount of water being shipped, each shipment generated more profit per truckload — and as a side effect, the manufacture of the detergent was redesigned to consume less water.


  • Cathy explained that they typically talk not in terms of sustaintability, but in terms of resilience – the ability of a business or a community to be able to withstand shocks.  Lessening energy usage in a building, she noted, makes the business less at risk of falling into financial trouble if energy prices increase.  Andre reinforced this concept by noting that discussions of sustainability get stymied when people think that they must include a particular energy source, such as solar, or else they cannot to anything to be “sustainable.”  In reality, the more important question that efforts to improve sustainability address revolve around lessening risk of negative impacts and strengthening odds for survival.


  • Janet noted that sustainable approaches are arguably more conservative, in that they tend to have the side effect of lessening risk and increasing efficiency


  • Karl also noted the potential for sustainable development to increase a business or community’s economic resilence – by lessening the amount of money that has to be spent to purchase energy, one can actually increase resilience and competitiveness by making more of the business’s funds available for other uses.


The second question I asked had to do with economic development’s tendency to emphasize the big projects. I asked the panel how a sustainability perspective influenced or impacted mega-projects.  Mark gave a straightforward piece of advice: “Look at the supply chain.”  He asserted that an asset management approach to evaluating a project often helped uncover opportunities for savings that might be overlooked otherwise.  He noted recurring line item costs, such as supplies or maintenance as a particular potential.  He noted that one can seldom attain optimal sustainability on everything, but that evaluating supply chain and recurring costs can indicate some otherwise overlooked opportunities.


The first audience question addressed one community’s struggles to address the human element of the triple bottom line ideal.  He noted that in his community, discussions about equity frequently devolved into an assumption that it was all about race, although he noted that the social aspect of sustainability actually extends to the whole community.  Andre noted the importance of resilence again — that communities need to be able to effectively leverage their whole resource set, which includes the full range of its people.


Another audience member asked about metrics, and the challenge of demonstrating the value of economic development efforts to elected officials and other stakeholders.  Mark said that different investors or supporters will need different metrics, and that it was important to work within the metrics that they were looking for and find ways to demonstrate additional benefits through the use of more sustainable choices.  From his perspective, the appropriate approach was to work within the existing expectations to show meaningful improvement.  Andre added that public discussions about sustainability have an unfortuate tendency to fall into a “jobs trap.”  Like other types of new industries and advanced manufacturing, sustainability initiatives in themselves are unlikely to generate massive numbers of new jobs in themselves, and sustainability policies that were sold as a one-shot solution to job creation were  likely to result in a failure.  Andre noted that “we need to modulate what we’re going to expect” and that equal parts of the challenge are to grow the supply of sustainable resources and to grow the demand for these products and services.


A particularly interesting question for me came from an audience member who asked where the panelists thought the IEDC’s new Sustainability Committee should  place its priorities (two of the panelists and myself sit on that committee).  Janet said that the greatest need was to forge partnerships – to connect the economic development profession more strongly to the full range of others who are trying to address sustainability issues.  Karl noted that the Urban Sustainability Directors Network was currently working on a database of sustainable economic development tools, and expressed some concern that this initiative and that one may not be connected deeply enough.

The final question that I could take during the time we had available had to do with drawing attention to sustainability initiatives.  Cathy noted that her city and others have had some success with competitions that provided a small award for energy efficiency, and Mark said that a region’s property assessment organization may be able to help quantify the benefits.  Mark also noted that a common low hanging fruit in sustainability was to use energy usage disclosure and benchmarking to encourage property managers to seek efficiency improvements.


In wrapping up the session, I noted that this session was the beginning of what I hope will be an ongoing conversation within economic development.  I also expressed my opinion that the economic development community may have a unique ability to serve as a convener around this topic, helping to bridge the gaps between the full range of partners we will need to draw on to enable sustainable economic development.



We Need Better Public Engagement in Economic Development, here’s why and how (Podcatalyst)

The good folks at Podcatalyst asked me back recently to do a second interview with them.  This time, host Clay Banks wanted to focus on one element that gets a fair amount of attention in The Local Economy Revolution: why making our local economies work better requires real, meaningful, and broad public participation, and how to do that.

As I’ve noted elsewhere, people who are trying to improve a local economy often tend to rely too much on a small group of insiders — whether staff or business leaders of some stripe.  But in an economy that is changing so quickly, what worked in the past probably has little in common with what we need for the future.  We’ve found over and over again that “Crowdsourcing Solutions,” as I call it in the book, is probably the best single strategy we have available to develop a real understanding of our challenges — and our resources.  That doesn’t mean, though, that we should just throw open the doors and let anyone say anything (that would be Crowdsourcing A Mess, not Crowdsourcing Solutions).

At any rate, you can listen here to the conversation on “Crowd Sourcing Wisdom From People Outside Your Box”  And don’t miss the great resources that Clay listed at the bottom of the page.

