Revitalization: The Missing Function of Government.

Revitalization: The Missing Function of Government.

By Storm Cunningham

Several REVITALIZATION readers have asked me why—if economic, social, and/or environmental revitalization (not to mention climate restoration) is desired by most communities, regions, and nations—we don’t see the word appear in the names of more government agencies. This section of my third book, RECONOMICS (coming January 2020) addresses this subject.

Have you ever felt really great, decided to go for a walk in the park or along a river, and come back announcing “Wow: I feel revitalized!”? If so, you know that you don’t need to feel bad in order to feel better. And so it is with places: no matter how good things are, they can always be better.

Most public leaders say they’re working towards revitalization, but when did you last meet a public Director of Revitalization? When did you last see a substantial, ongoing public budget item with “revitalization” in its name? It’s as if our leaders enjoy promising revitalization, but don’t actually believe it’s real. If revitalization isn’t real, let’s stop wishing and working for it. Let’s go back to just fixing parts of our communities, and hope for the best. Let’s cease pretending that we’re working towards grand goals like creating resilience in prosperous places, or reversing the decline of distressed places.

If it is real, let’s stop the magical thinking. Let’s figure out how to define revitalization, how to measure it, how to make it happen, and who to put in charge of it. Let’s make it a real discipline, with the requisite research, education, funding, and qualifications of a profession. Otherwise, it’s snake oil. Saying that redevelopment is real, but not revitalization, is like saying surgery is real, but not regaining health. Doctors will promise to fix your broken leg. They’ll promise that this drug will make you happier, that drug will help you sleep, and another drug will relieve pain. But when do they promise to restore your health? How can they promise something they’ve never been taught, and don’t understand?

It’s like saying working is real, but being a success isn’t, and that one can’t learn how to become more successful. It’s like saying individual brushstrokes are real, but creating a beautiful painting isn’t, and that one can’t learn how to paint more artistically. Health, success, beauty, and revitalization are all real. To use a tired-but-apt analogy, revitalization is like great art: we can’t define it, but we know it when we see it. In today’s increasingly-broken and devitalized world, that’s not good enough. Treating a process that’s so crucial to our future in such a cavalier manner is simply irresponsible.

Why is it important to define revitalization, as being different from regeneration and redevelopment? Because revitalization is the goal of regeneration and redevelopment, and too many places are so focused on the activities that they lose track of the goal. Achieving that goal creates confidence in the future, which attracts more regeneration and redevelopment.

Without a focus on revitalization, good tools end up being use in bad ways. The best example of this is tax increment financing (TIF), which has been getting a lot of bad press lately. TIF is an excellent tool when used properly. It’s the only one that allows us to capture the value of future revitalization in order to raise money in the present to make that revitalization happen. But TIF suffers from three problems (discussed in more detail in a later chapter):

  • Misuse (such as for sprawl;
  • Abuse (unnecessarily subsidizing projects of politically-connected developers); and,
  • Overuse (sometimes to the point of insolvency, as general revenue sources dry up).

These three problems are less likely to crop up if local leaders keep in mind that TIF is a tool for revitalization, not just economic activity. And the best revitalization efforts are based on repurposing, renewing, and reconnecting our existing natural, built, and socioeconomic assets.

When folks do try to define revitalization, they tend to do so according to their own occupation, needs, and passions. To a historic preservationist, it’s about saving, restoring, and/or repurposing heritage structures. To an economic developer, it’s about recruiting jobs. To an environmentalist, it’s about restoring ecosystem health. To citizens, it’s about adding whatever’s missing from their neighborhood: safety, greenspace, business opportunities, social justice, clean air, affordable housing, etc. To a developer, it’s about boosting real estate values. To a mayor, it’s about voter happiness and optimism. Can we achieve what we can’t define?

Separating the goal of revitalization from the process of revitalization in our dialogs would be a good first step.

