5 Low Cost Ideas to Make Your City Wealthier

Today I'm flying home from my last trip of the year. Last night I spoke in Panama City, Florida to a large and enthusiastic group of people in a community struggling with some large development proposals. Their core frustration is a common one. There only seems to be two choices available to them: either build something completely out of scale with their community or build nothing.

During my visit, we talked a lot about why this is, why local government so often delivers this kind of false paradigm despite the strong desire from nearly all players — even many within local government — to do something different. This conversation echoed another dialogue that happened earlier this week in Pensacola, Florida, where I delivered a follow up to October's Curbside Chat. We all know that it makes more sense to work incrementally, to make many small investments to shore up and strengthen our core neighborhoods. How do we do that when every mechanism we use to deliver projects — from funding sources to regulations to the project advocates themselves — pushes us into a few large endeavors we hope will trickle down to something resembling success.

Earlier this year I wrote one of my favorite pieces: this Buzzfeed-esque list of things cities can do, which you'll read below. As opposed to being merely clickbait, this list contains some of the most important incremental endeavors going on in North America today. I know the people involved in all of these undertakings. They are not only true visionaries following their passion for building stronger places, they are also experts delivering on the promises of transformation. I'm so proud to be able to recommend them all.

If you're inspired by Strong Towns and are struggling with your next steps, check out this list and see if something suits you. And look forward to more along these lines on our site in 2018, when we'll devote some serious attention to showing how our members and advocates can take action in their places. I could not be more excited.  - Chuck Marohn

Last week, we shared five ways federal infrastructure spending is making cities poorer. That piece included this observation:

What we have not figured out — and what we won't figure out with another flood of federal infrastructure spending — is how to translate maintenance into growth. How do we go out and fill potholes and fix leaking pipes and have that result in additional wealth in our neighborhoods? This is a daunting challenge that requires us to rethink — from bottom to top — how we develop our places. We need to modernize our zoning codes, building standards, housing incentives, insurance programs, etc. There are a lot of people trying to do this, but they get cast aside every time the federal gravy train rolls into town.

So here are five of the low cost initiatives that every city across the country should prioritize, building wealth and stronger towns from the bottom up.

1. The Better Block

There is no group that does more with less than the Better Block Foundation. Jason Roberts, founder of Better Block inspired us all with his TED talk and now, with the backing of the Knight Foundation, is working to scale his ideas for communities across the country.

Better Block uses small, low cost interventions to prototype larger scale projects. Residents and stakeholders are able to co-create change and experience improvements as they go. It's a true alternative to the big project model; a more sophisticated approach with lower risk and higher returns.

America is desperately in need of fine-grained, block-level solutions to address the financial productivity gap in our cities. It doesn't get better than Better Block.


2. Incremental Development Alliance

Corporate developers have figured out how to capitalize on federal infrastructure investments to mass produce housing. Regulations — from local zoning to national home financing standards — are designed to facilitate their business model, an approach that provides quick growth but ultimately makes cities poorer. There is an urgent need to make small investments in existing neighborhoods, but the corporate developer model can't deliver this without massive subsidies.

Developers R. John Anderson and Monte Anderson have made careers out of building small, incremental projects in existing neighborhoods. Now they are doggedly training the next generation of small scale developers, giving them the tricks and insights to thrive in a development world not built for them.

The Incremental Development Alliance provides training, coaching and mentoring to individuals looking to become small developers. In an era of underemployment, where cities desperately need growth that doesn't require new public liabilities, local governments should be lining up to bring the Incremental Development Alliance to town. And they should be listening to their advice on how to become a better place for incremental development.


3. Oswego Renaissance Association

Traditional housing programs target-low income neighborhoods with expensive interventions that more often than not fail to gain much momentum. The Oswego Renaissance Association is turning that approach on its head and seeing tremendous success as a result.

With very small amounts of capital, the Association has provided matching grants and resources to blocks of individuals who want to invest in improving the look of their street. Addressing the real problem — a shared lack of confidence in the neighborhood — has paid huge returns.

The key is in getting neighbors together and helping them realize their shared vision. It's slow, messy relationship-building; the antithesis of what is possible with a Washington DC-based housing approach. This approach succeeds, not by putting money in, but by unleashing the capital that's been pushed to the sidelines in declining neighborhoods.

Paul Stewart, executive director of the Oswego Renaissance Association, should be on the national speaking circuit helping struggling cities realize how they can tap into their own sidelined wealth.


4. Economic Gardening

What do you do when you realize your city is never going to be able to subsidize enough businesses to create the jobs you need? That is what happened to Chris Gibbons and the economic development staff in Littleton, Colorado, when missile manufacturer Martin Marietta (now Lockheed Martin) cut its workforce in half, costing the city 7,500 lost jobs and leaving 1 million square feet of vacant real estate.

There was no way to fill this hole with traditional economic development techniques. The city was forced to innovate. The result? Economic Gardening, an approach that focuses on growing jobs in existing businesses rather than paying a business to relocate to the community. It's gardening, not hunting.

The great insight of Economic Gardening is that most job creation comes from State 2 businesses, those that are beyond the startup phase but not yet at the size of a Stage 3 corporation. Stage 2 businesses are lead by entrepreneurs — the crazy people living on the edge of chaos who don't really appreciate that they can actually fail. These special people would maybe like a handout, but they don't need it. What they desperately need — because they are so focused on their niche expertise and are not, at heart, business people — is basic assistance growing their operation. Who are my competitors? What do they charge? What markets can I expand to? An Economic Gardening approach is able to answer these kind of questions, and more, for rapidly growing businesses at a fraction of the cost of traditional business handouts. The result is faster job growth, higher paying jobs, greater resiliency during economic downturns and far less risk of failure. Growing Stage 2 businesses creates market demand for more Stage 1 enterprises and, over time, develops a workforce that attracts Stage 3 employers. It's the economic development zen spot.

Every city in America should throw out the traditional chase-and-subsidize approach and switch to Economic Gardening.


5. Small Change

Wealthy individuals who want to invest in real estate have every opportunity to do so and, because of the way American tax and financing rules are written, receive preferential treatment when they do. The result is often very large projects — from a city's perspective, the build-it-and-they-will-come variety — or large numbers of standard units that fit neatly into the federal government's housing programs. Neither of these are what cities need more of right now.

Small Change is allowing the regular investor to use their resources to invest in small scale projects, improvements that often don't neatly fit standard financing models. It's a little like crowdfunding, but for real estate, and there is an expectation of a return on investment. 

Want to invest in development you deem meaningful in your city? Have a property that you and your neighbors would like to see improved? Small Change offers a way. Individuals are able to invest as little as $100 to become an owner in a real estate project. After the project is developed and once it is operational, if all goes as planned, investors will receive a return.

Small Change is a national platform based in Pittsburgh. Communities around the country should take note of this concept.



We could publish a much longer list of similarly innovative approaches, none of which are based in Washington DC and none of which receive federal money. The five we've shared here are all low-cost, low-risk endeavors with a track record of success. These are proven models.

Yet, they will all be marginalized, to one degree or another, by a flood of federal infrastructure money, spending that will stifle these and other innovations while making America's cities poorer. We need to rethink our approach. These five ideas are just a start.

(Top photo source: Ty Nigh.)

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