A RISING PLACE SHOULD LIFT ALL LIVES: How to equitably revitalize a community while making it more resilient.
Today’s intensifying, overlapping economic, environmental & social crises demand regenerative leaders & advisors. Failed efforts lack effective strategy and sufficient funding. Success requires a renewal process that inclusively integrates revitalization & resilience efforts.
A certified PLACE DOCTOR can help.
Don’t have time to read all 400 pages of the groundbreaking
2020 book, RECONOMICS: The Path To Resilient Prosperity?
This Short Course is a free overview of some key points, together
with samples of new material that will be in the second edition.
Want your local leaders and residents to do a better job of revitalizing your community, or making it more resilient? You’re welcome to share this Short Course with them. Put a link to this page on your personal, organizational or governmental websites, and share it via social media.
THE HOLY GRAIL
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s INVEST Southwest program has been a redevelopment success, and a revitalization failure (see excerpt at right). This is the norm in cities worldwide. Leaders know how to stimulate redevelopment, but most have never been trained in the process of revitalizing a place. So, they go with what they know.
Read this article all the way through, and you’ll understand why over 85% of revitalization efforts fail, and how to fix that dire problem.
Trying to revitalize a community or region solely via redevelopment projects is like trying to make a person healthy via triple bypass surgery. Granted, the patient will live a bit longer, but without changes to their diet, lifestyle and exercise regime, they won’t be healthier.
All competent managers know that the reliable production of goods and services requires a process. So, is there a proven process to produce revitalization, recovery and/or resilience? Or are communities doomed to creating their renaissance from scratch, via trial and error?
The key to that answer lies in understanding that any such a process would have to be at the most basic level: it would be so generic as to leave virtually unlimited flexibility for being adapted to differing local problems, cultures, legal systems, politics, resources and opportunities.
Here’s a prosaic analogy. Let’s say you want to manufacture and sell peanut butter for a living. There are myriad ways you could stake out a unique market for your product, and endless options for how you process, package and distribute it. Smooth or crunchy? Stir or no-stir? Organic or toxic? Regenerative or soil-depleting agriculture? Plastic or glass jars? Direct sales to consumers or supermarket distribution?
But there are some elements of the process that are so basic as to be arbitrary. For instance, you need to obtain peanuts (whether by purchasing or growing them) before you can roast them. Well, duh.
That’s the level of process we’re talking about here. That’s the kind of obvious, common-sense framework that missing from most efforts to revitalize a place, or to make it more resilient. Of course, it would need to be a strategic process, since the sole purpose of a strategy is to produce success. Few community revitalization and/or resilience efforts have a real strategy, which helps explain why over 85% of them fail.
So, before we reveal that very real Holy Grail, let’s back up and look at this appallingly ineffective current level of renewal and redevelopment practice found in most communities, which focuses far too heavily on design and planning, and far too little on strategy and process.
PULL MY LEVER
Most community leaders mistakenly think that the only economic revitalization “lever” available to them is taxation, so—like a gambling addict who keeps losing at a one-armed bandit—they keep pulling that lever, hoping for a different result.
This is why communities keep offering tax holidays, tax credits and similar devices to steal employers from other communities, even though such recruitment of such fickle companies seldom moves the needle on the local economic trajectory. But every business leader knows that competing on price is the weakest form of marketing: the desperate act of someone with nothing else to offer. Desperation generally yields bad decisions.
Places can instead use a far more powerful revitalization lever: strategy. Most communities have a wealth of renewable assets: natural, built and socioeconomic. So, they tend to fall into one of three categories:
- Stagnant: No renewal projects, so no revitalization;
- Struggling: Renewal projects, but no strategic process, so no revitalization; or
- Successful: Renewal projects with a strategic renewal process, so both revitalization and resilience are created.
Unlike the pre-existing taxation lever, the strategy lever must be created before it can pulled, and a strategic process is needed to implement the strategy. All leaders think they’re good at strategy, but humility sets in when asked about strategic process. The good news is that it costs virtually nothing to create a local strategic renewal process, and there’s an easy-to-follow blueprint. Here’s how to do it.
