The contributors at Street Sense -- Kevin Lavelle, James Michael, Joseph Nickol and Atul Sharma -- have just released Investment Ready Places: A guide to community building in the New American Frontier. The booklet is a CNU NextGen initiative so I've had a little glimpse under the hood as this was being put together. Still, like many of the things NextGen members are working on, I really didn't fully understand where they were headed with this until it was released last week. It is really powerful stuff.
Start with the very first sentence of the preamble:
The small towns and cities of America are once again becoming the new frontier for development.
For those of us working in these areas, this statement is obviously true, yet it runs counter to the narrative we constantly hear about small and mid-sized towns. Small towns are dying where they are not already dead. Everyone is moving to cities. The rural brain drain. It goes on and on.
And certainly, almost all small towns are bankrupt, if not literally insolvent than functionally. The Ponzi Scheme of Suburban Growth has been particularly viscous to small and mid-sized towns, where a flattening of the development pattern has decimated their most productive areas in the core while adding disproportionately enormous liabilities on the edge. It all shows. Many of these places look like their days are numbered.
That has not stopped this group from seeing the enormous potential many small and mid-sized towns hold. As asserted in the report, Investment Ready Places (IRP) are well positioned to respond to the unique set of challenges we face. These include:
- Demand for mixed-use environments that have transportation options,
- The need for settlement patterns that accommodate a range of income levels and price points, and
- A size and scale that is amenable to retooling.
That third component is key. An Investment Ready Place does not have the same connotation as a "shovel ready" project, either in terms of the immediacy or their ultimate potential (there was a reason those projects were not getting built during normal appropriation cycles). An IRP is a place that is ready for some love. And most importantly, it is ready to love back.
Mid-tier towns and cities are our most dynamic urban settlements and have the largest untapped potential for fostering economic growth. They vary in size from a town of a few thousand people to small cities with a couple hundred thousands residents. They are small enough to be affected by incremental change and large enough to afford opportunities to create substantial impact. They provide us the stimulus of direct action followed by relatively quick, tangible change.
Change is an important part of the IRP equation. We're not talking about places that are ready for that new highway investment, the strip mall or housing subdivision. The report lists six characteristics of Investment Ready Places that need to be in place, or in development, to attract productive investments.
- Nourishment for residents,
- Stable supply of water,
- Manageable infrastructure,
- Connected places,
- Creative knowledge, and
- Heritage and living culture.
The report explains each characteristic and gives detailed strategies for achieving them. They take a number of plays out of the Strong Towns playbook, including Manageable Infrastructure strategies that direct a city to "build infrastructure proportionate to the ability to finance and maintain it" and "fully capitalize on current infrastructure for development prior to building expanded systems..." This is common sense yet so unorthodox within the current approach.
The best part of the booklet is a checklist at the end that goes through each characteristic and gives community leaders -- and potential investors -- metrics on which to measure the level of community readiness. Pulling no punches, the lowest rating is "look elsewhere". Apolitic as that may be, investment looking elsewhere is exactly what is happening to places that cling to the Old Economy model.
At its core, Investment Ready Places is a call to tap the enormous potential and high-returns that still remain from the traditional development pattern. This is truly a Strong Towns approach.
Charles Marohn is a Professional Engineer licensed in the State of Minnesota and a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners. He is author of Thoughts on Building Strong Towns (Volume 1), and is president of Strong Towns, a non-partisan, non-profit organization that advocates for changes in development patterns and a complete understanding of the full costs of methods of growth.
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