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In Local Economies We Trust (Community Matters)

Today at the Community Matters '10 conference in Denver I will be moderating one of the 10:30 AM breakout sessions, In Local Economies We Trust. This session is going to rock, so if you are at the conference be sure and check it out. If you are not in Denver, I'm going to try and record the audio so I can use it in a future podcast

The reason this session is going to rock is because we have three amazing panelists. They all have expertise in the art of building Strong Towns; places that have local resilience.

This session is really important and timely too. I've put a lot of effort in researching the work of these three experts. I have put together a series of questions and discussion topics that I am hopeful will get deep into their work and make it relevant for practitioners and policy-makers looking for a different -- and workable -- approach.

Building local resilience is the key for us to emerge from this economic downtown stronger than we entered it. Our economy, in its current form, is not built on a series of redundancies in the way that a complex natural system is. Instead, the American economy is largely a product of efficiencies of scale, efficiencies made possible by cheap petroleum, prior infrastructure investments, government regulation and incentives and a strong dollar.

We are only now beginning to understand how these large, efficient systems are brittle by nature; how fragilities in areas we are not even aware of today can threaten supplies, prices and market stability.

In contrast, a collection of strong, local economies is resilient by nature. If one fails, it does not take the entire system down with it. And while something may be lost in efficiency, we can see from the diversity produced by natural systems that real innovation comes from having thousands of local experiments going on across the landscape, all connected and learning from each other's successes and failures. 

Our homogeneous, monolithic approach to building communities is ending. For America to see renewed prosperity, we need to learn to trust -- embrace -- local economies for the creative force they can be. Come to the 10:30 session, In Local Economies We Trust, and hear some ideas for growing your community into a Strong Town.


And for those of you at the conference that may be interested in learning more about Strong Towns and strategies for building local resiliency, I've been asked to host one of the "Dinner with the Doctor" sessions Thursday evening. If you don't have dinner plans, please consider coming and hanging out with us for some good food and conversation. The signup sheet is in the hallway next to the petitions.


Live Blogging from Community Matters (Wednesday)

For those of you that have not read any of my live blogging posts, I'll warn you now that the following is basically a download of my thoughts. As such, it is going to be a little random and disjointed - I am plucking out information from the conference that I find interesting and want to remember and share. This is not great writing, but if you are interested, you may be able to get something useful out of it.

One big overview about this place; the people attending this conference are really warm and friendly. I'm finding it difficult to do my typical hide-in-the-corner-and-observe routine because people -- random people -- keep coming up to me, introducing themselves and striking up a conversation. This is a very small group by comparison to CNU (small), APA (medium) and Dreamforce (enormous), but I like the vibe here. Seems like there are a lot of people genuinely interested in making small towns better. My kind of folk.

And I've already had to explain twice this morning why I don't speak like a Minnesotan. Uuf-dah! I hate dat damned movie Faargo, ya know.

So, cool idea number one; check out the website Wordle. It is used to make word clouds - really cool word clouds. They used it here to take written introductions that people had volunteered to each other by email in the weeks leading up to the conference and identify themes and commonalities. I can see using this as part of an initial community visioning process as a quick, cost-effective way to bind people's thoughts together.

The first speaker here at the morning plenary is Erica Williams, Deputy Director for Progress 2050 at the Center for American Progress. She opened up talking about this provocative quote that she had pulled from a magazine printed in 1969:

It is hard to tell time on revolutionary clocks.

She is a great speaker and her talk was largely about the inevitability of change; how we are changing and how we are reacting to that change. She described herself as part of the Millennial Generation, which she indicated is the best hope we have for leading the country through change. She said that Millennials are "confident, connected and ready for change." I'm of Generation X and so my natural reaction is to react with some cynicism at such talk, but hey, if they are also ready to roll up their sleeves and work to make it happen, I'm with them. (No offense, Justin. You are more about doing than tweeting-about-doing, which is why I love working with you).

She was inspiring and I think her version of Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers discussion - that the more opportunity we can provide the better we will be as a society - is quite compelling. 

