“Well now, what do I do?” The all-so-common refrain of those recently installed in a position to help their community. I speak with dedicated and passionate people every week who just want to lift up their town, but once they get in a position to help, they are bombarded with bad advice. Waiting to grab their attention and offer up direction are tourism, economic development, and planning- the triumvirate of bad suggestions for newly elected officials.
These civic-minded individuals get involved for all the right reasons and for that, I applaud them, unfortunately though, all too often they aren’t sure where to get started. And why would they? Community improvement isn’t a field that many people study. The typical individual finds themself living in a town that needs some help. So they do the honorable thing and try to help.
The problems that plague our communities, affect everyone in them. Vacancy, isolation, detachment, blight, apathy, etc. These are issues that impact millions, but a field that few people spend much time considering. So when a resident finds themselves in a position to make a difference, their next step is to seek out advice. Sadly, most of the advice they receive is not very helpful.
They hear “Jobs will fix it, hire an economic development professional.”
They hear “Visitors will fix it, spend more on tourism and marketing.”
They hear “A plan will fix it, let’s hire a planning firm.”
They hear “Project x, y, or z will fix it, so let’s find the money for this project.”
These solutions don’t end up addressing the real problem, so they have very little chance of succeeding. I don’t blame the concerned citizen for gravitating toward these solutions, because often, these are the only options they think they have.
Jobs, investment, planning, marketing, and big silver bullet projects don’t address the core issues communities are struggling to overcome. Low self-esteem, apathy, and civic dysfunction are at the heart of the matter but rarely mentioned. These are a different set of problems and require a different set of tools. Once you start to accept that these are the actual challenges, you can see why the typically ascribed tools don’t make much of an impact. The solutions that are typically touted are built to address something quite different.
It’s not that those other areas of expertise don’t have a place, but a community has to be ready to use them. A town has to attain a certain level of health to take advantage of a plan or attract jobs or visitors and most just aren’t ready. Most of these places are dealing with something far more fundamental, which is a lack of belief in itself.
So I want to offer up a little simple advice for those seeking to make a difference in their community. Look around, see what doesn’t look right then fix it. That is it. It doesn’t take any particular expertise to do this. No one needs an advanced degree to see what’s wrong.
The process of improving your community is simple as the process of improving yourself. It’s a straightforward and pragmatic prognosis. Get a little bit better every day. Does anyone not know how to get healthier? C’mon. Eat better, exercise more, and go to bed earlier. Consistently make decisions that improve your health, decisions that make you look and feel better long-term, and you will find yourself on an upward trajectory.
This simple notion that we all understand as humans, does not suddenly get turned on its head just because we are dealing with multiple humans. The same lessons we apply to our personal lives, we must apply to our communities. If you wish you had more social connections, everyone in your town does too. If you wish the downtown was prettier, everyone in your town probably does too. If you wish that there were nicer places to shop or eat, everyone in your town probably does too. If you wish that cars didn’t threaten your life every time you dared to walk somewhere, everyone in your town probably does too.
If you are in a position to make a difference in your town, let me provide you with some free resources. Look to the towns that are healthy, consider your town when it was fairing better, and think about what you personally value. What you will find, time and time again is that the solutions are simple –
Nothing revolutionary, not even controversial, just incredibly obvious. Of course, this is how we go about improving our communities, how we increase a sense of attachment, combat apathy, and foster connections. The concepts are simple, but they can’t be done overnight, and you can’t hire someone to do them for you. Maybe that is why they aren’t more popular.
At the end of the day, the steps to improve our towns are known to us all. Make things better consistently. Bring people together, make the surroundings nicer and foster local ownership. Shift your efforts in these three areas and apply effort every day. Because there is no improvement without effort, ever. Anyone that tells you differently is lying. Your community cannot improve, without your community putting in the work to improve. Once you embrace this truth, you have all the answers you need to move forward.