RECONOMICS: An Introduction
Most mayors try to grow economies like new entrepreneurs try to grow businesses: endless ignored plans + desperate grabs at funding and opportunities. The irony is that places often have all the necessary expertise and resources, but lack a trained facilitator to ensure constant, unified progress toward the goal.
Few public goals are sought more, and achieved less, than community revitalization and resilience. Three key factors make failure the norm:
- Lack of strategic renewal process. The result? Ignored plans, isolated projects…and not much more. A process is needed to reliably produce anything, but a process designed to produce revitalization or resilience must be based on asset regeneration.
- Lack of integration. Revitalization and resilience efforts for the natural, built and socioeconomic environments must be synced to get what everyone wants: resilient prosperity.
- Lack of effective, inclusive stakeholder engagement. We specify “effective” and “inclusive” because there’s no shortage of lip-service visioning and collaboration exercises that are done in isolation, with little or no effect on the community’s future, and/or with few benefits for marginalized residents.
Everyone knows that:
- an individual project is not the same as an ongoing program;
- an isolated fix is not the same as a systemic cure;
- a living whole is more than the sum of its parts;
- an ingredient is not the same as a recipe; and
- an action is not the same as a process.
Everyone except mayors and governors, apparently. Cities and regions launch economic revitalization and disaster resilience initiatives as if they don’t understand any of that. As a result, about 85% of attempts to revitalize places—or to make them more resilient—fail to make any significant impact…even if they have many successful projects.
Those failures most often derive from relying on leaders who have no training in the process of creating revitalization or resilience. They’re usually good at the components—attracting jobs, or branding, or renewing assets like brownfields, heritage, infrastructure, natural resources, etc.—but lack an overall system for ensuring that those excellent actions and investments achieve the desired end result.
Cities, counties, states and even nations put their regeneration in the hands of talented architects, engineers, planners, politicians, real estate developers, or economic developers. They all have valuable skills—and can successfully create projects and actions that contribute to revitalization or resilience—but the ultimate goal eludes them. Putting new tires on a car with no engine won’t get you anywhere.
Dreams are shattered, hope withers, money is wasted and political careers are ruined.
Despite the broad diversity of dreams and challenges found in cities around the world, their painful failures tend to have the same core problem: lack of an actual process for achieving revitalization and/or resilience. Any sensible person knows we can’t reliably produce anything without a process. Places desiring green, equitable, lasting economic recovery specifically need a strategic renewal process.
The tragedy of projects without process: In the 1970s, American cities created some 200 pedestrian malls to revitalize their downtowns. It was a great idea, but only about a quarter survived. They had no strategic process, so revitalization depended on that one tactic: create a pedestrian mall. This made them dependent on designers and planners, who aren’t trained in the dynamics of revitalization; only its form. Thus, most of the malls were badly located, badly timed, and/or badly sized. In this way did some 75% of the pedestrian malls fail.
It’s happening again: That same lack of process will likely kill at least 75% of today’s post-COVID economic recovery projects for downtowns.
Beyond Hope, Magic and Fads
Again, most places can boast projects that advance revitalization and resilience, but these successes don’t move the needle on their local stagnation…or downward trajectory.
The two-step “strategy” of most public leaders is: 1) do a lot of good restoration, reuse and redevelopment projects, and 2) hope that revitalization and resilience magically appear.
This reliance on superstition comes from the lack an actual process. to manage and rely on. Lasting economic, social and environmental renewal can be achieved, but only if leaders treat revitalization and resilience as something real that can be achieved, not just as some mysterious quality over which they have no influence.
Lack of a reliable process also renders desperate mayors of declining places susceptible to snake oil cures, and to planning/design fads:
- Pedestrian malls were an earlier fad that is now being reborn in healthier forms, like “complete streets” and car-free downtowns;
- By far the most destructive planning fad was “urban renewal”, based on the philosophy of “destroy it and they will come”. It devitalized hundreds of cities, turning historic buildings and vibrant low-income neighborhoods into vacant lots, many of which are only now (half a century later) being redeveloped;
- The “product fad” never dies, as mayors write checks for the latest thing that will revitalize their city: a convention center, a stadium, an aquarium, an iconic building by a starchitect, etc.;
- The ubiquitous failures of the “creative class” fad were due to reliance on a single tactic: attracting certain types of people. It’s a very good tactic—maybe even rising to a strategy, depending on your vision—but it’s no substitute for a complete process;
- The sterile, hyper-commercial “neighborhoods” created by the “new urbanism” fad is what happens when architects assume that the ability to design a building gives them insight into the complex social, economic and ecological dynamics of a city;
- The “placemaking” fad is an attempt to overcome architects’ limitations by involving local residents in the designs;
- The “design charrette” fad was well-meaning, but their output simply went on shelves, along with all the city’s ignored plans;
- The “smart growth” fad boasted a lot of wonderful tactics, but no strategic process for implementing them;
- The current “smart city” fad has a lot of potential, but only if its promoters focus more on what data is being collected, not just how much or how fast it’s being collected. Currently, very few—if any—cities or regions are measuring what needs to be measured in order to properly support revitalization and resilience efforts.
