Resilience: A Strategic Process


Does your community or region have a Strategy and Process for Rapid,
Resilient, Inclusive Economic Growth…or just a Vision, Design and/or Plan?

After 20 years as an author on regenerative economics—and as a speaker, trainer and advisor worldwide
on revitalization and resilience—I offer this Strategy Guide to help you improve health and wealth for all.

by Storm Cunningham, Publisher, Revitalization News                                                                                                 Last updated: January 19, 2017


Why didn’t your downtown beautification, historic restoration or mixed-use redevelopment dramatically revive your community?
Probably because you lacked an actual strategy and process for revitalization.

This primer on creating resilient prosperity in a community or region is for:

Mayors, governors, Chambers of Commerce, community foundations, Main Street programs, BIDs, CDCs,
CDFIs, environmental groups, regional alliances, redevelopment agencies, and brownfield developers.
Or, anyone needing to build capacity for sustainable economic growth by deepening or broadening
stakeholder engagement, and by boosting interdisciplinary or multi-jurisdictional cooperation.

Storm’s Resilience Strategy Guide is very concentrated, highly sophisticated, and stunningly accurate.
Merrit Drucker, Clean & Green Coordinator at Anacostia Waterfront Trust, Washington, DC

Storm’s Resilience Strategy Guide transformed our latest project, which uses his 3Re strategy.
Dumas F. Lafontant, Director, Lower Roxbury Coalition, Boston, Massachusetts



Often, when I congratulate people who are working on affordable housing, transit, walkability, green infrastructure, historic preservation, infrastructure renewal, regenerative agriculture, ecological restoration, climate resilience, etc. for their revitalization efforts, they say “What do you mean? This isn’t a revitalization project.”

That’s a signal that their work is taking place in a strategic vacuum. That, in turn, means the local economy is likely getting a low ROI (return on investment) on their community improvement expenditures.

Visionaries, designers, planners, policymakers, and project managers abound.  Strategists are rare.

As a result, resilience and revitalization efforts often fail due to 1) bad strategy, and 2) no strategy.

So, this Resilience Strategy Guide is as much about strategy as it is about resilience. Most people assume that expertise in their subject automatically conveys the ability to create a relevant strategy. That assumption might be the world’s single greatest source of failure. A thorough grasp of the subject is, of course, essential. But just as essential to success in any field is an understanding of strategy. Implementation skills are key too, but that’s another story.

How does one revitalize a place, or make it more resilient?

  • Planners say it’s all about planning.
  • Engineers say it’s all about efficient infrastructure.
  • Environmentalists say it’s all about health and greenspace.
  • Developers say it’s all about housing, office space, and retail.
  • Law enforcement says it’s all about public safety.
  • Economic developers say it’s all about jobs.
  • Architects say it’s all about design, or their brand of it (“placemaking”, “new urbanism”, etc.)
  • Politicians say it’s all about leadership.
  • Consultants say it’s all about _____ (fill in the fad of the year).

All of them are wrong…if they’re operating in a strategic vacuum. Those are all tactics. Tactics without strategies are activities with limited outcomes. Unlimited success—such as resilient economic growth—derives from strategy (or luck). A good strategy creates capacity that’s far greater than the sum of its parts (tactics).

We all dream of reducing complex problems to a simple, single factor, like Jack Palance telling Billy Crystal in City Slickers that “the secret to life is just one thing.”

But trying to reduce community revitalization to just one—or even a few—of the factors listed above is like reducing personal happiness to just health, just money, or just knowledge. The key to success when dealing with such complexity isn’t one factor: it’s a strategy that addresses all key factors.

Strategies are a technology. Technology is the manufacture, use, and/or understanding of tools, machines, techniques, or systems designed to solve problems or perform functions. In the case of strategies, that function is to produce success. That’s it: all strategies have that single purpose.

Technologies aren’t just hardware, or even software: they are also wetware (us). Our bodies are technologies, as are our thought constructs (techniques) that help us achieve an end.

Strategies (and tactics) are thus very simple technologies. A strategy is a technique that increases the likelihood of success for an action, project, or program.

Like DNA (which guides a body’s decisions), a strategy must be concise: usually just a sentence or three. Any longer, and it can’t be remembered. That renders it useless, since it can’t then guide moment-to-moment decision-making. The above-mentioned strategic vacuum in leadership means that–even in the rare cases where a strategy is present–it’s usually too wordy to be useful.

But the situation gets worse. Most places enjoy a surfeit of public and private leaders with expertise in creating buildings, infrastructure, and critical services. But they suffer ignorance of the principles, frameworks, and theory related to revitalization: the process of boosting strength and vibrance.

All places need regeneration of some sort, whether after a long decline, a brief catastrophe, an excessive period of comfortable stagnation, or simply a need to build environmental and/or economic resilience.

Whatever the cause, the necessary regenerative expertise is similar…and similarly lacking.

A major reason places devitalize is because they think revitalization is something one only does when in crisis…a reaction to decline. Instead, they should acknowledge that ALL places–no matter how healthy, wealthy, and beautiful–could be stronger and more vibrant.

Since 2002, I’ve been helping public and private leaders worldwide better understand:
1) the community / regional economic revitalization process, and
2) how to strategically position their career, or their organization, within that process.

In this work, I’ve consistently found that the two most common causes of failure are 1) lack of strategy, and 2) lack of process. Too many places fall into a superficial, consumer approach to revitalization. They buy some streetscaping, or some downtown banners, or a new employer (purchased with tax breaks).

All of these tactics can contribute to revitalization, but they shouldn’t confused with an actual revitalization strategy and program. Many places start the revitalization process, such as with a public visioning session, but don’t take the next step because they don’t understand the overall process.

Most places have some elements of a renewal process. But with missing steps, their efforts tend to be unproductive or less-productive. The two most common gaps in the regeneration process are strategy and ongoing program.