GOOD DEFINITIONS & BAD ASSUMPTIONS
When quality of life (health and happiness) and standard of living (economic prosperity) are improving, we say a place is revitalizing. When a place is able to withstand trauma without entering into a long-term loss of health, happiness and prosperity, we say it’s resilient. Revitalization heals; resilience prevents.
Revitalization is a surprisingly vast industry that flies below the radar for two main reasons: 1) it’s highly fragmented and not organized as a discipline; and 2) it goes by a wide variety of names, such as urban renewal, redevelopment, urban regeneration (in the UK), capital improvements, economic development and regenerative growth, to name a few. The 2017 book, A New City O/S: The Power of Open, Collaborative and Distributed Governance referred to revitalization as “municipal turnarounds.” This plethora of synonyms not only obscures our perception of the ubiquity of revitalization-related efforts, but also retards its emergence as a rigorous profession.
No matter how large you think the revitalization “industry” is, the reality is that it’s probably at least 100 times larger. For instance, on November 1, 2021, Dallas-based AEC firm Aecom won a program management contract in the regeneration of the ancient Saudi Arabian city of AlUla. The first phase alone is $15 billion. In fact, virtually any effort to improve a place in any way is revitalization work, whether tiny or huge. But most such efforts fail, precisely because they are done in isolation, rather than as part of a self-reinforcing, cohesive, ongoing program.
Most communities have revitalizing projects: historic building reuse, infrastructure renewal, streetscaping, stream daylighting, downtown pedestrianization, affordable housing, watershed restoration, etc. But only those in economic crisis tend to have a revitalization program. That’s a mistake. Assuming that revitalization is only for poor places is often how wealthy places become poor places.
A place that isn’t revitalizing is devitalizing: there’s no such thing as healthy stasis. Or, as Benjamin Franklin said, “When you’re finished changing, you’re finished.” So, a mayor who says “our city doesn’t need revitalization” is basically saying “my administration isn’t looking for ways to grow our economy or improve our quality of life. We just hope that things stay the same.”
And assuming that resilience is only for “accident prone” communities in locations that traditionally suffer floods, fires, earthquakes, droughts and hurricanes is also a mistake. The eroding, destabilizing effects of three global crises—climate, biodiversity and economic inequity—make all places accident prone: physically, socially and economically.
Assuming that the problems of others aren’t our problems is another mistake that reduces our own resilience. All places are connected. Witness how a 7.3 earthquake off the coast of eastern Japan on February 13, 2021 helped trigger a computer chip shortage that has shut down automobile manufacturing plants worldwide.
Few public goals are sought more, and achieved less, than revitalization and resilience (AKA: resilient prosperity, or regenerative growth). 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 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.
One common sign of a government agency (or not-for-profit organization) that has no strategic implementation process is a tendency to conflate spending with effectiveness. Every year, they brag about how much money they put towards an agenda, rather than documenting on-the-ground results against baselines.
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 & 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 improve architects’ work by involving local residents in the designs. But design comes last. Skipping straight from vision to project is a common mistake;
- 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.
A good doctor knows how to heal illness (revitalize health) and prevent illness (resilience). That’s common sense. But most community leaders lack that common sense, pursuing revitalization (healing economic, social and environmental crises) and resilience (preventing those crises) as if they were unrelated. As a result, they often get neither.
Resilience is produced by repurposing, renewing and reconnecting local 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—also called a renewal engine (as first documented in the 2008 book, Rewealth from McGraw Hill)—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 PLACE DOCTORS. 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 PLACE DOCTORS—whether public staff, private consultants, or local volunteers—help implement that crucial factor needed to boost success: a proven strategic renewal process.
That public staff will likely include planners, so we should point out that—as with designs and projects—plans are usually written far too early. If your community is required by law to have a plan, then by all means write one. But it should be treated like a project: it’s best not to write a plan until your program, vision, strategy, policies and at least a few key partners are all in place.
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. If your goal is economic resilience, the connection is obvious, since constant revitalization is exactly how one produces economic resilience.
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.
The Rockefeller Foundation’s failed 100 Resilient Cities initiative might well have succeeded if they had addressed the political dynamic known (in the U.S., anyway) as “it’s the economy, stupid.” The 100 Resilient Cities definition of resilience was “the capacity of individuals, communities, institutions, businesses, and systems within a city to survive, adapt, and grow no matter what kinds of chronic stresses and acute shocks they experience.”
