Downtown Playbook

April 20, 2023

In looking back at my recent blog posts, I realize I have been building up to this. I have identified and written about a number of issues that plague communities. There are a handful of challenges most communities are subject to which impede the progress they are so desperate to achieve.

The post Setting the Stage discusses the idea of being intentional about how a city or town should feel for residents. In essence, community leaders should first decide what type of backdrop they want to provide for the lives of the people that call their community ‘home’ and work backward from there. Because it’s the setting that impacts the actions, it’s the setting that shifts the emotions, and ultimately, it’s the setting that will determine the success of a place. So start with the intended outcome. Decide what it would take to elevate residents’ lives, what kind of built environment would be easy to fall in love with and what would a place look like that fostered friendships and positive emotions. This should be the goal.

Then I wrote the post titled How, Not What about our tendency to get caught up in discussing what needs to get done, at the expense of figuring out how to get things done. So many meetings are held to discuss problems, solutions, and potential ideas for improvement, but so little time and energy is dedicated to the work. We need to stop worrying so much about what needs to be done and focus on how to get it done.

And last week, I wrote a piece called Your City is Not Special. This was to point out that the problems most towns are facing are not unique to them. Nearly every town is struggling with vacancy, a lack of local ownership, civic apathy, and so on. The problems are the same from city to city because the causes are the same from city to city. Municipalities could save a lot of money, expense, and headaches by just accepting the fact that they have very common problems and therefore customized solutions are unnecessary.

These issues have been ricocheting around in my melon for some time as I have struggled to figure out how I can do more to help. I want to do more than just talk and more than just write, I want to build a better mousetrap. I want to provide passionate, civic-minded people with a new approach, and a better tool to carry out their work.

I am increasingly convinced that it’s time for something different. Communities need less of a plan and more of a program to help drive the process of improvement. A tool that is outcome-based, action-oriented, and simultaneously- easily measurable. A tool that is less driven by public input and instead rooted in the idea of relentless progress. This approach would eschew discussions about what should be done and refocus efforts on what is getting done today.

This past February, Urality Founder and CEO, Justin Copenhaver and I spent a couple of days together kicking around these concepts to see if we could create something different. Could we design something more action-oriented, something that would reduce the amount of public input required, a tool focused on progress that also fosters a sense of pride and could we make something measurable? We think we can.

We came up with the Downtown Playbook. The Downtown Playbook discards the notion that the only way to move forward is by determining what everyone in the community wants. This unconventional method is achieved by simply acknowledging the problems in the community that everyone already agrees upon. Do we really need to ask anyone if they like blighted buildings and vacant property? Is anyone opposed to increasing local ownership or expanding social opportunities? The problems are ubiquitous as they are obvious. The idea is to get to the point and do it quickly.

Progress is the point. The destination is simple, it’s the directions that require attention. If you want to take a trip, you must start by deciding where you want to go. Recognize where you currently are and create a route between the two points. Want to get fit, decide what goals you want to achieve, where you currently are health-wise and what the path is between the two points.

The Downtown Playbook process begins by setting a destination. We start with the outcome we want to achieve, not the process. Where do we want to go, what do we want to cook, what shape do we want to be in? The next step is to ascertain where things stand today. Where are we on the map currently, what ingredients do we have, and what shape are we in? The focus of the playbook is creating a system of incremental and measurable steps to move from point A to point B. It is the execution of these steps that becomes the focus, this drives the work while reducing unnecessary conversations.

These are the turn-by-turn directions, the steps in a recipe, or the exercise program. Do this thing on this day then do this thing tomorrow. These simple instructions are the infallible key to success. When the focus turns towards the effort, progress is inevitable. That is why it is imperative to move past the endless discussions and move quickly toward the actions. We are creating something much more nimble and dynamic. The Downtown Playbook will be web-based, therefore it can never collect dust on a shelf! Instead, it is meant to be used to drive meetings and track progress.

Too much time is wasted discussing the destination when the majority of time and effort should be spent moving towards it. In addressing the obvious problems and determining what stage a city wants to set, then quantifying where things are today, it becomes increasingly more manageable to derive a set of measurable steps to get from A to B. This by no means will fix everything. Just as a person can never be perfect, a city will never be done improving. We aren’t promising a silver bullet, or a quick fix, because no such thing exists. What we are promising is progress, because progress means everything and progress is the surest way to improve.

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