Most American cities have been in decline for at least 40 years, some as long as 70. To think things will get fixed in the short run is some real magical thinking, but the key to remember is this, we don’t have to make everything right, we just have to make things better.
Improvement is about trajectories, it’s about momentum. The results will come, don’t worry too much about them. Focus on the process. Do the work, be relentless, and the outcomes will take care of themselves.
Most of us understand that anything that promises a cure or improvement without effort is just a bunch of bullshit and that the only way to address our problems or progress in our lives is to put in the work. Though somehow when it comes to our civic life, we completely abandoned this obvious truth. I know I have hammered this point home before, but like my own advice, I am just going to keep with it until it sticks.
The decline of a community cannot be turned around with one big project, no more so than people can lose weight by consuming a pill.
There are some hard truths we know about ourselves that we can apply to the places we live. And because these truths are applicable to us as individuals, they will always be true to the places we call home.
Nothing comes easy, there are no shortcuts. There is one and only way to get better, and it’s by putting in the work. You can have the best plan in the world, the best coach, or the best trainer, but at the end of the day- if each individual isn’t willing to commit to a sustained effort, it’s meaningless.
Let’s look at some examples.
Lose weight – eat less crap, do more exercise.
Have more money – buy less crap, earn more.
Find more friends – watch less crap at home, engage in new activities.
It’s a pretty simple formula when it comes to self-improvement. Stop doing the detrimental thing and start doing the thing that helps you get better. Crazy enough- this is also the secret to community revitalization.
Here’s a simple methodology I suggest for those wanting to improve their community. Start removing the things that are ugly and start replacing them with things that are attractive. Just as we are all a composite of all the decisions we make, our cities are a composite of all the physical features that make it up.
A town, village, hamlet, or city is just some buildings, benches, sidewalks and streets. Take away the physical items and you have a field or a parking lot. So the way to get better is to improve all of the elements that make up a place. As each piece improves, the place improves. There is simply no other way about it.
This is why trajectories matter. It doesn’t take all that much to change them. When conditions have been declining for so long, it’s actually quite easy to turn a trajectory around. The act of doing nothing brings about decline and decline is depressing and fosters apathy. But improvement, oh boy! Everyone loves improvement, it’s exciting and gets everyone all fired up.
When a thing stops deteriorating and starts getting better, well we all feel a little spark and a little excitement. We all find ourselves caring a little more, maybe even feeling a bit of affection. It’s fun to see things improve. Cleaning the house feels good, but home improvements are the stuff of dreams! Staying in shape is excellent, but losing weight or building muscle? Hubba hubba!
We have to look around at our towns and be honest about what looks like shit. If decline is still occurring, your trajectory is headed in the wrong direction. Stop it. Halt it. Fix it. Look at all of the components that make up your place and start improving them. You can’t fix them all at once, but you can start fixing them one by one. And with each item improved, the sum total gets a little bit better…thus a trajectory shifted. A momentum born.
Look at all the pieces that make up your place and start improving them. Big or small, they all need attention, they all need shined up and cared for. Revitalization isn’t about silver bullets and big quick fixes. It’s about a thousand small projects. It’s about making one improvement today so that you create a little momentum, a little positivity, a little belief that tomorrow, it can be done again. Repeat this over and over again and you will find yourself living in an entirely different place than when you started. It only takes a bit of effort.