There’s nothing wrong with that definition, as long as one’s focus is purely resilience. But a strategy for ensuring that the resilience effort is successful would recognize that revitalization is more politically saleable than resilience. This is why almost all political candidates promise revitalization if they are elected. Integrating revitalization into the definition of resilience requires only a tiny, subtle change of language, such as replacing “grow” with “revitalize” (unchecked or poorly-planned growth is often at the root of devitalization).
In the wake of the demise of 100 Resilient Cities, many of the enrolled cities dropped their resilience effort, and fired their Chief Resilience Officers. In other words, their resilience programs weren’t resilient to change. One city that has both continued and expanded their resilience work is Melaka, Malaysia. Why did their program survive?
Let’s look at Melaka’s vision and strategy. There are three elements to their vision: 1) A Livable, Vibrant and Efficiently Connected City; 2) Thriving and Engaged Communities; and 3) Collective Governance and Smart Leadership. Here’s how they define their strategy: “Melaka’s Resilience Strategy aims to improve the quality of life, economic opportunities, and governing processes impacting Melaka’s citizens.”
Notice the key difference from the 100 Resilient Cities’ old definition? That one word, “improve,” together with directly addressing quality of life and the economy. Improving the economy and quality of life is the definition of revitalization.
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. One role of the program is to create a CRA: community regeneration agreement that can be incorporated into all or most RFP/RFQs. The CRA would encapsulate the vision, strategy and policies in a simple contract (not a law) with which a developer can comply.
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 PLACE DOCTORS among your community’s public and private leaders before you launch your next redevelopment project, resilience initiative or revitalization 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, P3s, 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.
CREATING THE POLITICAL WILL TO REVITALIZE
As you’ve seen, the process is common sense, which might prompt you to ask “why don’t all communities use it?” The answer is that political leaders are terrified of failure. Putting the RECONOMICS Process in place tells the world that they are working towards revitalization and/or resilience. But, even with the process, there are many factors and players over which they have no control. So, they play it safe and only promise manageable bits and pieces, never the desired end result.
The irony is that this is a false fear. Revitalization is a trajectory, not a state. Therefore, there’s no point at which you can authoritatively say that someone’s efforts to revitalize a place have failed.
What we CAN do is measure progress along that trajectory, which means that one of the first responsibilities of a newly-established revitalization program is to collect baseline data. Without that, one can rigorously report increases in whatever indicators of revitalization would be appropriate to achieving the shared vision: downtown pedestrian traffic, air quality, reduced heat island effect, decreases in employment, increases in average wage, etc.
Of course, these smaller, more-incremental measures of revitalization can still fail to be achieved, so political cowardice is still a factor. Maybe the only real solution to that problem is to elect a leader who commit to put the entire RECONOMICS Process in place. Creating the process is actually more important than any particular redevelopment project, since it actually boosts the local renewal capacity. This makes future projects more revitalizing, since the process would help ensure that the projects advance the community’s vision.
WHAT EXACTLY IS A PROCESS FOR RESILIENT PROSPERITY?
- 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.
This is why experienced, results-oriented mayors don’t put their planning department in charge of a revitalization initiative: they know that all they’ll get is a plan, not revitalization.
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.
NO RISK OF FAILURE = 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.
Someone once said (regarding today’s tech-obsessed economy and society) that it is based on “a strategy of acceleration without destination.” This perfectly encapsulates how, while vision and strategy are very different things—they are inseparable. A vision needs a strategy in order to manifest, and a strategy needs a vision in order to have a purpose…a reason to exist.
Let’s make sure we’re clear on the difference between vision and strategy:
A vision is what success looks like.
A strategy is what success requires.
A vision is what people want.
A strategy is how they get it.
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 PLACE DOCTOR, who understands the categories of renewable assets.
Tactics vs. Strategies
The words “tactic” and “strategy” have appeared repeatedly here, but some readers might not fully understand the difference between the two. Here’s an example to clarify the relationship.
