Community building in the United States is on the verge of something special. As we observe trends in economy, demographics, energy consumption and cultural prefernces, we see the outlines of a New American Frontier slowly emerge from the settling dust of the Great Recession. Recent observations about New Brainard, New Hope, and North Adams all describe places with the potential to be prototypes, (re)discovering the value that small and midsize cities can bring to our economies, quality of life, and natural environment. Acting like startup companies, these towns are on the forefront of innovation, of trial and error, and productivity. They are large enough to matter but small enough to be affected by change. Individually, their margins today may be small, but they are sustainable; and taken together, their market potential is enormous. We have come to call them Investment Ready Places.
Like small businesses and startups, communities pushing into this New Frontier exhibit specific entrepreneurial personality traits. In her post about New Hope, Jennifer Krouse outlines some critical ones:
Openness, creativity, social capital and an experimental mindset are important assets. But mustering those assets is not enough; we have to deploy them.
"[Deploying] them" is the operative phrase. Our current finance, regulatory, and development regimes have calcified and must be shaken up to move once again toward a stronger, more prosperous state. Like all great startups, Investment Ready Places have the ability to redefine development philosophy and dismantle some of the dogmas that have precipitated failure in our cities. We can once again tap into a deeply-rooted town building culture that builds upon inherited patterns for creating dynamic, resilient, affinitive places.
Deploying the Traits
Our experience has shown how the traits Jennifer outlined get activated. For example, openness and capitalization can go hand-in-hand to deliver something extraordinary. In Pittsburgh's East Liberty, a partnership between an artist and a community development corporation yielded a platform for talking about the future of the neighborhood, building social capital, and linking community needs (demand) with developers and service providers (supply). It was real-time market research.
Similarly, we have uncovered how a city evolves to become a place where creativity is pervasive across multiple industries, powering a robust economy. Beyond just policy or conventional economic development tax incentives to lure companies from one part of the country to another, Nashville has seen how the very body language of its development enabled not only the arts but also diversified spinoff industries. The traditional building patterns of a place like Nashville provide Investment Ready Places with a development module that can be readily adapted to localities.
The trait that is perhaps most misunderstood is experimentation. While trial and error have been the constant product of our collective entrepreneurial spirit it is too often confused with high-stakes gambling. Traditional town building teaches us how to foster tinkering without betting the entire farm. Development in the New Frontier will occur within a framework of inherited phylogenic smart patterns to build everything from door knobs to neighborhoods. Within this framework will be incessant experimenting, adopting of successes, and ruthlessly discarding of failures. Pursued within normal confines of affording each, individual experiments will be scaled such that, should they fail, they do so efficiently without blowing up the whole operation. Our problem today is not that we fail to experiment, but that we too frequently do so as indebted gamblers rather than the far more sage garage innovators. Ten garage innovators of urban development have been documented in the Everyday Squares work of Urban Design Associates.
A new set of Rules
Like human personality traits, town building traits are the product of both nature and nurture. The natural traits are derived from evolving building patterns and community traditions that have a beautiful wisdom to them, even if we don't understand fully why. Nurtured traits, on the other hand, are shaped more proactively. These come from the rules we set up as a society to deliver a specific outcome (with both positive and negative unintended consequences).
It's fair to say we love rules. Planners, in particular, want to point to something more or less objective to base decisions upon. Designers use rules, too, but more so as conventions or when we do code review. For the early explorers, many of the rules adopted were inherited from the "old world" but many new ones were formed with a new culture and context. The question we have the opportunity to answer in this frontier asks what set of rules yields the personality traits that we require in a more robust town building program? We see three basic rule sets forming:
- Robust settlements deal in multiples. They have spare parts in the event of the failure of one. When assumptions for growth and prosperity suddenly change or challenges strike one economic or physical dimension, resilient places have a plurality of fallback positions. This allows for the quickest processing of failures and capitalization on successes. A by-product of insurance redundancies is choice. Choice gives options to people and allows those choices to change as they move through life.
- Robust settlements pay close attention to size. They do this to minimize any one individual's ability to blow up the entire place and to limit indebtedness.
- Robust settlements have multiple design functions. Places built to last are composed of elements that can take on a number of functions that overlap, evolve, emerge, recede, and, in many cases, come as surprises. Similarly, functions must not be separated but mixed such that the function has a multiplier effect on the broader settlement and the broader settlement may compound the success of the function.
Taken together, these provide the necessary framework to form the traits of a startup city. They mimic those found in nature, build on our inherited town building traditions, and are the foundation for building Strong Towns.
This post was originally written as a guest post for our friends at StrongTowns.
Since it was launched in August of 2012, Investment Ready Places has been successful in helping communities assess their outlook. The checklist tool facilitates a critical look at which assets to build upon. Over fifty places have been identified and mapped. This is an open-source program that allows this New American Frontier self-identify with critical investment-ready criteria.
Going to this year's APA Conference in Chicago? Investment Ready Places will be discussed in a session on Sunday, April 14, 2013, from 2:30 to 3:45. StreetSense's Atul Sharma and Joe Nickol will be joined by Scott Ford, the Executive Director of Community Investment in South Bend, Indiana, and Radhika Mohan, the Senior Program Manager of the Mayors’ Institute on City Design to share stories from the New American Frontier.