Falling Tides

December 2, 2021

What’s that old phrase… a falling tide lowers all ships?  Am I getting that right? I believe it was Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone that said something similar, “When we all do worse, we all do worse.” Perhaps poorly paraphrased here, but let those words sink in. 

We generally gravitate towards the more aspirational quotes in life. You can bet no one is out there buying a shiplapped “Time Wounds all Heals” or a “Die, Cry, Hate” decorative wall hanging from Etsy. But with all pearls of wisdom, the converse must hold true. 

A city is a harbor with a lot of boats, but it’s not the moon pulling the tidal strings- it’s the staff, the departments leaders, the boards, the commissioners, and the elected officials. These entities will determine whether or not the boats in the harbor will rise and fall with time. 

The various groups that make up municipal government set the standard for the community. They determine what is and isn’t acceptable and with each decision, a new precedent is set. With every passing action, a bar is getting lowered or raised. What we need to do as civic minded citizens is assess our own communities and determine which way the bar is going. 

What is the trajectory of your town? The decisions being made by those at city hall are currently determining the direction of your community. Each and every day, those boards and commissions are deciding whether your town is getting better or worse. Are your civic standards rising or falling right now? 

Standards are fluid and they can be recalibrated. Every day when we go about our business, all of us are deciding what is and isn’t acceptable. What do we permit ourselves to wear, what do we permit ourselves to say, what behaviors can we act on and what do we refrain from doing? These standards we set for ourself determine the person we will become. 

We are the sum total of the decisions we make and standards help guide us in making those decisions. If we want to improve, we raise our standards in an attempt to make better decisions and become a better person. There are times in life when we accept less, and in doing so, lower our standards and fall backward. 

Businesses and institutions function the same. They make decisions at the top about what is and isn’t acceptable. What will we allow people to wear to work? What GPA does an applicant need to get accepted? What constitutes a fireable offense? These are the standards that define an organization. These expectations are the basis for improvement or decline. 

A municipality has to be intentional about what it wants to be and where it is headed. Is the aim to improve, or decline? I can’t imagine many cities are shooting for decline, yet their decisions paint a different picture. A majority of the cities I have worked with continue to use lower standards as a rational for improvement. This is a backwards way of thinking and we don’t apply that logic anywhere else in society. City leaders have been told for decades that all investment is good investment so they keep lowering standards in hopes that new investment will bring about a brighter tomorrow. 

It won’t, it can’t. Lower standards will never produce better results. Just because something is new, doesn’t mean it’s an improvement. All growth isn’t good, all investment can’t be considered a victory. Lowering the bar will always result in decline, no matter the justification. 

If I decide to lower my standards, it will drag me down. It will affect my wife and kids, but the repercussions won’t go much further. If a school district decides to lower their standards, it will affect the student body as well as faculty and staff. The same goes for a business- ask less of everyone employed and be sure you will get less of everyone employed. The damage though is contained to those that are involved with the institution. But when a municipality accepts less, every individual and organization in the community is negatively impacted. 

The decline isn’t limited to city staff, but stretches all the way to the municipal borders. Every entity that shares the same patch of earth gets pulled down when a city begins allowing what it once wouldn’t. 

The guardrails of what is acceptable is determined by those pulling the levers at city hall and those guardrails determine where everyone in that political jurisdiction is heading. We are all subject to the health of our communities. The overall well-being of every person, business and organization in a place is in large part dictated by the overall health of the place in which they are located.

This is why the health of our places is so damn important. Place affects everyone. As a place declines, so does everyone in that place because they are subject to their surroundings. Conversely, as a place improves, so will everyone in that place as they are also subject to their surroundings. 

A city leader is convinced that all investment is good investment, so economic development becomes the basis for decision making. Departments are told that growth is the goal. Commissions and boards are filled up with appointees that are of the same thinking. Standards are altered to reflect the new agenda. Decisions get made, not under the guise that we must relentlessly improve, but under the new mantra, that all growth is good growth. Projects that were once unacceptable, become acceptable. Standards decline. Money is invested in making the community worse. As the floor gets lower, the ceiling falls to meet it. There are no more guardrails to protect the community and its 200 years of investment. 

Good buildings go bad, traditional neighborhoods fall apart. The people that live in them experience the same in their personal lives. Outside investors circle like vultures to prey on the lower standards. They have been given the go-ahead to build cheap, to toss up vinyl crap that everyone hates and open up chain businesses that drain the town. They are welcome to pick at the carcass of a community. 

The tide is falling and bringing down all the boats in the harbor with it. The best and brightest are no longer satisfied to call this place home and move on down the road. The school district has trouble attracting new families and some of the old ones are starting to leave. As teaching positions open up, the quality of the candidates applying declines. The local college is experiencing the same. Fewer good faculty are drawn to the openings and fewer graduates want to relocate to a town in a backslide. The hospital is losing its best doctors and can’t fill the positions with people of the same caliber. The bank and the manufacturer and the tech company and the foundation are all experiencing the same fate. 

Every single person, every household, every company, every non-profit, they all are affected by the heath of the place in which they are located. That patch of grass where they set up shop, will define their floor and their ceiling in terms of success. 

This is why place matters so much, and why we need to remind ourselves that what happens at city hall affects us all. Every time a standard is lowered, every person in town declines. Every time something cheap and ugly gets built, everyone’s property values take damage. With every decision to accept less, everyone in the city should expect less. When municipal government begins their slow slide backwards they pull everyone in town down with them. 

As mentioned above, the converse is true. When local government decides to fight for a better future, the tide begins to rise. When those committees, boards and commissions fully understand their roles and responsibility and chose to use that influence to raise the bar, they are raising it for everybody. When elected officials decide that average isn’t good enough, they are giving everyone an opportunity to improve. As Paul Wellstone actually said, “When we all do better, we all do better.” 

When we ask more of someone, we raise our expectations, we show them we believe in them, we give them a chance to rise to the occasion, the chance to demonstrate their worth and and give them an opportunity to be proud. When we ask more of someone- be it a business owner, board member, property owner or committee member- we are giving them a chance to improve. With improvement comes a sense of achievement and accomplishment. With improvement comes a sense of meaning. Everyone in your community should be afforded the opportunity to feel good about themselves.

When local government raises its standards and decides to change course, to shift its trajectory, the tide rises for everyone. When the city demands better, the city gets getter. When a place improves, everybody in that place experiences the improvement. This is why no one can sit on the sidelines. The health of your city affects the school district, the hospital, the college, the bank, the startup, the manufacturer, the insurance company. Every single home, every person in your town has skin in the game. Everyone’s well-being is dependent on the health of their place. 

A falling tide lowers all boats and a rising tide lifts all boats and the city is the moon. 

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