Miles to go before I sleep: Events & appearances this week (Oct. 23-26)

Having just come through a presentation and great discussions at the International Association of Public Participation (IAP2) North American conference in Salt Lake City, and then a moderated session and lots of great discussions at the International Economic Development Council Annual Conference in Philadelphia…

you’d think it might be a good idea to stay near home for a while.  And my landscaping and half-empty freezer would agree with you, not to mention the other humans in the house:

(“What do you mean you can’t pick me up this afternoon?”  “Um, I’m in Utah, for one thing…”)

However, that’s not gonna happen.  Next week I’ll be roaming all over, switching hats on the fly and burning up my tires as I go.  Here’s the itinerary:

  • Wednesday and Thursday morning (October 23 and 24), I’ll be at the Initiative for a Competitive Inner City Economic Summit in my role as Managing Editor of Engaging Cities.  My plan is to record interviews and conversations with as many interesting people as I can during the time I’m there. If you see anyone on the agenda that you’re particularly interested in hearing from, let me know and I’ll work on it I’ll cross post what I learn both here and at EngagingCities.



  • Friday night, I’ll be heading from Columbus to Middlesborough, Kentucky to participate in their inaugural Better Block Boro event on Saturday, October 26.  I’m not exactly sure what I’m getting into, but it promises to be a combination street fair, unconference, urban hack, and DIY urbanism event — all in a (formerly) quiet Appalachian town.  I’ll be leading a pop up talk/discussion around the learnings from my new book, The Local Economy Revolution:What’s Changed and How You Can Help, signing booksdesk, and nosing around and recording as much of the other stuff going on as I can.

Then I come back and try to remember where my office is!

desk by window
The desk at The Clearing in Wisconsin where I wrote The Local Economy Revolution. If I end up here, I’m in big, big trouble.

Best Practice, Emerging Trends in online public engagement

Note: a version of this article is also running at EngagingCities.  Just so’s you know.

About two weeks ago I spoke on a panel with Chris Haller of Urban Interactive Studio and Tim Bonneman of Intelletics at the International Association of Public Participation’s North American conference.  Tim had organized the session as a conversation around the topic of “Navigating the Online Public Engagement Space,” with the intent to explore the issuess and challenges facing communities and organizations who are trying to figure out how to use online public engagement in their work, and navigate the dozens of potential ways to do that.

This was a fantastic opportunity for me personally to think big with two guys who are among the leaders in the U.S on this topic.  Even though I work with Chris in his role as founder and publisher of EngagingCities, as well as on client projects, it’s great to get some space to talk about the big issues.  And the experience was made all the better by Tim’s session leadership and the involvement of our colleagues from communities and tech providers across the continent.
Since I’m not a programmer or a tool-maker, my role was to frame up the big issues and the big trends– the stuff that I get to see by virtue of my role with EngagingCities and with my other consulting and publishing firm, the Wise Economy Workshop.

So I set my own comments within the two perspectives of my professional life: as a user of several online public engagement tools through my consulting work, and as an observer of the field through Engaging Cities. And I thought it might be useful to share those big issues with you.

Here’s what I told them from underneath my consulting hat:

1) The most important thing you can probably do is make sure that you have matched the tool you choose to your  objectives.  One of the most consistent errors I have seen is people selecting an app or platform because they like how it looks, or it seems cool or exciting, or another town use it for their project and loved it.  But it is not a one size fits all, or even an easy off-the-rack kind of situation.

The project or initiative leadership needs to ask a lot of questions and dig deeply.  Are we trying to do something ongoing or project specific? Are we talking to the general public or a more targeted subset? Are we seeking feedback or something more engaged?  The broader it the scope of the work, the harder it is to get it right.  And while three years ago, you may have had few practical choices, that’s not the case today.  There are dozens of great tools out there, designed for different purposes and audiences, but not all of them have the same level of visibility or marketing reach. The best-known one might, or might not, be the best choice for your specific needs.  And chances are that a long or complex initiative may need more than one approach.  Chris noted how often he sees communities looking for “uber-tools,” and we all agreed that no tool can pull that off.
2) One issue that we often overlook in that process of figuring out our online public engagement is fitting our tools to our capacity.  Online public engagement often looks appealing to a local government or organization because we don’t have to have our staff spend time printing boards and staffing evening meetings.  But online public engagement also requires staff capacity, just a different kind.  And often communities don’t account for that in the process of deciding what tools to use.
Here’s an example: I recently managed an online public engagement process that used one of the most well- known ideation tools in the US public sector today.  This platform is very well developed, and one of the most powerful things it does is enable project staff to respond to ideas generated by the public.  The power in this is the fact that the responses help people know that the agency is listening and actually pays attention to what’s going on with the site.  Without that response, it’s hard for people to know whether the feedback they’re taking the time to share is actually getting anyone’s attention or not.   This client, which wanted to use the platform because of its reputation, didn’t have the political willpower or the staff capacity to respond…and as the consultant, I didn’t have enough information to do it for them.  So this critical element of the platform went unused, they received a dwindling amount of public participation as the project progressed, and the silence became noticeable.