So, let’s start by clarifying their roles in the overall process:

  • Visions guide actions to researched, desired outcomes;
  • Strategies drive actions to success;
  • Partners fund or support actions;
  • Policies enable strategic actions;
  • Plans organize actions;
  • Projects are actions;
  • Programs perpetuate, evaluate, and adjust actions. Ongoing programs create synergies, capture momentum (to grease the wheels for more projects), and inspire confidence in the local future.

Of those six action elements, the plan—which often takes longest to produce and approve—will likely be obsolete the soonest.  Complex systems (e.g. cities, ecosystems) resist rigid, imposed order. Note: Designing isn’t listed separately in this process, because it’s integral to several of the elements, such as visioning, planning, and projects.

“Successful revitalization efforts are driven by leaders and residents
who are tirelessly strategic about identifying their competitive advantages.”

Patrice Frey, President and CEO, National Main Street Center

Ironically, many places only have a plan. The common result is a plan without funding to implement it. Unfunded plans are so common that many folks consider them normal. In reality, they are often just for show, and shouldn’t be allowed. The strategy (supported by partners and policies) should yield funding, since its job is to create success. Strategize first. Then plan.

St Pete from Lake MagiorreThe fact that the strategy and the program are usually missing explains why most urban or regional revitalization—and multi-jurisdictional environmental restoration (such as watershed, river, or estuary)—initiatives are outright failures, or only marginally successful at best.

Some places work towards resilience or revitalization with a strategy and funding, but have no delivery process. When planners talk about design, it’s usually about stuff: buildings, infrastructure, public spaces, etc. Good design is, of course, essential. But too many places rush into hiring designers before they have a strategy, or a process to deliver it. The frequent result? A design that shuts out strategic options.

In those rare places that have a semblance of process, the element most commonly missing from that process is strategy. This is ironic, since strategy is the only element whose sole function is to help ensure success.

The problem derives from focusing on successful completion of steps, rather than the overall goal. Mayors celebrate the completion of a new comprehensive plan, or a project design, as if that were an end unto itself. Without a strategy for success, this is just busywork.

We shouldn’t ignore the power of design, though, since certain design-related needs appear to be in our genes. For instance, architects discuss a concept known as “prospect-refuge theory.” It attempts to explain why some buildings and urban layouts make us feel secure and enriched, while others don’t.

First proposed in 1975, the premise is that we have a hard-wired need to observe (prospect) without being seen (refuge). Our “observation” component apparently prefers complex places that offer the ability to explore and discover opportunities. So, good design must be embedded into the process.

Revitalization is a living process; a flow of ideas, images, relationships, and energy. “Stuff” is essential, but designing urban or regional resilience without designing a regenerative process is like basing personal wellness on buying exercise equipment, without ongoing exercise.

Likewise, strategies live in the mind; they die on paper. Many folks confuse strategies with actions. Actions are tactics: strategies determine tactics. Others confuse strategies with goals. They might say “our strategy is to make this a greener or more equitable community“. That’s a goal.

A strategy is a technique that simplifies, speeds, and/or helps secure the achievement of a goal.
A strategy can be devised for ANY situation. If it fails, it’s probably because it didn’t fit the situation.

Your project didn’t fail because it lacked sufficient funding, but because its strategy didn’t take that level of funding into account. Your program didn’t fail because your citizens lacked sufficient motivation, but because your strategy didn’t take their level of motivation into account.

Many factors contribute to success, of course, like efficiency and quality of work. But strategy is the only element of an endeavor whose sole function is to make it succeed. If it’s a bad strategy—or if the competition has a better strategy—failure is still possible. But without a strategy, failure is likely.

U. S. Capitol

Photo by Storm Cunningham

The strategic disconnect is most damaging in policy making, where local, state/provincial, and national policies affect so much of what happens. Policies should execute strategies. Instead, most policies are tactical BAND-AIDs®.

This guide is mostly about economic–not climate or disaster–resilience and sustainability. It uses “revitalization“, “resilience“, and “regeneration” somewhat interchangeably. They are three aspects of one dynamic. Today’s emerging leading-edge strategy for both resilience and sustainability is based on repurposing, renewing, and reconnecting our natural, built, and socioeconomic assets.

This applies to systems, too: not just communities. For example, repurposing, renewing, and reconnecting our centralized, fossil fuel-based energy infrastructure into a distributed one based on diverse, renewable sources is an obvious starting point for anyone concerned with climate change, sustainability, or resilience.

The Grand Opportunity: Many cities are progressing towards a complete strategic renewal process. The turning point in the regeneration of our world will come when a national government creates a training and funding program to catalyze such efforts in communities and regions throughout their country. Its success will inspire other nations to go forth and do likewise. At that point, global regeneration of economies and natural resources will kick into high gear.

Why learn the roles of visions, strategies, tactics, plans, programs, and projects?

Many projects are revitalization efforts, but fail because they don’t realize it. They fly under banners like “renewable energy”, “sustainability”, “ecodistrict”, “innovation district”, “economic development”, “infrastructure renewal”, “beautification”, “affordable housing”, “workforce development” or “brownfields remediation”, but all are community regeneration, approached from different angles.

The fact that outcome of overall community revitalization and resilience isn’t in their vision means it isn’t in their strategy. Untapped resources, reduced stakeholder buy-in, and limited success ensue.

For instance, many cities these days are spending millions–even billions–on making their downtown more pedestrian/bicyclist-friendly, more transit-oriented, and less car-centric.

Few activities are more revitalizing for a city, yet many of these vast investments of time and money merely call themselves names like “transit-oriented”, “mobility”, “walkability”, “complete streets”, etc.

But those are all just tactics: the goals and strategy should be focused on revitalization. It’s increased quality of life and economic growth that people really want, not just another mode of transport. This can greatly boost the project’s funding and stakeholder buy-in, as well.


Houston, Texas after “urban renewal”.

In the U.S., conservatives often oppose public transit, since they associate it with serving primarily lower-income people and immigrants. But progressives and conservatives alike desire revitalization.

