This blog is part of an online learning platform which includes the Pathways to New Community Paradigms Wiki and a number of other Internet based resources to explore what is termed here 'new community paradigms' which are a transformational change brought about by members of a community.

It is intended to offer resources and explore ideas with the potential of purposefully directing the momentum needed for communities to create their own new community paradigms.

It seeks to help those interested in becoming active participants in the governance of their local communities rather than merely passive consumers of government service output. This blog seeks to assist individuals wanting to redefine their role in producing a more direct democratic form of governance by participating both in defining the political body and establishing the policies that will have an impact their community so that new paradigms for their community can be chosen rather than imposed.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Creating New Community Paradigms by Building Better Blocks TEDxOU - Jason Roberts -

Opposite to the business as usual ‘top down’ concept of urban design is the community based BETTER BLOCK process, founded in Dallas’ Oak Cliff by Jason Roberts and Andrew Howard.

The Better Block project is a demonstration tool that temporarily re-visions an area to show the potential to create a walkable, vibrant, neighborhood center and shows How to Build a Better Block.  It has the feel of flashmob architecture and an occupy your community approach to community development.
The idea and the charrettes to realize it have quickly spread to cities like Memphis, St. Louis, New York, and Boston. National media coverage includes NPR, the Washington Post, and the New York Times.
The BETTER BLOCK approach is action oriented as opposed to a process of deliberative consideration and advisement under the auspices of a recognized body of authority like a City Council.

While the BETTER BLOCK approach did not do anything particularly criminal, it obviously did in some cases thumb its nose at city regulations and policies.  It does, however, follow some important principles that it discovered in creating the process of building a BETTER BLOCK that are aligned with the process of creating new community paradigms and with a Strong Towns approach.
  • - Identify a location with a block of buildings that has a good pedestrian form, but lacks a complete street. Typically pre-war built areas, or former streetcar intersections.
  • - Assemble team of grassroots community activists, artists, and DIY’ers. If possible, work with existing area non-profit leaders or organizers (Community Gardens groups, local volunteer corps, etc.)
  • - Create groups to develop and install temporary “pop-up” businesses to show the potential for what could be if the street had a more inviting presence. 
  • - Include as many people-friendly aesthetics. We worked with a local props warehouse to bring in planters to help divide the street, and temporary street lighting. You can also build your own planters from old pallets, build sandwich boards. 
  • - Paint your own cycle track! You can use a lime green paint in the typical parking area and paint a 5′ stripe. It’s also good to add a 2′ buffer zone (painted white diagonal lines) to allow for adjacent parking/door zone clearance.
  • - Invite artists to perform in the street. Music is a key component to having an exciting street. Use a guitar amplifier and pump out tracks from an iPod, or invite DJ’s, drum circles, et cetera.
  • - Remember that people want a reason to stay and be apart of the environment. Be sure to provide plenty of seating, things to read (maps, build simple kiosks to use as community boards, food/drink). Chess boards, et cetera. Print out and post the story of the block (its history, its present, its future as a neighborhood place).
The final piece of advice from BETTER BLOCK is to:

- Invite your Mayor, council members, city staff, so they can see the possibilities for themselves. Be sure to track sales to show the increase in area business (potential for increased tax revenue is a city’s largest motivator for change), and spotlight how traffic slows but people still have easy access and come out.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Strong Towns a closer look

The Strong Towns movement was featured in a recent blog post, Making of Place as Economic and Social Engine and wiki page, Place as Social and Economic Engine, which provided a general summary of the organization. The basic position of Strong Towns is that getting a higher return on our public investments requires an understanding of what it takes to build great towns and neighborhoods.

The decision to make Strong Towns an integral part of the Pathways to New Community Paradigms blog with its inclusion on the right hand column makes it important to provide a more in depth look and to be more specific as to where this effort to create new community paradigms fits in with the Strong Towns movement and were it differs. There are so far, no real points of strong disagreement, only some differences in emphasis. A few observations will be made along the way and any points of particular concern will be left for a future post.

To ensure a better and fuller understanding of what Strong Towns is all about this article was posted and tested on the Strong Towns site before being posted on the Pathways to New Community Paradigms site.  I received some kind words from the primary voice for Strong Towns,  Charles Marohn.
This is a very good summary of the Strong Towns philosophy. It is quite refreshing to see the ideas analyzed and put out there in this way. Thank you for sharing this.
This give me confidence that my thinking is going in the right direction.  He went on to say. 
I also appreciated how you disagreed intellectually with some of the approach. I certainly don't have all the answers and would enjoy delving into some of those places where we need to in order to make what we're doing better. A different thread, perhaps...
As I said above, while there are no real points of substantial difference, I appreciate this as an invitation to explore the issues even more.  What I admire about the Strong Towns movement is not that they have all the answers, rather it is that they are asking the right questions.

