Selections From new Book: Why This Work Matters

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

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

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

Thanks.  Here’s Jen:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s where it gets messy.….

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

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

Someone needs to do Something about this town…”  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



What the Berlin Wall Taught Me

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

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

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

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

Maybe you do, after all.

Here’s Jason:


Meine Reise nach Berlin

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


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


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

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


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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


The Scourge of Fatalism


So what did the Berlin Wall teach me?

It goes back to that “Who knew?”

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

We never know.

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

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

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

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

We have met the enemy and he is us.


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


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


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


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


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


Sound familiar?


How about these:


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


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


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


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


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


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


By May 1945, the Reich was gone.


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


By November 1989, the Wall was gone.


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


We’re not.

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

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


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




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


Live it out.

How to run an effective public meeting when dealing with people who have an agenda.

The other night I served as moderator for a panel discussion and audience Q&A that is part of a local organization’s efforts to update their comprehensive plan.  Like many planning organizations, this agency has had some ugly run-ins with a particular interest group, and they wanted someone to manage the meeting and keep the conversation on track.

I’ve been running public meetings and discussion groups and classrooms and focus groups and God knows what else for decades – I earned my stripes on that front long before I knew what a zoning code was.  So I agreed to help them out.

I’m a little more reluctant than a consultant probably should be about blowing my own horn, so the rest of this blog post sits a little uneasily with me, with all those “I’s” in there.  But, as staffers and Planning Commission members and participants on the panel came up to me afterward, it became clear to me that I had done certain things in the management of that meeting that might be more unexpected, less in line with usual practices, than I often assume when I am living inside my own mind.  So I did a little self-analysis, walking through the meeting and the choices that I made while moderating, and identified a few decisions that probably led to the meeting’s success.  So, here’s what I think I (and the agency) did right:

  • An outside moderator ain’t a bad idea.  As the outsider, I had a lot of aces up my sleeve.  Since I didn’t know any more than the broad outline of the previous confrontations, I could plead innocence (and get away with acting a little more innocent than I probably am).  I didn’t have any stake in the ground, so no one had any reason to accuse me of bias.  I didn’t know exactly who the potential troublemakers were, but I had a sense of where they were concentrated, so I could make sure that the question opportunities were spread around with little risk of specifically ignoring one person or another based on some history they had with the agency.


Most importantly, I could take a strong leadership role because I didn’t have to worry about offending anyone.  After all, when this is over, I am going home, people.   If I had been in the city I live in, with people I knew in the audience, I would have found myself in a very different situation.


  • Never let go of the microphone.  I almost never take public questions via a stand mic or podium in the front of the room.  I almost always go at it Phil Donohue-style – I wade as deep into the audience as the cords will let me and either hold the mic for speakers or repeat their questions over the sound system (which also allows you to rephrase – valuable if someone has an axe to grind and wants to talk about something that is off topic).   


I made the mistake with the first public question of giving the microphone to the guy (he was a lot taller than me), and I realized almost immediately that I had put us at risk of substituting a soapbox speech for a constructive question.  Fortunately, that didn’t happen.  The rest of the time, I went back to my usual modus operandi and told each person “that’s OK, I’ll just hold the mic for you.”  That makes it easier to control the sound quality, too.


  • Just because someone puts their hand up doesn’t mean you need to call on them.   We have this assumption from our days in school that the first one with the hand up is the one that should get to show off his or her knowledge — but we all know that teachers select who they will call on, and after a while the kid who knows all the answers doesn’t get called on anymore.  Only calling on that person wouldn’t do the rest of the students much good.  We don’t want to ignore people if we can help it, but a forum where we need to understand the cross-section of public opinion is not going to fill that purpose if we play by those elementary school rules.


It is crucial to cover the meeting space – both in terms of taking questions from all over the room, but also taking questions from people of different ages and genders.  I was very careful to select for both of those from the raised hands.   If I had simply stuck in the corner where the most hands went up, I would have both turned off the rest of the crowd and prevented us from getting a useful picture of the full range of public opinion.


  • If you don’t want a special interest to run your meeting, you must run it, you must control it yourself.  The room included several (I was told later that it was about 10) members of the special interest group that I described, and they clearly came with the intention of taking over the conversation.  I am not sure exactly what was on their agenda that night, but it was pretty clear that they wanted to turn it to the issues of interest to them, rather than the issues everyone else came to talk about, if they got half the chance.


I wasn’t going to give them that chance.


I chose which of the several raised hands from that group got to speak, just like I made that choice with everyone else.  I kept control of the mic (which meant I was sort of holding hands with one guy at one point – a little weird, but oh well),  and I made a point of restating a question that veered off onto a rant about a federal agency to how the local community can best cope with uncertainty over federal regulation impacts.

photo of Della and public speaker
Me and my new boyfriend…


If I had let them have their way, if I had not pulled the relevant element out of a largely off-topic question, the meeting would have degenerated into an unproductive verbal fight.  A moderator must keep that from happening.  In this case, controlling the situation required a pretty soft touch – but I have scolded confrontational or rude participants before.   Sometimes it is simply necessary for the good of everyone else in the room.  It is simply part of the job.


  • Never, never allow a special interest group to command all your attention.  If you focus on the people you are most worried about, you do a gross disservice – an insult, really – to the people who came to be part of a real conversation.


When I was a young teacher during my short education career, I learned pretty quickly that every class had three or four students who were inclined to “act out” – you know the type.  When you are the teacher, your instinct is to spend all your time trying to intervene with those kids – get them to pay attention, prevent them from doing something troublesome, whatever.   It’s like having an attention black hole in the back of the room.  But if you give into that instinct, that means that the 15 or 20 kids who weren’t acting out, who weren’t demanding your attention, get… next to nothing.  No wonder so many hate school.   And public meetings.


People who come to public meetings are taking precious time out of their lives.  They are choosing to come.  If we do not honor their contribution and commitment, if we instead let a disgruntled clique take over the classroom, we have done the same damage to our relationship with our residents as I did to the good students in the classroom when I ignored them in favor of the troublemakers.


What tricks of the trade do you use when moderating public meetings?  I’d love to hear your good ideas… after all, next time I might have to break out the brass knuckles.   Ya never know.

Where is the place for engineering-think?

Hi. My name is Della, and I work with engineers.  I also married one.   Anyone know of a good support group?

Engineers have a unique handle on the world, one that non-engineers  like me often struggle to understand. Engineers face their world with a certainty — I don’t know how much is genetic and how much is taught — that seems to far exceed what the rest of us can muster.  There is a certain optimism to the engineer’s approach: all problems have a solution, we just have to figure it out.

Heroic poster of  US Corps of Engineers
Yeah, most of the engineers I know don’t look like this either.

It’s almost an Enlightenment perspective. The world is fully knowable, we just haven’t got it all worked out yet.

If you have read or heard me speak before, you might have started with the assumption that this essay would do a nice job of snarking on our friends with the pocket protectors and the black-and white pen sets.  I’ve certainly made it clear before that my own angle is all about mess and complexity.  And I haven’t typically shown much patience for people who believe in simple solutions.

But we who try to make communities work better need to maintain, some piece of the engineer’s approach.   It’s so easy for us to become cynical, to give up on the hope of finding solutions, out here on the hairy edge of the most complicated systems in human existence.

We can’t control (fill in the blank),

The (fill in the blank) won’t let us do it,

The (fill in the blank) will never understand.

Twiddle at the margins, shrug the shoulders, punch the clock and go home and forget about it.


It is legitimate and necessary to call out the engineers when their search for a logical solution leads to building walls between one issue and another (“the purpose of this project is to improve traffic flows.  We can’t predict what kind of development will occur”).   The easiest path to a clear world view is to limit what you are looking at to a manageable subset of the whole convoluted thing. From a cognitive perspective, the limited, the technical, approach makes sense.   But we all know that we have made enough of a mess, created enough unpleasant unintended consequences for our communities by allowing such simplistic approaches to rule the day.  We do have to assert that solving one problem while ignoring the whole ecosystem cannot be the acceptable choice anymore.

But that doesn’t mean that we can’t find better solutions.  We have access to more and more information every day from our colleagues in the social sciences about how people behave, how groups of people work, how effective decision-making in complex settings can be structured to do it right.  And we have access to more, and better, and more immediate data on how exactly our communities are working than we have ever had before.

From where I stand, the greatest challenge of our era is to figure out how to use new ideas, tools and information to manage communities in their entirety, as complex ecosystems rather than as a set of specialized machines.   We might not be able to do it perfectly, but we can do it better and better.  That’s an approach that the engineering profession has learned through hundreds of years of  bridges and roads and steadily improving methods for making them stronger, less costly, and better.  That’s a pretty powerful reason to be sure of yourself.  Instead of snarking, let’s recruit them to the cause.


Filtered mirrors and Hunger of Memory

I’m not a scholarship boy.  But I am.

The summer before I started college at Northwestern University, I was assigned to read an autobiography by Richard Rodriguez called Hunger of Memory.  I read it (I was a good kid who did her assignments even when I had no idea why), participated in the residential college discussion group (no idea what we discussed), and then stuck it on a dorm room shelf.

Months later, somehow, I ended up reading it again.  That first year of college was one of the toughest in my life – not only was I far from home and discovering that the career I had assumed I would follow since middle school was a poor fit for me – but I dimly understood that somehow I was way out of place, fundamentally disconnected from the ease, the comfort, the relaxed assumption of privilege that I sensed in the kids around me (but there is no way I could have told you all that then).   I was miserable, isolated, and could not figure out why.

