To you all who have been following this blog via email subscription, Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn status updates:
As some of you know, the web site for my new firm, the Wise Economy Workshop, went live last week (www.wiseeconomy.com). The wonderful Neal Rosenblatt and I have been spending this week getting feedback and making corrections and little tweaks. There’s some projects I need to add and a few other things, but it’s rolling and I think it looks and works great. Thanks again, Neal!
As a result, this blog will be moving to the blog page on that site. If you have been getting updates on this blog via email, I will personally move your email subscription over to the new site. If you typically read via Twitter, LinkedIn or Facebook, you don’t need to do anything – the next time I post anything, the link will take you to the right site. All of the past blog entries and comments here have already been moved over there, so don’t worry, your brilliance is preserved!
If you have previously gotten updates via email and don’t want to do that anymore, just shoot me a note at email@example.com and I’ll delete you. If you have been getting updates through some other method and want to sign up for email updates, there’s an email sign-up on the www.wiseeconomy.com web site.
Thanks again for your support, feedback, great ideas and great conversations. You’ve all played a big role in developing the Wise Economy Workshop, and I hope you’ll join me over there — don’t forget, www.wiseeconomy.com.
Think I repeated that enough?
Note: this blog post was original published in late 2009, shortly after Dave Bing took office in Detroit and when the issue of downsizing that city first began to be discussed in the popular press. Given the image boost that Detroit received as a result of the Chrysler/Eminem Super Bowl ad, and other causes for guarded optimism that have been coming out of the city in the last year, I thought it was time to revisit this issue. My biggest concern regarding these strategies is that I have yet to see a way to make such a massive spatial fix happen in the real world of market economics, especially in an economic setting where public sector dollars are not flowing like milk and honey. I am hoping that some of you good readers have some bright ideas or have seen it happen. I’d like there to be a good answer, but I don’t know what it is.
Oh, and if you click the article link, you’ll see that the author is one again none other than Aaron Renn, the Urbanophile. I am nothing if not consistent.
In addition to an interesting insight into what I recently dubbed the cockroach system for entrepreneurial development (I’m betting I am going to regret that…), the article also provides a great illustration of the loss of building density in Detroit’s neighborhoods over the past 60 years. It also presents a concept diagram of a future spatial reorganization of the City of Detroit. That concept diagram shows a central business center orbited at a distance by small, compact villages, connected by transporation corridors and separated by what the diagram calls “opportunity areas.”
This is the first time that I, at least, have seen a concept that begins to make a little bit of sense out of the newly – popular idea that cities that have lost population could create a quasi-rural environment to enhance the quality of life of those who remain. From a fiscal point of view, if for no other reason, that idea has not seemed workable to me because a big part of what makes it possible to deliver urban services is the density of the users. Ask any suburban county that has been trying to figure out how to pay for a transit system, and you’ll see what I mean.
If the users are too spread out, there aren’t enough users in the area that can be reasonably served to generate enough income to pay for it. And that applies whether we are talking about bus lines, garbage pickup, sewer systems or fire services. Regardless of how you feel about density, it’s pretty clear that density makes higher levels of public service possible. What the Detroit concept does is create centers of reasonable density, which might overcome the challenges that would face a quasi-rural city made up of scattered households surrounded by large gardens or swaths of nature.
But here’s where I am still struggling: how do you do this?
How does a Detroit or a Youngstown create, or at least facilitate, this kind of massive spatial change? Presumably, people outside of the “villages” would need to either relocate to the villages (or accept living a more rural type of existence – no bus stops, minimal road maintenance, etc.). Obviously it would be in the best interest of the city for most of its population to relocate to one of the easier-to-serve areas, and the new conceptual model But a property that is not in one of the villages would presumably become less valuable than a property that was in one of the designated villages.
As we have seen with the recent housing crisis, declining property values make it all the harder for property owners to make any sort of moves. The result, it appears, would be an “opportunity area” population that cannot afford to escape to the center or the villages. Being unable to afford to sell their existing “opportunity area” property for a decent enough price to afford the higher costs in the more desirable areas, they would be stuck — and given typical expectations of public health and safety services, that population stuck in the “opportunity areas” would still require at least most of the basic public services. The city might be able to get away with not paving roads, but the police and fire departments would still find it necessary to provide public safety, and senior citizens would still need assistance, and so on. Unless almost all of the “opportunity area” residents are able to get out on their own, the likelihood that the city’s public service costs would actually decrease significantly seems slim.