Internet problems just cost me to lose an entire section I had written here about Alex MacLean, an aerial photographer who was the second speaker. There were a lot of amazing things there. I am just going to reference his book, Over: the American Landscape at a Tipping Point.

Ed MacMahon, the last speaker in the more session, started out by describing his experience flying helicopters for the military over Germany and how it changed his life. He said, "traveling is learning" which I totally agree with. Whenever I speak to young people and they ask me about preparing for their future or their careers I always recommend that they travel. Visiting Europe changed my life if only because it opened up my (very closed) eyes to the notion that there were different models for doing the same thing....and that some may be more successful than others.

Wow - he actually just quoted me from our meeting yesterday. Cool. I had mentioned how our approach to communicating with people about land use decisions, communities, "heart and soul" issues, placemaking, etc... absolutely has to cross over political barriers. His reference to my statement was followed by an observation that many of these values are American values, not partisan values. Amen. We just need to find the vehicle for communicating them.

He was talking about how pathetic our train systems are in this country. One stat: It takes 15 hours to take a train from Dallas to Houston. I actually looked to take a train last June from Las Vegas to Anaheim. Four hours by car, twenty hours by train. He also said that it takes five hours longer to get by train from Chicago to New York than it took in 1930. Is it any wonder we are losing our position in the world?

A couple of other thoughts from McMahon:

The definition of sustainable is "enduring". We need to build places of enduring value.

If you don't know where you are, you don't know who you are. With America's homogeneous development pattern, every place looks the same. We are building a nation of people who don't know who they are. 

Sense of place - that which makes our physical surroundings worth caring about. (reminds me of the work of Steve Mouzon).

The biggest barrier to the success in small towns is the fear to say no to anything. When we can't say no to anything, we'll wind up with nothing worth having.

Measuring Success – Indicators for Evolving Communities

The things that a community chooses to measure and report back to themselves says something about that community.

We started this session by crowd sourcing questions about indicators. My contribution:

What is the relevance of traditional indicators in times of great change?

I’m a touch cynical on quantitative indicators, which may be part of my therapy as a recovering engineer (or it may be part of the inspiration for seeking “treatment”). As a graduate student at the University of Minnesota I worked on a research team that examined indicators. It was a worthless exercise in that the data collected was overwhelming on one hand and barely relevant on the other. What was lacking: context. So I am interested to hear what people here have to say and if the idea of indicators has evolved to be more relevant.

There is a little bit of Nassim Taleb in me here too. Quants in the financial world have studied indicators of market movements and created models of finance that are massively complex and, as we have now discovered, tragically wrong. That goes a little bit to my question. It was perhaps really important to measure highway miles constructed or Average daily Traffic (ADT) as measures of success in 1995. Today those are largely indicators of failure (or pending failure). If we have our collective heads stuck in a spreadsheet counting beans, we’ll miss the larger picture.

One question posed by the collective was something along the lines of, “How do we keep indicators from becoming beans to be counted.” Amen. 

Ben Warner, Deputy Director of the Jackson Community Council, talked about a community snapshot report that they produce annually for the past 25 years. This has allowed them to institutionalize the report in public and private-sector decision making – including foundations – across the community. It creates a shared agenda for what the community should look like. And they have a robust process for refining and changing (“coopting “ critics, according to Warner) the indicators that are measured. 

He indicated that a lot of the technology they use is either cheap or free so there are few barriers to doing this on an ongoing basis. The reports are all available on their website at

Everything you measure is a value statement.

Everything you don't measure is a value statement.

Indicators are tied into visioning, advocacy and implementation and then outcomes. The indicators are not snapshots, they are tools to measuring progress over a long-term basis.

And yes, the indicators need to change over time. As an example of an indicator that is not working, just think Standardized Testing. Amen. I would like to study this system as Warner described it really well. You can follow him on Twitter at @BenWarner.

Shanna Ratner, Yellow Wood Associates (, gave some really good examples of indicators in action. One process she described was getting everyone’s indicators out on the table (the things people think need to be measured) and then connecting them. If one moves in a certain direction, how will that impact the others? This allows you to pin down the key leverage indicators.

