RECONOMICS: A book preview

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 (coming 2019) to help your agency, non-profit or company boost economic, environmental & social health in nations, regions & communities NOW.

The title is RECONOMICS: The Path to Resilient Prosperity.   It’s a guide for policymakers, real estate investors and social entrepreneurs. What it reveals can double the ROI of their projects and programs.

by Storm Cunningham, Publisher, REVITALIZATION                    Last updated: May 23, 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 preview 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

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.


  • INTRODUCTION - How your next renewal project could trigger ongoing revitalization.

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.
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.

Berlin, Germany.

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, that is. 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.

That, in turn, means the local economy is likely getting a low ROI (return on investment) on their community improvement expenditures.

Visionaries, designers, planners, policymakers, and project managers abound.  Strategists are rare.

As a result, resilience and revitalization efforts often fail due to 1) bad strategy, and 2) no strategy.

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.

We all dream of reducing complex problems to a simple, single factor, like Jack Palance telling Billy Crystal in City Slickers that “the secret to life is just one thing.”

But trying to reduce community revitalization to just one—or even a few—of the factors listed above is like reducing personal happiness to just health, just money, or just knowledge. The key to success when dealing with such complexity isn’t one factor: it’s an adaptive, ongoing cycle of acting, learning and adjusting that enables all of the relevant local factors to come into play at the right time.

Strategies are a technology. Technology is the manufacture, use, and/or understanding of tools, machines, techniques, or systems designed to solve problems or perform functions. In the case of strategies, that function is to produce success. That’s it: all strategies have that single purpose. After Boeing lost several big military contracts to competitors, its recently-hired CEO, Leanne Caret, adopted a new strategy in 2016. When a Bloomberg reporter asked her how she would know if her strategy was working, she said “When we start winning.” She knows that this is the sole metric of a strategy’s value. In November of 2018, Boeing won a $13 billion Pentagon contract.

Technologies aren’t just hardware, or even software: they are also wetware (us). Our bodies are technologies, as are our thought constructs (techniques) that help us achieve an end.

Strategies (and tactics) are thus very simple technologies. A strategy is a technique that increases the likelihood of success for an action, project, or program.

Like DNA (which 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.

Stephen Curry. Photo:
Keith Allison / Wikipedia.

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.

  • Chapter 1 - CONCEPTS & TERMINOLOGY: Regenerating and adapting our way to resilient prosperity.
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.”

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.

“Urban blight”, Colorado Springs style. Rendering courtesy of U.S. Air Force Academy

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, mosquitos, termites, fleas, rats, etc. And so it is with resilience.

“Revitalization goes beyond the achievement of bouncing forward…
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”.

Plaza de los Restauradores

Plaza of the Restorationists, Lisbon (photo by Storm Cunningham)

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).

Revitalizing, restoring, regenerating, and boosting resilience are all modes of making a place healthier, wealthier, stronger, and more beautiful. Any community that thinks it doesn’t need to work on this is probably on its way down. We tend to lose what we take for granted. Oscar Wilde described the importance of having an inspiring vision when he said “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.

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.

Bangkok flood 2011A good revitalization strategy will adapt to the challenges of a changing climate.

And 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.

Adaptive Management

“You have to be fast on your feet and adaptive or else a strategy is useless.”
– 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).

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.

DC smart meter

DC smart meter (by Kate Patterson, USA TODAY)

For instance, 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.”

Technology 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).)

McKinley Monument on Niagara Square in
Buffalo, NY. Photo via Adobe Stock.

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.

Point Park

Point State Park, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (2016 photo by Storm Cunningham)

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.

“Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
– Mike Tyson

CLA Framework of USAID

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.

A recent example of this can be found in the draft Adaptive Management Plan, published in October of 2016 by Louisiana’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority.

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.

Transition Management: The key to resilience.

What you’re reading here could also be called a “Transition Success Guide“. Why? Because how we handle transitions determines our resilience. Resilient prosperity is a universal goal, and transition management is a universally-applicable skill that helps get us there.


Nakskov, Denmark
Photo by Storm Cunningham

An individual transitioning from one career to another wants a resilient profession or business: one that remains relevant and lucrative. A city or nation transitioning from one economic base to another (such as from fishing to tourism) has the same goal.

For almost two decades, communities and regions worldwide have brought me in to help them revitalize, or to enhance their resilience. While they all had unique cultures, assets, challenges, and aspirations, they could all be put into two basic categories: 1) those who had failed to perceive and prepare for a transition (or who had failed to adapt to it), and thus needed revitalization; and 2) those who see a transition on the horizon, and wish to boost their resilience in preparation.

Transitions can thus be either internally (proactive) or externally (reactive) triggered. And they can be either incremental or sudden. The former often chip away at a community for years, but never create enough pain to trigger a response. The latter pounce on a community, such as the loss of the major employer or a natural disaster. But the result is the same: one day folks wake up and realize that their future looks bleak.

The key lesson is that transitions are constant: only the speed varies. Thus, the trend towards an ongoing process of repurposing, renewing, and reconnecting our existing assets, and away from the old model of economic growth via the frantic acquisition of new assets (which often creates three new problems from every one it solves.)

Coal mine

Coal mine

In other words, there are two basic kinds of transition management: preventive and curative. The former happens when a place prepares for an impending or likely disruption. The latter happen when they fail to prepare for an inevitable transition (such as from dependence on fossil fuels or unsustainable resource extraction), or when they are hit by an unpredictable disruption, such as civil war or an earthquake.

There are many characteristics that can contribute to a community’s resilience, such as harmony and tenaciousness. But these are relatively unmanageable traits. The essential resilience-enhancing behavior that we can control (to a degree) is transition management.

And the most crucial element of transition management is the strategy. Major transitions are fluid and unpredictable. Thus, even the best transition plan is rapidly rendered obsolete (unless it’s adaptive, “living” document). Not so a good transition strategy.

Here are some of today’s more common transitions that typically trigger revitalization and/or resilience efforts:

  • From extraction of virgin natural resources to resource restoration;
  • From a socially/politically unstable rich/poor economy to one with a strong middle class;
  • From a raw resource export economy to a value-added manufacturing economy;
  • From a heavy industry economy to a high/clean-tech or information-based economy;
  • From a locally-focused economy to a globally-connected economy;
  • From automobile-centric planning to mobility orientation;
  • From situations of high crime, racial strife, and disease to justice-based with equal opportunity for all;
  • From disaster and/or climate vulnerability to reconstruction, redesign, or relocation.
  • Chapter 2 - THE PROBLEM: Much activity and planning; not much strategy.
“Amateur in the art of running government: Lots of horse trading, but little or no strategy.”
Institute for Government‘s criticism of British Treasury (The Guardian, Nov. 25, 2015)

Would you stand on a 3-legged stool that had only two legs? Most organizations do. Go to the “About Us” page of almost any company or non-profit website, and you’ll probably find a vision and a mission, but no strategy. In other words, they know what they want to achieve—and they know why they’re doing it—but they don’t know how they will succeed.

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 al 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.

Child on ComputerMany 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.

Downtown Las Vegas (by Storm Cunningham)

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.

That was a good vision. But his strategy was to do it by buying Alstom—a company that made fossil fuel-powered turbines—for $10.6 billion. That might have been a good strategy a few decades ago.

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.

Planning disasterSome dictionaries even define strategy as a “plan” for achieving a goal.  Little wonder, then, that folks are confused as to the difference between a strategy and 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.

Rio de JaneiroIn 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-15Maybe the biggest obstacle to creating revitalization strategies is siloing: everyone works on the pieces, no one on the whole.

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.

InsanityReductionism, 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.


Chattanooga (photo by author)

The first silo-busting revitalization processes I studied were those of Chattanooga, Tennessee and Bilbao, Spain. I documented them in my 2008 book, Rewealth (McGraw-Hill Professional).

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.

But silos 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.


Solar canal covers in Gujarat, India
Photo by Hitesh vip via Wikipedia

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.

Over 90% of urban, rural, and regional plans lack both
a clearly-defined strategy and an implementation program.

Farm clean-30Most 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.

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.

sicarioOnce 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, Benecio 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.”    (Image: Lions Gate Films Inc.)
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.


Before & after coal mine reclamation in Britain. Photos by Iain Thomson & Richard Webb.

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.

Mangrove ecosystem. Photo: Adobe Stock.

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.

green-metropolisThe 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?

LeaderThe primary reason seems to be because few public (or private) leaders know how revitalization works.

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.

The fact that the outcome of community revitalization or resilience isn’t in their vision means it isn’t in their strategy. Untapped resources, reduced stakeholder buy-in, and limited success ensue.

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.


Houston, Texas after “urban renewal”.

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.


Charleston, SC. Photo via Adobe Stock.

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.

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):

  1. Residents and neighbourhood volunteers are at the root of a great neighbourhood;
  2. Every resident is a neighbour and can help build strong neighbourhoods;
  3. Neighbourhood community building should be resident-led;
  4. Neighbourhood community building should aim to be inclusive;
  5. City departments must work together to help support resident-led and delivered neighbourhood initiatives; and,
  6. 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:

  1. Encourage Neighbourliness;
  2. Support neighbourhoods seeking to build stronger relationships through a program that sparks neighbourhood community building;
  3. Nurture place-based neighbourhood pride, belonging, identity and placemaking;
  4. Inspire those living in multi-unit buildings to connect with their neighbours;
  5. Continue to build neighbourhood cohesion in areas with a high concentration of post-secondary students; and,
  6. 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”:
We will:

  • 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.”
Ninth Ward

Post-Katrina New Orleans.
Photo by Storm Cunningham.

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.

As in New Orleans, the Philadelphia Land Bank confuses their strategic plan with a strategy. Thus, they have a 77-page “strategy”, which means they have no strategy at all.

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.

  • Chapter 3 - THE PARTIAL SOLUTION: How To Create A Strategy.
“I have always found plans to be useless, but planning is indispensable.”
– 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.

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.

Millvale visionThe same strategy can often be applied to multiple communities, despite differing strengths, weaknesses, and cultures. How is that possible? That’s where the vision comes in.

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.

“The dream of a better city is always in the heads of its residents.”
– 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.

