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Place Led Governance: On old rules, new rules and no rules

Starting over can be hard. In relationships. In careers. And in life.

The same is true for cities. They rise and fall. Triumph and fail. All the while seeking to change with the times.

My favorite example of the changing nature of a city is Milan, Italy. Among Milan’s past rulers you’ll find Carthaginians, Romans, Spanish, Hapsburgs and fascists. Milan played a prominent role during the Italian Renaissance and as a skilled military power between warring city-states. Allied bombers smashed it in World War II. Today Milan stands as Italy’s foremost center of publishing and fashion.

While every city’s history isn’t as colorful as Milan’s, the lessons are the same: Adjust or risk irrelevance.

The same holds true for city governments. Those that fail to change with the times are at risk of making the communities that they serve obsolete and uncompetitive for people and jobs. Outdated government systems and policies impede innovation and stifle cultural elements in the community. We see examples in small ways and in large ones.

“We’re sorry Mrs. Café owner, but we don’t allow outdoor seating and flower pots on Main Street. We worry about someone tripping on a city sidewalk.”

“No you can’t build loft apartments in the empty, blighted warehouses on the south side of town, Mr. Land Developer. That is zoned for industrial use only!”

Both of these examples show how local governments can get it wrong when it comes to changing with the times. Keeping a sidewalk safe is important, but eliminating the chance that anyone will ever find value in utilizing it is crazy. Failing to properly plan for housing trends (or simply react to them) is unwise.

While it is easy to criticize the policies above I am sure that they were initiated by smart people who had the best interests of the community in mind. In the case of the sidewalk policies, if we follow them back to their origin we are sure to find sound reasons for their adoption- the building of sidewalks led to pedestrian safety concerns, lawyers warned against municipal liability for injuries and, later on, the Americans with Disabilities Act mandated safe, clear paths for the disabled. In many communities these types of ordinances are updated periodically (often for good reasons) which adds additional detail to the original ordinances and policies. By themselves the policies seem reasonable. Then one day Mrs. Café owner walks into city hall with an idea to energize her street corner and, well, you know what happens.

What if we started over?
One of the problems with the incremental nature of our democratic governance systems is that we do OK with the “in with the new” ideas, but fail miserable with the “out with the old” ones. So the 1957 sidewalk ordinance gets updated in the 1976 master plan and amended twice in the 1990s to accommodate new federal mandates. The result is a tiered set of rules that are difficult to interpret and inflexible.

Robert BringhurstWhat if, in the sidewalk case, we simply went back to square one? No ordinance. No policies. No preconceived notions of right and wrong. Have you ever walked down the sidewalk in a really vibrant area of a city where you spent time dodging street artists, benches, waiters and trumpet players? It’s exhilarating! Compare that experience with the place that doesn’t even allow flowers.

While we’re at it, let’s double down on allowing residential units in old warehouses. Who cares if the city master plan of 1976 deems that zone for industrial uses? The off-shoring of jobs and new robotic technologies have made many of these large scale facilities obsolete while young people and empty-nesters are flocking to these types of places as new living quarters. So get in the game!

“We don’t do that in our city”

I have the pleasure of doing a lot of public speaking and I often ask the audience members to share their favorite cities to visit with me. I hear the same answers over and over. The cities they list are energetic, adaptive, fun and welcoming. They’re always authentic, too. It is the human experience not the structure of authority that captures their hearts and makes them want to return. This feeling of attachment should empower all local officials to take a “back-to-zero” approach to their own rules and regulations. See blog post and links below for ideas.

As a mentor of mine likes to say, “When you build communities around people, everything changes.” People sometimes say that this philosophy can’t work in their own communities. It can. And, if your city wants to be competitive with others like it around the corner (or around the world), it must.

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