This Editorial for REVITALIZATION was written by Storm Cunningham.
Long-time readers of REVITALIZATION have been awaiting this moment for a long time. It’s been twelve years since my last book, Rewealth, was published by McGraw-Hill (buy it here). And it’s been eighteen years since my first book, The Restoration Economy, was published by Berrett-Koehler (buy it here).
What can I say? I’m a slow writer. But now, my third book, RECONOMICS: The Path To Resilient Prosperity, has finally been published. It’s the first book to show how places can (and should) create initiatives that boost economic revitalization and community resilience together. Those two goals are normally pursued separately, which wastes resources and reduces the chances of success for both.
RECONOMICS is available as a 400-page paperback or as an e-book here on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1657011720
RECONOMICS shows how to achieve economic revitalization and climate resilience together. Done properly, they should be two sides of the same investment coin. RECONOMICS is a guide to healing economies, societies and nature for policymakers, real estate investors, social entrepreneurs, non-profit leaders and climate restoration champions.
Does your city or region have an actual process for reliably creating resilient, inclusive economic growth…or just the usual vision, plan and projects? The reliable production of ANYTHING requires a process. Everyone knows this…except most leaders of local renewal initiatives. Over 95% of community revitalization and resilience projects fail to achieve their goals, and a shocking percentage of them fail outright.
The reason is the same in almost all cases: lack of a complete renewal process. There’s always at least one crucial element of the process missing. Since most leaders don’t know what the minimum viable process is, they can’t fill the gap. In RECONOMICS, that complete strategic renewal process is revealed for the first time. It can be applied at the community, regional or national levels.
If you have ANY role in improving your local future, you need to read this book. What it reveals can easily double the ROI (revitalization on investment) of your redevelopment, renewal and climate adaptation efforts.
Here’s what some kind readers of the pre-publication manuscript have said about it:
“Very concentrated, highly sophisticated and stunningly accurate.”
– Merrit Drucker, Anacostia Waterfront Trust, Washington, DC
“RECONOMICS should be mandatory reading for all Mayors, Chief Executives and Directors of Planning in cities and regions.”
– Rick Finc, Principal, RFA Development Planning, Edinburgh, Scotland
“Storm Cunningham’s RECONOMICS transformed our latest project, which uses his 3Re strategy.”
– Dumas F. Lafontant, Director, Lower Roxbury Coalition, Boston, Massachusetts
“RECONOMICS hits the nail on the head!”
– Nalin Seneviratne, Director of City Centre Development, Sheffield City Council, Sheffield, England
“Storm Cunningham’s RECONOMICS Process raises the bar for community and regional revitalization. It’s a powerful package, succinctly capturing the process that we have doggedly tried to identify over time, not always knowing the next step. The RECONOMICS Process brings a holistic dimension to redevelopment, inextricably linking vision and task.”
– Eric Bonham, P.Eng, Board of Partnership for Water Sustainability in British Columbia, Former Director, BC Ministry of Environment & BC Ministry of Municipal Affairs
“Storm Cunningham is so far ahead of the community revitalization game, I’m in awe.”
– Sarah Sieloff, Executive Director, Center for Creative Land Recycling (September 2019)
“RECONOMICS is a must-read for every mayor, resilience activist, planning commissioner and urban redevelopment professional who has been frustrated in their attempts to revitalize a place. It succinctly describes why most revitalization plans fail, analyzes what’s missing, and provides a simple, easy-to-follow strategic process for success.”
– Kevin L. Maevers, D.Mgmt., AICP; President, Arivitas Strategies, LLC, La Quinta, CA; Vice Director of Policy, IES, California Chapter, American Planning Association.
As a reward to REVITALIZATION readers for your long patience,
here’s the entire Introduction to RECONOMICS for your reading pleasure:
“We spent hundreds of billions of dollars that occasionally dealt with very real problems. In most cases, however, the money was wasted changing the physical layout… when that was not the cause of the economic and social problems facing that particular city.”
– Alexander Garvin, The Heart of the City (Island Press, 2019).
We often hear about the towns, tribes and entire islands—from Louisiana to the South Pacific—whose populations are being relocated en masse. But the thousands of coastal and estuarine places that are being nibbled to death by the climate crisis seldom get much press.n Woodbridge, New Jersey—less than 40 miles from where I was born—a slow-motion evacuation is taking place. Since 2013, the state has purchased and demolished 145 residences. They are then ecologically restoring the land to the wetlands they used to be, in the hope of making the rest of their township more resilient to sea level rise.
