Fixing the Present and Future Together for Resilient Prosperity

In two earlier issues, the Sneak Peek feature—which excerpts my upcoming third book RECONOMICS (coming January 2020)—has offered specific examples of how cities have revitalized their present and future together to create Resilient Prosperity. In this issue, we’ll focus on that strategy in a more abstract manner, so you can adapt it to any situation, whether a rural region or an entire nation.

Fixing the Present & Future Together for Resilient Prosperity

by Storm Cunningham

These challenges form the impetus for the country’s current urban reform efforts, a policy overhaul looking to turn Mexico from “3D” – distant, dispersed, and disconnected – to “3C” – connected, compact, and coordinated.
– The City Fix, December 31, 2014

I lived in the Tampa Bay area for 15 years, and still love it, so my wife and I visit frequently. In the 50s, 60s, and 70s, downtown Tampa was devitalized by horrendously destructive, insensitive urban planning and redevelopment projects. Since then, it’s mostly been a typical, sterile “roll up the sidewalks at 5 o’clock” sort of office-rich, resident-poor city center.

Over the past 30 years, city leaders have made many bold attempts to undo the mistakes of earlier planners and politicians. They include a beautiful, nicely-located new convention center; the huge Harbour Island redevelopment; a lovely RiverWalk; downtown residential towers; the Tampa Bay Aquarium; the recent Performing Arts Center (on a redeveloped waterfront site); the Channelside redevelopment (now dying); and an excellent trolley (now in danger of being decommissioned) that connects the downtown to the fascinating Ybor City area.

The essence of strategy is timing. Tampa did all the right things, but in the wrong order, with poor timing, and little or no integration. They apparently never even had a strategy (if they did, it was either a bad one, or a good one that was ignored). As a result, these ambitious projects never produced the desired revitalization. Each one was usually at death’s door by the time the next one started. There was no logical sequence to produce efficiencies and synergies.

Rather than forming an ongoing revitalization strategy, program or system, each project was expected to produce revitalization on its own. The result? A combination of outright failures and temporary successes (which faded for lack of follow-through and connectivity).  Tampa’s most connective and strategic project, the RiverWalk, will likely be most important element in eventual downtown success.

Many developers and entrepreneurs have lost their shirts along the way, all for lack of strategic timing. The irony is that the strategic and the programmatic element is the least cost-intensive: it’s projects that consume 99% of the funds. No one can say “we lack a strategy because we can’t afford one.” Tampa was never creating a revitalized whole. They had no program to capture the momentum of each project, or to create efficiencies and synergies that added value to each renewed property.

The good news: Tampa’s resilience efforts are reportedly better than their revitalization efforts. Their approach is holistic (defining eight community dimensions) and has both pre-disaster and post-disaster components. If they were to launch an Adaptive Renewal system, their resilience team would likely be a better starting point than their redevelopment team. This is usually the case, if only because most resilience efforts are recently born, and thus tend to embody new thinking with less bureaucracy. With the addition of the resilience goal, Tampa is finally fixing their present and future together.

Virtually all places worldwide are in a “fix the present” mode. This manifests as a broad assortment of mostly-uncoordinated public and private redevelopment projects. The simplest way to perceive the difference between revitalizing your present and revitalizing your future is to see the former as tactical and the latter as strategic.

Most communities with tight budgets understandably tend to focus entirely on tactics: projects that provide immediate functional or economic benefits.  But in today’s increasingly broken, rapidly shifting world, not paying attention to the future can leave a community high and dry, despite a plethora of excellent projects.

Though usually unstated as such, the universal goal is Resilient Prosperity.  Places that don’t have prosperity want it. Those that do have prosperity want it to last. Resilient Prosperity is what we’ve always wanted; at least for ourselves, if not for others.

That’s a false dichotomy, however, because the more widespread prosperity is, the more resilient it is. Resilient Prosperity is best achieved through a constant process of regenerating communities and nature. But that work has two parts, tactics and strategies. Most places are long on the former, and short—or completely lacking—in the latter.

As a result of constant warfare over millennia, most people are very familiar with the words “tactic” and “strategy”. This familiarity leads us to assume we understand how they differ. But do we? If we do, why are so many revitalization efforts strategy-deficient?

Stereotypes are dangerous, but not necessarily wrong. Canadians love peace, order, and good government. The English just need a good “cuppa” when the sky is falling. The French are philosophers and lovers, not fighters. Americans are fighters and doers, not thinkers: we prefer immediate action to long-term planning. But maybe we shouldn’t be too worried about that. Peter Drucker, the late, great management consultant, once said: “Planning is actually incompatible with an entrepreneurial society and economy. Planning is the kiss of death of entrepreneurship.”