That equasion might change if the value of the “opportunity areas” were to climb, but if the basic premise is that the city encompasses more land than its population can support economically, a land rush on the opportunity areas wouldn’t be waiting around the bend.
So (assuming a massive government-funded buyout was not in the cards), how could the population financially make the shift from dispersed to concentrated? And is there anything that a Detroit or a Youngstown could do to help people make the private decision to relocate to a place that is better for the City to serve?
One of the news stories that has been circling the twittersphere lately is an interview with Andreas Duany in which he asserts that public participation requirements are too onerous to enable great work to be done. Early in my career I worked as a public historian and historic preservation specialist, so rather than launch immediately into my opinion, let me tell you a true story.
In the 1950s, business owners in downtowns across the country became agitated over the fact that their central business districts were facing a double challenge: increasing amounts of traffic congestion and increasing competition from new suburban shopping centers. One of the towns that did this was Green Bay, Wisconsin, which had a very energetic and forward-thinking business leadership circle. I knew many of those leaders years later, when I had responsibility for dealing with some of the unanticipated impacts of their decisions.
The good men of Green Bay did what most forward-thinking leaders do when faced with a fearful challenge on the horizon: they hired a consultant. The consultant they chose was Victor Gruen, an architect who had recently gained fame designing the nation’s first enclosed shopping mall, in Edina, Minnesota. In the couple of years that had lapsed since the Southland Mall plans hit the streets, Gruen had become a celebrity – the Andreas Duany of his day.
In a 2006 article for the New Yorker, Malcolm Glad well described Gruen as “short, stout, and unstoppable, with a wild head of hair and eyebrows like unpruned hedgerows.” Glad well summed up Gruen’s impact on that era, and today, pretty succinctly:
Victor Gruen didn’t design a building; he designed an archetype. For a decade, he gave speeches about it and wrote books and met with one developer after another and waved his hands in the air excitedly, and over the past half century that archetype has been reproduced so faithfully on so many thousands of occasions that today virtually every suburban American goes shopping or wanders around or hangs out in a Southdale facsimile at least once or twice a month. Victor Gruen may well have been the most influential architect of the twentieth century. He invented the mall.
Gruen asserted in Green Bay, as he did in dozens of other cities in the 1950s and 1960s, that the key to solving downtown’s competition challenge was to completely separate vehicular traffic from pedestrians. By massively widening Main Street at the north end of the commercial district, and completely enclosing the core of the existing commercial district, all of downtown’s problems would be solved. All it required was money and a willingness to be unsentimental and practical.
You don’t have to be Duany to understand what happened. It took 20 years for Gruen’s vision to obtain some form of reality, and during that time the City’s business and political leadership, and its planning staff, stuck to Gruen’s plan as diligently as the real world constraints of financing and private development would enable. Of course, those real world constraints enabled it a lot less than Gruen assertively but idealistically envisioned. By the time it opened in 1977, the new Port Plaza Mall and associated parking lots and garages had obliterated acres of downtown buildings, dislocated a hundred residents, and sent dozens of businesses to liquidation or the far edges of the newly-sprawling city, where many of them are today.
The collateral damage of grand ideas. If Gruen thought of them at all, I wager he simply thought that was the price of progress.
All of this might be OK, at least from a strict economic standpoint, if Gruen’s grand plan had worked. It didn’t. Port Plaza Mall was a money-loser from virtually Day 1. By the early 1980s, Port Plaza was doing so poorly that the City took the advice of another consultant and bulldozed another full block of buildings to add the magic third anchor, which they were assured was the way to fix the mall’s ails. By the early 2000s, that anchor was gone. Green Bay, like many other cities that drank the downtown mall Kool-Aid, continues to struggle with a downtown that is dominated by a windowless, dispiriting, too-much-vacant hulk where its heart should be. Meanwhile, the region’s former skid row, right across the Fox River within eyesight of the mall, has become the hottest urban neighborhood in the region, and the winner of a Great American Main Street Award.
This isn’t a story about the virtues of historic preservation, although the Green Bay story is certainly a good object lesson for the old Kenneth Galbraith line. Gruen’s idea didn’t fail because Green Bay wanted old buildings, or because the people who lived and worked in those old downtown buildings did something to undermine the plan. Like most people of that era, the majority of the City’s leadership and residents placed their faith in the expert and in the idea of progress. What gut misgivings they may have had were pushed aside. The plan was made by an expert, a national expert, right?