So, since every farmer, artisan and manufacturer knows a process is needed to reliably produce something, why don’t mayors and governors use one to produce revitalization and resilience?
The reality is that most places DO have a partial process. Good leaders know intuitively that they need one, and they try to create one. But—until now—they never had a blueprint for a minimum viable process, so they didn’t know what was missing from theirs.
Unfortunately, a process with a key missing element isn’t a functional process. To continue the automobile analogy from above, you can have the most modern assembly line in the world, but if it lacks the engine installation step, your cars aren’t going anywhere.
Resilience is produced by repurposing, renewing and reconnecting our natural, built and socioeconomic assets. Revitalization is produced in exactly the same way. So why do most communities and regions pursue those two goals separately?
Failure to integrate this mutually-reinforcing pair of goals is another reason most resilience and revitalization initiatives fail. Integrating them weds the short-term benefits of revitalization with the long-term benefits of resilience, increasing funding and public support for both.
The RECONOMICS Process provides that integration and synergy, achieving resilience and revitalization simultaneously. Among many other benefits, it’s the fastest, safest, easiest way to form productive local public-private partnerships and regional alliances.
Cities and regions worldwide are being strengthened by hiring certified Revitalization & Resilience Facilitators (RRFac). Many come from the same professions that traditionally get saddled with leading revitalization and resilience initiatives: architects, engineers, planners, politicians, lawyers, economic developers and real estate developers.
These Revitalization & Resilience Facilitators—whether public staff, private consultants, or local volunteers—help implement that crucial factor needed to boost success: a proven strategic renewal process.
As stated earlier, over 85% of recovery, revitalization and/or resilience efforts fail to achieve a significant impact. The two major reasons are
1) lack of process, and 2) failure to link revitalization and resilience efforts. The good news is that fixing the first can fix the second.
So, doing resilience and revitalization in separate silos is wasteful, because both depend on regenerating our natural, built and socioeconomic environments. By “regenerate”, we mean repurposing, renewing and reconnecting existing natural, built and socioeconomic assets. This is known as the 3Re Strategy, and it’s the most successful revitalization strategy on Earth. If resilience is desired, a fourth “re” must be added: redundancy, making it the 4Re Strategy.
But, just because revitalization and resilience are both based on repurposing, renewing and reconnecting our assets doesn’t mean the resulting projects are the same. For instance, a revitalization initiative might turn an abandoned block of derelict houses into a park, in order to provide greenspace that helps revitalize a declining neighborhood.
But if resilience is also a goal, they might make it a wetland park, to mitigate flooding by absorbing rainwater. And, the redundancy factor might dictate the need for two such wetland parks, to achieve the desired level of storm resilience.
Without resilience, revitalization doesn’t last. Without revitalization, resilience can protect existing prosperity; but can’t increase it. Economic revitalization often provides the funding for resilience efforts. Similarly, in the natural environment, there’s no resilience without regeneration. But our ecological restoration efforts won’t last if we don’t focus on resilience.
One of the major reasons more resilience projects (such as green infrastructure) don’t get funded is due to an antiquated decision-making process used by most municipalities: the cost-benefit analysis (CBA). The many valuable economic and social benefits of resilience are off in a future that’s not measured by the CBA. Revitalization projects, on the other hand, tend to have more immediate benefits that the CBA can capture. Combining resilience and revitalization efforts thus helps fund the former and further justifies the latter.
Of course, management consultants have been exhorting leaders to break down organizational silos for decades. The difference here is that revitalization and resilience MUST be integrated: they are two sides of the same coin. Resilience initiatives shouldn’t just protect economies and quality of life…they should enhance them: resilience should revitalize. And revitalization must be resilient: it shouldn’t just flare and die out. Resilient prosperity is thus a universal goal.
As with childbirth, revitalizing a place eventually yields joy, but getting there can be painful. Often unnecessarily so, without facilitation by a good midwife. Wanting to speed the birthing process along with induced labor is understandable.
The RECONOMICS Process can be seen as “induced rebirth.” All places go through an endless cycle of birth, growth, stagnation, decline and rebirth. Rebirth will thus eventually happen on its own, but who wants to wait years, decades, or even centuries? Why not facilitate it in a natural, gentle, comfortable way, such as a midwife might?