In the 50s and 60s, Washington policymakers and professional urban planners did more damage to American cities than all foreign enemies combined. Why? Because they didn’t know the difference between a tactic and a strategy.

They blindly assumed that, if they demolished all the empty buildings, new development would automatically sprout in its place. The “destroy it and they will come” assumption of “urban renewal” didn’t work.

Most of those cities (such as Hartford, CT) are still plagued with vast, lifeless downtown surface parking lots as a result. (Photo is Houston, Texas)

Cities that didn’t buy into the madness, like Charleston, SC revitalized with a strategy of repurposing old buildings, renewing green spaces, and reconnecting to waterfronts.


Charleston, SC. Photo via Agobe Stock.

But now, some American “Rustbelt” cities are enthusiastically demolishing blighted neighborhoods, again with federal money ($2 billion). Let’s hope they have a revitalization strategy this time, because demolition is only a tactic.

New Orleans Chief Resilience Officer Jeff Hebert is correct when he says “resilience is, for us, synonymous with being strategic.”

But resilience is a goal, not a strategy. For resilience efforts to be strategic, one needs a strategy for achieving resilience. Unfortunately, Resilient New Orleans—the city’s 88-page “strategic plan” (published in 2015) lacks a clearly-defined strategy.

There are 50 occurrences of the word “strategy” in that document, but no actual statement of the strategy itself.

They almost make a concise statement of strategy when they say they will “Promote sustainability as a growth strategy.” But, like “resilience”, “sustainability” is a goal, not a strategy.

The document often refers to “this strategy“, such as when they say “We are moving beyond our recovery to focus on our future, and this strategy outlines many deliberate steps forward.”

What they are referring to as “this strategy” is the 88-page document itself, which is actually a strategic plan.

The closest that plan comes to making a concise statement of strategy is in what they call their “three visions”:
We will:

  • Redesign our regional transit system to connect people, employment, and essential services;
  • Promote sustainability as a growth strategy Improve the redundancy and reliability of our energy infrastructure Integrate resilience-driven decision making across public agencies Invest in pre-disaster planning for post-disaster recovery;
  • Develop the preparedness of our businesses and neighborhoods.”

Of course, a vision is supposed to describe what the strategy is meant to accomplish: it’s not a statement of what you will do. But, with a little re-wording, the above would be a good vision statement. Left as it is, it’s a wordy-but-workable strategy statement.

Ninth Ward

Post-Katrina New Orleans.
Photo by Storm Cunningham.

This confusion of “vision”, “strategy”, and “plan” is what happens when smart, knowledgeable, well-meaning folks are asked to draft a strategic plan, without first ensuring that the understand the key terminology. Each element (vision, strategy, policies, partners, plan, projects, program) should be defined, and the role of each in the overall process described.

Without that, one gets the New Orleans situation: when asked what their strategy is, they hand over an 88-page document. Unfortunately, New Orleans is not the only resilience effort without a clear, concisely-defined strategy and strategic renewal process: it seems to be an intrinsic weak spot in the otherwise-excellent 100 Resilient Cities program run by the Rockefeller Foundation.

In March of 2017, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania–another of the 100 Resilient Cities–released their beautifully-produced Strategic Plan. Despite a couple hundred uses of the word “strategy”, no strategy is ever stated. Again, the assumption is that the entire 61-page document is a strategy.

The 100 Resilient Cities program has lots of company, unfortunately. Here’s one more recent example: the Philadelphia Land Bank’s 2017 Strategic Plan has some excellent ideas for dealing with the city’s 43,000 vacant lots, and their dearth of affordable housing. But, like most strategic plans, it was strategy-free.

As in New Orleans, the Philadelphia Land Bank confuses their strategic plan with a strategy. Thus, they have a 77-page “strategy”, which means they have no strategy at all.

The plan makes several references to a strategy, such as an “acquisition strategy”. They sometimes refer to specific tactics as a strategy (such as acquiring community gardens). But no strategy ever appears.

Here are two representative sentences from the plan: “The Land Bank provides a strategy to address the blight and bring the land back to productive use, reducing public cost and increasing tax revenue.” and “The proposed Land Bank acquisition policy and strategy outlines a process by which low-income and affordable housing developers can seek assistance in assembling land for development.

The good news is that these strategy-less “strategic plans” aren’t a waste of time. They can be fixed. A strategy can be devised to fit the plan after the fact. I know that sounds silly…like figuring out where you want to go on vacation and how you’re going to get there after you’ve bought the airline tickets. While it’s certainly not the ideal order, it’s doable.

After all, the plan represents a lot of thought about what you want to do and what you’re capable of doing. A pre-existing plan does impose constraints, but that could actually be seen as making strategizing easier. I’ve occasionally been asked to do “plan repair” in this manner, and it’s not as hard as it might sound. Remember: the strategy’s sole purpose to simply, speed, and secure success via good decisions. We can thus derive a plan from a strategy, or derive a strategy from a plan. There’s no chicken-or-egg-first conundrum.

An understanding of strategy is the basis of being effective in any endeavor: personal or organizational. For those involved in improving their community or restoring nature, it’s the primary determinant in success or failure. Does having a good strategy guarantee success? Not if your opponent has a better one. But not having a strategy virtually guarantees failure.

If you’re a business executive, you’ve likely heard someone say “Culture eats strategy for breakfast“. It’s uttered by two types of people: 1) consultants who specialize in changing organization culture; and 2) those who don’t understand strategy. If they understood it, they’d realize that the decision to increase a business’ performance by creating a great culture IS a strategy.

Stephen Curry. Photo:
Keith Allison / Wikipedia.

The October 2017 issue of WIRED magazine contained an article by John Malta titled “Venture Ball: Silicon Valley shoots and scores.” Based on a new book titled Betaball by Erik Malinowski, it illustrates this strategy vs. culture point perfectly. The article describes how Joe Lacob was ridiculed for paying $50 million for the Golden State Warriors basketball team in 2010. At that point, most considered the Warriors to be the worst team in the NBA, worth no more than $315 million.