If we’re going to indulge in an activity with such potentially far-reaching effects as revitalization, it’s a good idea to understand its underlying processes…or at least determine whether it has any. Process is cause, effect, and flow. Revitalization’s causes, effects, and flows tend to manifest in three ways:

  • Top-Down (planned) is often characterized by large “magic-bullet” projects. Top-down efforts come and go with changes in political administration, and with the comings and goings of state and federal funding. But sometimes the top-down approach is best. Hamburg, Germany recently launched HafenCity. It’s a $14 billion ($3.25 billion of which was public money) waterfront redevelopment that’s creating 100 buildings to house some 12,000 residents. This is exactly what Hamburg needs, and there’s no way this could happen as a bottom-up, grassroots effort.
  • Bottom-Up (self-organized) is normally a neighborhood-scale, citizen-led process. Bottom-up efforts—such as Héroes sin Fronteras in Medellín, site of the UN’s 7th World Urban Forum—are highly underrated by governments and large NGOs, getting only token attention at development conferences. Beirut endured decades of conflict that left public spaces dirty and dangerous. The city was unwilling or unable to revitalize its parks, so a young lady, Dima Boulad, created a grassroots program called Beirut Green Project. Their first project, restoring Sanayeh Garden, was a great success. A teenager said ”You can feel the air quality change as you enter the park.”
  • Impromptu: This occurs when miscellaneous “Fixers” (redevelopers, social entrepreneurs, etc.) work opportunistically, often with their own vision and/or strategy in mind. Impromptu efforts are often small, incremental improvements to a place, but can sometimes be transformative. Retired New York City police detective Greg O’Connell is a Fixer. He almost single-handedly revitalized his current home, the Red Hook area of Brooklyn, and his home town of Mt. Morris (pop. 3000) in upstate New York. Impromptu efforts are lovely when they happen, but are unpredictable. However, they can be stimulated by making a place more “Fixer-Friendly”. Places that have great difficulty initiating or maintain their revitalization momentum are usually over-dependent on just one of these modes. In places that achieve Resilient Prosperity, all three of these modes are usually evident; sometimes sequentially, other times simultaneously and (ideally) harmoniously. In fact, this is crucial to creating a constant flow of regenerative activities that builds momentum, and optimism about what’s coming next.

…Ancient Greek philosophy produced two great ontologies or worldviews: Democritus’ atomism and Aristotle’s holism. The corresponding methodologies were the bottom-up (elements > whole) and the top-down (whole > elements) strategies. …radical atomists stress composition at the expense of structure, whereas structuralists pretend that there can be structures without components. For example, it is often said that Water = H2O, whereas in fact this is the formula for the composition of a water molecule. To account for a body of liquid water, even as small as a droplet, we must include the hydrogen bonds that hold the molecules together and explain the global properties of a watery body, such as fluidity and surface tension. As for the structuralists, they emphasize structure to the point of disregarding the stuff the system is made of – for instance, humans in the case of social systems. …systemism should not be mistaken for holism, because the former recommends combining the bottom-up with the top-down strategies… [these] are mutually complementary rather than mutually exclusive.
– “Big Questions Come In Bundles, Hence They Should Be Tackled Systemically”, Dr. Mario Bunge,
Dept. of Philosophy, McGill University, Montreal, Canada, from Systema, Vol. 2, Issue 2, 2014

The more complex a living system (such as a city) is, the more likely it is to display surprising “emergent” behaviors and benefits that can’t be traced back to any of its components. Revitalization is such an emergent phenomenon: it can’t be engineered or predicted, but it can be managed in such a way as to greatly increase the likelihood of its emergence. Little wonder, then, that “revitalization” is spoken more by politicians than by redevelopers. With the exception of some tax increment financing (TIF)-funded endeavors, developers seldom see an RFP/RFQ with “revitalization” in the performance specifications.

This is why communities with an ongoing revitalization program—as opposed to a disconnected series of redevelopment projects–are more likely to reach the goal of revitalization. If one defines “revitalization” as “equitable economic growth that simultaneously increases both quality of life and environmental health”, then that’s something all places need, no matter how good or bad their current situation.

Adam Smith’s widely misunderstood concept of the “invisible hand” of the market has led most cities to believe (consciously or not) in a “magic hand of revitalization”. They hope it will miraculously transform their haphazard renewal activities into revitalization, without their having to put any overt focus on achieving that outcome. In other words, they work for redevelopment, but pray for revitalization.

Revitalization is often conducted as if the locals were offering projects as sacrifices to a fearsome god that one dare not face directly. They are afraid to speak Revitalization’s name. We shouldn’t be distracted from the great (revitalization) by the good (redevelopment). As it says in the Bhagavad Gita: “We are kept from our goal not by obstacles, but by a clear path to a lesser goal.