The life that Rodriguez described didn’t look much like mine.  Child of Mexican immigrant parents, product of a rigorous Catholic education, growing up in 1950s California, the world he described bore little resemblance to my Yankee and Appalachian parents, my scruffy public high school or 1970s Cleveland.  But, on that second reading, some things did resonate:

His sense of isolation resulting from being smart and finding yourself defined in terms of your perceived brains – defined with pride and preening from adults and distance and distrust from other kids.

The conflict between that identity and the more routine messages directed to your peer group (Mexican boys, or working class girls, should get their noses out of books and work on fitting in.)

The experience of being a given an incomprehensible gift, in terms of an education far beyond what you should have aspired to, and the nagging underlying panic of insecurity over whether you could do it, whether you really belong in this place after all.

I never understood my background as blue collar or rust belt or working class until I went to Northwestern.  I had no sense of where my blind spots were, of how what I knew and assumed differed from what others knew and assumed, until I landed unceremoniously on the shore of a lake and in a big city I had only seen once before.  I had never read a Latino author.  I had never met someone who was Orthodox Jewish, Taiwanese, Bulgarian, or rich, until I went there.  If I had stayed close to home, attended the local state school that was my backup plan, stuck with people who looked and sounded like me, my understanding of my own life and the world around me, even today, would be very different.   In a sense, Rodriguez, and Hae Won Lee, and Bodgan Vacaliuc and Gail Holmberg, held up a mirror to me and the world behind me – one that didn’t show a picture-perfect reflection, but one that applied a filter, like on a camera lens, to draw into sharp focus a color in that image that I had not seen before.  And because of that, I understood who I was and what the world I had come from was like in a way that would have never occurred to me otherwise.

A couple of weeks ago I retweeted the following from Saul Kaplan:

Don’t fall into narrative fallacy trap. We select stories to fit our current mental models.

The statement appealed to me, but I wasn’t sure I understood.  So I added “Great – how?”  Saul responded:

Avoid narrative fallacy trap by selecting for stories that make you uncomfortable and challenge your thinking.

My experience at Northwestern had selected those kinds of stories for me.  I had a whole lot of uncomfortable in that time, and my entire frame of reference was deeply challenged as a result of it.

I have written a few times lately about the need to break through our paradigms, our usual assumptions about how our communities work and what they need and what our job within them is, because our old solutions have generally turned out to be ineffective and we need to undertake a broad-based reboot.   But I’ve struggled with trying to imagine how exactly we can do that.  I’m thinking we need to take a page from Richard, and from Saul.

We have a tendency, in our lives and in our work, to listen only to the people that we perceive as being “like” us.  We value the opinions of other planners or economic developers or administrators, we read the books and the blogs that profess the beliefs that we are already talking about, and we assume that people whose opinions fall outside that narrow range are ill-informed, malicious or just plain stupid. I don’t think this trend is a new one;  19th – century Americans certainly didn’t have much exposure to people who hadn’t come up through the same culture.   But if we assume that building the kinds of economies and communities that we want requires new solutions that address the interdependent and intertwined nature of modern communities, then sticking within our own echo chamber probably just means that the walls of our ineffective assumptions continue to ossify, like a fossil.

Here is the great challenge, the summer reading assignment for you and for me: let’s try to broaden our perspectives.  Let’s try to find and listen to some of those stories that come from outside our usual sources, that make us at least a little uncomfortable.  Maybe that’s a different political perspective, a different profession, a  different type of place.  An economics-focused person if you are a designer; a designer if your life revolves around money.

Listen to experts and normal people, people who live in your community and people from Somewhere Else.  Most importantly, let’s do our best to listen with an open mind.  They may use words we don’t get or find unnerving, they may focus on experiences that we can’t envision, they may make their own set of assumptions that crash violently into our own.  But let’s not just ask, but get in the habit of asking:

What does this person see that I haven’t been seeing?

Where are the unlit corners of my assumptions, and how does this person’s ideas fit into those?


What mirror is this other perspective holding up to me?  What does that mirror show that I haven’t noticed before, or maybe that I don’t want to see?

If I assumed for a moment that this person was completely, perfectly right, how would that change my understanding?  What change would that necessitates in how I, my department, my organization work?  Are any of those changes good ideas regardless?


This isn’t just a philosophical exercise.  It’s a way to start to get over the barriers that have been holding us back, that have been leading us to believe that This, whatever This is, Is The Only Way To Do It.   We need to increase our access to filtered mirrors, we need to re-see our own situations through the eyes of someone from outside our own frame of reference, to understand where our blind spots have been —  where the brick walls that have been preventing us from finding new solutions will turn out to be no more than narratives, stories of their own.





Cultivating the Small Business Ecosystem (part 2)

To continue where we left off last week, talking about small business ecosystems:

When you grow a garden, you don’t build the plants out of rocks and plastic.  You create the environment where those tiny, threadlike little seedlings have the best chance you can give them of growing into strong and resilient plants.  Some plants grow faster than others, some are inherently hardier.    You can’t do it for them.  Your job is to give them the best chance you can give them to grow. 

Just like gardeners work at giving their plants the best odds to thrive, we who care about communities can build an environment where our small businesses have the best chances to grow.

Fine.  So you can’t build seedlings out of rocks and plastic.  So what the heck are we supposed to do?

If you want to build a healthy small business ecosystem in your community, you have to

children at white house working on garden

put in a significant amount of work ahead of time, and maintain diligent attention once the seedlings start coming out of the ground.

Okaaay…and the prep work looks like…what?

  • Helping potential entrepreneurs select the right seeds.  One of those capacity issues we talked about the other day has to do with market knowledge.  Entrepreneurs tend to start businesses on a gut sense of an opportunity – or on a “gee, it would be cool to do that” sort of model.  A lot of time that works out just fine, but there’s also a big risk of wrong moves or mistaken choices that can cut into the entrepreneurs’ reserves.  As we discussed, one of the biggest differences between small businesses and larger businesses is capacity, whether that’s cash reserves, hours in a day or knowledge.  Missteps in the beginning can set a business up for failure, and anything that wastes capacity cuts away at a very thin layer of reserves.


Communities can help select the right seeds by sharing real-world information about their assets and their opportunities.  What’s our economic makeup?  Where are we over-supplied or undersupplied?  What are the hidden, maybe small-scale opportunities that result from population subsets or unusual regional destinations that out-of-towners might not know about? This information isn’t hard to come by, if you know where to look.  But it can make all the difference between a hometown success story and a could-have-been-if-only.


  • Preparing the soil.  If you are starting a garden on a vacant lot, you don’t just throw seeds down and hope for the best.  You have to make sure that the dirt can nourish the plants you’re planning to grow, and of course all dirt is certainly not created equal.  What you need to add or do depends on what you are planning to grow.  Peat moss?  Mulch?  Compost?  Fertilizer?  Lime?  One seed needs one, one seed needs another.


Some business types benefit from opportunities to build strong local networks, while others need international connections.  Sometimes they need help with inventory management, human relations issues, finding funding to grow into their potential.  None of these require a degree in rocket science, but again, remember capacity: if I am an overwhelmed small business owner, chances are I will stumble along by the seat of my pants….until the crisis that has been building up through my inability to manage that issue effectively takes front and center.  And by then, it may be too late.   If we want to build a small business ecosystem, one of the easiest and simplest things we can do it to make this assistance easily available.  Chances are someone somewhere is providing the information your local businesss need… they just aren’t aware of it or able to get it with what little energy they have to throw at it.  Putting that within reach isn’t hard…but it takes consistent effort and lots of repetition.  Just like with fertilizing, once is never enough.


  • Monitoring the ecosystem’s development.  Biologists don’t just look at an ecosystem once – they identify key measurable indicators, and they check them regularly.  What’s the water ph?  How many songbirds did we count this year?  Are we above or below the average for rainfall?  How else are you going to understand where things are going – or what we need to change in order to nudge trends in a better direction? 


We do a particularly lousy job of monitoring our local small business ecosystems.  We tend to assume that everything is fine based on a few overly-simplistic indicators, like the number of new businesses, without digging deeper into the data to understand whether those factors are actually signs of growth or decline.  An increase in the number of birds might look like a good sign to a biologist, but if most of the growth is invasive species who compete with the natives, that numerical increase might not be such a good thing.  Similarly, adding jobs that pay minimum wage or require only minimal skills could be less something to crow about than something to take as a warning signal.


None of these tasks are hard, and none of them require skills or information that we don’t already have or can borrow from other professions.  What we do need to bring to it is the diligence and the long-term perspective to cultivate our small business ecosystems.  It won’t happen overnight.




Building a human ecology (plus a lot of gorillas)

What does a community ecology need?

I have been musing a lot lately over what I think is one of the most critical challenges of this era: what can we who work with cities and villages and neighborhoods do to build better community ecologies?  That’s a strange way to put it, but I used the words I chose on purpose.

As I’ve talked about here before, the challenge of building a Wise Economy requires us to shift how we think about our communities away from separate systems (parks, economic development, planning) and toward a community as an ecosystem.  I’m not particularly environmentally-minded (or good at not killing plants), but for me, the metaphor makes the most sense:  communities are human ecosystems, and it is the health of whole system, and particularly the relationships between the parts of the system that make the biggest difference between places where people choose to live and thrive, and places where people get stuck because for one reason or another they have no choice.  A community with great jobs  but no community leadership will not stay healthy for long, but using the need to protect and grow the community’s economycan create an environment in which better leadership can also thrive.