Imagine that the folks in a beautiful river valley have decided that their ideal future lies in a combination of tourism and small-scale farming. That would necessitate preserving and enhancing the natural beauty while also preserving family farming. Most family farms are lost when the families are forced by financial necessity to sell off pieces of their property, which usually become sprawl housing and strip malls.
Conservation easements provide property owners with financial incentives (such as tax relief) to sign a contract guaranteeing that they will never sell or develop certain pieces of their property. They are thus a tactic for the preservation of cultural and natural assets.
Now imagine that the state’s Department of Transportation (DOT has announced that they plan to turn the scenic, two-lane road that meanders (like the river) through the valley into a four-lane highway. This, of course, would catalyze residential and commercial sprawl, and the fast-moving traffic would destroy the valley’s tranquility.
In most cases, where local folks don’t understand tactics vs. strategies, they would try to install more conservation easements to mitigate the damage done by the highway. They would also rely on petitions and other public feedback to try to get the DOT to change their mind.
But a strategic approach using exactly the same tactic could achieve far more: it could prevent the highway expansion from happening. Why is the DOT proposing to expand the highway? Because they assume that sprawl will come to the valley, creating traffic congestion.
So, an intelligent strategist would realize that the enemy isn’t the DOT, nor is it real estate developers. The enemy is that assumption. An effective strategy would thus destroy that assumption by proving that sprawl can’t happen. This would necessitate not only creating as many conservation easements as possible, but doing so quickly enough to prevent the DOT’s proposal from becoming a decision.
Could such a strategy actually work? It did in Virginia. Here’s an excerpt from the Fall 2022 newsletter of the Alliance for the Shenandoah Valley: “With a guarantee (as a result of the easements) that there will never be subdivisions, supermarkets or strip malls to service, replacing a rural road with a four-lane highway becomes a poor investment. Thanks to the (strategic) efforts of this united group of engaged citizens, VDOT (Virginia Dept. of Transportation) dropped its plan and instead focused on a few discrete projects that improved road safety while maintaining the region’s unique character.“
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.
Most public leaders know how powerful policy changes (which includes zoning) can be. But they tend to enact them in isolation, rather than as part of a complete strategic process. Just as a single project isn’t likely to revitalize a place or make it more resilient, neither is an isolated policy change.
Look what happened—or rather, failed to happen—in New York City. In 2016, the mayor and city officials rezoned the East New York Industrial Business Zone. They claimed this would revitalize it by doubling its manufacturing capacity to create 3900 new jobs. After five years, the area is still economically stagnant. Had the initiative included the other five elements of the strategic process—program, vision, strategy, partnerships and projects—the area would likely have had some significant renewal momentum by 2021.
Leaders too often focus 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. How does regenerative growth happen? 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.
A musical metaphor might help clarify the role of the RECONOMICS Process: No matter how many talented musicians you have, you won’t perform Beethoven’s Ninth until they are an orchestra. Communities are similar: Most have talented leaders, planners, architects, engineers and developers, but won’t produce a better future until those players coalesce into a cohesive revitalization and resilience program. With that, they can create a local version of the RECONOMICS Process:
- Their program is the orchestra;
- Their vision and strategy are the conductor;
- Their policymakers, partnerships and project participants are the musicians.
A PLACE DOCTOR thus has three key roles:
- Help the community or region create the ongoing program;
- After the program is created, help them add the remaining five elements of the RECONOMICS Process; and
- Once the process is in place, provide ongoing training and guidance to help it function smoothly.
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.
Revitalization is the healing of our natural, built and socioeconomic environments. So, when we replace policies that retard revitalization with policies that facilitate revitalization, we are removing what prevents healing and adding what accelerates healing.
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 PLACE DOCTORS in your organization or community, the sooner you’re likely to achieve resilient prosperity.
The primary goal of having local PLACE DOCTORS 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.
REVITALIZATION comes from:
Healing local economic, environmental & social problems.
RESILIENCE comes from:
Preparing places for a future in which national or global
economic, environmental and/or social crises get worse.
RESILIENT PROSPERITY comes from:
Revitalization + Resilience.
