We use the term, "productive place," a lot on this site. We contrast a street, which is a platform for building wealth, with a road, which is a high speed connection between productive places. We talk about how successful rail lines need to connect productive places. We discuss the need for engineering reform in order to build truly productive places.
But what does this phrase mean?
Maybe productive places are like cheese or wine [...] In my interpretation, it means someplace that has the potential to get better with time. A place that could age well (and maybe even better) when left to its own devices.
I think she's onto something. The most productive places will stay productive for decades to come. Part of that productivity means they need to be economically sustainable too, with start-up costs that aren't astronomically high and maintenance costs that don't snowball into unmanageable debt.
To expand on that point, here are four key characteristics that I think the most productive places have:
If there's one thing a place needs in order to be productive, it's people. People are the lifeblood of any town or neighborhood, however small. They create and sustain the productivity of a place through economic activity, community and culture. Last year, Chuck wrote:
People are the indicator species of success. There is an overwhelming and indisputable correlation between places that attract human beings outside of an automobile and places that are financially productive. The more places we build that welcome people, the more financially successful we are going to be.
Building a productive place is an art and not a science. When we focus on the fine-grained details that improve the experience of someone on foot, now we are starting to get the essence of how to build a truly strong town.
Amen. I visited Des Moines, IA as a child for a choral event and I have a distinct image of that downtown etched on my brain because it stood out to me in a dramatic way: It was completely empty. There was not a soul outside. Even then, as a ten-year-old, I knew something wasn't right about that. A place needs people in order to be productive.
2. Economic Activity
When we talk about productive places, we are usually talking about neighborhoods or streets, rather than whole cities. Productive places can come in the form of commercial districts, universities, historic main streets--in other words, hubs of activity. We can call a place "productive" when it--by definition--produces something. In this case, a productive place is producing economic value (for businesses, residents, the government) and community vitality. Restaurants, shops, service-oriented businesses and other commercial uses can come together to create a lively district that the community takes pride in. But those elements --restaurants, shops, etc.-- don't always result in productive places. If they're overbuilt, vacant or mired in debt, they probably won't be productive. Thus, a productive place needs to have enough consistent economic activity to sustain its infrastructure through both rich and lean times.
A small caveat: There are, of course, modes of productivity that expand beyond money. Schools. houses of worship, community centers--all of these places can be important gathering places and central features of a neighborhood. I certainly would not call them unproductive. Indeed they produce ideas, joy, a sense of community and many other important things. However, when we're talking about productive places at Strong Towns, it is usually in the context of economic arguments.
A productive place can't succeed if it's built from all of the same thing, whether that's the same business or the same sorts of people. Take, for example, a performing arts center. On Friday and Saturday evenings, it's a hub of activity as concertgoers enter the facility, perhaps shop at the gift shop, or maybe even head to a restaurant across the street beforehand. If it's a particularly active center, perhaps it is able to host shows several nights a week. But what happens in the summer when the orchestra and the ballet are on break? Or even, what happens in the daytime when the hall sits empty? Unless the restaurant across the street is a five star establishment, it's probably going to sit empty too, any time there's not a concert happening.
Even if we have a whole row of restaurants none of those are likely to have enough draw unless there's a concert. But if the performing arts center is accompanied by several popular restaurants and bars, and a public park, and some offices that operate during the day, this district is far more likely to succeed. It is far more likely to be a productive place. If a place relies too much on just one industry, it leaves itself vulnerable to times when that industry is failing or not in operation.
Similarly, if a place is only utilized by a certain group of people, it will face severe challenges if that group leaves or changes its preferences. For instance, a row of luxury clothing stores might do well when the surrounding population is well-off and choosing to buy fancy jeans and shoes. But if the wealthy in that community move away or lose their wealth, these clothing stores will no longer be productive unless their make a big change in their products.
Places have the best chance of being productive when they don't rely too heavily on one business or one group of people, but instead, have diverse offerings.
The hard truth to all of the above factors is that you can't have any of them without walkability. Walkability is the glue that holds this picture together. Of course, cars can be used to take people to specific stores: Old Navy, Target, Walgreens and so on. But, unless you're at a mall, once you finish at these stores, you leave. These are not productive places; they are simply individual stores that may or may not be productive in themselves. Even a mall requires a degree of walkability within its perimeter.
If people are "the indicator species of success" then those people need somewhere to be. When safe sidewalks and crossings are available, people feel more comfortable traveling between stores instead of just driving up to one store, purchasing their items and getting back in the car to drive home. The option to walk opens up the possibility to visit other businesses or people in the area, increasing productivity and vitality.
Each of these factors--people, economic activity, diversity, and walkability--relies on the others: There's no reason for people to be present if there isn't some activity drawing them to the place. There's no way for these people to be part of the place without the ability to walk safely and enjoyably around it. The economic activity won't be successful unless it caters to a diverse group and offers diverse opportunities... The list goes on.
In sum, each of these pieces is a key component of a productive place. When we use that terminology, when we call on people to build more productive places and use transportation options to connect them--that's what we mean.
(Top photo taken by the author, in Nicosia, Cyprus)