Arian Horbovetz is a Strong Towns member who blogs at The Urban Phoenix. Today's article is republished from his blog with permission.


Years ago I was listening to an expert talk on NPR about how the video game landscape was changing, and I was fascinated. Follow me here. I’m going somewhere with this…

This expert was talking about how a majority of video gamers were switching to simpler platforms like portable devices and cell phones to fulfill their gaming “fix.” He noted that there was still a relatively small but intensely committed audience that desired the complex, multifaceted, skill-based games made for high-performing PCs, but that most of America was shifting to the simpler, more approachable, easier to learn games on their phones. In essence, he was saying that the video game world was shifting away from complex, difficult, time consuming games to portable, simple, easy to learn games.

Recently I wrote a feel-good piece on my blog, The Urban Phoenix, about the success of craft breweries in our cities and communities. As I was writing, I had a lightning bolt to the head when I typed the words “scalable commitment.” It surged through my feeble brain, and quickly filled the gap I’ve always wanted to fill but could never quite put my finger on.

When we think about the kinds of businesses and events that have revitalized our city cores, our neighborhoods and our community centers, we have to think about coffee shops, breweries and creative-fare restaurants, cocktail lounges, food trucks and public festivals, among other things. These are the cool, unique little places and ventures that give our city flavor and dimension we haven’t seen in a long time.

The question is, why are these the elements that seem to stoke the fire of so many small- to mid-sized city revitalizations and neighborhood revivals? Because they have very scalable commitment levels. Like the video game shift mentioned above, today’s cities are benefiting from experiences that are commitment-low, experience-high, with an instant feeling of belonging without having to do much work. What does this mean? Let’s take a look at the businesses that are often first to usher in the rebirth of a city or neighborhood…

The Coffee Shop/Micro-Brewery

Both are relatively small and fit well in the urban setting, and both have the ability to fill long-vacant retail or former industrial spaces.

But what make these attractive to the average customer is that you can spend a few minutes enjoying a quick drink, or stay for hours at a time. You can come alone and get work done, talk to the staff, or you can come with a friend or coworkers, or even have a casual business meeting.

At both places, you can have a different “experience” of flavors every few weeks as the drinks/dishes change. You can enjoy a flight and walk away or you can be a regular and buy three t-shirts.

There are a million reasons you can go to either of these establishments… the level of commitment you approach them with is very scalable. You determine how much of a commitment you want to make at any given time.

New High-end Restaurants and Cocktail Bars

Thirty years ago I remember going to a fancy dinner with my extended family. With a little help, I put on navy dress pants and a stuffy white collared shirt, a belt, nice shoes… I was that dressed-up little 7-year-old. And everyone around me was dressed up. In fact, everyone in the restaurant was dressed up and proper and quiet.

Today, the farm-to-table craze has successfully blended a beautiful but casual atmosphere with a high-end experience. Thoughtfully prepared food, artistically cooked and displayed, a true journey for the senses… and you don’t have to wear a dress or a suit and tie to enjoy it, although that’s certainly welcome too!

You can visit these establishments for a night on the town to celebrate an anniversary, dressed to the nines, or you can spontaneously pass by and realize you’re hungry or maybe want a craft cocktail, all while wearing your jeans.

Again, the experience is scalable, with the emphasis on a fun experience for all instead of the expectation of formality. Formality implies a commitment to a certain way of dressing, behaving and even how much you’re paying. One element most of these new restaurants offer is a bevy of approachably priced appetizers and even a gourmet burger or pizza for those who don’t want to spend $25+ for an entree.

Festivals, Food Trucks and More

Festivals have been around for a long time. There are simply more of them today. Food trucks and mobile vendors give festivals new and old another dimension of excitement, providing food that transcends the traditional burger or hot dogs.

Festivals are great ways to say “I want art, food, music and fun to come to me, all in one place.” You can go for an hour, or all day, alone or with friends. It is and always has been a completely scalable experience.

The Ballpark Effect

Sports venues are not grassroots revitalization pieces, but the scalable commitment concept could not be more apparent here.

For the last few decades, sports teams have been doing something that might seem perplexing: they have been actively trying to provide an in-stadium experience with features that have nothing to do with the game on the field. Major League ballparks now offer a greater variety of food choices, craft beers, wine, and even mixed drinks. In many places, you can get sushi at a game.

Sports venues are also offering more concourse games and activities for children and families, more toys, bigger gift shops and a host of other experiential amenities that are completely separate from the field of play. You don’t have to be a sports fan, a Budweiser drinker or a hot dog lover to enjoy a baseball game any more. You can have a myriad of different experiences, and see as much or as little of the game as you want.

The level that we follow sports has become scalable. You can be a ravenously committed fan, or not know a single thing about the game and still have a good time at the ballpark today because the choices, the expectations and the commitment levels are so much broader.

The T-Shirt Effect

This is the best part: the gear. Nearly all of these restaurants, bars and venues have gear. T-shirts, hats, mugs, jackets, you name it. You can walk into a brewery, enjoy a beer, walk away with a T-shirt and share your picture on Facebook, repping the new threads. This tells the world that you support this cool, new, local establishment, and you’re into your city’s revival, even though all you did was buy a cup of joe and a thin piece of 100% cotton. No hard work needed, you’re helping your community by supporting local and it took 37 seconds and $27.50.

I don’t mean to come off as snarky, because frankly I do this, too. I love buying local gear. It’s fun to show some love for places you dig. It’s like buying a jersey of your favorite baseball player. You identify with a brand you enjoy and appreciate.

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People today want unique, home grown, artistically prepared, always changing experiences at a number of different price points that can be approached both formally and informally with little commitment, and they want to feel “a part of the club” immediately with little effort. It’s the extravagant “experience” that you used to have to pay a lot of money for, or prepare for with reservations or fancy clothes, or spend a certain amount of time in — all the while in atmospheres where the expectation was something very specific. Today, we can have these same experiences in a way that fits our time, our life, our budget and our comfort level, not the other way around.

We shouldn’t fight this, because it’s simply the way it is. There will always be the people who want to make a deeper investment in our cities, but the most successful grassroots revitalization efforts understand that people today want an experience that maximizes the feeling of belonging while minimizing the need to commit time, preparation and effort.

Businesses that understand this concept will better serve our communities because they will not only draw people in, they will keep people coming back. Ironically, the things in our city that require the least amount of commitment are the very things our populations seem to commit to the most.

(All photos copyright Arian David Photography)