Most people seem to have a pretty good grasp of the difference between the present and the future, so let’s just refer to tactics as “fixing the present”, and strategy as “fixing the future”. A good strategy is an adaptive, high-level plan for using available resources to achieve one or more goals under uncertain conditions. A good tactic is an action that advances a strategy.

Strategies tend to organize resources, whereas tactics expend resources.  Tactics make sense at their point of action: a strategy ensures that they make sense for the whole. Strategies can adapt and evolve, but not frequently. Tactics can and should adapt to the challenges and opportunities of the moment.  Strategies envision, plan, guide, and measure. Tactics deliver.

The ancestor of every action is a thought. – Ralph Waldo Emerson

For the sake of clarity, here are working definitions of fixing the present versus fixing the future:

  • Fixing the Present (“tactical renewal”): Relatively short-term projects that renew, replace, reconnect, and/or repurpose natural, built, socioeconomic, or human assets. The goal is to produce immediate new value.
  • Fixing the Future (“strategic renewal”): Long-term initiatives or ongoing programs that renew, replace, reconnect, and/or repurpose natural, built, socioeconomic, and/or human assets. The goal is usually to redesign or restructure an entire place to better cope with upcoming challenges, and/or reposition it to better respond to upcoming opportunities.
[A word about references to “human assets”: “replacing” usually refers to electing new leadership or appointing new managers who are more revitalization-savvy; “repurposing” usually refers to training the unemployed and underemployed for work in growing, or otherwise secure, industries.]

Strategy makes the timing, sequence, and integration of projects important. This is where efficiencies and synergies are found. In a strategic vacuum, leaders say things like “Who cares about strategy or timing? Cleaning up a brownfield or restoring a historic building is always good, right?

That’s true enough, but strategy is what can turn those good projects into what’s really desired: Resilient Prosperity.  This guide will usually refer to “renewal projects” which are discrete efforts to renovate, reconnect, or repurpose specific assets, as opposed to “revitalization programs“, which are ongoing efforts to improve entire places (cities, rural regions, etc.).

A strategy for fixing the future makes it easier to finance huge projects, such as “green infrastructure”, or transportation initiatives that remake and reconnect entire cities or regions. This can open them to new social and economic improvement opportunities, while making them more physically resilient.

Medellín, Colombia, for instance, brilliantly used transit-based connectivity to resolve many of their safety, crime, economic, and environmental problems. Infamous for drug crime and human trafficking in the 80s and 90s, Medellín was structurally and economically polarized: Wealthy and poverty-stricken neighborhoods were completely disconnected from each other.

At the beginning of the 21st Century, public and private leaders worked together to create a world-class public transit system, including the Medellín Metro commuter rail. It connected the slums to economic opportunity, reducing residents’ need to be involved in the drug trade. Along with improvements to their policing and educational system, this renewed connectivity changed everything.  By 2013, Medellín was winning global awards as “most innovative city”, “most livable city”, “best business location”, etc.

Researcher Sonja Braaker at the Institute of Terrestrial Ecosystems recently mapped the movements of hedgehogs in Zurich. She was studying urban habitat connectivity; how hedgehogs use corridors to commute among suitable environments. Such biomimetic research can lead to better city planning. Connectivity enables urban hedgehogs to find mates and maintain genetic diversity. So too does it facilitate human cultural and economic diversity, while enabling enterprises to find customers, employees, and partners. Reconnecting our fragmented places is a core process of Resilient Prosperity.

In the 70s, Boston was a wealthy (if troubled) city that few would call a candidate for revitalization. Revitalization was for places like Buffalo (which was the #10 city in the U.S. in 1850, and is now #73). But some very smart Bostonians realized that their city had structural problems that would forever keep them from becoming all they could be. Those problems dated back to auto-centric urban planning mistakes made as far back as the 1930s.

The program that became known as “The Big Dig” was born. It was officially completed in 2005 at a cost of $14.8 billion (not including interest on loans). The Big Dig was a brilliant strategy for revitalizing Boston’s future. Unfortunately, its implementation wasn’t brilliant; often described as monumentally inept, and rife with corruption.

The Big Dig had little value in the present, other than job creation and enhancing confidence in a better future.  It severely disrupted local traffic flows, making a lot of people very unhappy for years on end.