Photo of Lakewood (Chicago) store courtesy Whole Foods Markets

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.

Venice’s mechanical Mose barrier.

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.

A resilient living shoreline proposal for lower Manhattan. (Image courtesy NYCEDC)

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.

“Without a vision there is no strategy.”
– 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.

GardenApplying Question #1, vacant land becomes an asset if repurposed to produce food or energy, and low population becomes an asset if reducing food or energy consumption is a goal.

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.

“No battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy.”
– 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.

Complex system goalA 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.

Los Angeles “River”. Photo: Adobe Stock.

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).

The bottom line is that there’s no particular profession that should create the strategy. The important thing is to make sure it’s the right one.

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.

“There have been hundreds of plans, and none of
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.

US Army landing at Anzio on January 22, 1944.

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.

“The role of the CSO (Chief Strategy Officer)…is growing increasingly popular. Companies large and small…recognize the value of having a member of the C-suite who is primarily oriented to the long-term future of the company, and to sustainability and profitability. Unlike the CEO, whose day job often focuses on short-term performance, the CSO can concentrate on the future.”
– 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

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.

Image courtesy of Boeing.

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.

Timing, Scope, and Starting Point

Farm clean-30The 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.

Malmo - 30For 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.

Acidic runoff water from an abandoned coal mine is blighting this town’s future.

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.

Reframing Assumptions
Good strategizing, especially in social situations, often involves reframing our perceptions and assumptions.

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.

ReunitedA 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.


The following insights relate to common strategic mistakes and successes I’ve observed.
But every place and time is different: these are mostly generalities, not universal rules.

Random insights for creating prosperous, green, equitable, resilient places:

  1. Good citizens drive equitable visions.
    Good leaders drive efficient strategies.
    Good partnerships drive effective action.
  2. Resilient places prepare for the exception.
    Vulnerable places prepare for the average.
  3. Most places have either plans with no money, or money with no plans.
    Many have plans and money, but no success.
    A strategic renewal process generates everything needed to revitalize.
  4. The primary purpose of planning is to facilitate action, not to create a plan.
    The sole purpose of strategizing is to make that action succeed.
    Thus, a plan without a strategy is a plan to fail.  (And no: a plan is NOT a strategy!)
  5. Strategies must be based on verbs.  Adjectives and nouns are for visions.
    Beware of strategies containing words like “sustainable”, “inclusive”, “creative”, “resilient”, etc.
  6. A regional strategy can revitalize a community faster than a local strategy,
    thanks to shared natural resources, infrastructure connectivity, and critical mass.
  7. Just as green infrastructure helps cities absorb stormwater to reduce destructive flooding,
    regenerative strategies help cities absorb population growth to reduce destructive sprawl.
  8. Community economic resilience is more likely to derive from strategies
    that focus on growing local employers, rather than competing for outsiders.
  9. Economic development should be the process of creating a place where employers want to be.
    It should not be the process of incentivizing them to move to your otherwise-undesirable place.
  10. Places that value jobs over quality of life usually end up with neither.
    Places that enhance their quality of life get jobs as a fringe benefit.
  11. The primary purpose of most plans is to avoid action. Buying a plan doesn’t
    revitalize a community, any more than owning a book enlightens a person.
  12. 3 ways to boost local tax revenues: 1) Raise rates; 2) Sprawl; 3) Revitalize.
    #1 angers everyone; #2 angers intelligent people; #3 makes everyone happy.
  13. Badly-planned sprawl kills downtowns, while enabling leaders to boast of population and tax revenue growth.
    Such communities are like a bodybuilder with massive muscles, but a diseased heart.
  14. Strategy before design: Don’t engage architects and planners too early.
    A specific design for your project—no matter how good—stifles creativity, and closes-off paths to alternatives.
  15. A general who is winning the battles but losing the war changes the strategy.
    So should a city that’s winning at redevelopment, but losing at revitalization.
  16. Revitalization and resilience success stories usually feature:
    a) A shared vision of the desired future;
    b) A strategy to achieve that vision; and
    c) An understanding of relevant trends, and how similar places achieved similar goals.
  17. Strategic public-private partnerships flow opportunity and risk to private partners,
    while flowing resources and influence to public partners.
  18. Mayors often copy the physical product of revitalization in other cities, rather than
    learn from the innovative, inclusive, locally-appropriate process that created it.
  19. Most cities that want revitalization or resilience have no one in charge of delivering it.
    Their goals thus become wishes or dialogues, not projects or programs.
  20. Most planners say they want a downtown that’s a good place to be, not just a good place to drive through.
    But their plans say otherwise.
  21. Retail is a sign of downtown revitalization; seldom a cause.
    Boost residential density via affordable housing + public transit, and retail follows.
    Count pedestrians annually to measure revitalization progress.
  22. Tax Increment Financing: An excellent revitalization tool, but it’s often
    1) misused [for sprawl], 2) abused [developer subsidies], and 3) overused [revenue depletion].
  23. To build a tourism economy, design places that delight residents in your region:
    Locals provide year-round revenue, and most tourists prefer authentic, working communities.
  24. A vision/strategy that can’t be recited during an elevator ride is too hazy or too complicated to succeed.
    If it can’t be remembered, it won’t affect decision-making.
  25. A good vision without a strategy is a pleasant daydream.
    A good strategy without a vision is the right route to the wrong place.
  26. A plan without a strategy is an activity catalog.
    To implement a plan without adaptive management is to be guided by a relic.
  27. Strategies are essential, fluid, and live in minds.
    Plans are optional, rigid, and (too often) rot on shelves.
  28. For a resilient future, climate adaptation strategies must: a) restore green infrastructure;
    b) repurpose energy infrastructure to renewables, c) revitalize today’s economy.
  29. Devastated places can leverage their recovery process to build a new economy that becomes
    a national or global center for regenerative education, workforce development, & restorative technology.
  30. Size has a logarithmic dynamic in transit and trail networks:
    Each new node can double the value of the entire system.
  31. Bilateral strategies reward what you desire and repel what you detest:
    Make redevelopment easier & cheaper while making sprawl harder & more expensive.
  32. Schizophrenic strategies self-destruct, such as redevelopment that exacerbates economic inequity,
    or policies that encourage sprawl and downtown revitalization simultaneously.
  33. Economic development incentives are commodities; Quality of life and confidence in the local future
    are usually the key differentiators when recruiting employers.
  34. Your downtown revitalization effort shouldn’t try to include affordable housing, walkability or heritage restoration.
    In most cases, it should be BASED on them.
  35. Economic Collapse Disorder (ECD). Unlike honeybees’ Colony Collapse Disorder, the ECD pathogen is known:
    loss of confidence in the local future. Many factors can destroy confidence, but knowing the pathogen aids the recovery strategy.
  36. Revitalization Feedback Loop: Confidence in the local future attracts resources for revitalization;
    revitalization builds confidence in the local future.
  37. “Start with the petunias.” This adage reminds us that there’s always some action we can take right now.
    Action breeds more action. More action breeds momentum. Momentum breeds confidence in the future.
  38. Places that renew the natural, built, social, and economic assets they have today,
    tend to attract the resources they need to renew more of them tomorrow.
  39. The more that people exercise, the more they CAN exercise. The more that communities revitalize, the more they CAN revitalize. The more that ecosystems are restored, the more they CAN restore themselves.
  40. Adaptive strategies constantly repurpose, renew, and reconnect your existing socioeconomic strengths
    and your existing physical assets (natural, historic, agricultural, infrastructure, etc.).
  41. Revitalization strategies require thought. “Magic bullets” like stadiums, casinos,
    street banners, aquariums, or convention centers only require money.
  42. Streetscaping is to community revitalization what nice clothing is to dating:
    It gets things started, but provides no foundation for the long term.
  43. Moderate gentrification (displacement) is a natural, unavoidable result of revitalization.
    Excessive gentrification is revitalization done badly. Mixed-income neighborhoods are healthier.
    Revitalization should pull residents up, not push them out.
  44. A good revitalization strategy is simple, but a good vision is holistic:
    Beware redevelopment fads focused on a single attribute or asset type.
  45. Optimize, Don’t Maximize: Many revitalizing traits are devitalizing to both cities and nature
    when in excess, such as density, flows, connectivity, nutrients, change, and stability.
  46. Good strategies solve problems, tactics cope with symptoms.  For example:
    Armoring streams to fix watersheds is like armoring police to fix society.
  47. 80% of the revitalizing work done by urban planners and civil engineers in the 21st century
    will undo 80% of the work their predecessors did to cities and nature in the 20th century.
  48. Policies, partnerships, programs and projects implement strategies.
    Strategies implement visions. A vision is a cohesive set of aspirational goals.
  49. If a lumber or mining town (or region) is devitalized due to resource depletion,
    a logical strategy for economic revitalization will be based on resource restoration.
  50. As was the damage and depletion of our world, our revitalized future
    —the global Restoration Economy—is based on investment, not on philanthropy.
  51. Unlike people, cities and nations don’t die of old age. Like people, they die from ignorance, fear, and neglect.
    Constant regeneration produces knowledge, optimism and care…thus yielding the “eternal” city or nation.
  52. On our depleted, fragmented, contaminated planet, the heart of a sustainable development strategy
    is actually restorative development: After all, who wants to sustain this mess?
“The revitalization of Harlem in the 1990s and early 2000s demonstrated that well-designed revitalization efforts, which included programs for small business and job creation, along with low-income housing targeted at local residents, can improve neighborhoods both physically and economically, while keeping the vast majority of residents in place.”
– Glenn Robert Erikson, member, World Policy Institute Advisory Council

Strategic thinking on Main Street:

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.


Main Street Shelbyville, Kentucky

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.


Georgetown, Texas main street parade

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.

And they’re not resting on their laurels, having recently updated their Four Point strategy.

There’s 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.

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.

Bonn, the former capital of Germany.

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.

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 (described in The Restoration Economy).

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.

EcoMobility Jburg

Johannesburg’s Executive Mayor Parks Tau is leading urban ecomobility policies in South Africa.