Gruen’s mall failed because he envisioned and sold an ideal solution without giving any attention to economic realities, and without consideration of the myriad of unforeseen factors and unintended consequences that could, and did, develop. It’s possible to say that Gruen could have tried to understand development economics, but even if he did, fully anticipating those unforeseen factors would have been impossible. Gruen stood at the beginning of an era, and there was no way anyone could anticipate how the world would change in a few short decades.
The greatest failure of Gruen’s plan was that he did not recognize or acknowledge that his Grand Vision could very well turn out all wrong.
We should have learned by now that our Grand Visionary Designers are not infallible. Our landscapes are littered with Grand Visionary Architecture that was supposed to fix something, or create Something Big. And so few of those grand visions ever came out the way they were promised, or managed not to create a new set of problems. Never heard of Port Plaza? That’s because there are Port Plazas of one flavor or another in virtually every city in the country. Some are malls, some are stadiums, some are brutalistic, forsaken parks. You can pick them out easily by their Grand Design ambitions and their total lack of life.
The fact that we haven’t learned this lesson is a blot on architecture and planning.
And this history is exactly why Duany is wrong about the importance of public participation. Public participation is important not just to try to get people to go along with our vision, or 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. When residents resist a new development, even when they supposedly “don’t like change,” it doesn’t take many questions, or much effort, to develop a real understanding of their concerns and their point of view. We fail consistently to realize that they are there every day, we are not, and they have a level of detail and a critical perspective that can make the difference between whether a proposed project supports the health of the community, or creates a new burden. Much of the time, the real concerns of the residents of an area have to do with nuts and bolts issues that can be fixed with relatively little effort or accommodation. And if there is a resistance to change, it’s possible that they might have good reasons why the proposed change is a bad idea. If we don’t enable and empower them to speak, we have made the same mistake as Gruen, and we are likely to create a similar legacy.
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.
Duany and other marquee designer types have the privilege of maintaining a distance from the dirty work of making a project functional in real life. I have worked with many of the nameless landscape architects and architects who are hired by the developers after the Duany types are paid, have gathered their glory and big checks and left. And it is those highly competent, highly talented professionals who deal with the fact that the Grand Architect ignored the steep slope under that proposed building, or the face that the charming landscaped driveway empties out onto a major intersection and those planting beds will block other drivers’ ability to see cars pulling out. How much of that could they have learned, and anticipated, and fixed, by simply listening with honestly and humility to the people who are experts in that specific location? How much would Gruen have learned about how the community’s small businesses would or would not fit into his Grand Design?
Ah, little stuff. Who cares?
If the people who live around a proposed development oppose that development, chances are they know something that is important to the health of their neighborhood, and the larger community as well. If we think that we are too much hot stuff 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. And in fact, we will be worse than that, because the object lessons of the damage we can do in our ignorance are all around us.
Gladwell describes the end of Gruen’s life in terms that remind me of a Greek myth:
The lesson of America was that the grandest of visions could be derailed by the most banal of details, like the size of the retail footprint, or whether Congress set the depreciation allowance at forty years or twenty years.
When, late in life, Gruen came to realize this, it was a powerfully disillusioning experience. He revisited one of his old shopping centers… and pronounced himself in “severe emotional shock.” Developers were interested only in profit. “I refuse to pay alimony for those bastard developments,” he said in a speech in London, in 1978. He turned away from his adopted country. He had fixed up a country house outside of Vienna, and soon he moved back home for good. But what did he find when he got there? Just south of old Vienna, a mall had been built—in his anguished words, a “gigantic shopping machine.” It was putting the beloved independent shopkeepers of Vienna out of business. It was crushing the life of his city. He was devastated. Victor Gruen invented the shopping mall in order to make America more like Vienna. He ended up making Vienna more like America.
This is a follow-up to my post a couple of weeks ago about community goal-setting (what should I make of the fact that the post with “ice cream” in the title got more hits than the one about sustainability?).
I am currently listening to my 12-year-old son practice the trumpet downstairs. He’s only been playing for 6 months, so good notes with clear tone are occasionally interspersed with something that sounds like a sick goose. For example, I think he just played the theme from the New World Symphony, but there was about 15 seconds of non-musical honking in the middle as he hit a tough spot. The cool thing as a parent is that, despite the occasional non-musical sounds, I can tell that he is getting better week to week. He is a long way from Carnegie Hall, but he’s improving.
