The art of creating vibrant places is a bit different today for local government officials than it was a generation ago. I see three overarching reasons why this is true. First, local officials today have much less capacity and fewer resources than their predecessors, especially in economically challenged core cites. Lower tax rates, falling property values and a breakdown in traditional funding partnerships with state and federal governments have all contributed to an aggregate decline in city revenues and services. Nowadays, simply providing adequate police protection is a constant challenge in many areas, let alone finding the time and talent to recreate neighborhoods or jump start a local economy.
Second, technology has opened up all sorts of opportunities for local governments to change their traditional service offerings. Technology advancements in nuts and bolts areas like on-line GIS systems and cloud computing to new innovations around community engagement and civic intervention have placed city leaders in fundamentally different positions than in previous generations. And the opportunities for leveraging in these areas are seemingly endless. That’s a great thing.
Lastly, creating vibrant places is different today than it was a generation ago because what is needed to make communities vibrant has evolved. “Quality of Place” is more important today than ever before. The workforce is mobile, jobs are mobile and industries are mobile. So if a community simply chooses to compete for people and jobs in the traditional manner (largely through tax rates and the regulatory environment), they stand a chance of completely missing the boat on what makes communities competitive in 2011. Cultural offerings, walkability and historic preservation are just three areas that were once thought of as “fluff” that are now near the top of the lists for both people and business when they choose where they locate.
I believe that the communities and regions that most effectively reinvent their service delivery systems and approaches will have a real leg up on the competition moving forward. Delivery systems, in the aggregate, can best be transformed by leveraging a) the very real financial crisis in cities, with b) innovative programs through the use of new technologies. The accompanying results often see the traditional city government moving from the role, as author Sean Safford states, of “life” of the party to “host” of the party. Chiara Camponeschi, in Next American City Issue 31, states it this way:
“As cities grapple with social, financial and environmental issues of tremendous magnitude, a new approach of urbanism is emerging, based on the concept of enablement, whereby governments create favorable conditions for local actors to mobilize around a cause.”
Once a community finds it new sweet spot, they must focus their practices on ensuring that their efforts are pointed squarely on placemaking initiatives.
Check out the League’s Center for 21st Century Communities (21c3) to learn more about placemaking today.