Does your community or region have a strategic renewal process for creating
rapid, resilient, inclusive economic growth…or just the usual vision and plan?
If you have ANY role in improving your local future, you need to read this.
After 20 years as an author, publisher, speaker, trainer and advisor on regenerative economics worldwide, I offer this preview of my third book (Fall 2019) to help your agency, non-profit or company boost economic, environmental and social health in nations, regions and communities NOW.
“RECONOMICS: The Path to Resilient Prosperity” is a guide for policymakers, real estate investors and social entrepreneurs. What it reveals can easily double the ROI (revitalization on investment) of your redevelopment, renewal and climate adaptation efforts.
by Storm Cunningham, Publisher, REVITALIZATION Last updated: July 17, 2019
Why didn’t your downtown beautification, historic restoration or mixed-use redevelopment revive your community?
Probably because you lacked a regenerative strategy and proven process to fully fund and implement revitalization.
It’s common for places to receive funding for renewal or resilience. It’s rare for them to know how to leverage it.
“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’s RECONOMICS is very concentrated, highly sophisticated, and stunningly accurate.”
– Merrit Drucker, Clean & Green Coordinator at Anacostia Waterfront Trust, Washington, DC
“Storm’s RECONOMICS book preview transformed our latest project, which uses his 3Re strategy.”
– Doumafis F. Lafontant, Director, Lower Roxbury Coalition, Boston, Massachusetts
“Storm Cunningham’s preview of 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 member of the Partnership for Water Sustainability in British Columbia
Former Director, BC Ministry of Environment and BC Ministry of Municipal Affairs
A strategic renewal process is how a place revitalizes when it has no money,
and how it revitalizes faster, better, safer and more efficiently when it has funding.
Only a strategic renewal process can integrate economic growth with resilience to create Resilient Prosperity.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Badly planned (or unplanned) sprawl and natural resource extraction—and the climate crisis—are the usual culprits. But in the 90’s, I started seeing a strong glimmer of hope. I increasingly encountered places where governments, businesses, and non-profits were restoring nature, restoring heritage, restoring health and beauty, and revitalizing economies.
I decided to champion this nascent trend, starting out with great enthusiasm and confidence when my first book, The Restoration Economy (Berrett Koehler), was published in 2002. It was the first book to document the rise of a vast global trend I dubbed “restorative development”. It described eight huge, fast-growing industries and disciplines that renew various aspects of our natural and built environments.
– Uffe Albaek, Founder, The Kaos Pilots.
Some were new industries, like brownfields remediation/redevelopment, which now accounts for some $7 billion in annual activity in the U.S. alone. Some were new sciences, like ecological restoration. Others, such as restoring/reusing historic buildings—or renewing/replacing aging infrastructure—have been around for as long as humankind has been building cities. But even those older forms of renewal have expanded dramatically over the past 20 years, with far more growth to come as a tipping point nears.
I had found my niche. I was earning a living I loved, being paid well—sometimes over $12,000 for a 60-minute talk—to travel the world as an author, speaker and consultant. I’m not getting rich, but life is good.
One of my more-recent clients, the Partnership for Water Sustainability in British Columbia (PWSBC) recently showed itself to be on the leading edge of watershed restoration by focusing a significant portion of their April 2-4, 2019 conference in Parksville (Vancouver Island) on the subject of regional revitalization.
I was asked to deliver most of that content to an audience that largely comprised Streamkeepers and other technical experts who do the on-the-ground work of restoring watersheds. One might wonder what someone who spends their days moving dirt, reducing pollution, removing invasive species and restoring native species might have in learning how places revitalize themselves.
The short answer is that such understanding is the key to attracting more funding and more support (citizen and political) for their projects. If they better-understand how their work contributes to economic renewal and quality of life, they will be far more persuasive when it comes time to justify their budget. And if they better-understand the process of revitalization, they will know where best to insert themselves into local decision-making.
The major flaw in that last statement is that most places don’t actually have a process for local renewal. They just tend to do a lot of projects, and hope that revitalization (or resilience) just magically appears as a reward for their hard work. But hope is not a strategy.
Most people who are traditionally seen as being responsible for creating community revitalization—mayors, economic developers, private developers, planners, etc.—don’t actually know how to think about revitalization. Most of them tend to think of it as a goal, rather than as a process. As a result, they have “magical” expectations: they assume that revitalization will automatically emerge if they just keep doing more of whatever it is they know how to do:
- If they’re a mayor, they lead the way to revitalization via vision and deal-making;
- If they’re developers, they try to build their way to revitalization;
- If they’re architects or engineers, they try to design their way to revitalization;
- If they’re planners, they keep trying to plan their way to revitalization;
- If they ‘re economics developers, they try to sell their way to revitalization;
- If they’re social activists, they try to organize or sue their way to revitalization; and
- If they’re ecologists or watershed managers, they try to restore their way to revitalization.
All are doing their best with what they have, but is it enough? Only rarely, when things somehow come together in the right place at the right time. We’re talking about the future of the place. Is hoping for the best the best we can do?
This lack of process is a wonderful opportunity for those involved in reviving watersheds (or any other regenerative discipline, such as brownfields remediation, heritage restoration, infrastructure renewal, etc.) to advance their careers. Being the one at the table who actually understands how to organize local activities to increase their ROI (revitalization on investment) positions you to take on a real leadership role in their community or region.
Those who attended the Parksville event already have that knowledge. If you weren’t there, here’s a quick recap. The first step is to create an ongoing revitalization (or resilience) program, which constantly initiates, perpetuates, evaluates and adjusts local renewal efforts. Without an ongoing program, you have little chance of building momentum, which is essential to increasing confidence in the future of the place, which—in turn—attracts more residents, employers and funding.
The first job of that program (which is usually housed by a foundation or non-profit organization) is to facilitate a shared vision for the future. The second step is to create a strategy to implement that vision. Next, it’s best to do some policy work, adding policies to support that strategy, and removing policies that undermine it.
Once all of that is done, it’s time to move into action. Recruiting public and private partners into your program is the next step. This provides the human, financial and physical (such as properties) resources needed to do actual projects, which are the “final” step of the process. I put “final” in quotes because regeneration is a never-ending activity, so the process is circular, not linear. A place that is no longer revitalizing is devitalizing. Stasis leads to decline.
Armed with a deep understanding of the above, Streamkeepers and other watershed heroes are no longer operating in a silo, dependent on others to champion and support their work. They are far more capable of being their own champions when face-to-face with funders, politicians and stakeholders.
And, they will be better able to identify where in the revitalization/resilience process they or their organization should be engaged, in order to be most effective: the program, the visioning, the strategizing, the policymaking, the partnering or the projects. But let’s back up a bit, for context.
It was way back in 1996 when I started writing that first book, The Restoration Economy (Berrett-Koehler Publishers). As mentioned previously, many now-huge regenerative disciplines and industries like brownfields redevelopment, regenerative agriculture and restoration ecology were just emerging then.
I’ve been enormously gratified to hear from restorative leaders worldwide who have credited their reading of that 2002 book with the genesis of their career and/or organization.
It apparently helped advance many of today’s regenerative trends, such as resilience, circular economies, carbon-negative (climate restoration), heritage renewal, integrated disaster reconstruction, etc.
In 2008, my second book, Rewealth, was published by McGraw-Hill.
Whereas The Restoration Economy documented—and created an eight-sector taxonomy for—the broad variety of regenerative projects, Rewealth documented the best practices for turning those projects into the desired outcome of local revitalization: economic growth coupled with enhanced quality of life. You’ll find a brief overview of both books’ key concepts in Chapter 2.
Here in RECONOMICS, I reveal the most important and useful insights I’ve gained in the 23 years I’ve spent researching, writing about and teaching this subject. I’ve spent much of my time delivering keynotes and workshops at revitalization/regeneration/resilience events worldwide. In the process, I’ve encountered countless stories of success and failure, which has allowed me to distill these experiences into some concise “universal” principles and practices.
That’s what’s revealed in this book, along with a practical way for you to turn this knowledge into a career revitalizing your community, or our planet.
Reconomics is process for revitalizing economies and making them more resilient. “Resilient prosperity”, in other words. “Economies”, in this case, includes every scale: national, regional, community, organizational, and personal. The frequency of the cycle is determined locally, depending on a combination of urgency of need, size of the community/region, and management capacity.
Deep down, everyone knows that the reliable production of anything requires a process. I say “deep down”, because this common sense is seldom manifested by public leaders.
For instance, communities all around the planet are suffering from economic, social and/or environmental decline. Some due to technological shifts, and others to economic shifts. Some due to local disturbance like war, and others due to global factors like changing weather patterns and sea level rise. In other words, tens of thousands of communities and regions need to produce some form of revitalization. But do they have an actual, replicable process for doing so? No.
I specified “public” leaders above because successful corporate leaders are all about process. They know that production and process are virtually synonymous: one simply cannot get the former with the latter. It doesn’t matter whether they are producing vacuum cleaners or marmalade: without a process, there’s no production.
When the first human learned how to build a fire, it wasn’t because he or she observed that certain things burn. It wasn’t because he or she had discovered how to create a spark or harvest an ember from a lightning strike. It was because they developed a process for applying a spark 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 old process will do when the desired result is resilient prosperity. It must be the right vision. The right strategy. The right policies. The right partners. The right program. 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 one 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.
That said, there will be some very specific advice that verges on being prescriptive. For instance: using the circular, six-step process we’re calling reconomics.
Reconomics is not an economic theory, although it contains one. Neither is it an economic policy framework, although it makes use of policy. It’s a process, and 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.
Processes are always based on flows, and often based on cycles. Flow is universal, extending into—and defining—the human-made concept we call time. Time comprises cycles, and cycles are the only thing in the universe that can be said to end. Everything else merely transforms as it leaves one cycle and begins a new one. Carbon and water molecules keep getting “reincarnated” in new life forms. Ideas, memes, and genes adapt and express themselves differently according to their environment. They likewise die and are reborn as better—or sometimes worse—ideas/memes/genes in never-ending cycles, and cycles of embedded cycles.
Every sub-atomic particle, atom, molecule, organism, places, and planet has its own electromagnetic fields, nested like Russian dolls. This allows flows of everything that can be transmitted as energy. This connectivity and flow extends into the sub-atomic realm, where time, space, and matter don’t exist. This, in turn, adds mysterious and paradoxical elements to our existence which organized religions try to explain.
And since cycles are replaced by new cycles, they too can be said to be renewed and reborn. Indeed, rebirth and renewal can be seen as the most basic universal life function and cycle. But we tend to behave as if everything begins and ends with our current generation.
Reconomics can be seen as an adaptive, circular flow of regenerative program, vision, strategy, policy, partnership, and projects. That’s the process for creating resilient prosperity. This book will explain and give examples of the process in action. It will also describe each of the components: regenerative visions, regenerative strategies, regenerative policies, regenerative partnerships, regenerative projects, and regenerative programs.
Where’s the plan, you ask? The act of planning is good. But plans are often (not always!) counterproductive to success. Creating a plan is a politically-safe activity that’s popular with elected leaders, who use it as a substitute for truly productive actions (which usually entail risk). If you are required to create a plan—or if you are convinced that having a plan will enhance your success—then by all means do so. But realize that it’s just one of the projects, not a core element of the process.
The vision and strategy drive the entire adaptive process: the ensuing policies, partnerships, program and projects will serve the achievement of that vision via your chosen strategy. The vision drives everything, so this is where purpose of the RECONOMICS process is determined: climate resilience, environmental justice, equitable economic renewal; more jobs; cleaner air; higher quality of life; etc.
The first step in creating an effective vision is to make sure you’re addressing the problem, not the symptom. For instance, a city suffering from “blight” makes it sound as if vacant and derelict buildings are the problem.
In reality, poverty might be the problem and the buildings are only the symptom (or, to be medically correct, the “sign”). Of course, poverty is the only cause of blight: bad planning (especially bad transportation planning, like urban highways) is also a common cause.
A vision without a plan is just a dream. A plan without a vision is just drudgery. But a vision with a plan can change the world. “A vision, without a plan, is just a hallucination,” said Will Rogers. But this was back in the days before planning became an industry, and plans became a product. He was more likely thinking of a strategy, and a planning process.
People prefer genuine, living places over artificial, engineered, over-planned places. I’m on the Education Committee of the National Working Waterfronts Network, and can tell you from experience that tourists (and locals) are drawn more powerfully to waterfronts with real activities (such as fishing boats and cargo ports) than they are to the hyper-retail, New Urbanist, Disney-ish waterfronts that are proliferating.
Living systems are complex, adaptive, diverse, and capable of delighting people with emergent behaviors and characteristics. Jane Jacobs had it right when she said that cities should be untidy, complex and full of surprises.
Here in Washington, DC, an ugly old convention center and vast expanse of surface parking lots has been replaced with the mixed-use CityCenterDC redevelopment project. CityCenterDC lacks both diversity and surprises. When people talk about “mixed income” development, they’re usually discussing residential areas. But urban planners need to realize that it’s essential to purely retail areas, as well.
The wealthy like to be “seen” by their fellows, but they delight in showing off to their economic inferiors even more. So, designers shouldn’t fear mixing the economic classes. On the flip side, window shopping is a legitimate form of entertainment, so expensive stores aren’t totally useless to the working class. But a mix would help the place derive income from all.
CityCenterDC is certainly an improvement on the lifeless area it replaced, but its major value is in the residents it brings to the area, not the ground-level retail. The design isn’t unpleasant: it’s just bland and predictable. It’s all about money, and lacks vision.
By “revitalizing vision”, I mean that it must be centered on improving the economy and quality of life. This doesn’t mean other kinds of visions 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 considered a prerequisite of revitalization.
but the world needs all the good you can do.”
– from the song “All the Good,” by singer Jana Stanfield.
By “regenerative strategy”, I mean that accomplishing your vision should accomplished primarily by repurposing, renewing and reconnecting your existing assets. This is as opposed to basing it on acquiring new assets, such as sprawl in the context of cities, or M&A (mergers and acquisitions) in the context of corporations.
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 your dream for revitalizing what you care about is going to be an intimately unique—and probably very enjoyable—exercise.
I often ask city leaders what strategy their comprehensive plan is based on. You’d be shocked how many times the answer I get to that question is “Well, I’m not sure what the strategy is, but we’ve got a great plan.” This is like having a great airplane, and lots of passengers who want to go to the same place, but no pilot who knows the process by which to get there.
A strategy is how one turns dreams into reality. A plan is a collection of activities, but a strategy is the core action that enables those activities to happen. In fact, creating a plan is itself an activity–one that frequently becomes a goal unto itself–adding little that enhances success, and often retarding success. More on that later.
When presidents, mayors, CEOs and consultants promise success to their constituents and clients, they tend to focus on one or two key elements. It might be vision: having an inspiring aspirational, well-defined goal is the key, they say. Or it might be strategy: knowing how one is going to overcome obstacles to achieve that goal is the secret, they say.
Others advise that it’s all about creating supportive policies to motivate the desired behavior. Or that the magic is in the plan: detailing the needed activities. Others focus on resources and support, claiming that the ultimate source of success is in forging good partnerships.
Still others will scoff at all of the above, saying it’s all useless, and that one must focus on action: diving straight into actual projects. Or, the advice could be that success comes from sustained activity, so it’s essential to form an ongoing program; a series of coordinated efforts that lead to long-term success.
So, who’s right? Is the secret to success found in program, vision, strategy, policies, partnerships or projects? The answer is all of them and none of them. The key is process: the replicable series of steps that produces the desired result. Each of the seven elements named above is a crucial element of the process for producing resilient prosperity. And they are all interrelated.
For instance, the policies you need are determined by your vision and strategy. The partners you need are determined by the combination of your vision, strategy, policies, and local assets (as in: who owns them). And the projects you’ll do are determined by the combination of your vision, your strategy, your policies, your partners and your assets.
Actually, that’s not quite true. One of those elements is actually optional. Strangely enough, it’s the element that most people would say is most important: the plan. Plans are often present in success stories. But they’re often missing, too. Therefore, they seem to be somewhat irrelevant; often done because a plan is required by higher authorities, not because it’s truly needed. Thus, the resilient prosperity process (“reconomics”) you’ll learn in this book has just six, not seven, elements.
So, create a plan if you want to, or if you’re required to, but know that it probably won’t improve your chances of success, and might well hurt them. [Note: The activity we call “planning” is usually worthwhile, but the product we call a “plan” is often a time-consuming impediment with a short shelf-life.] More on that later. I realize that this advice will rub many the wrong way, but you’ll soon be learning about a practical alternative to the traditional plan-forget-plan cycle that has devitalized so many places.
– Kurt Lewin, German-American psychologist.
But before we do that, let’s stop ignoring the elephant in the room. Is revitalization even real? Real world evidence proves that it it, 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 rely on hope?
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 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 appointed, but true resilience is based in regeneration, not in writing plans (which seems to be 90% of what they do).
My current working definition of revitalization: “Revitalization is a cycle of rising optimism, equitable prosperity, quality of life, and environmental health—usually triggered by renewing, reconnecting, and/ or repurposing distressed natural, built, socioeconomic, and human assets—often preceded by a cycle of devitalization.”
Revitalization’s causes, effects, and flows tend to manifest in four ways:
- Extemporaneous: Miscellaneous “fixers” doing their thing on a purely opportunistic basis;
- Top-Down (planned): Often characterized by large “magic-bullet” projects;
- 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 via all three of the above modes.
We can’t manage what we can’t measure. Revitalization creates confidence in the future, and confidence in the future creates revitalization. So, why not measure that confidence? When residents have confidence in a better local future, they’re less likely to move away from it, and more likely to work on improving it. When outsiders have it, they’re more likely to move there. When a relocating employer has it, they’re more likely to overlook weaknesses, trusting it will get better. When redevelopers have it, they see it as having bottomed-out, which means it has a wealth of buy-low-sell-high opportunities.
When everyone is in charge, no one is in charge. Here are four reasons communities seldom have anyone in charge of revitalization or resilience (“resilient prosperity” when combined):
- It’s an emergent quality of a complex system, and thus not controllable;
- It’s too aspirational: many leaders and communities lack the courage to aim high;
- It’s not a goal with an endpoint: Regeneration is a constant process of all healthy systems; and
- It’s not a recognized discipline: We need universities to start making it one, and we need a certification program to recognize those who know how to create a strategic renewal process.
What would a Resilient Prosperity Director do? Each local challenge would be unique but most would:
- Do leadership training in revitalization practices, so everyone can be a more-effective part of the process;
- Create an ongoing revitalization program. “Ongoing” is key because regeneration is constant in all healthy living systems (cities, ecosystems, economies, immune systems, etc.). Stasis is not an option: if a place isn’t revitalizing, it’s devitalizing;
- Provide policy advice to make a place regeneration-friendly. A downtown that wants to come back to life should make itself easier and more profitable to develop in than sprawl areas; and
- Facilitate a shared vision of the desired future, and a regenerative strategy to turn it into success.
Whether a city or nation is moving ahead can be determined by what—and who—it is leaving behind. If it leaves contaminated land, vacant properties and desperate families in its wake, it’s on the way down. If it leaves lower-income citizens homeless or hopeless in its wake, it’s on the way down. If it leaves restored or restorable assets—and increased confidence in a future that benefits all in its wake—it’s on the way up.
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 a process others could learn from? Yes. Is it an activity that should be taken more seriously? Yes.
– Beverly Sills, American opera singer and opera manager.
I’ve spent over a decade focused on regenerating places worldwide. I’ve seen them fail. I’ve seen them move towards an uncertain outcome. And I’ve seen them succeed. I’ve been hired by dozens of local, state, and national governments to help them revitalize. But I’ve never met a Director of Revitalization whose remit covered that natural, built and socioeconomic environments…in other words, the whole community. Revitalization could be called Place Medicine, restoring wellness to communities, regions, and nations. But where are this medicine’s scientists, doctors and schools?
- INTRODUCTION - How your next small renewal project could trigger massive ongoing revitalization.
Inaction is not only the result, but the cause, of fear.”
– Norman Vincent Peale, American minister and author.
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: 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. 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. …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 requires a regenerative strategy…and a proven process to generate, sustain and accelerate momentum.
A strategic renewal process can double your initiative’s results and make it (almost) failure-proof, at no 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 the revitalization process. So, normal Newtonian physics applies: a community at rest tends to stay at rest. But stasis means death in living systems like cities. So, while taking a rest after an effort is restorative, remaining at rest leads to urban decay.
Community and regional revitalization / resilience efforts are widespread these days, thanks to global economic change 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 a cohesive strategy and implementation process.
Everyone on the planet who reliably produces anything knows that process is key. Everyone except community leaders. 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.
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.
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.
So, what you’re about to read 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 subject automatically conveys the ability to create a relevant strategy. That assumption might be the world’s single greatest source of failure. A thorough grasp of the 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 a bit easier to find.
How does one revitalize a place, or make it more resilient?
- Planners say it’s all about planning.
- Engineers say it’s all about efficient infrastructure.
- Sociologists say it’s all about community pride and harmony.
- Marketers say it’s all about branding and street banners.
- Environmentalists say it’s all about health and greenspace.
- Developers say it’s all about housing, office space, and retail.
- Law enforcement says it’s all about public safety.
- Underserved citizens (low income, minority, etc.) say it’s all about transparency and justice.
- Economic developers say it’s all about jobs and incentives.
- Architects say 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: “creative,” “smart,” “place-based,” etc.)
- Successful leaders know it’s all about having the right strategy and an effective process to implement all of the above.
All of them are partially right: their activity contributes to revitalization. But few acknowledge that it’s only a small part of the overall process, because they don’t know what that 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 know 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 a city. 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 with a lot of luck, any of those above-listed activities can trigger revitalization. But what reliably triggers it—and keeps it going—a process that brings all of those activities together. And that process must be driven by an regenerative strategy. The above list mostly comprises tactics. Tactics without strategies have very limited outcomes. Unlimited 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.
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 knowledge. 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 right time.
“No one else but an architect could solve the problems of the contemporary city.” This pronouncement by the 1994 Pritzker Prize winner, architect Christian de Portzamparc appeared in a 2017 ArchDaily interview by Vladimir Belogolovsky.
No one but an architect would say such a thing. Few architects are able to get their heads out of the building envelope, except to see how their design might fit with the architectural vernacular of the city. But an architect who even cares about—much less understands—the economic, ecological and cultural complexity of an urban area and its rural surroundings is a rare bird indeed.
On the other hand, putting an architect is charge would probably be vastly preferable to putting a civil engineer in charge: the architect would like do less damage. Now, if Portzamparc had said “landscape architect”, he would have been a bit closer to the mark. But only a bit.
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 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 this person? 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 that growing 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. But let’s back up a moment for a bit of historical context.
Resilient Prosperity is the goal of a secure, inclusive, green economy, which might be considered a “universal” vision for community and regional futures. Projects are how we implement strategies. Strategies are how we implement visions. Embed “secure, inclusive, and green” into your shared local vision, and these qualities will start manifesting everywhere: your revitalization efforts, your resilience efforts, your public leadership, and your private leadership. A vision is where the community embeds its values in the process.
We humans like to control things, even those we don’t understand and that can’t—by their very nature—be controlled. We assign roles, budgets, and missions that pack vital processes into tight little boxes, and then wonder why good stuff seldom comes out of those boxes. Most places already have everything they need to create resilient prosperity, but won’t allow it to happen. They think it must emerge from their economic development or redevelopment agency, or real estate investors, or their planning department, or their political leadership, etc. They value form over function.
So when the right vision, leadership, and resources emerge from a citizen group, or community foundation, or student group, opportunities often die on the vine. But when renewal emerges from an “approved” source, it gets constricted by the narrow focus of that agency. At some level, public leaders are aware of their ignorance regarding complexity. This is why you seldom see an agency charged with revitalizing the entire community. No one wants to be in charge of an activity they can’t define; whose principles, models, and cycles they can’t explain. Better to break it down into controllable specialties, and hope that the overall goal takes care of itself.
– George Bernard Shaw
Economic revitalization strategies are sometimes simple to describe, but seldom easy to implement. One, for instance, is called “plugging the leaks.” It’s filling-out local supply chains or strengthen local industries. When companies purchase good or services from outside the region, revenue is leaking out of the region’s economy. A good example of plugging such a leak is the way so many regions in the U.S. that have a strong craft brewing industry are now growing their hops locally, rather than buying them from England or Germany. The current rebuilding of local food systems is the same dynamic on a more holistic scale.
The “inclusive economy” aspect is especially confusing to many leaders. They often confuse “inclusive” with “engaged”. Stakeholder engagement is a Good Thing, but it doesn’t necessarily lead to inclusive economic growth. Nor does the lack of stakeholder engagement necessarily lead to economic injustice. “Inclusive” is a goal. “Engagement” is a practice.
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”. Over the past 20 years, researchers found that the displacement of long-term, lower-income, minority residents from revitalized neighborhoods (gentrification) is actually quite rare.
In fact, they 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.
– Bruce Springsteen, during concert, referring to signs of renewal in Asbury Park, NJ (July 18, 2015)
The major problem with revitalization efforts is that they tend to be mostly tactics, with little or no strategy. Short-term gain, but little long-term thinking. Lots of activity, but not much insight. We’re all so very busy redeveloping, renewing, regenerating, renovating, reimagining, redesigning, replacing, reusing, reconnecting, and repurposing our assets and places. That’s the stuff of revitalization. But we lack a process or system for actually achieving revitalization, so this 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 seem to tolerate it—even expect it—in public leaders.
We’re capable of tapping deep wellsprings of strength and creativity when those we love are in danger. Our economic, ecological, and social future depends on our doing so now. Our survival might depend on it. Humans and wildlife worldwide are suffering as never before, and both are in graver peril than ever before. Do we love our children enough to move from merely slowing the rate of new damage to restoring existing damage and revitalizing our existing places?
– Madeleine L’Engle, American writer
Places are like people. It’s said that all anyone needs to be happy is something to look forward to. Having a vision, strategy, and credible leaders does this. The best way for individuals to break out of depressing doldrums is via action. Many places enter recession because they treat revitalization as a remedy, rather than as lifestyle. They forget to continue revitalizing.
Places exist in 3 basic states: degeneration, equilibrium, and regeneration. But what seems to be healthy equilibrium is often a brittle, stagnating form of stasis in disguise. Stability should never be your goal. As with all complex living systems, cities and nations can shift states seemingly overnight. The triggers for these shifts are often far out of proportion to the magnitude of the change. In today’s technology-drive, 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.
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 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 above-mentioned strategic vacuum in leadership means that–even in the rare cases where a strategy is present–it’s usually 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.
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.
A 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.
If you’re a business executive, you’ve likely heard someone (usually a corporate culture consultant) say “Culture eats strategy for breakfast“. But the decision to make an organization successful by creating a great culture IS a strategy. Other popular versions include “Execution trumps strategy“, “Structure trumps strategy“, or whatever organizational characteristic that particular consultant is selling.
They pick on strategy because 1) they don’t really understand it, so it’s a safe whipping boy; and 2) strategy implies both long-term thinking and military training, so using the word makes them feel intelligent and macho. All of those other characteristics they’re pushing are wonderful and necessary, but few will succeed without a strategy. It’s not either/or: that would be like saying “air trumps water”…the lack of either will kill us.
A far more intelligent and insightful comment comes from successful tech entrepreneur, Whitney Wolfe Herd. She is founder and CEO of Bumble, and a co-founder of the dating app Tinder. Herd says “Mission eats culture for breakfast. You have to have a purpose.” Mission and purpose are embodied in a good vision, which should drive any growth or renewal process. Herd likely knows that culture is one those things that paternalistic CEOs focus on when they don’t know what else to do. I say “paternalistic” because molding their corporate family’s personality is like a parent trying to control their children’s character. The rate of success is similarly dismal, as well.
Of course, it’s a false dichotomy. The CEO who focuses on strategy and ignores culture—maybe allowing a toxic workplace to evolve—is an idiot. It’s like asking a parent “are you going to focus on developing your child’s intelligence or personality?” What parent would think they have to sacrifice one for the other?
The October 2017 issue of WIRED magazine contained an article by John Malta titled “Venture Ball: Silicon Valley shoots and scores.” Based on a new book titled Betaball by Erik Malinowski, it illustrates this strategy vs. culture point perfectly. The article describes how Joe Lacob was ridiculed for paying $50 million for the Golden State Warriors basketball team in 2010. At that point, most considered the Warriors to be the worst team in the NBA, worth no more than $315 million.
Seven years on, the Warriors have won two national championships, and are valued at $2.6 billion. Here’s an excerpt from the article describing the team’s regeneration: “…the slingshot turnaround (was not due) to Steph Curry’s swishing three-pointers, but to Lacob’s application of Silicon Valley strategies to revitalize a sluggish team. First off, Lacob used his newcomer status to build a thriving corporate culture.” Lacob also had a crystal-clear vision driving his strategy: to win a championship within five years. They won their first championship in four years and seven months.
Strategizing is an intensely-creative process that allows—even demands—that one think outside one’s industry, professional silo, geographic area, political prejudices, etc. Unlike tactics, strategies aren’t limited to dealing with the practicalities of the immediate situation. Strategies are only constrained by the requirement that they make success more likely.
Lack of a community strategy—or lack of the right strategy—is the primary reason so many excellent renewal projects fail to reverse the area’s downward trajectory. In many cases, those projects should have done so, but there was nothing to capture, leverage, and perpetuate their momentum.
A strategy by itself can’t do that, of course. But the right strategy makes transitions less painful and less expensive, which lubricates the desired shift. The RECONOMICS Process described here can—if properly applied—leverage your expensive redevelopment or restoration project into resilient prosperity for all. The irony is that adding the RECONOMICS Process your project costs almost nothing. The costs are mostly in the projects, but the revitalization is mostly in the process.
One of the reasons 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. One can mix pigments all day long, and never produce a piece of art.
Strategic processes make all the difference in the world…and to the world. What we destroy, destroys us. Since strategies are our path to success, they become our primary interface with our world, and thus determine in large part how the world responds to us. Thus, what we restore, restores us. What we revitalize, revitalizes us.
- PART A - CONTEXT: The challenges of creating resilient prosperity.
The word “revitalization” often stimulates interesting reactions. Leaders from wealthy cities often tell me “oh, we don’t need revitalization“, as if it’s something only poor, dirty, post-industrial places do. If I mention a struggling (often ethnic) neighborhood of their city, the reaction is often “well, of course THEY need revitalization.” Concentrated wealth often fragments places, and disguises their overall decline.
They’re wrong, because revitalization isn’t just about the economy. Can any city say that their quality of life and environmental health can’t possibly be any better? No. So they, too, could benefit from revitalization.
Revitalization isn’t defined by current conditions. It doesn’t have to start from a state of distress. Revitalization is defined by the gap between a baseline condition–good or bad–and an improved present or future condition.
So revitalization isn’t just for post-industrial economies: it’s for post-bad-planning, post-excessive-economic growth, post-laissez-faire, and post-resting-on-laurels situations as well.
In these days of more and worse disasters fueled by climate change, even places ruled by conservative politicians are realizing they need more resilience.
So, let’s conflate the two universal desires—revitalization and resilience—into “resilient prosperity” for the rest of this book, to keep things simple.
So, if resilient prosperity is what everyone wants, why do so few enjoy it? Why do so few public leaders know how to create it? That’s what this first section of the book is about.
- Chapter 1 - TRENDS & TERMINOLOGY: Civilization's shift from adaptive conquest to adaptive renewal.
In today’s increasingly broken world, we often dive into solutions without understanding the problem, and without perceiving our level of ignorance. To avoid that syndrome, we’ll define some of the terms, trends and concepts before diving into solutions like a strategic renewal process.
The Adaptive Renewal Megatrend
Once upon a time, we humans grew our economies and accommodated growing populations by sprawling, and by extracting irreplaceable virgin resources. In other words, we were adapting the planet to our needs, a mode I call adaptive conquest. In most cases, solely to our needs: wildlife be damned.
Many indigenous cultures limited their population growth, and used resources in a more sustainable manner, but they usually went the way of wildlife when the sprawl and extraction of adaptive conquest cultures caught up to them.
That adaptive conquest model has had many unintended consequences—it has obvious limits on a planet of finite size—but it worked fine for about 12,000 years. This was the period that scientists refer to as the Holocene: the epoch during which human activity started to affect the planet.
To survive and thrive on this finite planet—especially with a still-growing population—we must base our economies on restoring our depleted natural resources (and climate), on remediating our vast inventory of contaminated land (and water), and on revitalizing and boosting the capacity of the cities we’ve already created. In other words, we must adapt to our adaptations, a mode I call adaptive renewal.
– Francis Bacon, British author and statesman.
In the Balearic archipelago of Spain is a paradise called Cabrera Island. It’s part of a sub-archipelago called Archipiélago de Cabrera, which has been a natural reserve since 1991. Here, wildlife flourishes, and human visitors bliss-out on beauty, surrounded by the Mediterranean’s turquoise waters. It wasn’t always so. Between 1973 to 1986, it was a base for the Spanish Armed Forces, although military usage goes back to 1916.
Between 1808 and 1814, Isla de Cabrera was a hellhole of suffering by humans and wildlife alike. 9000 of Napoleon’s soldiers were imprisoned there after their defeat in the Peninsular War (during which the allied forces of Spain, the United Kingdom, and Portugal defeated France’s invasion of the Iberian Peninsula during the Napoleonic Wars). Only 3600 made it out alive, due to starvation, disease, neglect, and abuse.
The island’s history of adaptive reuse goes further back. During the 13th and 14th Century, the island was a base of pirate operations, due to its well-concealed harbor. That ended when Cabrera’s castle was built, with its cannons guarding the entrance to the harbor.
Pirate base. Armed garrison. Death camp. Nature reserve. The way humans have constantly adapted the island to their changing needs serves as a microcosmic metaphor for humanity’s entire history on this planet. With the rise of the adaptive renewal trend, there’s hope that the entire planet can follow a similar trajectory, ending in paradise. But we need to know how to manage adaptively, because that’s a very different animal from the old plan-and-execute model.
– Marc Chagall, Russian-French artist.
We’ve spent millennia adapting the planet almost exclusively to our needs, which has spawned countless unintended consequences, such as our global climate crisis. This was done during the Holocene Epoch: the 12,000-year period during which humans started changing the world. As mentioned in the Preface, it led us to the Anthropocene Epoch: the period in which human activity dominates the world around us.
Adaptive renewal combines our revitalization and resilience goals with adaptive management. Revitalization and resilience are both advanced by adaptively renewing our natural, built, and socioeconomic assets. Adaptive management helps ensure successful implementation over time.
Revitalization makes poor places wealthier. It makes wealthy places healthier. It makes healthy, wealthy places healthier, wealthier, and happier. Combining revitalization with resilience makes the good times last. Managing revitalization and resilience efforts in an adaptive manner keeps them responsive to new challenges and opportunities. These three elements comprise adaptive renewal, the path to resilient prosperity. You can recognize adaptive renewal at work in places that are constantly repurposing, renewing and reconnecting heir natural, built, and socioeconomic environments in an integrated manner, monitoring their results and improving their methods as they go along (adaptive management).
– General Charles de Gaulle, President of France (1958 – 1969)
In today’s rapidly-changing world, plans tend to produce great stress for those charged with executing them. Each day, the assumptions on which the plan is based diverge further from reality, yet professional managers are usually required to “stick to the plan”. Adaptive management is a healthy new trend that allows places and organizations to implement and evolve plans simultaneously.
Adaptive management arose primarily from the science of restoration ecology (the corresponding practice of which is known as ecological restoration), as well as from the study of complex adaptive systems (a.k.a. complexity science).
There are many insights that have derived from the study of complex adaptive systems (AKA, “complexity science”). Here are two that apply directly to the process of bringing places back to life: (1) Qualitatively new behaviors tend to emerge in dissipative (complex) systems that are out of equilibrium; and (2) Healthy complex systems tend to lie at the border of phase transitions and bifurcation points. Managing change effectively thus demands a tremendously open and adaptive mindset.
I was one of the first 250 members of the Society for Ecological Restoration, and was peripherally involved with the Santa Fe Institute, where I met complexity economist W. Brian Arthur in the late 90’s. I’ve thus been privileged to witness the many ways in which this essential new discipline has benefited our world.
The short story is that adaptive management arose because the rise of ecological restoration quickly revealed our vast ignorance as to how ecosystems form, how they build and maintain resilience, and how they collapse.
For centuries, we’ve deluded ourselves into thinking we understood nature, so we simply threw fences around large wildlands and thought we were conserving them.
Few activities reveal our lack of understanding of natural processes faster than the process of trying to recreate a damaged or destroyed ecosystem. The science of restoration ecology has probably revealed more useful insights into the dynamics of living systems in the past two decades than we learned in the previous two centuries.
Facing up to our ignorance led to the practice of adaptive management. Rather than assuming we knew enough to plan the recovery and revitalization of a natural area, we simply put together the best plan possible based on present knowledge, and change it as new information and insights arise. This approach is now infiltrating many areas of our society, such as the Minimum Viable Product strategy of many technology start-ups.
The constant arrival and territorial expansion of invasive species is just one of myriad factors creating a need for adaptive management. In the U.S. alone, there are over 5000 invasive plant and animal species. A very conservative estimate by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service puts their annual economic damage at about $120 billion. The only static situations are those devoid of life. So strategies and tactics must adapt to the changes they cause, resulting in a constant loop of feedback and evolution.
Want a specific example of using Adaptive Management to revitalize a downtown? Look at parking policies. Some say free or cheap parking causes traffic jams and undermines efforts to improve public transit. Others say traffic jams are a good problem to have: the goal is more shoppers, so the more free parking, the better. Still others say expensive parking is best: it encourages pedestrian-friendly, transit-oriented development, and the increased revenue funds downtown improvements. Who’s right? All are.
Parking policies must adapt to current needs. If a downtown has a dearth of retail, then scaring people away with expensive, strongly-enforced parking isn’t a good idea. It only takes one parking ticket to convince a shopper that the sprawl mall is the better place to go. In that case, a switch to free parking might stimulate more visitors. This will encourage more retailers, which will stimulate more visitors, and so on in a positive feedback loop.
But if that loop continues long enough, it will eventually result in traffic jams. That will make the downtown noisy, polluted, and dangerous for pedestrians, and they’ll start coming less often. Parking fees can then be reintroduced, starting with cheap parking. If that doesn’t bring traffic down to levels that restore the quality of downtown life, they can be hiked again, until the right balance is achieved.
But then someone might say “Ah: we’ve found the right balance. Let’s engrave this parking price in stone.” Now they’re heading for trouble again, because cities are complex, living systems, and complex systems never stay the same. Stasis is death. Parking policies are deceptively simple: they are just one of myriad factors that affect the health and survival of your community. Taking an adaptive approach to policymaking is one of the core elements of resilient planning, but it’s rarely practiced.
Free parking might be a good tactic for boosting traffic in a dead downtown. But years later, that successfully revitalized city center might see its walkability, safety and quality of life degraded by excessive automobiles. Raising the cost of parking until traffic declines to a livable level is then sensible.
Excessive cars can kill a city center. The right number can revitalize it. What revitalizes a dying place might devitalize a vibrant place. Such complexities are anathema to most public leaders, who like simple, easy “solutions.” Adaptive management is a lot easier to write about than it is to practice, but fear not: technology is coming to the rescue.
We now have systems enabling real-time adaptability, as with demand-price parking meters, similar to Uber’s surge pricing. So, constant revisions to policies are no longer needed, as algorithms take over. (Maybe we will one day have an Internet of Renewal (IoR) to go along with our Internet of Things (IoT).)
Here’s a current example of this dynamic at work. In April 2018, Buffalo, New York was on the verge of wasting a hoped-for TIGER Grant (from the late-and-lamented Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery program that helped revitalize many cities). Over 30 years ago, city leaders were ahead of their time in banning cars from their Main Street. This greatly improved the quality of life downtown, but the desired economic revitalization never manifested.
The problem is that they never followed-through on the logical next step after eliminating the traffic problem: taking advantage of that increased quality of life to add what the downtown (and its businesses) desperately needed: more residents. One would think that the relationship of housing to residents to customers would be fairly easy to perceive. Not so at that time in Buffalo.
How are they now planning to revitalize Main Street? By spending that precious TIGER Grant (if they get it) on restoring automobile traffic! Cars don’t buy goods. Pedestrians do. This is the kind of wasteful, self-destructive decision that cities make when they don’t think strategically. A good strategy affects the underlying cause to create the desired effect.
So, too many cars in an urban center can kill it, but too few cars in a rural village center can kill it. The key to revitalizing a place in one decade might be boosting car traffic, and the key to revitalizing that same place in a later decade might be to reduce car traffic. Adaptive management is the key to dealing with such evolving challenges and evolving tools (like surge pricing and smart meters), especially when we don’t fully understand the dynamics of the system we wish to revitalize (who does?).
Pittsburgh’s Mayor Bill Peduto is taking an adaptive management approach to its multi-decade river restoration challenge. Let’s hope other city’s leaders are as wise.
With all this adaptation, we need to be careful that we don’t lose sight of the goal. As Steven Covey says, “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” That’s the importance of basing the entire RECONOMICS Process on the vision. If you want your reborn place or organization to be green, inclusive, equitable or whatever, those qualities must be in the vision. Adding them later to the plan or the projects simply doesn’t work.
If one is at the beginning of the process, the main thing is to identify the main thing. The function of a clear vision is to keep an iterative strategy or iterative plan from iterating itself into a hole.
– Mike Tyson
Large institutions seldom announce that they are switching from a “follow the plan at all costs” approach to an adaptive management approach. This is partly because once it’s understood, it makes their previous leadership look less than brilliant. But it’s mainly because the process of adopting an adaptive approach should itself be adaptive.
For instance, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) is the federal agency responsible for administering civilian (i.e. non-defense-related) foreign aid. USAID’s annual budget is about $36 billion.
USAID has recently been embedding adaptive management into its funding mechanisms, but you’d hardly know it if you weren’t directly involved in the process. They refer to it as the CLA Framework (Collaborating, Learning, Adapting).
In their new Program Cycle Operational Policy, they state that one of the three key requirements of funding applications from their international partners is “Learning from performance monitoring, evaluations, and other relevant sources of information to make course corrections as needed and inform future programming.”
For those involved in modern disaster-response and/or climate crisis adaptation initiatives, no such cultural change is needed: any true professional working in those areas knows that adaptive management is not optional.
The switch to adaptive management need not be disruptive. After all, all one is really doing is injecting common sense into the previously rigid, blind-faith-in-the-plan culture. Or, as Divyesh Mistry of the Toronto Transit Commission says: “Cities change. Get over it.”
Due to the rapid rise in vacant commercial properties—malls, big box stores, office buildings, etc.—some architects are finally starting to think about designing buildings in a way that facilitates adaptive reuse.
The architecture firm Gensler invented the term “hackable” buildings back in 2014 to capture the idea. They feel we should be constructing—and renovating—in a way that accommodates the desired immediate use, but that responds to changing market demands or preferences by making it easy for the structure to be reworked for a productive new life. It’s basically a proactive approach to the concepts Stewart Brand laid out in the classic book, “How Buildings Learn.”
In today’s climate of constant crisis and heightened uncertainty, planning for success means assuming the plan will probably fail, but not the project or program. Projects, plans, and programs for improving our built, natural, socioeconomic, and geopolitical environments must adapt not just to rapid change, but to an accelerating rate of change in each of these intrinsically connected arenas.
Such conditions are highly corrosive to plans, which now decompose and putrefy at an accelerated rate. Long-term plans are best suited to fundraising and political posturing. That said, the process of planning is often of great value, even when the relevance of the resulting plan rapidly decays as soon as it’s exposed to reality. An evolutionary approach is the key to operating in such an environment.
The only preservative we can add to our plans is adaptability. Once implementation begins, we must be ready to defenestrate our highly-perishable plans at a moment’s notice, lest they become toxic to our future. These days, only our shared visions of future we desire should be long-term, not the strategies and plans we devise for achieving them. Adaptive renewal is a flexible, free-form style of management that suits today’s unprecedented level of social, economic, political, and environmental uncertainty.
Today’s economic growth is increasingly based on novel ways of restoring, repurposing, reusing, replenishing, remediating, or reconnecting natural, built, and/or socioeconomic assets:
- Local food systems are revitalizing urban and rural economies by linking them;
- Coastal cities and island nations face declining fisheries, rising/acidifying seas, and super-storms;
- Cites must adapt to less-effective national governments, and less-stable surrounding economies;
- Rural communities must deal with accelerating topsoil loss, droughts, floods, loss of pollinators, inefficient local food systems, fires, and more.
Homo “sapiens” weren’t so wise during the Holocene Epoch: we’ve created a planet of assets that are now obsolete, fragmented, depleted, toxic, and/or decrepit…our ecosystems, energy sources, infrastructure, heritage, water, soil. Coupled with the climate crisis, institutional plans and strategies are also obsolete if they don’t reflect this not-so-new reality.
In an article titled Industrial watershed management in the September/October 2014 issue of World Water, author Jim Lauria wrote, “A 2013 poll…found that 79% of companies…faced current water challenges, and 86 percent expected to face water challenges within 5 years. 57%…reported that water issues affected their bottom line; the same number stated water would affect their growth in the next 5 years; and 80% expected water to impact where they will locate a facility in the next 5 years. Growth, supply, and siting – if those aren’t strategic issues, I don’t know what is.”
So maybe we really should be called Homo adaptus. Much of our progress to date has been based on adapting the planet to our needs. Thriving in the coming years means adapting to the unintended consequences of those adaptations, turning ubiquitous problems into novel solutions. For instance: adaptive renewal enables us to fight climate change, while simultaneously adapting to its disruptions.
Project examples include renovating and repurposing derelict buildings, properties, and infrastructure. Adaptive renewal is a subset of adaptive reuse: it only includes those projects in which the asset is actually improved in the process of being reused (as opposed to simply putting a new activity into an existing property without enhancing it).
Program examples include repurposing and regenerating entire organizations, communities, or regions. This is often a process with no end date (as with a project). The fast-growing discipline of adaptive management is now being adopted by the disciplines and industries of the global Restoration Economy.
While some forms of adaptive renewal are well-established, many others are more recent or are still emerging. The latter include adaptive strategies related to climate change, sea level rise, and natural disasters, such as for cities, agriculture, and natural resources (including the creation of novel ecosystems), as well as the widespread adaptive management trend.
– Bruce Lee (on creating a new style of martial art).
One key to keeping community revitalization heading in the right direction–while simultaneously adapting to changing circumstances–is the presence of a well-crafted vision statement to guide daily decision making. In all forms of adaptive renewal, the asset—an urban area, a rural region, a property, a structure, an organization, etc.—is being restored, renovated, or revitalized in the process of being repurposed to a valuable new function. And, via adaptive management, it’s fixed in a way that stays fixed.
Resilient design and adaptive management are now being adopted for the primary purpose of protecting prosperity in an increasingly uncertain and threatening world. Yet resilience practitioners often don’t understand the provenance of the prosperity they are protecting. It’s like protecting the golden eggs, but leaving the goose unguarded. And precious few resilience professionals have any knowledge of adaptive management, which is like a surgeon not knowing how to use a scalpel. Adaptive management is resilient management. Shouldn’t resilience initiatives be managed in a resilient manner?
One characteristic that defines all living systems, is the capacity to surprise. Adaptive management could be called “surprise management”. It’s the polar opposite of the engineering-based approach that dominates public management today.
In addition to maximizing efficiency, the primary purpose of an engineer is to eliminate surprises. This is wonderful when dealing with structures: no one likes driving over a bridge that behaves in an unpredictable manner. But it’s a disaster when dealing with ecosystems or cities. Removing surprises from a living system is synonymous with killing it.
The efficiency goal also a problem. Again: it’s desirable mechanical and structural engineering work, but is a problem for civil engineers. Nature does many things that are inefficient in the microcosm, but highly efficient in the macrocosm. Plants create thousands of seed—and fish lay thousands of eggs—since maybe 1/10th of 1% will reach reproductive age. The rest become food for other species. Forest fires are another example of apparent waste, and we’ve now seen the vast damage done to our ecosystems (and towns) when we try to engineer fires out of existence.
These are two of the major reasons the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers—in controlling the life out of estuaries and waterways—has done more economic damage to America than all foreign armies combined. It’s also why China might be headed towards a national meltdown: they have far more engineers in local and national government than any other country.
This economic growth mode based on adaptive conquest comes in a variety of flavors—capitalism, socialism, communism, etc.—but they have all been based on adaptive conquest.
The “adaptive” in adaptive renewal is best defined in terms of flow. Flow leads to, and requires connectivity, so no need to have that separate. Restoring flow (because it crosses jurisdiction and private ownership) also requires, and leads to cooperation, so no need to have that as a separate principle either.
Manhattan’s magnificent High Line Park is emblematic of the Adaptive Renewal trend. It created jobs, boosted real estate values, and increased quality of life. It revitalized, in other words. The High Line was a bottom-up flow, a resident-led effort that led to a top-down flow of support by the city. It accomplished all of this through reuse of existing assets (an elevated railroad track), which reconnected neighborhoods and reestablished flows. These are the trends and models you’ll see throughout this book.
Single-use places are a form of disconnection and isolation, whether urban or agricultural. Civil engineering has traditionally been based on isolating functions and preventing flow. The discipline known as economic development sees jobs as the sole source of revitalization when, in fact, jobs (and retail) are normally outcomes of revitalization, not causes. Economic developers had no role in the High Line: they wouldn’t even consider supporting such an initiative, much less creating one. We’ve got a lot of rethinking and redesigning to do.
It’s not just that adaptive conquest must shift to adaptive renewal: the nature of our adaptations must shift from our traditional mode of fragmenting systems and blocking flows to reconnecting systems and restoring flows.
This process of restoring lost prosperity—or increasing/securing existing prosperity—has a complex and ephemeral nature that few mayors or planners acknowledge. It can emerge from anywhere, at any time. It can be top-down, bottom-up, or middle-out. The latter is when an initiative starts life as a partnership, drawing support from all directions. Both bottom-up and top-down initiatives can use partnerships to achieve their ends, but that’s not their starting point. Efforts can be triggered internally or externally. They process can arrive suddenly or gradually. It can start with a tight focus or holistically. Not understanding this often causes public leaders to ignore, or even fight, the very revitalization they desire.
This regenerative energy won’t stay put. Those leading last year’s great initiative often won’t lead the charge this year. It’s like a game of Whack-A-Mole, only the goal isn’t to whack them, but to grab them, feed them, and breed more moles. In too many places, when revitalizing leadership pops up unexpectedly or unofficially, it does indeed get “whacked”. This is just one reason adaptive management is essential, as we’ll see later.
All complex living systems—whether the human body, an ecosystem, or a city—are in an ongoing state of regeneration. Components are constantly being replaced, repurposed, reconnected, and renewed. It’s the root source of growth, health, and resilience. But there’s no central control for this process: it’s a self-organized, system-wide behavior, emerging wherever needed at the moment.
At any given time in a city (or nation), the vision, leadership, and resources needed to renew, repurpose, or reconnect a building, neighborhood, downtown, or natural resource can bloom at unexpected times, from unexpected sources: a real estate developer, a mayor, a government agency, a citizens’ group, a foundation, or a local business. Therein lays the challenge. This sort of disorderly, itinerant power is anathema to most institutions. Ordinary mayors stand ready with weed killer when renewal sprouts outside their control. Mayors practicing adaptive renewal stand ready with fertilizer.
It’s not just isolated projects that emerge in this manner. As we’ll see in the discussion of public-private Prosperity Partnerships, communities can “outsource” their resilient prosperity program. They can maintain all the usual “siloed” agencies that keep the place running, but tying it all together to foster the emergence of a brighter future can—and often should—take place outside of officialdom.
The major problem with resilience is the opposite of the revitalization problem. Resilience efforts are mostly long-term, with few short-term benefits. That makes them a hard sell to both politicians and citizens, and thus difficult to fund. Revitalization and resilience also share a problem: lack of adaptive management. We set our goals and move inexorably towards them, with little ability to modify either our means or our ends as circumstances change. But both revitalization and resilience programs have to operate within today’s ever-more volatile societies, economies, and climate. Many places find themselves in a state of constant crisis, with each new crisis often exacerbating existing ones.
These days, we don’t “merely” have to increase our health, wealth, and happiness; we must achieve it in the face of increasing social and religious strife, plus ever-more dysfunctional national governments, and make it resilient to more-frequent economic and natural disasters. We thus need an adaptive system that fixes our present, strengthens our future, learns from experience, and evolves as needed. We want prosperity first, of course. Then we think about how to make it last. Thus, the resilience trend is mostly gaining traction in prosperous places, like New York City, Singapore, and Calgary. These are also places that see a clear and present danger to their prosperity: sea level rise and super-storms in New York City and Singapore; floods and over-dependence on an unstable industry (oil and gas) in Calgary.
Adaptive renewal is a regenerative process that taps all resources—public and private—to improve life for the people of today, for the children of tomorrow, and for the natural world that gives life to us all. To achieve it, we must make peace with the uncontrollable complexity we live within, and that lives within us. As with people, non-lethal challenges tend to make communities stronger. For those charged with managing places, this means resilient prosperity should be the goal…NOT avoiding pain.
Terminology and Concepts
Revitalization is the process of regaining lost vitality.
Resilience is the process of retaining vitality.
Resilient prosperity is the process of regaining and retaining vitality.
Terminology is important, and becomes even more important when large sums of money—and the future of communities—is involved. In the 50s and 60s, the U.S. federal government offered cities hundreds of millions of dollars to revitalize any area they labeled “blighted.” Wealthy white politicians and urban planners usually decided that the word meant “any place with large numbers of darker-skinned, lower-income people and/or immigrants.” Hundreds of vibrant neighborhoods were demolished as a result, all in the name of “urban renewal.”
The 2008 movie, Slum Dog Millionaire was praised outside India, but largely reviled within India. Why? Because it perpetuated faulty perceptions of slum life that help Westerners feel superior. It also ignored the positive aspects of slum communities, which can often make American suburbs look dysfunctional—even sociopathic—in comparison. These days, many socially-rich slums are being bulldozed and replaced with the isolated, anonymous life offered by condo towers that are replacing many slums in India.
In his December 19, 2014 article in Global Site Plans, “Why Some Mumbai, India Slum Dwellers Prefer Slums to Condos”, writer Adwitya Das Gupta quoted his slum-dwelling maid as “If I am late from work, my neighbours bring my children dinner and make sure they are taken care of without me needing to ask… I have friends there and people I can rely on. Why would I want to move? I think the communities we have there are much stronger than you would even have here.”
Sometimes, a perfectly good word takes on a negative meaning as a result of bad practices. In Milton Keynes, England several public housing projects are being demolished and replaced with better housing. But it’s apparently being done in a way that results in unnecessarily-high levels of displacement and suffering. A February 28, 2019 article in the Milton Keynes Citizen reported that Former Milton Keynes Council leader Kevin Wilson said “I want the word regeneration replaced with something more community inclusive. The word ‘regeneration’ has become synonymous with the word ‘demolition’. The moment that you raise the spectre of ‘regeneration’, residents think that you are hiding something. The word itself has become toxic.”