Some cities are economically devitalized in one fell swoop by the loss of a major employer, while others degrade incrementally, with their residents trickling away over decades. Some cities revitalize in a sudden burst of investment and renewal, while others regenerate in bits and pieces over many years. So too are we presented today with a broad spectrum of resilience challenges; not just differing in type of damage, but in rate of damage. This has always been the case, of course: what’s new is the explosive increase in the volume of these challenges, and their thoroughly global distribution.
In October of 2019, the International City/County Management Association (ICMA) conducted their 2019 Disaster Resilience and Recovery Survey, which asked municipal and county administrators about their level of preparation for natural disasters. Most of the 901 respondents had experienced a federally-declared disaster within the past five years: winter storms (60%), floods (54%), hurricanes (27%), tornadoes (19%), drought (17%) and wildfires (14%).
But, despite the increasing frequency and severity of such disasters, not even a third (31%) of them had a long-term sustainability or resilience plan, and only 16% were in the process of creating one. Over half hadn’t even considered doing so.
In ICMA’s 2019 Prediction on Disaster Recovery and Resilience, Abena Ojetayo—Tallahassee, Florida’s chief resilience officer—said “For cities that keep their heads in the sand, the impacts of these shocks and stresses will ripple throughout the entire community in profound ways. For those that plan ahead and invest upstream, their efforts will be greeted with enthusiastic new partners from unlikely sectors and innovative financial resources.”
Those survey numbers are bad enough, but keep in mind that the research only addressed the type of resilience that’s simplest to comprehend and easiest to sell to taxpayers as necessary: natural disasters. More-subtle forms of resilience—such as social and economic—weren’t considered, despite the fact that far more communities have experienced socioeconomic disaster than natural.
The ICMA survey also only focused on disaster training, recovery funding and resilience plans. No mention was made of a process for turning those resources and plans into actual resilience. Had that question been included, it’s likely the response would have been near 0%.
Resilience to social disasters (civil unrest, riots, war, etc.), economic disasters (sudden and gradual) and natural disasters (normal and climate change-related) is real resilience…what might be called holistic resilience. This book is an attempt to help places create holistic resilience by remedying that “process deficit”. It is NOT about designing resilience: there are literally thousands of books on the technical aspects of resilient design by civil engineers, architects, landscape architects, planners, ecologists, etc. RECONOMICS is about actually succeeding in your efforts to create resilient prosperity. That takes a lot more than good design.
Psychologists sometimes divide people’s mindsets into two groups: prove and improve. The former spend much of their energy trying to prove to others that what they believe is right. They fear and are closed to feedback, and are usually on a path to failure. As that failure becomes more apparent, they tend to become even more vociferous in defending their assumptions and justifying their actions. The latter group spends their energy improving their knowledge, so they can improve their beliefs. This tends to improve the effectiveness of their actions, putting them on a path to success.
Local government leaders, being people (for the most part), can be similarly parsed. Most will tell you they know what they’re doing, and are already performing all the right actions to improve their community. And they can prove it, because it’s what almost everyone else in their situation is doing.
A much smaller group constantly works to improve their knowledge and practices, with progress towards resilient prosperity the likely result. Are you a prover or an improver? Are you open to improving the process of improving your place? If so, you’re about to learn how to at least double your local ROI (revitalization on investment) with minimal disruption to your existing systems, minimal stress from the change and almost no cost whatsoever.
It’s called the RECONOMICS Process, and your community probably has several of its elements in place already. As a result, you can use a “plug the gaps” approach to implementing the process that reduces or eliminates disruption. And, you can do it at whatever pace suits your situation, which reduces the stress of change. What’s more, other than some personnel time, there are no costs involved. What’s crucially-important to remember is that it’s a minimum viable process: adding to it might be necessary, but removing any elements from it is never a good idea.
My research for this book often made leaders of community redevelopment, revitalization and resilience efforts uncomfortable. Here’s a typical conversation:
ME: “What’s your strategy?”
THEM: “It’s over 400 pages: I’ll send you a link to it.”
ME: “No, that’s a plan. A strategy can usually be stated in a sentence or two.”
THEM: “Oh, well in that case, our strategy is to grow jobs, enhance the quality of life and increase affordable housing.”
ME: “No, those are goals. What’s your strategy for overcoming the obstacles to achieving those goals?”
It’s at this point that the conversation usually becomes uncomfortable. Someone who is seen locally as a competent and knowledgeable leader is realizing that he/she doesn’t know what a strategy is. Which, in leadership circles, is akin to a farmer not knowing what soil is. I try hard not to come across as threatening or obnoxious, but such questions have to be asked when writing a book on revitalization and resilience strategies and processes.
I have the same problem when I get to the “process” portion of the interview. When I ask local leaders if they have a process for revitalizing their city or region, they say “yes”. But when I ask for details about the elements of their process, the reality seldom matches the perception.
I ask them if they did a visioning session, and they say “yes”. I ask for details, and it turns out that it was actually a design charrette.