Seven years on, the Warriors have won two national championships, and are valued at $2.6 billion. Here’s an excerpt from the article describing the team’s regeneration: “…the slingshot turnaround (was not due) to Steph Curry’s swishing three-pointers, but to Lacob’s application of Silicon Valley strategies to revitalize a sluggish team. First off, Lacob used his newcomer status to build a thriving corporate culture.” Lacob also had a crystal-clear vision driving his strategy: to win a championship within five years. They won their first championship in four years and seven months.

Strategizing is an intensely-creative process that allows—even demands—that one think outside one’s industry, professional silo, geographic area, political prejudices, etc. Unlike tactics, strategies aren’t limited to dealing with the practicalities of the immediate situation. Strategies are only constrained by the requirement that they make success more likely.

The right strategy make transitions less painful, which lubricates the shift. Strategy thus makes all the difference in the world…and to the world. What we destroy, destroys us. Since strategies are our path to success, they become our primary interface with our world, and thus determine in large part how the world responds to us. Thus, what we restore, restores us. What we revitalize, revitalizes us.

  • Part 1: 'RE' TERMINOLOGY
“Revitalization goes beyond the achievement of bouncing forward…
As a community revitalizes, it increases its capacity of reaping the resilience dividend.”

Dr. Judith Rodin, former President of The Rockefeller Foundation (2014)

If you’re new to the study of resilience, let me explain the “bouncing forward” reference in Dr. Rodin’s quote above. Traditionally, cities hit by catastrophe (whether sudden and natural, or gradual and socioeconomic) have rather mindlessly gone about rebuilding in a way that merely reconstructed what had been lost. Their goal was to “bounce back”.

Plaza de los Restauradores

Plaza of the Restorationists, Lisbon (photo by Storm Cunningham)

If resilience is your goal, you want to “bounce forward”…rebuilding in a way that makes you less vulnerable to future disasters. One might call this “preemptive planning”.

I described this concept in my 2002 book, The Restoration Economy, describing how Lisbon, Portugal rebuilt on higher ground after a massive earthquake and tsunami in 1755.

They were also smart enough to take advantage of the opportunity to correct a number of urban planning mistakes (actually, lack of planning). This redesign was led by the Marquês de Pombal, who is sometimes called the world’s first urban planner. He was probably Robert Moses’ inspiration, as his style of planning has been called “despotic”. Nonetheless, the result is one of the world’s most beautiful cities.

“Bouncing forward” is, in fact, an example of an ideal strategy (as will be explained shortly): it’s succinct, memorable, an effective guide in decision-making, and reliably successful when well-implemented in the right place at the right time. Unfortunately, government bureaucracies are often stuck in “bounce-back” mode, as this article about FEMA illustrates. Even worse are maladaptive efforts that make things worse (usually due to short-term thinking and/or budget constraints resulting from tax cuts).

Revitalizing, restoring, regenerating, and boosting resilience are all modes of making a place healthier, wealthier, stronger, and more beautiful. Any community that thinks it doesn’t need to work on this is probably on its way down. We tend to lose what we take for granted. Oscar Wilde might have been talking about the importance of having an inspiring vision when he said “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.

The word “revitalization” stimulates some interesting reactions. Leaders from wealthy cities often tell me “oh, we don’t need revitalization“, as if it’s something only poor, dirty, post-industrial places do. If I mention a poor and/or ethnic neighborhood of their city, the reaction is often “well, of course, they need revitalization“. It’s as if the neighborhood is not part of their city; something shameful to avoid acknowledging. These might be socially-ill places that wealth is temporarily disguising as healthy.

A good revitalization strategy yields resilient prosperity. Conversely, a good resilience strategy will revitalize your community. One defining quality of “good” is adaptability.

Bangkok flood 2011A good revitalization strategy will adapt to the challenges of a changing climate.

And a good climate resilience strategy will adapt to the challenges of a changing economy.

A city can’t thrive if its streets are under water.
And it can’t pay for climate adaptation projects if its economy is under water.

Regeneration is the repurposing, renewing, and reconnecting of your natural, built, and socioeconomic assets.  Economic resilience derives from a constant pulse of regeneration.

“Constant” is the key word. Creating a pulse requires an ongoing Strategic Renewal Process:

  • Some places do visioning with citizens, but forget to create a strategy to deliver the vision;
  • Some skip vision and strategy and go straight to the plan (which is planning in the dark);
  • Some forget to boost resources via public-private partnerships, or don’t create good ones;
  • Some do everything right, but don’t enact policies to allow, fund, or incentivize needed actions;
  • Some don’t bother preparing at all, and just start doing projects (the “blind faith” approach);
  • Some complete a project that yields a burst of hope, but it fades for want of an ongoing program.

Without a Strategic Renewal Process, disappointment is—sadly—the norm after resilience and revitalization efforts. This is true of rural towns, metropolitan areas, and regions alike.  But, don’t let all this talk of process obscure a simple truth: if your mission/vision isn’t worthy—and you aren’t committed to it—the most perfect of processes won’t save you.

  • Part 2: THE PROBLEM
“Amateur in the art of running government: Lots of horse trading, but little or no strategy.”
Institute for Government‘s criticism of British Treasury (The Guardian, Nov. 25, 2015)

Many worthwhile initiatives struggle in vain to make a difference, due to lack of strategic skills.

Child on ComputerAmong them are urban / rural regeneration; natural resource restoration; renewable energy; catastrophe recovery, sustainability, smart growth, climate resilience; corporate social responsibility; brownfields/infrastructure renewal; and social/economic/environmental justice.

In 2010, FaceBook founder Mark Zuckerberg donated $100 million to fix Newark, New Jersey’s public school system.

It was matched by another $100 million, mostly raised by then-Mayor Cory Booker and Governor Chris Christie. The simple, sensible tactic?  Pay the best teachers better.