“The (Mayor Lori) Lightfoot administration has poured $750 million into a comprehensive (redevelopment) program it calls INVEST South/West that focuses on a dozen depressed communities. There have been some developmental successes, but by and large the targeted (Chicago) neighborhoods remain as crime-ridden, dilapidated and underserved as they have been for decades.“
– from February 7, 2023 article by Alan Ehrenhalt in Governing.com
“[The most successful business incubator uses] a model where entrepreneurs repurpose and recombine resources that are already available, rather than seeking out funding from external sources. These founders built rich relationships with local partners, and they sought out creative ways to leverage the resources available in their local environments to address urgent, local problems. …their venture ideas became embedded in the Detroit ecosystem, growing deeply and slowly rather than broadly and quickly.“
– from “How Entrepreneurship Can Revitalize Local Communities” by Suntae Kim & Anna Kim. Harvard Business Review, January 17, 2022.)
“Their goal is…a regenerative supply chain that offers economic and social benefits to people and the environment at every point.“
– Dec. 2021/Jan. 2022 issue of FORTUNE magazine
(article on current shutdown of the Port of Vancouver due to climate change-fueled fires, floods and landslides in British Columbia.)
” ‘Build Back Better’ has been a rallying cry in the disaster recovery community for 15 years. What began as an exhortation to construct stronger buildings and roads following hurricanes and earthquakes has grown into a broader mandate: to make communities more resilient by revitalizing local economies …(and) natural resources.“
– November 2021 issue of Fast Company magazine
(article titled “Build Back with Impact” by Stephanie Mehta)
“It is difficult to redevelop derelict sites, renovate old buildings,
renew infrastructure, remediate brownfields and
restore natural resources without revitalizing a community.
What’s remarkable is how often this is accomplished.“
– Storm Cunningham
(paraphrasing American urbanist W.H. Whyte)
“Urban planners take pride in knowing, not feeling, communities. Emotion is generally not part of their toolkit…it is often actively resisted. Most planners are trained to work in an abstract, rational tradition, thinking about cities in head-heavy ways and using tools like maps and data to understand, explore, and regulate the land and its people. This rigid understanding of communities, especially nonwhite ones, creates intrinsic problems, because planners apply a one-size-fits-all approach to land use, zoning, and urban design. Not truly listening to these communities, or even simply allowing for other ways of being, has led to long legacies of conflict, trauma, and oppression. Our urban inequities are not accidents. They’re products of design and intention.“
– James Rojas, urban planner, writing in Common Edge
“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
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.
“Cities seldom regenerate when they are wealthy and have many resources to do so. They are usually wealthy because they regenerated when they had few resources.“
– Storm Cunningham
“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
“Urban redevelopment, also known as urban renewal, is met with several challenges for communities… The lack of adequate infrastructure, housing and other critical public facilities all hinder…urban redevelopment plans. P3s can offer urban communities a unique opportunity to implement strategic plans faster while transferring significant risk from the public sector. Cities, counties, urban renewal and economic development agencies can use P3s to attract industry, upgrade infrastructure and develop new facilities.“
– Dee Brown, CEO of The P3 Group, Inc.
“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) .
““I really hope this is not another plan that gets put on the shelf…
I want to make sure we actually do something.
We’ve been talking about this too long now.” “
– Wichita City Council member Brandon Johnson, concerning their latest downtown riverfront revitalization plan. (March 2023)
“There are two kinds of change in communities: planned and unplanned. Most planned changes never happen, and most unplanned changes make people wish they had never happened.“
– Storm Cunningham
“A plan is what we make when we don’t plan to make a difference.“
– Storm Cunningham, Executive Director, RECONOMICS Institute.
“When communities respond to concerns about their future economy and quality of life with the tools and agencies that produced their present economy and quality of life, they create the problems they fear. Revitalization and resilience require new skills.“
– Storm Cunningham
Photo Credit: “Fall Over the Shenandoah” by Ian Fisher.
“Reliable, affordable transportation can be the key to community revitalization when it connects to healthful, affordable housing in a way that gives residents quick access educational, employment and business opportunity. Increasing physical mobility is essential to increasing economic mobility.
We often hear about efforts to increase economic mobility for individuals and families. But these efforts often fail if leaders don’t know how to increase the community’s economic mobility. Trying to go up in a city that’s going down can make a difficult goal impossible.“
– Storm Cunningham