In February of 2019, the Colorado Springs City Council was asked to declare 40 acres of virgin greenfields in the foothills to be an “urban renewal” zone. Some city leaders wanted to boost their tourism revenue by letting the U.S. Air Force Academy build a new 57-acre visitors’ center in this sprawl area. The visitors center may or may not be a good idea, but calling it “urban renewal” is most definitely a bad idea. Doing so will undermine the city’s credibility in any future attempts to attract state or federal urban renewal funding. But, create a pot of money, and some politicians will call their project whatever’s necessary to get their hands on it.
That misuse of terminology in the scramble for money isn’t always totally misguided. In Michigan, for instance, any vacant property (usually residential) that’s accepted into a local land bank’s inventory is automatically designated a brownfield, whether or not there’s any suspected or actual contamination. This gives the land bank access to state brownfields funding. That’s terminology misuse in a good cause, but it could undermine “real” brownfields reuse efforts. On the other hand, every plot of land on the planet is contaminated by something, so it’s a relative term. Most homes and lawns in the U.S. could be considered brownfields, given the heavy applications of toxins to kill weeds, mosquitoes, termites, fleas, rats, etc. And so it is with resilience.
As a community revitalizes, it increases its capacity of reaping the resilience dividend.”
– Dr. Judith Rodin, former President of The Rockefeller Foundation (2014)
If you’re new to the study of resilience, let me explain the “bouncing forward” reference in Dr. Rodin’s above quote about revitalization and resilience. Traditionally, cities hit by catastrophe (whether sudden and natural, or gradual and socioeconomic) have rather mindlessly gone about rebuilding in a way that merely reconstructed what had been lost. Their goal was to “bounce back”.
If resilience is your goal, you want to “bounce forward”…rebuilding in a way that makes you less vulnerable to future disasters. One might call this “preemptive planning”. Leadership of ANY kind can be defined as “acting before one has to,” which fits a resilience agenda perfectly.
I described this concept in my 2002 book, The Restoration Economy, showing how Lisbon, Portugal rebuilt on higher ground after a massive earthquake and tsunami in 1755.
They were also smart enough to take advantage of the opportunity to correct a number of urban planning mistakes (actually, lack of planning). This redesign was led by the Marquês de Pombal, who is sometimes called the world’s first urban planner. He was probably Robert Moses’ inspiration, as his style of planning has been called “despotic.” Nonetheless, the result is one of the world’s most beautiful cities.
“Bouncing forward” is, in fact, a pretty good example of a strategy: it’s succinct, memorable, an effective guide in decision-making, and reliably successful when well-implemented in the right place at the right time. Unfortunately, government bureaucracies are often stuck in “bounce-back” mode, as this article about FEMA illustrates. Even worse are maladaptive recovery efforts that actually compound problems (usually due to short-term, palliative thinking and/or budget constraints from tax cuts).
– Chelsea Clinton, Vice Chair of the Clinton Foundation
Resilience is revitalization plus adaptability. Revitalization makes poor (or damaged) places wealthier, and wealthy places healthier. It makes healthy, wealthy places healthier, wealthier, and happier. Adaptability helps make the good times last. Resilient Prosperity, in other words.
We should keep in mind that health, wealth (in its holistic sense), and happiness are all emergent qualities of doing the right things in the right way for the right amount of time. So, they should not be goals in themselves. Their nature is too ephemeral, and their emergence is too unpredictable to serve as deliverables. As Eleanor Roosevelt wisely said: “Happiness is not a goal…it’s a by-product.”
Most folks can define resilience along the lines of “the ability to bounce back from adversity or trauma, or adjust to change”. Traditionally applied primarily to materials and individuals, it has now become a goal of institutions and communities (as well as restored ecosystems). [Note: I use “resilience” in this book, rather than “resiliency”. Their meanings are identical, and both are real words. But “resiliency” is mostly used (about 50% of the time) in American conversation. This guide uses the shorter, more elegant form preferred by scientists and educators, and by the English-speaking public worldwide.]
A systems-oriented definition is: “the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and re-organize while undergoing change so as to still retain essentially the same function, structure, identity, and feedbacks.”
In their 2012 book Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back, authors Zolli and Healy offer an institutionally-oriented definition: “the capacity of a system, enterprise, or a person to maintain its core purpose and integrity in the face of dramatically changed circumstances.”
Combining a goal of resilience with an adaptive process of revitalization is a strategy for Resilient Prosperity. Simply doing regeneration and redevelopment isn’t enough. We can improve the current conditions of a place on a present on a property-by-property basis, but still not alter its downward trajectory. Revitalization without resilience and good management seldom lasts, which is why it’s just one of three processes contributing to an Adaptive Renewal strategy for achieving resilient prosperity.
Resilient solutions are normally 1) redundant (to endure loss or damage); 2) flexible/scalable (to endure growth, contraction, and change); and 3) integrative/strategic (to endure time and heal fragmentation). Most renewal projects have managers with relevant training and licenses: historic restoration, watershed management, civil engineering, etc. Revitalization and resilience programs designed to achieve Resilient Prosperity (in the few cases where they exist) also have professionals at the helm, but they lack revitalization or resilience credentials. At best, they specialize in one small aspect of renewal.
It’s like being put in charge of renovating a region’s electrical grid, simply because you know how to change a light bulb. Many public and private leaders work heroically to renew their cities, regions, and nations. But their efforts are undermined both by revitalization ignorance, and by a short-term, crisis-response mentality that produces one-time—rather than ongoing—revitalization efforts. Resilience leaders are often hampered by the opposite problem: a purely long-term focus with little or no pressure to produce tangible results in the short term. Only by combining revitalization and resilience goals can we improve present and future together.
The desire for revitalization can be triggered by a long, slow decline, a sudden disaster, or simply dissatisfaction with the current quality of life. The desire for resilience is often triggered by recent or impending disaster: a fishery on the edge of collapse, a fragile economy, climate-related agricultural challenges, etc. So, revitalization is motivated by present-day pain, whereas resilience is motivated by a desire to avoid future pain. The two goals have obvious overlaps.
This book is not about resilience in the traditional sense. There are many excellent books on that subject. One of the more recent is The Resilience Dividend, by the Rockefeller Foundation’s former CEO, Dr. Judith Rodin, published in November of 2014. Her 384-page work on resilience includes a chapter on revitalization.
This book has the opposite emphasis: it focuses more heavily on revitalization, and its role in resilience. That’s because resilience is the newcomer, whereas revitalization, regeneration, and redevelopment agencies and budgets have been around for decades, if not centuries. Refocusing these established community and regional assets on Resilient Prosperity is thus the low-hanging fruit. An obvious relationship between resilience and regeneration is in post-disaster situations, as illustrated by this diagram. It uses the phrase “reformative recovery” in the manner I use “improving the future”.
This book thus comes at resilience from an oblique angle. Rather than focusing on traditional resilience strategies: it’s an attempt to show how the parallel trends/activities of community revitalization and natural resource restoration are ideal paths to a resilience effort. This is as opposed to launching yet another silo called “resilience”.
The word “resilient” suffers from the same problem that afflicts “sustainable”: it implies protecting current conditions. Anyone who thinks simply reducing the amount of new damage we do will be sufficient just isn’t paying attention to the vast amounts of damage already done. Who wants to sustain this mess? We instead need a global transformation. At its core would be a wealth of “re” words regarding our natural, built, and socioeconomic assets: restoring, reconnecting, repurposing, renewing, redeveloping, renovating, revitalizing, regenerating, etc.
As Zolli and Healy state in their book, “preserving adaptive capacity—the ability to adapt to changed circumstances while fulfilling one’s core purpose—[is] an essential skill in an age of unforeseeable disruption and volatility.” This is where most resilience efforts falter. They know that the most important principle of resilience is flexibility, yet they try to use their old, inflexible planning and management systems to implement it. It’s like removing tumors with a shotgun: simply not the right tool.
A related area in which resilience efforts get into trouble is in making safety their primary (or even sole) goal. Safety sounds like a reasonable objective, especially for public officials. But it can become a rigid, fear-based religion, preventing us from taking the risks needed to innovate and become more flexible and, ironically, safer. There is no complete safety: there is only safer. In excessive fear lies vulnerability. As Will Rogers said, “You’ve got to go out on a limb sometimes, because that’s where the fruit is.”
I sometimes (tongue in cheek) refer to adaptive renewal leaders as a new species of human called “Homo adaptus“, for three reasons:
- The need for accuracy: It’s what we should have been called all along: we have thrived by adapting the world to our needs, but we haven’t displayed much–if any–wisdom (“sapiens”) in doing so. As long as we suffer from the illusion of wisdom, we will continue to rely on blind faith in technology to save us, leading to further disaster. Of course, ending our dependence on fossil fuels is a technology solution, but our planet and its people are suffering from countless other unintended consequences of inappropriate technologies;
- The need to re-adapt our adapted world: If we are to survive, we must focus our adaptive genius on remodifying (or unmodifying) the planet back to a state of health. Given climate change and a host of other environmental changes, this will often involve the creation of novel ecosystems (rather than classic restoration), since many pre-Industrial Revolution ecosystems can no longer survive in the current world. It will also mean reusing or repurposing our built and socioeconomic assets; and
- The need to adapt ourselves: In order to make the change described in #2, we must rapidly shift our activities into a mode that restores community and planetary health. This must be done in a way that takes into account the sorry state of our government, social, economic, and natural systems. In other words, we need to adapt our assumptions, policies, economic models, and management systems to the new reality. Humans have always been changed by the changes we’ve made to the world, but this is the first time we must consciously adapt ourselves in order to thrive, or maybe even survive.
Based on this history, it’s obvious that homo sapiens has always been adaptive. So why my metaphorical use of homo adaptus? I could be flippant, and point out that we’ve failed miserably to live up to the self-flattery of the “wise being” label, and it’s time to focus on what we really are.
But there’s a more serious reason for the Homo adaptus monicker. During all this time, we’ve been adapting the world to us, so increase our security and comfort. We’ve have, in turn, been changed by this new world we’ve altered, but that has been unintentional.
The turning point we find ourselves at right now is that we can no longer pursue our traditional mode, because it has long since become counterproductive. It’s true that we must continue to alter the Earth, but we must now alter it back to a state of health. To accomplish that means altering our behaviors, activities, and assumptions.
Note that I specified “back to health”, not back to the way things were. While some ecosystems will, no doubt, respond well to the efforts of restoration ecologists to restore them in accordance to a reference ecosystem that simulates what it once was, others won’t. Climate change and a host of other anthropogenic influences mean that they’re only hope of returning to a state of health will be in the formation of a novel ecosystem, adapted to current conditions.
The same can be said of businesses, governments, communities, and other human inventions: leaders attempting to return to an organization’s glory days will likely need to describe an entirely new form of glory, and an entirely new way of achieving it. It’s likely that the glorious old organization thrived in a governmental, economic, social, and natural resource situation very different from the one they’re living in today. Granted, all of these have always been in a state of flux, but it’s the rate of change—the amplitude of the oscillations—that is so different now.
So, we need to be homo adaptus—and need to stop pretending to be homo sapiens—for two reasons: 1) our new adaptations need to be based in large part on undoing our old adaptations; and 2) we need to consciously adapt our out activities, behaviors, and motivations in order to be capable of implementing this new form of adaptation. While we have seldom successfully changed our behaviors dramatically and quickly, there are precedents.
The gearing-up of American industry to (belatedly) enter World War II is probably the most recent, and thus best-documented. Two keys to that success were 1) U.S. industry was promised—and made—vast profits from the endeavor; and 2) it was an alteration of limited duration: we could comfort ourselves with the childish illusion that things would “return to normal” after the war.
Rick Potts, Director of the Human Origins Program at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC wrote an article in the Winter 2013 issue of the Smithsonian Institution’s magazine of the Museum of the American Indian. It was titled “Being Human in the Age of Humans”. In it, he brilliantly and succinctly described the process by which homo sapiens evolved by adapting our environment to our needs, and how we have arrived at the Anthropocene: the era of human domination of Earth.
If there was a weakness to Potts’ article, it was the ending. After documenting the serious challenges presented to us—and life in general—by the Anthropocene, his “solutions” were primarily philosophical, based on changing human nature: “universality, inclusion, empathy, reciprocity, humility” to quote just a portion of his list of recommendations.
I, for one, haven’t seen any evidence of a significant change in human nature over the millennia, Relying on something that might well be impossible doesn’t strike me as practical. It’s sort of like the standard speech offered by Popes over the centuries, whenever war or other calamities strike: calls for more peace, brotherhood, and love. While noble-sounding, such bromides are merely a strategy for maintaining the status quo, and thus the institution’s role in it.
We’re discovering that almost everything can be adaptively repurposed. For instance, big-box stores, franchised fast-food joints, and even banks have been covering the world with disposable buildings of no substance or architectural value for decades. I’ve long decried this practice in my talks, because it’s denying future generations their own “restoration economy”. In the U.S., my generation inherited a wealth of gorgeous buildings from the 19th Century and first half of the 20th Century.
Now, we’re seeing many firms ignoring the “disposable trash” architectural style and focusing on the site. For obvious reasons, these flimsy throwaways are usually in high-traffic locations. We now see former burger and pizza joints turned into “doc-in-a-box” clinics, used-car dealerships, liquor stores, martial arts studios, and, of course, new fast-food joints. They won’t be here in 100 years, but at least adaptive reuse is wringing all the value out of them.
I’d rather not mention the architectural nightmare of the 60’s and 70’s, but even those “Brutalist” eyesores are being repurposed, often being made significantly less ugly in the process. In North Atlanta, Georgia, a sterile former IBM office building—built in 1977 and abandoned in 2010—was repurposed into a high school. The addition of lots of new glass improved its aesthetics, and the community got a new school in a great location, while simultaneously ridding the area of a blighted property which was driving down real estate values.
To someone with a vivid sense of the past, most of the world is now blighted. Sometimes, blight simply needs to be removed. But increasingly, it needs to be adapted.
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.
Any more would create economic inefficiency and generate the greatest social risk: civil war.”
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 contributor to 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 immediate 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.
Redundant, flexible/scalable, and integrative/ strategic are the key (not only) factors in creating the resilience element of adaptive renewal. But again: resilience by itself won’t produce prosperity: revitalization does that. Resilience makes revitalization durable, and adaptive management keeps it relevant via flexible implementation.
Together, these three elements form an adaptive renewal process for achieving resilient prosperity. Adaptive management is a process of constantly reorienting towards what actually works. It’s the key to making resilience initiatives resilient, so we’ll explore that next.
Resilience and adaptation most often converge when places prepare for climate change-related sea level rise and storms. Not surprisingly, Florida has a great deal of activity in this regard. Their Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO) has web resources on community resilience and adaptation planning. It describes three basic strategies for coastal communities in response to sea level rise: protection (armoring the shore with hard and/or green infrastructure), accommodation (elevating structures to minimize flood damage), and retreat (turning at-risk areas into parks, and moving structures to safer locations). They list dozens of potential funding sources.
In 2012, the Florida DEO launched a 5-year project called “Community Resiliency Initiative: Planning for Adaptation”. It integrates adaptation to potential sea level rise into all three local planning mechanisms: the comprehensive plan, the hazard mitigation plan, and the post-disaster redevelopment plan.
– Ursula Le Guin, American writer
But adaptation efforts are not the same as adaptive management. While shared visions and goals can enhance success, adaptive management helps ensure progress even in their absence, and even when the goals turn out to be faulty. Adaptive management is thus more focused on the journey of renewal, rather than the destination.
Likewise, a good climate resilience strategy will adapt to the challenges of a changing economy. A city can’t thrive if its streets are under water. And it can’t pay for climate adaptation projects if its economy is under water.
A good revitalization strategy yields resilient prosperity. Conversely, a good resilience strategy will revitalize your community. One defining quality of “good” is adaptability.
The Rise of Fixers
– Alice Walker.
Our world has no shortage of people who want to renew communities and/or natural resources, or whose job it is to do so. I generally call them “fixers.” Fixers are the ones who actually do it, despite insufficient resources, political difficulties, bureaucratic obstacles, or social injustices.
It’s similar to how there’s no dearth of people who would like to be authors, but who find an plethora of excellent reasons why they can’t write now. Fixers fix. Writers write. The ability to fix assets—or situations (such as depressed communities)—is often the only characteristic Fixers share. They come from diverse backgrounds, professions, and ages.
So, the job of those who wish to revitalize places is simple: either become a fixer, or attract fixers. If one is successful at the latter, one joins the ranks of fixers. In our present-day world—which is more broken than at any previous time in history (even our climate is broken)—no breed of individual or organization is more desperately needed than fixers.
For most of the past century, community redevelopment has been a top-down activity. It was envisioned and run by political leaders and government agencies. When a public leadership vacuum existed, it was controlled by real estate developers, whose projects (both sprawl and redevelopment) were often at odds with the best interests of the community.
Over the past couple of decades, a strong movement towards bottom-up (resident-led) revitalization efforts emerged. Our modern times—characterized by ubiquitous and accelerating economic, environmental, and social crises—has collided with an onslaught of disintermediating technologies that bypass traditional command-and-control hierarchies. The result is that leadership of community revitalization has become diffuse, emergent, and opportunistic.
Anyone can have a great idea for renewing their neighborhood, city, or region. This has always been the case. What’s new is that people with such ideas can now take rapid, effective action, turning their ideas into projects with a facility never before seen. This is the root of the rise of fixers.
The only consequence is what we do.”
– John Ruskin, British art critic, writer and philanthropist
Fixers can be ordinary citizens, green/social entrepreneurs, mayors, community foundations, non-profits, or real estate redevelopers. Those communities that wish to tap 100% of their revitalization potential must learn to be both responsive to, and supportive of, fixers. The flip side is that they must also learn to ignore initiatives that retard revitalization, whether they come from elected leaders or powerful developers.
This creates a redevelopment meritocracy that advances good projects, no matter from whom they originate. Healthy communities develop a “radar” for renewal—“redar” if you will—that quickly spots revitalizing ideas that don’t arise through normal channels.
A fixer—as the purposely-prosaic name suggests—is a person (working individually or through an organization) who repairs the form and/or function of a dead, dying, or otherwise-distressed place.
These fixes could be in a city, such as renewing an empty building, decrepit park, or drug-ridden neighborhood. They could be in a rural area, such as restoring farmlands depleted by overgrazing or industrial agriculture. Or they could be in a natural place, such as reviving a damaged reef or estuary.
Prevailing wisdom is that people don’t like change. This isn’t true. Most people enjoy change. What they hate is being changed. So too, most people enjoy self-organizing into effective groups and teams. But they don’t like being organized. This explains why so many community engagement exercises yield so few lasting, measurable results.
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.
Fixing the Present and Future Together
– Paul Hawken
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, and prosperous, are we looking at something real? Yes. Is it a process others could learn from? Yes. Is it an activity that must be taken more seriously? Yes.
Similarly, are current efforts to increase resilience real, or they just another policy fad promoted by journalists and foundations? On the one hand, the need for physical resilience to the storms, droughts, floods, and blizzards ensuing from our destabilized climate is very real, and is intensifying. On the other hand, politicians seldom push expensive initiatives with delayed benefits to voters (unless the money goes into the pockets of campaign contributors, in which case few public benefits are necessary).
To help the resilience movement grow and thrive, we thus need to give it both short-term and long-term benefits. This would make resilience economically appealing to elected leaders and voters alike. This is exactly what a resilient prosperity strategy would do, by fixing the present and the future together. A resilient community renews its natural, built, and socioeconomic environments together. A resilient community creates a vision of their desired future together, so the resulting strategy benefits all.
Adaptive renewal programs often include the repurposing of social, economic, and human assets via training in new skills and technologies. These are often best derived on-the-job from regenerative projects. Good strategies enable places to achieve their goals with what they have. An adaptive renewal strategy is one that reconnects, renews, and repurposes the assets of today to meet the needs and threats of tomorrow. The resulting projects fix the present by reusing old buildings, undoing previous planning mistakes, cleaning and reusing contaminated sites, restoring natural resources, and the like.
They fix the future by ensuring that these projects are designed and located in a way that adapts the place to known future threats and opportunities, while also making it more adaptive in the face of unknown threats and opportunities.
When Hurricane Irene unleashed devastating floods in Vermont in 2011, it was found that some of the culverts under the roads were too small to handle the flows, causing the roads to fail. The village of Townshend did what any sane place would do, and rebuilt them larger.
But, in 2012, FEMA refused to reimburse them for that upgrade. FEMA knew how to rebuild the past, but didn’t quite get the concept of fixing the future. It took a lot of arguing, but Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin and Vermont’s congressional delegation announced in 2013 that FEMA had reversed their policy and would pay for such upgrades. In such small steps do institutions start incorporating strategies for the future into rebuilding the present.
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.
Let it go. It’s a bad goal. If it was a great goal, you would have jumped into action already. …Goals are not to improve the future. The future doesn’t really exist. … Judge a goal by how well it changes your actions in the present moment.”
– from “Goals Shape the Present, Not the Future” by Derek Sivers.
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.
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.
…It is without dispute that America’s older legacy cities and their revitalization
are critical to the country’s economy and its international economic competitiveness.”
-from “MANAGING CHANGE”, a 2014 report by the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation.
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; or
- 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 poet Khalil Gibran, “Progress lies in enhancing what is, while advancing toward what will be.”
A switch to adaptive renewal involves two key areas of change:
- Leadership that effectively adapts to surprises in general, and to emergent resources/initiatives contributing to resilient prosperity in particular; and
- Implementation that renews, repurposes, and reconnects your existing natural, built, and socioeconomic assets, adapting them to both current needs and future threats/opportunities.
As we’ll see a bit later, the RECONOMICS Process provides a context that facilitates both of these challenges.
The following passage appeared in an article titled “Slow Moving Miracle” by Sven Eberlein in the Winter 2015 issue of YES! Magazine: “‘I think all the government projects [to revitalize Medellín, Colombia] are good in a sense,‘ says Juan Carlos Anadón, Project Coordinator for the nonprofit Fundación Pazamanos. ‘But things are really complex when you work in the trenches of social development. You have to have flexibility to address problems you find along the way, which people who work in government often don’t have.‘”
An adaptive renewal practitioner must understand mundane subjects, like real estate finance. But two leading-edge areas of knowledge set them apart: 1) complex adaptive systems, and 2) adaptive management.
The latter is formally defined as “a structured, iterative process of robust decision making in the face of uncertainty, with an aim to reducing uncertainty over time via system monitoring”. My definition is “a flexible management style that learns from—and quickly responds to—reality”.
There are six key processes in adaptive management: 1) assess the problem; 2) design the solution; 3) implement the solution; 4) monitor the results; 5) evaluate the results; 6) adjust the solution. For practical purposes, I normally simplify them into three pairs of related processes: 1) assess/design; 2) implement/monitor; 3) evaluate/adjust.
Adaptive management is a global trend in natural resource management that has yet to be adopted to any significant degree in urban applications. This is because natural resource managers and restoration ecologists are very aware of the deficiencies in their knowledge. As a result, they have wisely developed adaptive management, in which plans are just starting points.
The business world is also catching on. Entrepreneurship professor Steve Blank (UC Berkeley) captured the spirit of adaptive management when he defined a startup as a “temporary organization searching for a repeatable business model.”
Our search for verifiable urban revitalization models, principles, taxonomies, and frameworks should start with those scientists who bring complex systems back to life as a profession: restoration ecologists. Scientists experiment on revitalizing ecosystems in ways that can’t be done on human communities. This can lead to useful insights and metaphors for thinking about cities. One of the most important lessons emerging from the restoration of natural systems is the need for adaptive management.
Urban managers seem to be less aware of their ignorance than ecosystem managers, so comprehensive plans adopted by cities are expected to function unchanged for 5, 10, or even more years. But few such plans are ever implemented, and few that are implemented succeed to any significant degree. One thing that is common to both the failures and the successes is a paucity of documentation: the process is seldom measured in any rigorous manner, so whatever lessons we learn are usually anecdotal.
Urban leaders seeking to revitalize their areas have much to learn from restoration ecology, where the results of both tactics and strategies are monitored scientifically, and the lessons published in scientific journals such as Restoration Ecology, and in practitioner journals such as Ecological Restoration. The starting point for this transition to adaptive management in urban environments will likely begin where the city and nature meet.
Here’s a quote from the 2013 Healthy Waterways Strategy report from Melbourne, Queensland, Australia: “Melbourne Water uses adaptive management to ensure that decision making is based on sound and current knowledge. This increases our ability to carry out activities that will result in the greatest gains for waterway health. Adaptive management relies on focused monitoring, investigations and research to build our knowledge of waterways and understand changing environmental conditions, outcomes of management approaches and the effect of external drivers such as climate change. We evaluate these programs to inform our planning and implementation and report outcomes to ensure knowledge is shared.”
New York City’s PlaNYC 2030 plan for adapting to climate change while accommodating 9 million new residents is well-designed (the jury is still out on whether it’s well-implemented) because it focuses on three key areas: 1) infrastructure renewal (especially green infrastructure); 2) retrofitting existing buildings; and 3) updating old building codes to current needs. Adapting the natural, built, socioeconomic, and policy/regulatory environments together is where the real magic will be found.
The best plans are not only adaptive, but are based on adapting (repurposing) existing assets. How did Chicago adapt its planning to fix its urban heat island problem, which killed 750 people in 1995? By repurposing roofs. Roofs were originally designed to shield occupants from weather. With extremely hot days on the increase, Chicago has transformed 4 million square feet of roofs into “green roofs”. Besides cooling the city, they:
- reduce flooding from storms;
- help restore Lake Michigan by reducing combined sewer overflow; and
- reduce global climate change by absorbing carbon.
Buildings and businesses aren’t the only things that can outlive their current form and function, failing to keep up with current needs. Building codes, zoning, development incentives, and most other aspects of governance often shift from contributing to community progress to retarding it. Keep your policies adaptive, if you wish to improve your community’s resilience to change (both internal and external).
But having adaptive policies is one thing. Having the courage to change them when you’re making a lot of money from current bad policies is another.
Throughout the 20th century, water engineers seemed to be on a quest to pollute the maximum amount of clean water with any given amount of raw sewage or industrial discharge.
They were driven by a poetic-but-brainless maxim: “the solution to pollution is dilution.” But diluting 1 gallon of sewage with 100 gallons of clean water simply yields 101 gallons of polluted water. Diluting 1 gallon of sewage with 100,000 gallons of clean water yields 100,001 gallons of polluted water.
Combined sewer and stormwater systems made sense a century ago, when urban populations were relatively small, sewage treatment technologies were not in wide use, and cities still had significant amounts of permeable surfaces to absorb rainwater.
Flushing sewers with stormwater could be forgiven then, but what shouldn’t be forgiven is how long it took for communities to stop specifying them, and how long it took for civil engineers to stop recommending them…decades after combined sewer overflow (CSO) became a crisis.
There’s nothing new in adapting a plan to changing circumstances, or correcting a plan’s assumptions. What’s different in today’s climate of constant crisis and uncertainty is that we must expect to change our plans. The nature of planning is thus changing from predictive to adaptive (the predictive aspect was usually illusory anyway). All the institutions and external factors—the economy, the natural resources, even the weather—are now so unreliable as to demand a level of flexibility never before required.
What should be adaptive, and what shouldn’t? A project (or tactic) is how one implements a plan. A plan is how one implements a strategy. A strategy is how one implements a vision. This is straightforward, but it never ceases to amaze me how often I see projects not in keeping with a plan (if, indeed, a plan even exists), or plans that lack an identifiable strategy, or strategies not based on a vision. The result is often failure. As it says in Proverbs 29:18, “Where there is no vision, people perish.”
Even if a degree of success is achieved, it will often be found that key partners or stakeholders—or the community in general—lose out along the way. Many communities fail to create a vision because they don’t know where to start. My suggestion is to start with the goal of a secure, inclusive, and green economy. You can customize that base to your own local challenges and dreams.
it’s about learning to dance in the rain.”
– Vivian Greene
How to stay on-track, despite constant changes? The degree of adaptability should decrease as one progresses through the vision-strategy-plan-project taxonomy. The shared vision of the community’s future is changed least often: maybe updated once per decade (developers and investors are attracted to the safety of places that know where they’re going). Plans should be more changeable than visions.
Strategies should be more changeable than plans. And projects should be the most malleable. Any changes made to strategies, plans, and projects should reference the vision, to prevent “mission drift”. The need for adaptive management isn’t the only lesson in managing urban areas that we can derive from the science of restoring ecosystems, of course. Three examples:
- Restoration ecologists speak of “reparative restoration” (fixing damage, such as by reintroducing native species) versus “replacement restoration” (providing functional equivalents, such as hunters replacing wolves as top predators). Lesson: Cities suffering industrial flight to lower-wage countries could choose between recruiting functionally equivalent employers versus restoring jobs by “repurposing” citizens via education, training, and entrepreneurial support.
- Restoration ecologists can’t restore nature 100%, so they aim for resilience. They use “foundational” species—such as corals, seagrasses, and oysters—that form the structural basis of ecosystems and contribute most to community stability. Nature then takes over, repairing itself and diversifying without further intervention. Lesson: With limited funding, public leaders must focus on reaching the revitalization tipping point, where the free market takes over. This often involves renewing foundational assets; infrastructure, water, heritage, public services, etc.
- Here’s a quote from the paper “The Rapid Riparian Revegetation (R3) Approach” in Ecological Restoration (June 2014): “With hundreds of thousands of kilometers of riparian corridors in need of restoration, and limited public funds for implementation, practitioners need to identify strategies that lower the unit cost and accelerate the pace of reestablishment of native riparian forests in sustainable ways. The R3 approach is grounded in ecological principles and geared towards producing outcomes consistent with restoration programming and the human desire to see “progress” for the investments made.” Lesson: Replace “riparian corridors” with “cities”, have R3 stand for “rapid resilient renewal”, and this passage describes good urban strategies.
The movement towards design-build procurement over the past 15 years or so (in the U.S.) has greatly increased the ability of projects to adapt to the availability of new tools, materials, and technologies. This is primarily due to the related adoption of performance specifications over prescriptive specifications. The former focuses on achieving the desired goals in the best way possible, whereas the latter focuses on following static instructions.
Managers and employees at every level need to adapt to facts on the ground, surmount unexpected obstacles, and take advantage of fleeting opportunities. Strategy execution, as we define the term, consists of seizing opportunities that support the strategy while coordinating with other parts of the organization on an ongoing basis. When managers come up with creative solutions to unforeseen problems or run with unexpected opportunities, they are not undermining systematic implementation; they are demonstrating execution at its best. Such real-time adjustments require firms to be agile.”
– “Why Strategy Execution Unravels” by Sull, Homkes, & Sull, Harvard Business Review, 3/2015
But we haven’t seen a similar level of evolution on the planning side. A widespread obstacle is what engineers refer to as “conflicting constraints”, whereby being in accordance with one set of instructions puts one in violation of others. In manufacturing, suppliers say “you can have it faster, cheaper, or better: pick two.” The budget, scope, and schedule of a project are conflicting constraints. Reduce the time for delivery, and you’ll need to hire more people (increase the budget), or reduce the scope. In urban redevelopment, the fact that public agencies operate in silos—infrastructure, environment, economic development, planning, heritage, arts, etc.—impedes the resolution of conflicting constraints.
Even if they understand the RECONOMICS Process, many folks within well-established institutions will find themselves constrained from implementing it. And it’s not just individuals who are frustrated. Most communities and regions encounter one or more of the following constraints when trying to revitalize:
- TIME CONSTRAINT: Achieving resilient prosperity requires an ongoing (or at least long-term) process, but elected leaders are usually around only for a few years;
- SCOPE CONSTRAINT: Achieving resilient prosperity requires a critical mass of human and physical assets, and often works best on a regional scale. But that defined region often lacks a legal jurisdiction, and thus lacks an official leader. It’s a rare city mayor who can lead an entire region;
- ASSET CONSTRAINT: Achieving resilient prosperity requires repurposing, renewing, and/or reconnecting ALL of your local assets—natural, built, and socioeconomic—but architects tend to think it’s all about buildings, and civil engineers tend to think it’s all about water, dirt and concrete;
- PROCESS CONSTRAINT: Achieving resilient prosperity requires a comprehensive process comprising a shared vision, a strategy for success, an ongoing program to keep implementing until the vision is achieved, supportive policymaking, effective partnerships, and good project management. But planners are taught little or none of that: they think it’s all about creating a plan (which isn’t even essential to the process). And even if they understand the process, the lack the authority to dictate the actions of the agencies responsible for the needed actions and assets. And economic developers normally focus only on recruiting employers, which falls under the “projects” portion of the process; and
- EXPERIENCE CONSTRAINT: Achieving resilient prosperity requires inclusive, equitable stakeholder engagement, so “people-oriented” professionals—such as executives from universities, foundations, non-profits, or businesses—are sometimes assigned the role of leader, but they suffer from ALL of the previous challenges. And even if they had all the right knowledge and skills, they would lack experience in running such an initiative: they would be learning on the job…a scary proposition when the future of the place and its people are at stake.
An adaptive renewal approach can go a long way towards avoiding conflicting constraints, or speeding their resolution. It does this both by bringing them to light, and by forcing agencies to take a more holistic approach to community management. Adaptive Renewal produces “living” plans and policies, which is appropriate, since they affect living communities. If you can’t change the goals, change the constraints.
New Jersey did this brilliantly with their Smart Code program (documented in my 2002 book, The Restoration Economy). In 1996, New Jersey overhauled their rigid, antiquated fire codes. Designed for new construction, the old codes made reusing old buildings cost-prohibitive, which constrained urban revitalization.
Their Smart Code program gave redevelopers the flexibility they needed to adapt and renovate old industrial buildings in ways that complied with modern building codes for fire and safety, without busting the budget.
The Smart Code program cost New Jersey virtually nothing to implement, and triggered an instant explosion of reuse projects statewide. Renewal of existing buildings in New Jersey’s 16 largest cities rose 62.5%, from $363.3 million in 1997 to $590.4 million in 1999.
We might call this biomimicry-based urban revitalization. The research possibilities are endless, as are the useful metaphors. For instance, there’s a global trend towards restoring rivers by removing outdated dams. Once removed, migratory fish—whose spawning grounds have sometimes been blocked for over a century—return, revitalizing economies and ecosystems. A 2014 study by Oregon State University revealed that undammed “rivers can return surprisingly fast to a condition close to their natural state.”
Many places have significant private money ready to flow into regenerative activities. But antiquated policies, incentives, zoning, and building codes block their “migration”. Unblocked, revitalization can be surprisingly fast. New Jersey’s policy revisions were “bureaucratic dam removal”. Yyon Chouinard, CEO of Patagonia, says “Time and again, I’ve witnessed the celebration that comes with the removal of an unnecessary dam. After a river is restored and the fish have returned you never hear a single person say, ‘Gee, I wish we had our dam back’.” Neither does New Jersey mourn the loss of their old fire codes.
Experts sometimes refer to “passive” vs. “active” adaptive management. Passive adaptive management is normal planning plus the monitoring and evaluation of results. Common sense, in other words. The passive form was invented to allow traditional managers to say they use adaptive management when they don’t have the courage for it. The active form is what we’ve been discussing here.
Thomas Edison said “Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.” Few disagree. But many places do give up, and citizens acquiesce. We seem to believe that—unlike individuals—some communities simply can’t revitalize. That’s nonsense. Adaptive management has no endpoint. It keeps the process going. In that way, it can’t fail.
Adaptive management—when applied to regeneration and resilience work—is the path to resilient prosperity in these increasingly broken and unstable times.
Restorative Sprawl: I’ll end this chapter 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.
Revitalizing a city—or a planet—is hard. Revitalizing a place you don’t care about is harder. This is a guide for social, economic, and environmental change agents: public and private. 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. But if you don’t have a real passion for this work, stop right here.
- Chapter 2 - REGENERATIVE ECONOMIES: Who wants to sustain this mess?
which it must turn over to the next generation INCREASED…in value.”
– Colonel Theodore Roosevelt, President of the United States
At the time, many of the U.S. regions that are today well-forested (such as New England) were ugly, barren, muddy wastelands. Over century of rampant, unregulated deforestation to build ships and cities had ensured that outcome.
Too bad Teddy never created a strategy to activate the vision. The U.S. could have started repurposing, renewing, and reconnecting sooner, and could have launched its restoration economy a century earlier.
– from “Change By Design” by Tim Brown, president and CEO of IDEO
The still-emerging field of regenerative economics was launched in 2002 with the publication of my first book, The Restoration Economy. Today, new approaches to restorative economic development are arising on a regular basis. The “circular economy” trend is one of the best modern iterations of the idea. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation defines a circular economy as “a framework for an economy that is restorative and regenerative by design.”
Some of them were quite new at the time of its publication, such as restoration ecology and brownfields remediation.
In fact, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had just launched its revolutionary brownfields program (probably the single most efficient federal program in the nation’s history, in terms of return on investment) in 1995, the year before I started writing The Restoration Economy.
Eight of the book’s twelve chapters created a taxonomy of the restoration economy, categorizing eight sectors of restorative development. These eight sectors involve the regeneration of the natural and built environments.
Revitalization of the socioeconomic environment is one of the automatic outcomes, when restorative development is done strategically in the natural and built environments.
Here’s the eight-sector taxonomy of the restoration economy:
- Ecosystem and biodiversity restoration;
- Aquifer recharging and waterway/watershed restoration;
- Estuary, reef, and pelagic fishery regeneration;
- Regenerative agriculture;
- Brownfields remediation and redevelopment;
- Infrastructure renewal;
- Heritage restoration/reuse; and
- Catastrophe reconstruction and climate restoration.
Much has changed since The Restoration Economy appeared. Now, everyone wants to get in on restoring and regenerating our world.
Don’t believe me? What’s one of the more industries you can think of as a sponsor of stream restoration? How about professional hockey? The NHL Foundation pledged to restore 1000 gallons of stream flow to the Deschutes River in Oregon for every goal scored during the 2011-2012 regular season. This was in support of the Bonneville Environmental Foundation’s (BEF) Water Restoration Certificate Program.
Regenerative economics was advanced six years later when McGraw-Hill Professional (a now-defunct division of McGraw-Hill) published my second book, Rewealth.
One way of differentiating the focus of The Restoration Economy from that of Rewealth is that the former was more about the “ingredients” of revitalization (the various types of asset renewal).
The latter, on the other hand, was more about the “recipe” for those ingredients: how one combines them to create economic growth and increased quality of life (revitalization).
The Restoration Economy was documenting a historic shift in the global economy, so it was more theoretical.
Rewealth contains numerous case studies of places coming back to life in a dramatic and unexpected manner, so it was more practical.
Regenerative economics was advanced again in 2012 by the great Marjorie Kelly with her book Owning Our Future, which was taglined “Journeys to a Generative Economy.”
It was published by Berrett-Koehler Publishers, the same wonderful folks who published The Restoration Economy a decade earlier.
Although Owning Our Future is more about ownership models, and didn’t focus directly on “re”, it indirectly did so by categorizing economic activities as being either “generative” or “extractive.”
This mirrors The Restoration Economy’s “destructive development” mode (based on sprawl and the extraction of non-renewable resources) vs. the “restorative development” mode (based on revitalizing the places we’ve already developed, and restoring the natural resources we damaged along the way).
Here’s a brief excerpt from the Foreword to Owning Our Future by David Korten: “Our well-being, indeed our future as a species, depends on restoring our relationships to one another and with the land, the water, the sky, and the other generative resources of nature that indigenous people traditionally considered it their obligation to hold and manage in sacred trust. The architecture of ownership is key.”
Despite all their talk about the importance of free trade and free enterprise, the first thing most businesses do upon attaining sufficient size is to use their money to buy political influence that reduces competition. Or, they buy their competitors (what they like to call “industry consolidation”), as we’ve seen recently in the pharmaceutical industry, which resulted in an immediate doubling in the prices of generic (off-patent) drugs.
Such monopolistic practices create tremendous and unnatural barriers to entry for new businesses, thus stifling innovation. Government agencies are mostly powerless to prevent them, since they are run by industry executives who have been promised lucrative jobs in those same industries following their “public service”.
It’s easy to understand people’s trust of big business when one looks at the blatant hypocrisy of large corporations. They preach the gospel of free enterprise while they’re small and want unfettered access to markets. But as soon the they’re large enough to pull it off, they use their money to get government to restrict the markets, so others can’t compete with them.
Let’s return to that popular (in the U.S.) revitalization funding tool, TIF (tax increment financing), for a moment. I’m keeping my comments about it fairly general, since each state has their own flavor of TIF. Some establish different qualifying conditions to allow for the creation of different types of TIF districts. Minnesota, for instance, allows for six district types: economic development, housing, redevelopment, renewal and renovation, soil condition, and hazardous waste substance subdivisions. Illinois allows TIF to be used for remediating blight, for conserving areas with many structures older than 35 years, and for promoting industrial parks in areas of high unemployment. With such definitional variety, it’s little wonder that people find so many ways to subvert it for personal gain.
The infamous billionaire Koch brothers fund several foundations that extol the social benefits of free enterprise, while decrying government regulation, socialized medicine, and public assistance to the poor. But even with their vast wealth, they aren’t above demanding taxpayer assistance to expand their many businesses. Many see this as corporate socialism. In Enid, Oklahoma (population: 50,000), the Kochs planned to spend $1 billion expanding their Koch Nitrogen Plant (fertilizer). But they wanted the tax-payers of this small, working class city to help them do it.
To accomplish that, the Kochs turned their private plant into a TIF district (remember my earlier mention of TIF abuse, misuse and overuse?). This means that taxes which would have gone towards paying for schools, roads, police, and the like will go towards renovating their private, for-profit factory. Large employers across America use similar forms of extortion, threatening to leave communities desperate for jobs, unless they get tax breaks, free land, or whatever…hardly the behavior of good corporate citizens.
This was blatant abuse of TIF, which should only be used to fund community redevelopment and revitalization. In the old days, when most newspapers had investigative reporters, they would have blown the whistle on such a scheme. The only “exposé” of that TIF abuse I know of was a lonely tweet from me to my 26,000+ Twitter followers, which is a pretty pathetic excuse for investigative reporting.
The only newspaper coverage I could find was in the local Enid News and Eagle, which ran a puff piece extolling the virtues of the plan (without explaining the cost to citizens). The article sounded like it came straight from the Koch’s PR team, without editing. It’s estimated that between 80-90% of all articles in the U.S. news media come from corporate and government PR agencies. This even includes TV “news” videos, where phony reporters (professional actors) stand in the street, and the networks refer to them as “correspondents.”
Granted, economic parasites aren’t new. Neither are monopolists or “powers behind the throne”. What’s new is that people used to be aware of it, which enabled them to launch periodic—often bloody—revolutions. Today, most of us prefer to believe the comforting illusions foisted on us through the television and “news” media. Over 90% of news media content comes directly from the government, or from corporate PR departments, usually with no editing whatsoever. Investigative journalism has almost completely disappeared in a world where the news media is owned by the corporations who used to be investigated.
Additionally, the majority of economic activity worldwide now consists of gambling. It’s called “investing” in polite company, but seldom are any real stocks or bonds involved: people and companies are merely gambling on derivatives, and derivatives of derivatives. There is no effective difference between these derivatives and making a bet at the horse track. They are merely a way for those with access to privileged information to syphon money out of the market. If we want economic restoration, we need to first cleanse the economy of giant parasites. Otherwise, it would be like setting a boat on a new course, while ignoring the gaping holes in its hull.
other species, foreign cultures, and even future generations to keep those at the top of this pyramid scheme enriched.
As we know from other, smaller Ponzi schemes, such frauds cannot last.”
– Thomas Fisher, professor, School of Architecture, dean, College of Design, University of Minnesota,
from “Place-Based Knowledge in the Digital Age”, ArcNews, Fall 2012.
The remedy for the Ponzi scheme described in Professor Fisher’s above quote isn’t to improve the scheme by making it more “green” and “sustainable”. Only altering the fundamental basis of wealth-creation can subvert it. Economic activity that increases our resource base can flip that pyramid on its head, creating ever-greater health, wealth, and happiness for all.
What’s especially encouraging is that the powers-that-be at the top of the current pyramid can maintain their wealth, if they too make this shift. This minimizes disruption to our political structures, since money is the basis of political power. In other words, this is a revolution that can—in theory—be implemented without bloodshed.
RE: A Prefix-based Strategy for Global Revitalization via Policymaking
The regeneration of our planet could be reduced to a change in prefix. We need to replace “de” with “re“. Transitioning to a global (or local) restoration economy happens when we move…
…from development to redevelopment
…from despoilment to remediation
…from depletion to replenishment
…from demolition to reuse
…from destruction to restoration
…from degeneration to regeneration.
In other words, we need to stop being degenerates, and start becoming regenerates.
The de-re shift could be greatly accelerated via a shift to true-cost (AKA: full-cost accounting) accounting, but that would undermine far too many huge industries with powerful political connections. The lack of true-cost accounting enables many archaic, inappropriate industries to live far past their sell-by date.
Fossil fuel firms continue to claim that renewables are too expensive, when in fact fossil fuels are many times more expensive. But their costs are hidden. Many other authors have written entire books on the subject, so let me just offer one example to the uninitiated.
Canadian tar sands extractions is a top contender for the most criminally-irresponsible industry on the planet. Their long-time control of that country’s politicians enable them to enjoy freedom from normal business costs. For instance, the good people of Toronto pay about $674 annually per household for their water. The tar sands companies pay $0, and they use the same amount of water annually (370 million cubic meters) from a single river) as the entire city of Toronto.
A shift to true-cost accounting would automatically shift economies from degenerative to regenerative activities: the numbers would demand it. But don’t hold your breath waiting for it to happen: such a structural shift is too terrifying to entrenched power. Instead, the current incremental approach is the only other option; more of a long-term economic gut renovation than a sudden demolition and replacement.
The repurposing, renewing, and reconnecting of existing natural, built, and socioeconomic assets has long been the foundation of my “restoration economy” approach.
That said, not everything is worth saving. Demolition can, in fact, make way for progress. But demolition without a follow-up revitalization strategy can lead to social and economic isolation.
Some buildings are simply too ugly or too badly-constructed to be worth saving, like the FBI headquarters here in Washington, DC. It could have been declared “blight” the day it was commissioned. The hideous architecture is bad enough, but it was also shoddily built, so it’s a maintenance nightmare.
While I’m a passionate advocate of historic preservation, I don’t believe trash is magically transformed to treasure on its 50th birthday (50 years is the age a building becomes “historic” in the U.S.; a standard seen as ridiculously low in older nations).
Other buildings are rendered un-reusable by water damage from poorly-maintained roofs, or by vandals (such as copper thieves).
But in general, planners and mayors often avoid the complexity of repurposing and renewing existing assets, and just go for the simplistic “wipe it all clean and start afresh” approach of mass demolition. This can sometimes make sense in places that desperately need to downsize their infrastructure maintenance budget to cope with a drastically lower population (like Youngstown, Ohio), but only if they have a strategic renewal process in place.
Speaking of Ohio, the Slavic Village neighborhood of Cleveland provides some insights into the relationship of demolition and rehabilitation. Slavic Village was the epicenter of the national foreclosure crisis: it had the highest number of foreclosures of any zip code in the country in 2008 and 2009.
The predominantly African-American neighborhood is now revitalizing nicely, thanks in large part to a not-for-profit organization called Slavic Village Development (SVD). Its Executive Director, Chris Alvarado, credits much of their progress to SVD’s partnership with the Cuyahoga Land Bank, which was created in 2009 specifically to deal with the foreclosure crisis.
The land bank’s economic impact over that decade is estimated $1.43 billion, based on restored property values accomplished via a combination of demolishing and rehabilitating distressed structures so the properties can be returned to Cuyahoga County’s tax rolls, plus the jobs created in the process.
Like many of us, land banks tend to do what they are paid to do. Until recently, federal and state assistance focused on demolition, so that’s what they did. Now that these funds are drying up, the land bank is shifting to what often makes far more sense: rehabilitation. They are also adding commercial properties to their historic focus on residential (a shift I’ve recommended to a number of land banks over the years.)
Wabi-sabi: Some decrepit structures need neither renewal nor demolition to revitalize a place…just some promotion.
In Japan, the aesthetic concept of wabi-sabi (first brought to most Americans’ attention by TV’s Bart Simpson, of all “people”) is one of the characteristics that dramatically sets their culture apart from that of the United States.
In Japan, they tend to appreciate the uniqueness of a flaw or irregularity in the new product (it gives it personality: making it an object only one person owns), and the decrepitude of an old object. Wabi-sabi is a world view centered on the acceptance of transience and imperfection. The aesthetic is sometimes described as one of beauty that is “imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete.”
Characteristics of the wabi-sabi aesthetic include asymmetry, roughness, simplicity, economy, austerity, modesty, intimacy, and appreciation of the ingenuous integrity of natural objects and processes.
Here in the USA, we worship visual perfection. And not just in inanimate objects, either: We warehouse our old people in commercial operations we like to call “homes”, so we don’t have to see their deterioration on the street. Those with gross deformities, like goiters or facial cancers, don’t dare go into public if they can’t afford cosmetic surgery (which is common, what with our being in the only industrialized country in the world without universal health care).
In most other nations, by comparison, the ancient and the afflicted can walk in plain view down the street without drawing looks of horror, or even outright anger at their polluting of the visual environment. In our drugged, commercial American cocoon–where pharmaceuticals and buying new stuff fixes everything–we don’t like to be reminded that death and disease exist.
We Americans waste vast amounts of fresh produce because it isn’t “perfect”. An estimated 25-40 percent of all food grown, processed and transported in the United States is never eaten. We don’t seem to care if it’s loaded with toxic pesticides–or if it’s rendered tasteless, nutrition-less, and potentially carcinogenic by genetic engineering–as long as it looks good.
“Produce is art,” says Jordan Figueiredo, solid waste specialist for the Castro Valley Sanitary District in California’s Bay area. “It’s amazingly nourishing. It should be celebrated.” He uses various social media accounts at @UglyFruitAndVeg to show lovable images of outcast fruit and vegetables. He says this helps people understand the issue better and makes them want to celebrate–rather than waste–produce.
As so often happens, North America trails behind Europe in embracing its love for ugly fruit and vegetables. France’s third-largest supermarket chain, Intermarché, launched a campaign in March of 2014 to get consumers to see the beauty of ugly produce. Television and print ads hailed the attractiveness of “the grotesque apple,” “the failed lemon,” “the disfigured eggplant,” “the ugly carrot” and the “unfortunate clementine.” One aisle of a store just outside Paris is devoted to “inglorious” produce and sold at a 30% discount. It’s hugely successful.
Of course, Americans aren’t alone in demanding that even old things look new. Restoration of historic buildings and old artwork is a multi-billion-dollar per year business worldwide. In most cases, that’s a good thing, since it enables them to enjoy a new life, often with a new, more relevant purpose.
But some ancient art is actually more beautiful in its aged state. And leaving a few well-built abandoned buildings unrestored adds a bit of age diversity to the visual environment.
In Gary, Indiana, they seem to get this concept. City Methodist Church, a grand, Gothic cathedral, has been abandoned for almost 50 years. Yet you can see it all over the internet, on Flickr and Instagram, and in movies like Transformers 3. It’s billed as “one of the best known and most popular Midwest locations for urban explorers.”
The church, which has been vacant since the 1970s as the steel industry bottomed out in Chicago and northern Indiana, has enjoyed an unlikely second life as a particularly beautiful, even sublime, decaying structure–what some call “ruin porn,” the ugly American name for wabi-sabi.
The church was in the news this week after it became 1 of 33 winners of the Knight Foundation’s Cities Challenge, which awards cities around the country with grant money for their best project ideas. Gary’s Redevelopment Commission will receive $163,333 to transform City Methodist into a more official tourist destination for the city.
The church is one of the most visited places in the city, despite the fact that it’s not safe to explore. “The fact that the building, in its current condition, is not structurally sound has not deterred visitors,” says Sarah Kobetis, Gary’s deputy director of planning.
“So turning the space into a ruins garden felt like a mutually beneficial way to preserve what’s left of one of the city’s most notable structures, while also creating a new public amenity in downtown Gary for both tourists and community residents to enjoy,” she continued.
Gary isn’t the only Rust Belt city that has iconic “ruins” with considerable architectural value–and it’s not the first city whose ruins have become popular tourist destinations in their decay. But Gary might be the first to use these ruins in a purposeful, strategic manner to boost their economy.
Much research has gone into the new science of complex adaptive systems (economies, immune systems, etc.). It answers some of the most important questions, such as how do living systems arise, how do they evolve, and how do they recover after massive disruption. Today, most of the algorithms that run massively complex tasks (financial trading, weather forecasting, Netflix recommendations, etc.) derive in whole or in part from the insights of complexity science.
Applying these insights at the human level is more of a challenge, but it can be done. For instance, politicians wishing to transform their city or nation should know that complex systems are best altered by changing the most basic decision-making rules of the system. These rules should guide individual “agents” in the desired new direction, while being flexible enough to allow decision makers in the field to adapt them to local needs and challenges.
Most urban planning instead tries to make arbitrary decisions for local agents. This is why—of the six components of the RECONOMICS Process (regenerative program, regenerative vision, regenerative strategy, regenerative policies, regenerative partners and regenerative projects)—a plan isn’t included: it’s often the least necessary, and the most potentially harmful, part of normal community management procedures. This is not a criticism of the concept of planning, only the practice, which is often based on centralized—rather than distributed—control, and on blind obedience to the plan (in the few cases where the plan is actually implemented).
– from Design With Nature by Ian McHarg
Sometimes, only one rule needs to be changed. For instance, the struggling downtowns of many small U.S. communities are hampered in their efforts to compete with sprawl malls outside of town by archaic “blue laws” that ban sales of alcohol on Sunday, and prohibit businesses from being open on Sunday. Eliminating those rules might be all that’s needed to bring some downtowns back to life (though it’s seldom that simple).
Two core problems that undermine sustainability and resilience worldwide are both related to accounting rules: 1) lack of full-cost accounting, and 2) lack of what I dubbed trimodal accounting and policymaking in my first book, The Restoration Economy. The former is a method of cost accounting that traces direct costs and allocates indirect costs by including the environmental, social and economic costs and benefits (AKA: “triple bottom line”). Due to the lack of full cost accounting, natural disasters and fossil fuels extraction go onto the books as economic growth, because we credit the jobs they create without debiting the lost value in damage or depletion.
The latter, trimodal accounting, recognizes that there are three basic modes of development:
1) New Development (sprawl and virgin resource extraction);
2) Maintenance/Conservation (maintaining the built environment and conserving what’s left of the natural environment); and
3) Restorative Development (redeveloping existing communities and replenishing natural resources.