But there was no strategy for dealing with established teacher contracts or state laws.
For want of a strategy, $200 million was lost.

Everyone uses the word “strategy”, but few understand it.
Everyone says they have a strategy, but few can state it.
Everyone knows what a tactic is, and assume a strategy is a collection of tactics.
Nope: that’s a plan.

Planning disasterSome dictionaries even define strategy as a “plan” for achieving a goal.  Little wonder, then, that folks are confused as to the difference between a strategy and a plan.

One difference is that people with a strategy tend to take action.   But with planning, the norm in most cities is “plan and forget”.

Even among those who know they need a strategy, few know how to create a good one. And even fewer know how to implement one, so the strategy often gets lost when the plan is being written.

That’s akin to an author who forgets the plot while writing a novel.  But, unlike a bad novel, a bad plan can ruin millions of lives for decades.

Planning without a strategy is planning for failure.

Rio de JaneiroIn May of 2016, the city of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil released its excellent resilience “strategy”. I say “excellent” because it contains many essential actions. But I put “strategy” in quotes because even the overview is over 1200 words.

A strategy is the core technique that helps ensure success. They come closest to stating it when they say “Connection, collaboration, and the identification of co-benefits are the foundation of our strategy.” But they call the entire 50-page document a strategy. That’s more a plan than a strategy.

Most cities’ expensive “comprehensive plans” are devoid of strategy. It’s like buying a Rolls Royce, and finding the engine missing. But it gets worse: almost all of the documents I’ve seen that were called “strategic plans” also lacked an identifiable strategy.

Another common problem is that the plan itself often becomes the goal. Too many planners forget the learning value of action. A good strategy can be created in minutes, by the right person with the right awareness. Action can follow immediately.

Many times, it’s the action itself that will reveal what needs to be done…far better than a bunch of folks sitting around in a windowless room. As the 13th century Persian poet Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī said, “As you start to walk on the way, the way appears.” Thinking often leads only to more thinking. Action leads to action…and to ideas.

Over 90% of urban, rural, and regional plans lack both
a clearly-defined strategy and an implementation program.

Farm clean-30Most urban, rural, and environmental plans are never implemented. Most that are implemented fail…despite having skilled personnel, and despite spending millions, even billions, on projects. As Kevin Bacon said in the movie, Tremors. “We plan ahead. That way, we don’t have to do anything right now.(Image: Universal Pictures)

This sad track record is seldom the fault of the planners: neither strategy nor implementation are their jobs. Worse, mayors often commission plans as ends unto themselves, rather than as a means to an end. Creating a plan is a quick, failure-proof political “win”, requiring only the writing of a check. Implementation introduces the risk of failure, so it’s safer to shelve the plan. Another guaranteed “win” can be had 5, 10, or 15 years later, with the commissioning of a new plan.

Most corporations at least understand the role of strategy, even if they aren’t particularly skilled at strategizing. They know that a strategic analysis is a logical first step in the process.  But when was the last time you heard of a city, county, or state/province commissioning even a strategic analysis, much less a full renewal process to ensure implementation? Beyond my own clients, I rarely hear of it.  Most places just dive right into writing a plan.

sicarioOnce we get attuned to the dynamic, we can find strategic lessons everywhere, whether raising children, raising crops, or being entertained.

In the 2015 movie, Sicario, for instance, Emily Blunt’s character is bewildered when she must abandon the FBI’s tactical approach to fighting drug smugglers and adopt the CIA’s more-strategic approach. At one point, Benecio Del Toro’s CIA character tells Blunt’s FBI character, “You’re asking me how the watch works. For now, let’s just keep an eye on the time.”    (Image: Lions Gate Films Inc.)
I say “more strategic”—rather than “strategic”—because a truly strategic approach would destroy the drug cartels’ raison d’être, either by 1) getting 20% of Americans to stop using illegal drugs, or 2) legalizing drugs (the only strategy that’s been proven to work). But the latter approach also threatens the multi-billion-dollar drug enforcement industry, so it’s not politically feasible.

Another example: environmentalists have long despised coal mining companies, and the feeling is reciprocated. Renewable energy champions want to build a fossil fuel-free economy, while coal miners want to feed their families. Neither is likely to shift their position, and both have tactics for fighting the other. It’s not just economies that go through transition, but individual employees. And that’s where the pain is found, and thus the resistance to change.

But a strategy is free to ignore all of that baggage, and solve everyone’s problems. An ideal strategy would, for instance, make the transition to clean energy while restoring damaged mine lands and keeping coal miners employed.


Before & after coal mine reclamation in Britain. Photos by Iain Thomson & Richard Webb.

Is a strategy to close coal mines while keeping coal miners working even possible?  Yep: The $26 million Ehrenfeld Abandoned Mine Reclamation Project in Pennsylvania employs out-of-work coal miners to do the environmental restoration. What’s more, Ehrenfeld is a federally-funded pilot project that–if successful–could unleash $1 billion of federal funds to replicate the model nationwide.

We’re already making the renewable energy transition. At the turn of the millennium, the most optimistic projections for wind power were that by 2010, the world would have 30 gigawatts of capacity. Instead, we had 435 gigawatts. Similarly, the optimists predicted that we would be installing one gigawatt of solar capacity annually by 2010. In 2010, we actually installed 17 gigawatts. In 2015: 58 gigawatts.

green-metropolisBut fighting climate change isn’t just about cleaner energy sources or more-efficient cars and buildings. Urban growth strategies are central to the solution.

As David Owen said in his 2009 book, Green Metropolis:
A sprawling suburb is a fuel-burning, carbon-belching, waste-producing, water-guzzling, pollution-spewing, toxin-leaking machine, and, unlike a Hummer, it can’t be easily abandoned for something smaller and less destructive.

As a result, a city can have a large number of green buildings, and still not be green. Its growth strategy creates inefficient horizontal structure that no amount of efficient vertical structure can overcome. One might call it “green flesh on brown bones“.