You’ve probably read about the EcoMobility Festivals sponsored by ICLEI. A recent one took place in October of 2015 in Sandton, a traffic-congested district of Johannesburg, South Africa.

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 cities for cars and traffic, you get cars and traffic.
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:

Special Forces crestThat 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.

Green Berets in Uganda

Green Berets and Ugandan troops in 2015.
Photo credit:

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.

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.

Downtown Las Vegas

Downtown Las Vegas
Photo credit: Storm Cunningham

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.

DiversityAs 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.

Gentrification is 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.

Good strategies are often so succinct that they look like no-brainers.

Inner Harbor-25Baltimore, 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.

Team Of Volunteers Picking Up Litter In Suburban StreetNow, 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.

“A dream you dream alone is only a dream.  A dream you dream together is reality.”
– 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.

“Strategy requires thought, tactics require observation.”
– 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.

Angela Merkel

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.

  • Chapter 6 - The 3Re STRATEGY: Repurpose. Renew. Reconnect.
“The idea of ‘liveability’ (has) given rise to numerous indices.
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.

3Re: The core of revitalization strategies for nature, neighborhoods, and nations.

Sacramento-25 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.

Prague at night Charles Bridge to the river and the old town center

* 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.

High Line Park

High Line Park

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.

Hudson Yards

Hudson Yards

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.

Tampa RiverWalk. Photo by Storm Cunningham

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.

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”.

Merced RiverReconnecting can be the most effective, least expensive way to revitalize a place. Let’s say you have a degraded riparian ecosystem (such as a stream) and a degraded mountaintop ecosystem.

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.

Empty DowntownBut, as mentioned earlier, downtowns are the heart of a community, and healthy hearts need healthy blood vessels.

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.

The 3Re strategic core can be applied at any scale: property, city, region, or nation. 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.

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.

Magic Fountain in Barcelona (Adobe Stock).

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.

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.

The historic Pyrmont Bridge in Sydney was repurposed and renewed exclusively for pedestrian use. Reopening it reconnected both sides of Darling Harbour, revitalizing the area. Photo credit: Storm Cunningham.

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.

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? 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.

  • Chapter 7 - THE COMPLETE SOLUTION: Strategy isn't implementation process is needed.
“The best CEOs I know are teachers,
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?

Google car

Google’s driverless car

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.


House of Cards image courtesy Netflix.

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.

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.

Community leaders often throw up their hands in frustration when I ask them what tested, reliable solutions they are applying locally.

They’re convinced that their aspirations and challenges are too unique for any standardized, cookie-cutter fixes to work. But that assumption comes from a misunderstanding of strategy. Strategy is like DNA: it adapts decisions to local conditions. Alligator eggs with identical DNA shift from producing male or female babies with changes of temperature. Some adult male fish shift to female if there aren’t enough to keep the population strong.

Every place has its own unique revitalization challenges, and—since we know them intimately and feel the pain—our own often seem worse than the challenges faced by other places. But it’s possible for all of us to use the same strategy uniquely and successfully.

From strategy to strategic process.

Four obstacles keep people from perceiving and applying replicable solutions:

  1. Most people focus on activities, rather than process;
  2. Few people understand adaptive management (explained a bit later);
  3. People tend to copy needs-based techniques that worked elsewhere, rather than asset-based approaches that can be customized to their unique situation; and
  4. Too many local leaders think in terms of prescriptive solutions, rather than performance solutions. (more on this later)

Overcome those four obstacles, and replicable solutions abound! Let’s end this section by focusing on obstacle #1: lack of process. Of the four, this is by far the most dangerous.

Community development is a hopeless mess in most places.  It’s actually devitalizing. One might even call it “DEconomics.”

Regeneration is the repurposing, renewing, and reconnecting of your natural, built, and socioeconomic assets.

Economic resilience derives from a constant pulse of regeneration. How to build a process around that?

“Constant” is the key word. Creating a pulse requires an ongoing RECONOMICS Process.

Many cities and organizations have one or two of its elements, but aren’t aware of what’s missing:

  • Some places do visioning with citizens, but forget to create a strategy to deliver the vision;
  • Some skip vision and strategy and go straight to the plan (which often isn’t even a needed part of the process);
  • Some forget to boost resources via public-private partnerships, or don’t create good ones;
  • Some do everything right, but don’t enact policies to allow, fund, or incentivize needed actions;
  • Some don’t bother preparing at all, and just start doing projects (the “blind faith” approach);
  • Some complete a project that yields a burst of hope, but it fades for want of an ongoing program to build on that momentum.

Without a Strategic Renewal Process, disappointment is—sadly—the norm after most resilience and revitalization efforts. This is true of rural towns, metropolitan areas, regions and nations alike.  But, don’t let all this talk of process obscure a simple truth: if your vision (mission) isn’t worthy—and you aren’t committed to it—the most perfect of processes won’t save you.

Since 2002, my full-time job has been helping public and private leaders worldwide better understand:
1) the community / regional economic revitalization process, and
2) how to strategically position their career, or their organization, within that process.

In this work, I’ve consistently found that the most common cause of failure is lack of process.

Too many places fall into a superficial, consumer approach to revitalization. They buy some streetscaping, or some downtown banners, or 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.

Many places start creating a revitalization process, such as with a public visioning session, but skip crucial steps after that because they don’t understand the overall process.

Most places have some parts of the RECONOMICS Process. But with missing steps, there’s no process. So, their efforts tend to be unproductive or less-productive.

The two most common gaps in these partial processes are strategy and ongoing program.

Let’s clarify the role of each element in the RECONOMICS Process:

  • Regenerative Programs initiate, perpetuate, evaluate, and adjust actions. Ongoing programs create synergies, capture momentum (to grease the wheels for more projects), and inspire confidence in the local future;
  • Regenerative Visions guide actions to researched, desired outcomes;
  • Regenerative Strategies drive actions to success;
  • Regenerative Partners fund or support actions;
  • Regenerative Policies enable and encourage strategic actions;
  • Regenerative Projects are actions.

Right about now, any planners reading this are screaming, “where’s the plan???!!!” Plans are usually the centerpiece of any renewal initiative, but they are the element that takes the most time (and—aside from projects—the most money) to produce and approve. Plans are also likely to be the element that’s rendered obsolete the soonest.  Complex systems (e.g. cities, economies, ecosystems) resist rigid, imposed order, which is what most plans attempt to do.

As we’ll discuss later, while the act of planning is important to every step of the process, having a plan is optional. That’s why there’s no plan in the RECONOMICS Process.  In case you’re wondering, designing isn’t listed separately in this process because it’s also integral to most of the elements, such as visioning, planning, and projects. So, while planners and designers are important professionals to have involved in the process, neither activity has its own part of the process.

NOTE: The RECONOMICS Process is the Minimum Viable Process (MVP). You can certainly add other elements to it (such as a plan), as may be needed (or legally required) in your situation. But if you don’t have at least these six elements, you’re missing crucially important functions, and will likely underachieve, or fail outright. If you do add a plan, be careful not to insert it too early in the process. The ideal would be after all the other elements are underway, and you’re ready to start launching projects.

“Successful revitalization efforts are driven by leaders and residents
who are tirelessly strategic about identifying their competitive advantages.”

Patrice Frey, President and CEO, National Main Street Center

Ironically, many places only have a plan. The common result is a plan without the necessary partners or funding to implement it. Such plans might be pretty—and even impressive—but they lack credibility. Deep down, no one believes a document will alter their economic trajectory, and they’re right. Unfunded plans are so common that many folks consider them normal. In reality, they are often just for show, and shouldn’t be allowed. Spending taxpayer money on a plan, without a strategic process to fund and implement it, should be illegal.

St Pete from Lake MagiorreThe fact that the strategy and the program are usually missing explains why most urban or regional revitalization—and multi-jurisdictional environmental restoration (such as watershed, river, or estuary)—initiatives are outright failures, or only marginally successful at best.

Some places work towards resilience or revitalization with a strategy and funding, but have no delivery process. When planners talk about design, it’s usually about stuff: buildings, infrastructure, public spaces, etc. Good design is, of course, essential. But too many places rush into hiring designers before they have a strategy, or a process to deliver it. The frequent result? A design that shuts out strategic options.

The problem derives from focusing on successful completion of steps, rather than the overall goal. Mayors celebrate the completion of a new comprehensive plan, or a project design, as if that were an end unto itself. Without a strategy for success, this is just busywork.

We shouldn’t ignore the power of design, of course, since certain design-related needs appear to be in our genes. For instance, architects and urban planners discuss a concept known as “prospect-refuge theory.” It attempts to explain why some buildings and urban layouts make us feel secure and enriched, while others don’t.

Sometimes, places are working to boost their resilience without knowing it. For instance, many communities are (finally) undergrounding their power and telecommunications infrastructure. There’s probably no single action that will do more to increase their resilience in the face of wind, ice and snow storms. But in many cases, they are doing it as a beautification project: removing ugly wires and telephone poles. That’s revitalization-related. Not recognizing such crossover benefits often results in missed funding and political support opportunities.

First proposed in 1975, the premise is that we have a hard-wired need to observe (prospect) without being seen (refuge). Our “observation” component apparently prefers complex places that offer the ability to explore and discover opportunities. So, good design must be embedded into the process.

Revitalization is a living process; a flow of ideas, images, relationships, and energy. “Stuff” is essential, but designing urban or regional resilience without designing a regenerative process is like basing personal wellness on buying exercise equipment, without ongoing exercise.

The strategic disconnect is most damaging in policy making, where local, state/provincial, and national policies affect so much of what happens. Policies should support strategies. Instead, most policies are tactical BAND-AIDs®.

An example of a regenerative policy can be found in Vermont, which automatically designates all brownfields as prime renewable energy sites, thus turning them into “brightfields.” This puts them back into economic use, and—if the contamination isn’t migrating by air or water—they don’t even have to remediate it first. This policy thus 1) paves the way for eliminating fallow properties from the tax roles, 2) reduces dependence of expensive fossil fuels, and 3) helps restore the global climate. Not bad for a few paragraphs of text.

We’ve so far been focusing mostly on economic–not climate or disaster–resilience and sustainability. I’m using “revitalization“, “resilience“, and “regeneration” somewhat interchangeably. They are three aspects of one dynamic.