We have sometimes done a lot of damage to our human ecosystems in the name of planning and economic development.  We have demolished vibrant neighborhoods, wasted millions of dollars on projects that demonstrated little long-term benefit, and too often demonstrated that our mental model of how a community works  looked more like a simplistic mechanical model than it did like the complex, organic, constantly-changing places that we could have observed is we’d been paying attention – and that people from outside our box, like Jane Jacobs, pointed out to us.  We need to learn those lessons and view our communities as human ecologies,  not only for the hard-core economic reasons having to do with jobs and tax revenues, but because we need to do a much better job of leveraging our communities’ capacity to do the hard work of making the place work better.

Today we have an economic environment surrounding most communities where the Big Players, the Big Businesses, the Big Leaders that we relied on in the past simply aren’t around the way they used to be.  I spent time recently working with a classic Rust Belt city where we had a variant of a conversation I have had more times than I can count:

In generations past, a small group of 800-pound gorillas in town Got Stuff Done.  Need to raise money for a project?  Need new blood on City Council?  Need to set priorities, kick someone into gear, make something happen?  As long as you could get their attention (and you were willing to let it be done their way), you had it made.  Stuff Got Done.

In this community, as in hundreds of others, the 800-pound gorillas, for better or worse, are gone.  Instead, we have communities with a large number of smaller players – 100-pound or 50-pound gorillas, if you will.  Capacity is still there, but it’s not as simple to get it in motion as it used to be.  Since we have tended to think so simplistically, we don’t know how to harness those gorillas together.   So we underestimate the capacity we have, we decry the loss of the Old Days, and we assume that we are stuck, that we can no longer make our communities better.

Like so many of these issues, we have to evolve beyond seat-of-the pants assumptions and the rules for playing together that we learned in elementary school.  If we are going to create better human ecosystems, and if we are going to do so in a world where we can’t be passive, where we cannot simply rely on someone with big muscles and deep pockets to do it for us  We have to actively engage the smaller gorillas and lead them to harness

harness for bowhunting
This thing is actually called a Gorilla harness. I have no idea why.

themselves together.  That means that we have to:

  • Pull them together.  Gorillas are territorial, so this in itself has to be done in a way that makes them feel safe – and doesn’t create an opportunity for any particularly ambitious gorilla to try to assert dominance.


  • Paint for them the picture of the community’s deepest needs.  Gorillas are smart, but they know their own territory better than anything else.  We need to help them see the whole picture through facts and through stories, and help them understand how their most urgent issues, their own piece of ground, relates to the health of the rest of the environment.


  • Lead them through the process of identifying priorities.  With so many gorillas and no silverbacks, consensus is essential but seldom comes easily.  Someone, perhaps you, has to lead  — but not the old way, with growling and chest-pounding and intimidation.  Lead from within.


  • Don’t leave getting it done to chance.  Gorillas can be powerful, but a lot of other issues are demanding their attention.  The most successful communities not only plan, but set up the process for making it get done.  One current client that has  an impressive history of successes in the face of tough challenges  set up a committee of Council, consisting of electeds, staff administrators and key members of the community.  Their job?  Literally, hold the feet of the City and other agencies to the fire of doing the work that the community set out for itself through the plan.  No shirking.  We are watching, plan in hand.


We no longer live in an era where we can take healthy, vibrant human ecologies for granted.  We who work with local governments and nonprofits are our communities’ biologists – we see the warning signs of trouble before almost anyone else.  We don’t always know how to solve it, and we don’t always do a good enough job sending up the alarm.  And sometimes we get scared and don’t send up the alarm at all, or we raise our concerns timidly and back off when the gorillas growl.  But we know what’s at stake.

C’mon, everyone, time to stop chest-thumping and put on the harness.

I see usability

I see usability.

That was my dad’s favorite saying.  Dad was a dedicated junk collector, a man with no hesitation about pulling things off the curb in front of the neighbors’ houses.  But he wasn’t looking for salvage or a quick couple of dollars.  He was looking for usability.


Dad was what I guess you would call a tinkerer.  He always had projects in process – a car (or three) in various stages of disassembly on their way to being restored, an electronic gadget that he was convinced would work again if he could just find the loose wire, an idea for making something from the extra tin cans he brought home from the paint factory or the brass-plated  fittings that a friend at the foundry gave him or the pile of tire irons he found on garbage day around the corner.

When I was an adult and went home to visit, I knew he would want my undivided attention as he showed me his latest finds and described his new ideas for making flowerpots or bird feeders or paint brush holders or whatever.  One of my strongest memories of him: he would pull himself up to full (not very tall) height, puff out his (very slight) chest, hold up what looked like a random piece of junk, and declare:


Most of the time, I would nod and smile, but I didn’t see it.  And even when he did complete something (which didn’t always happen), I failed to see the achievement in it (these weren’t great works of art by any stretch).  But he never said he was going for artistry.  He saw usability.

Maybe this is why my dad, the paint factory worker, understood the value of old places long before I did.  Growing up in the small Rust Belt town where he also had gone to high school, the buildings and houses I saw everyday seemed…tired.  I didn’t know much better – I never travelled much until I was older – but I knew that my friends who lived in the newer neighborhoods had whole house air conditioning,  heat ducts instead of the metal radiator in my room that clunked and hissed but seldom seemed to heat anything, and walls that didn’t require tedious, unending paint scraping every damn summer.

I did eventually turn into a historic preservation specialist during the 90s — I have the distinction of being responsible for listing some of the ugliest buildings in the Badger State on the National Register of Historic Places.   In northern Wisconsin at that time, preservation was mostly on the minds of a few disgruntled… well, the common perception was crackpots.  I’ve written about Green Bay’s history with urban renewal before, and as late as the early 1990s, a blight removal plan that identified most old downtown buildings for demolition as soon as the city could get them was still in effect and being carried out.  I crawled through the basement of one of the final ones, documenting its last days, before it was demolished.  I’m sure I still have those photos.

Green Bay at that time was just starting to understand the economic benefits of preservation – but Dad understood entirely.  He started to mail me clippings from the Cleveland papers (remember actual clippings?).  And when I got on the phone with him, he was more excited to talk about a building or bridge rehab that he had read about than about what he and Mom were doing.

About nine months before my second son was born, Dad was diagnosed with a brain tumor.  My last time with him was about a month before the baby was due – last time I could travel from Cincinnati, where we had moved, to Cleveland, a drive of about 3½ hours.  Shortly before I left to go home, Dad sat me on the couch and pulled out a large envelope full of clippings.  By this point, the cancer in the speech center of his brain was wreaking havoc on his ability to read or write, and my name on the outside of the envelope was spelled with three L’s.  We spent a long time going through those clippings – all sorts of building rehabs and downtown revitalization stories in Cleveland and South Carolina and places that I had never heard of.  And at one point, he looked at me directly, and told me that he was proud of me, that what I was doing was important.

This at a time when I was continually wondering how I could keep working, with a toddler at home and a baby on the way,  when the cultural pressure to hang it up seemed to roar constantly in my ears.

These places matter.  What you’re doing to help them matters.

I see usability.

Dad died a week after Jonathan was born.  We gave Jon his name because that was one that Dad liked.


I still don’t really know why old places matter to us – obviously there’s the sense of history, the fact that these are often places that are built at the human scale and are thus more comfortable for us, the solid-ness of the materials,  so on and so on.  But why do they matter so much to so many, and on such a primal level?

Maybe it’s because even the most run-down, aesthetically unpleasing places have usability. They so often have the potential to be so much more than they are.

Maybe that’s what we really need to be working on: re-discovering and re-claiming our places’ usabililty.

Thanks, Dad.



Helping places make room for What We Will Be Next

Damn movie.  There’s another one on the list.

I learned a long time ago that I am way too good at buying into what theater people call the willing suspension of disbelief – what you do when you get caught up in an acted-out story and react to it as though it were real, even when you know darn well that it’s make believe.  I have a ridiculously long list of movies that hit me so hard when I watched them, got me so worked up, that I know I can never watch them again.   What Dreams May Come?   Forget it.  The Mission?   No freakin way.  Up?  It’s a cartoon, after all… crap.

I knew the first time I watched Up that I needed to skip the first five minutes about the main character’s life with his wife and his losing her after a long happy marriage.  Bull’s eye on Pressure Point  #1, but we can handle this.

Of course, near the end of the movie, that character has to re-confront his loss, accept it and let go.   I walked in on my 10-year old son watching it last night (I had purposely avoided the room all evening, but it was getting late and I wanted him to go to bed), and ended up watching the last five minutes with him.  Cue the waterworks.

In his recent book The Great Reset, Richard Florida writes most eloquently about the underlying sense of loss and struggle to move on that pervades many communities, particularly in the Rust Belt and other areas that have struggled to transition to the new economic epoch that is unfolding.    As I have mentioned here before, many of the places I know best have been struggling to deal with that loss, and make that transition, for decades.  I watched my parents and many others where I grew up come face to face with the consequences of a changing world long before I had ever heard of Lehman Brothers.

Florida includes a lovely quote from John Craig, former editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

“Fundamental change will be much longer in coming than you can imagine.  You’ll survive.  But there’ll be no ‘getting over’ your past, only moving beyond it.”