It’s not just about efficiency; it’s also about vitality. Fissionable materials release vast energy when sufficiently compressed. So too do cities release more creative, productive energy as they densify.

Most ordinary folks can figure out that a strategic nuclear weapon is designed to win the war, while a tactical nuclear weapon is designed to win a battle. Thus, they can surmise that strategies achieve overarching goals, while tactics achieve sub-goals.

So, if strategies are so simple, why do most cities and regions not have a revitalization strategy?

LeaderThe primary reason seems to be because few public (or private) leaders know how revitalization works.

Generals know that battlefield success comes from killing the enemy or disrupting their logistical flows.

CEOs know that business success comes from growing revenue while shrinking expenses.

But ask 100 mayors how to revitalize a city, and you’ll get 100 answers. How can they devise a successful strategy if they don’t know what leads to success?

  • Part 3: THE SOLUTION
“The best CEOs I know are teachers,
and at the core of what they teach is strategy.”

– Prof. Michael Porter, Harvard University

Strategy is the key factor in the outcome of most endeavors. A strategy is a small thing, and costs virtually nothing, like an automobile ignition key. But like a key, if you forget it, you’re going nowhere. So why are the military and business worlds almost alone in teaching strategy?

A strategy is a technique or method for achieving a goal. A strategy isn’t something we do: it guides actions and decisions. (A strategy shared by several people is often called a “conspiracy” by those who are the target of the change.) The right strategy maximizes chances of success, while minimizing time and resource needs. So, what does strategic thinking look like?

Google car

Google’s driverless car

Both Apple and Google seem to be on the verge of selling their own cars. When that news first hit, most folks were bemused. Whether or not this turns out to be a good business for either of them, it’s a good example of strategic thinking. At both firms, a viable new business opportunity must address two strategic issues: scale and connectivity.

Both are huge companies, so new markets must be vast to satisfy Wall Street’s insatiable demand for growth. Personal transportation has the requisite scale. New markets should also connect with existing offerings, for synergy’s sake. As accident rates show, automobiles are where we increasingly use Apple’s and Google’s products or services. Thus, an Apple or Google car.

On August 2, 2006, Tesla founder Elon Musk published his “secret” strategy (he called it a “master plan”), which most would agree he has successfully implemented: 1) Build sports car; 2) Use that money to build an affordable car; 3) Use that money to build an even more affordable car; 4) While doing above, also provide zero emission electric power generation options; 5) Don’t tell anyone.

One of Musk’s biggest challenges is distribution. In bypassing traditional automobile dealerships, he made enemies of them (and of the politicians they fund). Product manufacturers often fail by focusing so heavily on the product that the distribution or marketing strategy is taken for granted (the “Better Mousetrap” trap). Your product might save consumers tons of money. But if it does so in a way that threatens the income of existing players–such as reducing service revenue or sales of more profitable items–don’t expect their cooperation.

As Charlie Peters of Emerson (a 125-year-old manufacturer) says: “The barriers to adoption are much more severe than the barriers to develop the technology.” Emerson’s design and production expertise is wasted without the right strategy for co-opting or bypassing the status quo.


House of Cards image courtesy Netflix.

The right strategy can emerge from identifying your chief threat. The rise of Netflix—and streaming video in general—convinced HBO to expand from content production into distribution.

HBO’s strategy convinced Netflix to expand from distribution into content production (such as House of Cards). In 2013, Gus Sarandos, the chief content officer of Netflix described their succinct strategy: “to become HBO faster than HBO can become us“.

But again: why do we mostly think of strategies in a military or business context? Aren’t all of us trying to achieve goals?  Why so much economic, social, and environmental planning, but so little pre-planning (strategy) and post-planning (implementation)? The tide might be turning, as we see Memphis, Tennessee embed a blight elimination strategy in the city charter, not just in policy.

That’s not to denigrate the power of policy (at least, when it gets translated into funded legislation): Over 36 years, the federal Historic Tax Credit created 2.3 million jobs, leveraged $117 billion in investment, and rehabilitated over 41,250 buildings, which helped revitalize many downtowns throughout the U.S.

The Universal Strategic Goal: Increasing confidence in the local future.

Resilient prosperity is a universal outcome, but the universal strategic goal of revitalization efforts should be increasing confidence in the local future. All revitalization efforts that have failed to bring a distressed place back to life tend to have one thing in common: they didn’t convince enough people that the local economy and/or quality of life would improve. The reasons such initiatives fail to boost confidence vary widely—lack of vision, poor strategy, dysfunctional design, bad implementation, etc.—but that one strategic failure is fairly universal.

Investors care little about the condition of an asset when they buy it. What they care about is whether it will be worth more in the future. They’d rather invest in a rusted-out hulk of a 1957 Chevy, knowing it will appreciate dramatically after restoration, than a brand-new Chevy whose value will only go down.

And they’d rather buy property in a depressed, run-down town that they’re confident is on its way up, than in a beautiful city that’s on its way down.

Avinash Persaud, chairman, Intelligence Capital Limited (London, UK) once said “Money, in the end, is confidence.” Without confidence in the future value of a $20 bill or a €20 note, they are just worthless pieces of paper. And so it is with local economies.

Torun, Poland. Photo via Adobe Stock.

Architects and planners often say that the key to revitalizing a downtown is design, or placemaking. Those are essential, of course.

But they don’t come first. None of that activity is going to happen without money. Unless the public coffers are overflowing, it will mostly be private money. Attracting that requires creating confidence in the future of that downtown. Creating confidence comes first.

The right revitalization strategy—along with an ongoing program to implement it—should build confidence in your local future. That’s the key to attracting/retaining residents, employers, and investors. If there’s a universal revitalization goal, that’s it. “Local”, in this case, can mean very local. In several U.S. cities, for instance, merely announcing a future trolley line was enough to revitalize the area along its intended path, before a single track was laid. Why? Confidence in the revitalized future of that corridor.