U. S. Capitol

Photo by Storm Cunningham

As you’ll see momentarily, today’s emerging leading-edge strategy for both resilience and sustainability is based on repurposing, renewing, and reconnecting our natural, built, and socioeconomic assets.

This applies to systems, too: not just communities. For example, repurposing, renewing, and reconnecting our centralized, fossil fuel-based energy infrastructure into a distributed one based on diverse, renewable sources is an obvious starting point for anyone concerned with the climate crisis, sustainability, or resilience.

The Grand Opportunity: Many cities are progressing towards a complete RECONOMICS Process. The turning point in the regeneration of our world will come when a national government creates a training and funding program to catalyze such efforts in communities and regions throughout their country. Its success will inspire other nations to go forth and do likewise. At that point, global regeneration of economies and natural resources will kick into high gear.

The current global movement towards demanding increased economic, social and environmental justice in the urban redevelopment process might be the element that finally moves cities beyond their bad old habits. Here’s an example.

Just because a revitalization initiative is based on a good idea, doesn’t mean it won’t have a plethora of unintended negative consequences…economically, socially and/or environmentally. For instance, readers of my periodical—REVITALIZATION: The Journal of Urban, Rural & Environmental Resilience—know that I’m a big fan of repurposing and renewing old transportation infrastructure into linear parks that reconnect and revitalize neighborhoods (Manhattan’s High Line Park being the most famous example.)

But such projects are often planned by organizations with great expertise related to that central idea, but little if any expertise in revitalization strategies or processes. In Chicago, for instance, Mayor Rahm Emmanuel has pushed a number of large-scale regeneration projects that have the potential to bring large swaths of derelict land back to life. But he’s been rather notorious for his aristocratic tendencies that display little regard for the welfare of lower-income residents.

A ground-level portion of the Bloomingdale Trail near Bucktown in its informal days.
2009 photo by Payton Chung.

His most famous accomplishment might be the Bloomingdale Trail. The Bloomington Line was a 2.7-mile (4.3 km) elevated railroad running east-west on the northwest side of Chicago. In 2015, the city converted it into a High Line-style elevated greenway called The Bloomingdale Trail. It forms the backbone of a larger park and trail network called “The 606,” and is reportedly the longest linear park in the Western Hemisphere. The trail reconnects and has helped revitalize the neighborhoods of Logan Square, Humboldt Park, and West Town.

The design and planning was put largely in the hands of the Trust For Public Land (TPL), one of my favorite non-profits. But an excellent December 7, 2018 article titled “The 606 Shows the Downside of Having Parks Nonprofits Lead Infra Projects” by Lynda Lopez in StreetsBlog Chicago does a good job of illustrating the crucial gaps that emerge when there’s lots of money and political support behind a revitalization effort, but no one with a deep knowledge of the comprehensive revitalization process in charge of it.

In this case, the failure was a common one: gentrification (excessive and/or unnecessarily disruptive displacement of traditional, usually lower-income residents.)

Here’s an excerpt from that article: “…staff from TPL’s Chicago office acknowledged that when they led the project, their focus wasn’t on preserving affordability. “We are not in the business of housing,” one unnamed staffer said. ‘We are in the business of conservation and building parks. Housing is not what we do; that’s not our mission.’ An affordable housing advocate…argued that responding to gentrification and displacement threats is difficult, because different community groups are operating in silos. ‘There is no overarching coalition to deal with these issues; even our organizing is segregated.’”

The Bloomington Trail in 2015.
Photo by Victor Grigas.

One might be tempted to say that responsibility for the overall revitalization process should have been shouldered by Chicago’s planning office. But this illustrates the chasm that yawns between the public perception of what planners do, and what they actually do. Planners aren’t taught the dynamics of revitalization, and don’t help educate others about it in the rare instance where they do comprehend it.

The reason is that doing so is not in the best interests of the planning profession. Planning is, at most, maybe 5% of the revitalization process. And—as pointed out elsewhere in this book—it’s not even an essential portion of the process in many cases. So, making the world more aware of how revitalization actually comes about reduces the perceived need for—and thus influence of—planners. That’s not something any profession does willingly.

It’s similar to how AMA-style doctors receive little or no training in the dynamics of human health, or in the process of maintaining and restoring it. The for-profit Western medical industry is geared almost entirely towards making money, so health is their enemy. Over the past half-century, the AMA has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in movies, TV shows and ads that position their profession as trustworthy, knowledgeable and altruistic. But the atrocious quality of American health, the outrageous portion of our incomes spent on “healthcare” and our overuse / widespread addiction to prescribed drugs reveals the reality.

Doctors almost exclusively prescribe toxic drugs and traumatic surgeries that reduce or eliminate the immediate symptoms of bad health, while damaging long-term health and thus guaranteeing future income. As a former military medic, I’m well aware of the value of Western medicine in dealing with gross trauma, but that valuable lifesaving service should never be confused with health maintenance.

“Unfortunately, we are excellent at developing award-winning plans and ignoring them.
And that really needs to change.”

Druh Farrell, Calgary City Councillor (Alberta, Canada, January 2019)

And so it is with the traditional elements of planning profession. As long as cities are locked into the never-ending cycle of planning without a strategic renewal process, they will likely remain in the unhealthy, crisis-ridden state that constantly drives them into the arms of planning industry.

On December 7, 2018, the Integrated Planners Network (IPN) of Zimbabwe came up with a radical solution to this problem. They proposed that the government stop funding urban renewal initiatives (which planners tend to do poorly), and start focusing exclusively on building new cities (a process planners understand quite well.) Policy changes at the national level tend to have huge consequences, so we can only hope that wisdom prevails.

Florida Everglades

But policy without a strategy to guide decisions and a process for implementation is helpless. In 2008, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency overhauled federal policy governing how impacts to wetlands, streams, and other aquatic resources authorized under §404 of the Clean Water Act are offset; an action known as compensatory mitigation.

Ten years later, a 2019 report by the Environmental Law Institute found significant progress had been made in the nation’s approach to compensatory mitigation, but that much work remains to ensure an efficient process for wetland, stream, and other aquatic resource compensatory mitigation decision-making, and to ensure that compensatory mitigation is providing effective ecological restoration outcomes. This is what happens when policymaking is done in a strategic process vacuum.

New, regenerative policies support what you want, as does the removal of old degenerative policies. What does a regenerative policy look like? It can be simplicity itself. For instance, in Vermont, all brownfields are automatically deemed prime solar sites. This brings fallow properties back to new economic life, advances the renewal of energy infrastructure and helps restore our global climate. Not a bad return on the effort involved in writing a few paragraphs.

A British brownfield. Image courtesy of CPRE.

Similarly, a March 2019 report by the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) found that England could greatly alleviate their national housing shortage via a simple policy change that prioritizes brownfields for new residential development. CPRE estimates that over one million homes could be built on brownfields, and that two thirds of these opportunities are “shovel ready.”

With or without such policy support, regenerative partnerships are often the best mechanism for funding ambitious programs, and for expanding them to the proper scale. A shared regenerative vision is what creates such partnerships, and what holds them together.

We’ll end this section by pointing out something that should be obvious: a policy that isn’t consistently enforced isn’t a policy, and a process that isn’t consistently used isn’t a process. I mention this in the immediate wake of the Amazon HQ2 political disaster in New York City.

In the hope of accelerating approvals for the giant new Amazon headquarters, New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio cut the City Council out of the normal review and approval process. That tactic backfired spectacularly, as local citizens protested how the world’s richest man had apparently undermined local democracy.

Rendering of Amazon HQ2 redevelopment at National Landing in Arlington County, Virginia.

Instead of accelerating project approvals, bypassing their long-established process virtually guaranteed a bitter fight with local stakeholders. That’s what they got. Amazon took the hint that they weren’t wanted, and left town. If the city and state had used their process, local concerns would have been heard, the plans could have been adjusted to serve everyone’s needs, and the governor and mayor wouldn’t have egg on their faces.

Possibly as a result of that fiasco, Amazon held a public webcast (it was invitation-only for the physical event) of a forum with the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG) on February 21, 2019. It took place here in Arlington, Virginia, where I live, and where Amazon’s other new headquarters will be located. In contrast to New York City, there has been no public outcry here in Arlington. That’s partly because it’s a revitalizing location for HQ2, and partly because local officials used their established approval process.

That’s not to say there are no concerns, of course. For instance, Arlington County supposedly has a policy commitment to increase its supply of affordable housing. Yet weak-kneed county officials made no such demands of Amazon, even after Amazon was thrown out of New York City and they were in good position to do so. Again: unenforced policies aren’t policies. They’re just political eyewash.

Where should your local RECONOMICS Process be based?

The choice of host for your local resilient prosperity process might be the most important decision you make. It needs to be a trusted, transparent, ongoing entity.

I specify “ongoing” not just because the process itself must be ongoing, but to specifically exclude entities that are tied to a specific political administration. The norm is for new administrations to kill the initiatives of the previous administration, especially if it was a competing party.

Having local political support is important, but your revitalization or resilience initiative shouldn’t depend on it. The better approach is to work fairly autonomously from elected leaders, but give them at least partial credit for your successes.

I should make it clear that not all activities would be run by this hosting organization. In fact, you could limit it to just the first three elements of the process: Program, Vision and Strategy. As long as the ensuing Policies, Partnerships and Projects derive from the Program, Vision and Strategy, they can—and probably should—by created and implemented by other entities.

Besides being trusted, transparent and ongoing, your host should be as holistic as possible in its reach, rather than confided in a narrow silo. For instance, I’ve always felt that community foundations had tremendous untapped potential as community revitalizers.

The function of most community foundations is to provide infrastructure in support of local efforts that benefit the community. That could be administrative (shared offices), fundraising (shared events) or capacity building (shared training). As such, they tend to be connected to a broad spectrum of revitalizing efforts, and tend to reach throughout the community or region.

There are about 1700 community foundations worldwide. So, if one were to become the host for their local RECONOMICS Process, it could become a template for many others.

Your process host needn’t be a community foundation, of course: I simply offer that example to illustrate the sorts of qualities you might look for in a host.