3) Channel, channel channel.  I harp on this in all public engagement, whether online or in person.  A wide open platform does no one any good.  Good teachers manage their students’ ability to meet their objectives through how they structure the learning process.  They don’t just throw it open and let whatever happens happen.

A public engagement process that doesn’t leverage social media and provide some opportunity somewhere for open public comments will probably garner complaints, but feedback through wide open channels is more likely to be an antagonistic, stress-level-jacking waste of time than anything else.  If we want people to give us feedback that has value, that helps us figure our what to do and what not to do, we need to take a page from those teachers, and structure the feedback activities and channels so that people participate with us, not just throw up random responses that may or may not have anything to do with what we all need to figure out.
4) Wherever possible, crowdsource wisdom, not just opinions.  Give them something meaningful to chew on.  People don’t want to be just asked their opinion.  They–at least a sizeable number of the they’s — want to be part of the solution.  So take a page from crowdsourcing:  enable them to contribute to solving the problem.

In my role as EngagingCities’ Editor, I focus on the leading edge of interface between technology and public engagement.  We try to bring our readers the information, trends, new ideas that they might not find otherwise.  As a result, I read a lot of pretty obscure blogs–and learn a lot about online engagement trends across the world, including many that I would have never encountered otherwise.

Here’s what I see as the strongest emerging trends at this moment–I’d be very interested in whether you see the same, or if you’re perceiving something else.

1) Visual interfaces. as the technology matures, I find the growth of interfaces and interaction methods that rely on maps, photos and graphics fascinating.  They’re being used more and more to not only improve people’s grasp of the information, but also to give them new methods of participating.  I’m a verbally-oriented person myself, but I know enough to know that I am the minority.  Most people do not want to read a paragraph, let alone write one to get their opinion across, but historically that’s what we have defaulted to.  Accommodating other types of communication, both for people who can’t write and those who just don’t want to, is critical to broadening engagement.  The fact that Pinterest and Tumblr are the two fastest growing social media sites tells us a lot.

2) It’s a multi-platform world.  I swap between my phone and tablet and computer without thinking about it, including flipping over to one when the other is running slow.  If that’s the case for an old lady like me who still has a computer, how much more is that the case for the increasing number of people who have learned to default to their mobile–or who, among less privileged populations, do most or all of their internet access through mobile? We provide interpreters for public meetings, but a community that decides to use only web-based methods is excluding a large subset of their population in exactly the same manner they are trying to avoid.  And typically the ones that they’re excluding are the young and disadvantaged.  An unintended but undesirable side effect.

3) We’re starting to move past using online for only idea-generating or feedback.  If you’re thinking about developing an app, I would say, don’t do something that looks like a survey or a “hey! Tell us your great idea!!” thing.  I assure you, it’s been done and done over again.  But we are starting to see platforms that actually enable discussion, consensus-building, meaningful evaluation of alternatives, deliberation, decision making.  The higher order tasks that we truly need if we are going to, as I’ve been pushing for all over, crowdsource wisdom.   We’re starting to see some interesting tools that take people through the impacts of different choices, and we’re stating to see the development of platforms that actually lead people through a deliberate process, much like a professional facilitator would.

4) Open data is moving swiftly from a “gee whiz, look what we can do!” to a transformative tool that’s starting to live up to its long-vaunted potential.  I am all in favor of hackathons, especially if they pull people into thinking transformationally about the way communities work and how they can meet their new and articles challenges.  But hackathons alone won’t develop the deep fixes that we need.  They’re just a first step.  But we’re starting to see more and more that people who have gotten a taste of how open data can help connect people more meaningfully to their communities, and that’s yoking a much-needed new set of skills and, more importantly, perspective, to the challenges that face us.

Thanks again to Tim, Chris, and the other participants for what I hope will be the beginning of an ongoing conversation.  If you want to hear the whole session, you can listen to or download the audio here. (warning: it’s a conference session, so it runs over an hour).
You can also check out the Hackpad notes developed during the session, and add to the conversation yourself, at

For the People Who Give A Damn: Della gets interviewed by PodCatalyst

I had such a great interview the other day with Clay Banks, one of the brains behind the great economic development podcast Podcatalyst….and discovered to a little bit of shock when they posted the interview that he had pulled the title from a line in the introduction of The Local Economy Revolution: What’s Changed and How You Can Help.

In the introduction, I say that the book is for community professionals, elected officials and the broad variety of “people who give a damn” about their communities.

My mother would not be happy, but ya know, I think it fits….

