First, we need to change how we think about communities, businesses, organizations and governments. We need to understand that economic vitality depends on the health of a community, and that a community is not a set of separate, unrelated systems – a business district, a school system, a park system, a street system — but an ecosystem. How our businesses do, what happens to our downtowns, what our parks look like, where we spend our money, how we talk about our communities, doesn’t just affect that one thing – it affects everything. We create a lot of those unintended consequences for our communities simply by not thinking beyond our own pet interests or our own department walls.
Take, for example, the profession of economic development. Economic Development isn’t _really_ about just increasing the number of businesses. We all know that. The reason why communities do economic development, why they invest time and resources in it, is to make sure that the local economy has what it needs and is doing what it needs to be doing to support the health of the overall system. The purpose of economic development, at its core, is to help the community become stronger by making sure that the economic part of the ecosystem is doing its part well.
Here’s the hard truth, though: it’s a whole lot easier to define your economic development job, and measure your achievements, if you cast it in terms of “winning new businesses” instead of “facilitating the health of the local economy.” It’s a lot easier to count new jobs, or new employers, or hits on the web site, or hands shaken at the International Shopping Centers Conference, than it is to evaluate whether you are actually creating a healthier local economy. That is, unless you have a clear plan and are measuring the right kinds of improvements. A clear plan and accurate measurements can be done, but they take more honest thought and stronger leadership than just chasing anything that moves. So more often than not, we count the web site hits and handshakes, shoot what flies and claim what falls, and assume (or take on faith) that those activities are somehow supporting the community’s ecosystem. Economic developers are starting to figure out that “quality of life” has something important to do with the ability to grow a local economy, but there’s still a good deal of scrabbling in the dark to figure out how to tie those elements together. And until that understanding of the interdependence of the economy on the rest of the community ecosystem takes root, it’s going to be far too easy to default to old measures that often hide whether our efforts are helping the larger community or hurting it.
I have been picking on economic developers, but the truth is that there is more than enough blame to spread around. We are almost all guilty of not seeing outside our silos, and assuming nice simple ipso-facto relationships between our favorite topics and Everything Else. When urban planners fall into the trap of assuming that a single physical strategy, such as Complete Streets or New Urbanism or Urban Renewal or any of the other catch phrases through the years, will have a “catalytic” effect on the local economy, we are oversimplifying because we are not fully thinking about the entire ecosystem (people who do not have good economic prospects or are insecure about their jobs may use the bike lanes out of necessity, but may not shop in the stores by the bike lane like you anticipated). When business owners and residents assume that the less taxes I pay, the better, we often fail to fully account for the value of the services that the public sector provides us, whether garbage pickup or maintaining streets or keeping us from being robbed or managing the externalities that other businesses and people create – and their potential deep negative effect on our ability to function.
We oversimplify the ecosystem, we stay in our silos and stick to our simple solutions, because it’s intellectually easier. It’s easier to say “My stuff is important, yours isn’t” than to try to look rationally at the whole range of issues and understand how My Stuff fits into the whole system. And if we assume that our communities are nice simple frontier towns, with lots of empty land to absorb those externalities and a small homogeneous group of people to accommodate, then perhaps that’s fine, at least until we run out of that land or those people get more complicated. But that’s where we are today.
If we are honest about the complexities of our communities, then we have to be honest about the fact that there are few, if any, simple solutions. Things don’t fit easily within the silos anymore, and when we don’t see these related impacts, we will certainly feel their effects. There are no one-shot solutions – if we want to facilitate the health of the ecosystem, we have to work on a wide range of elements in concert.
Ideally, this is what planning of any stripe should do, whether organizational strategic plans or community comprehensive plans or any other variant on the theme. It’s part of why it becomes increasingly important to plan for multiple possible futures – with this many moving parts, a certain level of uncertainty is inescapable. But too often we only plan for My Stuff, not for the role our bailiwick plays in building the ecosystem. And as I’ve said about other challenging issues that require more from us than our common sense and grasp of basic Play Nice With Others rules, there are specific processes and methods that have been developed to help us deal with these issues. But too often, we don’t know about or make the effort to seek out the tools that are available.
We are increasingly learning that natural ecosystems are amazing things. All those interconnections and interdependencies between the plants, the bugs, the animals and all that give a strong ecosystem the same traits that we desire in our communities: long-term growth, healthy organisms, the ability to bounce back from disasters (visit the site of a forest fire three years ago to see what I mean). And the biologists and botanists and other –ologists tell us that ecosystems that lose key members, like an animal who is part of the food chain, are bound for trouble or collapse. The whole reinforces the parts.
If we are serious about building Wise Economies – economies that are robust, resilient, flexible and don’t leave us up a creek in the future – we need to think of our communities as economics-driven ecosystems, systems where the silo walls have broken down and where the leaves of one aspect of the community shades the roots and feed the animals that make up the rest of the system.