How To Give A Damn

August 19, 2021



“If I had all the money to pay every consultant to come and work in my town, I still don’t think they could fix what’s broken” This was Chet’s mic-drop moment during last week’s rendition of our “what do we do” conversation. We chat every week, via Skype (for now) and work on our plan. And sad as it is to admit, Chet is probably right. We, as ‘downtown professionals’, can’t fix what’s broken. 

Chet is a real estate developer in New England, I am a revitalization consultant in Pittsburgh. We work in different fields, we work in different locations, we deal with different people and departments, yet we see the same civic problems. We have been working on a plan lately, an idea to take these discussions online, knowing there is value in getting to the bottom of these longstanding, painful problems plaguing our places.

What are those problems? Let me see.. an inability to make decisions, a severe lack of self-esteem, rampant distrust, poor communication skills, reluctance to seek guidance, a debilitating fear of progress, skewed priorities, and a healthy dose of apathy. Overall…dysfunction. The problem we see in our field, over and over again, is overwhelming dysfunction.

Dysfunction is a pretty predictable response to the situation most cities find themselves in. I don’t want to heap too much blame on them for their predicament, but if you personally, had been inundated with bad news, and been given bad advice for 30 or 40 years, you might find yourself a bit dysfunctional too. 

Save for a few of our biggest cities, every other town has been gutted by our economic approach. Small businesses have been pushed to the edge of extinction by sprawl expansion, mergers, globalization and a lack of anti-competitive regulation from elected officials. Small developers have faced much of the same. They have a tough time competing with the big guys who get their projects green-lit every step of the way and have every incentives thrown at them.

The towns Chet and I work in, not only have they lost businesses and jobs and nearly all local ownership, but they also keep losing the next generation of potential leaders as the best and brightest are pulled away to larger cities. They have lost their ability to make local financial investment decisions as the community banks have gone away. These small towns are the victims of out-of-control capitalism and like the the movie The Matrix, they are being drained of all the resources they need to survive to keep their overlords alive. 

On top of that, these small towns have lost their dignity, and their self-esteem. They have lost their pride and the a sense of community. While it’s easy to pick out the visible damage – vacant buildings, empty lots, deteriorating facades, the heart-aching aesthetic of decline.That look you get when you know something special is slipping away right before your eyes. Only can the residents of these towns know the pain of watching local legacies slowly slip into oblivion over decades. You can be sure the hidden scars are so much worse than those we can see. 

It should come as no surprise to anyone that these towns have become dysfunctional. This course had been mapped out for years. The few exceptional towns that have escaped this sad fate don’t change a thing. They are the outliers, not the mean. 

The field is flawed, because everyone assumes the way out of the ditch was the same way in. This thinking has guided community and economic development for decades and has become a bottomless pit of bad advice. 

The “rising tide” economy transitioned to the Gordon Gecko economy in the 1980’s and only a few big city boats were lifted. Those boats are the municipal homes of Fortune 500 companies. Every other town has been left to defend themselves from the sprawl vultures, with no help from those we elected to guard us. Big got bigger, small got devoured. The largest companies had to move to the largest cities, to support themselves they had to drain the surrounding countryside of all of its resources. 

It might make sense to think the way out is the same way in. Just add jobs. Throw money at the problem. Just add jobs. Create a comprehensive plan. Just add jobs. Find some tourists. Just add jobs. But it’s not. We’ve been trotting out the same failed approach since the Simpsons first aired and guess what- it ain’t working. 

Cities behave a lot like people. Let’s say you, yes- you specifically, say you have been having a bad millennium. Y2K killed your job, you couldn’t keep up on your car payment, so your prized Fiero got repo’d, you didn’t have money to keep up with maintenance and now your townhouse is falling apart, the wife got tired of living in squalor so she ran off with a guy from the gym. You have been beat up, knocked down and kicked around. You are gonna be a little banged up emotionally. You may very well be depressed.

Fiero references aside, the way outta the blues isn’t the same way you got into ‘em. When you can’t even pull yourself out of bed, getting a new job isn’t so easy. When you can’t force yourself to leave the house, going for a jog is out of the question. Even a pile of cash at the front door won’t fix what’s wrong, because the problem is inside. It’s not external, it’s internal and internal problems require very different solutions. A plan may work well for someone that’s already highly functioning, but when life seems overwhelming, you gotta start with the small stuff. 

Struggling cities are dealing with decades of defeat. They are struggling to get out of bed and all the money and all the plans won’t fix what’s broken. The key to helping a person through depression is in helping them to help themselves. It’s encouraging them to take the first step. No one can fix low self-esteem for you, but they can show you the path to walk. 

