I received a bit of a surprise via email late last week. An RFP for a downtown master plan was addressed specifically to me. This was a surprise because I don’t expect to receive such things, blame it on the fact that I am pretty vocal about my opinions on community plans. I have my masters in planning, I believe in planning, I believe most of us would have better lives if we did a little more planning, but I don’t think planning is the solution that most towns need, it’s just what they think they need. It’s what city leaders have been told time and time again that they have to have.
A little bit of background here for the uninitiated, RFP stands for request for proposals. This is a municipality’s way of announcing that they are seeking out firms to respond to a project- kind of like a casting call. They are asking qualified firms to submit a proposal for the work as described in the RFP. There are a number of inherent problems with the RFP process, but let us set that aside for now. This particular community that sent me an email is seeking out planning firms to put together a proposal for a downtown plan. Then a committee or project team working on behalf of the municipality will review proposals, select a few firms to interview and award the contract to one of those firms.
The idea behind a plan is solid. To put a guiding document in place which helps inform future decisions so a community has an opportunity to realize the outcomes it wants. In essence, decide where a town wants to go and then plot out how to get there. This makes perfect sense, but there is a problem. A plan rarely addresses the underlying issues plaguing most towns.
I stopped replying to RFP’s years ago. It is a flawed system that wastes too much money and time, but since this town sought out me out, I might as well provide my opinion.
So here goes…
Dear Municipal RFP Team,
Thanks very much for inviting me to participate in the RFP process for your community. While I am flattered that you consider me qualified, I have to respectfully decline to participate in the process as set out by your request. I cannot, in good conscience, give you a price to perform work that I do not believe would make a meaningful difference to the health of your city. While I do not know the specific details of your community, I am confident in saying that I understand the underlying challenges, because nearly every town shares them.
Most towns suffer from a lack of engagement, a lack of pride, and a lack of attachment. Nearly every town is dealing with rampant apathy and the struggle to make people passionate about the place they call home. These are the real issues at hand, and while planning has a role to play, if apathy and engagement are your problems (as they are with most) a plan will not provide the solution.
Nearly no town suffers from a lack of planning, if anything there has been too much planning. There are too many expensive documents sitting on too many shelves that were never enacted…plans that allow someone to say something was done, but that allows for nothing to ever get done. These un-utilized plans only help to foster more apathy. People will (rightfully) say, “We spent a lot of money for a plan, but then nothing ever changed”. This only breeds more apathy because it delays action and fosters the idea that progress is not possible.
Plans are great, if your community is suffering from a lack of direction, but I doubt that it is the case. Most cities already know where they want to go, but have no clue how to get there. Will another round of public input change anything? If your town has asked residents what they want dozens of times and you haven’t done anything with that information, why should they bother? Another plan is likely to confirm what you already know- that people want a pretty town to call home, they want to feel safe, they want places to go hang out with their friends. Residents want to live in a town they can be proud of and a place where they don’t have to see the best and brightest move away. They want to be able walk their kids to ice-cream or a park without fear of being run-over They want to have a relationship with their town and experience a strong sense of community. They want all these things, because this is what everyone wants, everywhere, they just don’t know how to achieve it. The problem with the planning process is this – it addresses a problem you don’t have while ignoring the problem you do. At some point cities have to stop asking people what they want and start delivering it to them.
Most plans will provide a clear picture of where a community should go, but lacks an explanation on how to get there. A destination without a route is just wishful thinking and, quite frankly, hope is no strategy.
Plans don’t address civic apathy and community engagement, but THIS is what you are trying to overcome. Plans will not make anyone love your community or keep a single person from moving away. Plans will not convince someone that your town is worth emotionally investing in. Comprehensive plans were not built for this and therefore, cannot accomplish it.
It has been my experience that the heart of the matter is one we are unwilling to talk about, and therefore unwilling to address because it might be painful to admit. Most residents do not care about their community. This is the reality that we avoid dealing with, so it inevitably remains. Tourism, economic development and planning all have their role to play, but do very little to make residents care more about their community. Those organizations were not created with that goal in mind. No one has a mission of making a town better for the people that call it home, so the work remains undone and residents have no attachment to their town.
As local ownership has declined and the condition of the downtown has deteriorated, as car trips have replaced walks and social opportunities have faded, people have grown less engaged in their community. As our pattern of development has changed and spread us further apart, there is less for residents to care about in their place and the natural response is for them to care less. This is the issue that must be addressed before pursing another plan. Municipalities have to focus on growing attachment and building civic engagement. City leaders have to stop wishing that people will begin to care about their town in its current condition and instead, start providing them with reasons to care.
I appreciate the consideration, but I question the value of participating in the planning process when so few plans are ever implemented. This would be a poor use of my time and the community’s valuable resources. I am confident that it is possible to achieve a significantly greater benefit in far less time and for far less money by focusing on implementation. Instead of asking residents what they want, again, determine how to make it happen… remove the roadblocks, overhaul the processes, throw out what isn’t working. Let there be no sacred civic cow perpetuating status quo. Accept that no matter how efficiently you can perform a process, if it is the wrong process, nothing will improve. It is time for a different approach.
A plan cannot combat apathy, only action can. Only progress has the power to make residents believe. In giving people reasons to be engaged, a city can begin to foster engagement. City leaders have to move beyond WANTING residents to care and instead, PROVIDE them with reasons to do so. We keep repeating the mistake of thinking that if we just build enough consensus, people will be supportive of improvements, but this is backwards thinking. A city has to be willing to make improvements and be confident that residents will support the results. A city must be willing to change, grow and progress, knowing that this will win citizens over in a way nothing else can. Improvement builds pride. Success builds engagement. Action fosters passion and we need residents to be passionate about their town.
If a plan is still what you believe your community needs, consider yourself lucky. There are hundreds of qualified firms that will be able to provide you with a comprehensive quality downtown plan. You are in good hands.
If you believe issues of apathy and engagement plague your community, I would be more than happy to have that difficult discussion. Through my work at Revitalize, or Die. I focus on combating apathy by fostering pride and helping municipalities build back healthy relationships with residents. This work is generally carried out in five primary areas: improving aesthetics; increasing local ownership; raising standards; creating an identity; and building a sense of community.
While I am an independent consultant, I work with a number of other individuals and small firms that would be well suited to address issue specific community concerns. This includes specialists in the fields of branding, communications, business development, real estate development, marketing, and organizational development.
Plans are what cities are told they should want, but rarely do enough leaders stop to ask if this is what they need. I am not interested in convincing city leaders what they want, but to ask them what their community really needs. Please consider what residents are desperate for and what they have lost. Whether or not your community sees fit to follow up with me- please ask yourself the following questions before continuing down the current path.
-Will this plan make residents lives better and make them happier?
-Will this plan build civic pride and increase community engagement?
-Will this plan help increase residents’ emotional attachment to their community?
Residents are desperate to see their town experience progress, they want to know that improvement is possible and that their community’s best days are not in the past. Citizens would love to fall in love with their town if they were only given reason to, but cities must stop talking and start acting. They must stop planning and start doing. There are no silver bullets in this field and no short cuts. The simple truth is this, real revitalization will only come about by committing to relentless incremental improvement. The path forward is slow and steady and requires just one thing…getting a little bit better every day.
Thanks in advance for your consideration and best of luck in your process.
Revitalize, or Die.