This is the final post in a series explaining how communities can utilize the Road to Recovery process to help them navigate a path back to good health. In the last 50 years, thousands of communities, across the United States, have been drained of nearly all their resources by “winner take all” capitalism, a greed based sprawl economy run amok. As government has removed regulations, and national chains have utilized economic development as means to push their expansion, most cities have been devastated by the effects. Where once locals owned all the real estate and commerce in a town- now, a handful of large multi-national corporations control a majority of the real estate and commerce, and use those assets to pull more and more money out. Communities have been victim of pro-greed policies for decades, and it has left most without the means to provide basic services. The result has been: a decline in the condition of the physical environment, budget shortfalls, a lack of a sense of community ownership, a precipitous drop in civic pride, and the inability to keep talented residents from departing for greener pastures. Outside of a handful of cities that are home to Fortune 500 companies, US cities have been gutted and left to fend for themselves.
The problem we run into, is thinking we can get out of this problem the same way we got into it. We keep hoping that doubling down on economic development efforts will bring back the jobs that were lost, and restore once healthy budgets. Economic development is not the tool for the job, because it’s not simply a job problem. Now that these communities have changed so dramatically, there are much bigger issues that must be addressed before worrying about how to add jobs or attract industry. The fundamentals of community are broken and must be addressed first. Issues like civic self-esteem, apathy, a lack of engagement, and deteriorating appearances, are all issues that must be dealt with before any type of economic development effort will be able to take hold.
In assisting struggling communities over the past 15 years, I have found the issues that must be addressed, break down into 5 distinct areas. These 5 Points of Pride are the key areas to target in order to move a community from rampant apathy to a place of immense civic pride.
The 5 Points of Pride
Pride derives from having a clear sense of identity, in knowing who you are and where you come from. This is what makes something or someone unique and special. This is true for people, families, businesses and certainly true for communities. From the time our towns were built, up until they were conquered by sprawl- they had distinct, in-tact architecture, unique businesses, strong ties to the town founders’ roots, and local media. Our towns stood apart from one another in their history, in their character, and in their built and natural environment. These attributes made each place special and gave residents an immense sense of pride to be associated with. A sense of community identity can be restored and can be a source of pride once again. Some of the steps include:
Develop a community brand
Reestablish old traditions and create new ones
Preserve older buildings
Celebrate historic events
Highlight town founders
Find ways to celebrate community origins
A sense of community is what makes a place special. This feeling is what attaches people to a place and provides them with a sense of belonging. This feeling, of being a part of something larger, is crucial to the well-being of a city. The thing that attaches people most to their community, is their relationship to other people. When you have more friends in a town, you are far more interested in the health of the town. You are far more likely to get involved and want it to succeed. It is a lack of a sense community that has accelerated feelings of apathy. People don’t know anyone in their town so they don’t care what happens to their town. The lack of close personal relationships makes them feel less connected and less concerned. In rehabilitating a sense of community, a town will experience an increased sense of engagement and belonging amongst residents. Some steps to improve a sense of community include:
Make it easy to host block parties
Host community social events
Foster more locally owned restaurants and bars
Coordinate local sports leagues and other social opportunities
As national chains have gobbled up so much of the real estate and commerce in our cities, a sense of community ownership is nearly non-existent. When our cities were at their strongest, residents owned the majority of the businesses and buildings, and felt like they had a sense of control over what took place in town. As ownership rates declined in a community, residents’ relationship with their community also changed. More and more decisions were being made on behalf of the out of town owners and residents’ ability to get involved and make a difference diminished. Most citizens don’t feel like they have any say in what happens in their town, because for the most part- they don’t. A healthy local economy must be owned and operated by a majority of local people. A town’s direction should be driven by residents and not out of town corporate interests. A sense of ownership will empower residents and help build local wealth. To restore ownership, these are some of the steps a community should take:
Actively seek out residents’ opinions and implement local suggestions
Cultivate local real estate developers
Focus more efforts and resources on growing entrepreneurs
Create legislation to move vacant property into local hands
Shift all economic development efforts to investing in residents
If we were to live by the trope “never judge a book by its cover” the world would fall apart. Nearly every decision we make is informed by appearances and the sooner we embrace the importance of appearances, the better off our places will be. We make assumptions about other people, by what they are wearing and they shape they are in. We make assumptions about families by the condition they keep their house. People certainly make judgements about a community based on what it looks like. More importantly, our own appearance effects how we feel about ourself. When the condition of a person’s health (or home) declines, that changes how a person feels. So when people live in communities that have been allowed to decline, the way people feel about it will change. A blighted downtown will lead to people feeling poorly about their place and in turn, poorly about themselves. To improve a sense of civic pride, cities must go about improving appearances. The following are steps to improve the way a community looks:
Identify volunteers to pull weeds, pick-up trash and do general maintenance
Create a committee to focus on ways to improve appearances
Adopt design guidelines
Enforce building codes
The road to community apathy is paved with lowered standards. One of the biggest casualties of adopting the sprawl economy, is the constant downward pressure on community standards. As national chains and large scale home builders want to maximize profits, they place pressure on local government to allow them to build with cheaper materials and with less overall quality. The result is a built environment that continues to degrade and make people feel worse. At the same time, all the investment in sprawl has resulted in local owned businesses closing their doors and heritage buildings deteriorating as residents watch. You cannot overstate the impact of thousands of residents, watching the center of their town slip into blight over the course of a couple of decades. Standards have declined in other areas as well, including what we ask of one another, and what we expect out of homeowners, business owners and residents. We continue to think that if we just lower our standards a little more, everyone will start dumping money and jobs into our town. This strategy has never worked and never will. Raising standards is the key to improving civic pride, these are some steps that can be used to raise standards:
Review recent changes in legislation to see where standards have been dropped
Ask more of residents, volunteers, council members, etc
Adopt more ambitious plans and place accountability measures to achieve them
Encourage people to speak up when they see something problematic
The Road to Recovery
The Road to Recovery will not be easy, it will take time, patience and hard work, but is there really any other choice? Cities can no longer ignore the fact that all of their strategies to combat recent trends have failed, and absent landing a Fortune 500 Company, nothing is going to work. It is time to abandon failed models and take on a new approach. Start by admitting there is a problem. We can’t fix a problem until we admit there is one. Organize around the effort. Create a high standard organization, with accountability measures, to ensure the important work gets accomplished. Action. Take it. Utilize the Five Points of Pride to divvy up the work that needs done to combat apathy and restore civic pride. Deploy all community resources to this end. Finally, be vigilant in the upkeep. Everything requires maintenance, and a city is no different. Protect the hard work you’ve taken, by taking care of it.
In following these steps, a community can move from apathy to pride. This is a goal every town should adopt, because when people are proud of their community, they feel attached, they get involved, they speak highly of it, and they become better citizens. Nothing is more valuable for a city than having proud residents, and it’s easy to achieve, it simply takes effort.