The most revitalizing thing you can do for your community or region costs nothing: Create a strategic renewal process.

And Job One is to find the right home for your strategic renewal process, because without one…

  • Design and placemaking will likely fail to revitalize a place.
  • Urban planning will likely fail to revitalize a place.
  • Capital improvements will likely fail to revitalize a place.
  • Good leadership will likely fail to revitalize a place.
  • Redevelopment projects will likely fail to revitalize a place.
  • Chapter 8 - PROJECTS vs. PROGRAMS: From intermittent renewal to the momentum of ongoing revitalization.
“Those who have never experienced anything but decline
may have difficulty even conceptualizing a different reality.”

– Alan Mallach, Regenerating America’s Legacy Cities (Lincoln Institute of Land Policy)

Earlier, I said there are two elements of the RECONOMICS Process that are usually missing. Until now, we’ve mostly focused on strategy, and the fact that the process itself is almost always absent. The other commonly-overlooked—but crucially-important—part of the process is program.

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.

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.


Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

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.

This stop-start approach 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.


Gardiner Expressway, Toronto, Ontario.
It severs downtown from the waterfront.

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.

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.”

Adaptive Renewal

Resilient Prosperity via the 3Re Strategy.
Copyright 2015, Storm Cunningham.

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.

Such managers need to be comfortable operating “in the dark.” Unlike a simple project with an engineered outcome, a revitalization 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?

Satya Nadella in 2013. Photo: Le Web Paris.

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.

That concept of a “renewal culture” is important, and goes beyond enhancing citizens’ awareness of regenerative dynamics.

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.

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.

Resilient prosperity is a universal strategic outcome, but the universal strategic goal of good revitalization efforts is increasing confidence in the local future.

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 didn’t convince enough people that the local economy and/or quality of life would improve.

The reasons such initiatives fail to boost confidence vary widely—lack of vision, poor strategy, dysfunctional design, insufficient funding, bad implementation, etc.—but that one strategic failure is fairly universal.

Investors care little about the condition of an asset when they buy it. What they do care about is whether it will be worth more in the future.

They’d rather invest in a rusted-out hulk of a 1957 Chevy, knowing it will appreciate dramatically after restoration, than buy a brand-new Chevy whose value will only go down.

And they’d rather buy property in a depressed, run-down town that they’re confident is on its way up, than in a beautiful city that has peaked.

Avinash Persaud, chairman, Intelligence Capital Limited (London, UK) once said “Money, in the end, is confidence.” Without confidence in the future value of a $20 bill or a €20 note, they are just worthless pieces of paper.

When that confidence is lost, hyperinflation—as we’re tragically seeing in Venezuela—and devitalization are the inevitable results. And so it is with local economies: no confidence in the future, no future.

Torun, Poland. Photo via Adobe Stock.

Architects and planners often say that the key to revitalizing a downtown is design, or placemaking. Those are essential, of course.

But they don’t come first. None of that activity is going to happen without money. Unless the public coffers are overflowing, it will mostly be private money. Attracting that requires creating confidence in the future of that downtown. Creating confidence comes first. And that requires an ongoing program, with a qualified program manager; not architects or engineers.

Look at the world of business. Talented employees are often wooed to startup companies that offer poor pay and almost no benefits. How? Stock options. But stock options can only offset those downsides if recruits have confidence that the company has a great future.

Blackstone Canal, WorcesterThe long-depressed Canal District of Worcester, Massachusetts is now revitalized, based almost solely on confidence that their historic canal—buried for over a century—will someday be daylighted, thereby providing a revitalizing water feature. But they have neither the money to unearth it, nor an official plan for doing so.

What provided the confidence that created their revitalization? A clear, credible vision of how the area would be changed for the better, plus a trusted organization (the Canal District Alliance) to devise and follow-through on a strategy. (image by J.P. Raymond Studios)

Reduced confidence in our global future is fast becoming one of the largest economic impacts of the climate crisis. The vast majority of the planet’s population and economic activity is close to coasts. Rising sea levels, combined with the increasing frequency and severity of storms, is rapidly eroding confidence in the future of coastal cities worldwide.

Climate ChangeAdd to that the rise of global terrorism, and it’s not surprising that Andrew Young, former U.S. Ambassador and former 2-term Mayor of Atlanta, Georgia says “The environment is so insecure and unstable right now that people are afraid to invest in the future.” (April 2014)

An interesting dynamic is that confidence can be boosted by merely announcing certain kinds of initiatives is enough to spark redevelopment. Transit projects are the most reliable in this regard, since reconnecting places is well-know to be a powerful revitalizer.

In cities all around the world, the promise of a new streetcar or rail initiative has been enough to trigger redevelopment: the first shovelful of dirt hadn’t yet been dug. In Kansas City, Washington, DC, and many other cities, announcing future streetcars immediately triggered redevelopment along their routes.

Why? Because the announcement created new confidence in the future of the properties and neighborhoods along the streetcar routes.

$650 million Blairs redevelopment along future Purple Line. Image: The Tower Companies.

It’s a reliable dynamic. In 2010, Copenhagen, Denmark city leaders correctly predicted that the mere announcement of their new City Circle metro line (in Danish: Cityringen)—which will be completed in 2019—would cause land values to skyrocket.

It happened in downtown DC with the streetcar, and now it’s happening again in the metro DC area with the forthcoming Purple Line light rail.

This “instant confidence” in the future of a place doesn’t usually happen with bus-based transit: only rail.

That’s because rail is a permanent, big-dollar commitment, whereas a bus line can be removed with the stroke of a pen. The exception is BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) which requires significant infrastructure investment, and which has helped revitalize several major corridors in Mexico City.

Popular BRT in Mexico City. Photo credit: WRI

This dynamic also only occurs when the local government is credible. For instance, South Africa’s economy is deteriorating badly. Unemployment is now 5% higher than is was in 2008, and their level of economic inequality is among the world’s worst.

Much of the problem can be traced to the dominant political party, the African National Congress (ANC). They had propped-up President Jacob Zuma far past his sell-buy date. Zuma’s long string of corruption scandals that have eroded confidence in the economic and social future of the country. (The exact same Zuma/ANC-style dynamic is currently happening in the US.) Here’s what the July 24, 2017 issue of Bloomberg Businessweek had to say:

To restore the ANC’s credibility, party reformers need to defend the independence and integrity of South Africa’s financial and judicial institutions. If they want to revitalize the economy, they need to expose floundering state enterprises to competition, and address the corruption and inefficiency that have caused the country to sink in global business rankings. If they really want to empower black South Africans, they should focus less on creating sweet deals for shareholders, and more on fixing a failing educational system and enabling first-time job seekers to join the workforce.” This last part is key, since the country’s population is growing faster than its economy.

Another confidence-sapping factor: If a government suffers from excessive partisanship—with each party blocking all initiatives of the other, regardless of merit and heedless of damage to public good—few will have confidence in its announced policies, programs, or projects. In that case, revitalization won’t precede that wonderful rail project. In fact, it will probably lag the project, with investors and redevelopers not trusting in its completion.

Derelict building in Port Dover, Ontario.
Photo credit: Storm Cunningham.

That’s the cost of lack of confidence. In the U.S., where both corruption and excessive partisanship are currently rampant, confidence in America’s future as the world’s guiding light is rapidly ebbing in the few places where it isn’t already gone.

Rebuilding confidence into the future of a company, community or country can seldom be done on a project-by-project basis. It’s not impossible, but only an ongoing program can reliably accomplish that. One reason programs are so rare is that few places have effective program financing.

Most communities have plenty of local expertise in financing projects, but not a clue in funding long-term programs. The right revitalization strategy—along with an ongoing program to implement it—should build the crucial confidence in your local future. That’s the key to both attracting and retaining residents, employers, and investors.

And creating a RECONOMICS Process is the key to turning that confidence—and those assets—into resilient prosperity.

  • Chapter 9 - REGENERATIVE ECONOMIES: Growing beyond sustainability.
“The nation behaves well if it treats its natural resources as assets
which it must turn over to the next generation INCREASED…in value.”

– Colonel Theodore Roosevelt, President of the United States

John Muir & Teddy RooseveltTeddy Roosevelt (shown with John Muir) was in an ideal strategist’s position when he voiced the vision quoted above.

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.

“Our ability to redesign industrial systems to be restorative and regenerative, to transform waste into a nutrient for the next generation of industry…will be the measure against which our generation will be judged. The transition to a regenerative circular economy is now a declared objective of the European Union and of China…”
– 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.

The Restoration Economy was the first book to document the rise of regenerative industries and disciplines.

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.

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.

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.”

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.

Demolition - Glasgow

Contractor’s sign at redevelopment site in Glasgow, Scotland. Photo credit: Storm Cunningham.

Regarding demolition:

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.


FBI headquarters. Photo: Storm Cunningham.

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.

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.

Bridge to bright futureApplying 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).

“Let us green the earth, restore the earth, heal the earth.”
– 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.

TrimodalThe 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.

“Humanity has been destroying Earth’s forests for millennia; the 2015 Paris Agreement (calling for massive forest restoration)
means we’ve reached a fundamental turning point in that relationship.”

– Doug Boucher, Director, Tropical Forest/Climate Initiative, Union of Concerned Scientists

Sun above Earth

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.

Ynys Llanddwyn in Anglesey, Wales.
Photo via Adobe Stock

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.

“We talk of sustainable development and sustainable economies, but
it is time to move on to restorative development and restorative economies.”

– Richard Chartres, Bishop of London

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.

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.)

The feedback-based swarming of starlings takes place without centralized leadership.

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.

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.)

Brian Arthur at World Economic Forum (2011) Photo credit: World Economic Forum

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.

Intersection of quantum & classical probability. Image credit: R. Nave, Georgia State University

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.

  • Chapter 10 - RECONOMICS: Achieving resilient prosperity via a strategic renewal process.
“When you do an organizational redesign…the most important aspect is always the process by which the work gets done.”
– Rex Tillerson, former CEO of ExxonMobil, former U.S. Secretary of State.

