I want to live in a place built by legions of underemployed urbanists. Just imagine if your city was built by thousands of small scale developers making an investment they cared about. Now imagine if those developers understood the value of people-friendly public spaces around their properties as well. That there sounds like the makings of a great neighbourhood.
Looking for a job?
For a time, job scarcity in the city-building field kind of freaked me out. It was especially scary moving to a place with virtually no planning consulting or architecture industry. If I wanted to put my planning degree to work I'd need to compete for a handful of municipal jobs that I didn't really want. Or I'd have to make my own, which is what I'm trying now. But the feeling of job scarcity wasn't limited to people like me pursuing big city dreams in small places. Anecdotally, I've heard many stories of lost city-builders whose industry vanished when the housing market crashed. And I've met more young people than I can count who are going to school for planning or urban studies as a means to their chosen environmental, health, cultural, or political ends with no promise of employment on the other end. So yes, for a time I felt uneasy about how us urbanists could all find employment in a limited job market. That's an awful feeling. It takes your friends and allies and makes you feel a twinge of "This town ain't big enough for the both of us" when you're on the same team.
But there are jobs and then there's work. I'd wager there's more than enough work for all of us if we want to do it the hard way - the work of physical city-building. There is so much bad development out there to replace or rectify that it would take an army to transform it into productive places. Just like we would need a massive influx of small scale farmers if we want to substantively change our precarious food system, we need an army of small scale developers to build a nation of Strong Towns.
Strong Towns = Party Towns
I meet a lot of urbanists young and old that want to get into development nowadays. Within this network we thankfully have mentors like John Anderson and Monte Anderson (no relation) helping beginners get their start in that process. I'm not sure if this drive toward small scale development is a new movement or if I'm just cluing into it now, but I'm stoked about it either way. This is a step toward Ian Rasmussen's Party Analogy in which every new development is like another guest showing up at the door with beverages and a bag of delicious Cool Ranch Doritos. The more the merrier! Each new addition to a city makes it better and better and better.
Of course, we can't redevelop everything unless we want to throw away buckets of money. There are some obvious and less-obvious areas in our cities where becoming a small developer could actually provide a payoff over the long run. Part of my journey with Strong Towns has been learning to identify why, when, and where that potential upside exists. What are those base qualities of a productive place?
Maybe Productive Places are like cheese, or wine.
As you may know, I've been working on translating the Curbside Chat in to a video series. Part of this process involves breaking down some jargon and concepts that we take for granted. It has been a challenge to dissect and define something like "Productive Place." 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. In a Productive Place, the Party Analogy could work - every new developer adds a little something to the mix that benefits the whole party. Their awning or third story is like showing up to the party with a guitar and playing it well.
Why this is great if you're an underemployed urbanist
A productive place needs a whole party of people making it work. Otherwise it would be too fragile - the punch would run out and everyone would go home. The necessity to have many urban investors is a hugely comforting thing because it transforms the relationship between urbanists. Rather than being competitors for scarce contracts, clients, or public positions, we can be unlimited collaborators in the improvement of a place. We can all share the risk and reward.
I call myself a city-builder because it seems like a broad enough term to cover my interests, motives, and education. But I won't truly feel like a city-builder until I'm swinging a hammer. I want to be a small scale developer too. One day I'll join that army (alert the granny flats!).
Thank you to everyone who has worn this path already and shared your insights and encouragement. If becoming a developer speaks to any readers, we're working on getting a recording of Monte Anderson's excellent National Gathering presentation posted on the Strong Town member site for your inspiration.