Podcatalyst does a great job of sharing interesting conversations with people who are doing ground-breaking economic development stuff all over the country.  We’re looking at developing a partnership with Podcatalyst to cross-post content (they have an Itunes feed, while we go with SoundCloud).    So I’d encourage you to check out my interview, but to also dig through their catalog.

So be sure to check out this interview, and the rest of Podcatalyst’s work.   And thanks so much to Chad, Trey and Victoria for the chance to chat!

It’s not an answer, it’s a conversation: EMSI and learning to use data for decisions (audio interview)

This interview with Rob Sentz of Economic Modelling Specialists Inc. (EMSI) introduces you to one of the most thoughtful and comprehensive data analysis platforms out there today, and it gives a great insight into why producing a Thing that grabs a lot of data — or grabbing data to try to plug into a fast decision —  isn’t enough.  Not if we actually intend to develop intelligent solutions to wicked community problems.

When I heard that EMSI was starting a fairly intensive training program for users of its subscription-based tool, I was a little surprised.  Even the earlier versions of the EMSI platfom that I have used in years past were, I thought, pretty easy to use, and I knew the new version, which I had seen but hadn’t played with, was even more user-friendly.  So why would this very established platform, with lots of long-term users, feel the need to get into the training business?

The answers, for me, were pretty interesting.  Here’s a few of the elements that I think are most informative:

  • EMSI wanted people to understand what they were doing.  They wanted users to not only grab data sets that looked relevant, but they wanted people to understand the background of the data they were using — what a source was designed for, what it includes, what it doesn’t include, what assumptions underlie that data set and how it might or might not be relevant to your situation.  Educated people, theoretically, know that data sources are only as good as the source, and than garbage in can equal garbage out.  But how often do you use online information, or get handed some kind of analysis, and have any clue whether you can actually trust the information to mean what you think it does?  And if you don’t know if you can trust it, do you take it on faith or do you slip it into the drawer and go back to deciding by the seat of your pants?


  • EMSI seems to understand that in pushing for this higher level of understanding, they are quietly fighting against one of the biggest challenges facing every analyst, analysis-user or data-provider:  We want that pile of information to directly tell us what to do.  Make it easy, on us, we secretly tell our computers.  Just give me an answer, hand me a Number, and let me get on with it.  But Rob articulates the challenge beautifully: real data analysis, the kind that allows us to make intelligent decisions, is not a magic pill.  There are few easy answers.  Meaningful data analysis requires, as he put it, a “conversation” with the data — a back-and forth process that takes us gradually through the layers and builds a mature understanding, not a simplistic assumption  — or a wild goose chase.


  • EMSI came to this understanding out of a very simple strategy: they listened to their customers.  As Rob says, ” Any time you create a technology, people will use it for stuff you haven’t planned on.”  So EMSI has remained in conversation with its users, too — and grown and changed along with them.  It wasn’t enough to just put a platform out there and update the information regularly.  The meaning, and the value, of what they provide to their subscribers, comes from this ongoing conversation, and their willingness to change in ways that build that relationship.  And that’s a different skill set than crunching data or building an app.

After all the time I’ve spent lately  talking with Pete Mallow about The Number and how we have to do economic analysis better, and all the time I spend here and at Engaging Cities looking at online civic tech, I particularly enjoyed this conversation with Rob.   You can learn more about EMSI and its tools, and read some great case studies, at  And if you decide to call them up, say hello for me.



You think you have tough public meetings? How about handling 10 languages? (Audio interview)

I did an interview in my role as Managing Editor for EngagingCities that I thought Wise Economy readers would also find interesting.  This half-hour discussion focuses on what an organization called CDF in Clarkston, Georgia is doing to build its residents’ ability to prioritize and addresses the community’s needs– and they’re doing it in a community that’s about as challenging as I can imagine.

You think it’s hard to have a productive public meeting in your town?  Imagine having a 42% foreign-born population, most of whom are refugees from civil wars, and running small group discussions among people who speak 10 different languages.  And then asking them to set priorities, designate representatives and figure out what to about them with a small but not insignificant pot of money. CDF’ s story will give you a good sense of what rising to a challenge like this takes.

I wrote a little more about this at Engaging Cities if you want a somewhat more detailed summary.  But stream or download from the link below to hear the story.  You won’t regret it.

Do you tell your region’s story? Agenda 360’s Story Project (Podcast)

We do this thing in economic development and community promotion sometimes, and it’s kind of stupid: we assume that “selling” our community’s benefits to people and business means that we have to dumb down everything that makes us unique into one cute logo and a catchy catch phrase.  In the process, we often end up with something inane — anice drawing and a sentence with “Liveworkplayeatsleep” stuck in the middle of it….or “the Present in the Future of Our Past,” or “We’re within 800 miles or 60% of the universe,” or something equally…

meaningless.  And I do mean “meaningless.”  Come on: how many of those things have you seen that actually made you think, “this place might be worth my attention?”  And yet we keep spending that money for those minimal, at best, results.  Probably because we have no clue what else to do.

