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Live Blogging: National Economic Gardening Conference

Instead of a Friday News Digest, this week I'm in Florida at the National Economic Gardening Conference and am going to be live-blogging, if possible. I'm writing this from the hotel the evening before and have not been to the site yet so I can't be sure logistically that it will work. Check back throughout the day because, if it does work, I'll post my notes and thoughts live as we go. (Note: I'm here now and the campus has a great, open connection, so.)

By way of background, I discovered Economic Gardening the same way I discovered New Urbanism - I just kept searching for an answer that made sense. I'm hoping to learn a lot more Friday because, like New Urbanism, what I know makes it feel like the answer to the economic development problem, especially in small towns.

In a summary sense, Economic Gardening is the opposite of Economic Hunting, which we have also called here "chasing smokestacks". The moniker "hunting" denotes that a community would go outside their community and "hunt" for new businesses they can bring to town. That is the standard approach of nearly every economic development effort in this country, but I can confirm what we all sense is true: it is simply a race to the bottom, even for the so-called "winners". The moniker "gardening" on the other hand denotes a look inward and a process of nurturing and growing the assets you have as a way to create economic development. Economic Gardening is an inside-out strategy while Economic Hunting or Chasing Smokestacks is very much outside-in.

Economic Gardening originated in Littleton, Colorado, and was started largely by the efforts of Christian Gibbons, Littleton's economic development director. I had a chance to meet Mr. Gibbons at the Orton Heart and Soul gathering last October and was deeply impressed. The "hunting" approach is all about feedback -- large projects, ribbon cuttings, subsidies, etc... All the stuff that an economic developer can put in a nice summary sheet at the end of the year to justify their position. The "gardening" approach has very little feedback. It is all about a long-term commitment and a lot of learning from failure. It takes a bold person (not to mention a bold set of elected officials) to stick with the gardening approach without immediate positive feedback, which is another reason why I admire Gibbons.

More as the conference unfolds.


The welcome and introduction today included some brief comments from Florida Representative Mike Horner, a Republican from Kississimme. I don't want to get into politics today, but I do find the political dynamics of Economic Gardening interesting. It should appeal to Republicans -- as Rep. Horner stated, it is the ultimate "teach someone to fish" type of approach. It should also appeal to Democrats as it acknowledges that there is a role for government in working with businesses to create jobs.

The panelists here are attesting to the fact that Economic Gardening has created some weird political dynamics. As someone who has not worked through the politics of this, I can see the greatest political friction coming from a status quo versus reformer debate. Whenever you have existing programs and you are looking to change them, there is resistance. Now take the current economic development model, which is largely driven by politicians giving incentives to businesses, and I can see a lot of resistance to giving up that power.

Fortunately, economic turmoil may open up opportunities for innovation.

It looks like there is a Google Group on Economic Gardening that is being kept current. 

A little note on the attendance here: it is very light by national conference standards. The Google group says 120 people registered, which is reflected here. The speakers will be 10% of the attendees. That is ironic to me because I feel like 120 people back home had asked me about this conference, even though I didn't really talk a lot about going here. This is a small movement, but one that is so powerfully logical that I have to believe it will continue to grow. And for those of you reading this, you likely have a chance to introduce some powerful new ideas to your community as they are likely not represented here in any way.

Quote: Economic Gardening is like incubating second-stage companies, only virtually. 

One of the keys to Economic Gardening is the focus on second-stage companies. In layman's terms, a second stage company is a company that has moved beyond the startup phase but has not grow to be a large enterprise. Generally, a second stage company has between 10 and 99 employees. These are the companies that statistically have the greatest potential for growth and give the greatest "bang for the buck" (to quote Chris Gibbons). First stage companies are too volatile and prone to fail while third and fourth stage companies are not creating jobs as quickly and have a footprint that is likely larger than the community itself.

The ironic thing here -- and this is my impression -- is that traditional economic developing tends to focus on startups or attracting mature companies, a much more costly and less effective approach than focusing on these second stage companies.

Chris Gibbons: Focus on the companies that don't call you back. Those are the ones too busy doing their work. Most stage two companies do not lack money, they lack time. What we do in economic gardening has to give them more time to run their business.

The panel right now is talking about Florida's effort to take this statewide. Sounds like they have $1.5 million, which, as one panelist pointed out, is about 1.5 jobs by Federal job creation rates. Despite, politicians are asking how many jobs have been created weeks after the program started. Gibbons pointed out that, if you are the kind of person that plants corn Monday and checks for corn on Tuesday, Economic Gardening is not for you. It is a long-term proposition.