I ask them to state their strategy in a sentence or two, and they’re still expounding 15 minutes later.
I ask them if they have an ongoing revitalization program, and they say “yes”. I ask for details and they point to organizations that have committed long-term funding. I ask who’s in charge of their program and where it’s based, and they draw a blank.
Vision, strategy and program are just three of the six elements of the basic renewal process, and already the interview is in trouble. Such answers indicate that they don’t actually know the meaning of “process” or “strategy” (even though every one of them would swear that they do). So it’s hardly surprising that most places have neither a strategy nor a process for their renewal. That absence is usually the primary factor retarding their revitalization, even though every one of them would swear that what’s really holding them back is insufficient federal funding, foreign competition for jobs, the national economy, etc.
Other times, when asked about having a proven process or strategy, they say “no such thing exists; each place is unique, so its method of renewal will also be unique“. The part about each place’s being unique is true enough, but the rest is pure caca de toro. They usually believe there’s no reliable path to revitalization (or resilience) for two reasons: 1) They are focusing on what makes their place different from other places, rather than on the far greater number of characteristics they share; and 2) It gives them an excuse to continue in their favorite mode…winging it. If there’s no rigorous approach to regenerating their economy, society and quality of life, then no one can accuse them of using the wrong approach.
Leaders of cities, planning departments and redevelopment agencies often do most of the right things when trying to bring a place back to life, but fail to produce revitalization or resilience for two reasons:
- they missed one or more key elements; and/or
- they did them in the wrong order.
Why are such two very fundamental mistakes so common? Because few of those folks ever received any training in how to create those mysterious qualities we call revitalization and resilience (AKA: “resilient prosperity”). This book is a guide for social, economic, and environmental change agents, public and private, who wish to be truly effective.
It describes how to strengthen what works in your community or region, and how to eliminate or bypass obstacles places put in the way of their own success. Places everywhere want resilient prosperity: they want health, wealth, and happiness if they don’t have it. They want to keep or increase it if they do have it.
This book will show you how to help bring that about. But, even armed with this knowledge, revitalizing a city or region—not to mention our planet—is hard. Revitalizing a place you don’t care about is harder. Revitalizing a place when you don’t understand the dynamics of regeneration is harder still. So, if you don’t have a real passion for such work, stop right here.
The good news is that what you’ll learn in this book will make this inherently-difficult job much easier. Once you understand the 6-part process described here, you’ll be able to plug in whichever parts your community is missing. And you’ll be able to do this in a locally-appropriate manner and pace that avoids most of the usual resistance to change.
Virtually all communities want to attract new residents, employers and real estate investors…and keep the ones they have. To succeed, they must do One Thing above all others: inspire confidence in a better local future, both short-term and long-term. Not hope. Not optimism. Confidence.
I differentiate “optimism” from “confidence in the future” because the former is generally based on a person’s (or society’s) general attitude towards life, whereas confidence is normally evidence-based. Don’t get me wrong: optimism is a good thing, and will help boost your success. But too much optimism can be deleterious, as can false (non-evidence-based) confidence.
For example, here’s an excerpt from an article titled “Time to wake up: Days of abundant resources and falling prices are over forever” by Jeremy Grantham—Chief Investment Officer of GMO Capital (over $106 billion in managed assets) and former economist with Royal Dutch Shell—published April 29, 2011 in The Oil Drum: “…we are in the midst of one of the giant inflection points in economic history. This is likely the beginning of the end for the heroic growth spurt in population and wealth caused by what I think of as the Hydrocarbon Revolution rather than the Industrial Revolution. …We (are) an optimistic and overconfident species. …Fortunately, optimism appears to be a real indicator of future success. A famous Harvard study in the 1930s found that optimistic students had more success in all aspects of their early life and, eventually, they even lived longer.”
He continued: “…But optimism has a downside. No one likes to hear bad news, but in my experience, no one hates it as passionately as the U.S. and Australia. Less optimistic Europeans and others are more open to gloomy talk. Tell a Brit you think they’re in a housing bubble, and you’ll have a discussion. Tell an Australian, and you’ll have World War III. ….if we mean to avoid increased starvation and international instability, we will need global ingenuity and generosity on a scale hitherto unheard of.”
Creating confidence in the future of a place requires a flow of credible progress. That, in turn, requires a regenerative strategy—and a proven process to generate, sustain and accelerate momentum—so you’ll constantly produce the evidence needed to create ever more confidence. A strategic renewal process can double your initiative’s results and make it (almost) failure-proof, at almost zero additional cost.