All competent organizational leaders know that reliably producing ANYTHING (goods, services, institutional change, etc.) is totally dependent on having a reliable process. So, why don’t communities, regions and countries have a proven process for producing what they all want: resilient economic growth and higher quality of life?

Public and private leaders tend to treat regeneration as if it has no essential underlying principles, frameworks, or components. They take whatever approach seems to be dictated by their available human, organizational, physical, and capital resources. In other words, they’re just winging it and hoping for the best. That’s not exactly a responsible approach to creating a community’s future.

The funny thing is that process is all around the local leaders. Redevelopers have a process for repurposing and renewing a building or infill site, and arranging financing, permits, etc. Architects have a process for designing buildings. Planners have a process for creating plans. Chemical and civil engineers have processes for remediating brownfields.

But there’s seldom any process for bringing all of this together to produce the desired end product: economic growth and enhanced quality of life.

We briefly introduced the RECONOMICS Process earlier. Before we dive into it—some of the factors involved in successfully applying it—let’s get a better understanding of process itself. Like “strategy”, “process” is a word everyone uses constantly, often without any real grasp of its essence.

Production requires process. All production of desired results (tangible and intangible) requires a process:

  • Farmers turning land into income have a process for planting, harvesting and selling their crops.
  • The seeds those farmers plant have a growth and reproduction process of their own.
  • Every company the farmers’ output reaches has a process for creating, distributing and marketing value-added products.
  • All of those companies are served by professionals and firms that have processes for delivering services.
  • Each of the above steps is taxed and regulated by government processes that provide essential public infrastructure and safety.

Generic process chart (anonymous)

Information is turned into knowledge via process. For instance, when disaster recovery and reconstruction agencies set up their IT (information technology) and GIS (geographic information system) in a post-catastrophe situation, they use a 3-step process: 1) gather existing data to better-understand the situation; 2) collect new data to stay on top of the situation; and 3) use mapping to allocate resources for an effective response.

Virtually every community on the planet wants to boost their quality of life, their economy, their health, and their resilience. In other words, virtually every community wants to revitalize in some manner, even if they’re in good economic shape. But they don’t have a good process for doing so.

I emphasized “good” because most cities use the RFP (Request For Proposals) process to redevelop their derelict properties. While that process certainly has value, many places sabotage it by being overly-specific as to what they want to see on a redeveloped site. They assume that no one could imagine anything better, and are often wrong in that assumption. They’ll have plenty of time to reject bad ideas later in the process: restricting creativity in the RFP itself is usually a mistake. One must not confuse vision with design. RFPs and RFQ (request for qualifications, often a precursor to an RFP) should usually be performance-based, not prescriptive.

Bridge of Dom Luis in Oporto, Portugal.

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 builders to use the latest knowledge and the most up-to-date materials and technologies to achieve their goals (rather than antiquated “best practices.”)

And so it is with those trying to build resilient community prosperity. The community’s vision for its future is basically a performance specification. It can be turned into a performance specification for a project that helps fulfill that vision.

Some say that “RFP” stands for “Really Faulty Process”. An example is this article by Nick Halter in the Nov. 30, 2017 Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal titled “RFP: Really Faulty Process. Why cities and counties struggle to develop their properties“. In it, Halter says “At least $600 million worth of development has been promised but not yet delivered, and that doesn’t include the massive redevelopment of the Arden Hills ammunition plant, which also has been delayed and could eventually add hundreds of millions to the Ramsey County tax base.” He blames the RFP process for these delays and failures.

Usual mayor’s reaction to query about his/her revitalization process. Image: Adobe Stock.

Go to the leaders of any of the tens of thousands of communities that are attempting to revitalize and ask what their process is, and you’ll get a blank look. They will probably start listing their activities, such as recruiting employers, or beautifying the streetscapes, or redeveloping brownfields.

But they won’t have a process that ensures these things are being done in a productive sequence. They are like farmers who don’t know that crops have to be planted before they can be harvested. Their more-likely reaction to your question would be to explode: “I don’t have time for that ivory tower nonsense! I’ve got things to do!

That said, the sequence of the RECONOMICS Process described here can be adapted to local needs, but the vision and strategy must always be #1 and #2, respectively. The vision drives the strategy, and together they drive the rest.

A mistake made by many well-meaning communities is engaging the public in every aspect of revitalization. In fact, only the visioning step requires deep public input. (This assumes that subsequent steps rigorously reference that vision.)

Communist lawmakers scuffle with right-wing Svoboda ( Freedom) Party lawmakers during a parliament session of Verkhovna Rada, the Ukrainian parliament, in Kiev, Ukraine Tuesday, April 8, 2014. (AP Photo/Vladimir Strumkovsky)

Political negotiations in Ukraine
(AP Photo/Vladimir Strumkovsky)

Trying to involve the public in every phase of the RECONOMICS Process–such as strategy–is a recipe for disaster. It can slow the process to the point where private partners flee (time is money), and changes of political administration either disrupt the process, or kill it entirely. Project delays are especially dangerous, since redevelopers are usually working on borrowed money.

Counterintuitively, excessive engagement can actually increase disharmony, as unqualified people try to influence decisions requiring deep knowledge.

Visioning is the portion of the RECONOMICS Process where almost all of your community engagement should take place.

If you do a good job of creating a shared vision, and if the citizens trust that your subsequent work will adhere to that vision, then relatively little further public engagement should be needed.

It’s not just sequence that’s important, of course. Not understanding the process means that key steps in that process will likely be missing.

In that case, these community leaders are more like farmers who don’t know that crops must be watered after planting. Witness the number of places whose wonderful public visioning session isn’t followed by the development of a strategy. Or strategies that lack supporting policies. Or projects withering in the absence of an ongoing program.

In places that do have a semblance of process, it’s often backwards: they try to attract employers by giving away future tax revenues, assuming that more jobs translates to revitalization and better livability. Such incentives often attract low-quality jobs from firms that disappear when the freebies run out. Meanwhile, the city struggles with insufficient tax revenues to fund maintenance and improvements, so quality of life declines.

Communities should instead improve their quality of life first. That’s a reliable attractor of good employers, and the community gets a better quality of life even if the jobs don’t come…a “can’t lose” strategy. That could be a recipe for unmanageable debt, which is why having a reliable process is prudent…simply a matter of fiduciary responsibility.

In fact, the over-use of tax incentives by economic developers often leads to municipal devitalization and even bankruptcy. General revenues dry up because companies are paying no taxes, thus degrading public services (such as infrastructure maintenance) and quality of life. Further devitalization then ensues, since high-quality employers are primarily attracted by high quality of life and efficient infrastructure.

A perfect example is the Foxconn travesty in Wisconsin. Desperate for a political “win,” Donald Trump—teamed with former Wisconsin governor Scott Walker—offered some $4.5 billion in freebies to Foxconn, a Taiwan-based conglomerate whose manufacturing facilities are mostly in mainland China.

Foxconn, in turn, promised 13,000 high-paying jobs, at an average of $23/hour. Each of these jobs would thus cost the state $219,000, putting the state in the red on the deal until at least the year 2042 (not including the cost of public infrastructure needed to support that growth.)

The good news (or bad, depending on your perspective) is that Foxconn has no intention of bringing in 13,000 jobs, and probably never did. They had previously made similar deals with gullible politicians in Brazil, India and Pennsylvania, none of which came to fruition. They just wanted the handouts.

Foxconn worker suicide nets.

According to a February 11, 2019 article by Justin Carr in Bloomberg Businessweek, Foxconn currently has a grand total of 178 employees at the Wisconsin facility, and was only advertising for an additional 122 at that time. What’s more, they’re now hinting that it might only become a small R&D facility, rather than a huge manufacturing plant.

Even if it had achieved its employment promises, the entire project was an example of horrendously bad urban planning. Rather than making use of a renovated, existing manufacturing facility—of which Wisconsin has plenty—they were going to build from scratch. That wouldn’t be so bad, if they put it on a brownfield site, of which Wisconsin has thousands. But no: they were going to pave-over 3000 acres of prime farmland, thus damaging the state’s agricultural economy.

And it’s not as if Foxconn is a dream employer: nightmare is more like it. Their Chinese factories are infamously surrounded with nets. These are to help save the lives of the desperately-unhappy employees who tend to jump off the factory roofs in suicide attempts.

This is the kind of antiquated, self-destructive activity that passes for “economic development” all across America. Professionals who understand the strategic process of economic regeneration are in very short supply. Instead, we have “professionals” whose sole “strategy” is to generate ephemeral political wins at the cost of long-term health, wealth and resilience.

What’s needed are planners, politicians, architects, engineers, managers, non-profit leaders and citizen activists who have been certified as Revitalization & Resilience Facilitators (RE). Note: We’ll be seeing such leaders in the near future, as a result of the soon-to-be-launched REconomics Institute.

The Chattanooga River Trail.
Photo credit: Storm Cunningham.

The “can’t lose” strategy mentioned above was how Chattanooga became a poster-child of revitalization. They first cleaned-up their god-awful air quality. Then they focused on repurposing their waterfront from industrial to residential and recreational use, renewing their brownfields and greenspaces, and reconnecting downtown to the waterfront. Then they landed a $4 billion VW plant on one of the brownfields.

Granted, they used economic development incentives, but the VW executive who made the decision ignored all the other cities offering similar incentives because Chattanooga offered a magic feature: extending their riverfront trail to the site, so employees (including him) would have a lovely walk to the revitalized downtown for lunch…or to return home to one of the many new waterfront condos.

The assumption of most economic developers is that attracting a large employer is virtually synonymous with revitalization. How then, does one explain the situation described in this article from the June 15, 2016 issue of Fortune magazine?

spamFor the past 10 years, Hormel Foods (whose best-known product is Spam®) has been on a tear. Revenue has increased from $5.4 billion to $9.3 billion…Earnings have more than doubled, the dividend has almost quadrupled, and the stock has returned roughly 400%.

Austin, Minnesota…is the hometown of Hormel Foods… Nearly everything in Austin owes its existence to Hormel. (but there’s) no Starbucks and no Toyota dealer. The Target closed last year. Staples the year before. The only Airbnb option is a fifth-wheel trailer.

