I like to get these things out on a weekly basis, but last week had me managing my own recovery. I was laid up from a shoulder and bicep surgery, due to my lack of bike riding skills. It is very difficult to type with one hand and half a brain clouded by pain meds. Fortunately, me brain is less clouded this week and I can use my right hand for brief intervals. Hopefully my writing is better than my mountain biking.
In the last blog post, I discussed how my thinking around community revitalization has changed and why it is necessary to take a new approach to these issues. The most commonly applied solutions have failed to make any meaningful difference for decades and so it is past time to consider a new approach to improving our places. Planning, tourism and economic development all have failed to help most communities because they are built for cities that are already highly functional. The problem is, we apply these solutions to every community for every problem. I am sure people in those industries are frustrated by not being able to make more of an impact as well. So in the process of thinking through what struggling cities actually need to improve, I (along with some smart people) developed the concept of the Community Road to Recovery.
The overall concept of the Road to Recovery is to work with communities where they actually are, and not just where we would like them to be. This means starting from the beginning and being up-front about the flaws and challenges that make up the root causes of community struggle. The mistake I so often made earlier in my career was in wrongfully assuming most communities had the ability and capacity to take advantage of the services they were being offered. Most of the towns I visited could not utilize the Main Street Approach, they were not in a position to attract tourists, or pitch a large company, and they could not make use of a 10 year plan. So with this approach, we are just going to be honest about the fact that some towns need to focus on the basics and rebuild trust, some places need to reestablish a sense of identity and deal with a lack of self esteem. With this approach we are going to go ahead and be frank about truth, most communities are paralyzed by apathy and until it is addressed, nothing else is going to improve.
The Apathy/Pride Continuum
The Road to Recovery consists of a four phase approach in which every community exists. The phases are laid out along an Apathy/Pride continuum and as a a community completes phases, they progress from apathy to pride. A city that has low self-esteem, low engagement, empty buildings, vacancy issues, and dysfunctional politics exists towards the apathy end of the continuum. A community in this area will struggle to achieve basic tasks and experience a very poor relationship between residents and local government. At the other end, a city that has a highly engaged population, buildings occupied with local businesses, a functioning city council, and concerned residents, will be on the pride end of the spectrum. A town that can successfully make its way from the apathy end, to the pride end, will find itself improving in nearly every way. Residents will grow more affectionate towards their hometown, investment will increase, leadership will improve, civic engagement will grow and pride in the community will swell.
The key to the Road to Recovery is communities being honest about where they exist on the continuum. In doing so, they will understand what phase they need to take up to begin moving from one side to the other. A community with rampant apathy must admit its problem and go through the intervention phase. A town that has done everything right and where pride is apparent in all residents, can simply concern themselves with upkeep. Most places will find themselves somewhere in between.
Phase 1. Intervention
We most commonly associate the word intervention with addiction and the act of friends and family stepping-in and telling a loved one they need help. This is a useful way of framing the problem. People living in a place may all be very aware that their community isn’t functioning properly. Residents experience these issues first hand and are adversely affected by them, but folks are reluctant to admit they need help. It is okay to admit your community needs help, in fact, it is necessary. Until we admit there is a problem, a problem never gets addressed. There is simply no advantage in continuing to ineffectively operate. It is okay to say, we have lost our way, the wheels are off and we can’t move forward until we deal with this. We always have to remember, places behave like people and we must take the same approach.
Imagine having the intervention conversation with your community. Admitting how your town has hurt you, opening up about your frustrations with your place, laying bare how your city has negatively effected your life. This would be meaningful and powerful and this would be also be extremely helpful. In talking openly about the issues we all talk about quietly, we could see that plenty of people feel the same way. This would be a starting point of real change. This is why counselors take this approach with individuals, because this is when change becomes possible.
In the Intervention Phase, a community simply admits it is dealing with civic apathy and decides to do something about it.
Phase 2. Organization
Once a community has determined it has a problem and needs to address it, then comes the Organization Phase. This will consist of putting the pieces in place to go about getting the work done. This is a critical phase in the process because action isn’t possible without a strong organization in place. I find it mind-blowing, but very few communities have an organization in place that is charged with addressing quality of life issues and improving civic self-esteem. There was a time when a community naturally enjoyed a sense of pride, but today, it takes a concerted effort and an organization must lead this effort.
Every single entity in a community is affected by the overall well-being of that community. So every major entity in a community should have some level of involvement in this organization that is taking on this work. Local government, large employers, non-profits, etc. This organization must operate at a high level, by having high standards for board members, it must adopt aggressive strategic plans, spell out expectations and adopt accountability measures to ensure the work gets done. By pulling together strong community leadership, adopting high standards and expectations, and programming in accountability, so much becomes possible.
Phase 3. Action
This Action Phase is expansive and can include any number of projects and initiatives. Once an organization is in place to oversee the work and adopted a strategic plan to help identify and prioritize what needs done, it is time to get to work. During this phase, the organization in charge will begin implementing all the projects identified. This will call on considerable community resources and will likely take years to complete. The reason being, so many cities have put off needed improvements for decades. This has resulted in buildings being in severe decline, a lack of community engagement, low self-esteem and a various host of other problems that need to be addressed.
Considering the amount of work that most communities will need to complete, it will be helpful to delineate those projects into separate areas. Activities in the Action Phase will be broken in to the following five areas, which are the 5 Points of Pride.
Phase 4. Upkeep
This is the phase that communities ultimately want to reach and remain in. Once the work has been done, it simply needs maintained. Think about renovating a home, or opening a business, once the large investment in time, effort and money is complete, then those investments must be maintained. It is the lack of maintenance in our cities that resulted in the decline that required so much work to begin with. In being vigilant in maintenance, we can attempt to stave off a return to apathy. At this point, a community has been able to restore its sense of civic pride and when we are proud of things, we take care of them.
Once a community has improved appearances, re-established a sense of identity, fostered a strong sense of community, cultivated ownership and raised its standards, residents will be proud once again. Civic pride is the most valuable community resources and must be maintained indefinitely.
To be continued – The 5 Points of Pride