Discerning Development

June 14, 2024

This stuff is tricky, I get it. The people I talk with all the time about their community concerns are in the same boat. They understand something is wrong, but they don’t know what to do about it. They can feel that their town isn’t functioning the way it should, but they don’t know how to change it. There are so many of you out there I encounter that just want to try and return your town to a time when everyone felt a little more connected, attached, and engaged. Don’t despair, there are answers and they are not as complicated as you might think. 

The largest obstacle standing in your way is four decades of misinformation. The generally accepted approach to community improvement has not resulted in community improvement. We all have to be willing to look at the results and realize that what we have been trying just isn’t working and have the courage to try something new, or in fact, something old. 

What happened is that about forty years ago there was a shift in our country and we bought into the theory of trickle-down economics. The concept is to push more money to the top end of our economy and that would lead to more money trickling down to the middle and lower portions of our economy. Basically, politicians decided to get more money in the hands of Wall Street thinking it would end up passing into the hands of everyone else. It didn’t.

When you hear people talk about Wall Street versus Main Street, this is what they mean. We retooled our economic systems to benefit those at the top, i.e. investors, bankers, and upper-level executives, that money that flowed to lower Manhattan came from all of our Main Streets. Every new branch of the big bank used to be a local bank. Every new chain optometrist and dentist and restaurant and hardware store, used to be a locally owned business. As national policies were adopted that favored the rapid expansion of large corporations, so did local policies. We used to have measures in place that did more to protect and grow local economies, which meant more small developers, more small business owners, and even more family farms. When we took those protections away, it became much easier for a few businesses to grow exponentially larger. The same thing occurred with real estate development and farming. 

An entire economic extraction industry has grown out of this trickledown theory and it continues to do its damage to this day. When we don’t make any effort to deter national developers and retailers from coming to our communities, we are facilitating this flow of money from local to national or from Main Street to Wall Street. Case in point, Walmart might look like just one business, but it’s about 40 different small businesses operating under one big depressing roof. Look at the list of departments and you will find you are looking at a list of small businesses that operated on Main Street 100 years ago. 

The same could be said about the addition of a subdivision. This might seem like a victory to some cities, but it’s substantially worse than the old model of home building. When lenders and building departments were designed to help a local family build their own house, they would try and build the best they could afford and that family would instantly realize the equity that came from ownership. But with a new subdivision, one developer builds houses for 500 families on the cheap and that owner takes all of that realized equity out of the community when they sell the units. 

It is tough to steer a new course when we have been on the same path for so long, but we have to be willing to try. We have to be willing to look at the results and ask tough questions. We can’t keep following the generally accepted wisdom without question. Look, I love a quarter-zip shirt as much as the next fella, but finance fellas are not going to lead us out of this mess. The answer isn’t money, but emotion and this is what we overlook when we put all of our improvement eggs in the sprawl basket. 

A city might be tremendously effective in realizing new investments, but oftentimes those investments don’t have any impact on how people feel about their community, or sometimes they can even have a negative impact. Let me be clear, I know not all towns are the same, I am sure some are doing it the right way, but from my travels, those are unfortunately few and far between. 

I don’t know that any one organization or department in a community is actively working to make sprawl happen, but instead local processes and legislation have been adopted over the years that make sprawl development significantly easier and local development significantly harder. These pro-sprawl systems are so ingrained in our municipalities that many places don’t even realize they are there. So many cities have literally made it illegal to build the types of places people love while making it easy to build the types of places we grow to loathe. 

As my colleague Jaime Izurieta-Varea points out, “It’s not the architect or developer that decides what gets built, but the local code.” It’s through the local building code and process that we determine what gets built in our communities and most often they are fostering what we don’t need and discouraging what we do. 

I imagine most municipal officials are interested in making their communities stronger and healthier, though I have met a few I question. These well-meaning individuals have been told for a lifetime that all investment is good and so very little is being done to curb sprawl. There are no mechanisms in place to discourage bad development from taking place. For example, in most towns, it is easy to construct a new strip mall and most people might initially feel good about it.  New jobs, new construction, new commerce, this all should meet the mission of the local office, but those jobs, commerce, and construction are not of high quality, so the end effect can actually make the community worse. 

Not only do those types of investments not make the community any stronger, but they can make it weaker. An ugly building depresses civic pride and attachment, sprawl construction leads to increased congestion and fewer social connections, sprawl-type jobs often don’t increase personal satisfaction, and chain stores extract more money from the community. All told, a project such as described above would lead to an overall less healthy community. 

We have to be discerning about such things. Any effort to improve the community has to be measured in terms of the overall impact, and not just the numbers. New investments should result in an increase in resident affection and attachment to the town. New development should be attractive and make people feel a sense of civic pride. New businesses and jobs should make people feel good about themselves and increase local wealth. This is not to say we have to toss out any effort to grow, but to instead be intentional about what kind of growth is good. 

What we need is the type of development that keeps more money in the community, the type that makes it easier for local people to become entrepreneurs and makes residents proud of their town. This is the kind of effort that will keep graduates from moving away and families from being separated. Just look at how we built our towns 100 years ago, it was no surprise that people felt proud, connected, attached, resilient, and self-reliant. We did it before, so we can certainly do it again, we just need to be more discerning in our efforts. 

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