You also can’t get back your past, as much as you might want it.  It just doesn’t work.

I have spent more time than I can count with communities where leaders – council members, Chamber of Commerce officials, and others – have said to me with complete sincerity, “we just need to get the shoe factory back.”  Or, a slightly more sophisticated approach to the same idea: “We just need to land another big factory/a new shopping mall/a new…something.”

Go find that unicorn, and when we bring it back to our community, we will all live happily ever after.


We who work with communities know, or should know by now, that this is a fantasy.   The world has changed, and is changing.  We have to get on with it.

The psychologist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross described grieving as a five-step process:  denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally, acceptance.   In Up, the main character reaches the point of acceptance when the house in which he lived so happily with his wife, and which he has clung to and protected throughout the movie, floats away into the distance  (If you haven’t seen it, trust me on that one.  It involves a lot of balloons.)    

For some of us, the greatest challenge we face is to help our communities allow their past identities – industrial heart, shopping mecca, favorite tony suburb– float away.    In the community context, that requires a combination of

  • Data that puts the change and the opportunity in front of our eyes,
  • An empathetic, collaborative approach that makes everyone, not just a few, the owners of our future, and
  • A clear-eyed, pragmatic strategy for doing the tough, long-term work that has to happen to make that transition happen.

Florida also paraphrases and then quotes Howard Fineman of Newsweek:

[The lesson of resurgent places] is to pick yourself up and get back to work.  Don’t expect the federal government or anyone else to save your city or bring back your industries.  ‘It is that the old world will inevitably disappear, and that creating a new one is up to you, not someone else.’

We have to remember, honor and love our pasts, but not cling to them.  That’s true for us as people and use as communities.  Only when we can help our communities do that work of letting go do we allow ourselves to have space for What We Will Be Next.

salt, pig, chicken something…re-learning how to grow a community.

This post is adapted from one titled “Salt of the station street pig and chicken” that originally appeared on the blog of a dear friend and a woman I admire.   Rebecca Maclean is both the blogger behind Food Me Once, and also one of the editors and primary authors of the Digging Deep Campaign.  Becky and I don’t always see eye to eye, but she understands successful urban environments as both a planner and as a person who has made the dedicated choice to live in the city, small kids and husband in tow.  She’s quite an asset to Pittsburgh.  I hope they’re starting to get that.

When I tweaked this entry, I did so to highlight Becky’s message about something that can be tough for economic developers and planners to hear: the places that do best are often the places that do so despite us.  There’s something that happens in successful neighborhoods that a zoning code, an incentive package, or a nice maps with lots of colors…doesn’t.  The critical challenge to our professions in this era is to drop our top-down assumptions and get deep into the understanding of how exactly these places thrive — and how, tactically and incrementally, we can help make that happen.

My distaste for the short-man-in-the-long-cape approach is pretty well known by now, but that’s not the point here.  The point is that we need to start looking closely at case studies like Kevin Sousa’s in Pittsburgh: put some effort into taking them apart and understanding the moving parts.  We need to analyze the details and the myriad of factors that go into these kind of places, and figure out how to support them —  more tactically, more delicately .

We need to regard planning for the revitalization of communities as a social science, not a mechanical, this-goes-in-one-end-and-that-comes-out-the-other process.  There are no magic levers, no simple buttons that we can push to make it go.  Long-term, resilient, successful places need to grow, with all the messy complexity that comes with that.  And if communities seeking revitalization don’t need a Grand Design, they most certainly need a good gardener.  One that doesn’t squash or over-water the seedlings.

That is our job.  Here’s Becky:

Gentrification. Revitalization. Stabilization. All words that come to mind when you’re thinking about what to do, exactly, with declining urban neighborhoods. But at the core of that “what to do” lies a mental barrier that urban planners (myself included) often fail to address.

At the end of the day, we can’t “do” anything with property that we don’t own – at least not easily or without great cost (financial and otherwise) to the community. This is why many of the best-loved neighborhoods, those that have revitalized and stabilized, are organic ones – places that developed, regrew and thrived for reasons that no planner ever planned.  Perhaps they were steered or supported by community development corporations, neighborhood plans, or local planning departments, but, at their core, these places have been driven forward by people on the ground who were willing to take risks, pour their money (and those of their investors) into a place, make connections, and hope it sticks.

Here in Pittsburgh, I’ve had a soft spot in my heart for the East Liberty neighborhood for years. Once the third largest shopping district in Pennsylvania, East Liberty has great history, classic architectural gems, a decades-long period of decline, and some fantastically awful centralized planning decisions. Due to hard work and boots on the ground from the neighborhood Community Development Corporation and other stakeholders, this area is hopping once again. The smaller spaces in the neighborhood have for the most part been slowly rehabbed and now include a mix of established and relatively new businesses.


Here’s the sticky part: who’s the most important stakeholder in this process? The neighborhood resident who stuck it out here through the decline and rebirth? The chamber of commerce? The CDC, which busted its butt trying to get vacant buildings filled with a sustainable mix of tenants, only to get flack because they’re the ‘wrong kind’?

The mix is critical to success, but everyone is always critical of the mix.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately as I frequent businesses in East Liberty. So many are food-based  – two Ethiopian restaurants, a Jamaican place, the cupcake bakery, the pizza shops, the Parisian bistro, the hip local dive bar, the waffle-centered performance art space, the conflict kitchen, the barbeque place, the hot dog shop, the burger bar, the modern American restaurant. As I write this list off the top of my head, I’m struck by the fact that most of these businesses are relatively new. One of the pizza shops is a long-timer; the rest have been operating a decade or less. And although most business owners are happy with any patrons, for the most part the clientele seems to be young, non-minority, hip, with disposable income. I think it’s safe to say that the immediate neighborhood residents would not fit that description. So East Liberty is back to being a destination – which, to be fair, is its historical role.


A conversation with a fellow local food blogger raised a tough question: what level of new investment in a neighborhood is appropriate for someone to bring into the community from outside? Does that level change if the business owners are from the neighborhood, the city, the region – or if they’re a complete outsider? What if they bring with them a certain caché, a cult of personality, a track record for excellence in their world?


Local foodies know by now that I’m talking about Kevin Sousa and his East End restaurantSalt of the Earth logo triumvirate (two of which are in East Liberty, and one in the urban core of the neighborhood). His first restaurant, Salt of the Earth in nearby Garfield, earned major accolades from the broader culinary community (Food and Wine and the James Beard Foundation, among others) and has been lauded locally. Rehabbing that building was seen as a Good Thing too, turning a historic Harley Davidson dealership from the 1920s into a hot spot on a stretch of Penn Avenue that sorely needed some eyes on the street at night.  He’s followed that up with two restaurants opening almost simultaneously: Station Street Hot Dog Shop, and Union Pig & Chicken.  And the grumbling has grown along with his foodie empire.


I just don’t get it. The hot dog shop had been vacant for over a year, and is carrying on the tradition of a hot dog shop in that vicinity (with that name) since 1915. The barbeque place bore the brunt of the complaints, both because people are very opinionated about their barbeque and because a white dude from McKees Rocks is cooking barbeque in the ‘hood (haven’t heard it in quite those terms, but that seems to be the general sentiment).


Food preferences aside (though I admit to being an avid fan of Kevin’s cooking), I keep wanting to ask the naysayers these questions:

  • What would you have put in place of those restaurants?  Both storefronts were vacant. Both places are continuing the traditions of their locations.  While neither place is the cheapest place I can get a hot dog or some fried chicken, they’re not overpriced.   If $22 is too much to pay for a really good rack of ribs, why would you willingly pay $20.99 at a chain restaurant for a mediocre rack?


  • If you don’t want a Local Boy Done Good to bring restaurants to your vacant storefronts, where should he go? He’s a successful businessman with a solid following who chose to try new things in a neighborhood that needed it, and said they wanted it (one of the goals in the neighborhood plan is to become a dining destination, after all). He could have rested on his laurels and replicated his brand in the suburbs, and he didn’t.

Me, I’m happy to support a local businessman who serves food that I feel comfortable feeding to my kids in an area of the city that I love. Obviously, a lot of other people feel that way too.

This debate isn’t unique to East Liberty, or Pittsburgh.  I lived in another city neighborhood a decade ago whose parochial blue hairs tried to run the Hispanic businesses off the main street – apparently they liked vacant storefronts more. But if you alienate the small business owner, who is supposedly the lifeblood of the American economy, sooner or later you’ll end up in a chain store (or vacant window) wasteland. That’s not what I’m interested in, at all.

Thanks, Becky.  Take me to lunch the next time I’m in town, OK?



One of my favorite pictures in a plenary presentation I often give is a stock photo of a yellow crocus blooming through a melted patch in the snow.  Growing up in the Cleveland snow belt, plants weren’t much on my radar… except for that first crocus of the year, which came up at a time when spring was still imaginary and the black crust along the edge of the roadway made you think more of something dead than something coming back to life.  Despite blizzards, despite ice, despite unending leaden grey skies, that impossible little patch of color came back year after year.  There is something audacious,crocus in snow even ridiculous about a crocus… tiny, flimsy little thing with its blossom too big for its stem, pushing in when larger and prettier plants won’t grow, and taking on the same battle year after year.

Crocuses is nuts.

What do we want for the communities that we care about?  It’s fair to say that we want them to be healthy – to thrive and succeed for the long term.  No one goes into this business wanting to make short-term wins that will set the community up for disaster down the road.  But even with our best efforts to create a Wise Economy, we know that blizzards and long stretches of black snow will probably show up.