The Agenda 360 initiative in Cincinnati did something very different last year, and something that I think will be much more beneficial to the region in the long term.  Instead of trying to mash everything you would ever want to say into one meaningless phrase, Agenda 360, in partnership with its Northern Kentucky partner Vision 2015 embarked on the Story Project: an initiative to uncover and articulate the themes, the characteristics, that make Cincinnati Cincinnati, and create a communications tool kit that enables everyone in the region, from small businesses to large corporations, local governments to nonprofits, to talk with their contacts about the region in a way that has meaning, real meaning.

It’s kind of the anti-marketing: it’s an articulate statement of the fundamental characteristics that make the place different from other places.  And it’s not a command-and-control marketing campaign; it’s a basis for networked, share movement, whether that’s a big corporation talking to potential relocating talent or community staff trying to think about context – sensitive design characteristics.

The Story Project is a powerful tool in the deepest sense: like an underground river, it’s feeding a multitude of marketing efforts and enabling them to work in concert.  It creates an alignment that none of the participants could have created on their own, and that might be more beneficial than any single marketing campaign could achieve.

Mary Stagaman, Executive Director of Agenda 360, gave this presentation at a local conference in February 2013 (I said September on the intro…my bad).  In this presentation, she gives a great overview of why the Story Project was undertaken, what they found and how they’ve been using the results.  It’s 40 minutes that you’ll be glad you spent.

Thanks again to Mary and Agenda 360.  Enjoy!



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.


Using Data for Sustainable Economic Development with GEDI/ MIT CoLab

We finally have the second podcast up in our mini-series on Sustainable Economic Development, produced in partnership with MIT’s Community Innovators Lab (CoLab).  This series features 14 professionals who participated in the 2012 Mel King Fellows program that helped to launch a new initiative called GEDI (Green Economic Development Initiative).

At the beginning of their fellowship, these mid-career professionals talked with CoLab staff about their ground-breaking work in communities across the country and their observations about the challenges of doing economic development in a manner that sustains a community’s environmental health and grows economic opportunity for residents.  The interviews weren’t recorded with the intention of sharing, but the Fellows’ observations were so rich that I jumped at the opportunity to help share them.

This podcast focuses on the use of data and analytics by several of the Fellows.  We hear about the challenges of measuring avoided loss  in New York, sorting out the information you need from the information you don’t need in Portland,  impacts of _not_ being able to measure impacts in multi-country initiatives, and the importance of reality testing in Massachsetts.

Upcoming podcasts in this series will focus on breaking down professional silos, what the Fellows are doing in their communities to build sustainable economic development, and what it all means for the future of the economic development, planning, environmental, social justice and other professions.  These are a little more complicated to produce than my usual podcasts, so stay tuned.  We’ll get the next one up as soon as we can.

GEDI Podcast #2: Data


APA 2013 — Sessions, events, awesome people…and maybe some blues. Or something.

Just a quick note for you planning types that I’ll be doing two sessions (read: I am an idiot) at the American Planning Association’s annual conference next week in Chicago.

On Saturday, April 13 at 4:00 PM, I’ll be talking about the future of web-based fiscal impact modelling with Doug Walker of Placeways, LLC and Chris Haller of Urban Interactive Studios.  We’ll be digging into two different web-based fiscal impact models, telling the truth about what worked — and what didn’t work — and thinking about what communities can do to capitalize on the explosion of analysis and communication power that these tools can bring to decision-making today.  Sound eggheaded?  Well, I hear that Chris has a guerilla app that’s launching this weekend, so you never know what will happen… especially if someone brings some bananas… what?

What’s a fiscal impact model?  You can read my explanation here, and a little information about one of the models here.  Per usual, I’ll post a podcast and annotated slides in the next week or two — after I find out what the heck these guys have to say.

On Monday, April 15, at 9:00 AM, I’ll be talking about building Small Business Ecosystems with Carolyn Dellutri of Downtown Evanston, Inc. and Taylor Stuckert of Energize Clinton County.  Taylor himself will be worth the price of admission, especially if some of his recent hard-earned luck can rub off on anyone else.  Not only is Energize Clinton County winning an APA National Planning Achievement Award for Innovation in Economic Development and Planning, and he was featured in Fast Company Magazine’s recent article on ” 7 People Under 30 Who Are Changing Our World,”   BUT…. he just successfully defended his thesis for his Master of Community Planning.  Like last week.  How freaking cool is that?