Current government reporting only accounts for the first two modes: we’re inundated with figures like “new housing starts”, but redevelopment and restoration activities are largely invisible (or buried in maintenance as “capital improvements”). We can’t manage what we don’t measure. Restorative development is where almost all of the good economic news resides.
While we can certainly have too much sprawl and too much virgin resource extraction, we can’t have too much restorative development or revitalization, provided they are done well. I’ve been doing this work all over the world for about two decades, and I have yet to hear someone say “hey, we’ve got to slow down this community revitalization program: our incomes and quality of life are way too high!” I’ve never heard anyone say “hey, we’ve got to slow down this river restoration program: the water is way too clean, and has far too many native fish!” I’ve never heard anyone say “hey, we’ve got to slow down this brownfields redevelopment program: our community is running out of contaminated properties!”
Too many people conflate population growth and economic growth. I’m always careful to specify that unlimited economic growth is possible if based on restorative development, but some people still take me to task on that statement, because the think economic growth and population growth are synonymous.
If there were 100 people on an island, and each person’s income went up 10% annually—based on greater productivity and the enhancement of natural resources—and the population remained at 100, how would that be unsustainable? We could actually have economic growth and population decrease simultaneously, which would be the best of all worlds.
means we’ve reached a fundamental turning point in that relationship.”
– Doug Boucher, Director, Tropical Forest/Climate Initiative, Union of Concerned Scientists
As we enter the Anthropocene Epoch, restorative development will be—directly or indirectly—the source of most economic growth. Embedding simple rules like repurposing, renewing, and reconnecting into policy is a strategy to accelerate an economy’s transition into restorative development. It simultaneously eliminates the frustration of trying to implement fuzzy concepts like “sustainable” and “resilient” (both are noble dialogues, but not rigorous methodologies).
Calling a design or technology “sustainable” because it pollutes less, wastes less, or does less damage to the planet is dishonest. At best, one could call such innovations “less unsustainable.” Something is sustainable only if it 1) creates NO pollution, waste, or damage, or 2) remediates existing pollution, waste, or damage. Destroying the world at a slower rate is nice, but it’s certainly not sustainable.
Many folks rightfully bemoan the plague of obsolete, decrepit, vacant structures and toxic, degraded, depleted lands and water bodies. Here’s a more positive and constructive way of perceiving the situation: we have a wealth of renewable assets.
This massive inventory of renewable assets is fueling the $3 trillion/year global restoration economy.
Strategies and processes aren’t just needed to revitalize cities and regions: entire nations require need them.
For instance, Wales has long been an economic basket case. They were heavily dependent on coal mining for almost three centuries, so the shift to cleaner forms of energy, and cheaper sources of coal, hit them hard.
But that’s been the case for decades. During this time, the European Union has repeatedly awarded Wales the highest level of economic aid (called Objective One) in 2000, 2007 and 2014. Since 2000, an additional £5.3 billion has been injected into Wales from the EU, on top of major grants from the British government. But the economic needle hasn’t moved. Why?
I would posit that, while there’s been an unending flow of ideas and tactics designed to revitalize their economy, there’s never been a cohesive vision and strategy, or a process to deliver the fragmented visions they do have.
Some good visions have been suggested, such as keeping the focus on energy, but shifting to renewal sources. But none of these visions were supported by a national strategy: we’ve just seen a string of projects.
The turning point for long-suffering Wales will come when it has a RECONOMICS Process: regenerative program, regenerative vision, regenerative strategy, regenerative policies, regenerative partners and regenerative projects.
And they will need an entity to house that program, because—believe it or not—Wales doesn’t have an economic development agency of any sort. So, of those six essential elements of the RECONOMICS Process, they seem to have just one: projects.
We often hear economists “explaining” economic collapses, both local and national. Where we seldom see economists is in economic rebirth situations; either during or after the fact. Why is that? Most economists are similar to engineers, in both their love of control and their fear of surprises. This is why few degreed economists work in the messy fields of community revitalization or natural resources restoration.
And nearly three-quarters said that their commitment will increase in the year ahead.
The bad news? They may not actually be able to define sustainability.”
– “The Dilbertarian Dilemma of Corporate Sustainability” by Paul Michelman, Harvard Business Review, 2/2012.
For three decades, well-meaning folks have been in the thrall of sustainable development. Many of the healthiest and most enlightened activities on the planet take place under the rubric of sustainability, but that’s mostly for lack of a better term. Sustainable development was coined as a dialog tool, a compromise designed to bring together the forces of unbridled economic growth and the forces of environmental responsibility.
As a dialog, it has achieved some wonderful things. But that’s all it is: a dialog: it lacks rigor. There’s been no shortage of attempts to create sustainability metrics, but a shortage of such metrics persists.
At my university talks and workshops, I’m increasingly picking up a “sustainability sucks” vibe from students and recent graduates. They are increasingly seeing it as the failed paradigm of their parents and grandparents’ generation.
Many online dialogs have been started in recent years by folks who recognize the problems with sustainable development, and who are looking for a better name. Many fuzzy marketing names have emerged over the years in an attempt to create better forms of economic growth or real estate development. Some have grown into substantive industries, while others remain the intelligent fantasies of authors and consultants.
Smart growth, breakthrough economy, clean economy, conscious economy, cooperative economy, capitalism 2.0, sharing economy, experience economy, collaborative economy, information economy, knowledge economy, and so on. As is often the case, the solution is hiding in plain sight: restorative development, or adaptive renewal, or a regenerative economy, or whatever one wishes to label economics that are based on renewal. Reconomics, in other words.
energy devoted to changing vessels is likely to be more productive than energy devoted to patching leaks.”
– Warren Buffett
The redevelopment of existing communities and the restoration of damaged natural resources already accounts for at least $2 trillion annually, worldwide. But to tap its full potential, we need policies that establish it as the default mode of economic growth, and that establish some basic quality/ethical controls. The current default—which is encouraged by policy and subsidized in practice—is sprawl and virgin resource extraction.
Why do we put so much attention on the idea-of-the-month hyped by publishers, and so little on a multi-trillion-dollar reality that’s staring us in the face? Part of the problem is that we assume restorative development is merely an aspect our normal economic paradigm, as opposed to an emerging alternative. But it’s obviously antithetical to our sprawl/extraction model—and makes that that model look stupid—which is why the restoration economy’s numbers are buried. Try to find government reports that break-out the “re” costs and benefits, separating them from the “de” costs and benefits.
You won’t find them, because those numbers would be too threatening to the status quo. Instead, you’ll find redevelopment, regeneration, renovation, reuse, restoration, etc. buried under budgets categories like “maintenance” and “capital improvement”, where they seem to support the status quo, rather than subvert it.
Often times, “redevelopment” is simply used synonymously with “development”, which is like not distinguishing between virgin materials and recycled materials when manufacturing a bag, bottle, or can. We can see the wisdom of defining and measuring the difference between recycled and virgin paper, glass, or metal. So why can’t we see the wisdom of being able to distinguish recycled land from virgin land…a recycled city from one built of virgin farmlands of forests?
Most large real estate developers don’t want that distinction to be made. They are quite happy being free to make money by sprawling a community in a way that kills its historic downtown and undermines its environmental health and quality of life. When they do take on the occasional redevelopment project, they are just as happy to be able to doff the black hat and don the white hat, playing the role of community hero. Thus, their purposeful conflation of the labels “developer” and “redeveloper”. This confusion permeates all of economic theory and policy: academics perpetuate it and politicians implement it.
Complex systems evolve; sometimes incrementally, sometimes discontinuously, spasmodically, and asymmetrically. The incremental approach is the norm, with only occasional bursts of “punctuated equilibrium”. Thus, we should expect the next mode of economic growth to emerge in parallel with the old mode. But politicians want us to believe we can fix everything by tinkering with the old model (thus, not threatening the old money that backs their campaigns). And publishers want us to believe that some entirely new model is needed. Lost between the two is the real solution, that’s emerging before our eyes.
If we’re not willing to reinvent capitalism, we at least need to measure it accurately (full-cost accounting). If we don’t that, the insanity of fossil fuels, fission energy, sprawl, and unsustainable resource extraction become plainly evident, and the sanity of restorative development and clean technology becomes equally evident. Then, we merely need to shift our policies and efforts from one existing reality to another: no “magic solutions”, “global awakenings”, or improvements to human nature needed.
So, we don’t need to come up with a better name for sustainable development, we need to replace the entire paradigm with something more appropriate to our damaged, depleted times: restorative development. Sustainable development has been the major approach to creating a better future for some three decades now, and we’re in far worse condition than ever before. Little wonder kids are increasingly saying it sucks.
Many wonderful efforts are done in the name of sustainability, but the ones that produce measurable results are usually restore, rather than sustain. Sustainability is a noble and necessary public dialog, and many wonderful ideas have been generated by it. But the primary reason so governments and major corporations have sustainability initiatives is because they know that a dialog is all it is: sustainability isn’t real. It can’t be measured, so such government and corporate (and non-profit) programs can’t fail. Nor can they pose any significant threat to the status quo.
it is time to move on to restorative development and restorative economies.”
– Richard Chartres, Bishop of London
Restoration, reuse, renovation, and most other “re” functions are eminently real. We can measure how much more a restored historic theater is worth. We can measure how many more fish are in a restored river. We can measure how much healthy topsoil has been rebuilt on a restored farm. We can measure how much more biodiversity inhabits a restored meadow. We can measure how much less toxicity is in the ground at a remediated old industrial site.
It’s true that we can measure components of sustainability: waste reduction, energy efficiency, etc. But there’s no metric for sustainability itself. We can’t point to anything and say with surety “that’s sustainable”. Sustainable for how long: 100 years? 10,000 years? Sustainable with what population: 8 billion? 80 billion?
But we can easily point to what’s unsustainable. For instance, as I write this on June 15, 2019, the Amazon rainforest has lost 739 square kilometers just during the past 31 days. That’s equivalent to two football (soccer) fields every minute.
Due to our short life spans, we keep ratcheting-down our notion of a healthy world to what existed when we were young. If we face up to how degraded, depleted, fragmented, and contaminated our planet is now, we would ask “Who wants to sustain this mess?“, as many young folks are now asking.
A major problem is institutional dynamics. The grant revenue supporting many non-profits and academic programs is linked to the words “sustainability” or “sustainable development”. Changing the terminology to “regeneration” or “restorative development” would quite literally threaten their economic survival.
So, they instinctively stop listening—or even go on the attack—when someone questions the efficacy of the sustainability dialog. As Upton Sinclair so famously said: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!” The irony, of course, is that sustainability advocates frequently invoke Sinclair’s insight when explaining the intransigence of fossil fuel executives, dam engineers, big box chains, etc. regarding climate change, river health, and sprawl, respectively.
About 24% of all usable (by humans) land on the planet is considered “degraded”. The estimated economic loss of this degradation is about $40 billion USD annually, primarily from soil erosion by water and wind. On September 24, 2013, a report was presented to to the UN Convention to Combat Desertification conference in Windhoek, Namibia. It stated that restoration and better management of degraded lands could deliver up to $1.4 trillion USD per year in increased crop production.
provides the critical missing link to enable human society to create a net positive impact on the environment.”
– Jim Hallett, Board Chair of the Society For Ecological Restoration (SER).
The economic and social damage—and opportunities—presented by this situation don’t get as much attention as one might expect, given its vast size. This is mostly because it’s primarily the rural poor who bear the brunt of the suffering: the 1.2 billion people worldwide who depend on small farms for both their diet and their income. Given the failure of both their national leaders and global NGOs to address, people are taking arid land restoration into their own hands.
“A more accurate economic evaluation is crucial to prevent and reverse land degradation by raising the profile of the issue with policymakers,” says Richard Thomas, lead author of the study, and assistant director of the drylands ecosystems program at the UN University’s Institute for Water, Environment and Health (based in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada; one of this author’s favorite water-based urban revitalization opportunities).
Ecological restoration is a powerful economic revitalizer, but its full value is often underestimated because our metrics are too simplistic.
For an example of folks who are trying to take a more intelligent, systemic approach to quantifying ecological restoration’s economic impact, here’s an excerpt from a March 2012 report titled “Economic Impacts of Ecological Restoration in Massachusetts” by the Massachusetts Department of Fish and Game‘s Division of Ecological Restoration:
“Impacts can be observed in two phases:
- Short term effects: These are benefits associated with increased demand for employment, materials, and services in Massachusetts during the Construction / Installation Phase of a project. Examples include: construction labor, materials costs, engineering time, permitting activities.
- Long-term effects: These are benefits associated with the Operational Phase of a project. These may include, for example, expenditures associated with increased boating, hiking, birdwatching, or beach visitation that may result from the project implementation.
Our study uses IMPLAN to examine the regional economic benefits associated with short-term construction/installation phases of restoration projects:
- Direct effects are production changes or expenditures that result from an activity or policy. In this analysis, direct effects are equal to the costs of the MA DER project, which we assign to appropriate economics sectors.
- Indirect effects are the “ripple” impact of local industries buying goods and services from other local industries as a result of the project (e.g., restoration project requires purchasing plant seeds or cement) within Massachusetts. Additional impacts that occur outside of Massachusetts are not included in these effects.
- Induced effects are changes in household consumption arising from changes in employment and associated income (which in turn results from direct and indirect effects) in Massachusetts. For example, these may include additional spending by construction workers with their wages, as well as additional spending by seed growers or cement companies with income received from sales for use in the restoration project.A DER project, which we assign to appropriate economics sectors.”
Our societal learning disability vis a vis the shift from new development to restorative development is producing a societal earning disability, as our resource base crumbles.
Sustainable development is what we should have been doing ever since the Industrial Revolution. But we didn’t and now the world is far too damaged to speak of sustaining as a goal.
Traditional economics is a never-ending search for the unicorns of stasis, equilibrium, and predictability. It arbitrarily assumes linear, mechanical effects in the system, and purely rational behavior in the individual agents. Both assumptions are plainly absurd, but without them, economists wouldn’t be able to create the illusion that they know what they’re talking about.
So, don’t look to economists for insights into economic growth in general, or devitalization and revitalization in particular. As a January 14, 2019 article by Peter Coy in Bloomberg Businessweek stated, “The open secret of the economics profession is that its practitioners don’t have a theory for why expansions die. Or rather they have several theories, each of which contradicts the others, and none of which is fully supported by the data. Because economists don’t know why recessions start, they can’t predict when one will start.”
Like most engineering and reductionist scientific disciplines, conventional economists are loath to recognize that the whole is more than the sum of its parts. Facing up to that obvious reality messes up the simplicity of their assumptions, and their ability to “explain”. Economists’ inability to make accurate predictions undermines its claim to be one of the sciences. That’s why they normally stick to “explaining” what has already happened, and avoid predictions like the plague.
This is why most economists either 1) teach economics, or 2) work for government agencies and large corporations. There, their primary duties involve justifying whatever course of action has already been decided upon, or legitimizing previous actions.
Conventional economics is designed by economists for economists, and so has little relevance to the chaos and complexities of reality. But an economy—by definition—encompasses natural resources, infrastructure, agriculture, urban societies, information, technology, psychology and much more. This inherent holism makes an economics degree a wonderful background for anyone doing useful, high-level work (i.e. – not economics itself.)
The more recent trend towards “complexity economics” is far more courageous. It attempts to understand a world where individuals react to patterns that their decisions have helped create, and how those patterns alter as a result of their reaction, which means individuals must react again.
In complexity science, it’s generally recognized that negative feedback stabilizes systems That’s “negative” as in reducing, not as in bad.). Thermostats offer a simple example of negative feedback. They monitor the temperature in a room, raising or lowering it when the temperature violates an established threshold. Negative feedback thus reduces fluctuations. The supply and demand dynamic in economies is another example. Equilibrium prices are established and maintained thanks to the negative feedback between the price of a product and demand for it (in the idealized world of accepted economic theory.)
On the other hand, positive feedback tends to destabilize systems (that’s “positive” as in enhancing, not as in desirable.) The melting of polar icecaps from atmospheric warming is an example of positive feedback. The smaller surface area of ice reduces the albedo (energy-reflecting) effect of the ice, thus accelerating the melt by raising the average atmospheric temperature.
The well-known recruiting process in honeybee hives is also an example of positive feedback. Scout bees dance to advertise a new hive site they find attractive, thus recruiting additional scouts to visit that site. The more bees that are thus recruited, the more will be advertising the new site, which recruits still more. Eventually, the number of scouts promoting a particular site passes a threshold (“tipping point”), and the entire hive swarms to the new site. That’s maximum social disruption, at least in the short term. Long term, it’s probably an effective resilience-enhancing mechanism.
In terms of community revitalization and resilience, it’s negative feedback that stabilizes the society (such as policing) or the economy (such as budgets and policies) when perturbed. But it’s positive feedback that drives the acceleration of either revitalization or devitalization. Positive feedback loops produce both increases and decreases that are out of proportion to the inputs.
– journalist David Thorpe, Nov. 12, 2014
Whereas traditional economic theories only acknowledge negative feedback loops (diminishing returns), complexity economics also accepts the reality of positive feedback loops (increasing returns). These are the primary source of economic surprises, like cities that suddenly spring back to life “for no reason.” Of course, elected leaders usually attribute such scenaria to their own brilliance, and hire economists to prove it.
This emergent property known as an increasing returns situation is a synergistic “whole is greater than the sum of the parts”-type behavior: output increases by a larger proportion than the increase in inputs.
The increasing returns phenomenon has been known of since the time of Adam Smith, but conventional economists closed their minds to it, because it throws all of their most beloved theories for a loop (pun intended.)
In 1939, Sir John Hicks, a founder of modern economics, said that acknowledging the reality of increasing returns would wreck established economic theory. It would rob standard economic models of the two qualities most prized by economists: determinism and simplicity. That’s still the case today.
The courageous work of forcing economics to deal with reality was pioneered in the modern age by Stanford economist W. Brian Arthur.
This is similar to the way classical (e.g. Newtonian) physicists choose to believe that the quantum realm can’t affect the physical realm. It’s not due to any paucity of intellect to grasp the obvious (that they are just two views of the same universe, at different scales), but due to lack of courage to face the ramifications (which would admittedly shake our society, and many of its most revered institutions, to the core.)
For those of you who are familiar with quantum behavior, one might say that using the RECONOMICS Process helps a community select (on some unconscious level) the probability wave leading to a revitalized future.
Increasing returns doesn’t just apply to economics, of course. Witness the small amount of “social currency” issued by individuals such as Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, or Gandhi, and the vast amount of that currency that ended up in circulation.
Such movements could be considered “social revitalization”, and they succeed due to the same three dynamics often found in successful economic revitalization: confidence, momentum, and alignment.
The opposite of such movements also arise—those promoting fear, ignorance, and separation—and these produce both social and economic devitalization.
Acknowledgement of the reality of increasing returns makes complexity economics the only form of economics that can deal with the dynamics of revitalization.
An obvious factor in devising any successful strategy is basing it on a reasonably accurate perception of the situation one wishes to change. Turning a blind eye to the messy, complex nature of economic revitalization—local, regional, or national—is not an option in the real world, as it is in academia.
In the summer of 1996, Harvard Business Review published one of the most influential articles in its long history: W. Brian Arthur’s Increasing Returns and the New World of Business.
Two decades later, the December 7, 2016 issue of Fast Company magazine featured an article titled
A Short History Of The Most Important Economic Theory In Tech. In it, author Rick Tetzelli says “the theory of increasing returns is as important as ever: It’s at the heart of the success of companies such as Google, Facebook, Uber, Amazon, and Airbnb“.
Business strategists rely on increasing returns, but the theory has yet to make any serious inroads in the practice of economic revitalization.
The Holy Grail of all revitalization efforts is to trigger an increasing returns situation. That’s what a the RECONOMICS Process can do. Combine an acceptance of increasing returns with the trimodal development perspective plus full-cost accounting, and one has a solid foundation for a new field of study: resilient economies. Its purpose would be to generate useful insights into the process of bringing places back to life, leading to better strategies and management.
Forming a Resilient Prosperity Bank
– Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Financing for revitalization and resilience efforts is just as siloed and fragmented as are the many professions, organizational types, and government agencies. There’s a great opportunity for innovative leadership in this area. We’ve so far documented many obstacles faced by those wishing to renew neighborhoods, cities, regions, and natural resources, but the greatest of all is funding.
Most folks assume the primary problem is quantity, but that’s an illusion: there’s no shortage of money. As stated earlier, of the three core elements of adaptive renewal—revitalization, resilience, and adaptive management—revitalization is the most important focus, since that’s where the majority of the current funding is targeted, usually labelled “redevelopment” (or “regeneration” in the UK).
What if there were a single source—localized and global—of information and links to foundation grants, government grants, community bonds, startup financing, bridge financing, equity investors, impact investors, individual investors, crowdfunding, institutional investors, tax credits, and tools/models such as land trusts, conservation easements, TIF, CDC, BID….all focused on “re” activities: revitalization, resilience, remediation, restoration, regeneration, redevelopment, reuse, etc.?
That alone would be revolutionary, but what new funding tools were developed that efficiently connected financial resources with the targets/opportunities for renewal? Any local organization offering access to this resource would automatically be positioned at the heart of revitalization and resilience. Among other activities, they could map the area’s renewable assets: brownfields, historic structures, damaged waterways/ wetlands, forests, degraded farms/ranches, depleted fisheries, obsolete infrastructure, rundown parks, vacant lots, etc. This could, in turn, morph into a land bank.
There has been strong growth in land banks of late—many triggered by the 2008 economic crisis—but most are hamstrung by the same siloing that afflicts community management. Many are focused on specific distressed neighborhoods, rather than the community or region as a whole. Many only deal with one kind of asset, such as foreclosed/abandoned housing stock, brownfields, or old industrial/retail properties. Many are temporary; designed to get the community through a specific crisis, and then be defunded. But a core source of resilience is constant renewal, repurposing, and reconnection of our natural, built, and socioeconomic assets. So, a funding resource/land bank designed to create Resilient Prosperity must be both comprehensive and ongoing.
Creating a global financial resource for resilient prosperity would simply be a matter of aggregating local efforts. Many of the financial resources and incentives available to a community are also available on a statewide, national, or even international basis. Once they’ve been added to the system locally, proper tagging would reveal them to others who could make use of them.
to river restoration to show the world that this can be done.”
– Joppe Cramwinckel, World Business Council of Sust. Development at 5th European River Restoration Conf. (2013)
The same goes for the renewable assets: your historic theater in Macon, Georgia might be if interest to an investor in Dubai. While a multinational commercial bank could certainly provide such a service—or at least sponsor it—my preference for local hosting of such a resource would be the world’s 1700 community foundations. The reasons are the same as those offered for my recommendation of them as a resilient prosperity partner for governments (Tactic #6): credibility, trust, transparency, and broad-spectrum focus.
The ideal funding source would mirror a resilient prosperity program. It would be ongoing, rather than episodic. Many places fail to achieve revitalization because they approach it in a sporadic, project-based manner, rather than as permanent program. As noted elsewhere, revitalization is an emergent property of a complex system, so it can’t be engineered to arrive in the form—or at the time—we specify. Thus, the only rational, reliable approach is to keep doing the right things until it “chooses” to emerge.
Just as program management is a discipline that manages multiple projects so as to achieve benefits not derivable from the individual projects themselves, so too would the ideal Resilient Prosperity funding source be programmatic and holistic, creating values that are not accessible at the project level.
It’s like creating a sand pile by dropping one grain at a time in the same place. Just as you never know which grain will cause the peak to collapse in a cascade, so too do we never know which project will trigger the dramatic turning point in a place’s confidence and fortunes, triggering a cascade of renewal.
How might a Resilient Prosperity Bank actually function? Funding community or regional resilience and revitalization has three somewhat paradoxical challenges:
- There’s not enough money and incentives;
- There are too many sources of money and incentives; and
- There are few reliable, ongoing sources of money and incentives.
Again: the first challenge—not enough money—isn’t really about quantity: that’s virtually unlimited. The problem is the amount of money actually earmarked for resilience or revitalization. Most revitalization is funded by budgets targeted to other goals: it’s usually “adapted” to serve regenerative goals.
Revitalization funding suffers from the same problem as revitalization management: it’s almost entirely focused on tactics (projects) rather than strategies (programs). This is ironic, since strategy is the least capital-intensive portion of a budget, and a good one can more than double the revitalization on investment (ROI).
The second challenge—too many sources of money—relates to the complicated nature of revitalization and resilience funding. This is especially problematic in smaller communities lacking local agencies to attract state/provincial and federal funding. For instance, creating a park to revitalize downtown Greenport, NY (population 2200) was a $14.9 million effort that used the following financial tools (thanks to N. David Milder of DANTH and Andrew Dane of SEH for data from their Oct. 23, 2014 “Some More Thoughts on the Economic Revitalization of Small Town Downtowns”):
- $4 million of town money. This included $1.2 million from a general obligation bond offering to buy the foreclose property, $1.5 million from their Capital Improvement Fund, etc.;
- 25 grants from a local, state and federal agencies;
- Private funds from the estate of a local resident; and,
- Donation of a full-sized carousel by Northrop Grumman Corporation (to help fund park operation via $200,000 from the carrousel’s projected 100,000 annual riders).
A Resilient Prosperity Bank (or Pleasantville Revitalization Bank, or whatever you choose to call your local resource) should thus have three essential characteristics:
- Aggregation of the myriad existing financing tools, incentive programs, and philanthropic sources. This would simply the fundraising process, and help ensure that all qualified projects throughout the community/region have equitable access;
- Amplification of ROI by connecting siloed projects to non-obvious resources; and by funding an ongoing program that creates synergies by aligning all projects with a strategic vision; and
- Attraction of new funding sources (local/non-local) that wouldn’t otherwise be available. This would help increase both the size and duration of your Resilient Prosperity initiative.
Such a bank would thus bring together all of the entities mentioned in this guide: public agencies (local, state/provincial, national, and international), foundations, universities, and Fixers of all kinds. Most of the benefits listed above are obvious, but #2 bears further explanation: connecting siloed projects to non-obvious resources. This refers to the fact that all things are connected, though sometimes the links aren’t obvious. Revealing them can lead to support from surprising sources.
For instance, a historic building is often viewed as just that: a heritage asset. But it’s within a watershed, so installing a green roof—or bioswales in the landscaping—might qualify it for grants or tax credits related to restoring the watershed. It might be in a low-income neighborhood that would entitle it to New Market or other tax credits, depending on how it is going to be repurposed. It might contain hazardous materials, entitling it to brownfield remediation resources. An unused portion of the property might be ideal for an urban farm or a farmers’ market, entitling it to grants related to enhancing a locally-based food system, or fixing a “food desert” situation.
The list of potentially-connected agendas that could lead to additional design, development, start-up, or operational funding is almost endless. Normally, the people proposing projects are unaware of these overlaps. Even when they are aware of them, they often lack the manpower and expertise to investigate or pursue them. But the kind of integrated funding resource described here would automatically suggest non-obvious resources, and make it easy to access them.
This could make all the difference in a project’s financial viability. It could also improve the project’s design and appeal: the more amenities a places offers, the greater the geographic area from which it will pull customers and visitors. A park with beautiful natural features will generally attract more users if it also has historic features.
The attraction element (#3) also deserves a bit more explanation. There are two aspects to attracting additional funding using this model. The first is straightforward: a growing number of government and foundation grant programs are helping places create effective strategies. An example in the U.S. is the HUD-DOT-EPA Partnership for Sustainable Communities.
Such national programs often focus on clean energy, resilience, poverty, etc. All relate to Resilient Prosperity, but most can’t be accessed without creating a relevant local program. Few will fund one-time projects: governments and foundations are (finally) realizing that most of these societal and environmental challenges can only be addressed by ongoing programs. Creating a Resilient Prosperity program and funding model gives you the necessary “receptacle” to receive such funding.
Revitalizing Taxation Strategies
The second aspect of attracting new sources of funding is to tax only what you want to reduce in your community or region, so as to increase desirable behaviors. This approach isn’t as simple as grant-writing, but has significantly greater potential for making the structural and policy changes your community needs to create resilient prosperity.
For at least a century, practical economists have recommended taxing those activities we want less of, and using some of the resulting revenue to encourage what we want more of. Using fossil fuel taxes to fund research and development of renewable energy (or the creation of public transit) is an obvious application of this approach. Using tobacco taxes to fund preventive health care/education is another.
In the same manner, places can reduce sprawl and unsustainable resource extraction while increasing urban revitalization and natural resource restoration with sprawl and/or extraction taxes. In most cases, sprawl developers don’t pay the full public cost of providing infrastructure and services to their projects. Even where they do, their projects usually decrease local quality of life by reducing greenspace, damaging watersheds, adding to traffic congestion, increasing air pollution, and devitalizing historic downtowns.
It’s only fitting then, that—in addition to paying for infrastructure and services directly related to their projects—they also pay a “revitalization fee” to boost the local resilience and quality of life in ways that help offset the impact of their development. Such a fund could boost public transit, brownfields cleanup, watershed restoration, historic structure renovation, etc.
Likewise, resource extraction companies (lumber, fossil fuel, mining, and ranching, etc.) often pay nothing (or a bare pittance) for the public resources they deplete and damage. They often aren’t required to fund post-extraction restoration. Even when they are, they usually just declare bankruptcy and create a new corporate entity to avoid paying.
Requiring substantial restoration escrow accounts prior to mining, fracking, clearcutting, etc.—in additional to fair compensation to the public for the value of lost natural capital—could go a long way towards funding Resilient Prosperity in the region.
In a January 27, 2015 New York Times Op-Ed, David Brooks said, “The big debate during the 20th century was about the relationship between the market and the state. Both those institutions are now tarnished. The market is prone to devastating crashes and seems to be producing widening inequality. Government is gridlocked, sclerotic or captured by special interests. …many of the most talented people on Earth have tried to transform capitalism itself, to use the market to solve social problems. …Impact investing is probably the most promising of these tools. Impact investing is not socially responsible investing. Socially responsible investing means avoiding certain companies, like tobacco… Impact investors seek out companies that are intentionally designed both to make a profit and provide a measurable and accountable social good.”
Private impact investors (as Brooks mentions above) can undo much of the existing damage, but local governments don’t suffer as greatly from the problems he describes. They are far from helpless.
Property taxes offer an obvious area of reform. Currently, they are based on the entire property, both land and improvements (such as buildings). This has two problems: 1) It “punishes” property owners for adding value to the land; and 2) It rewards property owners for passively sitting on vacant or derelict properties, waiting for overall revitalization to boost their investment. Such “parasitic” real estate investment thus retards the very revitalization they’re hoping for.
A more intelligent way to tax land is called “land tax”, variously known as site-value tax, land value tax (LVT), split rate tax, and site-value rating. A few progressive governments around the world have adopted it, such as in New South Wales, Australia, Mexicali, Mexico, and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania in the U.S.
Between 1960-1980, Harrisburg lost 800 businesses and a third of its population. In 1980, the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) called it “One of America’s most distressed cities.” But by 2010, Forbes magazine was calling it “The second best place in the U.S. to raise a family.” The single most important factor in that dramatic turnaround was the adoption of 2-tiered property taxation.
This was pioneered by Harrisburg’s mayor from 1981-2010, Stephen R. Reed. He was frequently called “Pennsylvania’s most popular and successful mayor.” By reducing the “penalty” for improving property, Harrisburg catalyzed $3 billion of new investment. Rehabilitation of existing structures increased the city’s taxable real estate from $212 million to over $1.6 billion.
It should be noted that Mayor Reed also borrowed hugely for many dubious projects like sports stadiums and an incinerator, which ended up bankrupting the city. But that was in no way the fault of the land value tax, whose success led to that “irrational exuberance” (as Alan Greenspan might have called it). For a more recent example, here’s an article about how Minneapolis is now considering it.
Why don’t more cities use land value taxation? Once again, fear. Middle class and lower income property owners—in others words, most voters—are happy enough with the reduction in taxes the two-tiered system brings to them. But the wealthiest property owners/political campaign contributors see it (correctly) as a constraint on their speculative land investments. Value-capture funds and land taxes could go into the general tax revenues to fund education, police, fire services, etc.
But they might better go into a local “Prosperity Bank”. The funding could take place in several ways:
- If the Prosperity Bank has its own funding, such as through the “sprawl tax” or “land tax” approaches mentioned previously, it could act as a revolving loan fund, and/or could make impact investments of a debt or equity nature;
- It could act as a portal to the many locally-appropriate public and private funding sources, tax credits, and incentives (some of which were mentioned above), speeding the funding process by eliminating the constant “wheel reinvention” that currently typifies revitalization funding;
- In addition to public funding, redevelopers would usually tap a variety of state and federal tax credit programs, which are often crucial to making private projects financially viable. In the U.S., these include historic, affordable housing, New Markets, sustainability, and brownfields tax credits. Newer, still-emerging forms of funding would also need to be tapped, such as crowdfunding. How would it be structured, and how would the funds flow? A tree metaphor might be appropriate:
- The sunlight (money) is input by the leaves/branches, comprising the various funding sources;
- The money is aggregated and disbursed by the trunk, comprising a trusted local organization. Ideally, it would have its own established operational funding, so that the revitalization funding primarily goes to projects, rather than to overhead. This entity would appoint a Prosperity Director, and would facilitate the creation of a shared strategic vision. A community foundation (new or existing) and/or a public-private Prosperity Partnership would probably be superior to a public agency, but the latter shouldn’t be ruled out if it can avoid a partisan polarity;
- The people, properties, and projects that receive the funding—and that form the foundation of the community’s improved future—would comprise the roots.
A network of such Prosperity Banks could support each other, lending to each other for large projects, and sharing information for grants and programs available nationally or globally. Ideally, the community itself would provide some of the funding, and make municipally-owned properties available.
For instance, Tybee Island, Georgia funds local non-profits from their 6% hotel/motel tax. The program has been so successful that—in January 2015—their mayor, Jason Buelterman, suggested raising the city’s annual contributions from $57,902 to over $100,000. He says activities of groups like the Tybee Island Historical Society attract tourists, while enhancing the quality of life for year-round residents.
A Prosperity Bank would help communities avoid becoming overly-dependence on the private sector, thus maintaining influence over projects. (This is one of the great benefits of tax increment financing: it enables “broke” communities to come to the public-private partnership negotiating table with cash.)
The multifaceted nature of the financing available from this sort of funding model would help small places do large projects. They could be broken into multiple phases, so progress can be initiated quickly—and maintained over time—despite the lack of a single up-front funding source for the entire project. Handling such complexity will, of course, require software that ensures adequate transparency and stakeholder engagement.
A Resilient Prosperity Bank would help solve another aspect of the wheel-reinvention problem we’ve discussed earlier. Each new project should not have to reinvent a community vision. Each new project shouldn’t have to reinvent stakeholder engagement. And each new project shouldn’t have to embark on a long, frustrating journey to discover all the sources of financial (and other) resources that might be available to them.
This model would help ensure that the results of each project’s efforts would be captured for reuse by future projects. Aggregating all these funding sources would complex, but would only need to be done once (and kept updated). That would be far less complicated than repeatedly dealing with the disorganized mess that characterizes today’s community renewal funding environment.
Green Bonds and other new tools for funding the restoration/creation of green infrastructure (often for climate change resilience) are obvious candidates for funding such large-scale projects. But the most overlooked source is one of the most well-proven of revitalization tools: tax increment financing (TIF).
We talked earlier about TIF’s longstanding role in funding community redevelopment (its original purpose). But its tremendous potential for funding the restoration of natural resources and green urban infrastructure has been overlooked for decades.
Now, with the rise of metrics for monetizing ecosystem services—combined with the growth of resilience programs that require greater integration of our built, natural, and socioeconomic environments—the time has come for a new breed of TIF to emerge.
Instead of—or in addition to—the usual property and sales tax base of urban TIFs, the GreenTIF could be funded by a combination of specific natural resource industry taxes, water fees, and/or a new disaster prevention tax. The latter will likely emerge soon, in these days of climate change-related superstorms, floods, droughts, etc.
In December of 2014, the U.S. EPA published an excellent guide, “Getting to Green: Paying for Green Infrastructure. Financing options and resources for local decision-makers.” But it contained not a single reference to value capture mechanisms in general, of TIF in particular.
A GreenTIF will differ from a regular TIF in three basic ways:
- It would generate its incremental value increase in large part from renewing the natural environment;
- It would be applicable to far larger areas, possibly entire watersheds or estuaries (such as Chesapeake Bay); and
- It would derive revenue from sources other than property and sales taxes.
There’s one more key differentiator: a Green TIF would need to define “blight” in a different manner from the normal urban TIF. It might be based, for instance, on resource depletion, such as current oyster or crab harvest levels from a bay compared to historical levels.
One of the reasons TIF is so commonly misused (as mentioned earlier) is that the enabling state legislation seldom defines blight in a rigorous manner. They are careful to use hard numbers in reference to blight, such as requiring that 60% of buildings in a prospective TIF District be substandard, or that 90% of the tax increment needs to be used to remediate blight. But they often forget to actually define blight well enough to avoid its being used for sprawl.
Some major projects in the U.S. are already looking to apply TIF towards renewing the natural environment, though it’s usually in an urban setting. The billion-dollar-plus Los Angeles River Restoration Project is one. The aforementioned 11th Street Bridge project here in Washington, DC is also looking at TIF-like value-capture mechanisms to fund the bridge repurposing, as well as nearby ecological restoration and park creation along the Anacostia River shoreline.
It’s too early to go into any more detail about this nascent effort, but this author is currently assembling a team to develop a “universal” model for just such a funding mechanism, called GreenTIF™. Interested individuals and institutions are invited to inquire about involvement.
There’s an advantage to the fuzziness surrounding the definitions of revitalization and resilience: it makes it easier to “adapt” money from well-funded sectors to important under-funded sectors (such as creating a local RECONOMICS Process).
Just as repurposing and reconnecting physical assets revitalizes communities, so too can repurposing narrowly-targeted, short-term financial assets to serve broader, long-term agendas. In the process, we can also connect isolated project funding to serve programmatic goals.
The majority of such opportunities arise with infrastructure funding. This is partly because infrastructure projects are typically large, so earmarking 1% for resilience can yield millions of dollars. It’s also because infrastructure is the connective tissue of the urban body, so it’s often a direct path to a strategy for renewing, repurposing, and reconnecting distressed or vulnerable properties and neighborhoods.
In 2012, U.S. Conference of Mayors estimated that American cities will invest some $4.8 trillion on water and wastewater infrastructure renewal in the coming 20 years. If just 1% of that got “repurposed” to more effectively connect to local resilience and revitalization agendas, the ROI of this money could easily be doubled.
With the right strategy, most revitalization activities will also build resilience: infrastructure renewal, brownfields remediation/redevelopment, heritage renewal/reuse; watershed restoration; restorative agriculture; etc. Whenever natural, built, and socioeconomic assets are renewed, repurposed, or reconnected to create a greener, more inclusive economy, both revitalization and resilience advance.
In the February 2015 issue of Municipal World, an article titled “Heritage Builds Resilience” by Natalie Bull said, “…if infrastructure includes ‘the range of structures that enable, sustain, or enhance societal living conditions’ then governments need to think—and invest—more broadly. In fact, funds earmarked for infrastructure can and should include funding envelopes for investments in a community’s heritage assets. Certainly, Canada’s towns and cities are full of examples where investment in ‘heritage infrastructure’ has successfully generated economic vibrancy, as well as cultural and social benefits—all part of the recipe for resilient communities.”
This “adaptive funding” approach could help create a resilient prosperity program with serious funding. If resilient prosperity is (as described earlier) “a feedback loop of rising levels of optimism, equitable wealth, quality of life, and environmental health, usually deriving from an ongoing, adaptive process of regeneration,” it’s obvious that virtually any budget focused on renewing anything could fall within its purview.
Governor Patrick’s goal of promoting smart public investment that spur economic activity.”
– Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Richard K. Sullivan Jr. (April 4, 2012).
This wouldn’t necessarily mean defunding any existing agency. But such goal could help rectify the inefficiencies and dysfunctions arising from the current fragmentation of urban and regional governance and management.
A Prosperity agency, department, and/or director could be given some level of oversight over all such funding, helping to ensure that they comply with the strategic vision and goals.
Adaptive funding isn’t a formal practice: it’s a practical expedient…something intelligent, creative people do when the project they love is starving. This lack of formality doesn’t mean small potatoes, though. Hundreds of billions of “re”-oriented dollars per year are “up for grabs” for adaptive managers.
So, what does a non-resilient economy look like? If your economic growth…
- …isn’t inclusive and equitable, it’s not resilient: lack of economic justice foments social unrest and crime;
- …isn’t based on regenerating natural resources and agricultural lands, it’s neither resilient nor growth: the productivity of watersheds, fisheries, biodiversity (such as pollinators), and topsoil must be restored to drive economic growth, not merely sustained. (“Fortunately”, most are so damaged and deleted that significant improvements are readily attainable.);
- …isn’t supported by good infrastructure and connectivity, it’s not resilient: the global economy is changing too fast to forgive inefficiency; and
- …is based on tax incentives, subsidies, and marketing, it’s not resilient: artificially-induced economic growth is ephemeral.
All of the above factors, when missing, lead to instability, insecurity, and inertia. This reduces confidence in the future, thus undermining economic growth.
To end this chapter, let me just point out that focusing on tweaking the current economic and political system—rather than overhauling it to a regenerative model—is like having a gun at one’s head, and trying to remedy the situation by making sure the gun is in good working order.
- Chapter 3 - EQUITY & INCLUSION: Creating resilient prosperity for all.
Rather let it be a time when we as a species morally mature,
and embrace an ethical vision of restorative justice for people, animals, and nature. “
– William S Lynn, Rewilding Week: an ethical imperative
As noted in the Preface, I’ve been a professional speaker on community revitalization and natural resource restoration full-time since 2002. For a long time, I thought I was making progress, because the ovation my talks and workshops generated was always so honestly enthusiastic. The critical distinction I failed to make was that it was individuals who were applauding, not institutions. Those same individuals who applauded my message found themselves stymied to do anything with it once they returned to their institutional environment, no matter how high in the hierarchy they might have been.
Some of the problem was terminology. Individuals are normally happy (or at least able) to adopt new terms when they encounter better ones. Institutions can’t. For instance, a non-profit or NGO that has spent 30 years branding itself as a “conservation” or “sustainability” organization has a huge vested interest in those words. Abandoning “sustainable development” for “restorative development” or “natural resource restoration” for “natural resource conservation” is unthinkable: it would be throwing away years of time and piles of money invested in defining the group and communicating its mission.
Strangely, this dynamic holds true even after an organization has reached the point where they are actually doing more regenerating than sustaining…more restoration than conservation. As a result, relatively few pure restoration organizations (such as the Society for Ecological Restoration) have managed to emerge. The “big boys” try constantly to subsume restoration by expanding their taxonomy of disciplines. This is good from a standpoint of progress towards getting hidebound old disciplines to wake up to the regenerative trend, but bad in that the importance of the trend doesn’t get its due.
It’s not just terminology, though. Most institutions are either locked into very narrow silos of focus, or their existence is based on their controlling a certain part of a process. Calls to integrate the management of our natural, built, and socioeconomic environments are thus highly threatening to the status quo.
Disruptive events, such as catastrophes, often provide opportunities to dissolve silos, as urgency of action takes precedence. Managers are allowed to bypass normal procedures, making disasters an excellent time to set new precedents.
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.
We shouldn’t underestimate the degree to which our dominant institutions and professional practices are based in processes designed specifically to create social injustice. Take the urban planning profession, for instance. There are many wonderful, ethical, conscientious folks working as planners today, but here’s an insight into the modern birth of the discipline from Stuart Meck, professor of urban planning at Rutgers University, from “A Brief History of the Birth of Urban Planning” by Amanda Erickson in the August 24, 2012 issue of The Atlantic Cities: “City planning, along with zoning, was a vehicle to control where African-Americans, the poor, and immigrants lived, and to keep them out of the areas where middle and upper class people resided. It is no coincidence that the initial efforts to adopt land use controls in the U.S. were aimed at enacting racial zoning—zoning that segregated cities by race. The first city to adopt racial zoning was Baltimore in 1910, and racial zoning spread to other eastern and southern cities (e.g., Atlanta, Louisville), even though the U.S. Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional in 1917, in a case titled Buchanan v. Warley.”
Communities will be better-equipped to tackle redevelopment issues when they tackle social issues. And they will be better able to tackle social issues when they have an efficient, equitable process for renewing the built environment.
And we should be thinking about future generations while we’re addressing current problems. For instance, are we building in a way that will allow them to have their own restoration economy? 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 that. 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’ve been calling “fixers” in this book—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; and
- Cohesive: Renewing assets in a way that brings stakeholders together, and holds them together long enough to achieve the goal.
I’ve referred to “fixing” the future rather than “reinventing” or “reimagining” or other soft concepts because “fix” implies “broken”. When I say “broken”, I don’t necessarily mean that the entire city or organization is broken: it might just be a significant aspect or function. This is a normal use of the word. After all, when we say our car broke down or our computer is broken, we know that it’s usually a single component that’s the problem, like the car’s alternator or the computer’s power supply.
Too many of us don’t realize just how broken our future is. Many who are comfortable assume they will remain comfortable, but most will be wrong. Many who are presently uncomfortable optimistically assume their future can only get better, but most of them are wrong, too.
- Many ocean economies are pulling the last of the high-value, easily-caught fish out of the ocean, but have no strategy for what comes next;
- Many farming economies are down to their last inch of lifeless topsoil, thanks to chemical and till-intensive farming techniques. Their climate is changing at an unprecedented rate, making traditional crops obsolete, and most have no strategy for what comes next; and
- Many extraction industries are in their last decade of plundering public minerals and fossil fuels at virtually no cost (beyond what it takes to buy politicians), and no responsibility for restoring the damage (such as fracking’s polluted aquifers). Few have a strategy for what comes next.
For the past century, the model has been for politicians to give private resource extraction firms free access to public resources, and then use public funds to clean up the mess left behind. As smart phones, web-connected sensors, and citizen-owned drones become increasingly ubiquitous worldwide, mining and energy firms are finding themselves in an uncomfortably transparent, far more costly world.
As fishing, farming, and industrial economies all cruise blindly into catastrophe, they take our illusions of a comfortable future with them. And that’s just at the macro level. As wealth is ever-more concentrated into the hands of billionaires, democracy becomes more of a sham than it already is. It costs $50 million to become a U.S. senator. As a result, virtually 100% of their time and attention is on raising money for the next election, and on rewarding those who funded the last election. Any time focused on the public good (documented at less than 1%) is almost purely for the sake of appearances.
What happens when most people worldwide lose their faith in the future? What happens when real estate investors and entrepreneurs around the globe withdraw from the market? What happens when everyone everywhere stops putting time and money into making the world a better place, because they’ve lost confidence in the ability of government, the economy, and even nature to sustain us? We lose our resilience. But disease is resilient. Poverty is resilient. So, it isn’t resilience itself that we want.
– Seneca (c. 4 BC – A.D. 65), Roman philosopher
We desire resilient health, wealth, and happiness. Resilient prosperity, in other words. For resilience to catch hold more widely, it needs a strategy that creates prosperity for those who don’t have it, and makes it resilient in places that do have it. Resilience must be integrated with revitalization, and managed adaptively. Think of revitalization as renewing our present, resilience as renewing our future, and adaptive management as renewing our ability to achieve both.
Three major trends of recent years are 1) economic stabilization (post-2008); 2) economic justice (e.g. the “Occupy” movement); and 3) economic/ environmental sustainability. Each has its own “ecosystem” of advocates. An economy that’s secure, inclusive, and green addresses all three issues. A Resilient Prosperity program helps ensure that they are efficiently addressed together, not as unrelated agendas.
Given the depleted, degraded condition of our planet and its climate, confidence in the future is the major factor still propping up our cities, our national economies, and our global civilization.
I am changing the things I cannot accept.”
– Angela Davis
We can’t afford to lose it. As fundamentalist-powered social chaos and political intransigence grows globally, accelerated by increasingly broken natural and economic systems, and exacerbated by rapid technological innovation, Resilient Prosperity might soon become the only prosperity. We might begin this journey by replacing our Santa Claus-style prayers for health, wealth, and happiness with the Buddhist prayer “Bless me into usefulness.”
If, as author Ben Arment says, “We are motivated by two conflicting fears in life—the fear of failure and the fear of insignificance”, then getting better at making our world better should solve that conflict.
People in prosperous places don’t feel a need to revitalize, which puts them at risk. All around the world, many towns, regions, and nations that used to be healthy, wealthy, and happy are now either basket cases, or are becoming one.
Comfort makes them complacent: they ignore regenerative opportunities, which undermines their future. They are on their way down, and don’t feel it or see it. Their broken future is shrouded in a haze of contentment.
The 2015 Global Risk report from the World Economic Forum revealed that environmental risks outnumber economic risks among the list of major threats identified by senior business leaders, with water issues leading the pack.
The Importance of Inclusion.
– Jane Addams
Of course, safety and security don’t just come from good infrastructure and resilient design. For a very large portion of Americans—immigrants, those “of color”, those with non-standard sexual identities, etc.—the primary threats derive from their fellow local residents, and even from their police.
Safety is a key factor in revitalizing a place, and city leaders need to face up to the fact that some people are far less safe than others. Here in the U.S., we are experiencing a long-overdue recognition of the disparity between how law enforcement agencies deal with blacks versus whites.
The next step will be to do the same with Latinos, who experience even worse police abuse, but who have the added worry of being deported if they call the cops, which happens even to those in the country legally. Being a less-confrontational culture, they also largely lack the kinds of loud civil rights organizations enjoyed by African Americans. “Black Lives Matter” needs to be supplemented with “All Lives Matter”.
A major step forward would be for Americans to better understand their relationship with their North American neighbor to the south: Mexico. Most of what Americans think they know about Mexico is wrong, based on our fairy-tale history books, racist Hollywood stereotypes, and disinformation from the low-profile white supremacists who permeate our government.
Few Americans know, for instance, the real reason the white farmers and ranchers in the area now called Texas called for independence from Mexico: they were operating farms and ranches using slaves, and Mexico outlawed slavery (half a century before we did). So, those brave defenders of the Alamo were actually land thieves defending slavery.
This led to the “Mexican-American War”, which slaughtered thousands of Mexican men, women, and children, and which led to our theft of the lands now called Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California. It’s hard for most Americans to form a healthy relationship with immigrants when their heads are full of propaganda, rather than facts.
Our neighbors to the north were luckier. England and France came to the rescue of Canada during the frequent attempts by the U.S. to steal their lands. This is why the national capital was relocated from Toronto to Ottawa: Toronto was too close to the U.S. border. The largest of the invasions—the War of 1812—was effectively lost by the U.S., but you won’t find that defeat in our history books.
Drive into Canada over the Niagara River on the Queenston-Lewiston Bridge, and you’re greeted by a 185 feet tall statue of Major General Sir Isaac Brock. He was the Canadian commander who defeated the Americans when we tried to steal Niagara Falls, and much of southern Ontario. Brock died in the battle, and his bones lie at the base of the monument. That was just one of our many invasions during that war, every one of which ended in defeat for the U.S. forces. To help America save face, the Canadians eventually gave us Maine.
Americans also have very selective memories regarding African American history, with most thinking that racial segregation only happened in the South.
In an article titled “What it’s like to being a cop now” in the August 24, 2015 TIME magazine, Philadelphia Police commissioner Charles Ramsey said, “If you were in the South, you might have been tracking down slaves. Who enforced Jim Crow laws? Police. So just as our democracy has evolved, so have we. But what about those people who were on the other side of that? That baggage is still there. It ain’t gone away. So why is there more tension in one community vs. another community? A lot of it has to do with the history of policing. Now I’m not saying you spend your life looking in the rearview mirror, but I am saying you can’t move forward until you understand where you’ve been.”
The Importance of Numbers.
Since my first book, The Restoration Economy, came out in 2002, I’ve had some clients—like Montana governor Brian Schweitzer—who grasped the need to quantify the economic and employment benefits of restoring watersheds and brownfields. He published the landmark Montana Restoration Economy report in 2009. But that was primarily focused on watershed, fishery and brownfield regeneration: no one has properly documented the holistic revitalization of whole communities or regions, which would also include the regeneration of heritage, infrastructure, agriculture, ecosystems and disaster zones.
In 2012, The Nature Conservancy and Oxfam America held a Restoration Economy summit in Thibodeau, Louisiana for over 100 local leaders. Its purpose was to explore the job creation and economic revitalization potential of the post-BP oil spill restoration activities. In 2013, researchers at Yale and the University of North Carolina published a Restoration Economy report. So did US Fish & Wildlife in 2014. But it wasn’t until resilience joined the agenda that places worldwide started getting the message.
On a finite planet with a growing population, basing economic growth primarily on renewing the capacity of our existing natural and urban assets is obvious. But the shift to healing and rebuilding is primarily happening locally, not at state or national levels. Restorative economics is gaining momentum, hopefully leading to some kind of “Revitalization On Investment” (ROI) metric. But we can’t capture those values until we climb out of our silos and get a handle on that mysterious outcome called “revitalization”.
Some cities run out of room for sprawl before others. Some countries (especially island nations) run out of natural resources before others. In both cases, they are forced to switch to regenerative economic growth. If they go into adaptive renewal mode—using the RECONOMICS Process—such places will be our “windows on the future.”
As I’ve said for over a decade in many of my talks and workshops, 80% of the revitalizing work done by urban planners and civil engineers in the 21st century will undo 80% of the work done by their predecessors in the 20th century. While the percentages are obviously not rigorous, the accuracy of the underlying insight is confirmed with each passing year.
In the 20th century, we adapted our cities to prioritize automobiles. We now realize that excessive cars kill cities.
Portland, Oregon is adapting to this new reality: their newest Willamette River bridge, Tilikum Crossing, accommodates pedestrians, bicyclists, and public transit, but not cars. Helsinki is going a step further, with plans to make their downtown effectively car-free by 2025.
In a great example of the 3Re Strategy in action, Paris has repurposed and renewed the ugly highway along the River Seine into a people zone—no cars allowed—thus reconnecting the neighborhoods to the water. The revitalizing effect on both quality of life and property values has been dramatic.
All three cities are thus renewing their present and future together, which characterizes most great community strategies.
If you want to become more effective at whatever you do, you must get better at strategizing. The role of strategy seems obvious enough to most ordinary folks, even if they can’t precisely define it.
Why, then do so few community or regional improvement efforts actually have a strategy? Try this test: the next time you are getting onto that aforementioned elevator with your mayor, or whoever is leading your regeneration initiative, ask him/her what their strategy is. If they haven’t finished reciting it by the time you reach your destination floor, they don’t have one.
For instance, the strategy for my revitalization consulting practice is both simple and generic: it’s the universal two-step consultant’s strategy. Step One: Fool people into thinking you know what you’re talking about. Step Two: Convince them they’ll be better-off after sending you money than they were when they still had the money.