The key is caring. This is the solution. The way out of the ditch. The tune that can get you out of your civic funk. See, our cities lost jobs and ownership and money, but we keep trying to add those things back to no avail. We keep assuming that the way out is the way in, even when we have decades of proof that it doesn’t work. We can’t just add those things back, hoping it repairs the damage, we have to start somewhere different, somewhere simple. This is an internal problem and thus requires an internal solution. We can’t keep applying external applications. We can’t put a band aide on a broken heart. 

Instead of throwing money, jobs and plans at the problem, we have to heal residents first. We can’t lift a city up from the outside, a city has to find a way to lift itself up, and we as consultants or funders or planners can only really provide guidance, we can’t fix anything. The real solution, is in helping residents to care again. It’s the only solution.

I had an epiphany a few years back. It landed hard. I was growingly increasingly frustrated that I couldn’t figure out a way to help so many of the places I was working with. I thought- I’m the guy- I can fix them. I’m a professional. I took college and everything. I have degrees in this, so I must have some idea what I’m doing. Then I read a book, ok- lots of books. I realized that the problem wasn’t an issue of these towns not knowing what to do to heal, but being too apathetic to bother. All the great advice in the world won’t matter if there is no energy to execute. I discovered the real culprit was rampant apathy. As I was trying to sort this out and BAM, another epiphany. This one stung. Pride is the antithesis of apathy. The opposite of a lack of concern is concern. A lack of care is what we are all dealing with and that requires a very different solution. 

People stopped caring about their town. And rightly so I might add. Take away local ownership,  let the beauty deteriorate, ignore residents’ input, halt all progress and why the fuck should anyone care? These cities have developed a perfect recipe for citizen apathy. Locals shouldn’t care about their town, because all the things worth caring about have been destroyed.

So the solution is care. The way out is getting people to care. Grants, plans and jobs won’t make any damn difference as long as residents don’t care. As long as civic apathy retains its choke hold, nothing else matters. 

What we have to do is give residents reasons to care again. Give them things to care about. Provide them with reasons to give a shit about the place they call home. They want to, they need to, they would love to, we just have to provide a little boost. We can’t lift a city out of the ditch, but we can lay out the path. 

So I thought about what Chet had to say about all the consultants not being able to help and I think I mostly agree. We have been given one set of tools to combat the issues we are facing, but maybe those tools are wrong. We are approaching civic problems in the wrong way. This is where it’s useful to think again about how people behave and apply those lessons to our communities. What we need to do is to consider how we get people to care again. Give residents a reason to give a damn. Give them reasons to make their city matter. 

Here are three good places to get started:

  1. Make It Pretty. We are all attracted to beauty and when possible, we chose to spend our time in attractive places. As our cities’ appearances have declined, so has our love for them. So the best, and easiest place to start, is by making your town a little bit more attractive. Bit by bit, small aesthetic improvements begin to add up. Flower beds and baskets are crucial, but we have to go beyond that and start to consider standards. This means requiring people to take care of their property and adopting stricter code enforcement policies. It also means adopting standards for new construction. Appearances are absolutely vital to our relationship with our place and local elected officials can make big changes with a few policy decisions.
  2. Make Ownership Local. Ownership is something that has shifted dramatically and given people a lot of reason not to care. How can a person be passionate about a place that is owned entirely by far away faceless corporations? To strengthen civic attachment, communities have to work to rebuild local ownership. This means shifting economic development policy dramatically and putting those same resources to work to foster local ownership over more sprawl. In committing financial and training resources to local people, we can start to see local entrepreneurship start to grow. At the same time, cutting off funds that currently go to enticing national chains, will reduce unfair competition. Chambers and local economic development offices also have to find ways to grow local developers. Provide the necessary funding, training and tools to help more residents renovate existing buildings and construct appropriate infill.
  3. Make Friends. The thing people care most about is other people. Sadly, the predominant form of housing built over the last 40 years only works to isolate us. Our social health has never been worse and so much of it is due to the design of our places. In building in a fashion that requires everyone to drive, we have removed causal social interactions from our lives. We barely have any opportunities to gather with one another and get to know our fellow community members. The thing that roots people to their place more than anything else, is other people. We have to build back social opportunities in our towns if we want people to care not only about each other- but about their town as a whole. By fostering a sense of community, through programming and design, people can begin to get to know other people. They will begin to build bonds and find they feel rooted in their town. The place will become valuable to them and start to matter. When a place is full of all the people you care about, suddenly you care a great deal about that place. 

While this might be an exhaustive blog post, this is not an exhaustive list, just some top of the mind suggestions for getting people to care about their community again. We are all in a relationship with our town, whether we know it or not. Unfortunately, most of us have a terrible relationship with our town, but it doesn’t have to be- it shouldn’t be. Community leaders can change it. Elected officials can shift their priorities. No one is forced to continue making these same mistakes. It’s not working, so stop doing it. 

The simple solution to solving our civic problems is just one thing. Give people a reason to care. And this is how you give a damn. 


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