Pocket parks. Bike shares. Food carts. Pop up retail. Tiny houses.
Much is made of the enormous economic challenges facing city leaders today. (By me, and by others) The problems are real- outdated revenue streams at city hall, aging infrastructure, legacy costs. There are more.
And while I am without a silver bullet remedy for all that confronts municipal progress- a friend once told me that if someone offers you a silver bullet then shoot them with it- I believe that part of the answer lies in making short term decisions that don’t take millions of dollars to get off the ground and years to implement.
Temporary changes to the urban landscape have several advantages over long term ones for cities in 2018.
- They’re cheaper. Short term solutions mean smaller budgets. So while you’re waiting- and waiting, and waiting some more- for a federal grant to rebuild a congested intersection try cutting a deal with a local bike supplier to offer bikes as an alternative to autos.
- They’re faster. Smaller changes mean smaller lead times. Pocket parks can be approved one month and built the next. Long term financing and complicated planning documents aren’t needed.
- They’re fresh. If your downtown has a stagnant group of traditional retailer offerings, just think of the energy that a few new start-ups would provide for shoppers. A set of ‘edge buildings’ along an ugly parking lot is the perfect place for young entrepreneurs to test their products… and for older neighborhoods to get a shot in the arm.
Who benefits from greater temporary thinking at city hall? In short, everyone. Short term projects provide a shot in the arm to communities. But the science behind how a splash pad my be a fore runner to a high rise commercial project is a little more complicated.
I ascribe to a theory about risk levels that places people in three categories based on their tolerance for risk. They are risk averse, risk tolerant and risk oblivious.
City leaders might recognize the risk averse in their towns as people who they run into at a chamber of commerce mixer. They are bankers, traditional business leaders and long time residents. They have been around for years and they make decisions only after careful consideration and when an economic benefit is almost assured.
Risk tolerant people might find their way into a chamber event, buy you’re more apt to find them at a local coffee shop. They take more chances- educated chances. They like change. They try new things. But, all within reason.
Risk oblivious folks are, how shall I say, a little crazy. But good crazy, especially for places that need a little stimulation. They rehab homes in bad neighborhoods, open restaurants in condemned buildings and exercise a pureness of entrepreneurial spirit not seen in those from the other categories. They are the first ones in and they thrive on tackling the toughest of challenges in the city. Think of them as the Marines of urban life.
Temporary thinking, as you might guess, benefits the wild eyed dreamers among us. And that benefits everyone, since they are the ones whose successes ultimately fuel those who follow behind them. Detroit’s resurgence is a great example of this phenomenon. A few years ago there were only a handful of people building things- houses, store fronts, lofts. That’s when it became “cool” and when the next group of people started showing up. Soon there were more projects, deeper pockets and bigger plans, and these people, while walking on an unsteady ledges, took chances. Those chances, in many cases, paid off. Then “big boys” took notice. If you go to midtown or downtown Detroit now you will see national retailers, hotel chains and scores of high end housing options.
The progress in Midtown and downtown Detroit, like most other places, follows the pattern of risk tolerance described above.
Temporary help from city hall is often all these zealous nuts need. A new place to gather, a micro loan to start a business, a shed to sell their stuff. So, while you wait for your million dollar infrastructure project, try turning things upside down and allow for the newfound energy to add dynamism to our community. Liveliness is infectious.
And, by the way, those million dollar infrastructure grants you’re chasing? They usually come after you have done this stuff!
For more ideas about what you might try in your own community check these links:
Note: The Zealous Nuts categorization is courtesy of Fred Kent at PPS.