That’s a simple strategy. It works for massive Fortune 500 consulting firms and independent practitioners alike. But don’t confuse “simple” with “easy”. Those two steps are a lot harder to accomplish than they might sound. That’s where good planning comes in. But at least the plan has two clear modes of action.
Seriously, though: a strategy that can’t be remembered without consulting a document is too complicated—or too undefined—to succeed. Many times, when challenged to recite their strategy, mayors and governors will say “Strategy? We have an entire 200-page comprehensive plan!” That’s like asking someone what kind of car they drive, and having them say “I don’t need a car: I own an entire automobile manufacturing plant.” Try driving a factory to the grocery store.
Can that factory take them to the grocery store? I doubt it. Running it will certainly keep them busy, but will it get them where they need to go? Many urban and regional plans are likewise full of activities (projects). But if they lack a strategy, they are just project catalogs: a good exercise, but insufficient unto themselves.
The planning process for a war begins with a vision (goals) of winning the war. With that in mind, a strategy for achieving that vision is created. That strategy guides decisions throughout the war, so it must be concise enough for commanders to remember on the battlefield, when devising tactics. Strategies win wars. Tactics win battles. Tactics not driven by strategy can win individual battles, but will not necessarily win the overall war.
Look at America’s Vietnam War for a prime example: we won most of the battles, and lost the war. What was our strategy? God knows. If you had asked that question of any 100 military and political leaders at the time, you would likely have received 100 different answers. If any of the answers had been the same, such as “to prevent the spread of Communism in southeast Asia”, the similarity would have derived from the fact that it’s a vision/goal, not a strategy.
Towards the end, we actually had three very different visions/goals in place. American military leaders were still focused on the original goal of winning. Many of America’s business leaders (the “military industrial complex” that President Eisenhower warned us about) on the other hand, had become addicted to the military spending (about $950 billion 2011 dollars between 1965 and 1973), so their goal was to keep the war going as long as possible. Meanwhile, American citizens (and those few political leaders who listened to them) had the primary goal of getting out of the conflict as soon as possible, preferably with our national dignity intact. Little wonder, then, that we had no cohesive strategy.
Wars versus battles are an easily-distinguished dichotomy. Community revitalization, on the other hand, tends not to have a clearly-defined end point. How do we actually know when we’ve won the “war”, and are successfully revitalized? This is actually a good thing, since revitalization—whether for a community, an ecosystem, or a human body—should be an ongoing process, not a temporary fix. There are always forces at work to degrade a system’s health, so there should always be forces at work to restore it.
The era of procrastination of half-measures, of soothing and baffling expedients, of delays, is coming to its close.
In its place we are entering a period of consequences… We cannot avoid this period; we are in it now.”
– Winston Churchill, warning England of the rise of Nazi Germany in November, 1936.
The above quote could be perfectly applied to today’s climate change, but—just as British Prime Ministers Neville Chamberlain did during the build-up of the Nazi war machine prior to World War II—so too are American conservatives (thanks to massive disinformation campaigns by the fossil fuel companies) wallowing in willful ignorance, fear and denial regarding anthropogenic climate change. Unlike a war, though, climate change won’t go away by declaring it over.
Will human civilization devise an effective strategy for restoring our global climate? If not, will we at least devise an effective strategy for thriving on a massively disrupted planet? If not, we will each need our own “Mad Max” strategies for survival.
The nested nature of strategy and tactics might be the key to scalable solutions, such as are needed to address the climate crisis. They would need a few basic rules guide them so they can be locally applied and modified, with a feedback loop for learning.
Being based here in Washington, DC, I’m in frequent contact with the folks who run federal grant programs for community or regional revitalization and resilience. I’ve asked a number of them if there are any factors that tend to determine the winning grant recipients.
They usually explain that their internal goal is to be able to cite success stories, so recipients are chosen not so much on the basis of need. They are selected based on the likelihood that their use of the funds will produce a feather in the federal agency’s cap (which, in turn, strengthens that agency’s ability to justify their budget, and ask for increases).
What factors convince them that one community is more likely to put the funding to good use than another? Three stand out:
- A clear strategy for applying the funds, preferably based on citizen-derived goals (vision);
- Pre-existing public-public partnerships (neighborhood-city, city-county, suburb-metro, rural-urban, county-state, etc.); and
- A trusted non-profit or public agency capable of creating a program that will persist when the grant is exhausted.
Of those three factors, the first is my far the most important. Why? Because creating a vision and strategy is the most effective way to achieve the other two factors: creating partnerships and finding the right organization to implement the strategy. Partners and supporters (both citizen and political) can be divided into two groups: early and late adopters. The former are involved in the visioning and strategizing process. The latter come to the table as a result of the confidence inspired by your vision and strategy.
Interestingly, those are the same three factors I’ve seen at work on all communities that have made rapid turnarounds. These are the places that attracted funds, recruited private partners, earned public support, and built momentum, seemingly overnight (at least to outside observers). One could say it’s a proven formula for rapid renewal.
The words “equitable” and “inclusive” have appeared numerous times in this book. Why? Let’s look at some U.S. statistics. Since 1978, college tuition has increased by 1,120%. CEO pay has increased 937%. Healthcare costs have increased 601%. Housing costs have increased 380%. Food costs have increased 244%. Worker pay has increased 10%. The federal minimum wage has decreased 5.5%. Those numbers say it all.
Why aren’t our elected leaders ensuring equity? In our money-driven political system, we need to stop thinking of lobbying as something politicians do after they leave office. Members of Congress are lobbyists from the first day they enter office. They have two agendas that take up 99% of their time: 1) Advancing the causes of whoever paid for their campaign (lobbying for them); 2) Raising money for the next election (recruiting new clients for their lobbying service).
The nation gets the politicians’ votes the remaining 1% of their time…IF the citizens are lucky enough to have needs that don’t conflict with the needs of the politicians’ lobbying clients.
Government has long been the most common target of militants because all governments eventually devolve to protect the wealthy from change…if they weren’t set up to do that from the beginning, which most were. As a result, governments have programmed us to associate the word “militant” with chaos, social disharmony, and bloodshed. In actual fact, militancy is the primary engine of progress. It always has been, and always will be.
Conversations focused on “equitable” and “inclusive” are noble and essential, but often unproductive. Even the best such initiatives usually just fix the problem on a very local scale (usually a neighborhood or a particular project), but don’t result in the policy changes necessary to prevent non-inclusive, inequitable redevelopment from happening again in their community.
– Joseph Joubert, essayist
We’ve talked a lot about renewing communities and regions, but what about renewing organizations? More specifically, how does one go about revitalizing an organization whose purpose is to revitalize your community? In my experience, the majority of regenerative agencies and non-profits could themselves use some regeneration.
The 3Re Strategy (repurpose, renew, reconnect)—which you’ll learn about in more detail later—is ideal for revitalizing a community or region. But it’s also ideal for regenerating an organization, or even a whole class of similar organizations. The example we’ll use here is land banks.
While land banks were invented in the USA and are primarily found here, the lessons should be applicable to organizational leaders anywhere on the planet.
Land banks are a powerful, fairly-recently-created method of revitalizing cities suffering from depopulation, often combined with deindustrialization. In other words, communities with large inventories of vacant, tax-foreclosed properties.
That’s the theory, anyway. In actuality, far too many of them have devolved from a strategic revitalization entity to a tactical blight removal entity.
I said “devolved” because the enabling legislation in some (maybe most) states originally envisioned the creation of local revitalization programs, not just blight removal mechanisms. In 2002, U.S. Congressman (D) from Michigan Dan Kildee sponsored the LAND BANK FAST TRACK ACT 258 of 2003.
The key text reads, “The legislature finds that there exists in this state a continuing need to strengthen and revitalize the economy of this state and local units of government in this state and that it is in the best interests of this state and local units of government in this state to assemble or dispose of public property, including tax reverted property, in a coordinated manner to foster the development of that property and to promote economic growth in this state and local units of government in this state. It is declared to be a valid public purpose for a land bank fast track authority created under this act to acquire, assemble, dispose of, and quiet title to property under this act.”
That makes it pretty clear that the legislators were focused on the ends, not just the means. But few organizational leaders are visionary or strategic: most are actually just managers.
Applying the 3Re Strategy, land banks can be revitalized by:
- repurposing them from blight removal to revitalization;
- renewing them via the additional funding this higher-and/better mission should attract; and
- reconnecting them to the assets they are meant to renew via partnerships with other organizations whose mission contributes to revitalization, but who don’t have sufficient access to properties.
As you know by now, the foundation of any revitalization program is the vision, and the strategy to achieve that vision.
This process is just as applicable to organizations as it is to communities.[/caption]The vast majority of land banks I’ve encountered have neither vision nor strategy. They just do real estate transactions; taking in vacant properties on one end and disposing of them (via sale, donation or demolition) on the other end.
In other words, rather than working consciously to achieve neighborhood revitalization, they merely remove what they perceive to be the problem, and hope that revitalization magically appears as a result. But hope is not a strategy.
About 70 percent of the approximately 150 land banks that currently exist in the United States were created pursuant to comprehensive state-enabling statutes that authorize local governments throughout a state to create land banks.
According to the Center for Community Progress (CCP), the following eleven states have passed comprehensive state-enabling land bank legislation as of August 2015: Michigan (2004), Ohio (2009), New York (2011), Georgia (2012), Tennessee (2012), Missouri (2012), Pennsylvania (2012), Nebraska (2013), Alabama (2013), West Virginia (2014), Delaware (2015).
Founded in 2010, the Center for Community Progress is the only national nonprofit specifically dedicated to building a future in which vacant, abandoned, and deteriorated properties no longer exist. They serve as a sort of national association for land banks.
You’re probably wondering “If they’ve only been around since 2004, why do they need to be reinvented already?” Excellent question! I’m glad you asked.
As you can see in the enabling legislation above, land banks were meant to be community revitalization entities. But people and organizations tend to gravitate away from risk, and towards money. Most of the funding made available to land banks has been strictly for blight removal, which usually involves widespread demolition.
Demolition is relatively quick, simple, and risk-free. The opposite is true of community revitalization. It tends to be slow and complex, with uncertain outcomes (risk). Little wonder then, that so many of these community revitalization entities have devolved into little more than demolition agencies. Or, as Dave Allen, Executive Director of the Kent County Land Bank Authority in Grand Rapids, Michigan told me, they’ve become “a repository for everyone’s crap.”
Back on October 2 and 3, 2017, I delivered both a keynote and a workshop at the annual conference of the Michigan Association of Land Banks in Battle Creek, Michigan. That was followed a day later by a workshop for the Kalamazoo County Land Bank.
The Battle Creek keynote focused on the latest trends in community revitalization strategies. The workshop on the following day focused on Land Bank 2.0: defining the next generation of land banks.
One of the attendees at that conference was David Allen. He understands that the simplest—not necessarily the easiest—way to harness a land bank’s physical assets to a vision and strategy is to partner with (or at least collaborate with) other organizations that have a vision and strategy, but lack physical assets.
Here’s how he described the benefits of such an approach, in an email to me prior to the conference: “The Grand Rapids Community Foundation (GRCF) has a major initiative called Challenge Scholars It is a multi-million dollar investment on behalf of the GRCF. However, once launched a very negative unexpected consequence occurred. Property values and rents in the Challenge Scholar neighborhood immediately soared! Soon the very families they made a multi-million investment to help were being priced out of the neighborhood. The GRCF and the KCLBA partnered together to assemble multiple parcels literally adjacent to the Challenge Scholar middle school, Harrison Park. The KCLBA brought in a well established non-profit housing developer and a rather significant LIHTC project is about to break ground on this site. The GRCF PRI was used to purchase the key piece of property in this development. This only happened because the KCLBA was in regular communication with the GRCF.”
Allen takes a similarly-collaborative approach to working with the for-profit sector, as well. Here’s how he described his land bank’s mission and approach to me: “KCLBA provides tools to local units of government—as well as nonprofit and for-profit developers—to revitalize and stabilize communities throughout Kent County. By purchasing and facilitating acquisition and rehabilitation of bank-owned and tax-foreclosed properties, the KCLBA helps:
- Kent County’s local units of government:
- stabilize neighborhoods;
- eliminate blight;
- increase property values;
- create economic development opportunities; and
- preserve neighborhood character.
- Nonprofit developers:
- revitalize properties by giving them…
- access to tax- and bank-foreclosed properties in their development areas.
- For-profit developers:
- quickly clear title on properties;
- obtain brownfield designation on contaminated properties;
- fully inspect and make an educated decision on purchasing tax-foreclosed properties; and
- provide access to purchase bank foreclosed properties.“
There are three key reasons that outcomes from community revitalization efforts are so uncertain:
- They don’t clearly define what they mean by “revitalization”, so their vision is unclear;
- Vision drives strategy, which is the second problem: most community leaders don’t understand what a strategy is, of how to create an effective one;
- Vision and strategy are just two elements of the overall renewal process, which also includes partners, policies, projects, and programs. Nothing in nature or the world of humans is produced without a process.
Most communities lack a clear vision, an effective strategy, and a comprehensive renewal process. Little wonder then that they also lack revitalization.
The Kalamazoo (Michigan) County Land Bank, for instance, is on the leading edge of community revitalization.
They’ve adopted the 3Re Strategy not just as a tool, but as their slogan, as seen here on the cover of their 2016 annual report. My work with them led to my work for the Michigan Association of Land Banks.
Here are two paragraphs from a recent Next City article about the Philadelphia Land Bank:
“The land bank has a five-year goal of reactivating roughly 2,000 properties. So far, according to the city, the number of properties sold through the program is 196, and most were vacant lots. Any streamlining Rodriguez does will have to cover mastering the agency’s elaborate acquisition policies. As outlined in the strategic plan, released in February, the criteria for whether or not the land bank can transfer certain parcels depends on the intended re-use. The re-use category also determines the approval process and which city offices and organizations have to weigh in.”
“The ability to be strategic is key, says Frank Alexander, co-founder of Center for Community Progress, a national nonprofit that focuses on vacant properties. While Philly’s five-year targets forecast that the land bank will add 7,727 publicly owned parcels to its holdings, it will also acquire another 1,650 tax-delinquent properties. The agency also has outlined a mix of types of properties for its disposition process. Sixty-five percent of land returned for active use will be for housing, and in an effort to ensure affordability, only 25 percent of that won’t be restricted by income brackets.”
As the Kalamazoo County Land Bank’s projects reveal, the process of becoming more beneficial to their community isn’t just about repurposing, renewing and reconnecting. They also looked at scale, and realized that focusing on individual residential properties was far too limiting: as the Prairie Gardens example (above) shows, they are creating entire new neighborhoods out of blight.
And it’s not just about increasing the physical scope: extending the chronological scope is key, too. They aren’t just taking in houses and disposing of them as quickly as possible: Prairie Gardens also shows that they are into their properties for the long haul. For a land bank that truly understands how to revitalize a place, holding on to properties while they revitalize the entire neighborhood offers a major new revenue stream. Everyone wants to invest in a neighborhood that’s coming back to life, which means the land bank would enjoy actual appreciation of assets that most people see as liabilities.
The next generation of land banks should be more efficient at dealing with brownfields. This would likely require their becoming more involved in TIF. Some day, I hope to see an app invented that allows entities like land banks to more-quickly and easily create a “mini-TIF” (tax increment financing), which would provide the financial resources to do renewal on a grander scale, including brownfields cleanup, affordable housing and infrastructure renewal. As mentioned elsewhere, too many TIFs suffer from abuse, misuse and overuse.
All three of these problems result from a combination of insufficient transparency and revitalization ignorance. TIF is what’s known as a “value capture” mechanism. It’s unique in that it captures enhanced future value, and makes it available to spend in the present, to make that future value enhancement happen. Kind of like economic time travel. Many cities complain that overuse of TIF has damaged their school funding. But the Union Township of greater Cincinnati—recognizing the role of quality education in revitalization—announced in January of 2015 that a new high school would be constructed with TIF funding, using no taxpayer money. Sounds simple, but it’s a revolutionary innovation. Here’s a slogan that should guide all TIFs: “No taxation without revitalization!”
Maybe the best strategic partnership for a huge land bank like Philadelphia’s would be with Community Land Trusts (CLT), which have the mission of providing permanently affordable housing, usually in neighborhoods and communities that are revitalizing. There are 225 CLTs in the U.S., and they’ve experienced significant growth in the past few years, due both to the expansion of community revitalization efforts, and to the resulting crisis in affordable housing.
They are natural complements to each other: land trusts have a property disposition problem, while CLTs have a property acquisition problem. Land banks are strong on tactics (cleaning encumbrances from vacant properties), while CLTs are strong on strategy (usually focused on affordable housing/gentrification solutions).
Maybe states should rewrite their land banking legislation to enable the creation of either a hybrid organization—land bank + CLT—or to at least allow more effective partnerships between them. This would combine proven tactics with proven strategies, and would help address the full lifecycle of vacant property reuse.
Land banks and community land trusts (CLTs) are often perceived as “off mission” or antithetical…not suited for the same environments. Conversely, they also sometimes conflated as effectively one and the same. Neither perception reflects reality.
Land banks are public entities, usually public nonprofit or governmental entities, which specialize in the conversion of vacant, abandoned and foreclosed properties into productive use.
On the other hand, CLTs are traditionally private nonprofits that hold land in trust to provide affordable housing and other community assets in perpetuity.
The Center for Community Progress and the Grounded Solutions Network have done some pioneering work in setting the record straight, and in exploring how land banks and community land trusts might coordinate to optimize equitable development outcomes. Theoretically, a land bank-CLT “property pipeline” can achieve both lasting stabilization and affordability, despite fluctuations in the market. John E. Davis argues that CLTs and land banks are each the potential solution to the other’s problem. Together, they could complete the “pipeline”.
Most land banks consider their work to be done once properties have cycled through the land bank “laundromat.” What happens after their return to private ownership is typically outside the land bank’s purview. Affordability is left to the whim of the marketplace; upkeep is left to the whim of the new owners; occupancy is dependent upon the owners’ ability to meet monthly mortgage payments.
Community land trusts, on the other hand, do a good job of sheltering lands, homes, gardens, stores, and facilities brought beneath their protective umbrella, but they do a poor job of building that portfolio in the first place. Without access to monies and powers made available to land banks, most CLTs have remained small. Few have managed to acquire enough lands and buildings to transform the neighborhoods they serve. They have not gone to scale.
While there are currently few land bank and CLT collaborations across the U.S., the good news is that we see a lot potential for effective partnerships.
So, what’s the best way to revitalize an organization that supposed to be revitalizing your community? The same way it should be revitalizing your community: via the 3Re Strategy: 1) find a viable new (or enhanced) purpose for the organization; 2) this will attract the funding and other resources needed to renew it; 3) then reconnect it to the community via effective partnerships.
Ideally, you organization would foster a comprehensive local renewal process, comprising 1) a regenerative vision and a regenerative strategy, 2) supported and implemented via regenerative policies, regenerative partnerships and regenerative projects, and 3) perpetuated by an ongoing program designed to produce resilient prosperity for all. If ever there were a time to focus on resilient prosperity, this is it.
There have been few points in the history of our world when people weren’t saying “we are beset by crises of unprecedented scale and frequency.”
On top of all the “usual” economic, social, and military crisis, today we have the first truly global crisis of the past 12,000 years (known as the Holocene Epoch): anthropogenic global warming. If there was ever any doubt that we had transitioned from the Holocene to the Anthropocene, the climate crisis seals the debate. REMINDER: The Holocene Epoch was when human activity started affecting the planet in a significant manner, whereas in the Anthropocene Epoch, human activity dominates the planet.
In today’s world of ubiquitous local and global crises, strategies must be more adaptive than ever. The November 2, 2017 issue of Strategy + Business (published by PwC) contained an article by Marissa Michel. Its title was “Why Your Company’s Disaster Recovery Plan Needs a Strategy“.
Here’s a brief excerpt: “Strategy development, even in crisis mode, provides critical opportunities. It gives you a chance to hit pause, even for an hour, on the chaos around you. You can take stock of the facts and decide what your values and priorities are. Your strategy keeps you on a path but also enables you to adjust course, and to appropriately and meaningfully shape, expand, or limit your response as the situation unfolds. No crisis starts and ends in the same place; crises are by definition unpredictable and overwhelm your coping mechanisms.”
Money can fix some problems, which leads those looking for simplistic solutions to assume it can fix all problems. The reality is far more complex, and can only be addressed with an adaptive, strategic, process-oriented approach. With or without a crisis, the right strategy will boost the effectiveness of your expenditures.
– Emma Walmsley, CEO, GlaxoSmithKline, the $39 billion pharmaceutical giant.
The good news is that local governments are starting to realize how planning without a strategy wastes both resources and opportunities. Where I live, in Arlington County, Virginia, County Board Chair Libby Garvey said (on November 14, 2015) that one of her top priorities is to craft a strategic plan for the county. “We really don’t have one“, she admitted.
In truth, Arlington County doesn’t need a strategic plan as much as most places. Why?
Because of a simple strategy devised in 1968, which can be reduced to a single sentence:
“Focus most new development around our subway stations.”
The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority originally wanted to route the Orange Line of the DC area’s new Metro system down the median of Interstate 66. This clueless bit of planning would have largely isolated pedestrians from subway access. The County Board rejected that plan, forcing the underground line right through the heart of the county.
The key element of this strategy was to focus almost all new residential and commercial development around 4 of the county’s 6 Orange Line stations. About 25% of Arlington residents now use transit to get to work (the national average is under 5%), and 10% don’t even bother owning a car. The county has grown dramatically, both economically and population-wise, yet its charming old neighborhoods and copious parks remain largely intact, thanks to a one-sentence strategy.
This has begun to change, with influential developers destroying some healthy lower-income neighborhoods for high-end projects (as is proposed for the historic, mixed-income Westover neighborhood). And 898 old, supposedly-protected trees have been removed by just eight public projects in the past 4 years alone. But this isn’t a failure of strategy: only of political will, as this letter attests.
– Brent Toderian, principal, TODERIAN UrbanWORKS
A December 3, 2015 news release from New York State said “Governor Cuomo (designated) 11 new Brownfield Opportunity Areas in communities across New York. The program helps participants develop revitalization strategies focused on returning dormant and blighted areas into productive communities of economic growth and development.” (emphasis ours) Now, politicians sometimes announce useless strategic initiatives because they’re cheaper than plans. But Governor Cuomo has thrown billions at the revitalization of upstate communities, so that’s not likely the case here.
So again, what is revitalization? Speaking literally, it would be a return to a state of vitality after a period of devitalization. But in normal usage, it generally means any significant improvement in quality of life, economic vibrance, environmental health, social justice/harmony, and optimism.
Ideally, your efforts would eventually deliver all of those benefits. If you prefer, your RECONOMICS Process can start by focusing on just one of those qualities. But start it must.
Can a project—no matter how large—deliver all of those benefits? Not bloody likely, mate. Only regenerative programs, regenerative visions, regenerative strategy, regenerative policies, regenerative partners and regenerative projects can really produce resilient prosperity. That, or dumb luck (without a strategic renewal process, one is operating in dumb luck mode.)
If your community isn’t planning to revitalize, it’s planning to devitalize. Regeneration should be budgeted for as automatically as is maintenance: not just as a reaction to crises. In fact, the constant repurposing, renewing, and reconnecting of assets is the best form of crisis prevention. The second law of thermodynamics states that the total entropy of an isolated system can only increase over time. Thus the need to continually reconnect to heal divisions, and constantly regenerate to restore functions.
Author Jim Rohn says “Your life does not get better by chance, it gets better by change.” The same could be said of communities “A city’s quality of life and economy don’t get better by chance, but by change.”
Based on the answers to two questions (click on image on left) from a poll taken by the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce of local residents at a revitalization forum in February of 2018, I’d say downtown Myrtle Beach, South Carolina probably has a bright future. They are both open to change and optimistic about it. (But the climate crisis—and its resulting magnification of storms—is straining optimism in many coastal communities.)
Better futures are created by better actions (changes) in the present. But these days, people worldwide have been demoralized by the relentless globalization of social, economic, and environmental problems that used to appear only locally. The historic climate accord reached in Paris on December 12, 2015 was a rare example of addressing a global challenge at the global level. However, if appropriate levels of action don’t follow quickly, the global gloom will be more intense than ever before, which will severely retard investments in the future (again: especially in coastal cities and island nations.)
Virtually all organizations have a stated mission. Few have a strategy to accomplish that mission.
Writing an inspiring mission statement is easy. Writing an effective strategy is challenging.
Creating an effective process to activate your strategy and see it through is even harder.
After reading this, I hope you’re now better able to rise to that challenge. As a result, you should be able to avoid embarrassing, expensive failures like Kenya’s “smart city”, Konza Technopolis.
You now know three of the essentials in creating resilient prosperity:
- Have a regenerative strategy to help ensure success. Ideally, it will repurpose, renew and reconnect a previously-used or underused site.
- Have a strategic renewal process to implement the strategy.
- Have as one of your goals the creation of confidence in the future of the place.
As detailed in this article, Kenya violated all three of these rules in their creation of their “Silicon Savannah”:
First, they knew that their government agencies were excessively slow and bureaucratic, but they had no strategy to address that key obstacle.
Second, there was no renewal process because there was nothing regenerative about this project: it was just old-fashioned sprawl.
Third, they didn’t understand that investors are only attracted to places that inspire confidence in a better local future. They allowed delays to erode all confidence that this project will ever succeed.
– Jack Fyock.
If the RECONOMICS Process were widely adopted we might actually recivilize. What is recivilizing? To get to that, we first need to define civilizing.
Civilizing is an abused and often controversial word. It was a very popular during the glory days of the great empires: “nonsense: we aren’t conquering people or stealing their land: we’re civilizing the savages.” In this colonizing sense, “civilizing” meant to remake someone in our image (with the “civilizers” usually getting wealthier or more powerful in the process).
In fact, it was that very wealth and power that empires often cited in order to prove that theirs was a higher state of civilization. When necessary, they’d also cite Shakespeare, Cervantes, Homer, Bach, Michelangelo, Confucius, etc….not to mention their favorite religion, which was often the spear point of the empire-building (after getting the point, the folks on the receiving end of such civilizing usually got the shaft as well).
These days, we tend to view civilizing through the lens of evolution. We assume that things become more civilized over time, just as a species becomes more evolved. But that view of civilizing is rife with poor assumptions, since most of us misunderstand evolution. Forget those silly hierarchical charts from grade school, which showed humans at the top of an evolutionary pyramid. That was just self-worship.
Those ego-gratifying evolutionary “trees” led us to assume that homo sapiens is the peak of evolution, but any natural scientist will tell you that just ain’t the case. Ants aren’t trying to become human, and never will be. They are at the highest level of ant perfection they have ever achieved. In fact, seeing as how they’ve been ants for many millions of years longer than we’ve been human, we could easily make the case that they are far more highly evolved than we are. But does that mean they’re more civilized?
– Oliver Cromwell (1599 – 1658), English military and political leader
Complex adaptive systems include such things as human economies, ant societies, or entire ecosystems (which all include humans—directly or indirectly—these days). Science have only just begun to study them, trying to understand such things as how they form from seemingly independent entities, what makes them resist change when disturbed, how they bounce back after being destroyed, etc.
In other words, how do they generate and regenerate? Because constant regeneration is at the heart of keeping a complex system whole and healthy. When resistance to renewal arises within a system, it’s a disease process, making the system brittle, slow, and vulnerable. So, social renewal (“recivilizing”, which we need desperately here in the U.S.) derives from the constant regeneration of society.
For the society as a whole to be regenerative, its parts (individuals and institutions) must be regenerative. And not just regenerative, but properly connected and empowered to boot. For many human societies, that means ceasing to marginalize the half of their society that can contribute most to that recivilizing process: women.
– Erna Solberg, Prime Minister of Norway
To the extent that we or our institutions resist the process of renovation, reuse, restoration, redevelopment, and remediation, they are diseased, and should be removed and possibly replaced. “Possibly” because some elements of a system are only needed temporarily, such as baby teeth. Hanging onto outmoded institutions (or beliefs, or friends, etc.) is as silly and counterproductive as gluing or wiring our children’s baby teeth in place to prevent their loss.
One thing that’s been well-proven is that the simplest way to change the behavior of an entire system is to change a few of the basic rules by which the independent agents (ants, stockbrokers, shoppers, etc.) in that system make their decisions. As we’ll see later, there are three simple rules upon which our civilization is built which—if reversed—would fundamentally recivilize us.
Changing these rules would put us on a trajectory of increasing health, wealth, and happiness. The current three rules make humanity earn its survival in a way that depletes natural resources; that contaminates our air, land and water; and that destroys the things and places we hold dear. Reversing those three rules would mean earning our living in a way that replenishes natural resources; that removes contamination; and that restores those things and places we love.
But virtually every public and private institution on the face of the Earth is built upon these three rules, or is dependent on institutions that are. Short of Armageddon, how in God’s name could those three rules ever change? Is such recivilizing even possible? Until very recently, no. Now, yes.
So, again: what is civilizing? Some say a people are civilized when they live in cities, as opposed to an agrarian existence. [In fact, “civilization” comes from the Latin civilis (civil), related to the Latin civis (citizen), and civitas (city, or city-state).] But country folk often say it’s urbanites who are less civilized.
Some say a people are civilized when they have a shared currency, long-distance trade, and a functional economy. Others say it’s money and/or capitalism that makes us uncivilized.
Some say a people are civilized when they have stable shared institutions, such as government, banks, corporations, and organized religion. Others say governments, banks, corporations, and organized religion are at the heart of wars, and just about everything else that’s wrong with the world.
Some say a people are civilized when they have arts, architecture, and an aesthetic culture. Some say a people are civilized when they have standardized measurement systems, defined professions, and divisions of labor. Some say a people are civilized when they have a public education system, a universal healthcare system, or a legal/judicial system. Some say a people are civilized when they have technologies, starting with metallurgy.
OK, let’s face it: civilization is like art and pornography…we can’t define it, but we know it when we see it. So, where does that leave us in terms of defining a recivilization?
Let’s start by acknowledging that civilization isn’t a thing, it’s a process. Sure, civilizations have peaks, and it’s usually those peaks by which we define previous civilizations. But that’s just mental laziness: it’s easier for us to speak in terms of products and static conditions than it is about dynamic, long-term processes. There are no museums of process, only products. Even history is a product: a system of assumptions and beliefs about the past that we’ve come to agree on, even though we know it’s mostly based on the war propaganda and cultural justifications of the winners.
A civilization is more about how it got where it got than it is about where it arrived before it crashed or disappeared (as they all do). But acknowledging that is like acknowledging individual death and disease: we know it happens, but we’d rather not think about it. Certainly the current dominant institutions don’t want people being aware that they aren’t permanent. That might motivate people to replace them sooner, rather than later. Much better to assume that this is as good as it gets, and return to the TV.
But this isn’t as good as it gets, and we all know it. In fact, this might very well be as bad as it gets, despite all our gadgets and apparent progress on so many fronts. Why? Because we’re so unhappy. Maybe the simplest definition of civilization is this: A people are civilized when they’re happy together. Is civilization a song by The Turtles?
Maybe that’s why there are so many competing definitions of civilization: because we’ve been focused on activities and things, rather than qualities and outcomes.
So, what makes happiness? Health. Beauty. Trust. Quality of life. Diversity. A feeling of belonging. Being of service and value to others. Accomplishment. Knowing ourselves. Expressing ourselves. Something to look forward to.
If civilizing is the process of creating circumstances that tend to make us happy—such as those eleven factors just listed—then recivilizing is the process of restoring those factors when a civilization is no longer producing them.
What’s not on that list are those things we can have too much of: Money, security, and people (including children). Sure: we need a certain amount of money, security, and fellow humans to be happy.
But many “poor” people are very happy. Global research firm Ipsos’ 2012 results from its annual world happiness poll—based on interviews with 18,687 adults in 24 countries—showed Indonesia, Mexico, and Brazil with the world’s happiest citizens. At the other end of the happiness spectrum (misery territory) were Russia, South Korea, and Hungary. In general, Latin American countries are happiest, as are people with high levels of both income and education (but not one or the other).
Too much focus on money distorts values, leading to unhappiness. Too much focus on safety stifles, stultifies, and restricts, causing unhappiness: many folks (myself included) need regular “gusto injections”, such as from motorcycling. Too many humans reduces quality of life and creates scarcity, which leads to excessive competition, which leads to war, which leads to violent death or dismemberment, which makes us unhappy.
When we think and act as humans, rather than as consumers or employees—or as members of an ethnic, religious, political, or national group—then we all want to live in a better world.
With the exception of the “1%” at the top, we all want a more equitable economy. With the exception of those whose business models are intrinsically polluting, we all want a cleaner and more beautiful environment. With the exception of those who profit from war or incarceration, we all want more harmonious and just societies. If you’re a member of a political party, religion, or industry that says otherwise, get out now if you want to retain (or regain) your sanity and conscience.
Terrified of losing the comfort and status you’ve worked so hard to achieve within our current decivilizing world? If you’re an unrepentant degenerate, maybe you should be. But for those who’d prefer being a regenerate, given the opportunity, let’s be clear about what recivilizing doesn’t mean, and what it doesn’t imply.
Recivilizing doesn’t mean eliminating our decivilizing traits: development, specialization, and competition. It means making the recivilizing traits—redevelopment, connectivity, and cooperation—the norm, and the old traits the exception. After all: the recivilizing traits listed above have been with us all along. But, especially in recent centuries, they’ve been the exception, rather than the rule.
In other words, we’re talking about evolution, rather than revolution. That said, this evolution will likely be rather sudden, not gradual and incremental. Under normal circumstances, rapid systemic change is often traumatic, and even catastrophic. But the restorative nature of this shift means the effects will most likely be healing and salubrious. I say “most likely” because complex systems defy prediction, by definition.
Recivilizing thus doesn’t mean recreating human civilization from scratch (although runaway climate change could give us that opportunity). Even if that were possible, it wouldn’t be advisable. Good solutions for large-scale problems are scalable: they should work just as well for a family or community as they do for a nation or a global civilization. When one is revitalizing a downtown, one doesn’t demolish everything and start from scratch. Urban planners tried that in the late 20th Century, with disastrous results that still plague most of the communities they experimented on.
It’s far more practical, more efficient, more responsible, more humane, and ultimately more satisfying to reuse and restore existing buildings and infrastructure. Provided, of course, that the buildings are worth reusing, and the infrastructure is appropriately located. Demolition is a legitimate part of renewal when confronted with badly-designed or poorly-constructed buildings, or with roads that divide and separate more than they connect.
So too with revitalizing a civilization. Those currently on the short end of the socioeconomic stick might not agree, but our current world civilization does have many qualities worth keeping. Granted, most of these desirable qualities—such as democracy, agriculture, and free enterprise—are in desperate need of an overhaul. But the recivilizing principle and practices, hopefully bolstered by full-cost accounting and ecosystem service valuation, will address all of their faults and more.
So, how do we go about restoring those elements of our civilization that tend to produce happiness? How do we increase health, beauty, trust, and quality of life? How do we preserve and reconnect to the enriching effects of diversity? How do we enhance our feeling of belonging? How can we be of greater service and value to others? How can we achieve a greater feeling of accomplishment? How can we better know and express ourselves? How can we give ourselves, our children, and all of humanity something to look forward to?
Let’s outline an answer to that last question now. Given our individual passions and desires, the defining characteristics of a future we’d look forward to are almost unlimited. Some might say “free ice cream”. Here are three very general characteristics on which most people could probably agree:
- Increased economic benefits and quality of life for everyone;
- Increased environmental health everywhere; and
- Increased harmony among individuals, groups, and nations.
Granted, that list sounds like an outline of a standard Miss America winner’s acceptance speech. But if they do, in fact, describe a universally desirable future—one that would make most of happier—then let’s use that as the goal, and see if it’s practical.
“Practical” means requiring no change in human nature, and no improvement in government efficiency or corporate ethics. This desirable future shouldn’t be dependent on our becoming more loving, more generous, more peaceful, more honest, or more wise. It should be achievable simply by the provision of new tools that create a revitalized future out of who we are now, and what we desire now.
- Chapter 4 - THE PROBLEM: Much activity and planning; not much strategy or process.
– Institute for Government‘s criticism of British Treasury (The Guardian, Nov. 25, 2015)
Many worthwhile initiatives struggle in vain to make a difference, due to lack of strategic skills. Among them are urban / rural regeneration; natural resource restoration; renewable energy; catastrophe recovery, sustainability, smart growth, climate resilience; corporate social responsibility; brownfields/infrastructure renewal; and social/economic/environmental justice.
For instance, in 2010, FaceBook founder Mark Zuckerberg donated $100 million to fix Newark, New Jersey’s public school system.
It was matched by another $100 million, mostly raised by then-Mayor Cory Booker and then-Governor Chris Christie. The simple, sensible tactic? Pay the best teachers better.
But there was no strategy for dealing with established teacher contracts or state laws.
For want of a strategy, $200 million was lost.
Similarly, Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh threw $350 million into revitalizing downtown Las Vegas, which desperately needed it.
But he did so with no knowledge of the community revitalization process, no apparent desire to learn about it, and no perceptible strategy.
A decade later, a few urban improvements are evident, but no revitalization momentum has been generated.
For want of a strategy, $350 million was lost.
Simply having a strategy won’t suffice, of course: it needs to be the right strategy.
On June 12, 2017, Jeff Immelt was fired from his job as CEO of General Electric. GE stock shot up 4% on the news.
Why? Because his 16-year tenure was marked by good vision, bad strategy, and poor timing. For instance: in 2015, he rightly saw that the world needed more power generation, so he decided to expand the GE Power division.
Today? Not so much. And he did it just as renewable energy became cost-competitive, compounding a bad strategy with poor timing.
GE Power’s profit dropped by 45%, and GE itself is now in such bad shape—after a long series of good vision / bad strategy fiascoes—that the current CEO is breaking it up and selling the pieces. On June 20, 2018, GE was dropped from the Dow Jones Industrial Average.
For want of the right strategy, one of the world’s great companies was lost.
Everyone uses the word “strategy”, but few understand it.
Everyone says they have a strategy, but few can state it.
Everyone knows what a tactic is, and assume a strategy is a collection of tactics.
Nope: that’s a plan.
One of the differences is that people with a strategy tend to take action. But with planning, the norm in most cities is “plan and forget”. Too many places substitute planning for action. The plan itself often becomes the goal. Too many planners forget the learning value of action. A good strategy can be created in minutes, by the right person with the right awareness. Action can follow immediately.
Action leads to action….and insight. Many times, it’s action itself that reveals what needs to be done, far better than a bunch of folks sitting in a room. As the 13th century Persian poet Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī said, “As you start to walk on the way, the way appears.” Thinking often leads only to more thinking.
Even among those who know they need a strategy, few know how to create a good one. And even fewer know how to implement one, so the strategy often gets lost when the plan is being written.
That’s akin to an author who forgets the plot while writing a novel. But, unlike a bad novel, a bad plan can ruin millions of lives for decades.
Planning without a strategy is planning for failure.
In May of 2016, the city of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil released its excellent resilience “strategy”. I say “excellent” because it contains many essential actions. But I put “strategy” in quotes because it’s not a strategy: it’s a treatise…maybe even a plan. It doesn’t even contain a strategy. Just the overview of this “strategy” is over 1200 words…more than 10 times the length of a good strategy.
A strategy is the core technique that guides decisions to help ensure success, so it must be brief and memorable. The Rio folks come closest to stating one when they say “Connection, collaboration, and the identification of co-benefits are the foundation of our strategy.” But they call the entire 50-page document a strategy.
Most cities’ expensive “comprehensive plans” are similarly devoid of strategy. It’s like buying a Rolls Royce, and finding the engine missing. But it gets worse: almost all of the “strategic plans” I’ve seen in the past two decades lacked an identifiable strategy.
The devitalizing power of silos.
Silos are dysfunctional vestiges of the 20th century, alien to today’s hyper-connected, partnering-oriented, stakeholder engagement world. Strategists usually facilitate the emergence of a strategy, rather than craft one in isolation. With today’s communications technologies, such “emergent strategies” can often be devised, tested, and revised at a lightning pace.
For instance, you’d think that increased employment would be a key component of revitalization, right?
Here’s the reply I got from the CEO of a county economic development council, when asked if he had been involved in any revitalization successes: “Hi, Storm: I am not in an urban revitalization role. We are a non-profit. Our focus is recruitment, retention, expansion, entrepreneurship, workforce development, international trade/FDI, and competitiveness. Revitalization and redevelopment is handled by county staff.” The staff in that same county said that redevelopment and revitalization are handled by developers and non-profit partnerships.
In case you think this was an isolated case, or one from the distant past, here’s a reply I received from a Director of Economic Development in Colorado on February 27, 2018: “We are not currently involved in any economic revitalization, brownfields reuse or community redevelopment that you should feature in REVITALIZATION.”
Here’s part of my reply to her: “Most economic development agencies bring new employers to town, which is a form of economic revitalization. Some of those new employers reuse old buildings or brownfield sites, which makes them even more interesting to us.”
But it gets worse: many economic development agencies are decades behind in their thinking, and still consider sprawl to be the only way to grow an economy. Here’s a reply I got on January 17, 2018 from an economic development agency official in South Carolina, when I asked if they had been involved in any local redevelopment: “Unfortunately I’m not much help. Our services are focused primarily on greenfield opportunities – companies building brand new facilities normally on property that has not been developed before.”
“The years of graduate-school seminars and rigorous mathematical training empowers PhD economists to converse with each other in a language all our own [often having no practical value, predictive power, or relevance to reality]. This allows us…to believe that our years of education were worthwhile because we can recognize each other and sneer at the impostors. In the mean time, the rest of the world takes thoughtful advice and opinions from people who sometimes, while not having our illustrious pedigree, have…better ideas.”– from “What Makes An Economist?” in The Economist (October 2007).
Economic strategies often fall into the interstitial spaces among the silos. Translation: it’s nobody’s job. Folks have talked about the silo problem for decades. Does it still exist? You be the judge: On May 3, 2016, I asked a “Chief Economist” if he had any urban revitalization-related material to contribute to REVITALIZATION. His answer was “no” because “my work on urbanization is mostly related to economic development and inclusive growth.” Being an academic, the distinction might be useful, so he knows what journal to submit to. In the real world, it’s the opposite of useful.
Reductionism, the belief that we can understand (or worse, control) the behavior of living systems by isolating and analyzing their parts, is a form of insanity. One thing it leads to is isolated specialization of knowledge: understanding the trees, but being clueless about the forest. This means we don’t really understand the trees, since context helps define everything.
Silos are handy when we wish to keep our barley separate from our hops. Beer makers can access those silos and combine their contents to brew ale. But communities aren’t so good at accessing their siloed resources and expertise when they wish to brew community revitalization.
Housing authorities are another siloed local agency that has huge potential as a community revitalizer, but most heads of housing authorities look at me blankly when I ask what neighborhood revitalization initiatives they’ve initiated.
Managing and funding our parks separately from our water infrastructure might make sense, but there must be an effective way for those two agencies to interface and share when a revitalization effort is underway. The right revitalization process taps these stakeholder and resource silos, without requiring established institutions to change their structure or behavior.
It’s insane for a revitalization initiative to focus on just one or two realms, whether economy, jobs, society, health, justice, environment, infrastructure, heritage, brownfields, and buildings. But most do.
It might not be insane to revitalize a downtown without including suburbs and surrounding rural areas in the process, but it certainly wastes potential and hamstrings success. That’s like trying to improve the health of your heart while ignoring the health of your body.
Why do so many disciplines confine themselves to ever-narrower silos? Part of it is the general human tendency towards shutting out more and more of the world, in order to come up with simpler and simpler explanations for how it works. Part of it is turf-protection, similar to warfare: as other disciplines make inroads, the borders are withdrawn to a defensible perimeter.
Most professional societies and associations inhibit integrative approaches. One of the goals of association managers is to create a micro-world in which members (who might get no respect in daily life) can be important, influential, and honored. This can only be done by focusing on the one area of knowledge or expertise in which they excel over others.
A focus on integrative approaches widens that field, and thus dilutes that uniqueness. For instance: the members of an association focused on ecological restoration might know that their discipline and projects benefit greatly when integrated with community or regional economic revitalization programs. But they will still resist making such integrative approaches a core focus, as that would mean people with expertise in revitalization could upstage the core members’ expertise in eco restoration.
All that being said, organizational silos do tend to contain many resources and a lot of expertise. So, rather than busting silos, maybe the more productive approach would be to effectively (re)connect them. Here’s a quick example of how a good strategy can connect the problems and resources trapped inside two professional silos, to solve the problems of both.
All over the world, drinking water and agricultural water professionals professionals have long bemoaned the vast quantities of water that evaporate from canals and irrigation ditches.
Meanwhile, renewable energy professionals have long bemoaned the fact that very large solar arrays usually cover arable land or wildlife habitat (such as deserts).
In the state of Gujarat, India (where REVITALIZATION’s web team is based), someone decided that there must be a strategy that would solve all of these problems. That forced them to link the silos, and—sure enough—a simple strategy emerged.
They decided to put to solar arrays over the canals. This greatly reduces evaporation by shielding them from the sun. It also provides almost unlimited surface area—with built-in right-of-ways—without infringing on farmland or ecosystems.
This is just one example of a larger trend: repurposing idle or contaminated land for renewable energy production.
This is a great option for places that don’t have the money to redevelop or remediate such properties. They can earn revenue from selling or leasing such properties to energy companies.
Or, better yet, they can follow the example of Kimberley, British Columbia, and build a community-owned solar farm on the brownfield (in this case, mined land). This converts a liability to an asset, simply by bringing the brownfields silo into contact with the renewable energy silo.
While this trend towards integrating renewable energy production with the repurposing and renewing of fallow land has a lot of momentum, don’t think for a moment that most public or private leaders are clued-into this most common sense of approaches. For instance, Washington, DC’s Georgetown University currently (2019) plans to clear-cut 240 acres of Southern Maryland’s largest forest to build an industrial-scale solar facility. They are encountering a lot of flack over the proposal from better-educated leaders—such as at Preservation Maryland and at Smart Growth Maryland—so we can hope their idiocy will be thwarted.
Over 90% of urban, rural, and regional plans lack both
a clearly-defined strategy and an implementation program.
Most urban, rural, and environmental plans are never implemented. Most that are implemented fail…despite having skilled personnel, and despite spending millions, even billions, on projects. As Kevin Bacon said in the movie, Tremors. “We plan ahead. That way, we don’t have to do anything right now.” (Image: Universal Pictures)
This sad track record is seldom the fault of the planners: neither strategy nor implementation are their jobs. Worse, mayors often commission plans as ends unto themselves, rather than as a means to an end. Creating a plan is a quick, failure-proof political “win”, requiring only the writing of a check. Implementation introduces the risk of failure, so it’s safer to shelve the plan. Another guaranteed “win” can be had 5, 10, or 15 years later, with the commissioning of a new plan. Or they skip everything, and dive right into projects.
That said, most folks with long experience in community revitalization know there are only two things worse than not having a plan:
1) not implementing your plan, and
2) implementing your plan.
That’s because the traditional approach to planning a major redevelopment project is to throw money (usually in the 6 figures) is thrown at a professional planning firm. (I specify “major redevelopment project) to distinguish this process from their normal day-to-day work of approving or denying permits.) The result is often a plan that’s 70% boilerplate, with some token “community engagement” exercises (like design charrettes) thrown in along the way, because it’s “the thing to do these days”.
Sometimes, plans are done in-house by the local government. This has the advantage of being done by people who are more in tune with the community’s needs. But it has the disadvantage that the local planners are often out of tune with the latest planning trends and tools.
The reason observation #2 often holds is because most plans are so bad. Virtually every disastrous urban mistake you’ve heard of was professionally planned. Many—probably most—of the urban plans of the past half century have done far more damage than would have been done by no plan at all.
Not planning usually results in ugly, damaging, traffic-inducing sprawl. The downtown will often be devitalized in the process, but is seldom obliterated. Bad planning often obliterates, removing the restorable assets the city would have used to revitalize itself when it finally came to its senses.
The planning profession has improved in recent years, but nowhere near as much as they think they have. They look back on the planning atrocities of the “urban renewal” disasters of the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s with disdain, proud that they now understand the value of old buildings, and proud of not being as overtly racist as those earlier planners who assumed the best place for demolition or new highways was wherever poor people—especially people of color—lived.
But that’s a mighty low bar. Better yet would be for someone to define what an ideal strategic planning process would be, and to measure themselves by how close they are to that.
Here’s an excerpt from a December 7, 2012 article by Sarah Fecht in Scientific American: “In 1961 urbanist Jane Jacobs didn’t pull any punches when she called city planning a pseudoscience. ‘Years of learning and a plethora of subtle and complicated dogma have arisen on a foundation of nonsense,’ she wrote in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Fifty years later the field is still plagued by unscientific thought, according to urban theorist Stephen Marshall of University College London. In a recent paper in Urban Design International, Marshall restated Jacobs’s observation that urban design theory is pseudoscientific and called for a more scientific framework for the field.”
In that same article, Michael Mehaffy, an urban designer at Portland, Oregon was quoted as saying: “In urban planning, we’re like physicists without a particle theory or doctors without a germ theory. We don’t have a unifying idea about the nature of what we’re looking on. We say we’re artists but it’s as if we’re medieval doctors with potions…. We need to recognize that we have a responsibility to use models that are more likely to produce better outcomes.”
and should become a community-owned occupation.”
– Jamie Carpenter, 19 September 2011, PLANNING newsletter (UK)
To be fair, it wasn’t planners who came up with the disastrous idea of revitalizing cities by demolishing historic buildings and poor-but-healthy ethnic neighborhoods. But they did implement it. Whose idea was it? Here’s the Abstract from a paper by Alexander von Hoffman in Issue 3 of Volume One (2008) of the Journal of Urbanism, titled “The Lost History of Urban Renewal”: “Contrary to common understanding, the US government’s policy of ‘urban renewal’ was conceived as an alternative policy to slum clearance. Bitterly opposed to public housing, conservative housing‐industry trade associations sought a way to reform the urban redevelopment formula of clearance and public housing established in the Housing Act of 1949. In the early 1950s, the industry groups seized on citizens’ neighborhood fix‐up efforts, particularly the Baltimore Plan, to conduct a national campaign to popularize code enforcement, rehabilitation, and private low‐cost housing development as methods to restore and stabilize city neighborhoods.”
He went on to say: “At conferences organized by House and Home magazine and in the President’s Advisory Committee on Government Housing Policies and Programs, the housing industry associations fashioned policies, now named ‘urban renewal,’ which were codified in the Housing Act of 1954. But private industry’s venture in urban policymaking failed in implementation. Home builders proved reluctant to participate in the new programs, public housing hung on, and hundreds of thousands of homes fell to the wrecking ball. As urban renewal became synonymous with slum clearance, neighborhoods continued to decline. In the end, ironically, housing rehabilitation reemerged as a populist tool for reviving the inner city.”
One California city is finally getting around to restoring the downtown that urban planners obliterated half a century ago. This story has some personal interest: I graduated from Pioneer High School in nearby Campbell, California (a suburb of San Jose) in 1969. During my many trips to San Francisco via El Camino Real, I often wondered whether any of the identical-looking commercial areas labelled “Sunnyvale”, “Palo Alto”, “Santa Clara”, etc. actually had a real downtown.
The following excerpt from an Opinion piece by Dan Ondrasek in the Mercury News on June 9, 2018 answers my question regarding Santa Clara: “In the 1960s, a wrecking ball crushed the last of downtown Santa Clara. Citizens looked on in bewilderment and sadness. Within 10 years, any hope of promised benefits of urban renewal were dashed with the result — a two-block concrete strip mall. Only 13 of the 120 original merchants returned. The Mercury News called the demolition of downtown Santa Clara one of the “Worst Decisions in Silicon Valley in the last 50 Years.”
What followed was even worse. The city engaged in parcel-by-parcel development. This approach replaced the charming downtown with a jumble of unrelated office buildings, strip malls, a 1980s apartment complex and a traffic court – surrounded by a sea of surface parking lots. It left many Bay Area residents wondering if Santa Clara had a downtown, and if so, where is it?
Santa Clara is on the verge of fully restoring its downtown, but it will only happen if the city council stops parcel-by-parcel development and fully funds an integrated plan. The effort to restore downtown began two years ago.
Rod Dunham got things started by posting a Facebook page called “Reclaiming Our Downtown.” What began with a meeting attended by five Santa Clara natives has now grown into a force of more than 3000. All want Santa Clara’s heart back. Past bickering has been replaced by unity among a diverse group of residents and groups working to plan and build a nationally significant and economically viable downtown.
Boosting your strategic awareness.
A good exercise is to make a game out of perceiving strategies at work around you. If watch police dramas on TV or read detective fiction, watch for the moment one of the characters comes up with the strategy. Even though serial killers are quite rare in the real world, they are prolific in crime fiction. Why? Part of the reason is that the cops have to strategize in order to catch them. A common scenario is this: the police have no idea who the serial killer is, or where he is. Someone will inevitably say “So, if we can’t go to him, let’s get him to come to us.” That’s a strategy.
The tactic might be to put a pretty policewoman on the street as bait in the killer’s favorite hunting ground. If that doesn’t work, another common tactic in fiction is to insult the criminal, and get them to attack the detective in charge of the case. The tactics can keep changing, but the strategy stays the same until it succeeds, or until someone comes up with a better one.
If a lot of manpower or logistics are needed to execute the tactic(s), then a plan will be needed, possibly in written form. In the “bait” scenario above, a checklist might suffice as the plan: 1) recruit female cop; 2) arm her and put her in costume; 3) drive her to the hunting ground; 4) observe surreptitiously. A professional uses checklists constantly, but in the above example, the team leader is unlikely to write anything down. Plans are optional. Strategies are essential.
The role of plans is often to deal with conflicting constraints. Sticking with the bait scenario, the team leader’s primary goal is to catch the killer. But his/her secondary goal is to keep the bait unhurt. These goals are in conflict. If the safety goal were primary, the female cop would never be asked to be bait for a serial killer. Conflicting constraints are normal and common: dealing with them well is a mark of a good leader. The “joke” sign one often sees in businesses services gets to the heart of conflicting constraints: “You can have it fast, cheap, or good. Pick two.”
What I constantly find amazing is how seldom local governments “get” the role of strategy. In truth, few really understand the whole goal/strategy/plan/tactics taxonomy in any formal manner. As with most things, the various parts usually get siloed. One group set goals. Another writes the plan. Another prepares to execute the tactics. But seldom does strategy get addressed, because that’s the magical moment of clarity.
Since it only takes a moment for it to emerge, strategy gets no respect. No formal team is created due to its ephemeral nature. Since anyone in the room could channel the strategy, no Director of Strategy is usually assigned. All that is understandable. With the right people in the room, one meeting should be all it takes to come up with a viable strategy.
