Thursday, January 18th, 2018

“Ask The People Who Live There”


Rogers Frantz had spent the morning putting the finishing touches on the afternoon’s main event. His colleague Richard Florida, author of “The Rise of the Creative Class, “was to have a lunchtime discussion with the legendary urbanist, writer and activist Jane Jacobs, author of many books including the seminal “The Death and Life of Great American Cities.” Frantz had come up with an ingenious title for the event: “Lunch with Dick and Jane.” Prior to taking the stage, Frantz joined the authors and other invited guests for a private luncheon.  As they sat down Frantz, recalls Florida turning to Jacobs and asking “So Jane, what is the secret to creating great cities?” “Richard,” she answered, “You know the answer. You have to ask the people who live there.”

“Ask the people who live there.” So much of what planners and regulators do and have done over the past several decades has missed this very simple point. Oh sure, there are countless charettes and public hearings on the latest proposed zoning changes or development schemes. There are websites and surveys for offering input. But are the people who live there really being heard? More importantly, are the questions being asked, not to mention the solutions being offered, based upon a whole systems understanding? We would suggest that they are not, at least not to the level needed to flow with the rapidly changing conditions we face today.

We have written repeatedly about the convergence of massive global change that is upon us. These conditions bring with them major environmental and health impacts.  They also provide new opportunities that we haven’t even thought about yet (i.e. alternative energy sources/technology, new economies).  But in order to deal with these and many other immediate and emergent conditions, communities must possess an understanding of those conditions, capabilities and the networks at play, not only at their scale of operation but at multiple scales above and below them.  This level of understanding can only come from a process that meaningfully engages key stakeholders in a whole systems dialogue that embraces the complexity and diversity of the community.  It is through this engagement that stakeholders become not just participants but champions and custodians of the projects and initiatives identified during the process.

Just like a ‘good’ engineer must fully understand the conditions within which she is designing, planners must likewise understand the conditions, resources and capabilities of the place for which they are planning, at multiple scales.  Planners are the designers/engineers of places.  Like the good site engineer goes through a thorough analysis of the conditions of a given site, the planner must do an even more in-depth analysis before ever even considering development of a plan.  Unfortunately, most planning today is either very reactionary (to the crisis du jour) or based upon past events and compartmentalized data.  The thinking that is used to solve the major problems of the day is the very same thinking that created most of these problems.

Resilience means the ability to proactively withstand or recover readily from shocks, and to flow with changing conditions. We use the term because we believe it best describes what we are aspiring to create: places and organizations that are resilient. Most planners today are trying to achieve resilience, but they lack the processes required to fully understand (or at least more fully understand) the conditions and capabilities at multiple scales that affect the complex adaptive systems they call their communities.  Traditional visioning exercises and community charrettes are tools that, at least as currently utilized, fall short of reaching the level of understanding required to plan for resilience. What is required is a higher level of understanding, a systems level of understanding.

As already stated, this is a critical point in our history.  Communities and organizations that best understand the complexities inherent in the conditions that are unfolding before them will be the ones most likely to survive and thrive in the years ahead.  Those that do not understand those complexities will not react fast enough or intelligently enough to avoid massive disruptions. The movement towards the whole-systems approach is not realized overnight, and may in fact never be fully realized by any given community. But it is the forward progression towards this level of understanding that will create towns and cities that are able to flow and adapt to change.  In the profiles below we introduce you to a number of towns and cities doing just that. None are perfect in their zooming but each is making major strides towards a whole systems level understanding, and that is enabling them to adapt to change and grow.

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