Blackstone Canal, WorcesterThe long-depressed Canal District of Worcester, Massachusetts is now revitalized, based on confidence that their historic canal—buried for over a century—will someday be daylighted, thereby providing a revitalizing water feature. But they have neither the money to unearth it, nor an official plan for doing so.

What provided that confidence? A clear, credible vision of how the area would be changed for the better, plus a trusted organization (the Canal District Alliance) to devise and follow-through on a strategy. (image by J.P. Raymond Studios)

Reduced confidence in the global future is fast becoming one of the largest economic impacts of climate change. The vast majority of the planet’s population and economic activity is close to coasts. Rising sea levels, combined with the increasing frequency and severity of storms, is rapidly eroding confidence in the future of coastal cities worldwide.

Climate ChangeAdd in the rise of global terrorism, and it’s not surprising that Andrew Young, former U.S. Ambassador and former 2-term Mayor of Atlanta, Georgia says “The environment is so insecure and unstable right now that people are afraid to invest in the future.” (April 2014)

An interesting dynamic is that confidence can be boosted by merely announcing certain kinds of initiatives is enough to spark redevelopment. Transit projects are the most reliable in this regard, since reconnecting places is well-know to be a powerful revitalizer. In cities all around the world, the promise of a new streetcar or rail initiative has been enough to trigger redevelopment: the first shovelful of dirt hadn’t been dug yet. In Kansas City, Washington, DC, and many other cities, announcing future streetcars immediately triggered redevelopment along their routes.

Why? Because the announcement created new confidence in the future of the properties and neighborhoods along the streetcar routes.

It’s a reliable dynamic. In 2010, Copenhagen, Denmark city leaders correctly predicted that the mere announcement of their new City Circle metro line (in Danish: Cityringen)—which will be completed in 2019—would cause land values to skyrocket.

$650 million Blairs redevelopment along future Purple Line. Image: The Tower Companies.

Now, it’s happening again in the DC area with the forthcoming Purple Line light rail.

This “instant confidence” in the future of a place doesn’t usually happen with bus-based transit: only rail. That’s because rail is a permanent, big-dollar commitment, whereas a bus line can be removed with the stroke of a pen.

This dynamic also only occurs when the local government is credible. For instance, South Africa’s economy is deteriorating badly. Unemployment is now 5% higher than is was in 2008, and their level of economic inequality is among the world’s worst. Much of the problem can be traced to the dominant political party, the African National Congress (ANC). They have been propping-up President Jacob Zuma, despite his long string of corruption scandals that have eroded confidence in the economic and social future of the country. Here’s what the July 24, 2017 issue of Bloomberg Businessweek had to say:

To restore the ANC’s credibility, party reformers need to defend the independence and integrity of South Africa’s financial and judicial institutions. If they want to revitalize the economy, they need to expose floundering state enterprises to competition, and address the corruption and inefficiency that have caused the country to sink in global business rankings. If they really want to empower black South Africans, they should focus less on creating sweet deals for shareholders, and more on fixing a failing educational system and enabling first-time job seekers to join the workforce.” This last part is key, since the country’s population is growing faster than its economy.

Also, if the government suffers from excessive partisanship—-with each party blocking all initiatives of the other, regardless of merit and heedless of damage to public good—-few will have confidence in its announced policies, programs, or projects. In that case, revitalization won’t precede the project. In fact, it will probably lag the project, with investors and redevelopers not trusting in its completion. That’s the cost of lack of confidence. In the U.S., where corruption and excessive partisanship are currently rampant, confidence in the future is at a rapid ebb.

Good strategies are often so succinct that they look like no-brainers.

Inner Harbor-25Baltimore, Maryland‘s famous Inner Harbor revitalization had a brief, simple strategy: create a critical mass of retail, restaurants, waterfront paths, and tourist attractions in one fell swoop, rather than incrementally. That strategy worked beautifully.

Unfortunately, the public-private partnership behind the effort failed to create a strategy for ensuring that the revitalization spread from the Inner Harbor to the rest of the city.

The Oliver neighborhood of Baltimore was in rough shape, even before the 2015 protests and unfortunate riot that following the brutal death of resident Freddie Gray at the hands of the police. Reportedly, some 250 businesses (most of them minority-owned), were looted or destroyed. Over 150 innocent residents’ cars were vandalized, and over 100 fires were set that damaged local residents’ homes.

The brevity of a good strategy often makes it seem as if not much thought went into it.

Team Of Volunteers Picking Up Litter In Suburban StreetNow, Oliver’s starting to come back to life, thanks to a visionary local developer, and a program funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. (Here’s a recent report on the effort.) Their strategy comprised just three words: Build On Strength.  “Build On Strength” might seem hopelessly simplistic and generic, but remember that a strategy implements a vision. The vision is what focuses that simple strategy on goals that are unique to–and needed by–that community.

How could those three words boost the success of an effort? The key function of a strategy is to guide decisions; both formal decisions made in meetings, and on-the-fly decisions made in the field.

Let’s say you must choose one of two neighborhood revitalization proposals. #1 is a big-budget project. #2 is less capital-intensive, but requires significant grassroots organizing to succeed.

If your community has financial resources, but citizens are fractious or apathetic, the “Build On Strength” strategy points to proposal #1. If your community is weak at finance or fundraising, but harmonious and effective at working together, the “Build On Strength” strategy selects #2.

Without a strategy in mind, you might spend months debating the features and benefits of each proposal, with two likely results: the wrong proposal is chosen, or neither proposal is acted upon. Strategy puts your focus on the elements that are vital to success.

“A dream you dream alone is only a dream.  A dream you dream together is reality.”
– Yoko Ono

On January 5, 2016, first-term Republican Governor Larry Hogan announced that Maryland would provide $75 million to help Baltimore demolish thousands of vacant buildings. That would be worrisome if there were no strategy for filling those vacant spaces into new residences and employers. But he also announced $600 million in state subsidies to encourage redevelopment of those spaces. Sounds good, right?   Wrong.