But why, then, do so few communities even have a strategy meeting when planning their revitalization? These days, they are considered enlightened if they have a visioning session, as if it’s somehow optional to know what it is you’re trying to achieve. But even those enlightened towns that create a vision usually forget to create a strategy. They go straight into planning, without ever having the key insight, upon which their success will rely.
Strategy is such an intrinsic part of planning in corporate and military organizations that suggesting the creation of a strategy would get a “well, duh” response from them: it’s a no-brainer.
But the urban and regional planning profession somehow got so focused on the business of delivering products (plans) that they lost track of the process, and strategy largely fell by the wayside.
This is due, in part, to the fact that so many elected leaders see the commissioning of a plan as an easy feather in their cap: all they have to do is write a check. But they know that actually implementing the plan will be rife with potential for failure. So, as mentioned above, most plans sit on a shelf for 5 or 10 years, at which point a new one is commissioned, and the mayor has another moment of glorious achievement.
Planning firms understand that their products are mostly for show, which is one reason they seldom bother with strategy, and focus instead on pretty pictures. This might be a bit overly-cynical, but it’s closer to the truth than most planners would like to admit.
I’ve reviewed countless city, county, and state development plans over the past decade or so, and can count on my fingers the number that actually had a clearly-defined strategy…and I’d have enough fingers left over to eat corn on the cob.
Most corporations at least understand the role of strategy, even if they aren’t particularly skilled at strategizing. They know that a strategic analysis is a logical first step in the process. But when was the last time you heard of a city, county, or state/province commissioning even a strategic analysis, much less a full renewal process to ensure implementation? Beyond my own clients, I rarely hear of it. Most places just dive right into writing a plan.
Once we get attuned to the dynamic, we can find strategic lessons everywhere, whether raising children, raising crops, or being entertained.
In the 2015 movie, Sicario, for instance, Emily Blunt’s character is bewildered when she must abandon the FBI’s tactical approach of intercepting drug smugglers and adopt the CIA’s more-strategic approach of assassinating cartel bosses. At one point, Benicio Del Toro’s CIA character tells Blunt’s FBI character, “You’re asking me how the watch works. For now, let’s just keep an eye on the time.”
Note: I say “more strategic”—rather than “strategic”—because a truly strategic approach would destroy the drug cartels’ raison d’être, either by 1) getting 20% of Americans to stop using illegal drugs, or 2) legalizing drugs (the only strategy that’s been proven to work). But the latter approach also threatens the multi-billion-dollar drug enforcement industry, so it’s not politically feasible.
Another example: environmentalists have long despised coal mining companies, and the feeling is reciprocated. Renewable energy champions want to build a fossil fuel-free economy, while coal miners want to feed their families. Neither is likely to shift their position, and both have tactics for fighting the other. It’s not just economies that go through transition, but individual employees. And that’s where the pain is found, and thus the resistance to change.
But a strategy is free to ignore all of that baggage, and solve everyone’s problems. An ideal strategy would, for instance, make the transition to clean energy while restoring damaged mine lands and keeping coal miners employed.
Is a strategy to close coal mines while keeping coal miners working even possible? Yep: The $26 million Ehrenfeld Abandoned Mine Reclamation Project in Pennsylvania employs out-of-work coal miners to do the environmental restoration. What’s more, Ehrenfeld is a federally-funded pilot project that–if successful–could unleash $1 billion of federal funds to replicate the model nationwide.
We’re already making the renewable energy transition. At the turn of the millennium, the most optimistic projections for wind power were that by 2010, the world would have 30 gigawatts of capacity. Instead, we had 435 gigawatts. Similarly, the optimists predicted that we would be installing one gigawatt of solar capacity annually by 2010. In 2010, we actually installed 17 gigawatts. In 2015: 58 gigawatts.
But fighting the climate crisis isn’t just about cleaner energy sources or more-efficient cars and buildings. Lowering carbon emissions—or even achieving carbon-neutrality—aren’t going to fix the problem: they’ll just slow it down.
Climate restoration can only come from carbon-negative activities. The best of these are based on restoring natural resources, since they have multiple fringe benefits and few or no negative unintended consequences. These include reforestation, of course, but there are many kinds of reforestation, some more efficient art carbon sequestration than others.
One of the most efficient is mangrove forest restoration (AKA “blue carbon”), which sequesters 10 time more carbon than terrestrial forests. And then there’s regenerative agriculture, which sequesters three or four times more carbon than terrestrial reforestation.
The worst of the approaches fall under the category of “dumb engineers’ tricks.” These are the single-purpose technologies that remove carbon from the atmosphere either through “active air capture” or “passive air capture”) , but have no fringe benefits. Worse, they usually take huge amounts of carbon to build, and take huge amounts of energy to operate.
The best of these air capture technologies turn the carbon into something useful, like gasoline or diesel fuels (usually by combining it with hydrogen from renewable energy-powered electrolysis.) The dumbest of them don’t even repurpose the carbon: they just inject it into the ground, hoping it doesn’t escape or have any negative effects, like aquifer acidification or earthquakes. The primary purpose of such technologies is to enrich engineering and manufacturing firms. They get built though, because such firms have vast resources with which to buy or rent politicians.
Urban redevelopment strategies just as central to climate restoration as technologies, though. As David Owen said in his 2009 book, Green Metropolis: “A sprawling suburb is a fuel-burning, carbon-belching, waste-producing, water-guzzling, pollution-spewing, toxin-leaking machine, and, unlike a Hummer, it can’t be easily abandoned for something smaller and less destructive.”
As a result, a city can have a large number of green buildings, and still not be green. Its growth strategy creates inefficient horizontal structure that no amount of efficient vertical structure can overcome. One might call it “green flesh on brown bones“.
It’s not just about efficiency; it’s also about vitality. Fissionable materials release vast energy when sufficiently compressed. So too do cities release more creative, productive energy as they densify.
Most ordinary folks can figure out that a strategic nuclear weapon is designed to win the war, while a tactical nuclear weapon is designed to win a battle. Thus, they can surmise that strategies achieve overarching goals, while tactics achieve sub-goals.
So, if strategies are so simple, why do most cities and regions not have a revitalization strategy?
Generals know that battlefield success comes from killing the enemy or disrupting their logistical flows.
CEOs know that business success comes from growing revenue while shrinking expenses. They grow revenue via strategies that either increase market share, or that pioneer new markets.
But ask 100 mayors how to revitalize a city, and you’ll get 100 answers. How can they devise a successful strategy if they don’t know what leads to success?
Why learn the roles of visions, strategies, tactics, plans, programs, and projects?
Many projects are actually revitalization efforts, but fail because they don’t realize it. They fly under banners like “renewable energy”, “sustainability”, “ecodistrict”, “innovation district”, “economic development”, “infrastructure renewal”, “beautification”, “affordable housing”, “workforce development” or “brownfields remediation”, but all are forms of community regeneration, approached from different angles.
For instance, many cities these days are spending millions–even billions–on making their downtown more pedestrian/bicyclist-friendly, more transit-oriented, and less car-centric.
Few activities are more revitalizing for an urban center, yet many of these vast investments of time and money merely call themselves names like “transit-oriented”, “trail-oriented”, “mobility”, “walkability”, “complete streets”, etc.
But those are all just tactics: the goals and strategy should be focused on revitalization. It’s increased quality of life and economic growth that people really want, not just another mode of transport. The right vision leads to the right strategy, which boosts the project’s funding and stakeholder buy-in.
In the U.S., conservatives often oppose public transit, since they associate it with serving primarily lower-income people and immigrants. But progressives and conservatives alike desire revitalization.
In the 50s and 60s, Washington policymakers and professional urban planners did more damage to American cities than all foreign enemies combined. Why? Because they didn’t know the difference between a tactic and a strategy.
They blindly assumed that, if they demolished all the empty buildings, new development would automatically sprout in its place. The “destroy it and they will come” assumption of “urban renewal” didn’t work.
Most of those cities (such as Hartford, CT) are still plagued with vast, lifeless downtown surface parking lots as a result. Their “restorable assets” were removed. (Photo is Houston, Texas)
Cities that didn’t buy into the madness, like Charleston, SC revitalized via strategies that repurposed old buildings, while also renewing green spaces and reconnecting to waterfronts.
But now, some American “Rustbelt” cities are enthusiastically demolishing blighted neighborhoods, again with federal money ($2 billion). Let’s hope they have a regenerative strategy this time, because demolition is only a tactic.
This urge to wipe the slate clean is irresistible to most urban planners and architects. I pointed out in my 2008 book, Rewealth, how the New Urbanism movement had quickly abandoned the regenerative principles laid out in its birth, and had become sort of a new version of the urban renewal disaster. Many historic downtowns have been demolished to make way for often-sterile, hyper-commercial (but walkable!) New Urbanist developments, where everything is new and nothing is charming or quirky.
An article titled “Paper Utopias” by Monte Reel in the November 5, 2018 issue of Bloomberg Businessweek explained the origins of urban planners’ destructive tendencies thusly: “Embedded in the cerebral folds of every city planner who’s ever lived, there’s a cluster of neurons that lights up like Las Vegas when confronted with the possibility of a blank slate. It started with Hippodamus, the man Aristotle claimed was the father of urban planning. When the Persians destroyed his hometown of Miletus, Hippodamus discovered a bright side to catastrophe: The attackers had erased all the regrettable improvisations that, over the centuries, had made a mess of the place. Tasked with rebuilding, he seized his chance to impose order upon chaos. And so the concept of the urban grid was born. Ever since, the dream of carte blanche has proved an all-but-irresistible seduction.”
The parts of a community that people often love most are the unplanned parts; the sections that have been filled-in by local entrepreneurs and neighborhood activists, rather than by design-from-above. Brazil famously (or infamously, depending on one’s perspective) built an entirely new capital city, Brasília, in 1960, using the oppressive Brutalist architectural style popular at the time.
Monte Reed said in that same article, “Cities are organisms that undergo constant evolutions, inevitably responding to stresses in ways planners can’t predict. The most vibrant part of Brasília today isn’t the faux-futuristic corridor of government buildings that dominated the city plans; it’s all the neighborhoods and restaurants and clubs that occupy the spaces left blank.”
Unless a historic property is dangerous or disgusting, local residents usually prefer renovation and reuse over demolition. The city of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada created a very good process for engaging local stakeholders in the writing of their 2015-2018 Strategic Plan. It was documented in an excellent 2019 Case Study by the Tamarack Institute.
Waterloo started off correctly by forming a vision statement for their Neighbourhood Strategy: “Waterloo is a city of caring, vibrant, engaged neighbourhoods where everyone belongs.”
They then documented six principles/values to guide the creation of their Neighbourhood Strategy (also a good practice):
- Residents and neighbourhood volunteers are at the root of a great neighbourhood;
- Every resident is a neighbour and can help build strong neighbourhoods;
- Neighbourhood community building should be resident-led;
- Neighbourhood community building should aim to be inclusive;
- City departments must work together to help support resident-led and delivered neighbourhood initiatives; and,
- Collaboration with community partners is key to achieving the strategy’s vision.
Here then, is the “strategy” Waterloo created:
- Goal 1: Encourage neighbourhood interactions;
- Goal 2: Empower Neighbours to lead; and,
- Goal 3: Commit to a corporate City culture that supports neighbourhood led and delivered initiatives.
Each of the above goals was accompanied by a to-do list of actions that would help accomplish the goal. For instance, here’s the list for Goal #1:
- Encourage Neighbourliness;
- Support neighbourhoods seeking to build stronger relationships through a program that sparks neighbourhood community building;
- Nurture place-based neighbourhood pride, belonging, identity and placemaking;
- Inspire those living in multi-unit buildings to connect with their neighbours;
- Continue to build neighbourhood cohesion in areas with a high concentration of post-secondary students; and,
- Clarify the City supports available to homes associations and residents in these areas.
So, after three years, they created three goals with recommended actions. But no actual strategy to help ensure success. On the one hand, its heartening to see a community put so much excellent, sincere, grassroots effort into improving their situation. Their resulting document is far more than most communities have. On the other hand, it’s tragic to see so much work get started without someone ever asking “do we know what a strategy is?”
My suspicion is that—as in most such situations—the primary value of that 3-year exercise in Waterloo will derive from the exercise itself (no small thing), not from the resulting Neighbourhood Strategy document.
Moving south, New Orleans’ former Chief Resilience Officer Jeff Hebert was correct some years back when he said “resilience is, for us, synonymous with being strategic.”
But resilience is a goal/objective, not a strategy. For resilience efforts to be strategic, one needs an actual strategy for achieving resilience. Unfortunately, Resilient New Orleans—the city’s 88-page “strategic plan” (published in 2015 as part of the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities program)) lacks a clearly-defined strategy.
There are 50 occurrences of the word “strategy” in that document, but no actual statement of the strategy itself. It’s not New Orleans’ fault: the problem seems to be endemic to all of the “strategic plans” from the 100 Resilient Cities program. Little surprise, then, that the New York Times reported on March 29, 2019 that the program was being disbanded. It was a brilliant idea, but poorly managed and implemented.
The New Orleans plan almost makes a concise statement of strategy when it says they will “Promote sustainability as a growth strategy.” But, like “resilience”, “sustainability” is a goal, not a strategy.
The document often refers to “this strategy“, such as when they say “We are moving beyond our recovery to focus on our future, and this strategy outlines many deliberate steps forward.”
What they are referring to as “this strategy” is the 88-page document itself, which is actually a plan.
The closest that plan comes to making a concise statement of strategy is in what they call their “three visions”:
- Redesign our regional transit system to connect people, employment, and essential services;
- Promote sustainability as a growth strategy Improve the redundancy and reliability of our energy infrastructure Integrate resilience-driven decision making across public agencies Invest in pre-disaster planning for post-disaster recovery;
- Develop the preparedness of our businesses and neighborhoods.”
Of course, a vision is supposed to describe what the strategy is meant to accomplish: it’s not a statement of what you will do. But, with a little re-wording, the above would be a good vision statement. Left as it is, it’s a wordy-but-workable strategy statement.
I recently heard the leader of a multi-billion-dollar regional environmental restoration program tell local stakeholders, “If our Master Plan is the vision, our Annual Plan is where that vision becomes reality.” This confusion of “vision”, “strategy”, and “plan” is what happens when smart, knowledgeable, well-meaning folks are asked to draft a strategic plan, without first ensuring that they understand the key terminology. Each element (program, vision, strategy, policies, partners, projects) should be defined, and the role of each in the overall process described.
Without that, one gets the New Orleans situation: when asked what their strategy is, they hand over an 88-page document.
In March of 2017, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania–another of the 100 Resilient Cities–released their beautifully-produced Strategic Plan. Despite a couple hundred uses of the word “strategy”, no strategy is ever stated. Again, the assumption is that the entire 61-page document is a strategy. Likewise their 91-page “strategic plan” for Los Angeles, which was released in March of 2018. It has 29 uses of the word “strategy”, but never once says what that strategy is.
I alerted the 100 Resilient Cities folks to the problem right after the first “Strategic Plans” were released—and offered my assistance pro bono to rectify it—but the warning fell on deaf ears. About two years later, on April 29, 2019, the District of Columbia—across the Potomac River from where I live—released its own “resilience strategy.” At about 150 occurrences, they managed to triple the number of times New Orleans used the word “strategy.” Unfortunately, it’s just as strategy-free as the other 100 Resilient Cities strategic plans. An indication of their confusion of “strategy” with “plan” is in their statement “The 68 initiatives in this strategy…”
If Rockefeller had originally named the program “100 Resilience Plans”, it would have been a success, since plan-writing seemed to be their primary skill. History is littered with losers whose strategy wasn’t as good as their opponent’s. But at least they had one. For leaders not to even know what a strategy is…is just plain scary. Little wonder 100 Resilient Cities failed so quickly. It’s a tragedy, since so many good people put so much hard work into these plans.
The (now defunct) 100 Resilient Cities program has lots of company, unfortunately. Here’s a fairly-recent example: the Philadelphia Land Bank’s 2017 Strategic Plan has some excellent ideas for dealing with the city’s 43,000 vacant lots, and their dearth of affordable housing. But, like most strategic plans, it was strategy-free.
The plan makes several references to a strategy, such as an “acquisition strategy”. They sometimes refer to specific tactics as a strategy (such as acquiring community gardens). But no strategy ever appears.
Here are two representative sentences from the plan: “The Land Bank provides a strategy to address the blight and bring the land back to productive use, reducing public cost and increasing tax revenue.” and “The proposed Land Bank acquisition policy and strategy outlines a process by which low-income and affordable housing developers can seek assistance in assembling land for development.”
The good news is that these strategy-less “strategic plans” aren’t a waste of time. They can be fixed. A strategy can be devised to fit the plan after the fact. I know that sounds silly…like figuring out where you want to go on vacation and how you’re going to get there after you’ve bought the airline tickets. While it’s certainly not the ideal order, it’s doable.
After all, the plan represents a lot of thought about what you want to do and what you’re capable of doing. A pre-existing plan does impose constraints, but that could actually be seen as making strategizing easier. I’ve occasionally been asked to do “plan repair” in this manner, and it’s not as hard as it might sound. Remember: the strategy’s sole purpose to simply, speed, and secure success via good decisions. We can thus derive a plan from a strategy, or derive a strategy from a plan. There’s no chicken-or-egg-first conundrum.
An understanding of strategy is the basis of being effective in any endeavor: personal or organizational. For those involved in improving their community or restoring nature, it’s the primary determinant in success or failure. Does having a good strategy guarantee success? Not if your opponent has a better one. But not having a strategy virtually guarantees failure.
What triggers devitalization?
The list of devitalizing factors is as long as the list of factors that contribute to revitalizing a place. One factor that has brought down societies repeatedly over the millennia has now reached critical level again: gross economic inequity. Whether it’s pollution, crime, corruption or decrepit infrastructure, in the end, the devitalizing influences all boil down to insufficient health, beauty, safety, opportunity and/or efficiency.
Smart mayors of declining places acknowledge that population flight is a symptom, rather than the underlying problem that is making them flee. And, as explained elsewhere, a city can revitalize while shrinking: quality beats quantity.
But those same people tend to fall back on “loss of jobs” as the real problem, rather than the poor quality of life or lack of confidence in the local future that’s causing those jobs to disappear.
That’s often because the only tool they have is an economic development agency, so every problem looks like lack of employment. The basic tactic of the economic developer is to make his or her city cheaper, but every marketer know that lowering one’s price is the weakest form of marketing.
Quality of life and confidence in the future are ignored because leaders in general—and economic developers in particular—have no inkling of how to fix them. Those maladies can only be cured with a strategic renewal process. Few places have one, and few leaders even know what one looks like.
Look no further than the Wisconsin / Foxconn fiasco to see how silly the practice of “economic development” has become. Anticipating a $10 billion investment to build a 20 million sq. ft. facility, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker groveled shamelessly at Foxconn’s feet. Numbers like “22,000 indirect jobs” and “10,000 construction jobs” were paraded around.
Wisconsin “won” Foxconn from other states with a ludicrously generous package of tax incentives ($3 billion over 15 years), plus infrastructure commitments and environmental regulation waivers. Foxconn was told they could discharge dredged materials into waterways, fill wetlands, change the course of streams, build artificial bodies of water that would connect with (and likely pollute) natural waterways, and could build on riverbeds or lakebeds without permits. Foxconn was also exempt from having to file a state environmental impact statement.
Wisconsin basically spread its legs and told the Chinese, “do whatever you want to us.” Governor Walker called it a “once-in-a-century opportunity” for Wisconsin. It was more like a once-in-a-century abdication of responsibility by a state government. Donald Trump heralded it as a great victory for America. As of this writing (May 2019), Foxconn is reneging, and will only build something small in Wisconsin, if anything at all.
Revitalization is messy:
Before we leave this chapter on common problems encountered in communities that are trying to revitalize, let me point out that revitalizing a place is always going to be messy, and likely to generate controversy. A good strategy or process maximize the efficiency and minimize the discord, but some messiness and controversy will be unavoidable. Let me tell a brief story to illustrate.
After decades of largely-unsuccessful attempts to revitalize their downtown area–including streetscaping, sidewalk-widening, and a huge failed infill project–Clearwater, Florida is now taking the incentive approach. I lived in Clearwater and St. Petersburg for 15 years, so I’m quite intimate with the redevelopment history of Pinellas County in particular, and the Tampa Bay area in general.
After long pursuing development along US 19 (the central north-south artery of Pinellas County), and along SR 60 (the major east-west artery of Clearwater), they finally want to make downtown the easiest and most profitable place to open a business in the city. They’d especially like to see more art galleries, microbreweries, and restaurants.
On June 12, 2017, the Clearwater Community Redevelopment Agency (CCRA) approved the Anchor Tenant Incentive Program to provide incentives of up to $250,000 each for both property owners and commercial tenants via a loan-to-grant program. The loans can be applied to business startup costs, such as rent, furniture, fixtures, and equipment, as well as for interior refurbishment.
The loans have 5-year terms. Here’s how the loan-to-grant portion works: for each year that the business stays open, 20% of the loan is forgiven. Thus, at the end of 5 years, the businesses will owe nothing if they’re still operating.
This is a strategy that has worked in some places. But it has also failed in many places when there weren’t enough downtown residents. All the up-front incentives in the world won’t keep a business alive in the long run if it doesn’t have enough customers. Incentives and subsidies can be considered the “artificial stimulant” approach to retail revitalization: it tends to go away when the “drugs” wear off. Resident-based retail revitalization, on the other hand, could be considered the “organic” approach to retail growth.
The wisest retail growth strategies thus focus first on downtown housing (especially affordable), and only then incentivize the businesses that will serve these residents. As pointed out earlier, a resident can survive a lot longer without a nearby grocery store than a grocery store can survive without nearby customers. Residents have far more “revitalization patience”.
Fortunately, Seth Taylor, Director of Clearwater’s Community Redevelopment Agency, is aware of this danger. They are wisely focusing their strategy on attracting established local brand names that have a strong following in the Tampa Bay area, and will thus be less dependent on downtown residents.
In a June 16, 2017 phone conversation, Seth told me they aren’t overlooking the need to boost the downtown’s residential capacity. They already have over 400 units of new market-rate rental units under construction. This is especially good because rental units tend to be far more revitalizing than condos which–in resort areas like Clearwater–tend to be occupied only seasonally.
But wait, there’s more: Clearwater has long put its public administration offices on the waterfront (not to be confused with Clearwater Beach, which is on the other side of the beautiful Intercoastal Waterway). This was a rather self-serving decision on the part of city officials of decades past, since it boosted their quality of life at the expense of economic development. Public infrastructure–whether offices or sewer plants–are seldom the highest and best use of a good view.
Thus, the city’s new $55 million Imagine Clearwater master plan will move these office off the waterfront, freeing the valuable space for huge amounts of residential redevelopment. They’ll make even more room for residents by demolishing their failed waterfront convention center.
Our phone conversation took place only 5 days after the Anchor Tenant Incentive Program was announced, and Seth said they had already received 25 inquiries from Tampa Bay entrepreneurs.
Many local folks say that one of their most intransigent challenges is that the largest and most important downtown heritage building–the Fort Harrison Hotel, which opened in 1926–has for over 40 years been occupied by the highly controversial Church of Scientology. Their strong association with downtown Clearwater has, in some folks eyes, diminished its attraction as a business location.
Others point out that the Church of Scientology saved and restored a derelict building that might have otherwise have been demolished, and that Scientology staff and visitors have helped support downtown businesses. In addition, unlike most tax-exempt church activities, they currently pay over $205,000 annually in property taxes on the hotel.
In a June 26, 2017 letter to me, Church of Scientology Director of External Affairs Ben Shaw said: “over 12,000 Scientologists now live in the greater Clearwater area, fully 10% of the Clearwater population. …a 2013 report by economists at Florida State University (said that) the Church and its related activities had a $917 million annual positive impact on the local community. The Church has seen even further expansion in Clearwater since that study was published in 2013, and the figure is now well over $1 billion. …In total, the Church’s contribution to the beautification and redevelopment of downtown would have exceeded $65 million by the end of 2017.”
Either way, the church/city relationship has been controversial from the very beginning. The Church of Scientology secretly acquired the dilapidated Fort Harrison Hotel property in 1975, purchasing it under the false names “Southern Land Development and Leasing Corp” and “United Churches of Florida Inc.” In 1976, the Church of Scientology’s connection with the names on the purchase was reported by the St. Petersburg Times, as was their plan for a $2.8 million restoration and upgrade of the hotel. Reactions ranged across the spectrum, from anger over the surreptitiousness to joy over the salvation of the much-loved building.
I wish Clearwater all the best, as I love the city, and the Tampa Bay area in general. This downtown revitalization has been a long time coming.
To wrap up this chapter, I’ll just point out that strategy makes the timing, sequence, and integration of projects important. That’s the realm where efficiencies and synergies are to be 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. 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 avenues to new social and economic improvement opportunities, while making those places more physically resilient.
- PART B - STRATEGY: Mastering the missing key to success.
Even otherwise-excellent organizations suffer from this. For instance, go to this page on the website of Colorado’s Big Thompson Watershed Coalition (BTWC), and you’ll find nicely-succinct vision and mission statements. BTWC’s vision is “A healthy and resilient Big Thompson Watershed that benefits the fish, wildlife, and people it serves.” Their mission is “To protect and restore the ecological health of the Big Thompson Watershed for the use and enjoyment of our community today and for future generations.” They even include their four values. But no strategy.
When revitalization and resilience organizations (maybe like BTWC) encounter budgetary limitations, they tend to focus all of their attention of raising more money. That’s because they are focused on the component projects, which are the most capital-intensive aspect of the work. When they fail to find more funding, they give up. Instead, they should devise a strategy that accomplishes more with what they’ve got.
Strategy is the least capital-intensive portion of any initiative. It’s the element that magnifies the impact of all the other components. Unfortunately, strategizing is outside the comfort zone of most folks. This makes them insecure, to the point where they ridicule strategy as being far less important than whatever it is that they are good at. Strategy is a magical, mystical, unreal realm to them.
Strategy is an executive mindset. But most executives rose up from managerial positions, and never received any actual training in strategic thinking. They are so familiar with the word “strategy” that they assume they know what it is. Nine times out of ten, that assumption is wrong. It’s the Peter Principle in action, and might be the single most common cause of failure.
A plan without a strategy is like a car without an engine. Yet fewer than 10% of community and regional plans have an actual strategy, much less a process to bring it all to life. But, before we dive into process, let’s fix that strategy problem.
- Chapter 5 - STRATEGIC EXAMPLES: Strategy is all around us.
– Glenn Robert Erikson, member, World Policy Institute Advisory Council
Strategic thinking on Main Street:
So, are there any good examples of strategy at work in communities? For over three decades, one of the world’s most successful revitalization programs has been run by the National Main Street Center (NMSC), created by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
From the beginning, they recognized that hundreds of hard-working, well-meaning non-profit groups throughout America were spinning their wheels in efforts to revitalize downtowns via the repurposing and renewal of historic buildings.
What they all needed was a strategy, so NMSC devised a simple, generic strategy that all could apply. They call it the Four Point Approach: Organization; Promotion; Design; and Economic Restructuring.
They also offer eight Guiding Principles to guide the implementation of the Four Point Approach: Comprehensive; Incremental; Self-help; Partnerships; Identifying and capitalizing on existing assets; Quality; Change; Implementation.
The result? The states that have well-organized Main Street Programs have seen tremendous economic revitalization.
Kentucky has the oldest state-wide program, and Iowa probably has the best. The 44 communities in the Kentucky Main Street Program reported $76,126,662 of cumulative investment in their commercial downtown districts in 2015. In 2016, it was estimated that the Texas Main Street Program had generated some $3 billion and 30,000 jobs during the course of its existance.
Nationwide, the Main Street Program has triggered some $65.6 billion of public and private investment in physical improvements to downtowns since 1980. About 556,960 jobs were created and over 260,000 buildings were repurposed and/or renewed in the process. The return on investment averages about 26:1.
Main Street efforts are based on a “Four Point Approach”: Organization (e.g. – creating an ongoing program); Promotion (e.g. -recasting the image and perception of downtown from rundown and dangerous to vibrant and safe); Design (e.g. – making downtowns more beautiful and interesting); and Economic Restructuring (e.g. – linking the renovation and reuse of old buildings to expanding business activity downtown). These four points comprise the basis of their strategy.
That’s a strategy that can be recited in an elevator. Is it ideal? Not by a long shot. Then again, it’s a generic strategy for use in any community that has a distressed downtown and an inventory of historic structures. But there’s no such thing as a generic community, or a generic war. That said, it’s not a bad starting point. The real magic, and the lesson to be learned here—is that Main Street has been wildly successful not because they have a great strategy, but because they HAVE a strategy, and an organization to support its execution.
The Main Street program also has eight Guiding Principles: Comprehensive; Incremental; Self-help; Partnerships; Identifying/capitalizing on existing assets; Quality; Change; and Implementation. These, too, are excellent. “Incremental” means a confidence-building process that constantly gains momentum; “Self-help” means equitable, resilient bottom-up efforts, rather than fragile, big-budget top-down efforts driven by the wealthy. “Partnerships” make efforts more politically-and economically resilient. “Existing assets” means working with what you have, rather than waiting for some savior or silver-bullet project. These eight principles comprise the basis of their tactics.
And they’re not resting on their laurels, having recently updated their Four Point strategy. There’s still room for improvement, of course. I find the relationship of the four points and the eight principles to be a bit of a jumble: a future redo could add some much-needed elegance and logic to its organization.
You’ve no doubt also noticed a crucial missing element: reconnecting. They are repurposing and renewing existing assets, but there’s not one mention of the word “connect” on NMSC’s pages explaining the Four Point Approach or the Guiding Principles. Connecting downtowns to suburbs (via corridor revitalization, as mentioned elsewhere), and to surrounding agricultural regions (thus creating local food systems) can supercharge a downtown. For instance, in Britain, it’s well-documented that real estate prices near farmers’ markets are 26% higher on average. A similar dynamic can probably be found in most cities worldwide.
Many communities renovate and reuse old buildings on a project-by-project basis (as opposed to demolishing heritage, or destroying greenspace via sprawl. This tactic usually has a healthful effect, assuming the buildings are worth saving. But the Main Street program puts a strategy behind this process and—just as importantly—-creates an ongoing organization/program to support its implementation.
Is the Main Street program an ideal revitalization strategy? Not by a long shot. Why? Because, by design, its primary goal is preserving our built heritage. Wedding that goal to the broader goal of downtown revitalization is the brilliant strategy. But communities are much more than just old buildings: they are natural resources, infrastructure, business, societies, non-downtown neighborhoods, surrounding rural economies, and so forth.
The “Comprehensive” guiding principle should address this, but seldom does, due to the vision and goals being primarily focused on downtown and historic preservation.
Should the Main Street program thus be expanded to include all those things? Probably not. It would likely lose its key supporters, and would likely lack the expertise, resources, and political ability to successful address that far-more-complex goal. Nonetheless, it does serve as a great example of how much more successful a community can be when a strategic and programmatic approach supplants a stop-start, project-by-project, tactical approach.
So, what would an ideal strategic approach to revitalizing an entire community or region look like? First off, it would recognize the aforementioned three basic modes of action: top-down (driven by government and/or large developers); bottom-up (driven by citizens); and middle-out (efforts that begin life as partnerships, drawing support from all directions). As explained later in this book, partnerships can and are used by both top-down and bottom-up initiatives. What makes middle-out initiatives unique is that they are partnerships from the beginning: partnering isn’t just a means to an end that’s employed at some point to boost buy-in or funding.
What all three revitalization/resilience modes have in common is that they all come in three flavors: strategic, tactical, or programmatic:
- Strategic initiatives are designed to affect overall direction, and often come in the form of grand policy initiatives, community branding (marketing) campaigns, or long-term infrastructure improvement (such as public transit). These often start with a splash, but peter-out when the initial funding runs out, or when its political champion loses an election.
- Tactical initiatives are focused on actions (projects) that produce measurable results in the short term, such as recruiting employers (AKA “economic development”), renovating a park, building an aquarium, etc. Being project-oriented—meaning they have a completion date—these are usually successful, when well-executed. But their revitalizing effect is usually limited to the property itself, or its immediate surroundings.
- Programmatic initiatives have a strategy, and have an ongoing program to fund and implement the strategy via tactics.
It should be pretty obvious which of those three you need if you want to revitalize a community or region in both the short-term and the long-term.
As a revitalization strategy advisor, I deal with specific communities and regions, and so help them create strategies specific to their dreams, resources, and challenges. But, as with the Main Street Program’s FourPoint approach (mentioned earlier), some generic principles can inform the process of renewing any place, any where, at any time.
The vision and goals vary, but most will be related to improving or sustaining quality of life, health, wealth, happiness, heritage, and justice (economic, social, and/or environmental). The strategies will vary, but the best ones will be based on repurposing, renewing, and reconnection existing natural, built, and socioeconomic assets. The tactics will vary, but the most successful communities will encourage that projects be launched from all three “directions”: top-down, bottom-up, and middle-out.
The revitalizing power of policies.
Downtowns can’t reach their full potential in isolation. The heart needs the body as much as the body needs the heart. But even if you unite body and heart, city center revitalization is unlikely to succeed without the RECONOMICS Process (or something similar) described a bit later. A key element of that process that many communities overlook is policymaking. When done well, regenerative policies are the most powerful way to support your resilient prosperity strategy.
Regional policies are especially powerful, but quite rare. For instance, many developers complain that repurposing and renewing existing downtown buildings is too expensive, so they focus on sprawl. Most communities that say they want to revitalize their downtown are sabotaging their dream by directly or indirectly subsidizing sprawl (what’s known as a “perverse subsidy”). This sort of schizophrenic policy structure is depressingly common.
Downtown revitalization is best achieved when the downtown becomes the easiest and most profitable place for real estate developers to operate. So eliminating indirect sprawl subsidies—such as not charging developers the full cost of providing public infrastructure—is essential. Since the infrastructure is already in place downtown, that one policy change can shift the focus of investment to the urban core.
– Ben Chestnut, CEO and co-founder, Mailchimp
Creating regenerative policies often goes hand-in-hand with eliminating degenerative policies (along with related codes and regulations). Witness the massive explosion of inner city investment that was unleashed by New Jersey’s “Smart Codes” some 20 years ago, mentioned earlier.
What if the sprawl zone is outside your city’s jurisdiction? Create a regional revitalization strategy in partnership with your county, and even neighboring counties. If they’re smart (a big “if”, granted), then they don’t want dead downtowns any more than you do.
Use incentives and disincentives to put your greenfields “off limits” to their developers, and get them to put there’s off limits to yours. Strategies can be cooperative: they don’t have to be competitive. In fact, a good case could be made that community resilience is impossible without regional cooperation. Good regional policymaking lays the groundwork for cooperative strategies.
Strategic thinking in South Africa:
Many metropolises around the world are belatedly realizing that excessive automobile traffic kills cities. As a result, they are closing key streets to automobile traffic and are boosting public transit. But many people love their cars, and can’t imagine living without them.
So, a good strategy would address that lack of imagination. To boost public support for pedestrianization and public transit, communities are declaring car-free days or weekends. The hope is that, when citizens see how much quieter, cleaner, and safer their neighborhoods are without car traffic, they will support more enlightened policies.
The festival lasted an entire month, which cost millions of dollars. Why so long? Strategic thinking. The vision ICLEI wanted to achieve was lasting change for the better.
If a street is closed for a day, people might visit it out of curiosity, but they’ll probably drive there. If an area is closed to traffic for a week, people needing to get there—such as for a dental appointment—might reschedule the visit to avoid being inconvenienced in their car.
But if an entire district is closed to cars for an entire month, people will have to find another way in. They might take a bus for the first time. Or they might realize how few other options there are, and demand more buses, trolleys, or subways. That can lead to lasting change.
If you plan for people and places, you get people and places.”
– Fred Kent, Founder and President, Project For Public Spaces
The key was to devise a strategy (“close an entire district to cars for a month”) that would help ensure that the tactic (“shutting down car traffic”) actually accomplishes the goal. Most places just set a goal, and rush right into writing a plan. That plan might be expertly detailed on the best possible ways to close a place to cars for a day or weekend. But it will fail, because nobody took the time to create a strategic process that optimized the tactic’s ability to succeed.
Strategic thinking in Special Forces:
That time element mentioned above is often another differentiation between a tactic and a strategy. Too few communities and organization remember that time is a resource. If one is not in a hurry, time can substitute for other resources that are in short supply, such as manpower or money.
When I was with the U.S. Army’s 7th Special Forces Group (AKA “Green Berets”), we were taught how to deal with vastly superior forces. Since Green Berets operate in 12-person teams, and usually behind enemy lines, the best tactic was usually to run away: “shock and awe” is not an option. Going undetected is a key element of a Direct Action team’s strategy, since it enables the element of surprise.
But if a Direct Action mission requires engaging a large force—say a 500-person battalion—a good strategy might employ multiple tactics over time. Sniping a few of them daily, so they are afraid to be in the open. Killing a few in their tents every night, so they are afraid to sleep. Contaminating their food or water, so they are afraid to eat or drink. Setting booby traps, so they are afraid to move. Living in constant fear is exhausting, and exhausted soldiers make mistakes, or give up entirely.[That scenario is unlikely: the traditional Green Beret mode is a capacity-building strategy called Unconventional Warfare (UW). UW recruits, trains, and equips locals to do their own fighting. Other Special Forces outfits, like Army Rangers, Army Delta Force, Marine Force Recon and Navy SEALS are purely focused on Direct Action.]
Let’s take a moment to use the above example to ensure that you’re really clear about vision, strategy and tactics. For an A-Team taking on a battalion, the vision (goal) might be to render them ineffective as a fighting force. Various strategies could achieve this, two of them being: 1) kill all their officers and senior NCOs; or 2) demoralize and exhaust them. If strategy #2 is chosen, the tactics (“projects” in the civilian world) would be the above-mentioned sniping, poisoning and booby traps.
Strategies are often more effective if kept ulterior. For instance, U.S. Army Special Forces worked for years with the Uganda People’s Defence Force to hunt down notorious Ugandan war criminal Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army. Sounds like a simple (not easy) Direct Action mission, right?
But the real mission is to strengthen the U.S. role in Africa, which has been weakened by major Chinese investments in badly-needed infrastructure.
The strategy is to use Unconventional Warfare (instead of Direct Action). That means local citizens and local troops live with Green Berets, get trained by them, and fight alongside them for months–even years–at a time. That forms deeper, more-lasting bonds with the U.S. than handing billion-yuan checks to politicians (especially in the corruption-ridden C.A.R. and the D.R. of Congo, where Kony operates). Note: While the mission was unsuccessful at killing or capturing Kony, it succeeded in reducing his army from over 3000 to under 100, so the hunt has been called off.
Strategies and tactics sometimes look very similar, and are differentiated only by their intention. For instance, an arsenal of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM) is designed to prevent wars, or if that fails, win wars. Thus, each of those missiles is a “strategic nuke”. A nuclear warhead fired from an artillery piece over a distance of 50 miles—or one carried in a backpack—is designed to win a battle, so those warheads are called “tactical nukes”.
But it can get more complicated than that. For instance, it might be believed that taking the drastic step of using a tactical nuke on the enemy might scare them into ending the war. In that case, the tactical nuke was used strategically: the goal was primarily to end the war, not just to wipe out a particular battalion of troops. Wiping a one or two cities would normally be considered tactics within a larger war. But the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were (officially) about scaring the Japanese into surrendering. Neither city was a military target. Thus, those two bombs were strategic.
Oftentimes, tactics and strategies are nested. The Pentagon might have a strategy for winning a war that includes taking a particular city (tactic). But the general charged with taking that city needs a strategy, and that will involve many individual tactics for taking key buildings and infrastructure. So the general creates a strategy to achieve the Pentagon’s tactic. A squad leader assigned by the general to take a particular building will need to devise a strategy for doing so, which will involve tactics executed by members of the squad. So the general’s tactic requires a strategy to execute.
Sometimes, a mode of action can be either tactical or strategic, depending on scope, and depending on complexity. Transit-oriented development is often just a tactic for boosting the value of a project. But applied at the scope of an entire city, metro area, or region, it becomes strategic. From the standpoint of complexity (not to be confused with complicatedness, which is a negative), transit-oriented development can be quite simple, and thus more of a tactic. Transit-oriented revitalization is always strategic, no matter what the scale, since (ideally) incorporates all of the elements that go into bringing a place back to life: social, economic, natural, heritage, infrastructure, etc.
A California governor’s strategy for revitalizing his/her state might thus include revitalizing the state capital, Sacramento as a model to be replicated statewide. So Sacramento’s revitalization is one of the tactics in the governor’s strategy. But whoever is put in charge of revitalizing Sacramento is going to need a strategy. So, distinguishing strategy from tactic is often relative to perspective and hierarchy.
The governor’s tactic has now become a goal that requires a strategy at the next level down the ladder.This nesting is natural and normal, and is not as confusing in real life as it might sound on paper. Academics studying it might be frustrated, but soldiers in the field don’t worry much about labels or plans. In fact, plans are much despised by real military leaders (maybe this is an attitude that would benefit mayors).
“…we apply this multiscale framework to provide a control theoretic understanding of the historical and increasing need for Special Operations Forces (SOF), as well as conventional military forces. We propose that the essential role distinction is in the separation between high complexity fine scale challenges as opposed to large scale challenges. This leads to a correspondence between the role SOF can best serve and that of the immune system in complex organisms–namely, the ability to respond to fine-grained, high-complexity disruptors and preserve tissue health.
Much like a multicellular organism, human civilization is composed of a set of distinct and heterogeneous social tissues. Responding to disruption and restoring health in a system with highly diverse local social conditions is an essentially complex task. SOF have the potential to mitigate against harm without disrupting normal social tissue behavior. This analysis suggests how SOF might be leveraged to support global stability and mitigate against cascading crises.”
– Joseph Norman & Yaneer Bar-Yam, “Special operations forces: A global immune system?” (2016)
The much-quoted Field Marshall Helmuth Karl Bernhard Graf von Moltke (1800 – 1891) has this to say about strategy: “Strategy is a system of expedients. It is more than science, it is the translation of science into practical life, the development of an original leading thought in accordance with the ever-changing circumstances.”
He had this to say about the relationship of tactics to strategies: “The tactical result of an engagement forms the base for new strategic decisions because victory or defeat in a battle changes the situation to such a degree that no human acumen is able to see beyond the first battle.” And he had this to say about plans: “No battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy.”
Not surprising, then, that Napoleon said: “I have never had a plan of operations.” While most think of Napoleon’s losses in Russia and at Waterloo, it was his many successes on the battlefield that made his losses so memorable.
This is similar to how we remember dinosaurs for their extinction, rather than for their having ruled the Earth for 100 million years. Just because their biology and ecology lacked a strategy for dealing with massive asteroids doesn’t mean they failed in their “mission” to dominate the world.
Strategic Thinking on Gentrification:
OK: back to civilian applications. One compelling reason to learn strategy is to resolve conflicting constraints. Gentrification is a controversial aspect of revitalization these days, to the point where the American public often uses the two terms as if they were synonymous. Much of the heartbreaking social displacement of revitalization is easily avoidable when planners and developers simply care enough to create a strategy to avoid or minimize it.
Many gentrification debates are actually based on two false assumptions:
- That economic growth and increased affordable housing are conflicting goals; and
- That higher-income people moving into lower-income neighborhoods is a Bad Thing.
In fact, boosting affordable housing—especially in downtown areas—is a fairly reliable strategy for lasting revitalization. And mixed-income neighborhoods are generally more resilient and socially-healthier than concentrated poverty. I say “generally” because it can be unhealthy when wealth is injected into a poor area in a way that rubs the lower-income folks’ noses in what they don’t have.
New research by Michael J. Hicks, PhD, and Dagney Faulk, PhD, of Ball State University proved that in today’s economy, jobs tend to move to people, whereas people often moved to jobs in the past. Many communities’ strategies are based on old assumptions, so they launch revitalization with commercial redevelopment, rather than residential. Or, they forget to include sufficient affordable housing, so there are too few employees to attract businesses.
Affordable housing isn’t just a feel-good social responsibility tactic: it’s often at the heart of successful revitalization strategies. Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh previously-mentioned $350 million downtown Las Vegas revitalization fiasco failed not just because he lacked a strategic process, but also because he didn’t provide sufficient affordable housing (which a strategic process would have identified as essential.)
As a result, the area remains somewhat lifeless. It didn’t help that some of his key partners didn’t get the “re” concept, which points out the need for up-front education. Too many people rush into community revitalization without a clue as to what they don’t know. Apparently, the fact that they live in a city gives them the illusion that they know how it works.
For instance, the whole magic of building places out of old shipping containers derives from the fact that you’re giving new life to something that would normally have become trash. One of the few bright spots in downtown Las Vegas is the Container Park. Just one problem: they purchased brand new containers for the project. The adaptive reuse concept seems to have eluded them.
Maybe they just had too much money. Excessive funding is a real problem in some cities (such as several in China), where their wealth prevents them from valuing the efficiency of reusing existing buildings. This leads to the wanton destruction of heritage, as happened in Shanghai.
But back to gentrification. Poor ghettos and wealthy ghettos are both undesirable. Just as injecting affordable housing into wealthy neighborhoods is socially revitalizing, so too is injecting wealthier residents into poor neighborhoods. Mixed-income, mixed-ethnicity, mixed-age, mixed-use, mixed-transit (foot, bike, car, bus, train, etc.) neighborhoods will define healthy 21st-century cities.
While locally-appropriate strategies are crucial, it’s important to remember that some challenges are almost universal. Racial and economic equity are two such examples of these…especially here in the United States, where both problems are currently worsening as the middle class shrinks and anti-immigrant rhetoric infects the public consciousness.
As a result of the universality of many challenges, it’s very likely that another city has already hit on a strategy that will work in yours. Joining organizations like the Government Alliance on Race and Equity helps avoid reinventing the wheel (it’s a national network of governments working to achieve racial equity and advance opportunities for all).
That said, the process at arriving at a solution is sometimes more important than the solution itself, so be wary of shortcuts.
In the 50s and 60s, the standard line uttered by white suburbanites when a “family of color” moved next door was “there goes the neighborhood.” Today, the same sentiment is often uttered by people of color in traditional “ethnic” neighborhoods when a middle-class white family moves in next door.
Given that mixed-income and mixed-race neighborhoods are seen by many as a “cure” for concentrated pockets of urban poverty, it helps neither of those agendas is local start screaming “gentrification” the first time a wealthier white family arrives.
Gentrification is generally only bad in excess: it usually brings higher wages, improved infrastructure, and socioeconomic diversity. All of these are healthy, except when the wealthy arrivals flaunt their wealth, or keep to themselves behind locked gates. Hopefully, getting to know their neighbors will help them overcome their wealth-induced psychological problems, and thus be individually revitalizing.
Displacement via revitalization (gentrification) is a high-profile problem that rightly deserves the attention its getting. But a much larger problem is being ignored: displacement via devitalization (neighborhood abandonment due to decline). It’s true that elected leaders need to learn how to revitalize without excessive displacement. But the bigger need is for local leaders to simply learn how to revitalize.
Mayors who talk constantly of the gentrification problem are often like teenagers who talk constantly of how to put a car into a power slide, when they haven’t yet learned how to drive. Too many mayors and city councils think that revitalization is simply getting out of the free market’s way so developers can do what they want. This makes them look lazy, but the primary reason is ignorance: they simply don’t know any other path. No one ever taught them the process of revitalization.
As with so many seemingly-intractable community problems, gentrification suffers from a paucity of metrics, and we can’t manage what we can’t measure.
Right now, when places do visioning exercises, they are often forced to relegate the anti-gentrification goal to some fuzzy and useless line in their vision statement like “we will revitalize without displacement.”
All of the other measures of revitalization—economy, security, education, health, etc.—are relatively each to define and measure. Gentrification is the big bugaboo. It drives people crazy because they think they have no control over it. But that’s because they don’t quantify how much is acceptable up front, which means they can’t measure and have some degree of control over the results.
Here’s a simple way to add a bit of rigor to the anti-displacement portion of your revitalization vision: divide neighborhood revitalization into three categories, as relates to gentrification. (I’m specifying “neighborhood” because it’s primarily at that level of revitalization—not community-wide or regional—that gentrification takes place.)
All three of these categories result in revitalization: an improved local economy and better quality of life. It’s only the level of change in local residents that distinguishes them:
- Low Gentrification: retains 80% or more of the original residents;
- Medium Gentrification: somewhere in between the two extremes; and
- High Gentrification: inflow and outflow results in 20% or fewer original residents.
In most communities, fewer than 20% of the people create over 80% of the problems, so some replacement of existing residents is usually acceptable, and even desirable.
The first two categories are easily measured and defined, but the third has significant wiggle-room. The value of these admittedly-arbitrary taxonomy of neighborhood revitalization is that it gives local stakeholders a metric they can add to their vision statement. Choosing the “Medium” level simply says that reducing gentrification isn’t a top priority, but is a concern.
Embed one of the above three gentrification categories of revitalization into your vision, and you now have the ability to know when you are achieving or violating it. It’s not a solution for gentrification, just a tool to give you a bit more control over it.
In recent years, Denver, Colorado has done a wonderful job of revitalizing its downtown, and they’ve used light rail to spread that revitalization across the metro region.
As a result, residential rents have suddenly skyrocketed from below the national average to 12.6% above average. “Before we’ve realized it almost, we’re a high cost housing city,” says Ismael Guerrero, director of the Denver Housing Authority. “We’re new to that club, but we’re clearly there, because the wages haven’t kept up.”
Stimulating property value enhancement without anticipating and making some attempt to ameliorate the predictable negative impacts on lower-income families indicates a lack of concern by public leaders. These dynamics are universal: they should take no one by surprise. But Ismael isn’t to blame: revitalization is a systemic process that can only be addressed at higher levels of public management than a housing authority.
British sociologist Ruth Glass coined the term “gentrification” in her book London: Aspects of Change (1964). She was referring very specifically to the displacement of lower income residents with higher higher income residents.
Although the term derives from the “landed gentry”, the “displacers” in these regenerating London neighborhoods were usually only middle class.
So, when the middle class is displaced by the upper class, should that too be called gentrification? The sad state of affairs is that American cities and neighborhoods that are dramatically revitalizing almost always experience gentrification.
Gentrification, as I’m using it here, is the traumatic disruption of long-time residents’ lives, often leading to displacement. It’s caused by rapidly-rising property values, which raises property taxes and rents, meaning that both low-income homeowners and low-income renters are forced from their homes.
But wait: isn’t increasing the value of property–and boosting public revenues–the whole goal of revitalization? No, it isn’t.
That’s the whole goal for most private redevelopers (as opposed to developers, who do sprawl projects), and that’s fine: that’s a market force that can be harnessed for revitalizing capital.
But if market forces are the only forces at work, then there’s a failure of government. In the emotion-packed, fact-free, money-driven chaos that passes for political dialog in the United States, Americans seem to have forgotten the role of government.
It’s the job of the government (together with the justice system) to watch over the welfare of their citizens.
- raising the quality of life for all;
- increasing job and business opportunities for all;
- boosting health, safety, and social justice for all;
- restoring natural resources, reactivating abandoned properties, rehabilitating heritage, and regenerating the economy for all; and
- constantly renewing, repurposing, and reconnecting the community’s assets to keep it vibrant and relevant in a changing economy.
All of those factors together comprise the definition of true revitalization. That’s far beyond the remit of real estate investors.
The simple fact of the matter is that traumatic, unjust gentrification is preventable. What’s more, it’s easily preventable. Yes: it’s a complex problem. But the solution is dead simple: the government simply has to WANT to prevent it.
Once that desire is established, the tactics and strategies that can produce revitalization with a minimum of trauma and dislocation are numerous. Desire is the key. Add social justice to your local revitalization vision, and it will flow through into your strategy, policies, plans, programs, projects, and partnerships.
I’ve been discussing these solutions in my talks and workshops for most of the past decade. I documented two simple solutions that were actually put in place by conscientious private redevelopers (who stepped in to fill the gap left by unconcerned local government officials) in Rewealth. One used tax increment financing (TIF) to ensure that any increased taxes came back to those communities in the form of neighborhood improvements. The other set up a non-profit fund using a surcharge on the sale of new residences, which refunded any increase in property tax paid by the long-established residents.
Attracting higher-income folks to a poor neighborhood is exactly what local leaders are trying to accomplish when they launch revitalization initiatives. What’s more, communities are living systems that change as they evolve. Just as species migrate to different environments as ecosystems evolve over time, so too do residents change neighborhoods as cities evolve.
None of this is evil or racist, and it’s not really those dynamics that people are objecting to when they throw around that weighted word “gentrification”. The real problem is that both governments and private developers often lack the sensitivity and humaneness to ensure that these changes happen in a way that minimizes suffering and unnecessary displacement.
So the solution is more in changing HOW we do revitalization, not in changing its basic dynamics. In a personal communication, Aksel Kargård Olsen, Senior Planning Analyst at the San Francisco Bay area’s Metropolitan Transportation Commission told me “I think this is generally true: all manner of things are policy failures at their core. Income inequality? Sure, folks like to blame greed as if it were an anomaly in markets, the just once in a blue moon occurrence requiring swift and public denunciation. Markets do what markets do, which is why we have policies shaping them in the first place. Gentrification and its expressions is a great example of that.”
Does this mean that private redevelopers are blameless? Of course not. Some are brazenly insensitive to the needs of lower-income residents, especially ethnic minorities. The modus operandi of others is to buy influence on the city council, sometimes to the point of not just getting their own project approved, but to enact unhealthy changes to zoning, building codes, and development incentives that undermine the community for decades. That’s just who they are. But when they get their way, it counts as a failure of government.
Charlotte, North Carolina is building massive greenway system that revitalizing neighborhoods throughout the greater area. They are basically trying to produce the High Line Effect with a metropolitan area scope. This will be a wonderful opportunity to apply some strategic thinking to creating a more-humane form of revitalization that doesn’t let gentrification run riot in their metropolitan area.
Good strategies are often so succinct that they look like no-brainers.
Baltimore, Maryland‘s famous Inner Harbor revitalization had a brief, simple strategy: create a critical mass of retail, restaurants, waterfront paths, and tourist attractions in one fell swoop, rather than incrementally. That strategy worked beautifully.
These days, many folks are championing incremental revitalization strategies over such “Big Bang” approaches. In most cases, this is sound advice: too many redevelopment initiatives are driven by a local politician’s need for publicity, and the resulting projects are often too large and too fast (read: poor public engagement and poorly thought-out strategy). But the key lesson here is not to get too dogmatic about incrementalism. As the Inner Harbor shows, big and fast is sometimes exactly what a place needs.
The brevity of a good strategy often makes it seem as if not enough thought went into it. In Baltimore’s case, that might actually be true: the public-private partnership behind this spectacular success in Baltimore failed to create a strategy for ensuring that the revitalization spread from the Inner Harbor to the rest of the city.
