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Getting Down to Business


Getting Down to Business


Considering the job losses, declining tax revenues, and other economic disruptions of recent years, it’s not surprising that economic development has become a high profile subject for planners. Just look at the first two key findings of national survey by APA from a year ago: “Less than one-third of Americans believe their communities are doing enough to address the country’s economic situation” and “very few Americans believe that market forces alone will improve the economy and encourage job growth.” Cities, counties, and other public and quasi-public organizations are keen to take action, and a popular place to start is with an economic development strategic plan.

Region vs. City

So what makes a good plan? I think there is a critical distinction of geographic scale that must guide the strategic planning process from the start. The relevant factors and effective strategies are different for region than for a city. (Counties tend to fall somewhere in between, with elements from either of these two scales potentially being relevant depending on the local context.) Most of the tools and terminology used in economic development planning today is geared toward regions, such as the U.S. Economic Development Administration’s requirements for preparing a grant-funded Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy (CEDS). Since many researchers (such as the Brookings Institution) are increasingly focusing on metro areas as the key geographic unit of analysis in addressing economic development, this seems to make sense. They are large enough to encompass a common set of economic dynamics while still exhibiting local characteristics that differentiate one place from another.

Cities, on the other hand, are typically much smaller and there are many of them present in a large urbanized region. Because people and goods are highly mobile, economic activity in one city is linked to other cities across the region. City boundaries mean little to commuting or shopping patterns – people just go where they need to go, and businesses locate themselves where they have the best chance of benefiting from that activity. So the most relevant factors for a city’s economic development strategy are likely to be different from those for a region’s strategy. To put it simply, a region should be more concerned about the types and characteristics of its key industry clusters, while a city should focus more on whether it offers development sites or work spaces that are attractive to the companies that make up those industry clusters.

Good Examples

A good economic development plan for a region probably looks a lot like Charleston, South Carolina’s Opportunity Next strategy. It looks at a host of relevant trends and existing conditions, compares the region to both peer metros and leading metros that provide successful examples, and identifies both target industry clusters and local “core competencies” that should be the focal points of business recruitment and retention strategies, workforce development, and infrastructure development. The plan is a roadmap for the entire region, but the priorities it lays out will be accomplished in different ways according to local conditions and resources with help from the regional development authority.

At the city level, where deals are struck and investments are made, a good economic development plan should directly address the strengths and weaknesses of a place that are relevant to business decision-makers. The ten factors contained in a self-assessment tool created by the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy demonstrate what a city’s key concerns should be, including access to customers and markets, concentration of businesses and services, and real estate and infrastructure. Some of these factors are also relevant at the regional level in a general way, but it’s at the city level where the details matter most.

Planning for Economic Development

And that’s where good planning comes in – planning in general, not just economic development planning. It might be easier to just throw money at companies through tax breaks and other giveaways to get them to come to your town, but that’s not a financially sustainable strategy in an era of limited resources and it leaves a city vulnerable to being taken advantage of. Wouldn’t it be better to attract business investment by being a superior place for investment? Good planning combines natural advantages with thoughtful public actions and investments to produce places where transportation accessibility, quality of life, workforce characteristics, and other qualities combine to form a place that is a good location to grow a business. The exact combination of ingredients will be different for every place, and a good plan helps write the recipe.

--Dave Stamm, Cities That Work Blog


So What's the Big Deal?

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So What's the Big Deal?

Walkability Audit, Highland Park, Randolph County WV Not long ago a reporter called me.  She had gotten word at some conference that interesting things were happening in Randolph County, West Virginia.  She heard that the Randolph County Housing Authority staff had received HUD community challenge grants and were using these and other matching funds to embark on a variety of sustainability and livability initiatives.  They had conducted a transit study, a housing study, and some neighborhood mobility studies; studies I had worked on and thus her call to me.  Still, she asked, what's so special or different about this place. It was a logical "so what" reporter question.

"Where do you live?" I inquired. "Los Angeles." "Have you ever been to West Virginia?" "Sorry, no," she replied.

Ah, where to begin?  She sorely needed some context.  Rural Randolph County is in the heart of the Allegheny highlands, a 1000 sq mile county, with 28,000 people - 8000 of which live in the City of Elkins.  It is rural, and not near any major metropolitan area.  It faces many challenges that other Appalachian communities do, poverty, lack of economic opportunities.  Many industries are natural resource based, wood, coal, agriculture, tourism and recreation.  Like many Appalachian communities, the people are resilient, proud, hard-working and possess a hearty I-can-do-this individualism.  Survivability is a more common theme than sustainability.

Where Seldom is Heard

From a planning perspective the county is still somewhat like the wild west.  A comprehensive plan was attempted a few years back, but the process was aborted due to some outspoken local opposition.  Zoning exists in the city, not the county.  There are no planners on staff, only code officials, assessors and administrators.  The efforts to put Randolph on a path to sustainability (view the Vimeo video below for their own words), I argued, is in itself a remarkable 'so what' difference.  They are operating in an environment that is traditionally hostile to planning and so far have had positive results, and that itself should partly answer her  so what  question. But there is more.