Good leaders help communities obey the reverse law of gravity: what goes down must come up. Unfortunately, few mayors have a clue when it comes to that process of reversing a place’s downward socioeconomic trajectory. In such places, normal Newtonian physics applies: a community at rest tends to stay at rest. But stasis equates to deterioration in living systems, such as cities. So, while taking a rest after a community improvement effort is restorative, remaining at rest leads to urban decay.
Community and regional revitalization / resilience efforts are widespread these days, thanks to global economic shifts and the global climate crisis. But most of them achieve little, for the same reason that the “smart growth” movement in the U.S. never achieved its potential: most are a collection of worthwhile activities that lack an effective strategy and a cohesive implementation process.
Over the past decade, that situation has been improving, with more places adding the missing pieces to their local renewal process. The problem is that they don’t have an ideal process to shoot for: it’s all trial and error. They need someone with a deep understanding of the kinds of strategic processes that reliably produce economic, social and environmental regeneration. That’s the knowledge you’ll soon have, if you keep reading this until the end.
Most community leaders know intuitively that a process is needed, but aren’t consciously aware that this is the goal they are working towards. Here’s what Eric Bonham, P. Eng. (Board member of the Partnership for Water Sustainability in British Columbia, and Former Director, BC Ministry of Environment & BC Ministry of Municipal Affairs) said after reading an early excerpt from this book: “(the) RECONOMICS Process raises the bar for community and regional revitalization. It’s a powerful package, succinctly capturing the process that we have doggedly tried to identify over time, not always knowing the next step. The RECONOMICS Process brings a holistic dimension to redevelopment, inextricably linking vision and task.”
Sometimes, cities have a spectacular revitalization success, and thus assume they know what they’re doing. But they then find that they can’t replicate that success in other parts of their community. That’s usually because they had no process to replicate.
The initial success might have derived from good timing, or good instincts, or charismatic leadership. It’s even possible that they accidentally created a complete renewal process by instinct the first time around. But, since no one was actually thinking in terms of process, it wasn’t documented as such. Thus, they had to start from scratch with the next initiative. They probably replicating most of the previous elements of success, but left out a key part of the process because they had no ideal process template to follow.
But we’ll return to the full process later. For now, let’s focus on the crucial missing element in most partial processes: strategy. Two polar-opposite strategies are currently popular among revitalizers: critical mass and incremental.
The capital-intensive critical mass strategy says you should throw all your investments into an area at the same time, so that each amenity help attracts customers to the other amenities, and so that people will be drawn from a much larger area by the “critical mass” of offerings. This strategy also tends to gain far more free publicity, and does a faster job of changing peoples’ perceptions of the area.
The incremental redevelopment strategy says that slow, steady, small improvements are better, and the agenda is more likely to be driven by the needs of the residents, and less likely to be dominated by big developers. The incremental strategy requires little or no up-front investment: projects simply happen when they can. Boston’s Back Bay and New York City’s Brooklyn Heights are two examples of successful incremental neighborhood redevelopment. On a citywide scale, New Orleans, Charleston and Savannah come to mind.
Both can work, and both can fail. When the critical mass strategy fails, it fails big: hundreds of millions of dollars can be lost. When the incremental strategy fails, people often don’t realize it: it usually has no timeline or deadlines, and there’s often no one tracking and reporting on it.
If your community has the potential to assemble the public and private resources needed to try the critical mass approach, and you decide it’s the right way to go, then the question shifts from “which strategy” to “How do we make it succeed?” But you shouldn’t forget that “critical mass” and “incremental” are only two of the most popular approaches: other—often better—strategies are available, as you’ll see in later chapters.
If your community has no significant resources available and wants to try the incremental approach, the question becomes: “How do we avoid the heartbreak of having stores and restaurants open, only to see them fail a year or two later because there weren’t enough other new businesses, and the downtown remained largely abandoned?” The incremental approach’s biggest weakness is often timing: insufficient synergies among component projects.
Often, when I congratulate people who are working on affordable housing, transit, walkability, green infrastructure, historic preservation, infrastructure renewal, regenerative agriculture, ecological restoration, climate resilience, etc. for their revitalization efforts, they say “What do you mean? This isn’t a revitalization project.”
That’s a signal that their work is taking place in a strategic vacuum.
That, in turn, means the local economy is likely getting a low ROI (revitalization on investment) on their community improvement expenditures.
Visionaries, designers, planners, policymakers, and project managers abound. Strategists are rare.
As a result, resilience and revitalization efforts often fail due to 1) bad strategy, and 2) no strategy. If they have a good strategy and still fail, it’s usually because of a missing or incomplete implementation process.
So, this book is as much about strategy and process as it is about revitalization and resilience. I call this strategic renewal process the RECONOMICS Process, and its intended output is resilient prosperity.