The Oliver neighborhood of Baltimore was in rough shape, even before the 2015 protests and unfortunate riot following the brutal death of resident Freddie Gray at the hands of the police. Reportedly, some 250 businesses (most of them minority-owned), were looted or destroyed. Over 150 innocent residents’ cars were vandalized, and over 100 fires were set that damaged local residents’ homes.
Now, Oliver’s starting to come back to life, thanks to a visionary local developer, and to a program funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. (Here’s a recent report on the effort.)
Their strategy comprised just three words: Build On Strength. “Build On Strength” might seem hopelessly simplistic and generic, but remember that a strategy implements a vision. The vision is what focuses that simple strategy on goals that are unique to–and needed by–that community.
How could those three words boost the success of an effort? The key function of a strategy is to guide decisions; both formal decisions made in meetings, and on-the-fly decisions made in the field.
Let’s say you must choose one of two neighborhood revitalization proposals. #1 is a big-budget project. #2 is less capital-intensive, but requires significant grassroots organizing to succeed.
If your community has financial resources, but citizens are fractious or apathetic, the “Build On Strength” strategy points to proposal #1. If your community is weak at finance or fundraising, but harmonious and effective at working together, the “Build On Strength” strategy selects #2.
Without a strategy in mind, you might spend months debating the features and benefits of each proposal, with two likely results: the wrong proposal is chosen, or neither proposal is acted upon. Strategy puts your focus on the elements that are vital to success.
– Yoko Ono
On January 5, 2016, first-term Republican Governor Larry Hogan announced that Maryland would provide $75 million to help Baltimore demolish thousands of vacant buildings. That would be worrisome if there were no strategy for filling those vacant spaces into new residences and employers. But he also announced $600 million in state subsidies to encourage redevelopment of those spaces. Sounds good, right? Wrong.
Two powerful tactics—getting rid of old stuff + subsidizing new stuff—have been announced, but community revitalization isn’t just about stuff. It’s also about factors like trust, justice, health, education, connectivity, etc. There’s no apparent strategy in Baltimore to address such issues. Worse, there’s a strong possibility that some of the demolition funding will be taken from the Community Legacy program, which supports rehabilitation. Thus, they would actually be reducing their ability to revitalize these neighborhoods.
– Max Euwe, World Chess Champion
Connectivity might be West Baltimore’s greatest strategic need: lower-income residents must be able to get to jobs, schools, and shops without owning a car. But one of Governor Hogan’s first acts was to kill the Red Line, a long-planned transit project that would have finally connected West Baltimore to the rest of the city. Thus, his $675 million investment in demolition and redevelopment will likely fail to produce lasting revitalization, due to a lack of strategic thinking.
Recently, a coalition of neighborhood groups called the Baltimore Housing Roundtable offered a strategy for reducing displacement of citizens during these mass demolitions. I hope it works.
In a May 28, 2019 email to me, Rick Rybeck, Director of Just Economics, told me this New York City story during our discussion of Baltimore’s revitalization challenges: “In the 1980s, the Nehemiah Housing Project redeveloped several square blocks of vacant and boarded-up properties in Brooklyn for workforce housing. The project began with land assembly. Much of the land was owned by the city through tax defaults. Most of the rest was owned by banks through mortgage default and there were a few private owners still holding on here and there.”
He continued: “They all readily agreed to relinquish their sites for $1 in exchange for Nehemiah’s redevelopment commitment. For most owners, the sale was a release from potential liabilities. The project was completed with donated materials and labor. Homes were quickly occupied and there was an outcry for more. Nehemiah approached New York City for land in adjacent blocks and the City was happy to sell additional parcels for $1.”
Rick concluded: “However, the banks and private owners resisted, saying “This is a thriving neighborhood. Our land is worth much more than $1.” Thus, Nehemiah was forced to pay premium prices to obtain access to the land that Nehemiah had made valuable in the first place! Baltimore should legislate tax reform so that the community (and NOT speculators) profit from the redevelopment of these vacant properties.”
The need for an effective strategy isn’t limited to neighborhoods and communities, of course.
Angela Merkel has been Germany’s chancellor for over 13 years, but it’s clear (as of this writing: January 29, 2019) that she’s on her way out.
The beginning of her political demise can be traced to a private meeting with her own party’s lawmakers on June 12, 2018.
As she was attacked relentlessly for her increasingly-unpopular support of allowing refugees into the country, her response was totally ineffective.
A Bloomberg BusinessWeek article titled “How Merkel Lost Her Grip” cited one of her aides asking another. “What’s the strategy?” “I don’t think we have one,” was the reply. And thus did the end begin.
Measuring Progress toward Resilient Prosperity
Creating a strategic program to pursue resilient prosperity is one thing: managing it is another. And achieving specific goals based on often-fuzzy concepts is yet another. For example, one “soft” attribute that is know to make places more resilient is inclusivity, which leads to more-equitable economies. But how exactly does one make a local economy more inclusive, going beyond the usual charrettes and “stakeholder engagement” exercises?
There are many possible approaches, but the central factor is desire. Socioeconomic equity must be overtly stated as a community goal: it must be in the vision that underlies your strategy and plan.
Assuming you do have inclusiveness embedded in your vision/strategy, here are some tactics that can help you achieve that goal:
- Transportation: The lower a family’s income, the greater the percentage of that income is devoted to their car: auto payments, insurance, fuel, parking, etc. If your public transit does a good job of connecting the places that lower-income people live with the places they work, many will ditch their car. They can then spend that money on food, rent, healthcare, education, etc. But it’s not just about money: affordable (or free) public transit. Given the obesity epidemic, making cities enjoyable and safe for pedestrians and cyclists is just as important to health.
- Housing: Having affordable housing in sufficient quantity and of good quality in locations with effective public transit is a given. But the leading edge of economic inclusion strategies is mixed-use, mixed-income development. An example is Detroit’s $28 million public-private partnership that’s renovating the historic 1924 Strathmore Hotel into 129 affordable and market-rate apartments, plus 2000 sq. ft. of ground-floor commercial space. Resilient cities rid themselves of zoning and planning practices that isolate citizens from each other according to income.
- Education: High-quality schools provide the most reliable paths out of poverty. But too many cities take an elitist approach of focusing on preparing students for college and white-collar jobs, neglecting the needs of blue-collar workers. Boosting local trade schools, apprenticeship programs, and internships connects high school graduation with realistic career opportunities.
- Entrepreneurial support: The path out of poverty isn’t always employment. Many prefer to create their own employment by starting a business. Downtown business incubators—often in repurposed industrial buildings—are increasingly revitalizing careers and communities together.
- Health, safety, and food: It should go without saying that people are less likely to take full advantage of transportation, housing, education, or entrepreneurial opportunities if they’re in poor health, or in a threatening environment. But low-income neighborhoods—especially in the U.S.—are still typified by food deserts, with convenience stores supplying the “food” for meal preparation. And by poor policing. And by a paucity of green space. And by contaminated soil from earlier industrial use. And by toxic air and water from current industrial use. Solutions include brownfield remediation, ecological restoration, affordable healthcare, publicly-engaged police, urban agriculture, and local food systems (which connect regional family farms to urban cores via farmers’ markets, Community Supported Agriculture, and central food warehouses).
We must not be satisfied with merely stating socioeconomic equity as an objective: metrics must be established to ensure that the vision is translated into action. Researchers at McGill University, in a January 2015 report published in the Transport Policy journal, suggest the following four metrics to track progress on transportation-related social equity objectives:
- Changes in accessibility to desired destinations, especially for disadvantaged groups;
- Difference in travel times, to work and essential services, between car and public transit;
- Difference between top and bottom income residents in the proportion of household expenditures spent on transportation; and
- Difference between car users and pedestrians/cyclists in traffic injuries/deaths (per-trip basis).
If we don’t quantify our results, adaptive management systems have nothing on which to base changes. We can’t manage what we don’t measure. The good news is that the cafeteria-style approach described in the previous section (for creating an Adaptive Renewal system) lends itself to a simple, powerful management tool: checklists. As a former pilot, former medic, and present-day SCUBA diver, I can attest to the life-saving power of checklists when having to make fast decisions in complex environments.
Checklists can help you implement an Adaptive Renewal system to achieve your goals, and help you make decisions for years to come that are in harmony with those goals. It’s beyond the scope of this document to offer sample checklists for the endless variety of place sizes (village, metropolis, etc.), place types (rural, urban, island, etc.), place situations (post-conflict, post-natural disaster, post-industrial, post-rapid growth, etc.). But a careful reading should help you identify the items your checklist should include. Here’s a very generic urban revitalization checklist to determine if your city is on the right track:[ ] Cars out, people in;
[ ] Pavement out, nature in;
[ ] Vacant land out, farms in;
[ ] Sprawl out, jobs in.
Simple rules are best, because they can be remembered accurately. One simple rule: Design cities for those who live and work there, rather than for those who drive to work there. This would solve many quality of life problems. But simple rules should have vital “wiggle room” where innovation takes place.
The key is “performance” as opposed to “prescriptive” rules. Focus on the desired outcome: not the method. London famously got cars out of its city center via congestion pricing. But on February 9, 2015, London mayor Boris Johnson announced a way to get cars out of the way of progress, without getting them out of the city. He said they had identified 70 stretches of roads that could be buried. This would free-up the land for people, for business, and for reconnecting neighborhoods long-severed by those roads. In other words, repurposing land to higher and better uses for growth without sprawl.
What non-obvious factors should be measured? Here’s one: immigrants and other newcomers are a major revitalizing factor in many places. Many small towns renew themselves thanks to the work of public and private leaders who are lifelong residents. Such people are intimately familiar with the community: its assets, problems, and personalities.
– Anthony Robbins
But long-time residents are also the ones most like to suffer from a defeatist attitude, thanks to decades of strategy-free failures. Newcomers don’t know that history, so they are often the ones who see possibilities that the native-born are blind to. Thus, adding “engage newcomers” to your checklist can make a huge difference.
On March 13, 2015, I posted the following advice in response to a discussion on the LinkedIn “Downtown Revitalization” group about overcoming local negativity: “Newcomers are often the folks who see the potential of the place (after all: they just selected it to live in). The long-time residents are often the ones saying “we tried that already: nothing works”. You can use newcomers kind of like product manufacturers use ‘early adopters’: Once newcomers get the ball rolling, and a project or program gains some momentum and credibility, long-time residents will start coming aboard.”
On March 19, Debra Felske, a community volunteer in Osceola, Arkansas posted this reply: “Storm: I think you hit the nail on the head when you mentioned contacting the newcomers. I am a newcomer to my community and all I see is potential. It was very easy to get me to volunteer in the Downtown area because I wasn’t living in ‘remember when’ like the majority of the residents.”
Most citizens say they want more prosperity, so politicians promise it, but they don’t measure progress towards it. Few even issue quarterly reports on completed renewal projects. While helpful, that would be like accepting a list of our surgeries as an analysis of our health. The medical analogy is apt: Classical Chinese medicine differs from allopathic (Western) medicine by enhancing the body’s resilience and ability to repair itself. Western doctors merely react to illness, usually in ways that weaken the body. Likewise, most communities rely on “surgeries” (projects) and “drugs” (incentives) instead of boosting resilience and regeneration. Just as the AMA dismisses acupuncture successes with labels like “placebo effect” (which doesn’t explain anything), so too do public leaders consider revitalization essentially unmanageable.
I’ve spent over a dozen full-time years speaking, advising, and listening at revitalization, restoration, reuse, regeneration, redevelopment, and remediation conferences and meetings all around the world. Every nation and city has different challenges, dreams, and resources. Yet, everywhere I go, I encounter similar factors contributing to renewal successes and failures. It’s gotten to the point where I can often tell whether a place is revitalizing within a minute of arriving. Pedestrians, bicyclists, and trails are good visual indicators, and easy to quantify. Water quality and water access are also key: daylighted urban streams, new waterfront parks (often on old industrial sites), etc. are also simple to measure.
Other common revitalizing factors include heritage renewal; fiber-optic telecommunications; restored connectivity (e.g. dam or urban highway removal), and immigrants. Broadband internet access has quickly gone from nice-to-have to must-have for community revitalization. Here’s what Darrell M. West said in Brookings Focus “way back” in 2011 (it’s far more true now): “Broadband is viewed in many places as the key driver of economic development, social connections, and civic engagement. …Fifty-four percent of the area’s (Dundas County, ON) businesses that had access to the fiber-optic network reported job growth, compared with 27 percent of businesses that had dial-up Internet access and 5 percent of those with no Internet access. …diverse, multilateral stakeholders use broadband technology to work for solutions to a range of health, environmental, and social problems. These enterprises form the backbone of the new knowledge economy and use information and communication technologies to stimulate higher-level economic growth.”
Activation of dead spaces is crucial, so “growth of users” on vacant properties or unused parks (such as via pushcart food vendors) is an easy metric. Property values and tax revenues are the two most common metrics, of course. But revitalization begets revitalization, creating a positive feedback loop, so that dynamic should itself be measured, not just projects.
How? The pivot point is often when the free market takes over, and public leaders no longer have to push so hard for revitalization. This can be tracked by comparing public to private investment, which would produce trending data related to the renewal process, not just “economic snapshots”.
Maybe the best way to measure revitalization is to kill two birds with one stone: create a regenerative tool that would both trigger renewal and provide hard data to track progress. For instance, in July of 2013, a bill was introduced that would allow the Dublin (Ireland) City Council to introduce a levy on vacant and derelict land in the Inner City of Dublin.
The goal of the bill is to “incentivise and accelerate its [re]development…prevention of dereliction, encouragement of economic development and job creation, tourism, and with the sustainable benefit of encouraging new inner city housing and reduced long distance commuting”, to quote directly from the bill. It further says “there is no disincentive to a landowner leaving a site vacant for many years [which is] is not in the best interest of the city, the city economy, and the national economy.” If this legislation passes, it would provide a wonderful starting point for a regeneration tracking system.
The list of tangible and intangible measures of revitalization is almost endless. They also vary with the place. If your city has many vacant, abandoned, or foreclosed properties, then measuring the rate at which they return to productive use is a vital measure. A place with poor air quality, or too many contaminated properties, could measure the cleanup process as a revitalization/resilience indicator. Any measure of “better” will probably be valid, if only in a narrow sense. But those narrow indicators are often what concern people most, as anyone hacking their lungs out in Beijing can attest.
The measurement challenge is compounded by the fact that revitalization comprises both qualitative and quantitative components. Many standard metrics can be applied: home sales/rentals, business startups/recruitment, business/resident retention, etc. But can we measure what inspires an 8-year-old to speak at a public hearing on saving a historic building? (true story) Do we need to? So many factors CAN be quantified that we can leave unsullied the magical aspects that touch our hearts and souls.
Many cities spend vast sums on “magic bullet” redevelopment projects intended to revitalize a downtown, waterfront, etc. These projects sometimes succeed in raising real estate values in the redeveloped area, but often fail to revitalize the community. Such situations help explain why few places measure their revitalization progress: politicians would rather hide their failures… and failures abound.
This resistance to transparency also explains the popularity of sustainability initiatives in government and corporations. The lack of rigorous metrics makes sustainability efforts “failure-proof”. Virtually any reduction in waste, toxicity, or energy use—or increase in talking about it—qualifies as “sustainable”. Such reductions are good, of course, but slowing down the rate at which we destroy our planet isn’t sustainability: it’s just less unsustainable. It’s an importance difference, because settling for the latter is a recipe for disaster. The planet and climate are too far gone to rely on token progress.
Prosperity is a great teacher; adversity a greater.”
– William Hazlitt
Even if we do eventually define and gather rigorous data that tells us when we’ve hit our revitalization and resilience goals, these successes should be seen only as waypoints—and reasons to rejoice—not as places to stop. In mountain climbing, “false summits” are a frequent cause of despair. In revitalization and resilience, there is no ultimate summit, so we should celebrate each achievement along the way.
The state of being revitalized is relative to where one started. So don’t forget to fully-document (anecdotally, photographically, and statistically) your local “before” condition. Otherwise, your new data will lack the context needed to be fully appreciated (and celebrated).
I once met someone who had just visited a town following its dramatic rebirth. When I asked him what it was like, he said “Seemed kind of dead to me.” It wasn’t the first time I’d heard such a report about a place that was making great progress. Why the mismatch between perception and reality? No frame of reference. The visitor had no way of knowing how much worse things had been recently.
If you want to attract fixers, employers, and new residents to your place, you need to make your momentum visible. It’s not just to impress visitors, though: Many places are revitalizing nicely, and their own residents don’t know it. Their government has no system for tracking and reporting revitalizing activities and outcomes.
The leaders might know things are improving, but to the citizens, that progress is often invisible.The qualitative value governments most often fail to measure is confidence in the future. This sounds fluffy and imprecise, but it is probably the most crucial of all resilient prosperity metrics.
- Chapter 6 - THE PARTIAL SOLUTION: How To Create A Strategy.
– General Dwight D. Eisenhower, President of the United States
A strategy is a technique that simplifies, speeds, and/or helps secure the achievement of a goal. A strategy can be devised for ANY situation. If it fails, it’s because it didn’t fit the situation (or didn’t have an implementation process: more on that later).
For instance, your project didn’t fail because it lacked sufficient funding, but because its strategy didn’t take that level of funding into account. Your program didn’t fail because your citizens lacked sufficient motivation, but because your strategy didn’t take their level of motivation into account.
The need for a strategy depends on the goal, not the activity. For instance, let’s say you’re in charge of renovating an urban park. You might recruit support for the project by pointing out that a renovated park could revitalize the neighborhood. If the potential of neighborhood revitalization is only a justification for the renovation project, you probably don’t need a strategy: refurbishing a park is fairly straightforward.
But, if you make neighborhood revitalization the goal of your project, you most definitely need a strategy to make that revitalization happen. Of course, there’s a chance that the renovated park will be all that’s needed to trigger local revitalization, but what kind of professional relies on chance?
Many factors contribute to success, of course, like design, efficiency and quality of work. But strategy is the only element of an endeavor whose sole function is to make it succeed. If it’s a bad strategy—or if the competition has a better strategy—failure is still possible. But without a strategy, failure is likely.
In the world of marketing, maybe the best-known strategy is “price skimming.” Every consumer is familiar with it too, even if they don’t know its name. Price skimming is the strategy of setting a high price during the launch of a new, innovative product and then lowering the price over time to access different points on the demand curve. Some call it the “early adopter” strategy, since there’s usually a subset of buyers who will pay extra to be the first on their block to have your new widget.
– Ralph Waldo Emerson
This strategy works like a charm, for a variety of reasons. For instance, most consumers largely ignore advertising copy and judge the value of a product (or service) primarily by its price. So, starting with a high price is the most effective way to elevate the market position of the product, and thus boost what people are willing to pay. Marketers know that they can always lower a price, but can seldom get away with raising it. Like most good strategies, price skimming is simple, effective, and broadly applicable.
Strategies live in the mind: they die on paper. Many folks confuse strategies with plans. But plans are just thoughts frozen in time. Other folks confuse strategies with actions. But actions are just tactics: strategies (and fluid circumstances) determine tactics. Others confuse strategies with goals, such as when they say “our strategy is to make this a more sustainable / equitable / prosperous community“.
The right vision drives us to the right goals.
The right strategy drives us to success.
Dreams + research + deadlines = goals.
Cohesive set of goals = vision.
Regenerative program + regenerative vision + regenerative strategy + regenerative policies + regenerative partners + regenerative projects = strategic renewal process.
What does a vision look like? To the left is a good one from Millvale, Pennsylvania, facilitated by evolveEA.
Strategies implement visions, and visions are a cohesive set of locally-appropriate goals. If this is true, why do so many cities write plans and start projects without a strategy or vision? Because few public leaders understand how programs, visions, strategies, policies, partnerships and projects (tactics) all fit together.
But not all visions are created equal. Some are deeply flawed. Why? Because they are based on daydreams, rather than data. Visioning should be a research process. Daydreams will reveal what you want, but data will help reveal what you need. If data drives your vision, it will ipso facto drive your design, strategy, plan, etc.
– Jaime Lerner, former Mayor of Curitiba, Brazil
There’s nothing grand about visions and strategies: we all create, use, and change them constantly. Here’s a totally superficial example to show how mundane and ubiquitous strategizing is.
Let’s say you’re the male host of a talk show, and an upcoming guest is an actress with a reputation for being narcissistic and obnoxious. You decide to take her down a notch on your show, so you research embarrassing facts from her life. Thus, your vision is to publicly humiliate her, and your strategy is to ambush her with facts she’d rather keep secret.
But she is expecting this, and has a strategy of her own: to make you like and desire her. She comes onto your show with the strategy of charming you. It works. Suddenly, your vision changes. Your goal is now to make her like and desire you. Your quickly-adopted new strategy is to charm her. Your tactics are to compliment her and avoid embarrassing her. Her strategy trumped your strategy. She wins.
Again, the strategy’s purpose is to achieve the goal: if the goal changes, so might the strategy. But one should be cautious of changing a strategy if the goal remains unchanged. The primary mechanism of a strategy is to guide decision-making. Decisions often have to be made in stressful or chaotic circumstances, so we’re tempted to “wing it”. Those who are able to keep their strategy in mind are often the victors.
A November 29, 2016 article by Lyneir Richardson in the National Real Estate Investor was titled “How the Strategic Opening of Retail Stores Can Revitalize City Neighborhoods”.
It described six examples of struggling Chicago neighborhoods that had been revitalized by the opening of new retail in the right place, at the right time.
The inclusion of “strategic” in the title was telling, given the long history of failed attempts to revitalize places via new retail. So, was it the retail or the strategy that revitalized these places? Both, of course: a strategy without tactics (action) is useless, and action without a strategy is often counter-productive.
Since downtowns are the most common focus of revitalization efforts, let’s use them to illustrate a common lack of strategic thinking. It should obvious to anyone that 1) businesses need customers, 2) customers who return frequently are best, and 3) customers are more likely to visit frequently if they live nearby. But as glaringly-obvious as those statements are, many downtown revitalization initiatives ignore them.
Local leaders look at their downtown’s paucity of stores and restaurants and think “we need more stores and restaurants.” So they launch incentives—from tax breaks to cash handouts—to artificially stimulate the opening of more businesses. A year or two later, those businesses are usually dead. Why? Because they didn’t have enough customers. The downtown needed customers, not vendors.
Residents have far more revitalization patience than retailers. Someone renting a downtown loft in an repurposed warehouse can go for years without a downtown hardware store: they just drive or take the bus to one elsewhere. But a downtown hardware store can’t survive long without customers.
That’s the simplest form of strategic thinking, yet time after time, downtown revitalization efforts focus on commercial redevelopment, rather than residential. Create the customers, and businesses natural follow. Retail is an outcome of downtown revitalization, not a cause (as with all rules, there are exceptions to this one, as we’ll see in a moment.) Hundreds of millions of dollars are wasted annually, simply because cities rush into action without a trace of strategic thinking.
Even that most basic form of strategic thinking can have dramatic results. Kansas City, Missouri enjoyed 39% growth in downtown residents from 2010 to 2018, versus 7% growth in its metro areas. Chattanooga, Tennessee added 14% more downtown residents in the same period, versus 7% growth in its metro areas. Both of these cities previously had downtowns on the verge of death.
These days, leading-edge urban development strategies are multi-agenda: mixed-use; mixed-income; mixed-ethnicity; mixed-age (this last one applies to both buildings and people.) And the best ones renew the built, natural and socioeconomic environments together as a system.
The global crisis of rising sea levels offers myriad opportunities to create resilient, multi-agenda projects. In fact, addressing multiple agendas will likely be the only way these huge projects will get financed.
Venice, Italy provides a good case in point. Its low elevation makes it a canary in the coal mine for sea level rise, and its status as a global heritage treasure ensured that large sums of money would be thrown at protecting it.
So they built the kind of project environmentalists often categorize as “dumb engineer tricks” (simplistic projects that only alleviate symptoms, but make construction companies rich): the €5.4 billion Mose flood barrier.
The Mose barrier only protects against a 3-meter flood, so it’s virtually guaranteed to fail eventually, as seas rise and storms get more powerful.
A far more resilient approach would have been a “living shoreline” (multi-purpose levee): a 12-meter earthen wall designed in a way that creates both a beautiful linear park for the public, and restores wildlife habitat, such as for oysters, which would also clean the water. This would boost Venice’s tourism industry, adding a nature experience to the historical architecture attractions. It would help revive Adriatic Sea fisheries, giving local economies another boost.
And, it would be a far more resilient protective barrier than failure-prone machines needing constant maintenance and replacement. Like the Mose barrier, this approach is also expensive. But provides far more public and economic benefit, which opens up many additional sources of funding.
How are the right strategies created?
Countless streetscaping and façade renovation projects go by the grand name “revitalization.” If they are, in fact, a tactic/project in a larger revitalization strategy/program, that’s fine. But if they are just isolated, one-time projects, then citizens will likely be disappointed when the project is over, and revitalization hasn’t manifested. Regeneration is an ongoing process, not the result of a quick fix. Moreover, it’s a journey, not a destination: the process of regenerating is itself revitalizing.
Sometimes, an experienced person possessing deep familiarity with a place will be able to intuit the right strategy on the spot (making it look deceptively easy). Other times, a long series of public engagement, visioning, and partnership meetings is needed for the right strategy to emerge.
– David Rixter, Outreach Manager, U.S. Treasury (personal communication)
In between those two extremes is conducting (or commissioning) a process analysis. A process analysis provides the locally-appropriate perspective and understanding needed for the entire comeback process: regenerative program + regenerative vision + regenerative strategy + regenerative policies + regenerative partners + regenerative projects.
Most local revitalization efforts have a vision, because it’s common sense that we need to know what we want before we try to achieve it. One would hope that it would also be common sense that a strategy is needed when trying to achieve it. Alas, that seems not to be the case.
Visions can be good, bad or mediocre. Visioning is a very different activity from strategizing, and we’re focusing here on the element of strategy. But let me toss in one tip about creating a vision. A vision that’s inspiring, appropriate, and achievable often derives from asking two questions: 1) Under what circumstances would each problem become an asset? and 2) What opportunities emerge when we combine our problems?
Take Detroit, for example. It’s a huge city (140 square miles), and—after half a century of population loss—two intrinsically-linked problems emerged: too much vacant land and too few people.
Applying Question #2, the juxtaposition of low population with copious amounts of food-and-energy-generating space means Detroit is uniquely positioned to become the world’s first food-and/or-energy-independent major city. Not just planting a few urban gardens (like everyone else), but 100% self-sufficient via industrial-scale production. With all of the spin-off jobs and economic benefits that come with any industrial hub.
That might be an inspiring, appropriate vision.
It wouldn’t be an answer to all the city’s problems, of course, but it would dramatically reposition the city in the eyes of the world.
Rather than being an iconic victim of the decline of the manufacturing economy, Detroit would be an icon of the Restoration Economy: repurposing old assets, renewing quality of life, and reconnecting citizens to their food sources.
NOTE: That’s only an example of the visioning process; not an actual recommendation. Detroit is doing a lot of things right these days, and might already be well on the way to becoming an icon of the global Restoration Economy.
Who should create the strategy?
Planners plan, just like writers write. But some writers are also publishers, and so too are some planners strategists. But we must avoid the very common tendency to conflate strategizing with planning. They are two very different processes, and two very different skill sets.
– Field Marshall Helmuth Karl Bernhard Graf von Moltke
It’s relatively easy to write a plan if given a clear vision and strategy. So, planning can—and usually should—be a separate process run by different people. Planners have skills and perspectives (especially if they are engineers by training) that are often not appropriate for strategizing.
Strategy is where the process of changing a complex adaptive system is simplified, and where uncertainty and surprise are expected.
A healthy, living river pulses with periodic floods (surprises) that erode banks in some places, and deposit that sediment in others, so it’s always changing its shape (more surprises). To an old-school civil engineer, a good river is one that never floods and never changes its shape. In other words, a dead river.
A basic function of all engineering is to remove surprises from a system. That’s a wonderful skill when building tunnels, roads, buildings, and bridges. But it can be disastrous when redeveloping communities or restoring ecosystems.
Why? Because the ability to surprise is a defining trait of a complex system. Remove it, and you change it from a living system to a mechanical one. Complex systems have distributed controls; engineers tend to want centralized control. Strategy requires a risk-taking mindset. Engineers are risk-eliminators, not risk-takers.
Los Angeles has been trying to restore the ugly, lifeless concrete ditch they call the Los Angeles River for well over a decade. They also want to revitalize the properties and neighborhoods bordering it, which have been devitalized and fragmented by this monstrosity.
While the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers did respond with a restoration plan about a decade ago, city leaders feel that the Corps is the major obstacle to their dream.
In February of 2019, they demanded that the federal government give them back their river. They felt that the only agenda of the Corps of Engineers was flood control. LA officials claim that the Corps’ mission “does not include myriad issues his agency’s County Flood Control District regards as essential: water conservation, movement of sediment, graffiti removal, ecosystem friendly vegetation, homeless encampments and recreational opportunities.”
The good news? A new generation of civil engineers—arising from the modern dam-removal and climate resilience trends—is far more collaborative. They bring in biologists and community revitalization experts who are well-versed in the complexity of living systems. This combination of skills can yield wonderful surprises.
Ideally, strategies should be created by people who aren’t intimidated by complexity or terrified of surprises. They should be intimately involved in the visioning process, and they should have a vested interest in the outcome (provided it’s based on shared community goals).
We shouldn’t just toss the job to the first person (such as the planner) who comes to mind. What’s far more crucial is ensuring that all stakeholders are invited to help create the vision that the strategy is meant to deliver. But the person or organization responsible for the strategy must be clearly identified. If everyone is responsible, no one is responsible.
If your community or organization hires a strategy director, know that their job isn’t to sit around dreaming up strategies: it’s primarily a research position. Awareness precedes insight. They must be supremely aware of the environment in which you operate: trends, technologies, players, etc.
I spent 6 years as the Director of Strategic Initiatives for a professional society in the construction industry. The organization had some 16,000 members (architects, engineers, and product manufacturers), but it hadn’t done anything new in 25 years, and was on the brink of bankruptcy.
The new Executive Director wisely knew that he would have his hands full restructuring the organization, and wouldn’t have time to focus on strategic research, so he hired me to do that. Part of my job was attending industry conferences to get a better feel for where our organization fit in the scheme of things, both present and future. A superior strategy derives from superior awareness.
Strategic thinking is a hallmark of real leaders, so it’s vitally important to provide leadership training and a supportive environment for local residents. Like so many important and mysterious elements of life, leadership is an emergent quality of living systems: we never know when or where in the community it’s going to pop up, so we should invest in as many people as possible.
them have really gotten to the change that we need.”
– Dawveed Scully, urban designer, on revitalizing Chicago’s Woodlawn neighborhood.
If your goal in writing a plan is to go through a visioning, strategizing, and planning process, good on you. But if the goal is simply to have a plan, boo on you. In a stable world, a plan could be a good thing, if well-researched and written by someone with deep insight. But who has a stable world?
Success isn’t just about who creates the strategy: it’s also about who implements it. Personality counts, so don’t become so dependent on your strategy (or process) that you forget to put the right people in charge. Just like football teams, political, business, and non-profit leaders tend to be strong on defense or offense: seldom both. Economic revitalization often requires an offensive strategy. Climate resilience often requires a defensive strategy.
Putting a defensive strategist in charge of an offensive operation can be disastrous, as we discovered in the Battle of Anzio during World War II. The amphibious landing took place on January 22, 1944, and the operation ended June 5, 1944 with the capture of Rome.
On the surface, that would seem to be a success, but the goal wasn’t just to take Rome: it was to weaken German forces and prevent their rejoining their main force. In that, it was an abject failure. It also should have taken far less time and cost far fewer American lives to accomplish what it did.
The problem was U.S. Army Major General John P. Lucas. After taking the beach with almost no resistance, he went into defensive mode, digging in on the coast to protect against counter-attack.
He should have taken advantage of the element of surprise and moved swiftly towards Rome, flanking the Germans and cutting them off from support. Instead, the Germans moved their forces to the beach and bombarded the U.S. soldiers mercilessly for weeks. The Army finally sent Lucas home, and brought in Major General Lucian K. Truscott. Truscott had an offensive mindset, and swiftly got the troops moving towards Rome. Truscott wasn’t necessarily smarter than Lucas: he simply had a personality that was appropriate to the job at hand.
– from January 2019 article by Paul Leinwand, Nils Naujok, and Joachim Rotering in PwC’s Strategy + Business.
How qualified are you to create a strategy for your community? Maybe more than you think.
While simply having a real strategy sets a community or region apart from most of its peers, it’s not enough to guarantee success. At the risk of stating the obvious, your strategy must be 1) appropriate for your place and time, 2) better than your competitors’ strategies, and 3) well-executed.
Let’s take another quick look at an example from the business world. Three new airlines—all funded with oil money and all with ambitions of global dominance—have arisen in the United Arab Emirates: Emirates (founded 1985), Qatar Airways (founded 1993), and Etihad Airways (founded 2003). As the latecomer to the party, Etihad has been playing a game of catch-up.
In 2011, Etihad’s CEO, James Hogan, decided that the fastest way to catch up would be via a strategy of acquisition, rather than “organic” growth. It made sense, on the surface.
But their timing was bad, due to a drop in oil prices (probably unavoidable). And their execution was bad, in terms of choosing their purchases (definitely avoidable). They spent billions on major stakes in struggling airlines, only to see them become worthless as badly-managed airlines (like Alitalia) filed for bankruptcy, and badly-positioned airlines (like Air Berlin) posted huge losses. In May of 2017, Hogan was fired and replaced.
Some public leaders might find that story depressing. After all, if a sophisticated chief executive at a multi-billion-dollar company can screw up a strategy, what chance does a small-town mayor have of getting it right?
A very good chance, in fact. A unique characteristic of strategy is that one’s ability to do it right is highly dependent on one’s intimacy with the players, dynamics, and trends of a specific situation. It’s far less dependent on one’s education or overall experience. In other words, strategy is extremely context-sensitive. Hogan had a background in regional carriers, but the players, dynamics, and trends of the global carriers were new to him.
Tactics vs. Strategies
– Teddy Roosevelt, former U.S. President
While we’re on the subject of the airline industry, let’s look at a more-recent disaster created when a CEO abandoned a good long-term strategic decision for a short-term tactical decision. The difference between a tactic and a strategy can be confusing, because they can have a nested relationship: what is clearly a strategy at one level can be seen as a tactic when looked at from a higher level (such as a longer timeline). Sometimes, the duration of the intended impact is the only thing separating the two. I specific “intended” because a bad tactical decision can have lasting—even fatal—results.
In early 2011, Boeing chair and CEO James McNerney intended to design a totally new aircraft to replace the ancient 737. That was the right strategic decision. But by August of that year, it was clear that customers didn’t want to wait for a new design, and five airlines placed orders for 496 re-engined 737s.
So McNenerny abandoned his strategic decision, and made a short-sighted tactical decision to stick new engines on a plane that first flew in 1967. The problem is that short, wide high-bypass modern engines don’t fit well on that low-slung aircraft, which was designed for long, narrow, low-bypass engines. The result is the greatest crisis in Boeing’s history. As I write this in May of 2019, the company just went through the entire month of April without selling a single airplane.
But sometimes, a decision is clearly strategic, and a leader simply makes the wrong one. Scana Corporation used to be South Carolina’s largest public energy utility, tracing its history back to 1846. A single (bad) strategic decision about a decade ago resulted in its disappearance in 2019.
Around 2008, they had to decide between upgrading a dangerous nuclear power plant or expending into safe, renewable energy. Nuclear was what they knew, so they stuck with it. The costs eventually ballooned to over $20 billion, and they abandoned the project. That left them in dire financial straits, and they were acquired by Virginia’s Dominion Energy in January of 2019.
Around the same time Scana was making that fatal decision, NextEra Energy—the largest U.S. producer of renewable power—was doubling-down on renewables. Given that photovoltaic energy is now about 1/100th the cost of nuclear (when full-cost accounting is applied), that would seem to be a no-brainer, strategy-wise. In stark contrast to Scana’s crash-and-burn, NextEra’s shares have doubled in value, just since 2014.
Public leaders are always admonishing unemployed or underemployed citizens to enroll in education or training course that will match their skills to the changing economy. But sometimes, entire communities need to be retrained for a new economy, especially when they have been overly-dependent on a single industry. Worker retraining for in-demand skills is a revitalizating tactic for a community, but is strategic for the individual.
But how often do we hear of community-wide industrial retraining programs? Of the few that exist, how many are integrated with a comprehensive process of repurposing and redesigning the community for a future that’s very different from their past? This is the sort of “fixing the present and future together” initiative the RECONOMICS Process could help address.
Fixing the present is how we achieve revitalization, and it mostly involves tactics. Fixing the future is how we make revitalization last, and that’s mostly strategic. Combine the two, and you should create resilient prosperity, via strategic action.
Again: tactics are for achieving short-term goals, such as a platoon of soldiers taking a hill. Strategies are for achieving long-term goals, such as winning the war, so that involves deciding which hills need to be taken.
The first step to creating a strategy is to know what you want. If you’re now saying “well, duh”, you’d be shocked at how many places are spending millions on projects without knowing what they’re trying to achieve, other than “more”.
So, the best first step towards a good strategy is facilitating a widely-shared vision of your community’s or region’s future. .
Timing, Scope, and Starting Point
The right strategy can arrive at the wrong time.
Not all places can be revitalized at any given time. Revitalization is like farming: there’s a time for preparing the soil, a time for planting, a time for harvesting, and a time for resting.
There’s also a time for restoring farmland back to the original ecosystem, and a time for repurposing it, such as for renewable energy production. Of course, not all old assets need to be repurposed, but we should explore any such opportunities before embarking on renewal.
Repurposing can also involve expanding a project’s scope by adding new purposes to a viable current function. For instance, a switch from toxic, soil-depleting industrial agriculture to regenerative agriculture keeps food production as the central purpose. But it adds carbon sequestration, soil rebuilding, and enhanced biodiversity to the mix of goals.
The right strategy at the right time can still fail, if you get the scope wrong.
Too often, scope is taken for granted. An organization focused on downtown will automatically devise a downtown revitalization program. A city or county agency will automatically create a citywide or countywide program. As with the strategy, the scope should be driven by the vision.
For instance, if your goal is boost quality of life—including air quality, water quality/quantity, human health, recreational opportunities, etc.—that usually can’t be done at a downtown, or even a community level. You’ll need to restore your surrounding watershed, family farms (local food system), green spaces, and so on. That would require at least a countywide scope, if not a regional or even statewide scope.
But even finding the right time and scope isn’t enough if your starting point is wrong.
A good strategy will identify the right focal point to begin the revitalization process.
You want to score some quick and early “wins” to boost confidence and gather momentum. Few communities have the funds to repurpose, renew, and reconnect all their assets at once.
Much reconnecting is now needed in cities worldwide, after decades of unplanned or badly-planned sprawl. Public transit must substitute for proximity when people are physically isolated.
In some places, heritage will be the starting point, such as restoring a historic downtown theater. In other places, remediating brownfield sites should be first, in order to create “shovel-ready” opportunities for redevelopers.
Elsewhere, restoring natural resources–fisheries, farmland soils, watersheds, ecosystems, etc.–will be the obvious first step towards revitalization. All too frequently these days, disasters are the genesis of revitalization and resilience initiatives.
Identifying your ideal timing, scope, and starting point are all functions of a strategic analysis. But maybe the most important thing to remember is that, at any given time, SOMETHING can be done to move your place closer to revitalization.
For both individuals and communities, action is often the best therapy for inertia and depression. This advice might seem at odds with the earlier advice to create a vision and strategy before acting, but if your first goal is activate the populace, completing a successful project might be the best strategy for achieving it.
If you want to make big changes, change the way you see things.”
– regenerative rancher Gabe Brown.
For instance, many cities are being redesigned to serve humans, rather than prioritizing the convenience of deadly 3000-pound steel projectiles (cars).
Creating an effective strategy for making a place safer and more efficient for pedestrians might mean reframing the problem from “pedestrians crossing streets” to “cars crossing sidewalks”.
Planner Brent Toderian takes it a step further, and refers to cafes and street seating as “pedestrian parking.” That perspective makes it clear who has priority, which helps keep decision-making properly focused.
Since strategies are driven by vision + challenge (what one wants plus what one must overcome to get it), identifying the actual challenge is crucial: too often, we confuse cause and effect.
For instance, is your affordable housing crisis driven primarily by a paucity of inexpensive residential units? Or is the real problem too many people with low incomes? If the latter, then equitable economic revitalization becomes the primary challenge, not cheap housing.
Or maybe the real problem is that too much of your citizens’ income goes to car payments, car insurance, car repairs, and gasoline. If so, the challenge might be creating more public transit and transit-oriented redevelopment. Don’t start strategizing until you’ve examined your assumptions.
A vision can be written so as to embody (or at least imply) a strategy.
For instance, Mark Gerzon’s new book from Berrett-Koehler (publisher of my first book, The Restoration Economy) is titled The Reunited States of America: How We Can Bridge the Partisan Divide.
In it, he describes a vision/strategy for restoring good governance and social cohesion, which would greatly boost socioeconomic revitalization in the United States.
He calls citizens and leaders who put the nation’s interests above political interests “transpartisans”.
Here’s his combined vision/strategy:
“Transpartisans are open to learning from each other, instead of insisting they already have all the answers. They work respectfully with people they disagree with, instead of vilifying and avoiding them. They’re willing to try new solutions, instead of clinging to the old approaches. And after the campaign is over, they insist their elected representatives come together to govern, not to just continue campaigning.”
There are three types of organizations that desperately need their own unique strategies for advancing—or becoming a part of—the process of enhancing revitalization and/or resilience: governments, foundations and institutions of higher education.
The Role of Governments in Advancing Resilient Prosperity
– Henry Ford
As originally suggested in The Restoration Economy, there are three basic personality types at work at work here. They correspond to three basic modes of economic development, and three corresponding types of government policy:
- Sprawlers build cities and extract virgin resources;
- Sustainers maintain cities and conserve nature;
- Revitalizers renew cities and restore nature.
Where do real estate developers fit in that scenario? Developers are usually Sprawlers. Redevelopers are usually Revitalizers. The fact that densification (“intensification” in Canada) is replacing sprawl in most nations means that Revitalizers are displacing Sprawlers.
I say “usually” above because not all redevelopers revitalize. Even a lot of “new urbanist” redevelopments are highly destructive, replacing interesting urban environments with hyper-commercial sterility. Many are the urban equivalent of replacing a forest with a tree farm. The right thing can always be done badly. (A pity, since we’ve become so expert at doing the wrong things well.)
Poor implementation aside, a taxonomy such as the one above can greatly simplify the process of crafting policies and choosing policymakers. If you’re building a new nation and need new cities, Sprawlers are the folks you need. But who on Earth is in that situation these days?
What we’ve got is a planet burdened by badly-planner, unplanned, or simply obsolete cities. For them, we need the Sustainers and the Revitalizers. Sprawlers are counterproductive when one is heavy on damaged or underused built assets, heavy on overused natural assets, and light on healthy green and agricultural land.
A great leader takes people where they don’t necessarily want to go, but ought to be.”
– Rosalynn Carter, former U.S. First Lady
So, an initial step on the path to a brighter future is for governments to realize that derelict natural and built assets are doorways—not obstacles—to urban and rural economic growth.
Some U.S. states are enjoying governors who understand the key role urban revitalization plays in state economies. For example, on January 15, 2015, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced a $1.5 billion Upstate New York Economic Revitalization Competition. Three years earlier, he had offered $1 billion over 10 years to restore the greater Buffalo economy, a program that’s working wonders.
But, for the most part, citizens everywhere are increasingly disgusted with their national and state-level politicians. The good news is that the quality of mayors seems to be improving. Nonetheless, serious problems remain. Many places try to revitalize. Few succeed. Few of the successes last. Resilient Prosperity should thus be a primary goal of public management. An ongoing process of fixing the present and the future together is how places revitalize in a resilient manner. Few places aim for Resilient Prosperity, so eventual devitalization of parts (such as neighborhoods or the downtown) or the whole is in the cards for most. Why don’t local, state, and national leaders take revitalization seriously? Why do most rely on hope?
If Resilient Prosperity is what we want, government should focus on it. And the starting point has to be the revitalization process, along with the myriad “re” activities that comprise it: regeneration, redevelopment, brownfields remediation, historic restoration/reuse, infrastructure renewal, etc. Why? For the same reason that Willy Sutton robbed banks: that’s where the money is.
Of the three central elements of Adaptive Renewal—revitalization, resilience, and adaptive management—truly understanding the first, revitalization, is the most important. Resilience and adaptive management are of lesser importance for two reasons: 1) they are both relatively new to the public dialogue, so people are more open to learning about them (whereas most leaders erroneously assume they understand revitalization); and 2) few, if any, resources are devoted to resilience and adaptive management in most cities and regions, so there’s not much to work with.
On the other hand, well over $3 trillion is spent annually worldwide on urban revitalization and natural resource restoration. Integrating resilience and adaptive management with those existing budgets is thus the quickest way for them to get traction. There’s nothing forced about this 3-way wedding; they reinforce each other quite naturally. Together, they can solve both today’s persistent problems and tomorrow’s unknown—but potentially calamitous—problems.
If you ask a city council to define “revitalization”, how many different answers will you receive? Hint: take the number of council members, and divide by one. Contrary to current practice, revitalization shouldn’t just be a reaction to devitalization: it should be a constant process of breathing new life into our world, regardless of condition. Fixing the present (tactical renewal) and the future (strategic renewal) together leads to Resilient Prosperity. Every place approaches the process of improving itself in a different manner, since every place has different dreams, different challenges, and a different culture. But one characteristic is universal: with few exceptions, these efforts are all tactics, no strategy.
In Vietnam, America won most battles, but lost the war. It’s similar in cities: many successful projects, but a failure to revitalize. Most places lack a strategy for fixing the present, so a strategy for fixing the future (resilience) would be revolutionary. Part of the problem is ignorance: few communities have anyone who understands the dynamics of revitalization well enough to create a strategy. The other problem is that—even with such a person—they don’t have a Revitalization (or Resilience) Director position in their governance structure, from which to exert the necessary influence, adding cohesiveness and momentum to their projects.
Many folks renew and reuse historic buildings. Others clean and redevelop brownfields. Some restore watersheds, ecosystems, farmlands, or greenspace. Others improve public transit, or make communities more pedestrian-and-bicycle-friendly. Some renew infrastructure. Some specialize in catastrophe recovery and resilience. Others activate vacant lots with community gardens, farmers’ markets, pop-up functions, and pocket parks. Wonderful activities all…but none focus on the whole. And few—if any—of those folks have any training in revitalization.
Economic development directors would say “Hey: I’m in charge of revitalization, and I have training!” However, “economic development” is traditionally just sales. The pitch to employers is “move here: we’re cheaper”, but price competition is the weakest form of selling. Most relocating firms have already chosen a new location before demanding public sector handouts ($80 billion/year in the U.S.). Wooing employers from another city might revitalize winners, but it devitalizes losers.
When we are ill… we do not ask for the handsomest physician, or the most eloquent one.”
In New Jersey, Governor Chris Christie gave $40 million in tax incentives to Cooper Health System to relocate 353 jobs from a Camden suburb to downtown Camden. Now, I’m all in favor of downtown revitalization, but does it really make sense to move jobs from one place in your own state to another, while eliminating the tax benefits of having that employer in the state in the process?
Governor Christie also gave Lockheed Martin $118 million in tax incentives to move 250 jobs from another Camden suburb to the downtown. How much tax revenue is New Jersey expected to earn from Lockheed Martin over the next 35 years? A grand total of $248,000. Sounds more like economic suicide than economic development. [Critics say Lockheed Martin got a $118 million return on the $50,000 they donated to Christie’s Republican Governors Association.]
There’s certainly no net gain for the nation: it’s a zero-sum game (actually, a negative-sum game) that merely shuffles jobs around while sucking revenue from vital public services. [The good news is that GASB, the Governmental Accounting Standards Board is proposing new rules that would require local governments to annually report on the revenue they’ve lost to economic development subsidies.]
Growth of good jobs is a joy to the unemployed, and a key component of revitalization, but it’s not revitalization. I specify “good” because demeaning, low-paying jobs demoralize communities, and many economic developers focus only on quantity, not quality. The system is perpetuated by lack of rigorous metrics: economic development agencies tend to take credit for any jobs that arrive, regardless of provenance. As an economic developer in North Carolina once said about his state’s strategy: “We shoot anything that flies and claim anything that falls.”
Some economic development organizations (EDOs) rise above this old job-recruitment mode. Examples include InvestAtlanta, and the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation (which led redevelopment of Philly’s old Navy Yard). Some of them, like the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh, even use “redevelopment” rather than “economic development” in their names.
The International Economic Development Council (IEDC) is encouraging evolution of the profession, but “re”-focused EDOs are still the exception: far from the norm. That said, the Executive Summary of the IEDC’s 2014 report “Looking Around the Corner: The Future of Economic Development” unfortunately didn’t contain a single “re” word (redevelopment, revitalization, regeneration, remediation, reuse, renewal, restoration, etc.). To its credit, it does say “It is likely that [economic developers] will play a key role in reinventing their communities, and even their own organizations, several times over.”
EDOs say new employers give cities the money to do redevelopment, but experience doesn’t support that hypothesis. How can cities pay for renewal if they’ve forfeited all corporate and property taxes for decades? One problem is that the name—Economic Development—tends to inhibit focusing on social, infrastructure, or environmental agendas.
Another problem is their bosses: mayors and city councils often want the “quick fix” of new employers, so that’s how they measure the EDO’s success. Yet another problem is that almost anyone can call themselves an economic development professional. So the majority—those who “steal” jobs from other communities, or who base economic growth on destructive sprawl—can bask in the halo of the minority who base economic growth on restorative development.
– Maya Angelou
Planners will tell you they’re in charge of revitalization. Some are. But few plans contain a revitalization strategy or process, few plans are implemented, and few of those that are implemented succeed. Too many “comprehensive plans” resemble rearranging the Titanic’s deck chairs, rather than a strategy for avoiding the iceberg. Land use planning is land use planning: it’s essential, but it’s not revitalization.
Here’s why: A project is how we implement a plan. A plan is how we implement a strategy. A strategy is how we implement a vision. But creating a vision and strategy is not the planners’ job. Too many communities force planners to work in the dark. Asking them to create a plan for your community without supplying them with a vision and strategy is like asking a travel agent to plan your vacation, without telling them where you want to go. We must end such planner abuse.
Smaller communities that successfully revitalize often have a core group of trusted, visionary “doers” who are always at the table. In the best situations, these folks keep the revitalization process going, due to their awareness of continuing local needs. They’re motivated to “do the right things” by their deep familiarity with—and passion for—the future of their community. For those on the private side, a profit motive is often involved, but everyone at the table understands this. When such groups work to benefit all, they can be wonderful. If they are bigoted, misogynous old men who are insensitive to the needs of youth, women, and minorities, the place is in trouble. A lot of places are in trouble.
Many of the professionals and initiatives mentioned here renew natural, built, or socioeconomic assets, and are thus contributing to revitalization. But they aren’t Revitalization Directors, nor are those projects and programs strategic, fixing the present and future together to create resilient prosperity. Some think that executing a redevelopment project is the same as implementing a revitalization or resilience strategy. But how can a project do that if there is no revitalization or resilience strategy…no dedicated agency…no one in charge who understands the underlying dynamics? How can we manage revitalization if we don’t even acknowledge it as a process; only as a fuzzy, feel-good goal?
Revitalization ignorance results in waste, distress, and pessimism…and in community devitalization. This ignorance is seen in the constant waves of revitalization fads that sweep through cities. It’s similar to how management fads continually wash through the corporate sector, as CEOs desperately try to convince employees, investors, and themselves that they have some control over the future. We see revitalization ignorance at work in kneejerk attempts to become the next “Silicon Whatever”, and in “strategies” based on positive-but-generic characteristics like innovation, creativity, smart, green, etc. We see it at work when cities copy the physical manifestations of revitalization, rather than the processes that led to them.
Witness the explosion of public aquariums aping the successes of Baltimore and Chattanooga. Witness the global frenzy of “starchitecture” museums and arts venues aping Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum (which was only one of many contributors to that city’s heroic 20-year regeneration effort).
All three of those successful urban rebirths had their own unique and locally-appropriate revitalization process and strategy. Baltimore’s was primarily developer-led (“impromptu”). Chattanooga’s was primarily grassroots and foundation-led (“bottom-up”).
Bilbao’s was primarily government-led (“top-down”). None were perfect, but all worked very well. Baltimore didn’t do a good job of integrating the revitalization of its Inner Harbor with the rest of the city. Chattanooga made the mistake of disbanding their excellent citizen-led visioning organization. Bilbao could have done a better job of engaging the citizens of affected neighborhoods (such as the one around the Guggenheim Museum).
In each case, their spectacular results were preceded by many years of thought, planning, alliance-building, and public engagement. But their imitators didn’t want to learn, or change their behavior. They weren’t interested in processes. They just wanted to buy products, like casinos, stadiums, and convention centers. And it’s not just cities: Nations also jump on one-size-fits-all economic fads, like austerity, no matter how poor their track record. They could instead fix fundamentals, such as restoring natural resources, or reducing economic “friction” via infrastructure renewal, but don’t.
Another outcome of revitalization ignorance is when public leaders confuse cause with effect. Mayors tour revitalized cities, and witness the plethora of retail and restaurants. They then return home and artificially stimulate retail and dining in their devitalized downtown via subsidies and other incentives. A year or two later, that downtown—formerly full of long-dead stores—is now full of recently-dead stores. The psychological impact can be devastating, as citizens start thinking of themselves as losers.
Retail is a sign of revitalization, but seldom its cause. Residents should almost always come first. Revitalization is often a long, uncertain process. Downtown residents have revitalization patience: they can wait far longer for nearby stores than retailers can wait for nearby customers. An exception is downtown “central markets”: they can attract shoppers from a large geographic area by adding entertainment, cultural elements, and critical mass to retail, and can thus be excellent revitalizers.
Appointing a Prosperity Director with a grasp of regenerative principles helps avoid painful mistakes, and helps reduce institutional memory loss deriving from turnover of elected leaders. If you’ve watched the “American Restorations” TV show, you’ve seen the difference between restoring something old to its original appearance, restoring its original functionality, and restoring better-than-original functionality (due to modern materials). Whether restoring an iron lung or a motorcycle, conflicting constraints—such as aesthetics, performance, time, and cost—must be dealt with at every step.
I would avoid riding a motorcycle that had been restored with aesthetics taking precedence over functionality. So too would I be nervous about investing in a city whose revitalization was only skin deep. In the absence of trained revitalization professionals, we often get a focus on form over function.