Most places—probably yours—have a long history of visions, plans, charrettes, summits and political promises related to creating a new future. In too many communities, it was a future that never arrived, despite impressive architectural renderings and large investments in redevelopment that tried to force it into the world.
Some succeeded due to lucky timing, or the presence of great leader. But lasting successes derived from a strategic renewal process that each was forced to formulate via trial-and-error, since it had never been documented. We call it the “RECONOMICS Process“.
Now, communities can skip the wheel reinvention, enhancing their success using a method that costs virtually nothing to implement. It produces a constant flow of progress to build both momentum and confidence in the future. Even better, it enhances local “renewal capacity” without disrupting projects that are already in the pipeline.
- The surest way for a place to lose residents, employers and real estate investors is to reduce confidence in their local future.
- The surest way for a place to attract residents, employers and real estate investors is to increase confidence in the local future.
- The surest way to increase confidence in the local future is to add the RECONOMICS Process to your next redevelopment, revitalization or resilience project. It costs nothing to do so.
So, factors #2 and #3 are straightforward. Let’s examine factor #1 more closely: lack of a complete renewal process. As you’ll learn in a moment, a process is needed to reliably produce anything. So, if a politician promises revitalization or resilience, ask him or her what process will be used to produce it. If they can’t answer that question, it’s just an empty campaign promise.
As we’ve said, every place has some of the process elements, such as projects, policies, partnerships, etc. Few have all. And even those that have all the generic elements of the process often forget that each of those elements must be regenerative in nature. Together, it comprises what might be called regenerative governance.
For instance: policies that encourage sprawl undermine downtown revitalization projects. Zoning that doesn’t respond to market needs—such as the current increase in demand for downtown warehouses and residences—also sabotages revitalization. And none of this works if not reflected in budgets.
A good redevelopment project can have a revitalizing effect, but that’s not the same as actually putting the community on a new trajectory. For that, a strategic process—part of which is an ongoing program—is essential.
Local residents are seldom aware that a process is needed. So, if you ask them why an initiative failed, they’ll say things like “lack of funding”, “poor leadership”, “insufficient stakeholder engagement”, “paucity of partners”, etc. But those are just symptoms of not having a strategic process, not causes.
A mayor without a process for producing revitalization or resilience? That’s like Ford without a process for producing cars, or Kraft without a process for producing mayonnaise. Most mayors have projects and a plan, but without a process, those are just ingredients without a recipe. A promise without a process is just an empty promise.
The quickest way to launch a local RECONOMICS Process is to have at least 10 certified Revitalization & Resilience Facilitators among your community’s public and private leaders before you launch your next redevelopment project, resilience initiative or revitalization program. (The easiest way to do that is via our Accelerator Program.)
The First Fundamental Improvement in the
Process of Improving Places in Over a Century.
There have been many advances in community development and redevelopment in the 100 years, but none of them involved process. We have new information technologies (such as GIS). We have design and planning that’s greener (LEED), more pedestrian-oriented (New Urbanism) and better engaged with residents (placemaking, tactical urbanism, etc.).
We have better building materials, new tools for undergrounding infrastructure, new machines for quickly repaving roads, and countless other innovations that have improved efficiency, reduced toxicity, and enhanced beauty. We have better policies (smart growth, mixed income, etc.), better zoning (mixed-use) and better regulations (smart building codes). The past century also brought us better ways to finance all of this activity, such as TIF, CDFIs, crowdfunding, etc.
But we haven’t seen a single improvement in the actual process of improving places…achieving revitalization and/or resilience. The closest most places come is a process for granting entitlements (approving or denying redevelopment permits), but that’s hardly the same thing. Any business leader will tell you that process is where the magic is. Henry Ford’s key innovation wasn’t in designing a better car: it was in the process of producing cars faster and better, which enabled him to offer the customer more for less.
That’s what the RECONOMICS Process does: it makes community recovery faster and better, enabling leaders to offer residents more improvement in less time for less money. There are two systems involved in any effective change effort: the target system you’re trying to change (the community or region), and the change system itself. The RECONOMICS Process is the change system.
Most places stagnate by endlessly producing plans that are never implemented. They launch initiatives that aren’t supported by–and are often sabotaged by—their own policies. They rely on private developers to propose projects, so that governance is reduced to reactive yes/no decisions.
