Your City is Not Special

April 13, 2023

I have some good news and bad news for you, but I sincerely believe the good news far outweighs the bad. The bad news may sting for a moment, but once you get over yourself, you will find it liberating and tremendously economical.

You probably already gleaned the bad news from the title, but as it has been noted in the comments recently, I don’t mind repeating myself. Thanks for the guidance, faithful readers. In any case, here we go. Your city is not special. Your town is not the only one dealing with vacant property, apathetic residents, and insane business owners demanding more parking garages.

Yes, your town has a unique history, it has a story unlike any other town, it has people that can’t be found in any other place, it has attributes that should be celebrated. And please do, please take what is unique about your place and shine a light on it for all to see. As Phil Eich has shown us with his work over at Storyville Social, there is no greater opportunity for building civic pride than telling the stories of the people that call your town their home.

But proclaiming how special you are is not what we are here for today. I am not talking about what makes your town unique and interesting. I want to talk about what makes your town just like every other town out there, and that is its problems. Your civic problems are a dime a dozen.

The problems are the same because the causes are the same. Nearly every city destroyed itself to appease the car. Nearly every city decimated local ownership in favor of sprawl. Nearly every city has stood quiet while property owners allow their buildings to collapse into the street. Almost every city made the same mistakes so almost every city is dealing with the same problem. I know it might feel nice to think your problems are special, but they are not and it should be freeing to know that they are commonplace.

This is actually really good news because once you accept that your town does not have a special set of problems unique to just you, you can start to seek out advice and guidance that isn’t unique just to you. This sort of advice is significantly cheaper. Sometimes it’s even free.

The problem with thinking your town’s problems are special is that it pushes city leaders into thinking they need a very customized set of solutions. The most egregious example is with comp plans and downtown plans. It’s comical, to the extent cities will go to be sure that the plan they are receiving is unique to them. No boilerplate, no cookie cutter. Planning firms have to keep inventing new ways to say the same thing so they don’t get accused of repeating the advice. Cities have to spend tens of thousands of extra dollars so they receive a plan that makes them feel it was completely customized. The client community is simply spending more to feel special.

When you aren’t special, you don’t need special plans. Any old plans will do. I think about it like fitness. A vast majority of us would be perfectly served by going on the internet and finding a workout plan. The author of whatever plan we pick probably knows more about fitness than we do and also understands that we are most likely all dealing with the same shit. Simple advice then, right? Run some, lift some weights, eat healthier, sleep more, repeat. This basic advice can be effectively applied to 99% of the population because 99% of them are dealing with the same problems of eating poorly and not exercising enough.

It would be foolish of me to spend thousands of dollars getting a custom-made fitness plan so that I felt more special. I am aware that nearly every plan I can find online will most likely work just fine for me. I have simple problems and require simple solutions. Eat less, exercise more, got it.

Now if you happen to be a world-class athlete, then you are special in regard to fitness, your problems are unique and you do require a customized plan. If your town is the municipal equivalent to Serena Williams then you probably do need a special plan, your problems are in fact, unique. But if your town is like most all the other towns, it has pretty pedestrian problems- so save your money, and take the advice that has already been given.

I am just trying to hand out a little helpful advice. I understand the desire to feel like your town is the only one like it, which it truly is, but that doesn’t mean you need custom advice. Save your bucks and accept that you have the same problems as everyone else. Boilerplate is fine, cookie cutter is great. It’s really simple, look at towns that have solved the problems you are dealing with, find out what they did, and just do the same.

Or I can just break it down real quick and simple. The “eat better, sleep more, workout more” equivalent of civic advice. Stick to these three and you’ll be on your way- increase local ownership, improve appearances, and create more social opportunity.

Easy stuff, now get to work.

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