In 2000, Marquette, Michigan created a program to transform their waterfront using modern form-based codes. Here’s how their mission was later stated: “The goal of Marquette’s waterfront redevelopment was to transform the former industrial waterfront into a walkable, mixed use waterfront zone that was physically connected to the downtown and supported a host of water depended uses.

I submit that their goal was actually revitalization, and what they stated as the goal was the strategy. After all, if Marquette had ended up revitalizing their waterfront—but not in the way described above—would they be happy? Probably. If they transformed their waterfront in the above manner, and didn’t achieve revitalization, would they be happy? Probably not. Thus, revitalization was the goal.

As with all complex systems cities and nations experience tipping points, both on the way up, and on the way down. With revitalization (and devitalization), that tipping point usually occurs when the general perception of the place’s future changes. It’s at that point where the free market (especially home-grown businesses) either stops or starts investing in the place, which either puts the burden of revitalization on the public sector, or relieves government of that responsibility (to a degree).

Many places try to change that perception quickly, via marketing and rebranding efforts. These are seldom successful. Perceiving on-the-ground progress over time is far more convincing to investors, entrepreneurs, and redevelopers. . An article by Eileen Zimmerman in The Atlantic CityLab (Dec. 30, 2014) about the town of Vista, California that illustrates the point:
Craft beer has had a profound economic impact on Vista…the industry provides $272 million in annual revenue and supports 850 jobs in North County, an area that includes Vista. Kevin Ham, Vista’s economic development director, says those beer dollars circulate through the local economy and support the creation of additional, indirect jobs and more business activity, like new restaurants and boutiques. ‘It’s helped to revitalize the downtown,’ Ham says. ‘We used to have to reach out to businesses to get them to locate here. Now they are coming to us.’”

Vista’s beer-powered revitalization was organic: no public agency or foundation can take credit for it. Of course, one of the “benefits” of not having a rigorous revitalization program is that anyone can take credit for such successes, and no one can prove them a liar. The cities are grateful these “miracles” happen, but are at a loss to accurately explain why they happened. But there’s always a “why”.

Places that are otherwise well-managed grope in the dark when it comes to revitalization, because no qualified person is in charge of it. Places that don’t perceive a need for revitalization are in the dark as to how to make their prosperity last…to make it resilient. As a result, they’ll probably need revitalizing in the future…probably the near future, given how broken our world is, and how fast new “breakage” is occurring. Here are four reasons governments seldom put anyone in charge of revitalization:

  • It isn’t controllable. Revitalization is what scientists who study living (complex adaptive) systems refer to as an “emergent phenomenon”. It’s a surprising quality or behavior that appears spontaneously, untraceable to a specific cause. This means that, unlike projects, revitalization can’t be done on deadline, or on budget. This terrifies bureaucrats and politicians.
    • Corporate culture is an emergent quality, and CEOs spend much time and money trying to manage it. Herb Kelleher, colorful former CEO of Southwest Airlines, said “Corporate culture is hard to define, but without it you ain’t got shit.” Ditto revitalization.
  • It’s too aspirational. Most places are already stretching the limits of their self-confidence when they do a large redevelopment or restoration project. Shooting for overall revitalization—especially if the area has been “down” for an extended period—sounds too ambitious. They dream about it, but are too timid to go for it. It’s understandable, but a problem nonetheless.
  • It’s not a goal with an endpoint. Regeneration is a constant process of all healthy systems: your body might not have a single cell it had a decade ago. Regeneration is the root of desirable qualities like sustainability and resilience. But most places only think of revitalizing when they’re in pain. This crisis mentality prevents healthy places from having a revitalization program: they think it’s only for sick places. That kind of thinking creates sick places. Ongoing programs help ameliorate the scariness: Without a deadline, there’s no point at which we’ve failed.
  • It isn’t a recognized discipline. Human Resource directors like the protection of requiring degrees and certifications of new hires. They don’t want to be solely responsible for determining if a candidate is qualified. It’s like the “nobody ever got fired for buying IBM” syndrome in the 20th Century: IT directors bought IBM equipment—even when outdated or overpriced—because it was a safe career move. Your Resilience/Revitalization Director candidates (let’s just call them Prosperity Directors) won’t have a relevant degree (there are none), so it’s scary for HR.