What we really want, then, is to build resiliency – to equip our communities to be able to bounce back from setbacks — to overcome lost businesses and political fights and bad development decisions and continue to provide great places for people to live and work and all that other stuff we talk about.

Here’s the kicker, though: resilient isn’t flashy.  Resilient isn’t necessarily dinner-plate-sized blossoms, neon colors, explosive growth, front-page news.  Resilience requires the right fit with the environment it’s in, with all its limitations and dirty snow and lack of sunlight. In most places, growing resilience requires a long-range, fine-grained strategy.  Community resilience requires careful attention to issues like business mix and diversity, places for many different kinds of people to live, plentiful options for getting around, systems for food and water and travel and people’s livelihoods that spread the risk, lowering the odds of a catastrophic blow.

About the time I became aware of the crocuses, the economy where I grew up was falling

Cleveland in the1970s
the Cleveland I knew then.

apart.  We in the Rust Belt had learned to depend on a few industries, a few leaders, a few simple assumptions about the world, and we concluded that things would go on that way forever.

It didn’t.  Cleveland today is a different place than it was in 1980 – better in some ways, more challenged in others, but in terms of many measures, a place facing much harder times than it used to.  If we’d had our eyes open, if we would have lessened our dependence on those few industries, leaders and assumptions, maybe things would have been different.  Maybe, at least, we could have weathered that blizzard better.

A resilient community might not make a Million Places to See Before You Die list.   It might not feature the showplace blossoms or the tallest stems, and it might look stupid on your dining room table.  But if what you really want is a place that lasts, a place that people will care about and care for through generations…if you want your community to be able to bloom again after the winter…perhaps we should take a closer look at that crocus.  Maybe it’s on to something.

Evolution or revolution?

One of my clients found itself this week at one of those standing-on-the-precipice moment:  In this project, are we creating an evolution, or a revolution?

This community is well into the process of making revisions to some basic systems for how it does business, and the staff realized that they stood at a fork in the road.  On the one hand, they could focus on cleaning up and streamlining the existing structure: improve the processes, fix some nagging problems, put in some cool new tools, but leave the fundamental paradigm intact.  Continue on more or less as they had done for nearly 10 years.  Evolve.

On the other hand, they could take this moment in time to completely remake the process, to do something fundamentally different that held out the promise of curing some deeper ills that had always seemed to be out of reach within the existing structure.  Strike out on something new, potentially huge and largely unknown.  Revolution.

Despite my recent rhetoric, I’m not generally a damn the torpedoes kind of person.  In most situations I see infinite shades of grey, and I can usually find both pros and cons to the status quo.  Stability, institutional memory, consistency, lack of learning curve… those things matter, deeply.  Especially for overextended, good-intentioned organizations tasked with the most difficult issues around.

That was the crux of the argument in favor of the evolutionary approach.  After all, this agency had done a pretty significant overhaul of the same system a few years ago, and the memory of turmoil, confusion, angry struggles and uneasy compromises still hung in the air for many of them.  Two staffers described how the work to finish the new system had been completed by a small group in a closed room….whose door didn’t hide the shouting and crying from the rest of the office.  For weeks.

You have too little staff, huge demands, some recently-closed wounds. Why would you want to throw it all out and start over?

Here’ what amazed me and the other consultants working on this project: across the spectrum of people to whom we said, “Evolution or Revolution?” only a couple voted for evolution.  Across the board, even among the people we thought least likely to want to strap on the armor, the response was the same:

We want a system that works better.  Not a little better; much better.

Our community desperately needs new solutions, and we won’t be able to do that with just tweaks to what we have today.

It’s our responsibility to do the best we possibly can for the long-term good of our community…. And that means that we need to take on the revolution.


Revolutions are scary.  These guys know that… and they know that they don’t know how scary it’s going to get.  These guys have scars.  And they are making the sober choice to go into a bigger battle despite what they have seen before.

Deciding to start the revolution can’t be just a response to boredom or a cool idea in a magazine.  A revolution takes bravery.  And that bravery had to come from somewhere deep:

Deep knowledge of the place and its people.

Deep understanding that the existing structure, at its core, isn’t doing what this place and its people deeply need.

Deep personal and professional integrity to admit that these are the facts of the matter.

Deep personal and professional bravery – the will to power to assert that this is the time and we are the people who have the opportunity to make it happen, even if we can anticipate that we may ultimately fall off the barricades.

Making the choice to start a revolution is only a first step toward actually making meaningful change.  They and we know that this revolution could fade in the face of opposition, leadership indifference, carelessness or loss of bravery.  And I think everyone realizes that it probably won’t come out in the end the way we might think it will from where we stand today.  But that choice – evolution or revolution – must be made if anything is going to get better.

I’m proud of these guys.   Viva la revolution.



The Logic of Failure: Making better plans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The first steps toward the marathon

It’s a tough challenge that I keep laying out with this Wise Economy thing.  If you share my belief that the realities of the world and communities around us require us to rethink, reboot and re-engage in the work of building great communities, it’s easy to find yourself in the blind alley where those good intentions thump into a brick wall.  So the key question becomes, “How?”

I don’t completely know yet.  I have pieces and parts, and I can point to some tools, but there aren’t any easy solutions.  I’m working on it.   And for all of us, I think it’s going to be a long road to some perfect answer.

I started running recently after a lifetime of complete visceral aversion to anything having to do with fitness.  As I was putting on my new shoes, my 10-year-old son asked me when the last time I had “run” anywhere was.  He’s certainly never seen it.  I racked my head, and the only thing I could come up with was elementary school gym glass, where Mr. Ridgeway, who must have weighed 300 pounds, would chase me while the class was running laps because I was far and away the slowest kid out there.  I’ve always said that I only run when chased by something– that must be where I got it.  Believe me, the picture in my head probably looks scarier to me than whatever you’re imagining.

As a result of my complete lack of any sort of conditioning, calling what I do a “run” is like calling a kid on a tricycle Lance Armstrong.  On a ¾ mile circuit, I “run”/galumph/lumber  for a few segments of 100 yards each, interspersed with a lot of walking and wheezing.    But for some reason, I’m not hating it as much as I thought I would.  And every time out it gets a little tiny bit easier.

One of the precepts of the Wise Economy idea is that there are no magic bullets, and that we need to commit to the long, hard haul of incremental, deep-rooted, meaningful change.  I can’t take a pill to become a marathoner – I have to keep plugging at it, every day, bit by bit.  And I have to start with the uncomfortable step of looking like a fat blob ker-phlomping my way through the neighborhood, because without that start, I won’t get anywhere at all.

So what can we all do to start working toward this Wise Economy idea – toward communities that are vibrant, resilient, economically powerful and great human ecosystems?  Here’s a few thoughts as to what those first steps might look like:


  • We can strive to be alert to the context we are in, and be conscious of the fact that what we see here isn’t automatically the only way to do it.  When we assume that “our way is the only way to do it,” we are stopped at Step 1, and every consultant knows that the “this is the only way to do it” held by one community is usually the polar opposite of another.


  • We can read and listen to people outside our field.  One of my assets,  I think, is that I have a pretty wide-ranging mental diet – from planning and economic development to education, business, science, psychology, and so on.  I think this is critical to being able to break out of our self-defined boxes – we need to experience the world, at least a little bit, through perspectives that are different from our own, to help us see where the walls around our own perceptions are.


  • We can share our successes – even those first 100-yard lumbers — here at the Wise Economy Workshop through the “Contact Us” link.  I’d like to start collecting and sharing case studies of Wise Economy approaches in action, but I can only scratch the surface without you.


  • If you want to build a Wise Economy in your community, but you feel like you’re lacking support or you need some back-up, consider bringing me or one of my colleagues to your community to help kick-start that conversation.  A little outside perspective, a reinforcement of your voice crying in the wilderness, a call to action and some guidance on how to start taking those steps might make the difference between hopelessness and hope.  It’ll at least get folks off the couch.


Please let me know if you have other ideas or perspective.  I might not need Mr. Ridgeway to chase my butt anymore, but I certainly haven’t got all the answers.  Together, though, we can train for the marathon.



The Wise Economy Manifesto, Version 2.0

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

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


Here is the Wise Economy Manifesto (version 2.0):

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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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

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

zipped lips

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


We all need to Turn Pro

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Against the turmoil, here I stand.

Against the critics, here I stand.

Against the scoffers and cynics, here I stand.

Against my own fear, here I stand.

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

Against compromise and short-cuts, here I stand.

Against the seductive love of comfort, here I stand.

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

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

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

Fear?  Insecurity?  Rejection?  What else is new?

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

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

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

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

Economic development, big game trophies and missing workers

This post is edited from a musing written by my good friend Bill Lutz, who has show up in these pages before here and here.   I was deeply impressed by the way Bill captured the essence of the conflict that faces economic development today — and set it in the framework of ongoing generational change, which is an issue close to his heart (and mine), and one that I hadn’t connected the way he has.