Mayors love “economic development” because successes are visible and failures are largely invisible. And because the strategy is simplistic (not to be confused with simple): “bribe employers to come here with tax savings and/or free land.” But a concise strategy isn’t automatically a good strategy. And every professional marketer knows that competing on price is a sign of desperation.

Mayors also love economic development because it uses the magic phrase: “job creation.” But stealing jobs from another city or state is a zero-sum game; one place’s gain is another’s loss. There’s certainly no net gain for the region or nation.

An ad for the city of Atlanta, Georgia in the March 1, 2017 issue of FORTUNE magazine brags that they got Mercedes-Benz to relocate their North American headquarters from Montvale, New Jersey, saying the move created “800 new jobs.” Really? If the headquarters had moved 900 feet to another block in Montvale, would that also have created 800 new jobs? How does moving 900 miles change that?

This insanity was most recently documented in a March 16, 2017 article in the Wall Street Journal.

citypowerNew York City, Columbus, Boston, and Seattle have some of the highest tax rates in the nation, and are all economically robust. Hundreds of other cities have spent decades enticing relocating employers with massive tax breaks, and are in worse shape than ever. “Abandoning local economic development policies is almost politically impossible for local leaders. But it is the right thing to do,” says Richard Schragger, University of Virginia law professor in his new book, City Power (2016).

Employers are just one of the ingredients of revitalization. The RECONOMICS Process is the recipe. Again, the three key dynamics of revitalization are confidence, momentum, and alignment.

The Revitalization Feedback Loop.

The RECONOMICS Process described above—properly implemented—should yield all three of those dynamics. With the right strategy, a single regenerative project can trigger a “restoration contagion” that ripples out, raising property values and neighborhood health as it expands.

Revitalization usually takes longer to gain momentum than anyone expects. But once it does, it often transforms a place far faster than anyone expected was possible.

This tipping point-style behavior results from the confidence-based revitalization feedback loop: Regenerative projects (“fixes” on the chart) boost confidence, and increased confidence in the future of a place attracts more regenerative projects.

You need a complete process, since an incomplete process isn’t a process at all: it’s just activity. You shouldn’t succumb to the temptation to use only those elements you find familiar, comfortable, and convenient.

Why? Because:

  • Without an ongoing regenerative program, you might not get started at all. And if you do, you probably won’t gather the momentum and confidence needed to reverse a downward trajectory.
  • Without a regenerative vision, you won’t achieve the right outcome;
  • Without a regenerative strategy, you might not achieve anything at all;
  • Without regenerative policies, stakeholders might not be able to do what’s needed;
  • Without regenerative partners, you might not have the necessary resources or political support;
  • Without regenerative projects, nothing real actually happens; and

Leaving out one element of the RECONOMICS Process might not seem to be a big thing, especially in those places that are currently missing almost all of the elements. A city manager might be tempted to say “We’ve already got some great redevelopment projects underway: do we really need supportive policies?” To use the automobile manufacturing process metaphor once again, this would be like a Ford executive saying “We’ve already got wheels on the cars: do we really need tires?

I promised earlier to better-explain why a plan is missing from the process. In the two decades I’ve been working in the field of regenerative economics, I’ve encountered literally hundreds of successes and failures in communities worldwide. What I noticed was that many of the successes had no plan, and many of the failures did have a plan. But the reverse was also true: some the successes did have a plan, and some of the failures didn’t.

In other words, plans (not to be confused with planning) seemed to be irrelevant (or at least optional). Of course, a plan is required in many places, so—while it might be optional to achieving your goal—it’s not optional legally.

While planning can be good, it often brings things to a standstill while it’s happening, and is ignored after its done. A plan is too voluminous to guide decisions. For that, you need a strategy, and that should fit on the back of an envelope.

“I don’t have business plans…I have a back-of-the-envelope idea of what I want to do.”
– Richard Branson, Founder & CEO of the Virgin Group.

Even worse, many people think planning IS the revitalization process. The planning process produces a plan. If it’s done well, it also produces community engagement. And that’s it. A plan is not a community revitalization process any more than a map of the world is a globetrotting adventure.

As mentioned earlier, plans are popular with elected officials because they are a safe “win.” Commissioning a plan is a feather in their cap, and has no chance of failure. Receiving the completed plan is another feather in their cap; again with no chance of failure. Failure becomes possible—even likely, if they have no process—only if they try to implement the plan.

Thus, most plans go onto a shelf, and the ritual is repeated 5 or 10 years later. Planners earn a living and politicians avoid risk. Everyone is happy…except the community. [Please Note: This discussion of plans ONLY relates to their role in the revitalization process. Plans and planners have essential roles in many other crucial aspects of managing a community.] Professional planning firms benefit from this lack of implementation too, since they don’t want anyone saying that their plan failed. Truth be told, there’s little chance of that: post mortems on revitalization efforts are extremely rare. This is one reason progress in the practice has been so slow: a paucity of feedback leads to the same mistakes being made decade after decade.

The key to turning a plan from an expensive ritual to a component of revitalization is to embed it in an effective renewal process. And the key to doing that in a way that doesn’t screw-up the process is to make the plan an adaptively-managed living document. If your municipality has money that must be spent on a document, a study is often more useful than a plan. A good study will inform your RECONOMICS Process, rather than restrict it (as does a plan.)

We haven’t focused much on policies, but here’s an example of how crucial policy support can be. Some places have a strategy, but fail anyway because they think execution (implementation) is a separate activity from strategizing. In fact, strategy and execution are two sides of the same coin. Take the 3Re Strategy for example: if your local agencies, organizations, and activists are repurposing, renewing and reconnecting your assets, they are executing your strategy, even if they aren’t aware that the strategy exists.

This is where regenerative policies come in: if your local policies incentivize repurposing, renewing and reconnecting (and/or disincentivize demolition, disinvestment and fragmentation) then the 3Re Strategy will be implemented, without having to tell anyone about it. Sometimes, covert strategies are needed, especially when a community has a lot of strong personalities who all want to be The Leader. In other places, where people want to be led, overt strategies are often better.

Transient chaos, pulsing, and false alarms.

The Perfect StormThe 2000 movie, The Perfect Storm (based on the 1997 book of the same title), documented the collision of three violent weather systems in 1991. One story (inaccurately told in both the book and the movie) described a private sailboat heading to Bermuda, manned by a captain and two paying passengers.

When the storm hit, the captain did what he was supposed to do: heave-to and go below to ride out the storm.

His two panicked, inexperienced passengers mistook his inaction as giving up, and radioed the Coast Guard for help. A brave man lost his life unnecessarily “rescuing” the three off the boat. (The boat was later found, safe and sound.)

Citizens in places undergoing revitalization are sometimes like those two panicky passengers, demanding that leaders abandon their plans when things go wrong, or when things stop happening.

This is often because they don’t understand two key dynamics of living systems that are undergoing change: transient chaos and pulsing.

Transitional Chaos

Transient Chaos graph by György Károlyi

Transient Chaos: When a complex adaptive system moves from one state to another—such as from a devitalized state to a revitalized state—it often goes through a zone scientists refer to as “transient chaos”.

That “perfect storm” was a period of transient chaos: one that could not be controlled or managed, but merely experienced and survived. Just hunker-down, have faith in the process, and don’t waste energy fighting the symptoms of progress. Your goal will often be found on the other side of the disruption. Pain is information: don’t fear knowledge.

Pulsing: No matter how prosperous a place is, it needs an ongoing pulse of regeneration in order to keep the Good Times going. A place that isn’t revitalizing is devitalizing, because Mother Nature abhors stasis as much as she does a vacuum.

This is one of the dangers of the word “sustainable”: it implies a static situation in many folks’ minds. We have few cells in our bodies now that we had a decade ago: true sustainability derives from ongoing replacement and regeneration.

Baltic SeaRevitalization doesn’t come in a constant flow, but rather a pulsing flow. This is important to know, so leaders and citizens don’t mistake the resting stage between pulses as a loss of momentum, and thus become discouraged.

All living flows are actually pulses: our blood pulses; rivers pulse with floods; the ocean pulses with tides; the planet pulses with seasons. The entire universe pulses, according to the latest theories of creation: rather than a single, nonsensical “Big Bang”, there’s a pulse of Big Bangs, with billions of years between the universal heartbeats.

Decline usually takes places by surprise. Someone asked me “Why don’t more communities take action when they’re on the verge of decline. Why do they wait until the situation is desperate?”

The reason is that—in the absence of some major natural, social, or economic cataclysm—the “verge of decline” is only visible in retrospect. If places could actually perceive that they were on the verge of decline, more would probably take action. Only the decline itself is perceivable, not the verge.

An ongoing “pulse of renewal” (or “pulse of regeneration”, if you prefer) helps prevent such delayed-reaction revitalization initiatives. It might even prevent decline. The goal of the pulse of renewal you create locally should ideally be resilient prosperity for all, wildlife and human alike.

The author restoring seagrasses in Chesapeake Bay in June of 2000.

A personal comment: I’ve been advocating ecological restoration for over two decades. During this time, I’ve frequently encountered pushback from folks who say “Why bother? Our climate is in crisis, and the fossil fuel industry owns our politicians, so what difference is it going to make if we restore a wetland today?

I certainly agree that shucking fossil fuels is Job #1. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t other jobs. I try not to let the big picture blind me to the present-day suffering we are causing wildlife. I tell such folks that they should personally participate in an ecological restoration project.

The joy of seeing frogs, fish, and other wildlife flourishing in a previously degraded area is without compare. It might not mean a lot in the greater scheme of things, but it sure means a lot to those particular frogs.

Hands-on restoration work is good therapy for those many environmentalists who are too wrapped up in the cold, sterile, soulless world of long-term policymaking and management.

We must not lose touch with the day-to-day reality of existence on the part of those creatures—and far away people—who are forced to co-habit this planet with us.

Whatever the motivation, and whatever the goal, two crucial challenges remain constant: transition strategy, and transition management. The key to successful transition management is having an effective process.

The RECONOMICS Process described here is completely generic: it’s designed to be used by any individual, organization, community or country. Thus, it contains no regeneration components that vary from place to place, such as legal, financial, political, etc.

