Tuesday, January 12, 2010

How to Reliably Create Rapid, Resilient Renewal When Your Community is Broke, Depressed, and/or at Each Others’ Throats

Is there a way for a community suffering from economic, social, and/or environmental decline to reverse its trajectory…to revitalize in the face of political discord, disappearing jobs, and/or deteriorating quality of life?

Is there a way to fund the renewal of your natural, built, and socioeconomic environments when the community coffers are empty?

Even if adequate funding was available, is there a proven way to organize and sustain a comprehensive revitalization program for a decade or more in the face of changing local administrations and unreliable state/federal funding?

Surprisingly, the answer to all of these questions is "yes."

Let’s back up for a moment to make sure we fully grasp the challenge at hand, because the demand for renewal you’re seeing in your community is the local manifestation of a historic global trend. For some 5000 years, humankind’s primary mode of wealth creation has been based on development of raw land, depletion of natural resources, and despoilment of our air, water, and soil (such as through pollution and invasive species). This mode is called "dewealth."

Over the past two decades, a global shift has been underway, in which cities and regions increasingly rely instead on "rewealth"— wealth creation based primarily on renewing existing assets: infrastructure renewal/replacement; brownfields remediation; historic structure renovation; the renewal of schools, health services, commerce, security, and other public services; plus the restoration of ecosystems, fisheries, watersheds, and agricultural lands.

We’re shifting from development to redevelopment as our dominant mode of wealth creation, in other words. Dewealth (sprawl and the extraction of nonrenewable resources) won’t go away entirely, but it is certainly on the way out as the default. On a badly-damaged finite planet with a growing population, no other scenario is practical.

This "de/re shift" accounts for some $2 trillion of rewealth activity annually. But it remains surprisingly invisible to our accounting/reporting systems, it’s barely present in our university research/curricula, and it is only now (thanks to the U.S.-led global financial debacle) becoming a part of national policy.

There’s a third wealth-creation mode sitting between dewealth and rewealth on the lifecycle continuum: "prewealth." It’s based on preservation (via maintenance and conservation) of our pre-existing assets. Maintenance and conservation are obviously essential, but are usually underfunded.

But increasing our investment in prewealth can’t—of itself—lead us to a better world, only one that’s "less worse." Why? Because so much of our world is already damaged. Only by renewing and reusing our existing assets can tomorrow be healthier, wealthier, and more beautiful, especially in the face of new damage being done by the dewealth activities serving a global population that’s expanding by a billion people every 15 years.

There are two more fundamental challenges, in addition to our over-dependence on dewealth: 1) insufficient integration in the way we manage our natural, built, and socioeconomic environments, and 2) insufficient engagement of the stakeholders affected by our dewealth, prewealth, and rewealth activities. For the past century, the design and conservation/maintenance of our built, natural, and socioeconomic assets have taken place largely in silos.

This artificial separation of intrinsically-linked systems has created many of today’s environmental, social, and economic problems. What’s more, a paucity of effective stakeholder engagement in community planning exacerbates community dysfunction and decline. At best, insufficient integration and engagement in a revitalization program is wasteful: it destroys potential efficiencies and synergies. At worst, those weaknesses lead to disappointing results, and often kill projects and programs outright.

Unfortunately, many of the revitalization projects proposed to (or by) communities are likewise locked in silos, and/or suffer from inadequate stakeholder engagement. Such projects might have salutary effects, but will likely perpetuate core problems while giving birth to new problems.

Smart growth has emerged as a way of collecting best practices that take a more integrated approach to creating and renewing community assets. But too often, the firms and professionals we pay to create smart growth solutions remain in their silos and offer only token engagement of stakeholders.

Architects, engineers, planners, and economic development professionals are largely aware of the damage done—and money wasted—by non-integrated, poorly-engaged approaches, and have long called for more systemic community management. But they are unlikely to ever stop marking and protecting their territory; it’s basic hardwired animal behavior.

The good news is that there’s a nascent move underway within the project/program management profession to create tools and approaches that effectively integrate the renewal of our natural, built, and socioeconomic environments while effectively engaging all disciplines and stakeholders. But it’s too early to report on that.

Until then, community leaders are stuck with the seemingly insurmountable challenge of managing the full lifecycle of their natural, built, and socioeconomic assets: creation, maintenance/conservation, and renewal/reuse. To renew all three categories of assets/environments would add a major funding challenge to the already impossible-sounding job of "merely" managing them.

This brings us back to the opening paragraph: is there already a way to fund and manage the regeneration of a community or region in a way that integrates all three environments and engages all the stakeholders? The 6-year research project I recently completed indicates that the answer is a qualified "yes."

Moore good news: the three key rules to drive renewal decisions and policies have been documented; the three key processes for creating renewal solutions have been documented; and the ideal model for funding and organizing renewal activities has been documented. I said "qualified" because these core components of successful revitalization haven’t yet been incorporated into the software we use to plan and manage our communities.

Until such tools emerge, achieving rapid, resilient renewal will remain more difficult than it should be. But it’s still eminently doable, as proven by the communities that pioneered these rules, processes, and model without benefit of appropriate software.

ICMA members can’t wait for the software: many need to stimulate economic growth and enhanced quality of life now. But a fully integrated, engaged renewal program is far too complex and expensive to be accomplished, right? That fear of complexity—and lack of confidence in funding—has been hindering recovery efforts for too long.

More god news: there are successful models that should inspire immediate action, no matter what your current situation. There are communities that have:

* Shifted to basing their economic growth primarily on renewing what they already have (rewealth), rather than "greening" the old dewealth model (which is like trying to invent a healthier form of cancer, rather than curing it)
* Renewed their natural, built, and socioeconomic assets in an integrated manner
* Effectively engaged all (or most) of their stakeholders in that renewal
* Sustained this activity long enough to become nationally or even globally respected as a poster child of revitalization
* Accomplished all of this despite starting from a position of being broke, crime-ridden, heavily-polluted, and politically divided.

This article has no room for the stories or the details of their practices, so here’s a summary of the most important lessons to emerge from this research:

* Communities that achieve rapid, resilient renewal are those that focus primarily on restoring their natural, built, and socioeconomic assets in an integrated manner, while effectively engaging all stakeholders. In other words, their decisions are driven by three "renewal rules": rewealth, integration, and engagement.
* These communities applied three "renewal processes": visioning, culturing, and partnering. ["Culturing" imbeds the renewal rules in policies and regulations to create a "renewal culture" that attracts and nurtures reinvestment.] These three processes create solutions such as policies, plans, and projects.
* These communities created a "renewal engine": a permanent, nonprofit, public-private organization to house and perpetuate those three renewal processes.

Applying any of those rules and processes individually will usually improve a situation: only by applying them all simultaneously does the magic happen. And only by protecting them within the right organizational model will that magic continue. I refer to this entire solution—rules, processes, and model—as "the resolution."

Storm Cunningham is CEO of the Resolution Fund, LLC. His book, reWealth! was published in 2008 and can be found here. He can be reached by email at storm@resolutionfund.com.

Storm Cunningham - Smart Growth Online