This post is based upon content of the Curbside Chat Book-LO.pdf, a supplement to the Curbside Chats done live at community meetings across the country. This is not meant to be a substitute for reading the Curbside Chat Book-LO.pdf. or the live Curbside Chats themselves, it is only a synopsis. It is highly recommended that the Curbside Chat booklet be read in its entirety.

The basic strategic economic development advice that communities can take from the Curbside Chat Book-LO.pdf. is, “Stop building to the scale of the automobile”. There is a great deal behind this direct and perhaps not immediately obvious advice that is based on our economic history, current financial situation and a pragmatic recognition as how we can possibly move forward.
While the United States has sustained economic prosperity for two generations, today the economy is stalled. A housing bubble is in the process of correcting along with a corresponding bubble in commercial real estate. The traditional ways we have stimulated the economy in down times—low interest rates and public works spending—have failed to create sustained growth. More drastic measures, such as the Federal Reserve’s quantitative easing program, have also proven ineffective. 
It is time to ask whether this experiment is really working.
Creating or chasing new growth has been the primary means of increasing the local tax base and enhancing tax revenues for communities. The theory has been and continues to be that new growth creates a new tax base which in turn adds new revenue for the local government. The argument is that the overall economic system of a community is large enough that when all factors are fully taken into account including the creation of private sector jobs and tax revenue, the revenue generated more than offsets the community’s investment.

The reality is that cities take on a long term maintenance obligation for a near term (and short lived) cash advantage. It is this very new growth that is created that generates the long term liabilities. The deeper message, the rationale behind “Stop building to the scale of the automobile” is that pursuing growth by means of development scaled to the automobile inevitably means having to assume a long term liability for maintaining the cost for new infrastructure that is greater than the revenue generated.

The current propensity for automobile directed investment also often means that municipal investment is directed to the edge of a community or along highways focusing on automobiles instead of the community’s civic downtown center and its people. It is not only a bad financial decision, it is also a bad placemaking decision.

The problem is that long term maintenance obligations are not counted on public balance sheets. An unfunded liability for infrastructure maintenance means that ever increasing rates of growth are required to cover those long-term liabilities. Things go south when the investment cost exceeds the revenues generated by growth. The question is who is left holding the bag.

Infrastructure financing goes through three Life Cycles for the road or other infrastructure being financed to cover its initial and continuing costs, first pay as you go, second debt because funds have not been put aside in anticipation and the funds must be borrowed and third, if nothing is done, bankruptcy because the ability to directly fund or borrow at a sufficient level becomes unfeasible. The negative affects of these trade offs start to be realized after one life cycle. The result is that many suburban cities are now seeing cash outflows for infrastructure maintenance.
We can no longer afford to maintain all of the underutilized roads, streets, sewer systems, water systems and sidewalks we have built. This is the financial reality we must now confront.
One point of strong agreement is that this problem is not a lack of growth but unproductive growth through the creation of an illusion of wealth. We have ignored the inherent financial productivity of our places. We need to rethink how we reinvest in our communities instead of chasing new growth from the outside based on the illusion that it is a never ending resource.

We need to break that illusion and to do that we need to understand how the illusion arises. To help in explaining and getting off of this hamster’s wheel, the Curbside Chat Book-LO.pdf. provides three major concepts and the reasons behind them.

The Big Concepts of the Curbside Chat program are:

1. The current path cities are pursuing is not financially stable. Cities and other local governments are, for the most part, financially insolvent, despite decades of robust growth in the past.

2. The future for most cities will not resemble the recent past. The financial complexities and challenges of our time will change the way communities address issues relating to growth and development.

3. The main determinant of future prosperity for cities will be local leaders’ ability to transform their communities. The ability of local leaders’ to shepherd their communities through this difficult transition will be the key to future prosperity. I am not quite on the same page with Strong Towns here, but will deal with this further down.

Basically, communities have been on the wrong path, they are still on the wrong path and only they (community paradigms view), or more specifically their leaders (the Strong Towns view) can get them on the right path.

The Curbside Chat Book-LO.pdf. also puts forward four mechanisms that have previously been used to promote this now unsustainable growth in the United States since the end of World War II. It can be demonstrated that these cannot continue in the future providing then the ammunition why we are still on the wrong path. These mechanisms have run their course and will have a diminished influence on the growth of cities and towns in the future.