We all need to have our eyes wide open about how the world is changing around us, especially if we are old enough to have gotten comfortable with the status quo.  As a Gen Xer, I find myself straddling two increasingly divergent views of the world — views that are firmly ensconces among people ten years older, and ten years younger, than I am.  In my professional life, I don’t see this division as pronounced anywhere as it is in the world of economic development.  Even with all the talk about economic gardening and the

fissure in the ground
fissures: they grow under stress.

importance of recruitment and retention, too often the actions of professionals in the field, on the ground, reflect old and unspoken assumptions about what a community needs for its economy.  I wrote last week about how deep and meaningful change requires that we break through our old paradigms, and while that’s never easy, the economic development field seems to be having a particularly hard time of it.

I believe that we as a nation and as communities are in the midst of a zeitgeist shift, one that I continue to hope makes a Wise Economy more and more achievable.  But to make that shift, we have to think ahead and have the wisdom, and the bravery, to make it happen.

For another interesting read on the generational and economic sea changes we’re living throughfissure, check out Fast Company’s recent series on Generation Flux:


Last month, Tipp City collected a major win in the game of economic development.  Abbott Labs, the makers of nutritional supplements, decided to build a new production plant for one of their products in this small community.  The project will lead to the building of a new $270 million facility and create in excess of 200 jobs.  These are substantial and impressive figures.

Each week, I have the chance to drive by the new home of Abbott Labs on my way to church and each week there is more and more progress on this massively large building.  But as I drive by the building, I can’t help but think if this facility is creating the jobs our future employees will want.  Yet again, is any project that promises hundreds of jobs creating the jobs future employees will want?  I know it’s almost sacrilegious to ask such questions in the heartland of American manufacturing, but these are important questions to ask.

Ask anyone currently working with those in manufacturing and it is not uncommon to hear a refrain that there are not enough people filling the jobs that are out there.  It sounds counter intuitive given the relatively high unemployment rates that currently exist.  Looking at those that are younger, the unemployment rates are even higher.

The big question begs to be asked: why can’t these businesses find people to do these jobs, even when the unemployment rate is so high?  Many postulate the work ethic of younger workers isn’t where it should be.  Some business executives say when their new employees clock in for their first day of work at 8:00 a.m. some leave at lunch and never come back.

Personally, I think it’s too convenient to blame this generation’s perceived lack of work ethic.  I am convinced that each generation has the same proportion of unmotivated, lazy and unproductive people.  I am sure my grandfather’s generation thought my father’s generation was a bunch of slack-jawed hippies that couldn’t carry their own weight.

What I am convinced is that the jobs we are creating aren’t the types of jobs the next generation wants or needs.

If you read a broad cross-section of the regional and national press about economic development issues, two themes  emerge pretty consistently these days:

#1:  Economic developers all across the country are tripping over themselves to get big businesses to come to town — and often throwing a lot of money at them in the hopes that this will make something happen.

#2: Young job seekers aren’t interested in working for big corporate conglomerates. There’s growing evidence, and there has been for a decade or more, that post-Boomer workers are looking for something very different from the Organization Man model that most corporations still hew to in theory, even if the promises of that employment are no longer reliable.

Take those two statements together, and you get a very different sense of where the problem lies.

The post-Boomer generations of worker grew up in turbulent times.  More than likely they saw their parents, or other older adults they knew lose their jobs during the corporate restructuring that was all the rage in the 1980s.  Those folks had been told that theirs were supposed to be career jobs, but it didn’t turn out that way.

In part due to the lack of these jobs, many in this generation grew up with their mothers going to work leading to another generational phenomenon: the latchkey kid.  These were the kids that came home from school to an empty house and it was in these few hours a day that these kids learned to be self-reliant.

So can we surprised when we see the most talented of this generation of self-reliant individuals reject the job offers of big business when they come to town, or don’t last when they discover what a mismatch there is between their guts and these places?

Post-Boomer workers demand to be flexible and agile.  They want to continually build new skills and new abilities, and if necessary,  they are willing to do it on their own.  These workers aren’t interested in signing up for a job, only to be pigeon-holed in a dead end with the ever-present risk of a pink slip handing over their head.

The fact of the matter is that economic developers are, by and large, playing a game that hasn’t changed much in the last 30 years.  Attraction and recruitment is still a big part of the economic development game, the major effort still goes into chasing the big game trophy, and communities keep getting stuck in the slow dance of big incentives and slick marketing.

Most importantly, this approach to economic development is often failing to help answer a bigger question:  Are the communities we live in attracting the jobs and careers we need to sustain our community’s  future?


Doing public participation right!

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

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

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

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





Structural Change, Cyclical Change, Institutional Change…coming to your hometown.

Readers of this blog know that I have a deep admiration of Umair Hacque, an economist and a great writer who has done one of the best jobs I have found of documenting the changes in the world economy over the past few years.  Maybe it’s because he started out as a neuroscientist, but he gets the interconnections between people and communities and economies and institutions… and he articulates it beautifully.  If I am a sucker for one thing, it’s definitely a good writer.

Umair recently posted a blog that is like a little miniature in a snow globe for its crystalline summary of the forces at work on our economy, our communities, our culture and our world.  It’s short, so I’ll reproduce it here:

I know we’re not really allowed to think subtly in the great gladiatorial arena of the American national discussion. But, maybe, just maybe, both “sides” in the structural vs cyclical debate are right–and wrong.

Let me put it this way.

I’d bet that our immediate unemployment problem is, indeed, “cyclical”–and can be ameliorated, to some extent, with more, orthodox, stimulus.

But I’d also bet that a panoply of other problems–stagnant median incomes, declining net wealth, underemployment, corporate cash-stockpiling, financial malinvestment and misallocation by the capital markets, to name just a few–aren’tcyclical. They’re structural, if only for the simple reason that most are decades-long trends, not the stuff of yesteryear.

I’d say there’s a tradeoff between the two–a kind of dilemma of political economy. Sure, you can throw money at failing institutions, to protect failed incumbents and create near-term “jobs”–but unless you want an economy of service McJobs, while propping up yesterday’s oligopolies and monopolies, it’s probably not the greatest investment in the world. Conversely, it’s difficult to simply twiddle thumbs and let a tide of human misery–human potential foregone–sweep the advanced world.

So here’s how I’d frame the challenge. Institutional is how we fix structural and cyclical.

If we accept that unemployment is cyclical, then the crucial question is this: will a stimulus package (or whatever) exert an opportunity cost–will it further entrench already failing institutions? Can we design one not to? Can we, better yet, design one to tackle the structural problems above at the same time, escaping the tradeoff? I think we can–and that it will involve investing in better institutions, not just rescuing yesterday’s, at the expense of tomorrow’s.

As I’ve said here before,  anyone who was hanging out in the Rust Belt in the 1970s knows that the problems that the national media has been squalling about didn’t drop out of the sky in 2008.

So many of our institutions — and perhaps more importantly, the assumptions that we built them on and still hold — are simply mismatched to the needs of a new world and a new economy.  Education focused on teaching to the test?  Yelling matches offered up as political debate?  Economic Development models of “winning” while our neighbors– to whom we all know we are joined at the hip — suffer?  Planning decisions that oversimplify the divergence and messiness of the humans that are supposed to live in these places? You don’t have to have an economics degree to see that in many cases, however you define it, this ain’t working.

Thomas Kuhn wrote years ago that the most critical scientific discoveries, the most profound observations, require someone or someones to break through the unexamined assumptions that underpin the status quo.  Because those assumptions

are unexamined, we don’t see them.  hey are literally invisible in plain sight.  Until we see them in a new way, or encounter someone who is coming into the situation from somewhere else — from someone who can see where the barriers lie and doesn’t believe in their legitimacy.  Real breakthroughs often require entirely new thinking.

Umair writes mostly about national economies, and he’s definitely a citizen of the world.

I’m not.

But from my position, rooted in the moderate-sized places of middle America, it’s hard not to see that deep change is needed.  Richard Florida calls it a Great Reset, Umair Hacque calls it a move toward eudaimonia (trust me — you’ll probably need to look it up.)  I call it a Wise Economy, and I think fundamentally, we are talking about the same thing.

Big picture?  Yup?  Idealistic? Probably.  Necessary?  Without a doubt.

And what does that have to do with you, in your local government, in your job, in your local community?


It means that each one of us who wants to make things better, who wants to build a better future, has to find ways to either bring out or be the conduit for that new thinking,  for the way to find a new approach.

Yes, I know that you report to someone, have a budget, have responsibilities, don’t want to rock the boat too badly.  No one said you had to trade in your suit for camel’s hair and eat locusts.

Instead, start looking for the walls of your community’s, your profession’s, your organization’s paradigm.  Think about what you and your peers are assuming, and what the alternatives might look like.  Talk to people who have a different perspective — who come from other professions and other places.  They might not want to rock your boat either, but there’s no harm in pushing them a little… and see what you can learn.

Umair wrote a column not too long ago titled “Make the Dangerous Choice to Dissent. , image curated by Shirl581

As you might have guessed, I think that’s a pretty good read, too.

So let’s go make it happen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

a brick
What can _you_ do with this?