In that blog post I laid out my perspective on how public participation should be done, but I admitted that I struggle with the idea of whether truly honest, inclusive goal-setting processes were reasonable to expect in the real world life of planning and economic development. In most of our communities, we simply don’t have much experience. Much our experience with planning and community goal-setting has not been ideal – either the opportunities for public participation have been limited, or participants have tried to out-shout each other, or solutions were over-simplified or not sufficiently tied to the hard work of making it happen. Or it was simply a matter of going through the motions.
Frankly, those of us that work with communities on a professional or leadership basis know too many situations where things have gone wrong. Why risk a transparent and deeply collaborative process when there are so many ways it can blow up in our faces?
Perhaps what we are really doing is assuming that our communities should be ready to play Rachmaninoff, instead of accepting that we might still be taking our lessons out of Learn to Work Together, Book 1. After all, we are mostly mature adults, not 12-year-old kids who just got handed the instruments, right?
In our guts, though, we know that our communities aren’t ready to perform at that high level. We have too much distrust, too much resistance to change, too many impediments to making the hard decisions and taking control of our future. So we limit our public participation to the bare minimum we can get away with, we produce plans with a lot of vague talk and no connection to action, we go through the motions and let everything stay the same instead of using the planning opportunity to make the changes that we know need to be made. Whether it’s a comprehensive plan or an economic development strategy or any other variation on the theme, the result is the same. We are fundamentally in the same mess we were before.
The fact of the matter is, although we as communities were handed the instruments of good planning a long time ago, we haven’t been practicing. We often haven’t built up the experience in working together that would be necessary to make proactive, strategic decisions about the future of the community, to allow us to be able to set course proactively and make good decisions when we need it.
But as global and regional competition increases, we find that we start trailing behind if our community is still focused on infighting or chasing the wrong solutions. We know that, if our community is to thrive, we need to be able to play at a higher level, but we haven’t yet developed the skills within our community and community leadership to do that.
Instead of assuming that we should be able to play the concerto today, maybe we need to regard our communities as learners. Maybe we need to expect that we will have honks and blatts along the way, and that sometimes our results will only bear a passing resemblance to the song we were trying to play. From my perspective, that would be OK, as long as we can admit that we are growing and changing and work on getting better. That would be, of course, a sea change in our civic lives: instead of being focused on accusations and rejecting less-than-perfect efforts, we would have to accept good intentions and imperfect delivery, with the patient realization that we as communities are learning to do it a little better every time. And by “we as communities,” I don’t just mean local government staff and leadership. I mean the residents, too.
Tall order, I know. But I have seen communities do it.
I would propose that the best way to tackle this issue might be to take a page from the folks who design web software: Get something going, get it out there, crowdsource feedback, improve product, repeat ad infinitum. Communities that need and want to learn to proactively address their futures, and do not have a successful track record in effective public engagement, often have more real success focusing on smaller areas and concrete projects, such as public site designs, downtown revitalization planning, neighborhood strategic planning, etc. The One Big Plan vs. Lots of Little Plans debate has been going on in both planning and economic development circles for generations, but for communities struggling to build a constructive community discourse, a Lots of Little Plans strategy has some significant advantages. In most cases, the stakes in a smaller-focus plan will be a little lower, so flubs along the way are more likely to go unnoticed by the larger public while they are being remedied. Second, a tighter focus should make it easier for the public participants to come to a mutual understanding about the issues that they need to address (a city is a largely abstract concept to most residents, but a neighborhood isn’t). And that mutual understanding of the different points of view relating to a place is absolutely critical to setting sound goals and making sound decisions. Best of all, a successful small-area planning process should create a new asset for the community: a body of persons who understand the importance of working together collaboratively, and have the experience and skills needed to do that. Drawn into larger planning contexts, those people will be like yeast in bread dough: they can help transform that planning by changing those conversations as well.
One final caution: My son has gotten as far as he has with the trumpet because he has a teacher who is teaching him how to play. Without that — if we had just handed him the instrument and said “here, figure it out,” he probably wouldn’t get much beyond the sick goose phase. Maybe he would have turned out to be some prodigy and figured out how to play the Haydn Trumpet Concerto on his own…. but I think the more likely result is that he would have honked for a few weeks and then quit.
If we are serious about building the capacity in our communities to plan the way we need to plan, we can’t just turn our citizens loose in a town hall meeting or an economic development strategy session and hope they figure it out. If we want those results — if we want proactive, intelligent planning with community support, whatever the flavor, it falls to the professionals and leaders to find good teachers. There are excellent methods for channelling and focusing citizens and creating opportunities for them to honestly explore their opportunities, but our communities need to be taught how.
