Every Tuesday morning, I hop on a Zoom call with my friend and colleague, Chet Clem. Chet runs a real estate development firm in New Hampshire. Along with majestic beards, we share a common credo- something along the lines of ‘you better find humor in your suffering or you will never enjoy it’. We spend our 60 to 90 minutes a week commiserating with one another, but also- trying to sort out how to help our cities do better. How do we make communities stronger and healthier, and more so, how do help the lives of everyone that lives in a struggling community? Because most everyone does.
Once in awhile, we record the conversation and those 90 minutes of civic/comedic gold gets edited and posted for the adoring masses. That podcast is called Struggletown– because all of us know what it’s like to live in a town that struggles, and we also know the immense struggle it can be to try and improve those towns. It’s a fight to make things better- hell it’s a fight to keep them from getting worse. Why does it have to be so hard to do the right thing? Who is standing in the way of progress? Who is in charge of administering all this struggle? Please, make it stop.
Chet and I spend most of our time talking about real estate, partly because we both have a history in the field, but more so because it’s the greatest challenge facing our cities. That may come as a surprise to some, but our most significant hurdle and our greatest opportunity lies in the design of the built environment. People are the same everywhere, it’s the settings that change. It’s the decline in our surroundings that has led to the decline in our society. People adapt to their habitat and these terrible habitats we are creating are making us sick and miserable. The miserable conditions we create are conditioning us.
Our weekly talks keep coming back to a central point- nothing ‘good’ ever gets built anymore. Most towns are living in the past and obsess over their history because that is the last time anyone felt good about their town. That’s when people had pride in the place they called home. If your house is falling apart, you aren’t going to be proud of it, you aren’t going to care for it and you aren’t going to feel any sort of attachment to it. That is what happened to our cities. The pretty old stone buildings were torn down for parking and we built cheap crap around the edges to replace them. If someone snuck in your garage one night and swapped out your ‘62 Corvette for a Chevette, you would feel very different about your automobile. Sure, they are both cars, but one is just functional (barely) and the other one made you proud.
I don’t think we realize quite how much these buildings affect us, but what is a town if not the buildings? Sure, it’s a collection of people living in the same area, but the buildings define the space, they define the people, they shape the lives that are led amongst them. Main Street is just a strip of public space defined on its edges by buildings. Take away those buildings, which most towns do, then you start to lose that defined space. You just have a parking lot and that’s not the same thing. That is why no one feels the same in the Costco parking lot as they do on a pretty Main Street. The space defines how you feel and how you interact.
This all came about because we shifted from the local economy to the sprawl economy. We opted to have outsiders control the real estate and commerce. We surrendered our own strong, resilient and self-reliant local economies to national chains. It was a mistake that most are just now coming around to understanding. Those chains stores mine our towns for all their resources, sucking up as much as they can and pumping it back to their HQ and shareholders.
The problem with national chains and developers is pretty well documented. If a business is not of your community, it should be easy to understand that they are in the extraction business. If a business is from your community, they are in the cultivation business. Local economic development offices/chambers and municipal government should put all their efforts into growing the latter and resisting the former.
In retooling our cities for sprawl, we created a bigger problem that is proving harder to sort out. The real estate development process is a fiasco. Wherever I go, everyone is resistant to change. No one wants new development. NIMBYism runs rampant. Everyone despises developers.
Because everything that has been built for the last 40 years is garbage. Of course residents are reluctant to approve more development- they should be! But developers are not at fault, they are just playing by the rules. Developers are simply playing by the rules that municipalities provide them. So what do I say to all of this. Don’t hate the player- hate the game.
It’s a terrible game! Imagine a game where the rule book is 300 pages long, conflicts with itself multiple times and is written in a language akin to Shakespearean English. Also, the rules are open to interpretation and enforced erratically and are ultimately determined by a group of 7 volunteers that have varying experience of playing the game. Sounds fun! Also, you have to spend exorbitant amounts of cash for every moment you play. Also, the different people that enforce the rules don’t speak to one another and they also (very often) disagree. By the time you are in the game, winning is no longer the goal, simply surviving and staying out of bankruptcy will suffice.
It’s the worst game ever and here’s why- because no one decided the goal in the beginning. The rules are what matters, the process and the regulations are all that defines the game, not the outcomes. It’s the most absurd way of doing anything.
If I wanted to bake a cake, I would start by picking out the cake I wanted. This seems the most logical way to approach the baking process. Then I would procure the ingredients and then I would find a recipe which would provide me with the process to make this wonderful cake. This is how we do things. We decide what outcomes we want and then work backwards from there. We determine what we want and decide how to best achieve it. But this is not how cities have approached real estate development. Exactly the opposite in fact.
While there is no shortage of money spent on public input studies, residents never get to see what they want built. This is because the process overrides the will of the people. But what sense does to make to regulate a thing you haven’t even given direction to? Imagine I want to make another cake, but instead of deciding which cake, I start by creating a series of parameters I can use to bake. I create all of the cooking instructions and the do’s and don’ts of baking and then I hire a bunch of people to determine if I am following those instructions properly. Never mind what I want to cook, hell, never mind what ingredients I have!
This is why everyone hates everything that has been built since WWII, because we have adopted the dumbest possible method for creating the built environment. If this was the way we approached cooking, everyone would despise food. The developers aren’t the problem, the problem is municipalities adhering to an absolutely flawed system that is only capable of producing horrendous outcomes- they are at fault. Maybe it’s a reasonable time to move away from the process driven real estate development approach and consider placing a premium on the outcomes.
Cities could adopt a new model, a model where the intended outcome is identified first. This is basically the idea behind a form based code. Decide what you want all the buildings to look like first, and then sort out how to make it happen. This part shouldn’t be too hard. Just look at historic photos of your town and use those as a model. Use what worked and use what people loved.
Once a municipality has determined what the buildings should like look, find out what regulations stand in the way and begin to remove them from the books. Council should be on board with this because it will make everyone’s lives better and they will look like big heroes for stripping away bureaucracy. After sorting out regulations to ensure all these new buildings can be legally built, then turn to the process. Here’s the great thing, if everyone can agree in the beginning to what is getting built, the process should become shockingly simpler. No hurdles after the fact, sort out all the details in advance.
The city could reach out to the development community as partners instead of the traditional model of treating developers as adversaries. The city has a vision for what needs built, the development community will be an ideal partner in the process. Working together to save money, time, headaches and misery, everyone would be happier and the process would no longer prove an impediment.
With local developers and government working in a partnership, the financials would be out in the open for all to understand. This type of transparency would benefit everyone involved, including the community.
It is entirely possible to reshape the built environment of our communities. We have the technology and money to make our cities nice. Other cities across the world are removing bad urbanism and replacing it with beauty. Our cities can improve. We can easily reshape the environments that are shaping our lives. It’s a simple solution and everyone will benefit. All we need is to remind ourselves, that it is up to us to decide the setting in which we want to live our lives and sort out how to make it happen. It starts with a vision, not a process.