Does that Energize Clinton County thing sound familiar?  Well, it should…especially if you read or listen here very often.  Here’s a link to an awesome podcast that I did with Taylor and Chris Schock, his partner in crime at the county…awesome because of them and their story.  I mostly just held the recorder.  And Evanston?  In addition to having a completely kick butt downtown that Carolyn shepherds, it’s the home of my alma mater, where I’m proud to say they do it the right way.  If only the wedding ecosystem that Carolyn will describe existed back in the dark ages when we got out of school….  I’ll get audio and annotated slides posted for that one as well.

So, I’m gearing up for a busy, exhausting, exciting and energizing week of hanging out with the best and the brightest — these guys, and you.   If you’re going to be at  APA, send me a note at or on Twitter at @dellarucker.  I’m hoping to catch up with a lot of you and hear your stories about how you’re making great things happen where you live and work.  And I might have a notebook or a recorder in my pocket.

I’m even toying with an impromptu tour of NU’s campus or a night at the Kingston Mines.  You never know….


Do you show your residents how the sewer scope works? Welcome to Piqua’s Citizen Government Academy

It’s no secret by now that Piqua, Ohio, is one of my favorite examples of a little city that consistently figures out How To Get It Done – thanks in part to my friend Bill Lutz, who has shown up on these pages several times.  During a recent visit, (the same one where we talked about the amazing program-combining, commnity-determination-showing Fort Piqua Plaza), I had a chance to learn more about a relatively new program – and one that won’t win headlines, but I think is making a real difference in this community’s resilience and civic engagement.


The Citizen Government Academy takes those spend-a-day-with-your-friendly-local-public-servant activities and turns it into something transformative… for both the residents and the city.  Imagine how differently your residents might feel about the quality of your local government services if they got a chance to try some of your toughest jobs for themselves, like:

citizen and firefighter using fire extinguisher
Piqua Daily Call
  • Chasing an armed suspect (in a simulator),
  • Driving a snowplow through an obstacle course,
  • Mowing the park
  • Writing a grant so that it has a chance of being funded

You want your residents to understand why you needed that sewer repair truck with the camera that crawls through the pipes and shows you where the leaks are?  You want them to trust you the next time you need a big expenditure like that?  Easy… show them what it does and what return on investment the community is getting.  All the City Council briefings in the world will never have the power of just letting a few people who care look through that monitor.

The power of the Citizen Academy lies in something simple and obvious, but almost never used in the local government context: people learn by doing, not by hearing or reading.  If you want your residents to actually understand the value of your services, and understand it in a way that emboldens them to help support good government, show them.  Show them what you do and how you do it.

Nuff said.  Go listen to Bill.  It’s 18 minutes you will be glad you heard… even if you don’t get to drive the snow plow.


Introducing MIT CoLab’s Economic Development Innovators

I’m delighted today to launch a new podcast mini-series with MIT CoLab’s GEDI (Green Economic Development Initiative).  In 2012, CoLab hosted 14 Mel King Community Fellows, mid-career professionals from across the country who are doing ground-breaking work at the intersection of economic development, environmental sustainability, and social justice.  These folks work in the largest cities and the most rural regions, for shoestring nonprofits and massive governments, private sector, education… you name it.

CoLab Logo

Each in his or her own way is finding opportunities to finally put into practice that triple-bottom-line idea that planners and economic developers and community advocates have been talking about for a generation…and they are doing it in ways that are practiceable, replicable and moving the needle in a meaningful manner.

At the beginning of 2012, the Fellows met with staff of GEDI, who recorded one-on-one interviews with each of the participants, talking about their work, their challenges, the opportunities they foresee and how  the practices of economic development, environmental management and social justice can grow together to provide real benefits for communities.

I have spent hours listening to the raw audio of these interviews, and I will tell you that you can’t hear these folks without having a whole new perspective on what’s possible.

In this series introduction, you’ll get some background on the GEDI initiative and get introduced to some of the 2012 Mel King Fellows.  Upcoming installments will focus on issues like

  • How the Fellows are using unusual data sources to measure and demonstrate their impact, 
  • How the Fellows bridge gaps and break down silos between different kinds of professionals and interest groups, and
  • What the Fellows see as the future of sustainable economic development.

The podcast series is hosted by CoLab Radio.  The link below will take you directly to the Soundcloud upload of the series introduction, where you can listen or download it to listen to later.

I’m so grateful to Brendan MacEwen, Dayna Cunningham, Dr. Karl Seidman, and most importantly the 2012 Mel King Fellows for the opportunity to learn about and share their experiences.  Stay tuned!

CoLab GEDI Fellows Introduction with Wise Economy Workshop


The impossible got done: restoring the Fort Piqua Hotel

When you work in community revitalization, you find yourself telling  a few stories over and over again, because they so beatifully sum up the possibilities that struggling communities can’t always see in front of them.  This podcast tells one of the stories that I have been using for years: the revitalization of the Fort Piqua Hotel in Piqua, Ohio.