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

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

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

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

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


Designing a new initiative? Good rules of thumb for you

In the “Good Ideas Directly Lifted from Someone Else” Department:”  Just came across these principles from the United Kingdom’s Government Digital Service.  The agency makes very clear that this is a work in progress, but I think that these are great principles for not just web product design, but for any kind of public initiative.  There are good, clear, non-jargony explanations of these points, and some nice examples at

  1. Start with needs*
  2. Do less
  3. Design with data
  4. Do the hard work to make it simple
  5. Iterate. Then iterate again.
  6. Build for inclusion
  7. Understand context
  8. Build digital services, not websites
  9. Be consistent, not uniform
  10. Make things open: it makes things better

For non-UK readers, this is an agency dedicated to making  online tools for government involvement work well.  Imagine that… a high-level emphasis on building a quality online public engagement experience…


I think the explanations and examples given on the page linked above explain these ideas very well, there’s a couple of things that I think are worth emphasizing, especially to a U.S. local government audience:


  • We need to stop being afraid of iteration — of the process of gradually improving what we offer over time.  We are often so afraid of criticism, so afraid of being wrong, that we fail to take the necessary first steps, especially in an environment where things change too fast to assume we can ever have a finished product — or an environment where we don’t have the staff, the time, the capacity to get it perfected.  In the tech world, launching something that isn’t perfect so that you can test, tweak and update is called “failing forward.”  The secret to being able to fail forward in a public space is to do what the Government Digital Service has done here:
    1. Make it very clear that this is a work in progress, and
    2. Invite people to participate in making it better.  We underestimate how much people want to be part of the solution, and here is a low-risk way to start inviting them in.
  • Building a website shouldn’t be anyone’s goal.  A website is just a tool — and like any tool, the value of the website isn’t in how pretty is, it’s in how well it provides the tools that people need.  A better analogy:  a website isn’t a tool, it’s the toolbox…It’s where you should be able to go to quickly and easily find the right tool you need for the job you need to do.   And that means that not only do you need that toolbox to contain useful tools, but you have to be able to find it easily.  If the tools in your community website are in a jumbled pile,  or hidden under that weird tray of bent nails in the corner that you don’t know why you’re keeping but it’s always been there, then you’re not getting the benefit from it –as a community and as a local government — that you need.
One more point:  the UK page is designed to talk about designing new online tools, and that’s something that this agency needs to do to meet their initiatives.  A lot of local governments, especially in the United States, have a tendency to think that any kind of online presence or tool they might want would have to be built from scratch….which for someone will bring back uneasy memories of the agony they went through when building the City’s web site 10  or 15 years ago.  No thanks.
The first automobiles in the early 1900s were costly-custom-built things that had no standardized parts

The Model T
The Model T
and required custom machining to replace any part that broke.  Which is why early cars were the playthings of the rich, and why the development of the Model T, with its standardized parts, was so transformative.
We are just entering the Model T stage in online tools, and that means that  many of the tools that you want your residents and governments to have no longer need to be built from scratch.  A small but quickly-growing collection of smart people across the world are developing online tools for better public participation and communications that are starting to transform how we think about governing… and making those available at a fraction of the cost, time and effort required just a couple of years ago.  They are already doing those things on the UK Government Digital Service list. All you need to do is choose which tools you want in your box.
Delib logo  Hat tip to my friends at  for this great piece of wisdom.


Don’t forget what success looks like.

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

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

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

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



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

It’s wise:




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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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




The Long Road to Recovery is probably longer than we think.

I put a post on my Google+ profile this morning calling attention to an article Richard Florida did for the Atlantic.   Florida does a nice job here of summarizing the thesis of his most recent book, and the way be ties together current and past pundits resonates to this former public historian. I’m grateful to him for being one of few mass media voices out there today who both understand U.S. history and can articulate its relevance clearly.  If more politicians and business leaders understood the economic and industrial history of the last quarter of the 19th century, we might all be a lot better off.

I don’t think there’s any question that we are in a reset, not a typical blip in the economic cycle.  A lot of people have written a lot about this lately, and the only mercy I see is that the debate between the “economy is structurally changing” advocates and the “no, it’s just a dip” voices is starting to be over.

As I have argued here and others have argued elsewhere, I think what we are experiencing today is the subsequent chapter, the continuation of  the sea change that we in the Midwest started going through back in the 1970s.  As anyone reading the Cleveland Press could have told you back then, it was pretty clear that the bedrock of manufacturing was disintegrating.  People argued violently about who was at fault and what should be done and how, but that didn’t end the plant closings and the layoffs and the loss of savings, economic security and optimism.  Today’s structurally unemployed and under-employed, the thousands of acres of wasted space and underused infrastructure that saddle the upper Midwest, all trace their roots directly to the unresolved issues resulting from that sea change.  Perhaps it’s just that now it’s catching up to the rest of us who never ran a stamping machine.

The world changed as it always does, and when it started to change, instead of figuring out how to deal with it at the deep level necessary to make a successful transition, we duct-taped the old machine together and did a lot of singing and dancing to hide the fact that the old system was gradually coming apart.  Which, of course, it eventually did.

We can’t undo the past, but we are losing the surplus capacity that allowed us to get away with not learning from it.  When I talk about Wise Economies, I mean using the critical evaluation and decision management tools that have been developed in education and business to make the best effort we can at trying to anticipate the long-term impacts of community decisions – and as a result, make the right choices more often.  I know that I beat that drum I beat because I live in the midst of a universe of over-simplistic decisions and unintended consequences that has defined too much of the world in which I live — not just in the past couple of years, but for most of my lifetime.  The deepest legacy of the post-Baby Booms generations like mine is going to be how we deal with the fallout of a few decades’ worth of failing to think ahead and make the tough choices necessary to deal with the sea change.  Changes happen over time whether we want to or not. But we should know by now that not dealing with them does not make them go away.

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

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

Q & A to post on PlannersWeb

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

What’s wise about a Wise Economy? Making conscious and proactive choices

Wise people and Wise communities make conscious choices, rather than letting circumstances make the choices for them.  As people, we all allow some decisions to get made by default — last week I could not decide whether it was worth my time to attend an event, and I was frankly relieved when I discovered that the deadline to register had passed.  Circumstances made the decision for me.  For little things with marginal benefits, the occasional decision-that-I-don’t-have-to-make-because-life-made-it-for-me can be a welcome break from the constant load of responsibility. 

But what happens when we do this with regard to an important decision? What happens to most people who drift through their careers or their relationships without making conscious choices about where to invest their time, or which responsibilities to put first?  Most of us know, at least intellectually, that there are important points in our lives where we have to make a conscious choice, and where if we don’t make a conscious choice, chances are we will regret it later.

But in our communities, our organizations and our political bodies, we allow circumstances to make decisions for us more often than any of us want to admit.  We don’t come to agreement over whether a proposed development is a good idea (probably because we don’t have a shared vision of what our community should look like), and we secretly hope that the developer will give up, because then it will be Not My Fault.  Or we know that our community is facing some big issues down the road – aging populations, aging buildings, aging roads – and we know in our guts that if we don’t do something, we will be in deep trouble sooner or later.  But the tradeoffs are unpleasant, we don’t automatically agree on what we need to do, we have to find the money to do whatever needs to be done.  Too many times, we let it go… until Next Year, the Next Budget, the Next Administration.  Which easily turns into the Next and the Next and the Next.  That’s a short-term benefit to us because it makes today easier, and it keeps us from having to change the way we do things today, and who knows, maybe some sugar daddy will come along while we are procrastinating and solve it all for us.  But probably not. 

In failing to act, we have abdicated the opportunity to take control of our future – to do what is in our power to position ourselves for future success.  We have also lost the opportunity to define for ourselves how our community should be, rather than letting the winds of fate blow us into something we didn’t want.  A few communities take this initiative, but too many communities drift through their big decisions – at least until drifting, not thinking ahead and not anticipating unintended consequences puts the community into crisis. 

Here is the deep challenge in this: we cannot assume that we can just snap our fingers and transform our communities from drifters into Destiny Commanders.  As I say ad nauseum¸ if it were easy, you would have done it already. 

In my writings here, I often speak of communities as though they were one person, and as though a “community” had one completely shared set of goals and objectives.  We all know that’s not really the case.  Because communities are complex, and in most cases more complex today than ever, our ability to develop a community-wide shared vision of the future and a shared understanding of the community’s needs and priorities has far outstripped our intuitive or common sense ability to do that.  When we had much smaller and simpler communities – and when we only cared what a tiny fraction of the community’s residents thought – it was a relatively easy proposition to make democratic, or at least supposedly democratic, decisions.  That’s why we have public deliberation processes based on the idea of the classical debate – if everyone shares the same fundamental perspective, then you have a shared base of understanding and mutual respect that enables rational debate and evaluation of potential alternatives. If you are all fundamentally the same, then you have a shared language in place to work from.

You don’t have to watch CNN, or your local cable broadcast of a public hearing, for very long to see that this isn’t the case anymore.  People who come to the podium, or write the letters, or protest on the street, come from more fundamentally different backgrounds, perspectives, and priorities than we have ever had before.  Obviously that’s essential and necessary – a government that only listens to a quarter or less of its residents is no democracy at all. 

But regardless of your spot on the political spectrum, it’s clear that this process isn’t working well, either at many local levels or higher up the chain. And this dysfunctional process leaves us drifting… it robs us of the capacity we need to make the important decisions, and it does so at a time when the decisions are probably as critical as they have been in generations. 

The aggravating piece is that there is most definitely a way to fix this.  Larger businesses with diverse workforces and complex product issues figured out more than 20 years ago that they could not simply rely on common sense, seat-of-the-pants assumptions and whatever social skills people learned in elementary school to enable them to do the increasingly complex work that the companies needed.  If you are in a cutting-edge car factory or a leading pharmaceutical firm today, managers and staff receive training in specific, step-by-step methods for enabling constructive conversations, managing teams of diverse people, setting priorities and making group decisions. Debates happen, disagreements occur, some people do better than others, but the overall process is designed to make it possible to make complex decisions involving a large number of people and move the company’s objectives forward.  And it’s not rocket science — an hour grazing on will give you a good taste of how this generally works. 