We can do it, but if we aren’t taught and we don’t practice, we won’t get it done.
This post breaks all the Blogging 101 rules by actually having two purposes (ooh….don’t tell on me…). The first purpose is to encourage you to read this blog entry by one of my favorite urban thinkers, Aaron Renn (who blogs under the title The Urbanophile). This essay does an excellent job of analyzing one of my biggest irritations with current approaches to the urban sustainability movement: the almost overwhelming tendency of urban supporters to focus on greenhouse gas emissions as the reason why people *should* change their behavior in terms of how they travel, the food they buy, etc. Leaving aside the debate over whether the greenhouse effect is occurring, there is a very pragmatic issue that a lot of the rhetoric overlooks: most of the choices we claim as “sustainable” have real economic benefits in terms of short- and long-term money savings. There is an almost Puritan streak to the lectures about how everyone should sacrifice to do their part, but the simple fact of the matter is that a positive presentation of the economic benefits of making those choices is more likely to change more behavior than trying to guilt people into it. That’s maybe not high-minded, but it’s a basic premise of dealing with humans. Aaron says and illustrates it better than my summary, so check him out here:
I’d like to go beyond Aaron’s point, though. I think we are actually defining sustainability too narrowly. In its pre-environmental days, we understood that to “sustain” something meant to carry, to keep it going for a long time. You sustain a membership if you renew it on time; you sustain a grudge if you don’t forget what happened. Similarly, a sustainable system is one that can keep going over time, and sustainability is a characteristic of an effort that can be maintained. It’s obvious that this idea could be applied to an ecological system, but it can also be applied to anything that requires some energy to keep it going.
Our communities are in dire need of sustainability, and green roofs and busses are not enough to sustain them. We need to have sustainable habitats for the people who live in our communities — economies and jobs that allow them not just to thrive for today, but to have well-informed confidence in the community’s ability to provide that habitat into the future. Without that confidence, any citizen that has the ability to leave for a better habitat, will, and what is left will become weaker and less able to support itself.
My own Wise Economy Manifesto relies on environmental and horticulture imagery, as have the presentations that I have been doing around the country over the past couple of years. And certainly the Economic Gardening approach to economic development taps into that same idea. But if environmental sustainability efforts are going to facilitate deep and abiding change in how we tread on this planet, we must realize, acknowledge and accept that our communities and our people are part of that environment, and in need of being sustained as well. That does not mean that we have a very good track record in building economically sustainable systems yet; Chuck Marohn of Strong Towns has been doing an exceptional job of unravelling how our communities’ approaches to trying to grow local economies have created more Ponzi schemes than sustainable communities. But our failure to build sustainable communities to date has only made that need more urgent.
One more point: a “sustainable” economy is not necessarily the same as “an economy where a lot of people get their income from building wind turbines or recycling.” In many places, “green” industries also represent long-term sustainable growth industries, and in those cases, those businesses and jobs are certainly critical to building a sustainable local economy. A small but growing number of communities in my own state of Ohio, for example, have been finding that their skill sets and old manufacturing infrastructure are giving them a chance to grow a more sustainable economy. That’s a Wise Economy in action. But again, a “sustainable” economic sector may do something entirely different.
We need to manage our communities as sustainable ecosystems: places whose internal interactions, as well as the way they interact with the rest of the world, give them a unique ability to support a richness of life over the long term. And while a healthy ecological environment is certainly a big part of that equation, it’s not the only one. As Aaron illustrated, demonstrating the practical, everyday benefits of environmentally-responsible choices is going to be critical to making the Big Changes that environmentalists seek. Broadening that definition of sustainability to include us and our communities, not only as the problem, but as a system that needs care and sustaining, could lead to solutions even bigger.
It’s that time of year when even the most laissez-faire of us get hit with the Set Goals bug. We all resolve (myself included) to lose more weight, eat better, spend more time with our family, yadda yadda. And we all swear that This Year Is Going To Be Different… although we know in the backs of our heads that chances are we will be on the couch eating out of the ice cream pint by February. Even though we know that setting those goals are the first step to success, we also know that setting those goals is only the first step, unlikely to catalyze any long-term changes unless we do a lot more.
Since our communities and governments are creations of people, it’s no surprise that they do the same thing. Every strategic plan and comprehensive plan has a laundry list of goals and objectives, and the really good ones might even give a game plan for getting there. But we all know the old saw about plans that sit on a shelf and collect dust.
