Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Why are so many city initiatives poorly thought out?

The entry below is originally from May 2007. I came across it when I was looking for cites about another topic. Something I've been meaning to write about is this broad issue, and why transformation is so difficult.

 It comes down to what we might call the change narrative and how people's capacity to deal with multiple conflicting threads (also see the work by University of Toronto professor and dean Roger Martin on both "integrative thinking" and "design thinking") is extremely limited, so they focus (or fixate) on one aspect or one proposal, rather than deal with problem-issue-solution in a more comprehensive and integrated fashion.

The Financial Times has a nice review, "Decide and make your move," of three books on this point. From the article:

Good management is about nothing if not good decision making. Unfortunately, decisiveness has been seen as a character trait like courage: there are those who can pull the trigger – the great executives – and those who can’t – the armies of wafflers who are terrified of being forced to accept the consequences of their actions. A new wave of social scientists, however, is upending this view by digging into the psychological and social factors that influence our decisions. By developing better processes, they hope to make decision making less like voodoo and more like carpentry. ...

The Heaths identify four villains that obstruct good decision making: narrow framing, limiting the options we consider; the confirmation bias, our tendency to look for evidence which supports what we already think; short-term emotion, which will fade over time; and overconfidence.

They lay out a four-step process called “WRAP” that addresses each of the villains in turn. We must “widen our options” away from simple either/or decisions. We should “reality test our assumptions”, to ensure we are basing our decisions on fact rather than prejudice. We should “attain distance before deciding”, or sleep on big decisions rather than letting ourselves be carried away by the emotion of the moment. And we should “prepare to be wrong”, because there is a good chance we will be.

The Heaths make a convincing case that bad decision making is ubiquitous. ...

A lot of what passes for "reform" or "change" in government is what is called incrementalism (see the work of Charles Lindblom) and while I understand and appreciate the approach, it takes forever to get significant improvement.

 As importantly, I think of the social, organizational, and community "capital" we have available to us in the "issuespace" as somewhat limited. People don't have the energy and perseverance to break up an issue into many pieces, and lay out a campaign of "sustained effort" to achieve it. They have the energy to do one or two things, and then they move on to something else.

In short, it's why it takes forever to improve things and why most efforts fail.  (There is at least one other reason though, "one size fits all" policies and programs when a more segmented approach is usually a better course.)

Do the men who own the city make more sense than we do?*
(* from "Is it Love" by Gang of Four.)

From an e-list conversation about an ANC in Ward 1 pushing forward an idea that I and others in Columbia Heights had discussed a few years ago, about creating neighborhood improvement districts--like business improvement districts, but including residential sections as well.

The response was that there are plenty of good ideas.

I don't think so. I think there are plenty of bad ideas. But too often those are the ideas that shape the agenda. Below is what I wrote.

Well, I do think having good ideas is a challenge. (In many ways. I have more ideas in a week than I can possibly ever accomplish, and I am on a continual search for "majors, captains, and lieutenants" to help implement and execute some of the ideas.).

Much of the discourse on how and what to do within the city doesn't really strive for very much. The whole schools takeover is an example. So is the management and "expansion" of the library system. And these are but two (but very big and important) examples. In fact, I often call it mediocre in private conversation, and pathetic when I get more vehement... People so crave being affirmed or recognized that they accept poorly defined ideas and programs just because they are recognized (i.e., the arts and culture community).

(I think while a good idea in theory, ANCs conceptually are part of the problem because it ends up what I call "governmentalizing" civic engagement and participation at the most grassroots levels of community. All problems and solutions become defined within a paradigm of what the government can and should do. In psychology, there is a theory called "learned helplessness, " which I think is relevant. Anyway, the ability to do "self-help" gets lost and other civic organizations starve for leadership, which is consumed by the ANC structure.

But the solution there is to build a training structure to help build a deliberative civic engagement culture. This is something that I'd like to write a dissertation on, maybe--in how to reconceptualize the profession of planning around enabling civic engagement, since land use issues are those most likely to engage the average citizen in local civic affairs.)

I have been thinking about this quite a bit over the course of the last year, and I think I have insight into it now, but it's more for a journal article....

except that you kind of touch on what the problem is, in part it is overly constrained thinking on the part of local elites (see the "Growth Machine" thesis), especially within government, which is focused on bureaucratization rather than transformation, and the failure to have a decently developed social and civic culture where the citizens set the agenda or at the very least get involved in setting it. Instead, we look to people in government for the agenda, and they tend to think of citizens not as citizens but as customers or consumers, and that is a much different role. Sure, at some level it means that the government is supposed to be responsive, but what about and how much?

What you mention as "not developing a safe and diverse community growing from a stable base" I think has to do with not some overt plan to displace, but with a failure to recognize that diversity of people--incomes, race, ethnicity, perspectives- -is important and desired. People like Herb Miller and the politicos etc. who travel in those circles breathe much more rarified air and thinking and develop a much different sense of priorities than those who get down and dirty and gritty in dealing with matters block by block in the real city.

But I could be wrong, it could be more purposive, overt, and direct.

Like "Gang of Four" say in "Is it Love" ...

the men who own the city
make more sense than we do
their actions are clear
their lives are unknown
For resources on Community Benefit(s) Districts, see:

-- Susan E. Baer and Vincent L. Marando, "The Subdistricting of Cities: Applying the Polycentric Model," Urban Affairs Review, vol. 36, no. 5 (2001), pp. 721-733. (abstract)
-- Letters to the Editor in the Baltimore City Paper
-- Resolution against the Charles Village CBD, Peabody Heights Residents Association
-- San Francisco, What is a CBD?
-- BEAUTIFICATION - Five more areas vote to form Community Benefits Districts - Neighborhoods will tax themselves to improve themselves, San Francisco Chronicle, August 2005
-- CITYWIDE - Hopes hang on benefits districts - Many believe very local tax will help their neighborhood, San Francisco Chronicle, June 2005

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At 9:36 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

Again, I've lost the link, but there was a recent article on growth vs. longentity in terms of business.

(Slow growth = long lives)

At 10:28 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

hmm. i remember in the 1990s, the chief strategic planner for Royal Dutch Shell wrote about this, authored a book, etc. And yes, saw that article too I think, mentioned a construction company in Japan that is centuries old, etc.

At 7:29 PM, Anonymous charlie said...


So, the point I am making is some parts of the growth machine are more aligned towards long term interests, others more short term. A city needs to invest for 100 years, which is very un-American I know but the reality.

in all honestly it is probably better to have a growth machine closely tied to real estate values rather than a more mobile on (Cleveland, detroit) where you can take the factory anywhere.

I'd say DC is a middle case, as I said with the conference attendees a few weeks back it remarable how "un-elite" they are for DC. The ultimate industry here is the National Capital.

Sorry, I am on back pills today so not terribly coherent.

At 6:31 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

the whole point of the local growth machine is that they are tied by capital to place.

so when the real estate market becomes one of national and international actors and at the very least,national and international financing and organization, it becomes fungible capital rather than place-connecting.

When the Growth Machine paper was written (and then the book), real estate development wasn't so much a national phenomenon. Remember, companies like Olympia and York and Hines Interests and your Forest City, active in multiple markets, was very rare back then.

So when Charles Smith Co. becomes part of a REIT, the strength of the local connections weakens.

Even so, big firms still tend to have a specific areal focus (e.g. the hullaballoo about creating the REIT that will also own the Empire State Building lease; the most active firms in the DC market are mostly local, but with national-international financing), although then there are companies like Brookfield or Skanska...


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