An understanding of revitalization dynamics is central to Resilient Prosperity efforts. Without an ongoing regeneration process, efforts to create economic resilience are doomed to failure. Efforts to create physical resilience will also be at risk, even if those initiatives are funded from outside the community. National and state government agencies have limited funding, and prefer to put it in places in which they have confidence in the local future. The same can be said of private foundations. Having someone in charge of revitalization is a confidence-booster, if they have sufficient authority and a decent budget.

Properly applied, the tactics you’ll discover in this book will boost confidence in your local future, but they will only improve your chances for Resilient Prosperity, not guarantee it. Extraneous, uncontrollable factors are always lying in wait. Numerous aid and government agencies worked heroically to rebuild confidence in the future of Liberia and Sierra Leone after both were ravaged by civil war. Great advances were made in health, education, agriculture, and assistance to war victims.

Then, Ebola struck in 2014, wiping out that confidence. Once again, businesses are terrified of investing in either country. But we can’t wait for the bad to stop before doing good. While economic progress has certainly been undone in those long-suffering nations, they are both arguably more resilient than they were a decade ago.

Most of our modern problems in the Anthropocene can be categorized as assets that are 1) damaged/depleted (thus needing to be renewed); 2) outdated/obsolete (thus needed to be repurposed/replaced); or 3) fragmented/isolated (thus needing to be reconnected. The $115 million 2015 bond package for Albuquerque, NM epitomizes the priorities of the 21st Century. It’s almost 100% focused on renewing (e.g., zoo renovation) and repurposing (e.g., rail yard redevelopment) existing assets.

One of their few new projects is a park-like trail that reconnects the downtown to the rail yards. The Dec. 29, 2014 Albuquerque Journal quotes Gilbert Montano, the mayor’s chief of staff: “We’re going to try to invest some money into that path and corridor to better revitalize and connect the rail yards and the Downtown area.” It says the budget “focuses overwhelmingly on rehabilitation and shoring up deficiencies, rather than building new projects that are costly to operate.

New forms of future threats now drive most planning. The Center for American Progress recently issued a report on “State Future Funds”, expected to harness at least $200 billion for climate change-related water infrastructure renewal. In January 2015, the USEPA launched their new Water Infrastructure and Resiliency Finance Center to support such investment in renewing our future. Renewing, repurposing, and reconnecting is the public spending formula for the revitalization element of Adaptive Renewal.

In the U.S., there’s a trend underway to use “revitalization” and “gentrification” synonymously. It’s understandable in some ways: people don’t like to feel ignorant, and they don’t understand revitalization. Replacing that complex concept with a simple one like “wealthy people displacing poor people” is comforting. But it will be a shame if this continues, as it will further lower our expectations.

Restorative Sprawl: I’ll end this section by acknowledging that the world population is still growing—and urbanizing—quickly, and that some nations don’t have enough cities to handle that growth, no matter how well they revitalize them. In that case, a model I call “restorative sprawl” is the way to go. It’s an integrated approach to designing, funding, and building new suburbs and new cities that goes beyond the usual “green” and “sustainable” designs: it actually restores watersheds, biodiversity, and farmland. It would work almost anywhere—especially arid lands—as there are few places on the planet where the local water resources, wildlife, and topsoil have not already been significantly degraded.

Albuquerque rail yards

Image credit: Google Maps
Albuquerque’s huge rail yards today, prior to being renewed, repurposed, and reconnected.

About the Author

Storm Cunningham is the publisher of REVITALIZATION, a new twice-monthly global magazine ( ).

Since 2002, he has been a full-time revitalization process planner for organizations, communities, and regions. He is also a professional speaker and workshop leader on community revitalization, economic resilience, and natural resource restoration.  His clients include national and local governments, universities, and non-profits in over a dozen countries.

He lives in Arlington, Virginia, and is the author of two highly-acclaimed books:
The Restoration Economy (Berrett-Koehler, 2002), and Rewealth (McGraw-Hill Professional, 2008).
See and for more information about these books.

His third book, RECONOMICS, will be published in November of 2019.
See for more on his work.

Storm can be reached at 1-703-887-2142, or at

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