The painful, expensive ways in which revitalization ignorance manifests are endless. The few mentioned here could all have been avoided with common sense. But that’s the point. Even with good intentions, the same mistakes keep getting made and the revitalization “wheel” keeps getting reinvented—community-by-community, nation-by-nation—without qualified people focused on revitalization.
There’s a trend towards greater innovation in cities (such as “Innovation Districts”), but innovation can either improve or damage a place. Tying innovation to an adaptive renewal system ensures the former. The most tragic display of revitalization ignorance took place in the U.S. during the 50s and 60s. No enemy could have hoped to inflict the physical and economic devastation we did to ourselves. The federal government provided “urban renewal” funding to cities for tearing down old buildings. The premise was “destroy it, and they will come.” “They” never came, and—60 years later—many cities still suffer from massive downtown dead spaces, and from the lack of restorable, beautiful old buildings.
Most local redevelopment agencies in the U.S. arose during this “urban renewal” fad. In 2011, California Governor Jerry Brown killed every one in the state, claiming they were wasteful, corrupt, and autocratic. In 2014, he introduced a smaller, more transparent form of redevelopment agency, and a reformed TIF model. Governor Brown is redeveloping redevelopment, and revitalizing revitalization. But the process was painful, as surgery is, and more than a few great projects were killed or wounded in the transition.
The “urban renewal” debacle—although created by a badly-designed federal funding program—caused citizens to lose faith in their local mayors and planners. Local government power was greatly curtailed, and U.S. cities became overly dependent on private developers to “do the right thing”. A few rose to that challenge, but most didn’t, and U.S. cities have missed many opportunities to develop responsibly as a result. Most improvements in national policy derive from local innovations, so it’s time for the pendulum to swing back, giving cities more control over their future. A Prosperity Director can help ensure that policies make places better, not worse.
– Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley, Brookings Institution, June 17, 2014
It’s hard to revitalize an economy based on faulty assumptions, or on faulty “facts.” In the U.S., for instance, the minimum wage today has less buying power than it did half a century earlier. Why? Because poorly-educated (and/or corporately-controlled) legislators fight ferociously against a higher minimum wage, which also widens the income inequality gap.
They claim that it would destroy the American economy. This flies in the face of hard evidence from around the world that indicates that higher minimum wages actually create both better societies and better economies. Denmark, for instance, is consistently ranked the happiest country in the world. The World Bank ranks it as the easiest country in which to do business in all of Europe. Their minimum wage? $20 per hour, over twice that of the U.S.
As long as we’re mentioning the federal government, we should recognize that there are currently some fundamental structural flaws that will greatly undermine its revitalizing potential until fixed. For instance, those with vast wealth here in the U.S. have created a system of what might be called Democracy Bypass Mechanisms (DBM) that enable them to have relatively unfettered access to public money.
These DBMs include:
- RFP/RFQ and agency grant processes that only a small number of entities can play effectively (AKA: Beltway Bandits);
- Bill riders;
- Bribery (included lobbying, campaign contributions, revolving door employment, etc.); and
- Regulatory capture (regulatory agencies designed to protect the public, but which evolve to serve the industries they are supposed to regular).
Let’s discuss that last one, regulatory capture, for a moment. Virtually every regulatory agency in the United States has been perverted into serving the needed of those they regulate. This has been a known problem in the U.S. since the days of Woodrow Wilson.
Yet it was not until Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) introduced the Regulatory Capture Prevention Act of 2011that the U.S. Congress even began to discuss the problem, much less address it (the bill has made no progress to date). Regulatory capture might be the most pervasive economic, environmental, and social problem in the U.S., but it has been a forbidden topic of discussion, since it offends the country’s most powerful interests. A clear case of regulatory capture (combined with ordinary incompetence) was the federal Minerals Management Service, whose lack of oversight allowed BP’s sloppy practices to create the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010.
There are a number of ways regulatory capture comes about. Setting the stage for one mechanism—the “revolving door problem”—is the sheer complexity of the laws passed by Congress. This means that whoever leads the agency must be totally familiar and current with the industry.
This, in turn, means that the candidate pool comes from those already working in that industry. This creates a “revolving door”, whereby the heads of agencies come from the companies they regulate, and return to them after their term of “public service” in government expires. The norm is for these public servants to be offered prestigious, lucrative positions upon their return to private industry. Provided, of course, that they please that industry while in office.
Compounding the problem is that our new information technologies are compromised via NSA spying. Currently, this spying is focused on anti-terrorism efforts, but it’s only a matter of time before they fall into the hands of the same moneyed interests that control the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial branches of government.
Adding to the problem is the financially-based definition of “constituent”. The budgets of many regulatory agencies are funded in large part by inspection fees, licenses, and the like. It’s human nature to want to please those who sign your paycheck, so it’s little wonder that regulatory agencies come to view these revenue sources as their primary constituents, and work hard to ensure their health and welfare.
– Rina Cutler, Philadelphia’s Deputy Mayor for Transportation and Utilities, who has served 7 mayors and governors.
A simplistic example of how this works can be found in state Fish and Wildlife agencies. They tend to get a large portion of their funding from hunting and sport fishing permits. The hunters are primarily interested in white-tailed deer, while the fishermen are primarily interested in rainbow trout and large-mouth bass.
Thus, Fish and Wildlife agencies ignore the needs of all other wildlife, encouraging over-populations of white-tailed deer, which devastates terrestrial biodiversity. And they stock streams and lakes with artificially-raised—often non-native—fish species, thus devastating freshwater biodiversity. This ecological nightmare derives directly from the fact that these regulatory agencies define their primary constituents in monetary terms: there’s no economic constituency for the toads and turtles.
On top of the regulatory capture problem is the regulatory bypass problem. Much of the “innovation” taking place today comprises efforts to get around regulation by inventing products or processes that aren’t addressed by legislation. In fact, the gargantuan hedge fund industry was created for the sole purpose of avoiding regulation.
By the time regulators catch up with these new practices, “innovation” has provided new loopholes. This is most prevalent in the financial services industry: the invention of credit default swaps and other derivatives led to the greatest theft in world history, which we refer to benignly as the economic crash of 2008. Most of the regulators and members of Congress were busy Googling “credit default swaps” when the crisis hit, being totally in the dark as to what they were.
As if all the above challenges aren’t enough, regulated industries administer the coup de grace via Congress, getting their pet legislators to ensure that agencies are inadequately funded. This leads to condemnations of “government inefficiency” by conservatives, which leads to calls for “more efficient” self-regulation by industry.
A perfect example was the Bush-Cheney administration’s allowing meat processors to increasingly do their own inspections. Bloomberg BusinessWeek had a feature article called “The Truth About Pork and How America Feeds Itself” by Ted Genoways in the December 05, 2013 issue. It documented the vast amounts of pus, diseased parts, and fecal matter contaminating most of the pork shipped from the largest U.S. hog processors, not to mention the human fingers in the sausage patties; a result of the grossly unsafe, high-speed working conditions. This is the direct result of “self-regulation”, a euphemism for “no regulation”. Add to this the toxic levels of antibiotics and growth hormones found in all non-organic pork, beef, and chicken, the result of industry capture of both the USDA and the FDA.
The White House has an Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, but they have little power. They also tend only to investigate agency actions, whereas most of the problems come from agency inaction. Clearly, the entire system of regulatory agencies is broken. Here in the U.S. government, we need to move from fixing votes (via corporate influence) to fixing Congress (by eliminating the money-based election process).
– E.B. White
Voters can start the democracy restoration process by using honest terminology:
- We need to abandon the New Speak terminology of “campaign contributions” and “lobbying” call them what they are: bribery;
- We need to abandon the harmless-sounding phrase “bill rider” and call it what it is: treason. Why treason? Because bill riders undermine democracy, supposedly the basis of our government (although any honest observer would call it what it is: an oligarchy, government by the rich);
- We need to abandon the quaint notion that the Supreme Court is the last bastion of justice when the Executive and Judicial branches are so easily bought. As the Citizens United and McCutcheon rulings make abundantly clear, those Justices are as buyable as any backwoods judges. Only the price differs.
Now that the same money controls both parties, it matter little which party is in power. Their rhetoric is different, but the only legislative differences are on issues that don’t involve Big Money. With money driving 99% of Congressional legislation, individual voters are virtually meaningless.
George Orwell foresaw this in the following dialog from 1984:
Winston Smith: Does Big Brother exist?
O’Brien: Of course he exists.
Winston Smith: Does he exist like you or me?
O’Brien: You do not exist.
The sad truth is that the U.S. government (and many others) has adopted the tried-and-true “protection scheme” model that has worked so well for mafias and triads for many centuries. Instead of kneebreakers, federal regulatory agencies are the threat that a sufficient “campaign contribution” will buy a company protection from. The only possible difference is that government is (maybe) more organized than most organized crime.
But let’s get away from democracy restoration and the general structural problems of government and get back to its role in revitalizing places.
Governments must abandon episodic redevelopment and slipshod revitalization efforts. For decades, communities and regions have pinned their welfare on attracting business and real estate developers; the more the better. Little attention was paid to attracting quality employers or developers. Even less attention went to ensuring that all this activity led the community in a desirable direction. The modern nightmare of sterile, unhealthy suburbs and empty, forlorn downtowns is the natural result.
Government-appointed Prosperity Directors (or whatever they wish to call them) could help redevelopers by providing real-time mapping of local property renewal, repurposing, and reconnection opportunities. They could land-bank them to speed property assembly for large projects. Granted, communities can do all this without creating any new positions or departments. But why should something as crucial as renewal be homeless, lacking a dedicated champion?
– Henrik Ibsen, Norwegian playwright
In this disorganized, vision-less environment, many developers became Professional Devitalizers. Instead of aiding local regeneration, they fostered degeneration (Professional Degenerates?). But we shouldn’t blame them. We kept electing Leaders of Self-Destruction who let developers create Places Without Hearts, populated by over-medicated, underpaid, socially-isolated, traffic-numbed Commuters Seeking Joy As Consumers. They built places not worthy of revitalization.
The good news? Some developers (actually redevelopers) performed magic, spectacularly bringing blighted places back to life. They provided the vision, ethics, and wisdom local leaders lacked. These professional revitalizers were a rare breed. They’re now a fast-growing breed. I call them “Fixers”. Why? Because they actually fix problems. They don’t just have the responsibility, or the willingness, or the ability to fix problems: they do it. Writers write. Doers do. Fixers fix.
There are proven ways to attract private fixers by making places “fixer-friendly” or—more usefully—“renewal-friendly.” Governments and foundations are starting to take revitalization and resilience seriously. Together, these public and private Fixers can conjure Resilient Prosperity. There is no shortage of money in today’s poverty-stricken world. Fixers are ready and willing to invest in your place, IF you inspire confidence in your local future (they want your rising tide to raise their boat), and get out of their way. Many distressed places can’t afford capital-intensive projects to fix their present. But they can afford a strategy to fix their future, which inspires the necessary confidence.
— they wouldn’t be economists if they didn’t — yet they tend to deflect criticism that they themselves could be
negatively influenced by their gigs as consultants, board members, and advisors.”
– Justin Fox, “Have Economists Been Captured by Business Interests?”, Harvard Business Review, September 8, 2014
Improving our economies, our quality of life, and our environmental health together means basing economic growth primarily on renewing our natural, built, and socioeconomic environments. Sprawl can grow an economy, but at the cost of both quality of life (traffic jams, loss of greenspace, etc.) and environmental health (loss of biodiversity and farmland, watershed deterioration, etc.). Many places say they are against sprawl, but subsidize it by not charging developers the full cost of providing services.
So, what can governments do to advance resilient prosperity? The quickest path is to make sure they all share a vision of a secure, inclusive, green economy when making decisions, and develop an adaptive renewal strategy from that vision. Adaptive renewal integrates revitalization, resilience, and adaptive management. But resilience and adaptive management are newcomers to public management, so the low-hanging fruit is in better-organizing those who are already working to revitalize your place.
In her article, “It Takes a Village: The Rise of Community-Driven Infrastructure” in The Atlantic (January 30, 2015) , writer Greta Byrum says, “A decade ago, Philadelphia’s outdated sewer system…was crumbling, causing a nasty brew of storm-water, raw sewage, and pollutants to flow directly into local waterways. But the cash-strapped metropolis… couldn’t afford to build a new system. So the city decided to think small—and local, and cooperative—to construct something big and different. The city rolled out its “Green City Clean Waters” plan in 2011: a 25-year effort to let residents take the lead in creating a web of small interconnected “green” infrastructure projects like roadside plantings, green roofs, porous pavements, street trees, and rain gardens….The key to the “Green City Clean Waters” plan was building layers of community engagement and partnerships over technical and governance systems. … schools and libraries will teach kids about water with hands-on active learning projects like rain gardens, while the city enforces requirements for the replacement of non-porous surfaces, offers funding and support for neighborhood initiatives, and streamlines bureaucratic procedures to facilitate their approval and success.”
Working on making your place renewal-friendly will attract the resources you need, and make existing resources more effective. If you have a dedicated local group of fixers, you can make them more effective by turning them into a Resilient Prosperity Team. At the least, appoint a Prosperity Director to ensure progress towards fixing this rampant inefficiency and dysfunction. And then create a local Prosperity system, team, and/or agency.
Despite the focus on dysfunctional leadership in this chapter, it should be acknowledged that the right leader at the right time can do wonders. My 2008 book, Rewealth, showed how Bob Corker was the perfect mayor for Chattanooga at the perfect time, arriving with his big-money friends just as a citizen-led revitalization program had perfectly set the scene for investment in redeveloping the downtown waterfront. Ten years earlier, he would likely have been a disastrous mayor for Chattanooga. (We’ll return to the Chattanooga story in a moment.)
Another example was California Governor Jerry Brown’s terms as mayor of Oakland from 1999 to 2007. Brown “10K Plan” successfully attracted 10,000 new residents to Oakland’s ghost town city center. This was a high point for a city long-plagued with bad governance, the highest per-capita crime rate in the country, and possibly the nation’s worst police department.
Oakland is thus a classic example of how an inept government can undermine even the most opportune of circumstances. After all, Oakland has sunnier weather than its wealthy fog-plagued neighbor across the bay: San Francisco. Accessible waterfronts are powerful revitalizers, yet this desperate city has more waterfront than 99% of U.S. cities. Oakland enjoys an excellent harbor, the fifth-busiest container port in the U.S. (with excellent freight rail connections), and it’s surrounded by lovely hills that boast glorious views of San Francisco and the San Francisco Bay.
It also enjoys another proven revitalization factor: tremendous racial diversity: African-American, Latino, Asian, and Caucasian. Top this off with the fact that it’s within one of America’s most prosperous regions, and it’s a city that has everything going for it.
Yet it doesn’t. Today, the only thing Oakland seems to have going for it is cheap real estate. The city is attracting many wealthier residents from San Francisco, one of the most unaffordable cities in the nation. This should be a positive, yet poor governance has managed to turn it into a negative. Instead of guiding the redevelopment in a way that helps ensures that all citizens benefit from it, the city has allowed developers to build isolated islands of prosperity. This has inflamed resentment in a city that already suffered from a high degree of economic inequity.
One thing I’ve noticed in virtually every city I’ve worked in is that newcomers are usually the most valuable participants in a revitalization process. This is especially true in cities with a long history of struggle: newcomers aren’t plagued with the “we tried that and it didn’t work” syndrome. In Oakland tons of newcomers bring desperately-needed money, and what do the natives call them? Invaders. With poor governance, blessings can turn into curses.
In summary: Too few political leaders have a clear idea of what contributes to revitalization and resilience, and what retards them. This makes it difficult to stimulate, manage, monitor, and report efforts to create Resilient Prosperity. Awareness and knowledge should precede action. Whatever path your community or region takes, it’s vitally important for it to start taking revitalization seriously, and stop treating it as some form of uncontrollable magic. The ending cartoon below depicts a corporate setting, but it could just as easily be a typical city council meeting. We can do better.
The Role of Foundations in Advancing Resilient Prosperity
In his 2014 book, “Rebalancing Society: Radical Renewal Beyond Left, Right, & Center” Henry Mintzberg says that healthy societies are built on three balanced pillars: 1) respected governments; 2) responsible enterprises; and 3) robust voluntary associations (nonprofits, NGOs, foundations, etc.).
When local, state, and federal funding for community improvement decreases to a crisis point, foundations often step in. There are three kinds of foundations. Private foundations get their funding from an individual, a family, or a company. The best-known are those set up by the industrialists of the 19th and early 20th centuries: Rockefeller Foundation, Ford Foundation, Carnegie Foundation, and so on.
Private foundations created by commercial banks often focus on community revitalization. This benefits the community and the bank, since revitalization increases both the value of real estate and the success of businesses. This reduces mortgage and business loan defaults. The Bank of America Charitable Foundation was created in 1958. It’s mission statement says “the Foundation funds (local) institutions to help enrich the community and advance overall community revitalization.” A more-recent such creation is the TD Charitable Foundation, created in 2002 by Canada’s TD Bank. Their stated mission includes “community revitalization and the preservation and development of affordable housing.”
There are two kinds of public foundations: grant-making charities (often fighting diseases or social problems on a national or global basis), and community foundations. What they have in common is funding derived from diverse sources; individuals, corporations, public agencies, and other foundations.
An example of a grant-making charitable group is the Foundation for Rural and Regional Renewal (Australia), which has a “Repair-Restore-Renew” disaster recovery program. Community foundations (often referred to as “place-based foundations”) are also grant-making public charities, but they differ in that their focus is defined by geography, rather than issue.
This section will focus primarily on the revitalizing roles of private foundations. We’ll return to community foundations later, since they are especially well-positioned to lead communities into the next generation of effective, efficient, and equitable Adaptive Renewal systems.
For the past two or three decades, most philanthropy related to helping communities and the natural environment has been focused on “greening” or “sustainability” efforts. This is all well and good, but let’s face it: it’s a bit late. Sustainable development is what we SHOULD have been doing for the past two centuries, but didn’t. The world is now so damaged and depleted that only restorative development can give us a healthier, wealthier, more beautiful future, especially in the face of rising populations.
In many cases, restorative philanthropy is hidden behind the labels of “sustainability” or “resilience”. Both are noble goals and necessary dialogues, but we can’t point to projects and say with confidence that they are sustainable or resilient. For how long? 10 years? 10,000 years? With what population? 7 billion? 70 billion? The best we can say is that they are less unsustainable, or more resilient.
Restorative development, on the other hand, is eminently measurable, truly sustainable, and resilient. We can measure how many more fish are in a restored river after a dam removal. We can measure how much less contamination is in a remediated industrial site. We can measure how much more a historic building is worth after renovation and reuse. Many aspects of revitalization are also measurable.
Reducing new damage and new waste is vital, of course. But it’s too late to rely on that: we need to undo existing damage and clean up existing waste. Anyone who’s satisfied with sustaining the world as it is just isn’t paying attention. Their heart’s in the right place, but who wants to sustain this mess? We need to revitalize the communities we’ve already created, and replenish the natural resources we’ve damaged and depleted. That’s regeneration, also called restorative development.
Now, restorative philanthropy is taking hold, joining the government and business spending that has long-dominated revitalization efforts. Philanthropic organizations increasingly realize that revitalizing communities and restoring natural resources is by far the most effective use of their precious funds.
The trend can only grow, since recycling and retrofitting our cities—plus repairing our natural resources—is the ONLY sure way to increase health and wealth in our broken world. Today, it’s hard to find a major private foundation that isn’t focusing on renewing the natural, built, and/or socioeconomic environments to some degree. A few quick examples:
- The New York Restoration Project is developing a shareable model for community revitalization with $250,000 from the Knight Foundation;
- The C.S. Mott Foundation funds the Flint Area Economic Revitalization for that stricken city;
- The Kellogg Foundation has given $2.4 million to LINC Community Revitalization Inc. in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and is supporting many revitalization efforts in Detroit;
- The distressed Anacostia area of Washington, DC wants to repurpose an ugly abandoned river bridge as a public park. The 11th St. Bridge Park combines four powerful revitalizing elements: connectivity, water, greenspace, and pedestrianism. Early backers: Educational Foundation of America, Horning Family Fund, Prince Charitable Trusts, and Fetzer Memorial Trust.
While generally a negative, socially-destabilizing force, today’s wealth concentration trend has one positive effect: a growth in philanthropic funding. Zachary Mider, in the May 12-18, 2014 Bloomberg Businessweek, says “Over the past few decades, the rise in fortunes of the country’s richest people has created a golden age of philanthropy, comparable to the one that spawned the Carnegie and Rockefeller foundations a century ago. …Because Congress offers tax deductions for philanthropy, this growing breed of donor is deciding the fate of billions of dollars that would otherwise flow to the government.”
In the U.S. in 2013, university business schools received 67 single-donor gifts of over $1 million, the most ever in a single year. A 2014 study from the Boston College Center on Wealth and Philanthropy projects that a record $27 trillion is expected to be donated by Americans to charities between 2007 and 2061.
The wealth-concentration trend is now converging with the restorative development trend, also known as the Restoration Economy. The convergence has produced a powerful new trend: restorative philanthropy, which promises far greater, more-widely-felt impacts than most current forms of giving.
– from “Philanthropy has more intrinsic benefits than you think“, by Bruce DeBoskey, Denver Post, May 11, 2014
It’s not just “rising money meets rising need”: there’s a supreme level of satisfaction that comes with bringing dead or dying places back to life. This is driving the shift from “merely” reducing new damage (green/sustainable)—which is essential—to repairing existing damage (restorative).
Restorative philanthropy is now regenerating, renovating, renewing, remediating, replenishing and revitalizing more of our world with each passing year. Add to this grant-making the rapid growth of restorative impact investments—often by the same philanthropic entities—and the numbers start to get serious.
Some private foundations—such as the Walton Family Foundation, Orton Family Foundation, and Kresge Foundation—have practiced restorative philanthropy for decades, often focused on the U.S. “Rust Belt”. The Surdna Foundation is unique in that they focus on both community revitalization and nature restoration. This strategy makes them a leader in the fast-growing global restoration economy.
The best way to describe how private foundations can put a distressed city on the path to rapid, resilient renewal is via a dramatic success story. Let’s revisit Chattanooga, Tennessee for a moment.
In 1969, Walter Cronkite announced on national TV that Chattanooga had been labeled “the dirtiest city in America” by the U.S. government. Air pollution was sometimes so bad that people had to drive with their headlights on in the middle of the day. Motivating by a potent combination of humiliation and regulation, the city spent the next decade remedying the situation.
Chattanooga eventually won the EPA’s first Clean Air Award, but it’s what the city did after they cleaned their air that earned them global renown. By the early 80’s—despite their cleaner air—they were still losing 5000 manufacturing jobs annually. Crime was high, racial problems were rife, and the city was divided.
In 1986, Chattanooga began a revitalization process that took it from basket case to revitalization “poster child”. Two private foundations—both built on the fortunes of independent Coca-Cola bottlers—were directly responsible: The Lyndhurst Foundation and the Benwood Foundation. Their funding kicked off two years of public engagement and visioning, via the non-profit Chattanooga Venture. Virtually every good thing that has happened to the city in the past 30 years has its roots—directly or indirectly—in Chattanooga Venture’s network of “fixers”, and in their revitalization process.
The Lyndhurst Foundation, led by Jack Murrah (now retired), provided catalytic funding for virtually every major initiative that ignited Chattanooga’s rebirth. The Benwood Foundation provided follow-on support for most of these renewal initiatives, with a heavier focus on arts and culture. Chattanooga Venture created stakeholder cohesion.
Venture’s mission was to engage the public in the creation of a shared vision of the community’s future. That vision integrated the renewal of their natural, built, and socioeconomic assets with their dreams. It provided a home for that vision, and the resulting continuity allowed renewal momentum to build. Besides visioning, Chattanooga Venture provided learning: lectures by revitalization leaders from other cities, and field trips for local leaders to revitalized cities.
Crucially, Chattanooga Venture also provided a forum for effective, transparent public-private partnering, using a simple-but-effective process. They created a task force whenever new challenges and/or opportunities were identified. They chose people for these task forces—each possessing unique resources of potential value to the solution—who were in a position to be part of a partnership.
Chattanooga’s best-known feature, the Tennessee Aquarium, was added to their revitalized waterfront in 1992. The 21st Century Waterfront initiative was created when Bob Corker (now U.S. Senator) became mayor in 2001. It expanded and renovated the aquarium, Discovery Museum, and Hunter Museum of American Art, and created pathways from the Hunter to the waterfront. By 2005, when the 21st Century Waterfront plan was finished, the Tennessee Riverwalk had been expanded to 11 miles of trail down to the Chickamauga Dam, and over 1100 trees had been planted on this old industrial land.
Every $1 of public money invested in recreational space and art tends to attract about $13 of private investment. Chattanooga spent $9 million remediating the waterfront site of an old enameling plant. Via ecological restoration, they created the 22-acre Renaissance Park. Developers have now surrounded the park with $110 million worth of condos, stores, restaurants and a LEED-certified shopping center.
In 2011, Volkswagen opened the world’s only LEED Platinum-certified auto manufacturing plant on what was previously a highly-contaminated waterfront brownfield. The 1400-acre parcel was once an ammunition plant, manufacturing up to 30,000,000 pounds of TNT per month for World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War.
The transformation is dramatic: the new plant has 33,000 solar panels generating 9.5 million watts. VW went beyond green, to regenerative: they restored two creeks on the property to enhance habitat for native species, providing a wildlife corridor around the plant.
How did Chattanooga clinch this $1 billion, 3200-employee prize, over the dozens of cities vying for it? They offered $577 million of incentives to VW, but other cities made similar offers. The clincher: VW wanted the waterfront trail extended to their site, so employees could enjoy walking to the downtown. Quality of life and connectivity were thus the differentiators.
– Kurt Rankin, economist at PNC Financial Services Group
Mayors and public leaders from around the globe make pilgrimages to witness the “miraculous” rebirth of Chattanooga. All of this came about because a private foundation funded the creation of what became a very effective Adaptive Renewal system.
Maybe the ideal would be to have private foundations fund community foundations for this purpose. Someone must take the lead in advancing the practice of revitalizing places. Will it be government? Will it be universities? Will it be foundations? Will it be all, working independently, or all, working together?
The increase in climate change-related disasters is shifting our focus from sustainability to resilience. There’s much overlap in their definitions, but sustainability efforts tend to focus more on preventing systems from being undermined by flaws in their basic design. Resilience efforts tend to focus on preventing systems from being undermined by external forces. The shift to resilience is a healthy one, since it gets closer to the heart of the issue: the regenerative capacity of places..
In Jane Jacob‘s 1984 book, Cities and the Wealth of Nations, she advocated for both ongoing efforts and for adaptive management: “In its very nature, successful economic development has to be open-ended rather than goal-oriented, and has to make itself up expediently and empirically as it goes along.”
Partnering with a Community Foundation for Resilient Prosperity: Many foundations that attempt to revitalize a community—or make it more resilient—have a problem: When the only tool you have is money, every problem looks financial. Money is what foundations bring to the table. At the worst foundations, it’s the only thing they bring to the table. At the best foundations, money is primarily used to help birth and perpetuate good ideas until they can feed themselves.
There’s a specific breed of foundation that tends to be very good at this: community foundations. They can make ideal partners for revitalization efforts. Before going any further, let’s explore that word “partner”, to make sure we’re on the same page as to its definition.
– from “Steering the Metropolis” from IDB and UN-HABITAT.
For at least two decades, the largest trend in public financing of infrastructure and redevelopment projects in the Americas has been public-private partnerships (P3). I specify “the Americas” because P3s are nothing new in Europe, especially for infrastructure.
P3s are a major reason that Europe’s rail system makes U.S. rail look like that of a third-world country. Canada is generally better at P3s than the U.S., because they share learning among provinces. In the U.S., the situation is more uneven: Virginia, Texas, California, Arizona, and Puerto Rico are up to speed, but most other states are far behind the curve.
As with all tools, P3s have been abused. “Bought” politicians have used them to disguise an outright privatization of public infrastructure that robs the public blind. My 2008 book, ReWealth, had two chapters on public-private partnering. It told the story of a water infrastructure “P3” (really just privatization) that was so out of control, it charged citizens for the rainwater falling in their yards. But when used properly, P3s can be an ideal solution to the massive challenge of funding the renewal of our outdated power, transportation, sewer, drinking water, and green infrastructure.
Here’s a quick and easy way to determine whether a proposed P3 is a true partnership: the private entity should be taking a risk that the public entity can’t or shouldn’t take. While P3s are often used for large urban redevelopment projects, they have never been used for ongoing revitalization programs. But with whom could a city or county partner? The ideal home for a local resilient prosperity program might be a community foundation. If you have a strong one, you have a shortcut to a resilient prosperity program. If you have a weak one, taking on this resilient prosperity mission could grow and strengthen it.
The first community foundation (The Cleveland Foundation) was created by Frederick Goff in Ohio in 1914. There are now over 1700 community foundations around the world, with 700+ in the U.S. Community foundations tend to have a high level of public trust and a broad focus (often related to quality of life). They engage all levels of public and private leadership, and seldom operate in silos.
My first encounter came in 2007, when I keynoted a conference sponsored by the Buffalo Community Foundation (NY). But I didn’t realize their potential until I keynoted the Vital City event held in 2014 by The Calgary Foundation (Alberta, Canada) and met their CEO, Eva Friesen. The range of projects they sponsor, that contribute to Resilient Prosperity, is truly inspiring.
The Calgary Foundation is playing a key role in shifting a city best known as an “oil town” towards more-diversified economic growth based on renewing their existing assets. They’ve funded a wide array of projects that renew their heritage, neighborhoods, green infrastructure, arts, education, and more. In other words, they’re perfectly positioned to be the heart of an resilient prosperity program.
For example, after the catastrophic flood of June, 2013, The Calgary Foundation’s Flood Rebuilding Fund granted nearly $8.5 million via 125 grants to groups across Alberta. Environmental stewards Friends of Kananaskis Country was one of those recipients. I was kindly taken on a hiking tour of the flood-damaged Heart Creek Trail, which was magnificently rebuilt with both Calgary Foundation and provincial funding.
Most community foundations already have an extensive and functional network of both funders and fixers in place. They only need to add an appropriate process to turn these valuable resources into a system.
On October 2, 2014, the Council on Foundations (Washington, DC) published an article by Scott Westcott titled The Community Foundation of Greater Des Moines played a key leadership role in developing and executing a long-range community improvement plan.
Here’s an excerpt from that article that illustrates how well-positioned community foundations are as the potential nexus of a resilient prosperity program: “A few years back, leaders in Des Moines, Iowa, faced a common dilemma. While there was no shortage of people and organizations working to better the community, there was little alignment or master planning to coordinate the efforts. “The city had a plan, Polk County had a plan, the United Way had a plan – there were lots of plans,” says Kristi Knous, President of the Community Foundation of Greater Des Moines. “What was lacking was a process that involved community input and tied everything together to create an integrated approach to moving the Greater Des Moines area forward.” Recognizing the potential of a more integrated approach, the Community Foundation saw the unique opportunity to play a key leadership role in creating a sustainable future vision for Greater Des Moines.”
Community foundations would need training to better-understand revitalization, resilience, and adaptive management. But for most, this added responsibility would involve few new activities: just a strategy for better-integrating and focusing what they’re already doing. The downside is the community foundation’s lack of official authority.
But cities and counties could endow them with power via a public-private partnership. The legal mechanism to do so would vary with local laws. For instance, Iowa has statute 28E.4, which says “Any public agency of this state may enter into an agreement with one or more public or private agencies for joint or cooperative action.”
The result? A public-private resilient prosperity partnership (or just “Prosperity Partnership”). In fact, a formal partnership between a city or county government and the local community foundation might well be the ideal solution. Prosperity Partnerships would enable elected leaders to instantly create a resilient prosperity program using a trusted, existing infrastructure. In one fell swoop, the funding mechanisms and project evaluation/implementation processes of the community foundation would enable the city to launch a system with no added bureaucracy, and little new public expense. It would also open significant new public and private funding sources to the community foundation.
States, provinces, and nations don’t have such a shortcut available to them, of course. But most of them have the resources to create their Adaptive Renewal strategy and system from scratch, which would give them the complete control they would demand. Such higher-level Prosperity Partnerships could actually be fairly simple, with very small budgets. If they did nothing more than encourage and facilitate the creation of local Prosperity Partnerships, and then supported them, they’d be doing a great service.
One of the most important aspects of a Prosperity Partnership is making it resilient in the face of changing political administrations. For instance, Philadelphia’s Delaware River Waterfront Corporation (DRWC) was formed in 2009 to revitalize the city’s waterfront. Then-mayor Michael Nutter appointed all board members. But at its October 2014 meeting, the DRWC board changed its bylaws so that ten Board members would be chosen by the board itself, with the mayor choosing just three.
In a November 17, 2014 article by Jared Brey in PlanPhilly, Matt Ruben, chair of the Central Delaware Advocacy Group said “Our biggest concern moving forward was, ‘How do we ensure continuity at the DRWC when a new mayor comes in?’ Now DRWC has effectively made itself mayor-proof, and we can stay focused on the waterfront.” The best leaders know when it’s time to share or transfer power.
This partnering approach suggested here could be considered a repurposing of existing social infrastructure. With 1700 community foundations worldwide, a global network of local Prosperity Partnerships might be the quickest and most politically-resilient path to revitalizing our planet.
The Role of Higher Education in Advancing Resilient Prosperity
When did you last meet someone with a Ph.D. or a Master’s in revitalization? Despite trillions of dollars spent annually worldwide on bringing places back to life—and despite the high rate of failure of such expenditures—academia turns a blind eye to revitalization. A shift towards a more rigorous process could start in your community…if the appropriate university is based in your region.
They don’t mind teaching and researching the technical disciplines that renew specific assets: there are many courses in historic preservation, brownfields remediation, infrastructure renewal, and the like. But when it comes to the actual goal of reversing the stagnation or decline of a place, our institutions of higher learning seem content to allow their students to remain in a state of ignorance.
If places want revitalization, why don’t they allocate money directly to achieve that goal? Why don’t we manage it professionally? Why don’t we even know what it is? Why is the prevalent paradigm “do a bunch of good stuff and hope a miracle occurs”?
If communities really want resilient prosperity, why is no one in charge of it? Have you ever seen a significant local, state, or federal government agency with “revitalization” in its name? Or seen “revitalization” in the name of a significant ongoing public budget line item, or in the title of an influential public leader? But even if you were to appoint someone locally to head-up their revitalization and/or resilient prosperity efforts, wouldn’t it be better to hire a person with relevant training, certification, or degree?
The closest title I’ve encountered is “Community Development Director”. Some folks with that title are effectively Revitalization or Resilience Directors, but most interpret their role far more narrowly. “Community development” is a catch-all phrase, not a discipline. There are also “Community Economic Developers”, but that only narrows the scope of action still further.
Some practitioners rightly differentiate between business development and the more comprehensive concept of public economic development. But the “economic development” tends to focus on serving the economy in the short term (such as via sprawl), rather than on infill, neighborhood revitalization, and cultural or environmental factors that might be of more long-term economic value.
Those involved in revitalizing places generally operate in silos. They’re like heart surgeons who can fix valves, but are stymied if asked to define—much less restore—health. Some silos are defined by asset type or by profession, such as infrastructure or planning. Others by geography or jurisdiction: city, county, region, downtown, neighborhood, etc. But when everyone is in charge, no one is in charge.
Now, if a place is happy just doing renewal projects on an ad hoc basis to address immediate needs, a more-disciplined approach isn’t needed. But if they wish to ensure that their efforts actually fix the present (tactical renewal) and the future (strategic renewal), ad hoc won’t cut it.
Universities must take seriously this challenge of creating professionals who revitalize our increasingly urbanized world. They must realize that urban planning degrees don’t address revitalization (nor are most planners in a position to manage it, even if they understood it). Nor do degrees in public policy, public administration, public works, architecture, landscape architecture, civil engineering, and so on.
While pure research is essential, we must prevent revitalization research and curricula from becoming like economics. Most economists have only two career choices: 1) teaching economics, and 2) helping governments or corporations justify decisions they’ve already made, or actions they’ve already taken. Preventing such a dismal fate for students of resilient prosperity or revitalization would require a solid basis in reality. This could start with a partnership between a university and the city that house it:
- The school would get access to local data, lessons learned, and government internships.
- Local officials could do classroom lectures, while getting access to new research and curricula.
- How could a discipline and profession focused on revitalization and/or Resilient Prosperity come about? There are three standard routes:
- Academic: This would require a benefactor to endow a chair to fund and advance research, curriculum development, and degrees;
- Governmental: A national agency (such as HUD or EPA in the U.S.) might perceive the need for such a discipline at the local, state, and national levels, and provide funding to schools or organizations to create the appropriate research, curricula, and certifications;
- Private: A professional association could be formed for this purpose. Its members would come from the myriad fragmented current disciplines that address revitalization. This could be a new organization, or a new focus of an existing organization.
A revitalization professional would help ensure that each project increases community vitality, and would help it stay focused on the long-term. Just as publicly-traded corporations tend to focus on quarterly results to please Wall Street, so too do elected leaders tend to focus on expenditures and budget cuts that will produce results within their term of office. The result is usually underfunding what’s lasting, important, and intelligent, and over-funding what’s quick, superficial, and emotional.
In his Harvard Business Review article “The Execution Trap”, Roger Martin, former dean of the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, says separation of strategy and execution is a major flaw in executive thinking. We are all arguing the relative importance of good strategy versus good execution as if they were unrelated, so thinkers and doers work in dysfunctional isolation from each other.
Communities suffer a worse problem. Not only do they separate implementation from strategy, but what they refer to as “strategy” is often just hope. Dean Martin (no, not that one) recommends that we abandon the old model of brilliant thinkers on top and choiceless doers on the bottom. He recommends a feedback model allowing those on top to dictate broad guidance, and allowing implementers to provide feedback on how well those rules work in reality.
So too should those in charge of revitalization work from a clear vision of their desired future, against which they would compare each new project. That vision would yield a few simple rules: broad decision guidelines that allow innovation at the local level. A good system allows innovations to flow back to the top, so each place can discover what works locally. This frees leaders to abandon false assumptions about what should work (usually based on mimicking others).
Martin says separation of strategy and execution is promulgated by management consulting firms. Why? Because it allows them to blame failures on clients’ flawed implementation of their genius strategy. Urban planning firms also tend to avoid implementation. When a plan fails, they blame the mayor, the city council, unruly developers, or the citizens (NIMBYism, etc.) for screwing up their perfect strategy. Delivering a plan is a guaranteed “success” for client and vendor alike. Implementing it? Very risky.
The psychological and health benefits of living in a revitalizing place are legion. Some are surprising. Did you know it cuts your electricity bill? Research led by Ping Dong of the University of Toronto found that people who feel more hopeless about their economy and employment opportunities prefer brighter lighting. 20.6% more power is used per 1 point less hopeful (9-point scale) folks feel about the future.
Another insight into the revitalization dynamic that we wouldn’t know without academic research is why post-disaster cities are often more-resilient cities. In 2012, Eiji Yamamura of Japan’s Seinan Gakuin University published a paper called “Atomic bombs and the long-run effect on trust: Experiences in Hiroshima and Nagasaki”, based on researching survivors of those 1945 atomic bombings.
He found they were 16%-17% more likely than normal to trust other people. Trust is a crucial element of revitalization. It’s the transactional lubricant of all economies: the more there is, the more efficiently they operate. Those leading post-disaster rebuilding projects should tap this silver lining.
Due to the lack of academic and practitioner rigor, a large “superficial revitalization” industry has emerged. Mayors desiring the appearance of action often commission comprehensive plans from private planning firms, with no intention of implementing them. They can also buy “instant revitalization” in the form of street banners that provide an illusion of rebirth. Too many places fall into a consumer approach to revitalization, limiting their efforts to buying some streetscaping, or buying a new employer (purchased with tax breaks).
All of these tactics can contribute to revitalization, but they shouldn’t confused with an actual strategic renewal process.
Revitalization proposals include a slogan contest, hanging banners and planters, brochures and street landscaping.
Borough Manager Don Curley requested … $1,000 for brochures and $6,000 for banners and planters.”
– From July 21, 2015 article in The Times Herald, titled “Bridgeport (CT) council reviews revitalization proposals
Some folks criticize downtown or Main Street façade improvement programs as superficial revitalization strategies that don’t address underlying problems. They say they just provide visual revitalization. But as long as they call them façade improvement —and not revitalization—such efforts are worthwhile and honest. As mentioned earlier, too many modest little projects give themselves the grand name of “revitalization”, and that’s not honest. The fact is, most “revitalization” initiatives are themselves a façade.
Some say that commissioning a new comprehensive plan will revitalize the community. Some say a community-led visioning session will do the job. Others say that tax breaks for employers will do it. The list goes on, and they are all façades…all are superficial efforts that—lacking a strategic process—don’t change the fundamentals, and so won’t change the socioeconomic trajectory.
The social impacts of revitalizing a place are probably far deeper and broader than we know. I’d love to see graduate students comparing the health and psychological factors in revitalizing versus devitalizing places. Even better: randomized controlled trials for various revitalization tools and factors. A great step towards this hard-data direction is the new ISO 37120 standard, comprising indicators for city services and quality of life. This combines government-collected “Big Data” with citizen-acquired data. As wearable technology takes off, these quality of life indicators will come closer to real-time.
Many cities are being hit with rapid population growth at the same time they’re experiencing rapid aging, deterioration, and design obsolescence of their infrastructure. So, we encounter places that brag about their growth while they are actually in decline. The traditional assumption is that loss of population leads to economic decline, but it’s not that simple. In 2019, Maxwell Hartt of Cardiff University published “The Prevalence of Prosperous Shrinking Cities“, which explored the results of his research into this dynamic in U.S. cities.
Here’s an excerpt from that paper’s Abstract: “The majority of the shrinking cities literature focuses solely on instances of population loss and economic decline. This article argues that shrinking cities exist on a spectrum between prosperity and decline. Taking a wider view of population loss, I explore the possibility of prosperous shrinking cities: if they exist, where they exist, and under what conditions shrinking cities can thrive. Examining census place data from the 1980 to 2010 U.S. Census and American Community Surveys, 27 percent of 886 shrinking cities were found to have income levels greater than their surrounding regions.”
So, places can shrink and grow simultaneously. That’s not news to those of us who have studied revitalization for decades, but it’s news to most public leaders. They not only don’t understand how to revitalize: they don’t even understand what leads to devitalizing. Most young people want to leave the world a better place, and choose studies in various forms of public management and policymaking, but few universities teach anything directly related to revitalization. Seems like a mismatch. Why isn’t community revitalization currently taught in universities? Money and (again) fear.
Money because most universities only have one mode for entering a new realm of research and curriculum development: If someone walks through the door with a big check and asks them to focus on a subject, they will endow a research chair and create coursework. Otherwise, forget it. Academic institutions (with very few exceptions) have almost no internal capacity for institutional innovation.
Fear because revitalization is emergent and seems magical…non-intellectual. Why do all medical schools teach brain structure and function, but few teach consciousness? Fear of ridicule. Consciousness (like revitalization) is an emergent phenomenon, reeking of mysticism. Appearances are everything in today’s image-conscious, corporate sponsor-driven world of academic research. The best place to develop a revitalization discipline might be at one of the 40+ universities that already study and teach complexity science. They are already comfortable with the concept of emergence.
Many are happy to work on a piece of the urban, rural, or environmental revitalization puzzle. But we shy away from responsibility for the whole. If a place revitalizes, we share the glory. If it doesn’t, it’s not our fault: we did our part. Fear of failure is also why we can’t earn a degree in revitalization: academics perceive its complexity and worry that it’s not understandable. So why risk studying or teaching it?
He says many of the people involved with the Promise Zone don’t come from or represent the community.
“I think the companies will do well. I think the universities will do well, (and) some of the organizations that do their reports. But the neighborhood is going to still be stagnant.” He wants to see funding go to grass-roots groups
“so we can make sure our children, residents and businesses come up.”
– “A promise yet to be delivered in West Philadelphia” by Kate Kilpatrick, Al Jazeera America, Jan. 21, 2015
Places are like people: About 1% are born into great wealth, and thrive no matter how poorly they perform. But for most places and people, life comprises a pattern of initial growth, followed by alternating devitalization and revitalization.
The causes, frequency, and amplitude of these economic, social, and ecological tides vary from one place to another. But the underlying dynamics are universal, and deserve to be studied…especially if we wish to create Resilient Prosperity in an era of constant crisis and unprecedented uncertainty. Schools can help reduce our vulnerabilities in these broken times.
The curricula of most colleges and universities is far behind in the restoration economy trend. Since adaptive renewal is a framework for achieving resilient prosperity by regenerating the natural, built, and socioeconomic assets of a place, it touches on many scientific and engineering disciplines. Such work needs to be supported by an appropriate economic, legal, and policy environment, so it also touches many areas that might be less obvious.
Adaptive management can be seen as bringing the scientific process to management: hypothesize, experiment, document, adjust hypothesis if necessary, experiment again, and so on. In other words, adaptive our assumptions and our methods quickly and reflexively as experience reveals their inadequacies.
Today, many universities offer certificates, undergraduate areas of focus, and graduate degrees in the various component disciplines of adaptive renewal: restoration ecology, infrastructure renewal, urban regeneration, urban planning, brownfields remediation, and the like. But the schools of management and schools of public policy have been largely left out.
Researching, developing, and teaching adaptive renewal in virtually all coursework dealing with natural, built and/or socioeconomic assets would be a great way to adaptively renew current curricula for the challenges of the Anthropocene. It’s an appropriate skill set for academic, business and government leaders alike.
Partnering with a Business for Resilient Prosperity
Our interest is in selling as much of it as possible. Assuring its safety is the F.D.A.’s job.”
– Philip Angell, Dir. Corporate Communications, “Playing God in the Garden” New York Times Magazine.
Those readers whose primary motivation for learning about the revitalization process is to improve environmental health might be shuddering at the thought of becoming financially dependent on corporate support. As the Monsanto (now Bayer) quote above indicates, their suspicions are well-founded. Too many corporate social or environmental responsibility efforts start and end in the marketing and public relations departments. That said, there tends to be a fairly direct correlation between size and ethics, and with public ownership and ethics: the larger a firm is—especially if publicly traded—the less likely that the public good will factor meaningfully in their decisions.
But that means the reverse is also true. A local, small-to-medium-sized (SME) employer might well be a good home for your resilient prosperity efforts…ideally in addition to partnering with a community foundation or public agency, but possibly stand-alone. Large firms could offer this service to communities wherever they have offices. Given the outcry against excessive corporate influence in state and federal governments, this might sound unlikely. But local dynamics are usually healthier.
Mayors are very different animals from senators and presidents (watch Benjamin Barber’s TED talk on “Why mayors should rule the world”). So too do local employers behave differently from those lobbying national politicians, even within the same firm. Some that push policies that are against the public interest are wonderful employers, and responsible community members.
Individual Democrats and Republicans have different goals, no doubt, but they share far more values than they differ on. They simply focus on the differences.
This is because, on the institutional level, the Democratic and Republican parties are based on the same two values: 1) Keep the citizens polarized: this gets them more involved, resulting in more campaign contributions and party memberships (and it keeps them fighting with each other, rather than focusing on the real problem) and 2) Keep out all other parties.
A two-party system is stable to the point of stasis, which is why little ever changes. Truth be told, the Democratic and Republican parties are simply two sides of the same corporate coin. No matter which party is in charge, Big Money comes out ahead, the middle class shrinks, and the poor suffer more. The only difference is in the rhetoric: the Democratic Party says it wants social justice, but doesn’t deliver; the Republican Party promises to coddle the wealthy, and does deliver.
Change arises from individuals. Stasis arises from institutions. This is despite the fact that so many institutions say they exist to change things for the better. An institution’s survival is based on the current system, not on change. When polio was eradicated, the entire reason for the existence of the March of Dimes disappeared. They cleverly reinvented themselves to fight something that would never disappear, something that had myriad causes: birth defects.
Other such institutions—such as those that fight cancer—take a different approach to institutional survival. They actively suppress promising new preventive innovations—especially those that involve non-patentable “natural” therapies that would threaten their friends in Big Pharma—and focus instead on expensive approaches that have little chance of making a difference, thus maintaining the status quo on which their existence is based.
The most socially-toxic trend of our times is wealth concentration. Economies increasingly resemble dumbbells, with masses of wealth and poverty at each end, and an ever-slimming middle class connecting them. Efforts to fight or remedy this are to be applauded, even token ones like the Center for American Progress’ Report of the Commission on Inclusive Prosperity, published in January of 2015.
We all know the system is broken. A U.S. Senate seat costs $50 million. Voting is great, but the only candidates we can vote for are financed by Wall Street and multinational corporations. Even the best of candidates are thoroughly compromised by our money-driven election process. The primary purpose of the current election system is to provide Big Money with “points of purchase”. We need a shift from indirect democracy to direct democracy, and technology now enables such a model. Crowd-powered, citizen-led renewal could do for government what Amazon did to retail: eliminate unnecessary middlemen.
Is citizen-led renewal a Real Thing? Here’s an excerpt from an article titled “What Cities Looking to Shrink Can Learn From New Orleans” by Roberta Brandes Gratz in the April 5, 2012 issue of The Atlantic: “American cities started losing population after World War II with the creation of suburbs. “Planned Shrinkage,” no different from today’s shrinkage strategies, was New York’s solution to a South Bronx that looked like Dresden after the war and other failing neighborhoods. Fire houses, police stations, schools closed, garbage ignored, streets unrepaired. But residents citywide fought back fiercely, refused to leave, took over vacant buildings, fixed them up on their own, stuck it out with minimum city services and with mottos like “improve don’t move” set about on a sweat equity path that was the catalyst for a slow, incremental citywide rebound. Developers followed the residents’ lead. That is why New York grew again, instead of shrank. The same pattern of regeneration took hold in small doses slowly in Savannah, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, San Antonio and more. Now, similar pockets of re-growth can be found in Buffalo, Detroit, Syracuse, Muncie, South Bend and elsewhere.”
Any physicist will tell you that the fastest way to create chaos in a system is via delayed feedback. Our current, highly-dysfunctional system of local and national government is based on citizen feedback that is delayed, indirect, and highly filtered. Citizen-led renewal via crowd technologies could fix that by making all citizen input direct and instantaneous. Delayed remote input is replaced by instant local input.
Any scientist specializing in complexity (complex adaptive systems, which include economies, ecosystems, and societies) will tell you that complex systems are self-organizing, provided a large number of “agents” (whether ants, bees, or humans) have direct input into the system in accordance with a few simple rules.
Our current dysfunction system of government—and our dysfunctional economy, with its anti-free market abuse by politically-influential multinational banks and corporations—has a paucity of influencing agents. Crowd-powered, citizen-led renewal could fix that by connecting all citizens directly to the decision-making and action-taking process.
Plato warned that democracy doesn’t work with more than 10,000 citizens, since they wouldn’t personally know—or know someone who personally knows—the candidates. They’d only be voting for a manufactured image. Protests and petitions make us feel good, and help raise awareness of important issues. But they don’t change a system where well over 90% of new legislation is written by corporate lobbyists.
Progressives are tired of corporate control of government. Conservatives are tired of government inefficiency. But both want to see their communities revitalized, and their children growing up healthy and happy.
What happens when citizens’ frustration with their public and private institutions converges with the emergence crowd tools that enable them to take independent action? We get a proven solution to institutional inertia, government corruption, and corporate domination of the public agenda. It forms a scalable local solution to global problems, from climate change to poverty.
Here’s an excerpt from an article by Gus Speth in the July 2011 SOLUTIONS Journal, titled “American Prospect: Decline and Rebirth”: “…there is a deepening sense that this nation’s challenges have grown so large that they exceed current capabilities. … in a 20-country group of America’s peer countries in the OECD, the U.S. is now worst, or almost worst, on nearly 30 leading indicators of social, environmental, and economic well-being. Even a well-intentioned and highly capable government in Washington, DC, would have severe difficulty successfully addressing the current backlog of major challenges. And, of course, the good government the American public needs is not the one that it has or is likely to have anytime soon. …(however) Americans are already busy with numerous, mostly local initiatives that point the way to the future.”
But a more practical approach for many places is to simply adapt to this new reality. The model suggested here goes far beyond mere philanthropy, which is the hands-off way most companies try to help their local communities. This is a much more intimate and far-reaching relationship, designed to tap the many assets a firm can bring to a community. At the same time, it avoids the abusive “company town” dynamic common in lumber, mining, oil, and steel-making communities of the 18th and 19th Centuries.
This approach is primarily for small or medium-sized communities that don’t have the capacity to do what needs to be done, or for larger areas lacking effective regional governance. It’s for places that have a trusted, civic-minded local firm with both the necessary will and resources. The innovative public-private partnership outlined here solves four key problems previously documented:
- Continuity: Programs requiring long-term planning and implementation are frequently sabotaged—or cancelled outright—as a result of changes in political administrations. A corporately-housed Resilient Prosperity program would be relatively election-proof.
- Integration: Programs requiring a holistic approach to community or regional planning and management are usually undermined—or never get off the ground—due to the disconnected silos of local government agencies. Each agency is afraid to infringe upon the other’s territory. A corporately-housed Resilient Prosperity program could ignore such institutional barriers. It could be comprehensive; renewing the natural, built, and socioeconomic environments together.
- Equity: Programs designed to benefit all citizens—regardless of income or ethnicity—are commonly undermined by today’s money-driven election processes. But companies often comprise both white and blue-collar workers, and good ones try to make sure they’re all happy. It’s counter-intuitive, but a civic-minded corporation might do a better job of fostering fairness than a good-ol’-boy political machine. A corporately-housed Resilient Prosperity program could use the firm’s own internal social diversity to advance inclusive prosperity.
- Funding: Even in the rare community that’s able to rise above the above the first three constraints—partisan politics, fragmented governance, and excessive influence of wealth—the fourth one—paucity of money—can still sabotage local dreams. A corporately-housed Resilient Prosperity program could add both company donations and impact investments to the mix.
Given what was just said about the deleterious influence of corporations and wealthy individuals in Problem #3 above, you might be thinking “hold on: if the local government can’t be trusted to look out for the public good, why in the world would they partner with a company to do exactly that?” They wouldn’t. This form of public-private Prosperity Partnership will only work in the presence of both an enlightened government and an enlightened local employer.
But the two together could be magic. If local government doesn’t suffer from Problem #3 (social equity), then the right private partner could help solve all three of the other problems: Continuity, Integration, and Funding. Here’s how: With the growth of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), many companies offer employee volunteer programs, giving them a number of paid hours per month to work on local civic, environmental, or humanitarian projects. In most cases, the employees choose the project. It might be helping house-bound old folks, cleaning up a stream, renovating a derelict house for the homeless, assisting in a shelter for battered spouses, and so on.