Most people assume that expertise in their discipline automatically conveys the ability to create a relevant strategy within that discipline. That assumption might be the world’s single greatest source of failure. A thorough grasp of one’s subject is, of course, essential. But just as essential to success in any field is an understanding of strategy. Implementation skills are key too, but they’re easier to find, since there’s an entire profession dedicated to that skill set: project management.
How does one revitalize a place, or make it more resilient?
- Planners say it’s all about having a plan.
- Engineerssay it’s all about efficient infrastructure.
- Sociologistssay it’s all about community pride and harmony.
- Marketers say it’s all about branding, beautification and street banners.
- Environmentalistssay it’s all about health and greenspace.
- Developerssay it’s all about housing, office space, and retail.
- Law enforcementsays it’s all about public safety.
- Underserved citizens (low income, minority, etc.) say it’s all about economic mobility, transparency and justice.
- Economic developers say it’s all about jobs and incentives.
- Architectssay it’s all about design, or their brand of it (“placemaking”, “new urbanism”, etc.)
- Politicians say it’s all about vision and leadership.
- Consultants say it’s all about _____ (fill in the fad of the moment).
Successful community leaders know the key is having the right strategy, and an effective process to integrate ALL of the above activities and disciplines.
Every one of the professionals in the above list are partially right: their activity (probably) contributes to revitalization. But few acknowledge that theirs is only a small part of the overall process. That’s not surprising, since they seldom what the process is. They’re like assembly line workers making fuel pumps, without understanding how an automobile works.
That division of labor works fine when there’s a functioning assembly line to bring all those specialties together. But few places actually have such a process to “manufacture” revitalization or resilience. Nor do they have anyone who knows how to create one.
Don’t let that mechanistic metaphor mislead you, though. Revitalization is an emergent quality of a complex adaptive system; whether a body, a swamp or an economy. It can’t be engineered or summoned on command. But an appropriate strategic process can greatly increase the likelihood of success, the speed of success, and the quality of success. That’s what this book is about.
In the right place at the right time—and with a lot of luck—any of those above-listed, narrowly-focused activities can trigger revitalization. But what reliably triggers it—and keeps it going—is a process that aligns all of those activities toward a common goal. And that process must be driven by an regenerative strategy. The above list mostly comprises tactics, and tactics without strategies have very limited outcomes. True success—such as resilient economic growth—derives from a strategic process (or luck). A strategic process creates capacity that’s far greater than the sum of all those parts listed above.
We all dream of reducing complex problems to a simple, single factor, like Jack Palance telling Billy Crystal in City Slickers that “the secret to life is just one thing.”
But trying to reduce community revitalization to just one—or even a few—of the factors listed above is like reducing personal happiness to just health, just money, or just relationships. The key to success when dealing with such complexity isn’t one factor: it’s an adaptive, strategic, ongoing cycle of acting, learning and adjusting that enables all of the relevant local factors to come into play at the appropriate time.
Over the past two decades, dozens of people with visionary sprawl projects has asked for my endorsement, and I’ve turned them all down. Some were truly brilliant designs, but we’re on a finite planet with a growing population. Sprawling onto arable land or wildlife habitat is just dumb, no matter how intelligently we do it. It’s as if someone were to ask me “Is it OK if I shoot some people? I promise to only use a .38, not a .44 magnum.”
Some sprawl is less damaging than other sprawl, but sprawl is sprawl, and less damage is not regeneration. That’s not to say that no sprawl is needed: there’s a limit to how dense we can make our cities to handle our metastasizing population. So some sprawl will eventually be needed, and it should be intelligent sprawl.
“Eventually” is the key word above: few, if any, cities have reached that “maximum densification” point. If they think they have, they probably need more innovative thinking, not more sprawl.
Revitalization ignorance results in many myths regarding economic justice, such as “gentrification.” This is a word that’s often mistakenly used in place of “revitalization”. Studying the past 20 years, researchers recently found that the displacement of long-term, low-income, minority residents from revitalized neighborhoods (gentrification) is not as common as believed, though it can be quite severe in the places—such as Washington, DC—where it is happening.
In fact, those researchers discovered that the opposite is far more common: lower-income residents tend to move from revitalized places less frequently than they move from non-revitalized neighborhoods. The reason is common sense: revitalized places offer a better quality of life for all, regardless of income: nicer parks, better shopping, prettier and safer streetscapes, more job opportunities, better transit, etc.
The major problem with most revitalization efforts is that they comprise mostly tactics, with little or no strategy. Short-term benefits sometimes result, but seldom long-term gains. Lots of activity, but not much insight or shared purpose. They are busy redeveloping, renewing, regenerating, renovating, reimagining, redesigning, replacing, reusing, reconnecting, and repurposing. Nothing wrong with that: it’s the stuff of revitalization.