1. Government transfer payments: money from the state or federal government used to build infrastructure and invest in local growth. Funding local improvements especially maintenance is unlikely to be a high priority going forward, more likely these programs will be cut not only for financial reasons but also political reasons.

However, it could be argued that programs such as HUD Sustainable Cities could be an exception if it can survive in Congress. Big if and how communities collaborate and use the program will be a determining factor in how effective the program can be. The Strong Town principles could form an effective basis for cooperation on a regional level because each community was more self-reliant locally.

2. Transportation spending: public money invested in transportation improvements—such as an increase in traffic lanes, construction of an overpass or bridge, installation of a traffic signal, etc.—that create a platform for enhanced local growth.

This raises questions whether it is possible to fund highways even if based on wise investments on a user fee funded through a gas tax as opposed to a road use tax or other means? There is also the issue of state and federal elect officials diverting transportation funds and other infrastructure funds, especially in California. Tying transportation funding to community growth gave state and federal politicians a means of leveraging community support for their reelection efforts. These concerns though are related to transportation funding and not revenue growth for communities.

3. Public and private debt: the ability of local governments to take on debt has been important to sustain growth, but the private sector’s ability to Finance growth through leverage has been even more important.

Concerning public debt we have to question the reason for that debt, whether to build bridges or fight wars. Also have to question the types of private debt, investment in equipment or in subprime mortgages, still this does not change the current financial reality.

Finally, the municipal Rube Goldberg-like mechanism getting the most focus and which was featured in the previous blog post on Strong Towns is:

4. The Growth Ponzi Scheme which is the form of financing that takes place when the additional revenue generated from new growth is used to pay off unfunded liabilities created from past growth.

This takes us back to the unfunded liability for infrastructure maintenance which required an ever increasing rates of growth to sustain those long-term unfunded liabilities. Unless the revenues are growing at a greater rate, either through continually adding more new outside growth or an internal rate of return, than the cost of the liabilities, it is a Ponzi scheme.

Using revenues from new entrants to pay for the past maintenance obligations of previous developers has all the attributes of a Ponzi scheme. Current development patterns based on the automobile within a suburban landscape fail to create enough revenue within subsequent life cycles to be sustainable, so the Ponzi scheme has to collapse. State and federal governments are also contributing to this Ponzi scheme by their own need to lower costs and raise funds for themselves.

Historical Background

The Curbside Chat Book-LO.pdf provides the historical survey how we have ended up where we are. This is only a summary and you are again strongly encouraged to read the Curbside Chat Book-LO.pdf in its entirety to get the full extent and impact of these arguments.
  1. Housing Foreclosures are at record highs. 
  2. Housing starts are at record lows. 
  3. The bottom of the housing market has not been reached yet 
  4. Commercial real estate is also going through corrections and is a more immediate problem. 
Although it could be argued that these concerns have started to turn around, they still point to the disturbing implications of another Spatial Shift in our economy.

The Curbside Chat Book-LO.pdf takes lessons taught by history from the Long Depression of the 1870s and the Great Depression of the 1930s on the fragility and volatility of our economy. The conclusion is that America’s current economic condition is not cyclical but one demanding another correction, what Strong Towns calls a spatial shift, changing the pattern of development from mass suburbanization to one with a higher public return on investment. I term it a paradigm shift for our communities but see it as the same thing.

The Curbside Chat Book-LO.pdf points to the continuing fragility and volatility of our financial systems through Black Swan events.

There are two factors that I would add, one of which is implied but not made explicit and that is that we can never get back to the level of hyper-consumerism through debt that we had before the Great Recession The other is the concept of Disruptive Innovation as put forward by Clayton Christensen. I am of the view that this will become a greater part of the reality for municipal governments feeding into the creation of Black Swan events.

Future Considerations: Job Creation and Growth

Looking at job creation as an economic development measure is according to the Curbside Chat Book-LO.pdf a red herring. Communities often pursue job creation strategies based on attracting a single, new business that will provide a high number of jobs or often in California’s case a stream of revenue, usually sales tax.