Despite that cynicism, we know that there are communities out there that get it together, that enact positive change, and that maintain that positive momentum for multiple years — sometimes, decades. So what makes the difference between the communities that keep their New Years Resolutions and those that end up on the couch eating ice cream?
After working with communities for a couple of decades, and getting a front-row seat for both great successes and some pretty spectacular failures, I think it comes down to a pretty simple principle:
The long-term successful communities are the ones that not only set goals, but remain consistently conscious of and actively use their goals. That means that they:
Sounds pretty simple when you put it that way, right? So why are the success stories so rare?
Part of it stems from the same reasons why our New Years resolutions fall apart.: we don’t make it A Priority, we get distracted by other issues, we make short-term choices that satisfy immediate desires but go against long-term goals… Oversimplify a community and pretend that its political and economic decisions were made by one person, and it will sound like the first 15 minutes of every How I Lost Weight/Found My Dream Job/Became a Triathlete TV show you have ever seen.
But our communities aren’t one person — they are made up of many people, and even the most homogenous community will include many more differences of opinion than we tell in our February good-intentions-bad-follow-through self-improvement stories. We want our communities to move in a coordinated fashion toward common goals, like an ant colony, but most of our members, and almost all of our leadership, would make lousy ants. Our brains, our opinions, our traditions of independence and democracy, means that most analogies comparing communities to a person or an ant colony don’t hold up for long.
A lot of the time, Our Community’s Goals are not the community’s goals — they are a person’s goals, or a group’s goals. Because we fear conflict, because we don’t want to take the time or spend the money, because we shy away from disagreement, because we who were invested first don’t want to consider that others might have valid ideas, we often fail to have real, meaningful community discussions about what our goals should be. Then we act surprised when we discover that people, whether in leadership or in the community, will not support the actions we need to take to meet those goals. They were never the community’s goals to begin with.
Of course, if we _do_ deeply and meaningfully engage all the people for whom an issue matters (and believe it or not, there are ways to do that), we will discover that there are some issues where we cannot find agreement. Whether it’s political or philosophical differences or simple practical disagreements, we will not be able to agree on some issues. Because we fear that we will not agree on some issues, we do not attempt to agree on anything .
But here is the part we often overlook: if we did engage all the people for whom an issue matters, we would find a lot of agreement. We live in the same place, we see the same situations. we have, or can have with a little additional effort, the same base of information. Because of that, we will find areas of agreement — they may not be the Exciting Ones or the Big Ones, but we will find some. And if we focus on those points where we can agree, if we make those our goals, and they are truly shared goals, then we _will_ make progress. Goals that don’t solve everything but allow us to make progress are, at then end of the day, more effective than goals that cover everything but do nothing. An empty placeholder in the Goals for Everything structure simply means that that one needs more work.
As we make progress, two things will happen:
Making this work, of course, also requires leadership that understands this reality and is self-assured enough to lead this way – an issue I hope to talk about more in the future.
Sounds Pollyannaish, I know. And maybe it is. So here’s a challenge for you: look at communities you know that have been successful over the long term. They can be local governments, neighborhoods, business districts — whatever works. And let’s share your thoughts here.
In the meantime, if you are trying to choose the salad over the Lardburger on the lunch menu from now on, or setting the alarm for the 5 AM Boot Camp class at the gym, good luck…. and be glad there is only one of you!
The article on retail incubators at the bottom of this blog entry is not new, but it’s in the file of “interesting stuff to write a blog about when it feels right.” Given that we’re nearing the pinnacle of the retail calendar, and many of us are spending way more time in stores than we’re used to, now seems like a good idea to explore the idea of whether we should be trying to grow more retailers.
Much of my recent project research has been about demonstrating to political decision makers that their communities have far more retail space than their population (as well as any other live body they can grab from somewhere else) can support. That’s become a fact of life for communities and regions in the early 21st century: from downtowns to old commercial strips to new lifestyle and power centers, the amount of space that was originally designed and used (and often zoned) for retail uses far exceeds our populations’ capacity to buy stuff. For that reason, a relatively high percentage is vacant. It’s pretty simple math.
As anyone who has been reading this knows, I am a big fan of entrepreneurship – it’s a central element of the Wise Economy Manifesto (sometimes I have been known to call them cockroaches, but it’s a term of endearment, really it is.) And I would personally have us buying more of our goods and services from local businesses, for no other reason than the documented higher return on investment to the local community.