It’s hard to demonstrate in pictures the outsized impact that this building has on the city of Piqua — both during its decades of vacancy, and in its restored state today.  For a smallish rural city, this sucker is massive — four stories of Richardsoniam Romanesque stone massiveness covering most of a city block.  Drive into town, and you see this thing miles before anything else downtown comes into view.  It literally dominates the landscape.  Imagine how it must have dominated the community’s self-perception during the years upon years that it sat vacant.

Since this building is so ostentatiously out of scale with not just the physical, but the economic landscape of a small city, finding a feasible mix of uses for it presented almost as stiff a challenge as finding the money in a small town to pay for it.  As the Fort Piqua story demonstrates so well, mixing uses (and funding streams) results in a more sustainable development, but it also requires a very steady hand in terms of managing all those moving parts.  As you will hear, working multiple funding streams also means working multiple funders — funders whose rules, expectations and plain old bureaucracy can undermine all but the most tenacious, persistent and savvy communities.

There’s a lot of awesome elements to this story — from the often-overlooked and potentially lucrative demand for banquet hall space in small communities (amazing how often that’s a niche that old buildings can fill profitably)  to the years-long determination of those who fought to make this happen, often in the face of people pointing to the long string of attempts that had failed before.  For me, perhaps the most amazing part of the story — and the part I didn’t know before this conversation — was the way that the community stepped up at the moment of need to fill the final gap and make this revitalization happen.  Piqua is a sort of mini-Rust Belt town — not a place where people or businesses have a lot of cash to spare.  But dozens of people put their own money into making this revitalization happen — not because it was some kind of venture capital bet, but because their community needed it.  And because they believed.

The great part of community revitalization consulting is when you get to touch the hem of communities like this — when you have the awesome priviledge of witnessing the power of people to make great things happen.  Sometimes it makes the rest of the trudge worthwhile.

Thanks to my friend Bill Lutz for sharing this story, and thanks to Piqua for giving us all a new reason to believe that revitalization is possible.  Enjoy!

Podcast: Owning Your Economy with APA award-winning Clinton County

I’ve been looking forward to doing and sharing this interview since back before I started podcasting – and the timing couldn’t be better, because this community just won the American Planning Association’s National Planning Achievement Award for Innovation in Economic Planning and Development!

I haven’t had a front –row seat for Clinton County, Ohio’s struggles and comeback over the past few years, but most of the time I’ve been watching from the wings beside clients and friends.  When international freight carrier DHL decided to end domestic US operations in 2008, more than 9,000 people in Clinton and surrounding counties lost their jobs – and the impact could only be termed a disaster.  With few other immediate economic options and very few other large employers within driving distance, Clinton and its county seat, Wilmington, turned into a poster child for the Great Recession.

But after the parade of celebrities (ranging from Glen Beck to Rachel Ray) and the national media go home, how does a community pull itself together and figure out how to move on?  And how do you protect your community from facing a blow like that ever again?

In this interview, Chris Schock and Taylor Stuckert tell the story of how their organizations are helping Clinton County address that question.  By focusing on a five-part strategy designed to keep spending local and grow local business sales and expertise,  their two organizations – the Clinton County Regional Planning Commission and the nonprofit Energize Clinton County – are changing the county, and (as Chris will describe), demonstrating measurable success.   And they’re changing it in ways that will have incredible long-term impacts – on money, and on the people who live there.

Here’s a couple of the great things that the Clinton County folks have done:

  • Redefined “Buy Local” to an intelligent system of being conscious about your purchasing choices — and supporting tiers of Local, not just giving up when what you need isn’t in your ZIP code.
  • Empowered businesses to work as an ecosystem through internet tools and old-fashioned network-building.
  • Came up with a meaningful way to encourage young professionals to return to a rural community by directly embedding them in businesses that need their skills and expertise.
  • Redefined energy choices and energy efficiency as a local economy issue — about getting better mileage from the community’s limited dollars
  • As Taylor says, the biggest impact may fall on the psyche: a growing belief that local residents have ownership of their local economy again.

These guys couldn’t be more poster children for a Wise Economy if they tried.

If you care about places and you want to see what meaningful community revitalization looks like, pour a cup of coffee and sit back for a great conversation.  Let me know what you think, and if you know of other stories like this, I’d love it if you’d send em my way.  Thanks.

Interview with Chris Schock and Taylor Stuckert, Energize Clinton County

Podcast: Kathleen Norris, Urban Retail and What You Don’t Know Will Probably Hurt You

This podcast features one of the speakers that I have most enjoyed lately — Kathleen Norris of the Cincinnati-based, world-oriented retail real estate consulting and brokerage firm Urban Fast Forward.  I have had the pleasure of working with Kathleen on Cincinnati’s Plan Build Live initiative, and her ability to open people’s eyes to the potential and value of down-at-the-heels urban business districts has been a delight to watch.