Here is the GrowFL website on Florida's economic gardening efforts. A promo video from the site, that also has testimonials.

GrowFL Video from GrowFL on Vimeo.


One of the big question I have is what are the tools being used to provide good technical assistance. The current speaker, Fran Corosec, had two pages that were lists and he went too fast to get even a handful written down. Three I did get that were familiar to me: ESRI Business Analyst, ning and Salesforce. I'll bet you won't find those being used in your standard economic development department. I'll try and snag some more here as the day unfolds.

Here's one --> looks like a good source of data.

Some strategies for building local engagement in an economic gardening program.

  • CEO Roundtables - monthly peer-to-peer mentoring, confidential with an agenda created by the CEO's
  • CEO Forums - quarterly networking, education and mentoring using vertical mentoring (bring in a 3rd stage CEO)
  • CEO Summit - annual sales and referral (Ask CEO's who they want to meet and them get them there).
  • Companies to Watch - annual recognition for CEO's

The idea of a summit interesting. They are describing it here as a reverse trade show. In a trade show, you set up a booth and then people come to you. For a summit, they get the people from the community there that CEOs want to meet with. In terms of time well spent, I can't think of a better approach.


Back from lunch, Mark Lange of the Edward Lowe foundation is talking about Economic Gardening in a Box, their attempt to put things a system to run an economic gardening program. They are still building it and won't be ready until July 1, but we're going to get an overview right now. Oh...I've seen non-profits bite things like this off (Orton - CommunityViz being a noble example), but it is so hard to do the work to maintain something that will be a niche product. I wish them luck. There is definitely a need for a platform, but...

The next speaker on Building and Entrepreneurial Culture quoted Jane Jacobs:

Squelchers are control freaks who think they know what's best for their city or region, even as their leadership, or lack thereof, causes a hemorrhage of bright, talented and creative people.

She also suggested that, instead of the ribbon cutting at the big business you just subsidized into town, start a "companies to watch" list of your Stage 2 companies and than hold a ribbon cutting annually on the steps of city hall for all of the jobs created by those companies. That idea gets at the problem with lack of immediate and visible feedback with an economic gardening approach. I like it.

Running out of juice here, so some final thoughts....

Economic Gardening fits well with a Strong Towns mentality. Invest in our strengths. Steady growth based on sound financial fundamentals. Better places producing better ideas, ideas that get mixed around in cities designed for such a purpose. All of it creates a Strong Town - the kind of place we all want to be.

I'm excited to get back home and get to work on how to take this knowledge and apply it to building Stronger Towns across America.


Strong Towns are Leaky Towns

We’re drawn to the challenge of remaking places that are more durable, more competitive, and more attractive for people who live there. If we systematically rethink street width, the basis of land and property tax, and the high-risk design we’ve adopted for many American communities, we’ll have more resources to invest in our real assets – people and their skills. Our interest at Strong Towns is to change physical layout as a way to restore order to our financial house, and to reduce the risk we bear to national and global trends such as climate and energy instability.

Tight budgets on the state and federal level – surely promising to get tighter still, as our previous post described – are helping focus attention on more deliberate and intense use of existing infrastructure. Whether we’re talking about the High Line, stormwater management at the Gophers football stadium, or the Complete Streets discussion, policy is increasingly structured around the search for multiuse infrastructure. In each case, literally doing more with less translates to more a productive system.

And while it may be impolitic in some quarters to say so, together we represent another key form of infrastructure: Developers and traders of ideas. Innovators in every sector are connected through “liquid networks,” says entrepreneur and author Steven Johnson, in his new book “Where Good Ideas Come From.” Approaching innovation from a historical perspective, drawing on brain research and sociological literature, Johnson makes a case that won’t surprise all the people who make up the Strong Towns forum: How we design places and use land directly impacts how innovative is the activity taking place within it.

Building design can form rich environments that encourage the fermentation and exchange of ideas, Johnson notes. Built in 1943 as a temporary structure, Building 20 at MIT housed faculty and student research in an open plan easily reconfigured for new projects. Over fifty years of adaptation, Building 20 produced significant research across fields including IT, linguistics and acoustics.