Any competent cook knows that reliably recreating a favorite dish requires more than just throwing ingredients together: a recipe is needed to ensure the proper combining and timing of those ingredients. The recipe is the process. Some recipes must be followed to the letter. Others allow a tremendous amount of freedom to improvise and be creative. The RECONOMICS Process is the latter type of recipe.

If hundreds of millions of amateur cooks and professional chefs around the world know the value of process, why don’t city and national leaders? Why are they so focused on the ingredients (like plans and projects) and so oblivious to the recipe?

The RECONOMICS Process requires constant lubrication to work well, and that lubricant is trust. Trust is one component of resilient prosperity that’s universal.

“Invite people on the journey so they’ll embrace the destination.”
– Chris Grams, President, New Kind

Riot copsWhere people can’t trust their politicians or private developers to create a better future, they should at least be able to trust the process.

So, each step should be executed in a way that builds trust in the people and institutions behind the process.

The path to revitalization can be as important as the destination. In Chattanooga, it was the process of working together successfully to rid their city of horrific air pollution that made them realize that they could work together. Previously, the community had been torn by racial strife. That new cohesion lead to the creation of a revitalization process, and an entity to house it. When I first visited, there was a delegation of community leaders from Vietnam who were in town to view the city’s miraculous recovery first-hand.

In communities torn apart by internal strife—or where the citizens don’t trust the government—a long engagement, visioning, and partnering process might be exactly what’s needed to heal and build trust.

Order emerges naturally in a just society. So the first responsibility of a political leader should be to impose justice, not order. This is just one of the myriad goals that can be embedded into the vision the drives your RECONOMICS Process. I say “your” to remind you that the RECONOMICS Process described here is the Minimum Viable Process: You can massage it and add to it as needed, but you can’t subtract from it.

“The goal is not always meant to be reached, but to serve as a mark for our aim.”
– 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.

Both the 3Re Strategy and the RECONOMICS Process are integral components of the SWOT-based environmental scans the author performs in his reSWOT Workshops.

The 3Re Strategy is ideal for revitalizing an organization, or even a whole class of similar organizations. The example we’ll use is land banks, since you’re already somewhat familiar with the concept from Chapter 2.

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:

  1. repurposing them from blight removal to revitalization;
  2. renewing them via the additional funding this higher-and/better mission should attract; and
  3. 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.

This process is as applicable to organizations as it is to places.

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.”

Kalamazoo County Land Bank’s visionary Executive Director, Kelly Clarke at Prairie Gardens. This site of a former mental asylum got the 3Re Strategy treatment: repurposed as affordable housing, renewed with restored native prairie habitat, and reconnected to the community with new infrastructure.

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:

  1. They don’t clearly define what they mean by “revitalization”, so their vision is unclear;
  2. 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;
  3. 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. (You can learn more about all three here.)

Of course, not all land banks see themselves only as blight removal agencies.

The Kalamazoo (Michigan) County Land Bank, for instance, is on the leading edge of community revitalization.

They’ve adopted the 3Re Strategy (repurpose, renew, reconnect) not just as a tool, but as their slogan, as seen here on the cover of their 2016 annual report.

Here’s the article that appeared in REVITALIZATION back in 2015 that originally drew my attention to them, leading 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.

Kalamazoo County Land Bank’s office is on this revitalized old commercial property. Shown here is a bioswale of native plants. Using the 3Re Strategy, the property was repurposed and renewed, and was reconnected to the community via a river trail.

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.

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 and infrastructure renewal.

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.

Rather than explain the advantages of this approach here in this editorial, here’s an excellent article on the subject. The fit is natural: CLTs have a public benefit vision and strategy but need residential property. Land trusts have tons of residential property, but are (usually) weak on vision and strategy.

So, 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. NOTE: 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.

The 2011 Fukushima disaster.
Photo via Adobe Stock.

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.

“The way I define the job is, firstly, in setting the strategy for the company, and then leading the allocation of capital to that strategy—because until you put money where you say your strategy is, it’s not your strategy.”
– 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.

Arlington’s Rosslyn-Ballston Metro corridor Photo courtesy: Arlington County

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.

“The truth about a city’s aspirations isn’t found in its vision. It’s found in its budget.”
– 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.

Portland, Oregon. Photo via Adobe Stock.

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:

  1. Have a regenerative strategy to help ensure success. Ideally, it will repurpose, renew and reconnect a previously-used or underused site.
  2. Have a strategic renewal process to implement the strategy.
  3. Have as one of your goals the creation of confidence in the future of the place.

Photo by Thomson Reuters Foundation/Kevin Mwanza shows an idle excavator at the Konza Technopolis site on December 5, 2018.

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.

A Final Recommendation:

Whether you’re trying to make a community or nation more revitalized, more sustainable, or more resilient, all three goals require the same thing: a strategic process of repurposing, renewing, and reconnecting your natural, built, cultural, and socioeconomic assets.

Maybe the most practical way to create an entity to deliver such a process would be to repurpose an existing agency, such as a land bank. Currently, most land banks are fairly transaction-oriented (tactical): they understandably want to dispose of vacant properties in their inventory as quickly as possible.

But such properties are the key ingredients of revitalization. So, repurposing a land bank with a more strategic mission–community revitalization, rather than property renewal–would likely renew a land bank’s growth, and reconnect it to a wealth of new resources and stakeholders.

I’ve met many urban planners and economic developers who are creative, caring, green, and effective. That said, places that consistently take uncreative, insensitive, destructive, and/or ineffective approaches to economic growth will most often find many of the impediments to progress in their planning and/or economic development departments.

The central problem isn’t in the people, it’s in the limited mission and focus of the department. Planning isn’t revitalization. Economic development isn’t revitalization. Revitalization is revitalization. And revitalization is the process of increasing the strength and vibrance of a living system…in whatever way is appropriate to that system. One place might revitalize by increasing social justice, another by adding jobs, and yet another by restoring natural resources. The possible types of revitalization visions/goals are as endless as the diversity of problems.

To reiterate the key point one last time: a factory producing air conditioners has a process. A school producing graduates has a process. All professional managers seem to know that they need a process, except revitalization leaders.

In the February 1, 2019 issue of FORTUNE magazine, there was an excellent article by Rick Tetzeli about a new approach to researching treatments for Alzheimer’s disease. For some 20 years, drug companies and government agencies have thrown billions of dollars into the effort, but every one of them was working from the same flawed assumption about the cause. As a result, effectively zero progress was achieved, and many are abandoning the effort.

Working with a comparatively tiny budget, a non-scientist named Paul Cox has made far more progress. His model brings together a broad variety of disciplines, rather than the normal siloed approach that hasn’t worked. Here’s what Dr. Zaven Khachaturian, editor of the journal, Alzheimer’s & Dementia, said about Cox’s work: “One doesn’t have to judge whether Cox’s idea is good or not. His process is important.

A community or region wishing to produce economic growth and enhanced livability should have a RECONOMICS Process if they want to reliably produce revitalization. But most just have activities: a plan here, a project there, and a lot of hope that this will magically result in revitalization or resilience at some point.

I sometimes recommend that communities create an office or department of revitalization, so that someone is in charge of what everyone wants. But “revitalization” suffers from the same problem as “sustainability” and “resilience”: it’s not a rigorous term. It’s hazy, and would thus allow almost any action to take place under that banner.

Map of thousands of regenerative articles and resources in REVITALIZATION.

If such an Office of Revitalization (or Resilient Prosperity) were created, it would thus be essential to embed repurposing, renewing, and reconnecting into its mission, and maybe even its slogan.

These are three specific, fundable, measurable actions. When properly coordinated (which would be one of the office’s duties), they reliably move a place in the direction of revitalization, sustainability, and resilience. Even better would be to have state and federal versions, which would help fund and support local activities.

But the crucial factor is not who does it, but what is done. So the ideal solution might be a combination of software and phone app.

We must create a tool that allows any willing organization to (1) inventory and map a place’s natural, built, and socioeconomic assets; (2) identify their condition (reusable, replaceable, or already-productive); and (3) tag them with any needed actions (repurpose, renew, reconnect). Planetary renewal could be the result.

Literally trillions of public and private dollars are already being invested annually on the repurposing, renewing and reconnecting our natural, built and socioeconomic assets, producing pockets of resilient prosperity. Why aren’t there more such pockets? Why isn’t resilient prosperity more equitably distributed within those pockets?

Yep, you guessed it: lack of a strategic process based on a vision of resilient prosperity for all.

People without hope don’t take action.
The right vision and strategy inspire successful action.
Successful action restores hope by revitalizing our present.
Restoring hope revitalizes our future.

Many cities and regions enjoy significant public and private funding for revitalization or resilience projects and planning.
But those projects and plans seldom produce the desired results.    WHY?   Lack of long-term program funding is key.
They weren’t trained in creating a ongoing process for regenerating their economy, environment and quality of life.
This process is the most reliable way to attract investment, because it inspires confidence in a better local future.

Reliable production of anything—cars, energy, food, money, etc.—requires a reliable process.
So, why don’t places have a reliable process for producing the resilient prosperity they all need?

Want expert help—on demand—for your strategies, projects, plans, & key presentations? Get it here.

©Copyright 2019, Storm Cunningham. All rights reserved.
This excerpt is free: no REVITALIZATION subscription is needed to read it.
So, you’re welcome to link to this resource on your website.


Storm Cunningham keynoting the annual conference of the Michigan Association of Land Banks in 2017.

Storm Cunningham is the publisher of REVITALIZATION. He is a keynoter and workshop leader at planning, sustainability, community regeneration, economic resilience, disaster recovery, and natural resource restoration conferences worldwide. His specialty is inspiring all stakeholders to effectively engage in local revitalization.

Since 2002, his consulting practice has been connecting individuals, institutions, and communities to the opportunities, resources, and practices of the global renewal trend.

His clients include federal agencies, mayors, governors, Chambers, community foundations, non-profits, universities, technologists, financiers, policymakers, and philanthropists.

If you know of a community or organization that has applied the above-described 3Re Strategy or something similar to the RECONOMICS Process, please email Storm at He might want to include the story in RECONOMICS.