Those who work in large organizations know that meetings usually lead to more meetings. It’s similar in city management, where plans lead to more plans. Sometimes, the sole purpose of creating a new plan is to support an old plan. This can, and often does, go on forever. For instance, in September of 2021, the city of Cranbrook, California announced that it is “updating our Downtown Plan, which will feed into the development of a Downtown Revitalization Master Plan“
In organizational management, strategic alignment is the process of ensuring that an organization’s structure, use of resources, and its culture support its strategy. The RECONOMICS Process accomplishes this for communities.
The groundbreaking 2020 book, RECONOMICS, describes “reconomics“ as the study and development of processes that produce resilient recovery and revitalization in communities and regions. These processes are based on strategic, programmatic regeneration that repurposes, renews and/or reconnects built, natural, social and economic assets.
As a result, local leaders worldwide now have a proven approach to producing what they all want: resilient prosperity. They can now address complex agendas without making governance more complicated. Today, virtually every place on Earth needs to simultaneously produce crisis recovery, economic revitalization and community resilience. Properly applied, the RECONOMICS Process does exactly that.
Understanding a Revitalization or Resilience Process:
- A process is how you reliably produce something.
- A vision is the cohesive set of goals for your process.
- A strategy is the path to success for your process.
- Baselines are how you measure your progress.
- A policy enables or supports your process.
- A partnership equips an action of your process.
- A project IS an action of your process.
- A program is how you perpetuate your process.
- A plan is how you slow down or screw up your process.
- No revitalization process; no revitalization.
- No resilience process; no resilience.
Revitalization + Resilience = Resilient Prosperity..
You say you’ve already got a plan, in which you invested much time, effort and money? Good news: the RECONOMICS Process is the ideal framework for both implementing and evolving your plan. Bad news: the reverse doesn’t work. If the intended outcome of your visioning and strategizing sessions is to produce a plan, you’re in trouble.
The proper outcome of a RECONOMICS Process is projects and initiatives (tactics). If your revitalization, resilience or climate mitigation initiative has been running for a few years, and all you have to show for it is plans, alliances, committees and updated goals, you’ve probably just got the illusion of action: politicians going through the motions.
Green infrastructure is progress; a plan to create green infrastructure is not. You should be able to point to visible, measurable improvements in your natural, built and socioeconomic environments, and point to initiatives that are producing real benefits. For instance, one of your tactics might be to launch an initiative to grow locally-owned small-scale manufacturing, since “maker” industries spin-off far more economic benefits than service industries.
Another reason for failure is focusing on just one or two agendas—like downtown revitalization, heritage renewal or beautification—while ignoring numerous other factors that are crucial to success, like infrastructure renewal, air quality and natural resources restoration.
Or they remain in a stop-start, project-oriented mode, never gaining the momentum and efficiency that comes with an ongoing program. They have to recruit new partnerships—and create new stakeholder engagement efforts—every time they want to do something new.
With a properly-designed strategic renewal process, the shared vision is crafted so that it can also be used as part of the performance specifications in subsequent RFPs and RFQs. That way, the stakeholders are automatically represented in every project. Stakeholders are further—and more intimately—engaged during the partnering process, which brings resources, credibility and influence to both programs and projects.
If There’s No Risk of Failure, There’s Little Chance of Success.
Why do so many places have renewal plans, but not renewal processes? Because the sole purpose of a process if is actually produce something. Production is measurable, which means failure to produce can be documented. For elected leaders, accountability is terrifying.
The primary purpose of creating a plan is usually to be able to say one has a plan: it’s an end unto itself. Creating a plan is relatively simple, and carries zero risk of failure. Implementing a process is less simple, and carries the risk of failure. Thus, only mayors who are truly committed to improving their community have a renewal process: the rest just want to be perceived as being committed.
Another major factor in the widespread failure of revitalization and resilience efforts is that expertise in the renewal process—in the few places where it’s actually present—is usually concentrated in a single individual or agency.
The best results comes from informed residents and leaders…those who know how to turn their shared vision into success, and who have a handle on the renewable assets that will be the ingredients of revitalization and resilience.
That’s why “training” and “asset map” are included in the “vision” element of the RECONOMIC Process. Note: the asset map is usually created by the GIS people in your local planning department, with guidance from a Revitalization & Resilience Facilitator, who understands the categories of renewable assets.
The Ultimate Business Retention Strategy
Ironically, the program element is essentially free. It’s simply an organizational function that integrates and perpetuates everything else. But this no-cost element is the one that contributes most to creating that crucial outcome: more confidence in the local future.
A spectacular redevelopment project might be a success in every other respect, but if it doesn’t elevate confidence in the local future, it’s a revitalization failure. And a resilience failure: how resilient is a place going to be if it’s hemorrhaging residents, employers and investors?