But they are mostly isolated packages of stuff. Even when unified visually by a plan, they lack a process for building momentum and actually achieving that mysterious emergent quality we call revitalization. So, much of that good stuff often goes to waste. Truth be told, we often don’t even agree on what revitalization is. We fire CEOs who use such grope-in-the-dark approaches to growing a company, but we seem to tolerate it—even expect it—in public leaders.
Another major reason places devitalize is because they think revitalization is something one only does when in crisis…a reaction to decline. But ALL places—no matter how healthy, wealthy, and beautiful—should be striving for more strength and vibrance, if only to avoid going backwards.
“You can’t do all the good the world needs,
but the world needs all the good you can do.”
– from “All the Good,” by singer Jana Stanfield.
Places are like people. It’s said that all anyone needs to be happy is something to look forward to. Having an inspiring, shared vision, a map of your opportunities, a credible strategy, and trusted leaders does this for a community. The best way for individuals to break out of depressing doldrums is via action: it’s no different for communities. Many places recede because they treat revitalization as a remedy, rather than as a mode of existence. They forget to continue revitalizing. That lack of action leads to fear and loss of confidence, which creates additional barriers to action.
Places exist in 3 basic states: degeneration, equilibrium, and regeneration. But what seems to be healthy equilibrium on paper (such as “state of the economy” reports) is often an illusory, brittle, stagnating form of stasis in disguise. Resilience is a far better goal than stability. As with all complex adaptive systems, cities and nations can shift states seemingly overnight. The triggers for these shifts are often tiny; far out of proportion to the magnitude of the ensuing change. In today’s technology-driven, internet-connected world, economies and societies are more tightly coupled than ever, so minor local disturbances to the system more frequently have major national—or even global—effects.
Strategies are a technology. Technology is the manufacture, use, and/or understanding of tools, machines, techniques, or systems designed to solve problems or perform functions. In the case of strategies, that function is to produce success. That’s it: all strategies have that single purpose.
After Boeing lost several big military contracts to competitors, its recently-hired CEO, Leanne Caret, adopted a new strategy in 2016. When a Bloomberg reporter asked her how she would know if her strategy was working, she said “When we start winning.” She knows that this is the sole metric of a strategy’s value. In November of 2018, Boeing won a $13 billion Pentagon contract.
Technologies aren’t just hardware, or even software: they are also wetware (us). Our bodies are technologies, as are our thought constructs (techniques) that help us achieve an end.
Strategies (and tactics) are thus very simple technologies. A strategy is a technique that increases the likelihood of success for an action, project, or program.
Like DNA (which responds to the environment and guides a body’s decisions), a strategy must be concise: usually just a sentence or three. Any longer, and it can’t be remembered. That renders it useless, since it can’t then guide moment-to-moment decision-making. The previously-mentioned strategic vacuums in leadership can even happen when a strategy is present…if it’s too wordy to be useful.
But the situation gets worse. Most places enjoy a surfeit of public and private leaders with expertise in creating buildings, infrastructure, and critical services. But they suffer ignorance of the principles, frameworks, and theory related to revitalization: the process of boosting strength and vibrance.
As mentioned earlier, all places need regeneration of some sort, whether after a long decline, a brief catastrophe, an excessive period of comfortable stagnation. Or, they might need revitalization in order to build environmental, economic and/or social resilience. Whatever the causes and goals, the necessary regenerative expertise is similar…and similarly lacking.
Also as mentioned earlier, lack of a strategy—or lack of the right strategy—is the primary reason so many excellent renewal projects fail to reverse a community’s downward trajectory. In many cases, those projects should have revitalized the place, but there was nothing to capture, leverage, and perpetuate their momentum.
But a strategy by itself can’t do that, of course. The right strategy makes needed changes less painful and less expensive, which lubricates the desired shift. But the shift itself comes from process. The RECONOMICS Process in this book can—if properly applied—leverage your next expensive redevelopment or restoration project into resilient prosperity for all. The irony is that adding the RECONOMICS Process costs almost nothing. The costs are mostly in the projects, but the revitalization is mostly in the process.
Processes drive all life on Earth. Plants have a process for turning water, carbon and solar energy into biomass. Animals have a survival process for finding shelter, food and mates.
When the first human learned how to build a fire, it wasn’t because he/she observed that certain things burn. It wasn’t because he/she had discovered how to create a spark or harvest an ember from friction or a lightning strike. It was because they developed a process for applying a spark or ember to tinder, which ignited kindling, which ignited firewood. Skip one of those, and no warmth is forthcoming.
So, process is the real key to success. But not just any management process will do when the desired result is resilient prosperity. It must be the right program. The right vision. The right strategy. The right policies. The right partners. And the right projects. This book defines all of those “rights.”