They are thinking about the aging population, about housing needs, about how people will get around, and whether can they walk, ride bike or take transit.  Is housing where it needs to be?  Is it near services, work and amenities.  Are neighborhoods accessible to destinations? Is the housing stock diverse enough to allow for youth to stay, for older people to live, for employees of potential companies to find housing?  They are thinking about the land use, housing and transportation systems and framework. They are talking with people in the community.   They are doing all this, and have the general support of local elected officials, and have generated much enthusiasm.

Good Article, But Here's My Take

In my estimation she did a good job with her article. She did her homework.  She found a hook, namely the Silver Tsunami (link to article) aspect of how they are wrestling with plans to cope for a fast aging population.  The article is informative.  The video (below) produced by AmeriCorps volunteer with RCHA, is the story in their own words, and worth the view.  But my personal take away from this effort is that the RCHA staff  are taking initiative. They are making a lot happen with little, and are embracing a holistic approach to sustainability that looks beyond just housing availability and affordability. They are working nimbly and humbly and are managing to move things forward for Randolph County, and are taking a long-term view of both issues and solutions. They are thinking in a proactive and integrated fashion, and that for me is the "big deal" answer here.

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Confronting Change Through Imagination


Confronting Change Through Imagination


clouds When I was about five years old, I would sometimes like to lie on my back in the grass of my hometown of Kings Mountain, NC on a sunny day and watch the clouds slowly join, form shapes, slip apart and gently drift by. I enjoyed the quiet, comfortable spot from which I could think big thoughts, picture different scenes in a story and imagine far off lands like Hon-A-Lee. Sometimes, if I lay there long enough and allowed my eyes to un-focus, I'd develop a feeling of panic as I imagined gravity no longer held me to the ground and any second I would suddenly separate from my bed of warm grass and drift off into the clouds and space beyond. Only by refocusing my attention on a nearby tree or a friend was I able to avert disaster. I still get that feeling sometimes.

Imagining the future can be like that: easy and peaceful, full of blissful creativity at one moment, and leaving one perplexed and panic-stricken the next. It can mean confronting challenges and fears as much as it means picturing a halcyon future of rewards, efficiency and cooperation.  In those days, I liked to imagine what I would become, what I would do and where I would go.  I also imagined how, if possible, I would overcome my fears and ultimately conquer them.

Un-Focusing to See Better

Now I am doing that for neighborhoods, cities, counties and regions. Planning only really solves problems when it confronts fears and challenges through a process of imagining different  future outcomes. By exploring possibilities and examining the issues that will influence change, we can free ourselves from convention, current rules and well-worn solutions. It really does begin with imagination, a working vision. It takes an open mind watching the shapes form, separate and drift by to see how trends or the actors in the story create opportunities or resolve conflicts. We like to talk about focusing on things in planning, such as understanding the data or pencilling out the details, but sometimes it takes un-focusing and looking at what the shapes form when you allow your mind to relax and drift as you imagine different solutions that could work. Like observing clouds, those solutions are rarely one-dimensional and require openness to imagining the possibilities rather than focusing on conventional responses or barriers.

Sanford, FL diagram

Integrated Solutions Take Leadership

Imagining possibilities is the foundation of integrated planning. Integration is essentially the simultaneous examination of factors rather than the sequential; putting elements together to assess their dynamic influence on possible outcomes.  Integration requires that we examine the ways cities work by moving beyond thought silos or conventional professional specialties to envision and craft solutions that will stand the tests of time and sabotage by opponents. Those kinds of solutions often depend on aligning strategies from different fields or disciplines to achieve a lasting legacy of remaking a neighborhood, district, city or region. Places like Charlotte, Portland, Minneapolis and Salt Lake City and many others have demonstrated the power of integrated planning and many other places of varying sizes and scales are learning from their examples. One lesson that becomes increasingly clear is the role of leadership from elected and appointed officials, citizens and policy experts to imagine and confront change in its various forms.

Cities That Work Blog

 This blog will explore the imaginative and practical work of planning and community design within the context of integrated approaches.  It will address the emerging issues, trends and new ideas that shape how we live, travel and experience place. We will feature various perspectives, opinions and analytical approaches reflecting the experience of different authors from our staff at Renaissance Planning Group.  Our intent is to improve understanding and share knowledge about the profession from our observations and lessons learned putting together plans, facilitating change and conducting applied research for a wide range of regions and places.

We've chosen to launch this blog because there is a new era taking hold for planning and development nationwide. Our notion of community, what we seek from places, and how we interact with our environment is changing, largely in response to global and national effects that are increasingly felt in the pocketbook, in our health and in our sense of safety and security. Much like the American or European Renaissance, I believe our communities are entering a period of rebirth and renewal, and like the artists, scientists and inventors of the Renaissance, it takes truly integrated thinking to bring visions of a bold new future to reality. This new era is both exciting and challenging, and will be put to the test by fiscal realities, keepers of the status quo and professional specialization. We hope you will contribute to the conversation as we explore the shapes and solutions that can form while keeping ourselves grounded.