The problem according to the Strong Towns approach is that we confuse building infrastructure that is productive with building infrastructure to create jobs. The truth is that we must do both.
Jobs and growth are the results of a productive system, not the proxy for one.
Solutions No, Strategies Yes

There are no real solutions to these problems according to the Strong Town philosophy, just rational responses.
Our local regulatory, planning, financing and engineering systems are designed to work in the Old Economy. If we are to see growth at the local level in a New Economy, all of these systems need to be rescaled to fit the changed reality.
Definitely in agreement with this and believe that we are lagging further and further behind the private sector in terms of technology and application as resources. This does not mean the public sector should be a clone of the private sector, it does though have lessons to learn.
Local leaders need to position their communities for change if they want to be prosperous in the coming decades.
As mentioned above, I am not optimistic about depending upon local government leaders to get us out of this mess. It will be great if they can contribute to the effort but I suspect that even those fully capable of doing it on their own, and many are not, will not be willing to do so taking instead short term political gain through short term financing over any long term community benefit. Those leaders in municipal governments that are capable of doing this and are also willing are likely already doing it. Also have little hope in this changing to the level it needs to by having elections every four years.

When the public is taking on long-term obligations, local officials need to demand that a pattern of development that pays for itself. The indirect public subsidy of unproductive growth needs to end.
The level of investment including long term maintenance of infrastructure and the potential future replacement of that infrastructure must equal the level of return. I am still working out whether this necessarily has to be direct though. While the overall economic pie for a community does have limitations it does not preclude using gain from one part of the economy to cover shortfalls in another for overall community benefit, the devil is in the details. This will be considered further in future posts.

There are concrete steps that communities should take to implement these strategies.

Communities should develop a real Capital Improvement Plan transparently showing the real infrastructure and maintenance needs of the community, not merely a wish list.

Communities should adopt strategies that increase the public return on investment. The return on investment or ROI for the public realm is a function of public cost and tax revenue. To achieve maximization of ROI on a specific block for maintaining infrastructure, the public costs need to be decreased and value of public sector investment (which is what generates tax revenue) needs to be increased. Economic development efforts have to actually add to the community wealth.

There are two means available to local municipal governments to achieve this. One is to implement a Form based code that emphasizes the form and pattern of development in contrast to the more prevalent standard zoning code which emphasizes the separation of uses. The other is to adopt New Road and Street Standards that cease focusing on the automobile and start creating value by enhancing neighborhoods. This means we need to stop worrying about how fast we get somewhere.

This in turn allows for High Amenity Investment that can create a proportional increase in private sector value and an avoidance of investment in low amenity areas that will not.

High Amenity Investment encourages communities to prioritize walking and biking where it makes sense, an approach this blog has already support by way of Bicycles Build Communities.

It also encourages focusing on Placemaking, by coordinating investments in parks and public buildings within a resilient, I would say sustainable, economic development strategy focused on the creation of value for communities and the reason to create community paradigms.

To help achieve this Strong Towns and the new communities paradigm effort both support the concept of Economic Gardening (the concept of economic development that originated in Littleton, Colorado) that asserts that trying to capture growth from without is not as viable as building on growth from within.

Finally, both Strong Towns and the new communities paradigms approach agree that this effort will require the engagement of community neighbors both online and on the ground. For the new communities paradigm approach this means Using Online Communities to encourage Direct Democracy for On-The-Ground Communities.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Breaking through the complications to face the complexities and coming out whole.

So far we have begun to delve into three broad areas, those being the basic physical livability of communities [Livable Communities wiki page], the community-based governance of those communities [Governance wiki page] and creating economic viability from communities [Economics wiki page]. We will be going more in depth into each and exploring how each supports the other two. We will also be developing additional resources at the New Community Paradigms wiki.

It is still important though to be reminded that this experiment in creating a whole new paradigm for the governance of communities will not be easy. It is an experiment because it has never been tried on a large scale. It needs to be recognized that this effort is starting from a very small beginning and is attempting to leverage rather extensive resources. Providing resources is one stage of this process, showing how they can work together is another, but we still need a process by which to implement these in the real world when the reality is that there will be many challenges in doing so. 

One significant potential challenge is dealing with the complications of City Hall politics while at the same time dealing with the complexities of the issues with which need to be faced. This is not to say that all City Halls will be obstructionist or do not fully represent the policy desires of their constituents but the current system of spectator participation in municipal elections every for years instead of real, authentic community participation in establishing policies is falling short of our society's true needs. This is particularly true at the local level.

While there is an intention as part of this effort to find the means of flanking the complications of dealing with a City Hall laying behind a stonewall, there is still a need to face the complexities inherent within any system of governance and the challenges it must face. 

There is an organic complexity found within the communities with which we are dealing.  Jane Jacobs, author of the seminal work, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, is given credit for having recognized this organized complexity.

This issue has been touched on before with the post Why is this so hard? It's complicated and it's complex but that's OK but actually trying to put this all together even if just on "paper" is certain to bring up even greater complexities.