Think of how much more effective these hundreds or thousands of annual volunteer hours might be with a little more focus and strategy. Hands-on labor, such as converting a vacant lot into a community garden, will always be valuable. But knowledge workers from the white-collar ranks could apply their management and computer skills to provide the usually-absent programmatic side of the equation.
They would become the “connective tissue” bridging the disparate Top-down, Bottom-up, and Impromptu efforts to improve the community. They could also help bridge disconnects among the various projects that improve the local natural, built, and socioeconomic environments. Such integration is where efficiencies and synergies will be found. This multiplies community benefits with no budget increase, simply by effectively connecting isolated initiatives.
The private partner could even provide an executive as a part-time Prosperity Director, at least until a full-time position can be created in government. All of this free labor is a form of funding on the part of the company, but direct funding—such as impact investments—would also be a possibility.
Since the company’s own employees are directly involved in the projects, they will be motivated to bring investment opportunities to the attention of the firm’s management, whether it’s start-up money, bridge financing, or for expansion. The company could create a revolving loan fund for such needs, giving employees discretion over how it is used, which would both improve and speed decision making.
The community then has a Resilient Prosperity director, a program, a team, and funding that can’t be interrupted by elections. This could be a permanent arrangement, or an interim fix as the city or region builds its own capacity.
These days, cities privatize many previously-public services, such as water, fire, jails, and even police. If they are open to that, they should be open to the idea of outsourcing a needed service that isn’t being provided—growing Resilient Prosperity—especially if it’s being done as a voluntary public service, rather than to generate profit.
The story of Cummins in Columbus, Indiana: Before I end this chapter, let me address the issue of trust. Many folks who are involved in social or environmental causes—or who try to fight local sprawl and bad economic development practices—have come to see business leader (especially those at large corporations) in a bad light. They see them as unconcerned about the public good, especially when benefiting the public good might reduce the bottom line. They also see them as being focused on short-term gains and being resistant to change. With that in mind, here’s a very brief story about a firm most communities would consider a dream employer.
When I was doing some work in the very rural Ohio town of Grand Lake St. Marys a few years back, several folks encouraged me to visit the city of Columbus, Indiana, about a 3-hour drive from there. They said it might be the most beautiful small city in the Midwest. Unfortunately, my schedule didn’t allow it. Here’s the major reason Columbus is so charming, and why it’s a beacon of economic stability in a generally-distressed region.
Columbus, Indiana is a small city (population: 46,000), but local employer Cummins is no small company. Its 2014 revenues were about $19.2 billion. It was founded in the proverbial garage in 1919 by Clessie Lyle Cummins, a Columbus native who worked as a chauffeur and auto mechanic. He had heard about the new diesel technology invented by Rudolf Diesel in Germany, and was convinced it was the future of truck engines.
Today, Cummins employs 17% of the local workforce. Indiana’s unemployment rate is 5.8%. In Columbus, it’s just 4.4%. An article titled An Engine Maker’s High-Tech Makeover in the June 15, 2015 issue of FORTUNE magazine quoted Jason Hester, executive director of the Columbus Economic Development Board as saying “When I was growing up, my hometown of Anderson, an hour north of here, had 20,000 GM employees, and 30 years later, it has none. Right now, in this community, if you want a job, you’re hired.” [Note: Mayor Kevin Smith of Anderson, Indiana has launched a thorough reinvention of its downtown—called Operation Downtown—hoping to revitalize it by making it greener, and friendlier to youth, pedestrians, and business alike.]
Many one-company towns can tell horror stories related to the abuse of power in such situations. Not Columbus. From 1929 to 1977, the CEO of Cummins was J. Irwin Miller, another Columbus native. During his reign, the firm grew from $26 million in revenues to $1.26 billion.
But he wasn’t just focused on his company: he loved Columbus, and knew that a thriving community would help his company thrive. Unlike so many modern executives, his attitude wasn’t “Hey: I’m providing job. What more do you want?” To ensure a constant supply of talented engineers and managers, he created the Cummins Foundation, which put millions of dollars into improving local schools. He wasn’t just focused on things, either: Miller was a major champion of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And, unlike today’s slave-wage employers that make families rely on government handouts to make ends meet, he was strongly pro-union. Miller died in 2004, but some 40% of Cummins’ global workforce is still unionized.
Miller paid architects’ fees so that the town could afford beautiful buildings from the best designers. Columbus is now considered a national architectural showcase, which gives it a far better tourism economy than any other city in the region. Their library was designed by I. M. Pei. A local church was designed by Eero Saarinen. A school was designed by Richard Meier. Hester says “Cummins can attract employees who, but for these amenities, would not come here.”
But this isn’t just a story of good corporate citizenship: it’s a story of adaptation and resilience. For Cummins to remain a stable employer, they needed to maintain healthy profit margins. The firm’s greatest crisis came in 1997. Diesel engines are inherently “dirty”, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found that Cummins engines were being built in a way that enabled truck owners to easily disable the emissions controls. The EPA fined the company $83.4 million, the largest civil penalty in environmental enforcement history.
An even greater challenge was that EPA accelerated the deadline for lower-emission engines from 2004 to 2002. This threw all U.S. truck engine manufacturers into crisis, not just Cummins. But, under the leadership of then-CEO Theodore M. Solso, Cummins reacted differently from the others.
While other firms fought and sued the EPA, Cummins decided to turn the situation to its advantage, and become the first company to meet the new standards (which most industry players were saying was impossible), thus giving them a competitive advantage. He boosted R&D spending 60%, which produced their breakthrough “deep spray” fuel injection process, which met EPA standards without hurting fuel economy.
By 2010, their two largest competitors in the big-rig engine market—Detroit Diesel and Caterpillar—had given up, leaving Cummins dominant, with today’s enviable 39% market share. In fact, one of their most profitable divisions makes components that help other engine manufacturers reduce emissions.
This combination of civic investment, worker respect, environmental responsibility, and institutional adaptability makes Cummins a candidate for “ideal employer”. Not all communities can attract such companies, but all communities can seek—even demand—similar values and behavior, especially when offering economic development incentives such as tax holidays.
If they are fortunate enough to land a Cummins-style business, they will likely have an idea partner for their resilient prosperity program.
- Chapter 7 - The 3Re STRATEGY: Repurpose. Renew. Reconnect.
In fact, there are now more indices covering…liveability than any other area.”
– World Economic Forum, World’s Most Liveable Cities
Horace said “Whatever your advice, make it brief.”
Shakespeare said “Brevity is the soul of wit.” It’s also the soul of wisdom.
Strategies should be short enough to write on a napkin; preferably three sentences or less.
But just three words can suffice, if they are the right ones, at the right time, in the right place.
Why so brief? Excuse the repetition, but this is crucially important: the primary purpose of a strategy is to guide decision-making. Executing a strategy over time means making a constant stream of decisions that move you in the right direction, even under trying circumstances (such as being shot at, or watching your company lose money).
You’ve now heard it repeated ad nauseum that your vision should drive your strategy. While that’s true, it doesn’t mean that every vision must have a different strategy; only that the strategy should serve the vision. In reality, there’s a single “universal” 3-word strategy that works well in almost any place whose vision is to create resilient prosperity: the 3Re Strategy.
Improving our quality of life (the “livability” of a place) usually boils down to three actions regarding your outdated and/or distressed assets (or institutions): 1) repurposing; 2) renewing; and 3) reconnecting. Those “assets” might be natural, built, cultural, or socioeconomic. Thus, what I refer to as the 3Re Strategy: repurposing, renewing, and reconnecting.
Repurposing is a key process of adaptive renewal. If something needs renewal, it’s probably outlived its original purpose. Repurposing is often at the core of the successful adaptive renewal projects. For the past 12,000 years of the Holocene Epoch, we’ve been repurposing the Earth’s features to our own needs. There’s nothing wrong with this: that’s how civilizations are created. But now that we’ve entered the Anthropocene Epoch, we’re suffering from the impacts—some predictable, others not so much—of those adaptations.
Creating a healthier, wealthier, happier future for all now means adapting our economies and societies to this new reality. It means repurposing farmlands and fisheries in a way that restores the biodiversity and productivity of damaged ecosystems. In the face of relentlessly-growing human populations, it also means boosting the capacity and resilience of the urban environments we’ve already created. At the program/institutional level, this can mean repurposing the organization entirely, or focusing it to a greater degree on the repurposing of its assets. At the project level, those assets can be built, natural, social, economic, and human.
With natural assets, repurposing sometimes means restoring the original function, such as providing ecosystem benefits:
- A buried urban stream that became an ugly urban highway can thus be repurposed as a natural asset that provides revitalizing green public space for a city;
- A dammed rural river that was repurposed a century ago as a power-generating or agricultural water source can be repurposed to its original function of providing fish, and ecological health;
- In a world of sea level rise, waterfront properties can become green barriers to storms.
With built assets, repurposing often means creating an entirely new function:
- A historic bank building becomes a restaurant. An abandoned church a coffee shop;
- A derelict rural railway becomes a trail. A disused urban elevated railway becomes a linear park that revitalizes adjacent properties;
- A contaminated former industrial property is cleansed and repurposed as a revitalized mixed-use (residential and commercial) urban neighborhood. And so on.
Repurposing usually comes first: find a viable new use for a derelict asset leads to funding, which enables renewal. That’s pretty common these days. What too many places forget is reconnecting, which is where the projects value can be multiplied many times over.
Many of the most important sciences and other disciplines of the 21st century will be focused on putting things back together. Most of the science, planning, and engineering of the 19th and 20th centuries was focused on separating or splitting things. Maybe the most metaphorical example of this is nuclear energy.
The toxic, hyper-expensive (when full-cost accounting is applied) form energy production of the 20th century was based on fission, which splits large atoms of rare elements such as uranium. This is the method that today’s antique nuclear power plants are based on, and which are still being built, thanks to the political pull of the companies that build them.
The non-toxic, almost perfectly efficient nuclear power of the future will be fusion, which fuses small atoms of common elements, such as hydrogen. We already have one working fusion reactor: the sun. So, until we figure out how to make our own, it makes all the sense in the world to use the one we already have its fullest extent, via photovoltaic, concentrator, wind, wave, etc. We might as well throw in lunar energy (tidal) while we’re at it, since they are all sun-powered.
So, reconnecting is usually the third step, after repurposing and renewing. Before we dive into the 3Re Strategy, let me acknowledge that we humans seem to have a compulsion to reduce our solutions to three words. For instance, ICLEI recently introduced the Nature Pathway a new tool to help integrate nature into cities. It’s based on three phases: Analyze, Act and Accelerate. Despite its use of verbs (like a strategy) that’s a methodology, not a strategy. Why? Because those three actions are too generic to produce any specific kind of result: they can be applied to anything.
3Re: The core of revitalization strategies for nature, neighborhoods, and nations.
Just as our energy sources are moving from being based on splitting to a basis in fusing, so too must our thinking shift to fusing (reconnecting) our pathologically-fragmented economies, societies, and ecosystems.
For instance, water is a powerful revitalizer in both the urban and natural environments. Any community that has a significant waterfront, and that isn’t revitalizing, probably isn’t trying very hard. Or they don’t have the right strategy (if they have one at all). Or they have an incomplete implementation process.
The key to tapping water’s revitalizing power is often the 3Re Strategy. Sometimes we must repurpose a body of water (such as from serving manufacturing to serving recreation). Sometimes we must renew it (such as cleaning and restoring a river). Sometimes we must reconnect people to it (such as removing or burying a waterfront highway).
All three together can yield regenerative magic, as we’ll see in a moment.
* Manhattan’s High Line Park
* Atlanta’s Beltline
* Chicago’s Bloomingdale Trail
* Philadelphia’s Rail Park
* Seoul’s Cheonggyecheon
* Detroit’s Dequindre Cut Greenway
* Paris’ Promenade Plantée
* Toronto’s The Bentway
* Jersey City’s The Embankment
* Rotterdam’s Hofplein
* Singapore’s Green Corridor
What do the revitalizing, leading-edge projects listed above have in common? All are based on:
1) Repurposing (adapting) old infrastructure and unused spaces;
2) Renewing and greening those spaces for pedestrian and/or bicycle usage; and
3) Reconnecting isolated and/or distressed neighborhoods.
The same “3Re” approach is also being used to revitalize our natural environment, such as repurposing abandoned farms or golf courses as public parks; renewing their biodiversity and ecological structure; and reconnecting isolated, dying ecosystems (such as via dam removal) to allow seasonal migrations and nutrient flows.
Note: Repurposing doesn’t necessarily mean entirely replacing an old function. It could mean adding a new function to existing ones. For instance, the regenerative agriculture trend was first documented in my 2002 book, The Restoration Economy. Back then, it had three core purposes: 1) to restore soil health/fertility; 2) to restore native pollinator populations; and 3) to restore watersheds.
But recent research has revealed that regenerative farming and ranching techniques also sequester vast amounts of carbon from the atmosphere: even more so than reforestation. This adds a fourth purpose—climate restoration—which opens up a vast new realm of funding and partnership opportunities.
Why can those three words—Repurpose. Renew. Reconnect.—serve as a “universal” core of resilient prosperity strategies? Because worldwide, our most basic urban, rural and environmental challenges similarly universal: obsolete, damaged / depleted, and fragmented assets. If it’s obsolete, it needs to be repurposed (or removed, and the underlying site repurposed). If it’s damaged or depleted, it needs to be renewed. If it’s fragmented or isolated, it needs to be reconnected.
Repurposing is usually the first step: finding an appropriate new use for an old asset or property attracts funding and public support. That funding and support then enables renewal (restoration, redevelopment, etc.). Finally, reconnecting that asset provides access, which unleashes social and economic vibrance. Repurposing and renewing are mostly done at the local level, but the most important reconnecting can often only be done at the county, regional, or even national levels.
What happens when repurposing, renewing, and reconnecting meet? Magic.
Just look at the High Line Park. New York City planned to spend millions of dollars demolishing this defunct elevated railway. Keeping the ugly relic made no sense, until two local citizens–Robert Hammond and Josh David–envisioned repurposing it as a linear park. The mayor at the time, Rudy Giuliani, thought it was a silly idea, and kept moving towards demolition. Then, Michael Bloomberg came into office, and saw the idea’s potential.
That unleashed funding for renewing the structure as a beautiful green pedestrian space, which more than doubled nearby real estate values. In its first decade, the High Line generated $2.2 billion in new economic activity. The city expects over $1 billion in increased tax revenues over the next 20 years. It’s visited by over 5 million people annually, making it the city’s 2nd most visited cultural attraction.
But that’s not all. By reconnecting neighborhoods on the lower west side of Manhattan with the Hudson Rail Yards, the High Line enabled the city to do something they had envisioned for decades: cap and develop the space above the rail yards.
This is now happening: the $24 billion Hudson Yards mixed-use redevelopment is the largest real estate transaction in New York City history. That’s the power of the 3Re Strategy at work.
Here’s the key lesson from the High Line: Repurposing, renewing, and reconnecting are each powerful and effective on their own. Many communities have been revitalized using just one of these tactics. But the real magic occurs when all three are combined to reinforce each other, thus forming a truly regenerative strategy.
While repurposing often precedes renewing, it’s not always needed. For instance, restoring vital flows to a place that’s been isolated can trigger renewal of its original function, with no need to repurpose it.
Such flows might be water, nutrients, pedestrians, shoppers, traffic, migrating wildlife, etc. Many of today’s most revitalizing global trends are based on this dynamic, such as reconnecting neighborhoods by removing badly-planned urban highways.
It’s also not unusual for reconnecting to be the first step, rather than the last, as this article about Tampa’s downtown waterfront revitalization illustrates.
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 (which died for lack of connectivity, and is now being reborn); and an excellent trolley (which almost got decommissioned because it was so badly planned) 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 process, each project was expected to produce revitalization on its own. The result? A combination of outright failures and temporary successes, most of which faded for lack of follow-through and connectivity.
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 City Fix, December 31, 2014
Tampa’s most connective and strategic project, the RiverWalk, has become the most important element in their downtown success. It probably should have been done first, not last. That would have been the 3Re Strategy: repurposing and renewing the waterfront properties to reconnect the downtown to its most powerfully attractive feature: water.
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 a RECONOMICS Process, 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.
Even the most successful of current revitalization approaches are usually good at only one or two of the 3Re elements. For instance, Main Street Program and historic preservation groups have nailed the “repurposing” and “renewing” elements, but tend to be weak at “reconnecting”.
This wastes much of their revitalizing potential. Pedestrian and bicycling trail groups, such as Rails To Trails, are great at “repurposing” and “reconnecting”, but tend to be weak at “renewing”.
The biodiversity of both can be restored simultaneously, without touching either. How?
By restoring the land (such as an old farm) that separates them. This reconnects the two systems, allowing seasonal migrations that revitalize both.
One more example: Many downtown revitalization initiatives focus exclusively on the center of the community.
Wise communities also focus on revitalizing the corridors leading to the downtown. This reconnects downtown and suburbs to restore healthful flows of residents, shoppers, employers, and employees.
One of the most common reasons that cities and regions fail to turn a flourishing redevelopment project into community-wide or regional revitalization is that they have no way to scale-up the success. The project sits in its own little bubble, with no program or process to flow that revitalization outward to catalyze similar work elsewhere.
Innovation has been a buzzword in urban planning circles for some time now, and many cities have incubators to support new businesses and social entrepreneurs. Some excellent results have been achieved, but almost always at a very small scale.
At Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business, professor Charles O’Reilly notes that a similar dynamic occurs in the corporate world. He says that legacy companies that are trying to revitalize after being adversely affected by technological change must succeed at three disciplines: ideation, incubation and scale. “Everyone ideates,” he said in the June 1, 2018 issue of FORTUNE magazine. “Every CEO spends money on innovation, and that’s great. Some companies are OK at incubation. But scaling is the hard part.”
The 3Re Strategy can be applied at any scale, and by almost any kind of entity.
– from “Steering the Metropolis” from IDB and UN-HABITAT.
The 3Re Strategy can be used at the level of properties, cities, regions, or nations. For instance, many national economies will need to be repurposed in the coming years. This will most likely take place in countries that are heavily-dependent on unsustainable resource extraction, such as fisheries, old-growth timber, oil, or mining. And it’s just only useful to governments and real estate redevelopers.
Want to see a list of good strategies?
You won’t find it here. That would be like a doctor listing good treatment regimens, without knowing who the patient is, and without knowing anything about their medical history, age, gender, or current condition.
If one looks at 100 resilience plans for 100 cities, one can expect to see significant overlap in terms of tactics and visions (people tend to want similar things.) Where there shouldn’t be much overlap is in strategy, except the basic principles of repurposing, renewing and reconnecting. Remember that Newark / Mark Zuckerberg failure example above? The 3Re Strategy can only work if it’s customized to overcome whatever local challenges might block its adoption.
Again: the sole function of strategy is to boost your chances of success. That means it’s dependent on the local situation: politics, history, economy, ethnicity(s), geography, resources, attitudes, mores, superstitions, traditions, expectations, etc. The strategy is what helps ensure that the vision, design, plan, and subsequent projects are embraced by the local stakeholders, are properly funded, and are implemented at the right time.
In other words, the strategy for a resilience initiative will probably have nothing to do with resilience per se: the resilience elements are in the vision, design, projects, etc. Likewise, a strategy for revitalization would have little to do with revitalization. A strategy for social justice would have little to do with social justice. The strategy is only about the path to success, not the nature of the goal.
A common element found in most resilience plans is the expansion and improvement of green infrastructure. If one Googles the definition of “green infrastructure”, a vast array of variations on a basic definition is displayed. But one phrase that’s common to almost all of them is “strategically planned.”
Here’s a composite definition that pretty much represents them all: “Green infrastructure is a strategically planned and managed network of natural areas and other open spaces that conserves and restores natural ecosystem values and functions, provides clean air and water, and delivers a wide array of benefits to people and wildlife”.
Strategy is the element that determines location and design, which is what turns a bunch of dirt and plants into green infrastructure that successfully serves the desired goals.
Sea level rise, ocean acidification, and increased frequency/severity of storms are rapidly rendering the future of many coastal economies non-viable. The climate crisis is undermining many once-productive farming regions, which might need to repurpose by switching to crops that do better in hotter, drier climates, rather than abandoning agriculture altogether. The same repurposing challenge applies to forestry economies, fishing economies and tourism economies.
But they can’t stop at finding a viable new purpose. That new purpose should inspire confidence in the local future which–in turn—inspires investment in the place. That investment pays for the renewing and reconnecting that’s needed to complete the transition to resilient prosperity.
Repurposing, renewing, and reconnecting—the 3Re Strategy—is the only way many of these places will adapt and survive in the Anthropocene.
As mentioned earlier, the most important factor in creating a good strategy is creating a clear vision for it to serve. And the key to a clear vision is focus: winnowing it down to a few distinct goals that reinforce each other.
The graphic to the left shows the four key strategic elements that the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) came up with. Their concept is that strengthening their communities is the best way to strengthen the nation. Since over 80% of Canada’s population is urban, this makes a lot of sense as the foundation of a national resilience program, and of the federal policies needed to support it.
Too many communities operate their affordable housing and their public transit programs in separate silos. Low-income folks are far more dependent on public transit, yet many cities focus bus service on middle-income neighborhoods.
It’s also common to see affordable housing developments lacking effective public transit. Cheap homes aren’t affordable if the residents have to spend a large portion of their income on cars, gas, car insurance, etc…not to mention wasting their precious time in commuter traffic. With affordable housing and transit reinforcing each other, they create a real solution.
But not even affordable downtown housing will reliably create revitalization without a process. Housing is just a project type: don’t forget the other five essential elements: regenerative program, regenerative vision, regenerative strategy, regenerative policies and regenerative partners.
Can a 3-word strategy really be effective?
I used to do a bit of flying, and one of the first things you’re taught as a student pilot is a 3-word strategy for success (and survival): aviate, navigate, communicate. In that order. In other words: stay in the air, stay on course and stay in contact.
There are 3-word tactics, too. If your clothes are on fire, the recommended tactic is Stop. Drop. Roll. Again: if people can’t remember a strategy after you’ve told it to them once, it’s virtually useless. And if they can’t remember it in an emergency, where a crucial decision must be made, it’s totally useless. Thus, the magic of 3-word strategies and tactics. They work for flaming wardrobes and flying vehicles alike.
Moving up in scale from a strategy for individuals to a strategy for nations, the most successful strategy in the history of civilization comprises just three words: divide and conquer. Global empires have been built on that 3-word strategy. Just ask the British.
The United States has a severe backlog of infrastructure renewal and replacement projects, as the American Society of Civil Engineers has been documenting for some two decades, and as I first reported in my 2002 book, The Restoration Economy, which had an entire chapter on infrastructure renewal.
Given the threat to public safety, many states aren’t waiting for the U.S. Congress to start functioning again, concerning what should be a totally non-partisan issue. They’re behaving responsibly and are moving forward on their own; with federal funding where they can get it, and with public-private partnerships (P3) where they can’t.
The state of Kentucky, for instance, has recently launched their Bridging Kentucky Program, a statewide initiative designed to improve the safety and soundness of bridges throughout the state. It will restore over 1,000 bridges in six years. Their three-word strategy? “Restore. Renew. Replace.”
Moving back down to the community scale, Columbia, South Carolina’s mayor, Steve Benjamin—current president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors—is coping with challenges like opioid addiction, homelessness, immigration and trade. He has his own 3-word strategy for success: Infrastructure. Innovation. Inclusion. Granted, that’s more of a checklist than a strategy, given that it comprises nouns rather than verbs. But hey: if it works for Mayor Benjamin, that’s what counts. Remember that the sole function of a strategy is to increase the chances of success. All other definers are either less important or totally irrelevant.
For those of you who are used to writing 100-page “strategies,” the idea of a 3-word strategy must seem ludicrous. But you’ve probably encountered others without realizing it. For instance, FEMA has a 3-word strategy for effective natural disaster planning: Prepare. Respond. Recover.
Let’s take urban design as an example. Two of the most successful downtown redesign strategies of the past two decades have been “Live. Work. Play.” and “Transit Oriented Development.” In fact, the latter is often reduced to just three letters: TOD. Simple. Memorable. Effective.
So now you might be wondering, why can’t I just use one of those strategies to revitalize my community? Who needs the 3Re Strategy? The difference is that “Live. Work. Play.” and TOD are both primarily urban, project-oriented strategies.
3Re, on the other hand, is a strategy that can be used by one-time projects or ongoing programs. And it can be applied at any scale, from a single building, to a watershed, to the entire planet.
Virtually every place needs revitalization. Even the wealthiest of cities has distressed neighborhoods, and even the wealthiest of nations has distressed regions and cities. And many places that consider themselves wealthy actually have appalling levels of poverty that they choose not to acknowledge. One way they do that is by focusing on misleading statistics.
For instance, most Americans assume that if someone is employed full-time, they aren’t in poverty. But 8.9 million Americans who have full-time jobs are in poverty. The (usually giant) companies that employ them rely on government programs to help their employees keep food on the table. This is obviously a form of corporate welfare, since taxpayers are giving their shareholders the ability to earn huge profits by paying workers less. Another example is focusing on GDP growth. But in America, 90% of our GDP growth goes to the wealthiest 1%, so there’s little benefit at “ground level.”
Look at the OECD chart to the left, and you’ll see that the poverty rate in the U.S. is higher than that of Mexico. That doesn’t surprise me much. About a decade ago, I counted the number of beggars per block in downtown Washington, DC, and then did the same in the center of Mexico City. DC had about 30% more. Of course, in America, we turn a blind eye to our problems by relabeling them. Thus, we don’t have beggars, but we do have panhandlers. And we don’t have pervasive political bribery, but we do have lobbyists and campaign contributions.
Despite having by far the highest rates of both incarceration and drug addiction, few Americas have the courage to face up to how sick our society is. Social health is a prime factor in both economic revitalization and community resilience, so how can we address a challenge we won’t even admit exists?
One measure I use for quickly determining the social health of a place is to see how far children can wander from their parents before the parents panic. The further they can go, the healthier the society. In the U.S, that distance is measured in feet…even inches.
Driving around Dominica in my rental car, I frequently picked-up children under 10 who were hitchhiking to school. Growing up in England, my parents thought nothing of sending me down to the corner grocery story by myself when I was 6 years old. My wife and I spend about two months annually in Mexico, where we still see very young children doing the shopping by themselves, many blocks from home.
Here in the U.S., parents are arrested for doing that. Debra Harrell worked at McDonalds, and thus couldn’t afford a babysitter. In the summer of 2014, when she allowed her 9-year-old daughter to play unsupervised (but with a cell phone) in a nearby public park in North Augusta, South Carolina, she was arrested and her child was put into public custody. In that town, it’s apparently against the law to trust your children or your neighbors. McDonald’s then fired her, which means they—in effect—fired her because they weren’t paying her enough to afford day care.
Similarly, in Montgomery County, Maryland, a 10-year-old boy and his 6-year-old sister were walking one mile home from a park when someone called the police, who picked them up and took them the rest of the way home. Their parents weren’t charged with anything, the Montgomery County Children’s Protective Services (CPS) threatened to take their kids if they did it again.
It gets worse. In 2013, a Tennessee father of two was arrested because he tried to pick up his children from school on foot (there was a mile-long backup of vehicles picking up other kids). Apparently, crime is so bad in Tennessee that even adults are only safe when locked in a metal box.
In the U.S., the neighborhood is the threat. In Mexico, Dominica and many other healthier societies, the neighborhood is the protector. Any revitalization strategy that doesn’t make people feel safer in their own neighborhoods is going to be of limited use in retaining residents, or attracting new residents.
Creating a Regenerative Strategy.
The appropriate strategy to achieve your vision is determined by your capabilities, resources and constraints. In many cases, the 3Re Strategy will suffice. In other cases, a modified version of the 3Re Strategy will be ideal. In other cases, a completely different strategy is needed.
Strategies come in two basic flavors: competitive and cooperative. The former gets most of the attention, and seems to be supported as the more effective of the two in our normal societal and scientific narratives. But this is mostly an artifact of predominantly male leadership in both government and science. In truth, nature relies just as much—if not more—on cooperation as it does on competition.
Cooperative strategies are actually common in business, finance and government. But they are seldom discussed because they rely in large part on secrecy. They are far more effective if the people you’re competing with don’t know that you and those you’re cooperating with are doing so.
Another name for a cooperative strategy is “conspiracy.” When a husband and wife want to influence their daughter against a boyfriend they dislike, they often decides it will be more effective to influence her individually, rather than as a united front. That’s a conspiracy.
Any secret decision to cooperate is a conspiracy. It’s the normal behavior of all individuals and organizations. Cooperative strategies are especially effective these days because governments and major corporations (usually via movies and the mass media) have gone to great lengths to convince us that perceiving a conspiracy is a sign of paranoia or mental illness. As Christians like to say: “the Devil’s greatest success was convincing us he doesn’t exist”.
The end goal belongs in the vision, not in the strategy. The strategy should focus on what’s necessary to achieve the goal. For instance, if you want peace make it part of your vision, but don’t mention it in the strategy. Why? Because peace is an outcome of other qualities, not something that can be addressed directly. Peace is a symptom of justice. So to achieve peace, restore justice.
The two most important roles of a leader are:
1) Make it easier for your team to do their jobs. That’s the organizational management portion of a leader’s job.
2) Help you team stay focused on the strategy. That’s the performance management portion of a leader’s job.
One might ask, “What’s about keeping the team focused on the vision, or the plan?” A good strategy is based on the vision, so if the team is executing the strategy, they’re focused on the vision.
If they need help focusing on the plan, it’s a bad plan. A plan is supposed to make it clear who on the team should be doing what, at which points in program.
“Think big, start small, and act fast” is common, generic guidance for forming and implementing a strategy these days. Combine it with a regenerative vision, and it might be all you need for a regenerative strategy. If you find all these different approaches to strategizing confusing, then my work here is done. My goal has been to rid you of the stultifying assumption that there’s a proper, formal way to strategize. The goal is for your project or program or organization to succeed, not to impress anyone with how you created the strategy that spawned that success.
Imagine the ramifications if every community, region, nation around the planet used the 3Re Strategy. What if they were all repurposing, renewing and reconnecting their natural, built and socioeconomic assets simultaneously? What if they were all focused on actually succeeding, rather than on going through the motions? We would see a massive increase in economic growth, quality of life and biodiversity. We would likely see a corresponding massive decrease in poverty, resource-based conflict and climate refugees.
and at the core of what they teach is strategy.”
– Professor Michael Porter, Harvard University
Before we dive into the ideal process for implementing a strategy for resilient prosperity, let’s do one last quick recap to make sure the message about strategy’s importance sinks in. The process will accomplish little if it hasn’t.
Strategy is the overlooked key factor in the outcome of most endeavors. A strategy is a small thing, and costs virtually nothing; like an automobile ignition key. But like a key, if you forget it, you’re going nowhere. So why are the military and business worlds almost alone in teaching strategy?
A strategy is a technique or method for achieving a goal. A strategy isn’t something we do: it guides actions and decisions. (A strategy shared by several people is often called a “conspiracy” by those who are on the receiving end.) The right strategy maximizes chances of success, while minimizing time and resource needs. So, what does strategic thinking look like?
Both Apple and Google have explored the possibility of building cars. When that news first hit, most folks were bemused. It might turn out to be a bad idea for both of them, but it’s a good example of strategic thinking. At both firms, a new business opportunity must address two strategic issues: scale and connectivity.
Both are huge companies, so new markets must be vast to satisfy Wall Street’s insatiable demand for growth. Personal transportation has the requisite scale. New markets should also connect with existing offerings, for synergy’s sake. As accident rates show, automobiles are where we increasingly use Apple’s and Google’s products or services. Thus, an Apple or Google car is a reasonable concept…though Tesla’s experience with building them has probably reduced enthusiasm for the idea: it seems that Elon Musk’s expertise is more in the realm of strategy than process.
Speaking of whom: back on August 2, 2006, Musk published his “secret” strategy (he called it a “master plan”), which–until recently–he had successfully implemented: 1) Build sports car; 2) Use that money to build an affordable car; 3) Use that money to build an even more affordable car; 4) While doing above, also provide zero emission electric power generation options; 5) Don’t tell anyone.
One of Musk’s biggest challenges is distribution. In bypassing traditional automobile dealerships, he made enemies of them (and of the politicians they fund). Product manufacturers often fail by focusing so heavily on the product that the distribution or marketing strategies are taken for granted (the “Better Mousetrap” trap). Your product might save consumers tons of money. But if it does so in a way that threatens the income of existing players–such as reducing service revenue or sales of more profitable items–expect pushback.
As Charlie Peters of Emerson (a 125-year-old manufacturer) says: “The barriers to adoption are much more severe than the barriers to develop the technology.” Emerson’s design and production expertise is wasted without the right strategy for co-opting or bypassing the status quo.
The right strategy can emerge from identifying your chief threat. The rise of Netflix—and streaming video in general—convinced HBO to expand from content production into distribution.
HBO’s strategy convinced Netflix to expand from distribution into content production (such as House of Cards). In 2013, Gus Sarandos, the chief content officer of Netflix described their succinct strategy: “to become HBO faster than HBO can become us“. It worked.
So again: why do we mostly think of strategies in a military or business context? Aren’t all of us trying to achieve goals? Why do we have so much economic, social, and environmental planning, but so little pre-planning (strategy) and post-planning (process)? The tide might be turning, as we’ve seen Memphis, Tennessee embed a blight elimination strategy in the city charter, not just in policy.
That’s not to denigrate the power of policy (especially when it gets translated into legislation with teeth and/or sufficient funding). Policy created the federal Historic Tax Credit which—over its first 36 years—created 2.3 million jobs, leveraged $117 billion in investment, and rehabilitated over 41,250 buildings, which helped revitalize many downtowns throughout the U.S.
Once in a while, I run across an organization that really understands what a strategy and a vision should look like. Heron Foundation is one of them.
Here’s Heron’s vision: “Our vision is to help people in the United States to escape poverty, thrive and enjoy the benefits of full livelihood, opportunity and community.” And here’s their strategy: “Our strategy is to invest capital in ways that expand reliable employment and economic opportunity.”
No 90-page “strategies” or 500-word “visions” for them. Each gets just one sentence. Not suprisingly, Heron is one of the most respected foundations, despite their relatively small size. We featured one of their important initiatives in REVITALIZATION.
The Spring 2017 issue of Strategy + Business had an article titled “10 Principles of Strategy through Execution” by Ivan de Souza, Richard Kauffeld, and David van Oss. It said “Quality, innovation, profitability, and growth all depend on having strategy and execution fit together seamlessly. …Your execution occurs in the thousands of decisions made each day by people at every level of your company.”
Here’s a quick test: the next time you’re talking to a mayor, planner, or developer who says they are going to revitalize a place, ask what their strategy is. If they’re still talking a minute later, they might have a strategy, but not a good one. If they hand you a 50-page document, they don’t have a strategy, but might not know it. If they say “Go to hell“, they don’t have a strategy, and they know it.
That being said, I should acknowledge that good strategists fall into two categories: formal and informal. The former devise actual, stated strategies and build plans and/or processes around them. The latter are those blessed with what might be called “strategic intuition.”
Some good cooks follow recipes (AKA “processes”), while others just seem to throw stuff together. The latter can produce wonderful meals, but are far more likely to produce occasional disasters. Which style of strategist do you want in charge of your community’s future?
Informal strategists (the good ones, anyway) are those folks who always seem to be in the right place at the right time with the right offering. They intuit effective solutions to problems without ever using the word “strategy.” When forced to state their strategy, some are able to, while others draw a blank. If your life has been marked by one “natural” success after another, you’re probably one of these intuitive strategists. If not, keep reading.
As this is being written, several universities I know of are expanding and revitalizing their campus by repurposing old buildings, renewing them, and reconnecting them to the surrounding neighborhoods. One of them is in Mexico: the Tecnológico de Monterrey. Another—which I’ll focus on here—is in Canada. Those familiar with downtown Toronto, Ontario are probably familiar with the Ryerson University campus.
Ryerson University’s campus has expanded incrementally, primarily by repurposing and renewing existing buildings, such as the abandoned, historic hockey venue, Maple Leaf Gardens. In this manner, they have: 1) preserved heritage; 2) boosted downtown revitalization; 3) saved money on new construction, and 4) avoided wasting the embodied energy and materials of these solid older buildings.
As a result, it’s a bit hard to distinguish the campus from the adjacent neighborhoods. If you don’t see the banners, you probably won’t know you’re on the campus. Since Ryerson’s buildings weren’t originally designed as part of the school, there’s little shared architectural vernacular. The school inexpensively solved the problem via banners that let people know when they are on the campus.
My earlier criticism regarding street banners is only directed at places that confuse such purchases with actual revitalization. Banners are certainly useful in providing visual cues to behind-the-scenes revitalization activities. They can also provide visual cohesiveness for revitalized urban districts, especially those that reuse existing buildings.
After many years spent repurposing and renewing buildings, Ryerson is finally reconnecting them all to form a more cohesive campus, and to better integrated with the nearby areas they’ve helped revitalize. So, the 3Re Strategy is now complete.
Construction on Gould and Victoria Streets is underway as I write this, as part of their Campus Core Revitalization project. It’s designed to enhance the quality of safe, accessible spaces and implement infrastructure upgrades, resulting in a campus that’s greener, more easily accessible, pedestrian-friendly and connected to the community. The central design theme is the permanent pedestrianization of Gould Street: raising the roadway to make it level with the walkway, prohibiting vehicular access except for emergency services, and establishing cycling dismount zones.
Other improvements include additional outdoor lighting, increasing opportunities for public art installations, adding biodiverse plantings, replacing end-of-life trees and other site furnishings to improve the safety and accessibility of our shared public spaces.
Ryerson defines the public realm as the publicly accessible, exterior campus spaces, including streets, pathways, right-of-ways and parks; the spaces where students, staff, faculty and local residents move, meet and celebrate together. Most of Ryerson’s public realm is owned by the City of Toronto, so partnering with local government is required for any improvements on public right-of-ways.
I lectured at Ryerson back in 2010, and fell in love with the campus. Not because of grand architecture—as one would find at almost any old European university—and not because of beautiful green spaces and grand old trees, as one finds on campuses like Davidson College in North Carolina (not much greenspace on the Ryerson campus).
No, I love it because it’s a campus that has profoundly revitalized a run-down section of Toronto’s downtown, and they’ve done it without the destructive, blank-slate approach so common amongst planners. It’s the kind of regenerative approach I’ve been recommending to communities for some two decades, but it’s being done instead by a school.
That’s unique, especially when one considers how many universities (most of them here in the U.S.) purposely allowed—even encouraged—surrounding neighborhoods to go into decline, so they could scoop up cheap real estate to expand their campus.
This strategy backfired on many of them—such as Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore—when they found themselves surrounded by drugs and crime to the point where they started having trouble attracting students and faculty. Over the past decade or so, Johns Hopkins has been pushing a grand—and expensive—campus and neighborhood revitalization project, but it’s been rather poorly designed and organized, so the ROI (revitalization on investment) has been low.
Many schools teach sustainability, enlightened urban planning, and heritage preservation, while simultaneously expanding via sprawl and demolition. Ryerson is thus a rare example of a university that teaches by example.
Wrong/no vision + right strategy = Failure.
Right vision + wrong/no strategy = Failure.
Vision and strategy go hand in hand.
Like male and female, their union creates new life.
- Chapter 8 - STRATEGY-RELATED INSIGHTS: Tuning in to strategic thinking.
- PART C - PROCESS: Mastering the other missing key to success.
once it gets into the tens of millions of dollars. Their experience is not around process.”
– John Kenney, partner at TSG Consumer Partners, a private equity firm.
John Kenney’s insight about business startups above applies to many communities. While some new cities are still being created—primarily in China and Africa—most are at least a century old. But, with the exception of those cities that are locked-in by geography—like San Francisco, Hong Kong and New York City—most mayors are still treating their community as if it were just founded…as if it were a startup. They have a romantic image of their role as a pioneer, still pushing into new territory.
This psychology is just one driver of unnecessary sprawl, which is well-documented to undermine both the economy and the quality of life. The vast majority of the communities that are desperately seeking to revitalize their downtowns need to do so because sprawl killed their city center. But the skills it takes to create and grow a community are very different from those needed to make it a better community.
“Better” is relative to current conditions, of course. If a place is boring—indistinguishable from most other places—“better” means transforming it into a unique, beautiful, stimulating place to live and work. If it’s emptying-out due to a paucity of jobs and a perception that things will only get worse, “better” means growing the economy (not the geographic size) and reinstilling confidence in its future. If it is constantly damaged by natural, societal or economic crises, “better” means healthier and more resilient.
The key to all of those transformations is process. Those mayors and city managers with pioneer mindsets will likely be as clueless about the process of regenerating their community as a kid with a lemonade stand would be if asked to manage a network of a thousand lemonade stands. Most mayors promise revitalization on the campaign trail, but don’t have the slightest clue how to deliver it.
Worse, their pioneer mindset is the exact opposite of what is needed to revitalize. Making a place is very, very different from remaking a place. The world is awash with place makers, when what we desperately need is more place remakers. And what those remakers desperately need is a process.
- Chapter 9 - PROJECTS vs. PROGRAMS: From intermittent renewal to the momentum of ongoing revitalization.
may have difficulty even conceptualizing a different reality.”
– Alan Mallach, Regenerating America’s Legacy Cities (Lincoln Institute of Land Policy)
This will sound like heresy, but redevelopment projects and planning exercises shouldn’t have to engage local stakeholders. They also shouldn’t have to explore ways in which to more-efficiently integrate the renewal of your natural, built, and socioeconomic environments. Why?
Because that engagement and integration should already be in place, via a permanent, resident-owned revitalization program. Effectively engaging all of your resident, non-profit, academic, business, and government stakeholders is a labor-intensive process that takes a significant amount of time. It’s wasteful and counter-productive for each new project or comprehensive plan update to have to start that process from scratch. Why “resident-owned”? So that the program doesn’t fall apart with each new political administration.
In Chapter 9, you’re going to learn about what might be the ideal, universal process for creating resilient prosperity. I’ve encountered many places that had most of the elements of that process, but none that had all. The two elements of that are usually missing are strategy and program.
Until now, we’ve mostly focused on strategy, and on the fact that few places even have a partial process. Let’s now dive into the other commonly-overlooked—but crucially-important—part of the process: the ongoing program.
The irony is that programs are cheap: it’s projects that are capital-intensive. Nothing adds more value per dollar invested than the tiny amounts required by an ongoing revitalization program.
According to the “bible” of professional project managers, A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK), Third Edition “A program is a group of related projects managed in a coordinated way to obtain benefits and control not available from managing them individually.” If project managers worldwide are aware of this simple (and rather obvious) insight, why don’t communities put it into practice?
The general public often assumes planning, economic development, or redevelopment agencies are providing a systemic revitalization program. This is very seldom the case. They are just larger silos. Without a comprehensive, collaborative revitalization program, even well-founded, well-intentioned redevelopment agencies almost inevitably deteriorate into wasteful—often corrupt—playgrounds for the politically connected. Revitalization should be done by communities, not just to them.
An ongoing revitalization program is a community’s “flywheel”, capturing the momentum of each successful project, and using it to make subsequent projects easier to fund and launch. A well-designed program also captures the community’s learning, and embeds those lessons in policy. These changes to the community’s “renewal capacity” reduce bureaucratic roadblocks for redevelopers, increase incentives that attract what the community really needs, and enhance the community’s partnering skills. Maybe more importantly, they restore hope and optimism concerning the future.
Over the past 14 years (20, if you include the 6 years spent researching and writing my first book, The Restoration Economy), some of the saddest places I’ve encountered are those that have worked hard for decades on revitalizing their city, experiencing a series of emotional highs when the initiatives are launched, followed by crushing disappointments when they. This can be hard on the community psyche. I call it “bipolar redevelopment”. Negativity and pessimism are the eventual result.
They’re companions — the hero and the sidekick.”
– Laurence Shames, American writer.
As mentioned earlier, these disappointments often come from poor planning. Not having a comprehensive plan is bad because the planning process has value, even if no plan emerges. But implementing a bad plan can be worse than not having one because it demoralizes the community: they were expecting progress, and got none. If your community has a shelf full of unimplemented plans, don’t worry: that just makes it normal. Buying a plan is politically safe, but implementing it is risky. That’s a major driver of the planning trap: plan-forget plan-plan again.
One source of such repeated failures the previously-mentioned “schizophrenic redevelopment”: implementing polar-opposite development policies simultaneously. Two examples are 1) working on downtown revitalization while allowing (even subsidizing) sprawl; and 2) demolishing reusable vacant homes (and repurposable commercial buildings) while trying to boost affordable housing.
Projects not supported by partnerships (and policies) are more likely to fail. Partnerships not supported by ongoing programs are more likely to fail. Programs not based on a clear, concise strategy are more likely to fail. Strategies not based on a vision of the future that’s shared by the community are more likely to fail. Using that as a guide, how many “points of potential failure” are present in your community?
Revitalization programs differ from renewal projects in three key characteristics:
- DURATION: A program is ongoing, or very long term, whereas projects normally have end dates measured in months, or a few years. (Note: Duration isn’t enough: having a 30-year plan or 30-year project doesn’t mean you have a program);
- SCOPE: A program addresses the entire community or region, whereas a project normally focuses on a specific property or asset; and
- PURPOSE: A program includes some softer, harder-to-measure goals, such as inspiring confidence in the community’s future (to attract investors, employers, and residents), reversing a decline, raising quality of life, enhancing overall environmental health, etc. A project’s goals are usually more tangible, such as attracting a particular employer to a particular site, widening sidewalks to make a downtown more pedestrian-friendly, etc.
But the primary source of those depressing scenarios is a focus on projects, rather than programs. Communities throw everything they have into a project that revitalizes a specific property or area, and then take a few years off. By the time the next big project comes along, the previous one is dead or dying. The same dynamic applies to landscape-scale environmental restoration efforts, where an ecologically-viable critical mass of restored habitats and connections isn’t achieved.
Without an ongoing program, you have a stop-start situation that creates no revitalizing flow. Without a flow, no momentum is produced. Momentum is what inspires confidence in the local future. And increasing confidence in the local future—as stated earlier—is the most important strategic outcome. It’s what attracts new people and resources, and helps you retain those you have. (More on this in a moment.)
And so it is with communities. A community that has hit bottom probably has poor schools, potholed roads, high crime, derelict parks, and vacant buildings galore. But if their revitalization program inspires confidence that they’re on the way back up, many of those downsides will be perceived as positives: buy-low, sell-high real estate investment opportunities; lower-wage employees for your startup; affordable housing for the employees you hope to attract from elsewhere; etc.
And we shouldn’t ignore the “cool” factor: neighborhoods on the rise are the place to be. Young people in particular tend find them much more attractive than a place that’s already nice, but going nowhere. Rags-to-riches stories never go out of style: people love to tell them, and that’s a free source of media attention.
Flows are key. Cities don’t build next to ephemeral wetlands: they build next to flowing rivers, flowing estuaries, and flowing tides. Inland communities without major water assets build at the intersections of highways or railroads, where flows of people and commerce are high.
Good redevelopment planners are always looking to restore flows, and the opportunities to do so are endless. Much of the urban planning work of the 21st century is based on undoing the planning work of the 20th century, which was largely based on fragmentation: single-use zoning, single-economic-class neighborhoods), severing neighborhoods with urban highways, etc.
Look at the best regeneration initiatives going on around the planet, and you’ll see that the restoration of healthful flows is their basis.
Some are removing those badly-planned urban highways to restore flows between neighborhoods, or between downtowns and waterfronts. Others are removing obsolete dams to restore fish migrations, thus revitalizing economically-important commercial and recreational fishing economies.
All such flow-based projects are naturally strategic. But to achieve the maximum revitalizing effect, they should cease being isolated, limited-term, restoration projects, and become comprehensive, ongoing revitalization programs.
Ongoing programs are especially important due to a universal behavior psychologists refer to as “recency bias”. Humans tend to extrapolate the past into the future, but we put extra emphasis on recent events. Investors flock to a stock (or a stock market) that’s been rising steadily, even though looking further into the past reveals the likelihood of a downturn.
Applied to community economic growth, this means that the $1 million redevelopment of a historic building into a new hotel that opened last week will inspire more confidence in the future of a community than the $200 million convention center that opened 3 years ago. Thus, an ongoing program that spawns a constant flow of small and medium-sized renewal projects will likely attract more investment to your city than will large projects that occur once every 5 or 10 years.
I’ve seen many dedicated professionals throw time and money into creating excellent tools that die on the vine due to lack of programmatic support. Without a program, there was no ongoing training to help leaders and citizens understand the need for the tool.
For instance, in April of 2017, a county in Virginia abandoned their Revitalization Map, a smart 2016 effort on the part of their Revitalization Manager. Why? Because a few city council members didn’t want restrictions on which projects they could incentivize (that is: reward their buddies.) They could only see what the map prevented them from doing; not its strategic value. An ongoing program, as part of a RECONOMICS Process, helps avoid the wasted efforts resulting decisions made by people who have taken their eyes off the ball.
It’s important to note that the entity that hosts your local ongoing program does not own your process. The program is an organizational flywheel that helps coordinate and perpetuate your efforts. But the process is a distributed, intangible dynamic that exists primarily in the minds of those who are aware of it. The process is needed by everyone, but owned by no one. It’s thus totally inclusive, because those who support or take leadership of its component activities are self-selected.
For example, someone might look at your local RECONOMICS Process and realize that a key element of policy support is missing. They could then propose a new or amended policy to the city council, or maybe they are already on the council. Ideally, they would run it by your local Prosperity Program first, but that’s not essential. The key is public awareness of the process: the more who understand it, the more who can contribute to it.
Project Management vs. Program Management
The Project Management Institute (PMI) an organization of almost 500,000 members worldwide, defines program management as: “A group of related projects managed in a coordinated way to obtain benefits and control not available from managing them individually.” In other words, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, which is another way of describing emergent phenomena. [My thanks to PMI for having me keynote their Global Congress (along with Bill Clinton), where I first encountered this definition.]
An alternate (and more mission-specific) definition of “program” is offered by the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council: “a suite of intrinsically-linked restoration and/or conservation activities that must be implemented together in order to achieve the desired outcome.”
Just as the world has plenty of planners and too few strategists, so too does it have plenty of project managers and too few program managers. As previously mentioned, revitalization is an emergent quality of a complex adaptive system. It’s the turning point, where a system hits a critical mass of renewal and shifts to a different state.
At that point, revitalization becomes self-perpetuating—revitalization begets more revitalization—and the public leaders no longer need to keep pushing for it. Thus, revitalization can’t be engineered on a schedule. Reliably reaching the revitalization tipping point means doing the right things until the right time. That requires an ongoing program, which requires a competent program manager.
Too many of today’s resilience initiatives are not in themselves resilient (as we saw with Rockefeller’s now-defunct 100 Resilient Cities program.) At the city and regional level, they tend to have a relatively fixed agenda, and poor responsiveness to a changing environment. They are trying to engineer something (resilience) that can’t be engineered. Like the revitalization of cities and the function of our bodies’ immune systems, resilience is an emergent characteristic of a complex adaptive system.
As with revitalization, the only way to have even a chance of achieving resilience is via a strategic, ongoing program. Managers of such programs need to be comfortable operating somewhat “in the dark.” Unlike a simple project with an engineered outcome, a revitalization or resilience manager never knows when he/she will bump into the goal.
As novelist William Kent Krueger says in Manitou Canyon, “Sometimes a man walks into the night and does not understand why he cannot see. He blames himself for the darkness.”
And so it can be for the revitalization director who is asked “Where are we in the process? When will our city be reborn?”
It’s not just cities that need ongoing regeneration: we thrive on it as individuals, and corporations can’t survive without it (unless they pay politicians to create a monopoly situation for them).
For instance, after decades of reportedly psychologically-abusive management by Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer, Microsoft developed a toxic, fear-based culture.
Internal groups were at war with each other, and everyone was so terrified of making a mistake that innovation dried up.
Then, Satya Nadella took over as CEO in 2014, and Microsoft has rapidly been reborn.
The key was creating a risk-friendly environment where people felt free to fail, and where the company’s products and services were regenerated on an ongoing basis. “We needed needed a culture that allowed us to constantly refresh and renew,” he says.
The best way to accomplish that is to have a regenerative program. At the very least, such a program—which houses the RECONOMICS Process—would be driven by what might be called “sub-processes:” renewing, culturing and engaging.
“Renewing” is at the heart of anything regenerative—whether a project, a strategy, a policy, or whatever—so that requires no explanation. “Integrating” means that the program should function as a forum for bringing together all of the component projects and activities that normally operate in silos. This is where you derive many of the “whole is greater than the sum of its parts” efficiencies. “Engaging” goes beyond the usual “stakeholder engagement” efforts that have become an unproductive ritual in too many places. Proper engagement helps create a local culture of renewal: it educates everyone concerned about the process of regenerating their community, and helps ensure that the underlying vision is at least understood (if not embraced) by all.
Too many depressed communities think their revitalization will make them happy. In fact, the opposite is true: residents, employers and investors are attracted to happy places.
If the concept of happiness causing revitalization sounds hippie-dippie and just plain weird, consider this: In 2018, a review of 225 studies in the respected journal, Psychological Bulletin, found that happiness in individuals doesn’t necessarily follow success. In fact, research showed exactly the opposite: Happiness leads to success. [If you would like to explore this dynamic in more detail, read the 2018 book, The Happiness Advantage: How a Positive Brain Fuels Success in Work and Life by Shawn Achor.]
Conversely, pervasive fear and anger drives away new residents, employers and investors. Maybe more importantly, those emotions cripple our minds.
Here’s a brief excerpt from Achor’s book: “Instead of narrowing our actions down to fight or flight the way negative emotions do, positive ones broaden the amount of possibilities we process, making us more thoughtful, creative, and open to new ideas. For instance, individuals who are ‘primed’—meaning scientists help evoke a certain mindset or emotion before doing an experiment—to feel either amusement or contentment can think of a larger and wider array of thoughts and ideas than individuals who have been primed to feel either anxiety or anger. And when positive emotions broaden our scope of cognition in this way, they not only make us more creative, they help us build more intellectual social, and physical resources we can rely on in the future.”
– Joseph Addison, British essayist, poet, playwright and politician.
Little wonder then, that recent research shows that the most conservative communities in the U.S.—those whose citizens consume a steady diet of anger-inducing “fake news” from the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Fox News—are the ones most dependent on state and federal welfare programs. Their communities tend to recede into enclaves of paranoia and superstition. Economic devitalization goes hand-in-hand with such degenerative cultures.
So, “don’t worry, be happy” is a probably good starting place for any community revitalization program, and might be the best first step towards building a regenerative culture.
The Universal Goal of Revitalization Programs: Increasing confidence in their future.
– Helen Keller, author and political activist
As the chart to the left reveals, the relationship between confidence in the future of a place and the value of the property in that place is dramatically and causally linked.
All revitalization efforts that have failed to bring a distressed place back to life tend to have one thing in common: they did