If Bostonians aren’t already saying that the Big Dig—along with their heroic clean up and restoration of their massively-polluted Boston Harbor—weren’t worth the pain and expense, they will soon.  Vast swaths of formerly-isolated waterfronts became available for new, green public space (enhancing quality of life) and for redevelopment (enhancing economic growth). It’s hard to justify expensive long-term investments if we can’t quantify their future value.

Revitalization efforts don’t always come from economic need: they often derive from post-disaster reconstruction, restoring peace after war, or simply a desire to make a place safer, cleaner, and more beautiful. As a result, regeneration and resilience efforts often arise together. Resilient Prosperity efforts thus encompass a broad spectrum of coordinated activities, falling into three general categories:

  • Attracting new and better opportunities;
  • Preventing or reducing new damage; and
  • Repairing existing damage and renewing existing assets.

Whether a city or nation is moving ahead can be determined by what—and who—it is leaving behind. If it leaves contaminated land and vacant properties in its wake, it’s on the way down. If it leaves its citizens illiterate, unemployed, underemployed, homeless, or hopeless, it’s on the way down.

Is your community or nation producing restored (or at least restorable) assets?  Given the disposable trash that passes for much of today’s construction, we’re doing a poor job of enabling younger generations to enjoy their own restoration economy. But we’re doing a great job of providing opportunities to restore our devastated natural resources. We shouldn’t be proud of that.

No matter what circumstances have broken a place—economically, environmentally, or socially—a rising breed of leaders I refer to in my next book as “Fixers” are at work on the solution. Fixers can be individuals or institutions. Their “fixes” generally fall into one or more of three categories:

  • Contained: Renewing assets in relative isolation;
  • Catalytic: Renewing assets in a way that inspires and/or enables others to do likewise;
  • Cohesive: Renewing assets in a way that brings stakeholders together, and holds them together long enough to achieve the goal.

Most Fixers fix only the present (existing problems). Revitalization without resilience, in other words. These are often the private Fixers. Public Fixers also fix the present, but are also responsible for fixing the future, so they must also identify and reduce vulnerabilities. People in many blighted or declining places are working hard to fix their present, but they’re not doing it in a resilient manner. Most will fail outright.

Of those that succeed, many will achieve a burst of growth and renewal, only to see it fade. This can be even more painful and psychologically devastating to the citizens than outright failure.

Dilbert - Strategy

As Dilbert points out above, much mischief occurs in the name of “strategy”: perpetrators are often long gone by the time their mistakes come to light. Some projects are purely strategic: they fix the future, but not the present. Most projects that fix the present also fix the future to some degree, but not all.  How can we determine if a project is purely tactical or if it serves a strategy? Here’s a hypothetical example.

Let’s say your community has an old industrial waterfront with ugly but still-functioning public infrastructure, such as a power plant or sewage treatment facility. If you decide to renovate and “green” that infrastructure—making it less polluting or more aesthetically pleasing—that would be a tactic that contributes to your community’s “green” or “sustainability” initiative. That would help fix the present.

But the future? Not so much. But revitalizing that waterfront—creating a public park, entertainment facilities, and mixed-use redevelopment with good transit connections—might revitalize of the entire city for decades to come. But who wants to live, work, or play next to a power or sewage plant?

In that case, the strategic approach would relocate the infrastructure, not just improve it. You could still make the new facility green and beautiful, but relocating it would fix your present and future together. The balance of “fixing the present” vs. “fixing the future” depends on current conditions:

  • A place that’s in wonderful condition, whose citizens and leadership are “fat and happy”, is at risk if they’re not fixing their future. Their Resilient Prosperity program will likely be strongly skewed—at least in the early years—towards strategy. Activities that fix the present will usually focus on specific problem areas, rather than the entire city or nation.
  • A blighted, highly-distressed place will probably skew strongly towards the present. Their renewal activities will be more focused on the entire community or nation, and will be more tactical in nature, due to the urgency of their situation.
  • An “OK” place might hypothetically have an equal distribution of present and future priorities, but is more likely to be doing nothing at all. Places that are “just getting by” are often stagnant and fear spending money, doing little to fix either present problems or future vulnerabilities.

Whatever the balance, fixing the present and future together is the path to Resilient Prosperity. Or, to paraphrase Khalil Gibran, “Progress lies in enhancing what is, while advancing toward what will be.”

Tampa’s aquarium and streetcar.        Image credit: Storm Cunningham


About the Author

Storm Cunningham is the publisher of REVITALIZATION.

Since 2002, he has been a full-time revitalization coach to 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, coming January 2020, is RECONOMICS: The Path to Resilient Prosperity.
See for more on his work.

Storm can be reached at 1-202-684-6815, or at

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