But not in a prescriptive manner. In construction, one can have prescriptive specifications or performance specifications. The former says “build this bridge with heat-treated carbon steel girders.” The latter says “build this bridge to last for 100 years, handle 50,000 cars and trucks daily, and withstand 140 mile per hour winds.”
Performance specifications allow you to use the latest knowledge and the most up-to-date materials and technologies to achieve your goals. And so it is with the resilient prosperity process we call reconomics.
Reconomics is not an economic theory, although it contains one. Neither is it an economic policy framework, although it makes use of policy. Reconomics can be seen as an adaptive, circular flow of regenerative program, vision, strategy, policy, partnership, and projects for the purpose of creating resilient prosperity.
This book will explain—and give examples of—that process in action. It will also describe each of the components: regenerative programs, regenerative visions (with a map of local renewable assets), regenerative strategies, regenerative policies, regenerative partnerships and regenerative projects.
The word “regenerative” is used repeatedly because it’s not enough for you to simply have those six elements in your community: each of them needs to actually contribute to creating revitalization and/or resilience. For instance, it’s not uncommon for a place to have many environmental restoration projects in their area, while their policies are still incentivizing environmental destruction.
There are two aspects to each element: structural and functional. Having a community visioning group is structural. Whether they produce intelligent, revitalizing visions or devitalizing visions based on obsolete assumptions is the functional aspect. So, it’s possible for a community to have all six elements of the strategic process, but it won’t be a strategic renewal process unless the function of each of those elements is regenerative.
By “regenerative vision”, I mean that it must be centered on equitable improvement of the economy and quality of life. The 2019 Fall Meeting of the Urban Land Institute in Washington, DC had media briefing on real estate trends. Every member of the panel was a national redevelopment leader, presenting many sophisticated ways of slicing and dicing the numbers to get a better feel for trends. During the Q&A, I asked them if any non-numerical indicators had emerged, on which they based their decisions as to which cities were investment-worthy. All of them agreed that the key indicator was quality of life.
This doesn’t mean other kinds of visions and goals are never appropriate, of course. If you were in Rwanda in July of 1994, you would probably choose a vision centered on stopping citizens from hacking each other to death. That could be seen as a prerequisite of revitalization. But it still relates to quality of life.
By “regenerative strategy”, I mean that accomplishing your vision should accomplished primarily by repurposing, renewing and reconnecting your existing natural, built and socioeconomic assets. This is as opposed to basing it on acquiring new assets, such as sprawl in the context of cities, or on M&A (mergers and acquisitions) in the context of corporations.
“Inspiration usually comes during work, rather than before it.”
– Madeleine L’Engle, American writer.
This book will make specific recommendations as to the kinds of programs, visions, strategies, policies, partnerships and projects that will help you revitalize your career, your organization, your community or your nation. But turning that advice into the revitalization of what you care about is going to be a uniquely personal—and probably very enjoyable—exercise.
Yet another reason most community revitalization efforts fail is because people confuse the parts with the whole. Here’s a list of activities that are often confused with revitalization:
- Adaptively reusing a vacant building;
- Restoring a historic building;
- Remediating and building on a brownfield;
- Beautifying streetscapes and storefronts;
- Enhancing public spaces;
- Creating and improving green infrastructure;
- Redesigning transportation infrastructure;
- Erecting iconic structures; and
- Branding and improving the image/awareness of the place.
Revitalization is an ongoing process. The above list comprises one-time projects. Most of them are very good projects that can contribute to revitalization, but that doesn’t mean they are revitalization, any more than mixing pigments is the same as painting a masterpiece. One can mix pigments all day long—and do it absolutely perfectly—but never produce a piece of art.
“But maybe everything that dies someday comes back.
Maybe Asbury Park is back?”
– Bruce Springsteen (2015)
Strategic processes make all the difference in the world…and to the world. Do we love our children enough to not be satisfied with our current “save the world” efforts, most of which “merely” slow the rate of new degradation? Are we ready to focus more seriously on restoring already-damaged and depleted natural resources and on revitalizing already-damaged and depleted communities? If so, that’s a worthy vision, but it will go nowhere without a strategic process to fund and implement it.
Let’s stop ignoring the elephant in the room: Is revitalization even real? Real world evidence proves that it is, but you’d never know it based on the state of the revitalization profession. Or lack thereof. Devitalization happens to all places at some time, and revitalization is desired by most places at all times. So, why don’t community leaders take revitalization more seriously? Why do most treat it like some unmanageable form of magic?
Most public leaders will say they’re seriously working towards it, but when was the last time you met a public Director of Revitalization? Or a Ph.D. in Community Revitalization? Or saw a substantial, ongoing public budget item with “revitalization” in its name? In recent years, we’ve begun to see Chief Resilience Officers (CRO) appointed, but true resilience is based in regeneration, not on writing plans (which seems to be 90% of what most CROs do).