But how ridiculously little of this knowledge has found its way into our government and community decision-making processes?  It’s no wonder that so many communities are drifting…. We are using 19th century tools to deal with a 21st century world, hanging onto our ball-peen hammer when the nail gun is sitting in an open box across the room.   With the complexity and increasing urgency of the big challenges facing our communities today, we have to start using the tools that will work and make the conscious decisions that will help us build our communities’ futures.

True Community Grit

The lesson for today, girls and boys, is that you’re most likely to find the insights you’re looking for in the place where you aren’t looking. 

I have struggled for years with a key question, one that I have never been able to find an answer for: why do some communities succeed in the face of adversity, while others sort of scuffle along and never seem to take control of their destinies?  As a consultant, I have often said,

“If there’s a spark of initiative, a glimmer of can-do, I know how to fan that.  But what do you do about a place where that spark doesn’t seem to exist?” 

 (Like most things involving communities, you can say the same thing about people.  But let’s leave that for another day — the ink on my mail-order psychiatry degree hasn’t dried yet…)

I think I found a piece of the answer… in a movie I haven’t seen.  Actually, it’s in an article that references a movie that I haven’t seen.  One of my favorite magazines is Fast Company, an eclectic publication that ranges across technology, design, entrepreneurship, and other assorted interesting stuff.  One of their regular columns is written by Dan and Chip Heath, brother entrepreneurs who have authored a couple of popular business books.  Interesting, often relevant to my life as an entrepreneur, but not usually a fount of insight for building Wise Economies. 

This month’s column riffs off of the movie True Grit, but the real story is about the 20-year effort to reduce smoking in North Carolina.  The column focuses on the long, slow, incremental process of changing the smoking environment — first in a few schools, then in a few hospitals, then a few more schools,  so on and so on — until most indoor spaces in North Carolina today are smoke free.  Dan and Chip describe this process in terms of an unusually old-fashioned word: the program leader’s “willingness to withstand such a slog…is an undeniable showcase of ‘grit.'”  They continue:

In fact, new psychological research suggests that grit — defined as endurance in the pursuit of long-term-goals and an ability to persist in the face of adversity — is a key part of what makes people successful.  In a culture that values quick results — this quarter’s numbers, this week’s weight loss, this month’s click-throughs– grit can be an underappreciated secret weapon….

Grit is tough because you don’t get the psychic payoffs that come with an exciting discovery or a shift in direction.  You rarely get big wins to celebrate.  In fact, you may never truly win.   All you is … persuade a few more rural school districts to join your campaign.  And that slow, inch-by-inch progress?  It’s called winning.

How different a perspective is this from how we usually think about our communities?   Whether we deal in planning or policy or economic development, how much of our attention do we give to some ideal future state, and how little of our attention do we give to setting in motion and maintaining the slow, inch-by-inch progress that we know it will take to get us there?  That’s not the fun part (drawing the colored circles on the map or launching the cool branding campaign is), but it’s the necessary part if we are serious about real improvement. 

We have to demonstrate grit. both to make the necessary deep changes happen and to build the community’s capacity for grit.  It’s easy to blame the lack of community grit on the political cycle, the fact that elected leadership changes so often and so often fails to live up to our expectations.  But the truth of the matter is that effective Wise Economy communities build and leverage a community of leadership – not every resident, but a critical mass of people who take ownership of their community, or at least some aspect of it.  That’s where the grit will come from — from the determination of a body of people who are committed to the pursuit of long-range goals for the good of the community.  Where they exist, they create a force that lasts long past political cycles.  They create a rock-solid foundation of grit.  And that community of grit can be cultivated through training and through meaningful public involvement.

All fine and well, you say.  But my job is to create plans/administer zoning/land new business/write grants/do what my clients say/serve on the board or commission.  My job description doesn’t say anything about building community grit. 

Ah, but look closer… it does. 

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post that outlined how the practice of planning needs to change to make a dent in the kind of economic change our communities need (Don’t feel left out….I have a version for economic developers in the works).  And one of the things I pointed out is that, since job security in the field seems to be going by the wayside, planners might as well stand up for good planning .  I can’t think of a better way to really make a difference in our communities than to use our planning and management skills to build our communities’ capacity to show grit… by making plans that involve people, and that intelligently and clearly work out the steps to get there. 

Like tunneling out of prison with a spoon, or protecting people from secondhand smoke, the most significant victories we can win are seldom won in one grand measure –just like we know that one flashy construction project alone isn’t going to reformulate our economies.  If we are going to build Wise Economies, we as communities need to build and display the determination, the long-term focus — the grit — to make real change happen.

An open letter to the majority of elected officials at the state and federal levels:

Stop it.  Just stop it.  Are you trying to sound like children squabbling on the playground?

I know you’re going to say the other side started it, it’s not my fault.  I don’t care whose fault it is.  When my kids get in a fight, there’s no question that both of them had something to do with causing the problem – either what they did or how they reacted.  They both share some part of the blame. 

You contributed to this mess.  Deal with it. 

How can it be that we have bookshelves in the stores full of intelligent negotiation methods, appreciative inquiry, win-win negotiation methods, so on and so on, and you’re still thinking that you can win the scuffle by being louder or tougher?  Is it because so many of you were taught to win at all costs?  Do you think you have to act mean so that no one pushes you around? 

Grow up.    

If you win this scuffle (whichever scuffle, I don’t care which one you’re thinking of), what have you really won, anyways?  Have you noticed how easy it is to win 50-some percent of the vote, and how hard it is to get anything done with only that much support? 

Just because a fraction of the population thought you were a good idea doesn’t mean that you can do whatever you want.  Other people have different ideas.  You have no choice but to work with the people who were elected by the people who don’t agree with you, and if you are too busy poisoning the water, you won’t be able to do that.

You will say that democracy is messy, and if you know your history you will point to ugly moments in the past.  That’s fine.  But we have some really big problems that we have to get fixed ASAP.  We don’t have time to wait while you and the other side grab the ball back and forth from each other.  That gets nothing done.

We didn’t elect you to fight.  We elected you to fix it.

What you have to do is more like living with your family, not like fighting a battle.  You didn’t choose your brothers and sisters, and you didn’t choose the people you get to serve with.  But you have to live with them and work with them.  There is no other choice.

One more thing: you have hundreds of local government officials back home, and thousands all over the country, who are facing real and immediate problems.  They’re not abstract problems to them like they might be for you.  Those problems are staring them in the face.  And a lot of them are trying as hard as they can to rig solutions out of whatever they have available.  These are your friends, your supporters, your fundraisers and fundraising event hosts, and the people who will make a big difference in whether you like the place where you live when your time in the halls of power are done.  And if you are more interested in puffing yourself up, looking like the big dog on the playground, than in solving problems, you’re not helping them.  And one way or another, that is going to bite you in the rear end. 

I know a woman whose deals with fights among her children by making them sit on the couch and hold hands.  If the fight or pull away, they have to sit there longer. 

We may need a bigger couch. 

At the end of the day, you are responsible for yourself.  You have a tough job to do and people that you have to do it with, whether you like it or not.  And we really need you to get that job done. 

So figure it out. 

Oh, and don’t forget to eat your broccoli. 



Agenda 360 and the Importance of Setting Brave Goals

Agenda 360, the Cincinnati-area initiative to catalyze regional growth, has announced a goal of creating 200,000 net new jobs in the next 10 years.  A description, and a link to Agenda 360, are at

Obviously everyone is scared about jobs right now, and I am already hearing grumblings that this isn’t possible.  But that misses the point of what an initiative like this is really about.  It goes beyond a number, and more importantly here, it goes to the core of one of the necessities of a Wise Economy: bravery.

The current vogue term is BHAG — Big Hairy Audacious Goals — and that’s a term that’s been tossed about a lot within Agenda 360.   The value of a BHAG  is motivational  — since no one agency can do it alone, the 200,000 net new jobs BHAG is  directed at engaging the broad cross section of people, agencies, businesses etc. who do have some influence over the economy of the region.   Most economic development needs, and almost all effective economic development initiatives, are broader than any one agency or government – no Chamber or  agency can do it alone.  If we had that kind of Hercules, who could just do it all for us, it would have been done already.

By setting a small number of BHAGs, and getting a broad cross section of organizations, etc to buy into it deeply, Agenda 360’s expectation is that (1) efforts will be coordinated across a broad cross section of actors around reaching those goals, and (2) all those actors will be energized around meeting those goals — it’s not just business as usual,  plugging along in each entity’s silo and failing to change the region.

If we believe that an extensive change  needs to happen. we aren’t going to get that change unless we exert the fundamental bravery to do the work necessary to try to make it happen.  Even if the BHAGs aren’t perfectly met, the concerted act of trying to get there will certainly lead to big improvements.   I had a client in a very conservative town who once said something very wise:

“We’ve got to reach for the sun, the moon and the stars.   If we only get the sun and the moon and we don’t get the stars, we’ll still be better off than we are now.”

That’s still one of my favorite quotes.

So if you set a Big Hairy Audacious Goal, and you don’t hit the number, but the needle makes a big swing in that direction, what have you lost?  Why not set the BHAG, be brave and work to make it happen?

Something else big, hairy and audacious. Courtesy of