Many communities have business retention programs that are separate from their revitalization efforts. But the most powerful business retention program is building confidence in the future of a place, which should be the primary goal of any revitalization effort.
Instead of creating a place that residents, employers and investors want to be a part of, process-free places rely on baiting them with generic, artificial incentives like tax holidays and free land. Rather than growing their own employers (AKA “economic gardening”), they focus on stealing jobs from other communities by “paying” them to come.
Or they try to create the appearance of confidence via slick marketing campaigns featuring pretty pictures, grand pronouncements and highly-selective statistics. Such tactics occasionally produce a “win”, but seldom reverse the trajectory of a declining economy or quality of life. More substantial changes are usually needed, such as rezoning, rebudgeting and policy revision.
The focus is too often on attracting investors and public funding, but those are the effect of confidence in the local future, not the cause. As Paul Grogan, former CEO of LISC says: “Our greatest problem today stems from lack of confidence as much as lack of money.“
The emerging discipline of reconomics is the solution. It studies successes and failures worldwide to detect common factors. What’s almost always present in the success stories? What’s almost always missing in the failures?
The result of that research is the RECONOMICS Process. It’s the state of the art in reliably, efficiently producing resilient prosperity at the local, regional and national levels. And each step in the process is a potential entry point for you to grow your career or organization.
The real world is messy, so don’t expect your local activities to fit neatly into the boxes shown on the RECONOMICS Process chart, nor to occur in strict order. For instance, if you already have good partnerships in place, you could partner in creating the first step: an ongoing program. But you’ll usually need more resources to create projects, so additional partnering will likely take place prior to most major projects.
To recap: Revitalization without resilience won’t last, and resilience without revitalization has less worth protecting, so pursuing one without the other is dumb. Redundancy is key to resiliency, so the more Revitalization & Resilience Facilitators in your organization or community, the sooner you’re likely to achieve resilient prosperity.
The primary goal of having local Revitalization & Resilience Facilitators is to help cities, regions and nations fully develop their renewal capacity, yielding resilient prosperity for all. The rising places of tomorrow will be those with the most renewal capacity…those with a complete local RECONOMICS Process.
For redevelopers and real estate investors, identifying those “rising places” early produces “buy-low, sell-high” successes. Providing that service is our next major initiative here at RECONOMICS Institute.
GOOD THEORY: Regenerating (repurposing, renewing and reconnecting) our natural, built and socioeconomic assets
yields resilient prosperity for all.
GOOD NEWS: The RECONOMICS Process turns theory into reality.
“It is difficult to redevelop derelict sites, renovate old buildings,
renew infrastructure, remediate brownfields and
restore natural features without revitalizing a community.
What’s remarkable is how often this is accomplished.“
– Storm Cunningham, RRFac
(paraphrasing American urbanist W.H. Whyte)
“We have reliable processes for producing what we don’t want:
poverty, climate change, extinctions, sprawl, etc. But, until now, we’ve lacked a reliable process for producing what we all want—recovery, revitalization and resilience—so those efforts mostly fail.”
– Storm Cunningham, RRFac
Executive Director, RECONOMICS Institute
“Place-based economic development programs…often fail to benefit the places and people they are intended to aid.”
– from a 2021 Pew Charitable Trusts report that researched four decades of failed revitalization initiatives.
“The RECONOMICS Process raises the bar for community and regional revitalization. It’s a powerful package, succinctly capturing the process we have doggedly tried to identify over time, not always knowing the next step. The RECONOMICS Process brings a holistic dimension to redevelopment, inextricably linking vision and task.“
– Eric Bonham, P.Eng, Board of Partnership for Water Sustainability in British Columbia; former Director, BC Ministry of Environment;
former Director, BC Ministry of Municipal Affairs.
“The 3Re Strategy (repurpose, renew, reconnect) documented in
the book, RECONOMICS, transformed our latest project.“
– Dumas F. LaFontant, Director, Lower Roxbury Coalition
“Most cities have a much larger bioregional ecosystem that they draw from for energy, water, food, materials, waste processing, and other urban activities, such as recreation. These areas around the built-up city also need regeneration if a city is to be truly resilient.“
– from Resilient Cities, published in 2017 by Island Press.
“Fitting the RECONOMICS Process around your current renewal projects, plans and initiatives is like installing those ‘invisible’ tooth alignment devices: it turns an ugly mess into beauty without pain.”
– Storm Cunningham, RRFac
“A plan is only as good as its implementation.
Too often, communities invest considerable effort in
preparing quality plans, policies and programs,
only to see little happen because of failure to implement.“
– from “Climate Action Planning” (Island Press, 2019) .