“Why would you move here?”
“Why would you want to start a business here?”
“Why would you renovate a building here?”
All questions I have heard people ask of their fellow community members. Why? What causes this? How do we address this? How do we deal with a city that doesn’t believe in itself?
This is low civic self-esteem and it plagues most of our cities and towns. The problem with low self-esteem is this- it can’t be repaired applying the typical approach. There are no technical applications that lift self-esteem. All the grant money in the world can’t make a community like itself. Even the best plans can’t force a town to believe in itself. The reason we have such a hard time addressing this issue is that we haven’t accepted this as the issue. We keep attempting to solve the wrong problem and find ourselves surprised that the solution isn’t working.
Understandably, in this day and age, we believe most issues to be technical in nature and that we can apply a technical solution. This might be fine for cars or computers, but cities aren’t technical. The same rules don’t apply. These technical, external solutions frustrate us to no end because we are convinced that the next application will be the one that finally solves all of our civic problems.
Cities don’t behave like machines, they behave like people, because cities are made of people and not parts.
We don’t try and improve people the same way we do machines. We understand that people are emotional, not technical. There is no software solution, money won’t do the job, even the best laid plans and so on. When it comes to helping people, most of the issues are internal and require a different approach. It’s not so easy to improve someone’s self-esteem externally, now is it? You can’t will someone to like themselves or to be proud of themselves.
When it comes to people, you can provide all the direction in the world, but at the end of it all, an individual has to go about doing the work of improvement. No matter how hard you may try, you can’t get someone else in shape. You can’t learn the piano or how to speak Finnish for another. You can only provide them with tools and directions, the hard work of improvement can’t be contracted out.
This is why self-esteem is such a trying issue. Even if someone could get you in shape externally, or bestow the ability to play piano or speak Finnish, these gifts still wouldn’t come with the confidence building benefit of having accomplished something challenging. A person can buy a new wardrobe and that certainly feels nice, but it can’t compare to the feeling of looking good in those clothes because of all miles you put in on the Peloton last winter to get ready for Speedo season.
This is the lesson we must apply to our cities. Remind ourselves that places full of people are not technical, they are emotional. When it comes to community revitalization, there are no secrets and no short cuts. The process drives the improvement. In the end, low self-esteem can only be built internally, incrementally, over time.
Low civic self-esteem that was the end result of disinvestment and the impact of decades of decline, but now it is the root cause of stagnation and apathy. Where we mess things up is in thinking that just undoing the decline will solve everything. Add jobs, increase investment, then everyone will love their town again, but you can’t drive out of the ditch the same way you drove into it. The issue at hand is the self-esteem, address this first and then the other problems start to become manageable.
I see the costs of low civic self-esteem in so many of the communities I work with and it behaves much the same everywhere. There is a self-loathing that comes from witnessing decline. To see the best buildings and the prettiest streets and the most successful local businesses all slip into disrepair over the decades is going to take an emotional toll. Imagine what it would feel like if you stopped maintaining your own home, how would it change over the years and how would it change you. Would you want to invite people over when you haven’t made any repairs?
Your home would stop being a source of pride – something you tended to and something you shared, and turn into a source of shame- something you hid, something you distanced yourself from.
When people talk trash on their hometown, they are trying to distance their own self-image from the image of their town. They are trying to create space between how they view themselves and how they view the place they call home. They don’t want to be associated with a blighted town. They don’t want to feel the shame of the substandard surroundings. It makes perfect sense and we shouldn’t blame people for disassociating with decline.
When we stop tending to the condition of our surroundings, it’s the most natural thing for people to begin a strained relationship with those surroundings. It’s an emotionally difficult position to be stuck in. Yes, some citizens are always optimistic, some are civic-minded- likely all of you reading this can see beyond the decline and realize tomorrow holds potential, but you are not the norm. You are the weirdos in town- the preservationists, the urbanists, and the good-old building huggers. Most others don’t know how to look at chaos and envision order, most can’t view blight as opportunity. We can’t keep trying to convince people to become more civic, hoping they will decide to show up to council. We have to start doing the relentless work of making those surroundings better. We can’t just keep hoping for change, we have to start making it.
Understand that people feel low civic self-esteem for good reason. Appearances have declined, progress seems impossible, all the plans and sliver bullet fixes haven’t changed a damn thing. Every new subdivision, every Dollar General, every strip mall, every road expansion, all of these sprawl mongering, heartless, lifeless projects only serve to make our communities worse. Hope is scarce and most of us have never lived in a place that has improved in our lifetimes. More sprawl, more decline, more national chains, more vinyl, more of everything that makes us ashamed of our places, this is what we are getting. This is all we are getting.
But when we remember that places behave like people, we can apply those lessons of our own life. To build self-esteem, we have to put in the hard-work of improving. It’s not an external problem, so no one from outside your town can make it better. Locals, putting in the effort, day by day, week by week of getting stronger, healthier, more self-reliant and more resilient, this is truly the only remedy. There is no secret and no shortcut. The answers are simple.
Blight can’t be erased overnight, but decline can be halted in an instant. The moment we begin to maintain, we are fending off the forces of chaos and disorder. In getting incrementally better, we are still getting better, we shift a trajectory and trajectories dictate where we are headed.
It may start with pulling weeds and picking up trash, it may lead to planting flowers, and applying paint. It’s hard to say where the process may take your town, but it is guaranteed to be somewhere better. The process of improving never fails to bring about positive change. A community cannot improve itself and not experience a boost in self-esteem. When people become proud of their surroundings, when they see that progress is possible, something changes. The potential that only you weirdos could imagine becomes realistic to the rest. Progress stops seeming unobtainable and can become expected. Locals no longer have to distance themselves from their town to preserve their own self-image- and when things really get good, people will want to associate themselves with your town to boost their own self-image.
So take a hard look at your town and consider what your challenge really is. Stop listening to what others tell you the problems are, and think through it for yourself. Does your town like itself, does it respect itself, is it proud? Does your town have high standards? If the answer is no, you are dealing with low civic self-esteem. And we can pull a lesson from our personal experiences here. The only way to build self-esteem is through relentless self-improvement.