Key Leverage Indicators --> Definitions --> Measures --> Measurement Plan --> Actions

This creates the foundation for the question: What actions does the community need to take to move the indicator forward?

I like the focus this approach provides. It would definitely keep this from becoming simply a bean counting exercise.

In the Q&A, Ratner referred to an organization called The State of the USA that is looking at a new set of indicators for our country. And some final advice from Warner:

The only community that you should compare your indicators to is your own. Your own goals and value are what matters.

Open Space Session

At the open space session I sat in at a table where we were talking about Form Based Codes and I promised the participants that I would post a link to the Andres Duany lecture in the city of San Antonio. This is the first of the series - the rest will show up to be clicked on when this finishes. Nice to meet all of you. Best of luck implementing a much-needed, new code based on form, not craziness.




Clues to Rural Community Survival

So today I find myself in Denver in a hotel conference room, sequestered away with a small group of brilliant minds assembled by the Orton Family Foundation in an off-the-agenda gathering. Don't ask me why I was invited -- after listening to this group I was even more honored and humbled to be among them. It was great conversation and I walked away with about eight pages of notes. A lot of it was quasi-off-the-record so I am not going to blog about it in detail, but tomorrow I'll post a few things I know people will not mind me sharing.

In the meantime (and because it is late and I have been up since really, really early this morning and need sleep), I'm going to share a collection of "clues" -- you could call them indicators or attributes even - that identify rural communities designed to succeed. The list was developed by the Heartland Center for Regional Development with a lot of research and thought, which you'll appreciate once you read it. What a brilliant collection of observations.

Ask yourself if the places you care about have these attributes.

20 Clues to Rural Community Survival: An Annotated List

  1. Evidence of Community Pride Successful communities are often showplaces of care, attention, history and heritage.
  2. Emphasis on Quality in Business and Community Life People believe that something worth doing is worth doing right.
  3. Willingness to Invest in the Future In addition to the brick-and-mortar investments, all decisions are made with an outlook on the future.
  4. Participatory Approach to Community Decision Making Even the most powerful of opinion leaders seem to work toward building consensus.
  5. Cooperative Community Spirit The stress is on working together toward a common goal and the focus is on positive results.
  6. Realistic Appraisal of Future Opportunities Successful communities have learned how to build on strengths and minimize weaknesses.
  7. Awareness of Competitive Positioning Local loyalty is emphasized, but thriving communities who know who their competitors are and position themselves accordingly.
  8. Knowledge of the Physical Environment Relative location and available natural resources underscore decision-making.
  9. Active Economic Development Program There is an organized, public/private approach to economic development.
  10. Deliberate Transition of Power to a Younger Generation of Leaders People under 40 regularly hold key positions in civic and business affairs.
  11. Celebration of Diversity in Leadership Women, minorities, youth and newcomers are welcomed into leadership circles where their ideas are treated as opportunities.
  12. Strong Belief in and Support for Education Good schools are the norm and centers of community activity.
  13. Problem-Solving Approach to Providing Health Care Health care is considered essential, and smart strate-gies are in place for diverse methods of delivery.
  14. Strong Multi-Generational Family Orientation The definition of family is broad, and activities include younger as well as older generations.
  15. Strong Presence of Traditional Institutions that are Integral to Community Life Churches, schools and service clubs are strong influences on community development and social activities.
  16. Sound and Well-Maintained Infrastructure Leaders work hard to maintain and improve streets, sidewalks, water systems, and sewage facilities.
  17. Careful Use of Fiscal Resources Frugality is a way of life and expenditures are considered investments in the future.
  18. Sophisticated Use of Technology Resources Leaders access information that is beyond the knowledge base available in the community.
  19. Willingness to Seek Help from the Outside People seek outside help for community needs, and many compete for government grants and contracts for economic and social programs.
  20. Conviction that, in the Long Run, You Have to Do It Yourself Thriving rural communities believe their destiny is in their own hands. Making their communities good places is a pro-active assignment, and they willingly accept it.