The goal of new community paradigms is to find ways of recognizing these complexities and finding the means of communicating and addressing them in a manner so that the public at large is not put off or overwhelmed and can deal with them in a meaningful way. This defines a new role for professionals in the field of being communicators and facilitators to a far greater extent.

Della Rucker of Wise Economy Workshop recently did a post on Jane Jacobs’ organized complexity, and why we keep failing to deal with it well from an economic development perspective on what had been a more planning oriented perspective taken in an article by Michael Mehaffy that ran in Planetizen.

Both defend Jacobs against recent critics but also make apparent one of the possible pitfalls to applying complex concepts in addressing complex challenges.  There are not only multiple possible solutions to any problem, some workable in reality, some not, there are also multiple perspectives of those solutions making implementation all the more complicated.
One of the greatest problems in understanding the influence of Jacobs on cities and planning is that she became a victim of her own success. Her complex ideas have been simplified to the point of slogans and urban legends, and she has too often been venerated uncritically.
That attitude is changing and Mehaffy gives Jacobs critics, such as planner Thomas Campanella, economist Ed Glaeser, sociologist Sharon Zukin and Mechaffy's own friend Anthony Flint who suggested that Jacobs was a libertarian with a mixed legacy of NIMBYism a platform for their views.

He then goes on to defend Jacobs.
What I find remarkable about these accounts – speaking as an instructor who regularly uses her texts - is that in almost all cases these were things that Jacobs herself simply never said. She was clearly not against planning, but against failed planning; not against government, but against government badly organized; and not against new buildings, but against rushing monocultures of the new. She was for a deeper tactical understanding of how the "inherent regenerative force" of "self-diversification," as she termed it, can be put to work to provide more diversity of income and opportunity, as clearly has happened in cities throughout history.
Della Rucker of Wise Economy Workshop also appreciates Jacobs insights into organized complexity.
It’s an understanding of “organized complexity,” as she called it – the dynamic inter-relationships of systems, of processes, of self-organization. This was not a mysterious world, but a comprehensible one – it was just a different kind of world than we had been envisioning. A city, certainly, was a different kind of problem than we had thought. And therein she identified a huge obstacle to learning and progress, and one that is largely still with us.
This does not mean that there will be a smooth path in bringing all of this together and delivering on the promise of new community paradigms. This effort requires not only a very substantial change in the way in which economic development is done to benefit the community but also a very substantial way in how the community relates to community governance and local economic development.  This second factor may be the most idealistic part of this endeavor as its objective is to change the way people think about their role in the community but it is still worth the attempt if only to better understand the process.

The point is not to get everyone in any particular community thinking about community governance or economic development 24/7.  It is to open up the perspective of the traditional institution of City Hall and get more members of a community involved in actively creating the type of community they want through direct democratic means. This involves emphasizing the importance of understanding economic development in relation to the long term sustainability of the community.

There is also not an assumption that everyone in every community will be interested. The good people of Parochialville may be quite happy with the way things are in their community and the good people of Innovatitown would likely already have such a system in place.

It is further recognized that even if there is a strong movement to start a new community paradigm process within a community it is, besides being potentially complicated because of political reasons, also a very complex process.

This needs to be broken down and made accessible to a "general" public audience. The quotes around "general" is to make the point that there is no such thing as a community made up of general type people and that there are hidden resources within the public audience that are often left undiscovered under the traditional system of institutional government.

The best way of dealing with complexity is head on in a authentic and transparent way. One advantage in being a web-based effort is that resources are available from around the world.  Gluu is a digital agency out of Denmark with a focus on engaging members of a business, group and arguably a community in delivering ongoing organizational improvement.  They recently wrote an article on organizational complexity and what happens when Complexity brings paralysis.
We don't see it coming. What starts as a simple idea quickly becomes far more complex than anyone imagined. Before we know it all the good ideas lead to a form of paralysis.
The article points out what happens all too often within City Hall these days.  As Gluu points out, the different department functions become siloed and getting anything done becomes more and more complicated, not complex which has the potential for inherent solutions within the complexity, but complicated as the hinderances that are part of the system are often created by the system for its own survival and not the benefit of those it was designed to serve.
If you look at each of the new ways of working and tools in isolation then most of them make sense. They are introduced by smart people with good intentions. The trouble is that when companies employ thousands of smart, highly paid people and then place them into the pigeonholes of a corporate hierarchy, then people do what they get paid for. From each of their pigeonholes they develop intricate systems, structures and processes that they broadcast to their colleagues.

Past Posts