As a matter of public policy, should we really be encouraging more retailers? If the funds we have available to spend in a trade area aren’t infinite, and we already have more retail space than we can support, what benefit do we provide to the community as a whole by incubating more retailers? Aren’t we theoretically setting ourselves up for more vacant spaces? Unless the amount of money to spend expands, we are simply shifting market share…. is that a benefit to the community, or just a new form of cannibalization?
To be sure, the catalysts for the retail incubators in this article are the property owners, who are borrowing a page from the economic gardening playbook to try to grow their own tenants. Probably a good idea for their enlightened self-interest. And growing entrepreneurs is an emerging central strategy for downtown revitalization programs like Heritage Ohio, which recently hosted a training to help downtown programs support entrepreneurship.
On the other hand, a publication that I quote a lot — the ULI’s Ten Principles for Reinventing America’s Commercial Strips specfically asserts that communities should change their zoning to prune back the amount of retail space that they provide — both to create space for new types of businesses and to create increased demand for retail goods and services in that area.
Here’s my germ of a theory: whether or not retail incubators make sense from a public policy standpoint depends on the explicitly-articulated goals of the community. If the goal is to keep as much of the trade area’s money as possible circulating within the trade area, then a retail incubator may be a good strategy. If the goal is to fill storefronts in a specific area, like a downtown, so that the area is perceived as being desirable, then a retail incubator may be a good strategy. But if the purpose is to meet a goal such as these, then it’s critical that the program be clearly set up to meet those goals. Incubating retailers so that they can populate downtown storefronts, but then permitting them to relocate anywhere, or not managing the rent equasion so that they can afford to be downtown, would be a waste of effort from a public policy standpoint.
And of course (excuse me while I find my broken record), retail incubation won’t work as a one-shot solution. If real estate costs aren’t managed, if the environment where all these great new shops are stinks, if new entrepreneurs can’t find ways to work with and support each other, then an incubator strategy will, at best, result in one or two new niche destinations that succeed against the odds surrounded by evidence of good intentions gone sour.
The neat thing to me about this blog is that I know that you cover the spectrum — economic developers, planners, downtown types, rural types, real estate mavens — and at least one random banker(Sorry, Ron!). What do you all think? Are there other benefits to incubating small retailers? What would you do to make sure it’s done right?
I am delighted to announce that I am starting a new firm, which will be known as the Wise Economy Workshop. WEW will help local governments plan for bright economic futures by providing economic development advising, economics-minded planning, fiscal analysis, public facilitation and assistance in procuring professional services.
This has been in process for quite a while, and I am thrilled to finally be able to announce it. Ironically, I found out late last night that today is National Entrepreneur Day. What more could you possibly need?
If you’d like to reach me, feel free to leave a comment here, or call me at 513-288-6613, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I don’t have the web site quite in gear yet, but I will soon, and I’ll make the announcement here.
Once nice by-product is that I will be able to post here much more often, and I am looking forward more than ever to the dialogue that we have been having around important issues. So stay tuned!
by William Lutz on Tuesday, October 26, 2010 at 5:07pm
One of the many facets of my job is to use statistics to paint a picture of the community. Usually the picture that is painted is not pretty, and this is out of necessity. Those that hand out money tend not to focus on the well to do communities; rather, they like to help those communities that can demonstrate a real need. So, every now and again, I hit up the latest figures from either decennial Census or the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey to paint a not so rosy picture of the community. The usual suspects end up being figures such as poverty rates, annual median income, unemployment rates. Sometimes I dig up more obscure figures such as percentage of households headed by a female (a likely sign of poverty).
This particular day I was interested in one statistic. In 2007, 49% of households in Piqua were receiving some sort of retirement income; either Social Security or a pension. In 2008, our community hit an imaginary tipping point: 51% of all household received some sort of retirement income. I immediately was taken back by the finding — over half of the households in this town are receiving income that the city can’t tax. Yet, the residents of the community still have needs that are to be met through tax dollars. It’s an interesting system we have created for ourselves.
I immediately wondered if other local communities that were similar to Piqua had gone through the same type of transformation. I looked at three other communities for which American Community Survey data was available: Troy, Sidney and Xenia [comparably-sized Ohio cities within less than an hour's drive from Piqua - dgr]. In both Sidney’s and Xenia’s case, the percentage of retirement income households actually dropped between 2007 and 2008, from 48% to 47%. Troy’s percentage rose from 42% to 45%, but was still the lowest of the four communities in this unscientific example.
I then flipped the question. I wondered what percentage of households reported wages from employment. Of the four communities in the sample, you guessed it, Piqua was the lowest at 73.9%. Xenia was at 78.6%, Troy 79.2% and Sidney at 82.6%. In fact, all these percentages showed growth (or in Piqua’s case remained even) between 2007 and 2008.