Kathleen brings an impressive range of understanding to these districts — from a person who lived all over the world during her theater management career, I suppose you should expect  little less.  But she’s not just interesting, she’s proven.  Kathleen’s been a central player in most of the retail and restaurant development in downtown Cincinnati and Over the Rhine in the last five years — including a corner that clocked the highest rate of crime in the city in the mid-2000s, and now houses the highest concentration of drool-worthy restaurants in the city.

What I find fascinating about Kathleen’s presentation: she sees and articulates several principles of urban retail districts that actually, effectively, marry conventional (modern — as in shopping mall) retail conventions with the characteristics that make urban business districts unique.  For example:

  • The link between density of customers and retail success: you either get your density of customers from rooftops, or you get it from cars.  You have to have one or the other, and retailers cannot live without it.
  • Retail districts need store density, too.  Kathleen advises us to focus revitalization and re-tenanting efforts on one corner.  With a lazer.  Scattering those new businesses up and down a commercial corridor probably dooms them all, because they cannot reinforce each other.
  • Even existing businesses need density.  Older businesses often struggle because the location that made sense 10, 20, 50 years ago no longer puts them in reach of a strong customer base.  As we learned in Main Street many years ago, even a 100 – foot distance from one store to the next can cut off pedestrians.  Kathleen’s solution?  Move ’em to a location that will help them thrive.  Easy?  Of course not.  But it can be done.

As Ed Starkie pointed out in the last podcast, most urban neighborhoods have lost so much population density in the last 50 years that they have to re-densify their residences(or attract a whole lot of cars) to be able to support the amount of retail space that they developed back in the day.  So if we are serious about revitalizing urban business districts, perhaps the most effective strategy(and most sustainable, however you slice that) is to build the number of residents in the surrounding neighborhoods.  Easy?  Of course not.  But it can be done.

Perhaps most importantly, Kathleen points out that urban district revitalization takes, frankly, a long time.  And you have to keep moving.  Because if you don’t keep moving, you….

You’ll have to listen to find out.  Enjoy!

Podcast: Urban Business Districts, Real Estate Realities and the Formula for Retail Death

In our first Wise Economy podcast of 2013, we’re sharing excerpts from a presentation by Ed Starkie of Urban Advisors.  This presentatation was given at the Plan Build Live Neighborhood Charrette, part of the City of Cincinnati Department of Planning and Building’s initiative to rework its land use regulation system.


In this session, you will hear Ed talk about the economic development and real estate benefits of form-based coding approaches.  One of the particularly valuable things that he points out is the advantages form-based codes provide  in terms of facilitating reuse of existing buildings — benefits that have real payoffs because smaller development and business projects are often easier to find funding for today than the big projects.  Starting at about 10:00, Ed also gives a nice summary of the physical considerations that should go into economic development strategies for urban business districts.  He explains very clearly how important density of shoppers and density of businesses are for retail district success, and he gives a nice summary of the Formula for Retail Death.  Surely you don’t want to miss that, now do you?

As usual, you can stream this presentation to your computer or mobile device from this link, or you can download it for your listening pleasure later.

If you would prefer to watch video of the whole presentation (it runs about an hour), here’s a link, courtesy of Plan Build Live:

Podcast: Won’t Get Fooled Again – Making Sense of Economic Studies

Peter Mallow and I did this presentation last week at the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana regional conference of the American Planning Association — and I thought the audio might be useful for you.  If you deal with development or incentive approvals, you will probably get presented with an economic impact study, a fiscal impact study, or a pro forma at some point.

And it all looks impressive, and it’s usually presented by someone in a nice suit, but…we know that the rosy future that information presents could be wrong.  But we don’t know where to look in the sea of numbers, or what lever we can pull to open the curtain hiding the Wizard behind the machine.  No wonder these things make us nervous.

Peter, a crackerjack-developer-turned-PhD-candidate in regional analysis, has an amazing command of both economic theory and the real world of how deals get done (including the Back Pocket Pro Forma).  And I get a chance to not only talk about sensitivity analysis, but the social psychology that makes us overly optimistic about our ability to predict the future.

It’s a full conference presentation, so please be aware that it will take you a little time to get through it.  But hopefully it will do you some good.




Wanna watch my presentation on Helping to Build a Small Business Ecosystem?

I am so grateful for the opportunity about aweek ago to speak on strategies for building a small business ecosystem to ICANny.  I was speaking to small business owners in New York and, via internet stream, across the US and the world, and the challenge I issued to them was that they need to partner with their local governments and agencies to help reshape how we do economic development.

My presentation starts at about minute 40, but there’s an interesting discussion about potential issues with the SEC rules currently being generated before that.

To learn more about ICANny, check out

Della speaking at ICANny
blurry waving hand And somehow I always end up with my hands becoming these fuzzy blob things.
Somehow I managed to stay behind the podium. This is a big challenge for a pacer like me. ‘Course, if I had paced much, I would have fallen off the little stage.