Inspired by models like Building 20, Microsoft in 2007 built a headquarters for its research division designed explicitly to cross pollinate employees’ ideas. Apparently also inspired by its generic moniker, Microsoft named their facility Building 99. “Building 99 – like Building 20 before it – is a space that sees information spillover as a feature, not a flaw,” writes Johnson. “It is designed to leak.” Walls feature surfaces for writing and erasing. Work spaces are all modular and can be built and rebuilt as the project or day inspires. Research confirms that active horizontal, diverse social networks are multiple times more innovative than uniform, vertical ones. Leaking is valuable.

Cities do best when they leak, too. That’s one of the themes revisited through economic geographer Edward Glaeser’s “Triumph of the City,” released early this year. Glaeser documents the rise of single-industry marketplaces – whose collapse is now epitomized by conditions in Detroit – which, through sheer dominance, eroded the quality of information spillover among workers. Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press by combining use of winemaking tools from his native Rhineland, his metallurgy background, and existing Chinese printing methods. Dialogue led to tinkering, tinkering led to more dialogue, and innovation emerged. On a modern scale, the same process takes place every day, and it’s much more likely to take place in physical environments that connect people in consistently unexpected ways – cities.

Cities themselves aren’t the source of innovation, and Glaeser warns of the error of “confusing a city, which is really a mass of connected humanity, with its structures.” Still, our structures and our physical layout can serve to intensify idea exchange, or inhibit it. A compelling public and private interest exists to support the leakiest land use and urban design we can devise.


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A Complete Road

Yesterday's post about the difference between a Complete Street and a Complete Road was screaming for an example. Here is the Complete Road section being used by my hometown of Brainerd, MN, for My Hometown's Last Great Old Economy Project.

Yes, this section has a dedicated bike path. And yes, this section also has a dedicated walking path. Throw in some decorative lighting and trees and you have yourself a Complete Street. Right?

Not really. Take a look at those driving lanes. There are two lanes in each direction, one that is 14 feet wide and the other at 13 feet. Those are highway dimensions used for high speed travel. Thus you have a Complete Road, the dream of every engineering contract.

Right now, students that live on one side of this road routinely get in their cars and drive to the college on the other side of the road. I know - I went there for a spell. That and they don't even bother to shovel the walks when it snows. And that is with the current road, which is only three lanes. I don't care if they do build a pedestrian bridge or a tunnel, nobody is going to cross this street using anything but a car.

And because of that, there will be no intensification of the development around this corridor. No private-sector investment. No urbanism. This is simply a monster dump of money for one purpose: to move more cars, more quickly. The bike path and walking path, in this application, are just expensive ornamentation that will be little used. People -- and money -- will generally flee from this auto-centric corridor.

So how do we make it better? How do we make this Complete Road into a real Complete Street with a corresponding Complete Neighborhood?

My recommendation to the city was that they make this a two-lane street. With roundabouts at the key college entrances, traffic would flow just fine, albeit much slower than it does today. Such a design, with 10-foot lanes, would be easy for pedestrians to cross, especially with a nice, wide median and periodic jut-outs of the median and walk to lesson the distance people have to cross. You could put large walks along both sides and they would actually be used as the slow-moving cars would not threaten pedestrians. You could also skip the bike lanes as the bikes could actually ride right in the traffic stream. Imagine that!

And not only would this cost millions less, but it would provide a platform that would connect the tremendous housing demand from students and professors with the underdeveloped and declining neighborhood on the opposite side of the street. In other words, there would be a reason to invest there because there would be a reason to live there.

But even if engineers insisted on a four-lane design, 10-foot lanes are more than adequate for the speeds you are going to want through this section. Going to 10-foot lanes would save a full 14 feet of bituminous width, the cost of cutting one entire lane, not to mention all the money the city had to spend aquiring land and easements to accommodate such a wide section.

Ah, but what about the cars? They'll be so unsatisfied if it takes them an extra 37 seconds to travel this stretch of road. A pity, indeed.

Spend less money. Get more return. That is the essence of a Strong Towns approach. I'm just grateful that this will be the last of these mega-projects my hometown will be able to afford. I only wish we were using our final hoorah on something more productive and beneficial to the community.


If you are from Minnesota and are as depressed about the futility of our baseball team as we are, consider lifting your spirits with a donation to help expand the Strong Towns movement. When it comes to analyzing the financial implications of our development pattern, we're consistently hitting the ball out of the park. Your donation will help us do more and reach more people in the process.