So, what does all this mean? Well, these numbers could probably be interpreted a number of ways. In my work in economic development, we are always told we need to do more to create more jobs. Given these numbers, it appears that the number of retired workers in our community has actually grown. Which leads to two thoughts. First, if there were no job losses, we would have a job surplus, wouldn’t we? Where would we get the extra workers to fill the positions from the recently retired? However, in this economy, we know that isn’t the case. So, the second throught is, if we are getting to the point of having more retired people, what is the right number of jobs to have or the right kind of jobs we need?
I can’t see our 51% number going down. Remember, these are 2008 numbers and things really didn’t get bad until 2009. If this number continues to grow, it shows that a lot of people left the labor force and maybe they are gone for good; it’s hard to say. Second, there are a lot of households with income from both retirement and wages. I think this shows that maybe that the new employment opportunities that are being going to be wanted in the future aren’t necessarily 40 hour a week jobs, but more like part time work to supplement retirement incomes.
However, the greatest impact is on our local government’s bottom line. While we still have a large percentage of households bringing in a wage (73.9%), our rates are lower than our neighbors, and as stated earlier, more than half our households (51%) have income we can’t touch. As we look at our community’s fiscal condition, I am afraid that these means continued declining revenue for the community. Not good news. Especially since the amount of work we are expected to do in the local government hasn’t gone down.
Either way, something is going to have to give. The local government may have to look at new avenues to raise tax revenues (possibly by taxing retirement benefits) or severely cutting service.
Part of what so caught my eye about Bill’s thoughts was that I think this issue is going to become more and more critical far beyond Piqua and Xenia and the like. Certainly any government that relies on earnings taxes will probably hit this issue. Is this a case for a shift to other types of taxes?
What do you all think?
My post last week about whether comprehensive plans are worth doing and what goes on with them generated a lot of very thoughtful feedback, both in the blog comments and on various LinkedIn forums. One particularly thoughtful comment came from Storm Cunningham, author of ReWealth:
communities seldom do any forensic work on dead plans, so the whole process lacks the kind of feedback that other industries have, which leads to exactly the same behavior–and quality standards–decade after decade.
The planning industry desperately needs to have after-action reports (like the military) analyzing what went wrong and right. But neither the public client nor the private provider are interested in seeing their failures exposed, so the industry languishes in “going through the motions” mode.
This really caught my attention — resonating with something that has always bothered me about how we practice planning. IMHO, the inability of planners (or economic developers or other local government administrators) to post-mortem a plan — to understand what did work and what didn’t work — is one of the critical shortcomings of the way we do planning in this country. Other than anecdotes and our gut sense, we don’t really know whether a particular recommendation was a good idea or a bad idea, even years later. We don’t know if what we proposed had the intended effect or unintended consequences. As I’ve discussed here with regard to the urban renewal approach that characterized downtowns in the 1960s, we know that our big ideas can go badly awry, but we don’t fully know when or why that might have happened.
I think that substantially cuts into the credibility of planning as a profession. There is a lack of intellectual rigor in a situation where we praise the process and the product, but have no idea what the results will be, that has always sat uneasily with me.
Of course, there’s three very practical reasons why that doesn’t happen. The first is, as Storm pointed out very wisely, no one likes to see their mistakes exposed. More gratifying to just let it be water under the bridge. The second is that local and regional governments are generally hard pressed to accomplish the day-to-day requirements to keep the place running — going back through the records and teasing out how the plan did or didn’t influence development or decisions has to look like a deadent luxury to many local government types. The third is that a lot of time has to pass — probably 5 to 10 years in many cases — before the recommendations of a comp plan substantially play out. Which means that there may be no one left who remembers the plan to begin with, and if they do, they are probably ready to move on to the next iteration and not mess around with the old one.
All of which makes me think that evaluating the effectiveness of long-range plans might be one of the most influential activities that university planning programs could undertake. If academics and students devoted at least a portion of their time to understanding how past plans did and didn’t work, instead of focusing exclusively on how they _ought_to_ work, they would not only fill in some glaring holes in planning theory and practice, but the students would come out of school with a more rounded understanding of what planning can – and does, and does not – do. That would make them better planners, and it would make them more effective planners, and the insight that they helped create would make urban and community planning a more respected profession, with a higher capability to actually make something happen.
I’d be particularly interested in what those of you who are in academia — or have touched on academia — think about this idea.