Revitalization’s causes, effects, and flows tend to manifest in four ways:
- Top-Down (planned): Often characterized by large “magic-bullet” projects;
- Extemporaneous: (middle-out) Miscellaneous “fixers” doing their thing on an opportunistic basis;
- Bottom-up (self-organized): Neighborhood-by-neighborhood, incremental, resident-led revitalization; and
- Process-driven: With a strategic renewal process, revitalization is reliably and constantly produced, often harnessing all three of the above modes.
As a result of this multitude of ways revitalization can manifest, most places don’t give anyone the responsibility for advancing local revitalization, thinking everyone will just do their part. But when everyone is in charge, no one is in charge, and chaos often ensues.
So, is revitalization a Grand Delusion with no substance, or an industry in need of a profession? When we look at a place transformed from dirty, hopeless, sickly, divided, and poor to clean, healthy, optimistic, harmonious, and prosperous, are we looking at something real? Yes. Is it an activity that should be taken more seriously? Yes. Is in need of a strategic process to deliver it more reliably? Absolutely.
But, in our pursuit of resilient prosperity, we must remember that all the strategy and process in the world won’t do us much good if it’s not regenerative. We must be careful not to let comfortable-but-failed old paradigms like sustainability sneak in. Nowhere is this dynamic more crucial than as regards carob emissions. The climate crisis is an existential threat, and the time is long past for “reassuring incrementalism”.
For instance, low-carbon and zero-carbon solutions—like sustainability—are what we should have been doing for the past half-century. We failed at that, so carbon-negative must now be a basic goal of everything we do. Slowing down the rate at which we exacerbate the climate crisis is just a different path to failure: climate restoration is the only sane goal, and extreme urgency is the only sane level of priority. Fortunately, creating a carbon-negative city or region requires the same tactics and strategies that contribute to resilient prosperity: restoring urban tree canopies and other green infrastructure, turning old landfills into renewable energy facilities (methane, solar, wind), etc.
But eliminating new emissions is obviously crucial, too, and infrastructure renewal is the most important of the restoration economy sectors in this regard. For instance, wastewater treatment plants consume at least a third of the entire energy budget of most cities. Renovating existing plants to derive 100% of their energy from anaerobic digestion of their own biosolids needs to happen worldwide, and now. This is proven technology: Los Angeles already has a wastewater plant that’s completely off the grid. So, while this technology obviously helps the climate, it’s not restorative in terms of being carbon-negative. On the other hand, it counts as a regenerative activity in general, since such conversions renovate our built environment.
In the final chapter of this book, you’ll discover the newest, fastest and easiest way to obtain the knowledge and credentials needed to become a resilient prosperity professional, and how to find one if that’s what your community needs (and what place doesn’t?) But don’t skip ahead: it will make much more sense if you’ve read what comes before that chapter.
On February 28, 2016—after reading an early draft of this manuscript—Mikkel Schønning Sørensen, Senior Project Manager, at the Danish Architecture Centre (Dansk Arkitektur Center) said this in an email to me: “I read (it) with great joy. Public officials in Danish municipalities often seem to confuse strategies, plans and projects…or mix them all up into one.”
Mikkel shouldn’t fret too much about the Danish situation: what he describes is the norm worldwide. I hope RECONOMICS helps clear the confusion, since the future of communities, regions, nations—and maybe civilization itself—depends on our ability to create appropriate strategies and implement them successfully.
You can order your copy of RECONOMICS on these Amazon sites around the world:
- USA: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1657011720
- Canada: https://www.amazon.ca/dp/1657011720
- UK: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/1657011720
- Germany: https://www.amazon.de/dp/1657011720
- France: https://www.amazon.fr/dp/1657011720
- Spain: https://www.amazon.es/dp/1657011720
- Italy: https://www.amazon.it/dp/1657011720
- Japan: https://www.amazon.co.jp/dp/1657011720
About the Author:
Storm Cunningham is a global speaker and workshop leader on community and regional revitalization. He is the author of The Restoration Economy (Berrett-Koehler, 2002: https://RestorationEconomy.com) and Rewealth (McGraw-Hill, 2008: https://Rewealth.com). His third book, RECONOMICS: The Path To Resilient Prosperity (https://Reconomics.com), was published on January 9, 2020.
Storm is also the Publisher of REVITALIZATION: The Journal of Economic & Environmental Resilience. Storm has been called “the world’s thought leader on community revitalization and natural resource restoration” by George L. Ochs, Managing Director, Global Real Assets, JP Morgan (London)
Links to all of Storm’s books, consulting, and public speaking activities can be found at https://StormCunningham.com.