The question “how do I get people in my town to care” was posed to our panel of three last week in North Little Rock. I was on stage at the Argenta Community Theater with my friends Joe Borgstrom and Ben Muldrow for a live in-person Downtown Happy Hour as part of the Destination Downtown Conference.
We were taking audience questions as part of the event and a woman stood up and asked how she should go about trying to get more people interested and concerned in the revitalization effort in her city. So how do we get people to care? This is pretty much the biggest obstacle most community development people face. Because, let’s be honest- it’s hard to get anything accomplished when there’s no will to accomplish anything. Where there’s a will there’s a way, right? But what if there’s no will?
To answer the question, it might be useful to consider how we found ourselves in this situation. People used to care about their towns, which is one of the reasons we romanticize times past. It’s why we enjoy hearing the old stories and it’s why we hang up old town photos in our stores. We like to be reminded of our communities when they made us proud.
There is no doubt that people used to care more about their towns, the proof is everywhere. But people didn’t just decide not to care anymore. There was no “concern” gene that my grandparents had that didn’t make its way down to me. Nothing changed about people since those old photos were taken- the people didn’t change- the town changed.
The towns of our grandparents are drastically different than the places we know. Their town was hard not to care about. Their city was easy to fall for and easy to stay in love with. Most residents wouldn’t have dreamed of wanting to move somewhere else. The places they called home provided them with everything they needed and made them feel good.
We keep jumping to this conclusion that people changed in recent generations, but that is flawed thinking with no proof. Our DNA isn’t any different, our core values haven’t been altered for no apparent reason. People remain the same, it’s our towns that have changed. Our surroundings are worse, our environment is degraded. The real reason people don’t care about their towns anymore, is because their towns aren’t worth caring about.
Instead of pointing fingers at “people these days” we should recognize that these people are responding in the most rational way possible to their situation. All the things worth caring about in most towns have gone away. So let’s consider- what was it that was worth caring about?
The pretty buildings? Well, they have all been torn down for parking or are currently falling apart or being used for storage.
The local business? They’ve all closed their doors because WalMart and Target and Dick’s and Lowe’s and Dollar General were invited to town. Hooray for progress.
The sense of community? Gone, because instead of living next to one another and seeing each other on the streets, we built more roads and subdivisions so people would have to drive everywhere and never get to see one another in-person.
The sense of ownership? Gone- as well as all the local real estate. Towns are now owned by faceless national corporations.
We have squandered all of the things worth caring about, then we sit around and wonder why no one cares. Community development people, I love you, but please stop wishing that everyone will care as much as you do. You’re actually kind of weird and not every is like you. Very few people look at a rundown building and see the potential. Few people look at a rundown town and are able to get fired up about it. You are a unique breed.
We’ve gotta give up on this notion that we can convince people to care about places that aren’t worth caring about. This is the mistake we make, we try to get people to care about places that haven’t been cared for- for decades. Why should they care? It’s a natural response, as something declines, that people care for it less. We see it every day in our personal lives with the stuff we own, as it deteriorates, our relationship changes to mirror it. Until we fix something up, we stop showing concern for it.
We aren’t going to have any success trying to get people to care about towns that stopped being worthy of our care. We have to retire this outdated approach of trying to get residents excited about making improvements and just start making the improvements. We don’t need a consensus to make things better, we just need to start making things better. We need action.
The crimes city leaders, planners and highway builders perpetrated on cities in the 60’s and 70’s should never be forgiven, they did horrendous things to urban areas and destroyed countless neighborhoods. But we can’t pay for their sins forever. Yes, they made terrible decisions with no consensus or input, which isn’t the way to work, and such atrocities should never be repeated. But the solution isn’t to stop all development. We are living in a period where the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction and we have over-corrected for their mistakes. While no input is a problem, requiring 100% consensus isn’t feasible either. Halting all progress will not atone for the mistakes of the boomers.
At some point cities have to make it feasible for people to fix what is broken. We have to rebuild our cities like they were built the first time. City leaders have to look at what is standing in the way of progress and remove the barriers. There has to be an honest reckoning of why locals aren’t building homes and small mixed-use buildings anymore. It’s not like there was more money or technology in the 1920’s. It is not a problem of resources, but a regulatory problem. It is illegal today to build the way people love the most.
This has to change for cities to have a chance to be lovable again. For anyone to have a chance to live in a place that makes them proud, we have to make it reasonable to renovate buildings and construct new ones. We need local real estate developers to fix this problem we created. This will restore local ownership, build local wealth and create a new fabric of quality buildings to house local businesses and provide housing.
It’s not just real estate either. The public realm must improve. Instead of wasting money on building more roads, cities have to start making the existing streets attractive. Instead of more industrial parks, we need public squares where people can gather and feel like they actually live somewhere that matters.
We have to stop planning, and at some point, start doing. Because we will never build complete consensus around any project, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it. Everyone will probably hate the idea of shutting down a street to cars, but that’s no reason not to push it forward, because it’s still the right thing.
See, the crux of the matter is this- we keep hoping that we can get the general public to care so we can bring them on board to make the types of changes to our cities we know they need. But this is backwards thinking. We are never going to get people to care about something before it’s worth caring about. We must provide a path to those with expertise to generate progress. The public doesn’t care about your town today, but if you improve it, they will care tomorrow. So stop trying to get people to care about your community, instead, you must deliver onto them a community worth caring about.