Today's guest post is by frequent Strong Towns collaborator, Jennifer Krouse. Jen is a graduate of the Stockholm School of Economics and a strategist by nature and training, with career experience in fundraising management and real estate development. She is the founder of Steepletown Studios and Imagining North Adams, which was highlighted in Mike Lydon's Planetizen list of notable Tactical Urbanism projects of 2012. Her newest venture, Krouse and Company, aims to bring top-quality architectural design within reach of modest budgets.
I got a call yesterday from Anne, who serves as the mayor of New Hope, the adjacent city to our fictional Brainerd. And boy, was she bummed out.
“Okay,” she said, “I get it. I've read Thoughts on Strong Towns. I've attended the Curbside Chat. I'm watching the initiative that Brainerd's mayor is launching, and I want to take similar measures here in New Hope. But do you realize what I'm up against?
“We need to shrink next year's budget by $800,000 to avoid a deficit, though our operations are already cut to the bone. We haven't got a city planner, let alone a transit coordinator. We can't afford extra paint; we can't even afford the salaries of our remaining staff.
“Still, we can't let New Hope go to the dogs. I have to give this place a future. But without time to spare for big initiatives or money to spend on small ones, what can I do?”
Anne isn't real, but her situation is real enough. My adopted home town — North Adams, MA — faces similar challenges, and it's one of the luckier former mill towns in New England. Here, at least, a new-ish museum and a longstanding college are growing, evolving, and attracting investment. The population, however, is still shrinking, and therefore so is the demand for real estate. Shrinking demand depresses prices, which is a problem when a city's revenues depend on its real estate values.
To make the situation more challenging, a major feature of our local culture is its resistance to change — unless change comes in the form of a big box store promising jobs and cheaper prices. But who can blame us for that attitude, when the changes of the last half-century have generally been for the worse? Jobs lost, our built heritage demolished, Main Street emptied of a once-thriving social life... When a big box store comes courting, we're understandably ecstatic. Someone loves us! Never mind the big-box format's reputation for draining its host cities of fiscal and economic life. This time, for us, it will be different.
I don't expect Anne or my real mayor to swim against that tide. It's too strong, and they'd never make it without significant support from their constituents. If we want something better for ourselves, we need to unite around a common vision of the kind of place we want to be and how we want to get there. We need to understand that what makes a town strong isn't necessarily the set of “solutions” we've been chasing in recent decades. We need to relearn the rules of good placecraft, spread our common vision and strengthen our public officials by providing them with vocal backing and practical support. But building such a movement takes time.
While we muster ourselves for that challenge, we can help Anne and mayors like her by encouraging them to unleash the assets that every town can muster for free.
Openness – Don't be an island, Anne. Share your challenges with the community. By engaging constituents as partners in problem-solving, you grow the pool of brain power that's working for you, and you increase our chances of crafting effective, affordable responses to the problem at hand.
Creativity – We can't get out of this mess with the tools that got us there in the first place. Not only can the conventional tools inflict harm to our fiscal health (think: tax lures), but they're increasingly scarce (federal grants, transfer payments). We need to devise a new set of tools to help us better choose, design and implement public projects. We can start by collecting ideas from other places that are pulling themselves up by the bootstraps. If we apply those ideas creatively to our own towns, we can pull ourselves out of this rut.
Social capital – Social capital describes the willingness of people to come together to do something with each other and for each other. A city that's poor in financial capital is often rich in the social kind. Is your town strong in spaghetti fundraisers and motorcycle rallies? You can harness that networked energy to drive other kinds of projects — projects that improve a block, neighborhood, or the city as a whole.
Experimental mindset – In this era of top-down, all-or-nothing planning, embracing experimentation is the most frugal adaptation a city can make. An experimental mindset says, “we're open to new ideas, projects, and designs, but we're cautious, so we'll test them out before rejecting them or committing to them permanently.” Not only does experimentation give us the opportunity to learn what elements of a project will work or not — thereby avoiding expensive mistakes — it enables us to build momentum for promising initiatives even as we raise the necessary funding for them. Best of all, experiments take the bite out of change by reassuring our nervous selves that we have an “out” in the event that an idea doesn't work.
Openness, creativity, social capital and an experimental mindset are important assets. But mustering those assets is not enough; we have to deploy them, too. In future posts, I'll explore that process in more detail. Meanwhile, let's get started. We don't need to wait for outside cash before investing in our future. The investment continuum doesn't begin with money. It begins with human engagement. And that is a currency that even the poorest town can afford to raise.