Two powerful tactics—getting rid of old stuff + subsidizing new stuff—have been announced, but community revitalization isn’t just about stuff. It’s also about factors like trust, justice, health, education, connectivity, etc. There’s no apparent strategy in Baltimore to address such issues. Worse, there’s a strong possibility that some of the demolition funding will be taken from the Community Legacy program, which supports rehabilitation. Thus, they would actually be reducing their ability to revitalize these neighborhoods.

“Strategy requires thought, tactics require observation.”
– Max Euwe, World Chess Champion

Connectivity might be West Baltimore’s greatest strategic need: lower-income residents must be able to get to jobs, schools, and shops without owning a car. But one of Governor Hogan’s first acts was to kill the Red Line, a long-planned transit project that would have finally connected West Baltimore to the rest of the city. Thus, his $675 million investment in demolition and redevelopment will likely fail to produce lasting revitalization, due to a lack of strategic thinking.

Recently, a coalition of neighborhood groups called the Baltimore Housing Roundtable offered a strategy for reducing displacement of citizens during these mass demolitions. I hope it works.

Once in a while, I run across an organization that really understands what a strategy and a vision should look like. Heron Foundation is one of them.

Here’s Heron’s vision: “Our vision is to help people in the United States to escape poverty, thrive and enjoy the benefits of full livelihood, opportunity and community.” And here’s their strategy: “Our strategy is to invest capital in ways that expand reliable employment and economic opportunity.”

No 90-page “strategies” or 500-word “visions” for them. Each gets just one sentence. Not suprisingly, Heron is one of the most respected foundations around, despite their relatively small size. We featured one of their important initiatives in Revitalization News.

Horace said “Whatever your advice, make it brief.
Shakespeare said “Brevity is the soul of wit.” It’s also the soul of wisdom.
Strategies should be short enough to write on a napkin, preferably three sentences or less.
But just three words can suffice, if they are the right ones, at the right time, in the right place.

Why so brief? Excuse the repetition, but this is crucially important: the primary purpose of a strategy is to guide decision-making. Executing a strategy over time means making a constant stream of decisions that move you in the right direction, even under trying circumstances (such as being shot at, or watching your company lose money). The Spring 2017 issue of Strategy + Business had an article titled “10 Principles of Strategy through Execution” by Ivan de Souza, Richard Kauffeld, and David van Oss. It said “Quality, innovation, profitability, and growth all depend on having strategy and execution fit together seamlessly. …Your execution occurs in the thousands of decisions made each day by people at every level of your company.”

Here’s a quick test you can try: the next time you’re talking to a mayor, planner, or developer who says they are going to revitalize a place, ask what their strategy is. If they’re still talking a minute later, they might have a strategy, but not a good one. If they say “Read the plan“, they don’t have one, but might not know it. If they say “Go to hell“, they don’t have a strategy, and they know it.

Wrong/no vision + right strategy = Failure.
Right vision + wrong/no strategy = Failure.
Vision and strategy go hand in hand.
Like male and female, their union creates new life.

“I have always found plans to be useless, but planning is indispensable.”
– General Dwight D. Eisenhower, President of the United States

The right vision drives us to the right goals.
The right strategy drives us to success.

Millvale visionThe same strategy can often be applied to multiple communities, despite differing strengths, weaknesses, and cultures. How is that possible? That’s where the vision comes in.

Dreams + research + deadlines = goals.
Cohesive set of goals = vision.
Vision + strategy + defined actions (projects) = plan.

What does a vision look like? To the left is a good one from Millvale, Pennsylvania, facilitated by evolveEA.

Strategies implement visions, and visions are a cohesive set of locally-appropriate goals. If this is true, why do so many cities write plans and start projects without a strategy or vision? Because few public leaders understand the relationship of visions, strategies, partnerships, plans, projects (tactics), and programs.

For instance, partnerships are often the best mechanism for funding ambitious programs, and for expanding them to the proper scale. A shared vision is what creates good partnerships, and what holds them together.

But even when visions are created, they are often flawed. Why? Because they are based on daydreams, rather than data. Visioning should be a research process. Daydreams will reveal what you want, but data will help reveal what you need. If data drives your vision, it will ipso facto drive your design, strategy, plan, etc. (assuming you have a Strategic Renewal Process).

Vision = What you want/need
Strategy = Technique for getting it
Plan = Necessary projects/tactics/players that fit available resources and desired time frame
Project/Tactic = Action

There’s nothing grand about visions and strategies: we all create, use, and change them constantly. Here’s a totally superficial example to show how mundane and ubiquitous strategizing is.

“The dream of a better city is always in the heads of its residents.”
– Jaime Lerner, former Mayor of Curitiba, Brazil

Let’s say you’re the male host of a talk show, and an upcoming guest is an actress with a reputation for being narcissistic and obnoxious. You decide to take her down a notch on your show, so you research embarrassing facts from her life. Thus, your vision is to publicly humiliate her, and your strategy is to ambush her with facts she’d rather keep secret.

But she is expecting this, and has a strategy of her own: to make you like and desire her. She comes onto your show, and proceeds to charm your pants off. Suddenly, your vision changes. Your goal is now to make her like and desire you. Your strategy is to compliment her and to avoid saying anything that embarrasses her.

Again: the strategy is driven by the goal: if that changes, so does the strategy. But one should be cautious of changing a strategy if the goal remains unchanged. The primary purpose of a strategy is to guide decision-making. Decisions often have to be made in stressful or chaotic circumstances, so we’re tempted to “wing it”. Those who are able to keep a clear head and stick to their strategy are often the victors.

Photo of Lakewood (Chicago) store courtesy Whole Foods Markets

A November 29, 2016 article by Lyneir Richardson in the National Real Estate Investor was titled “How the Strategic Opening of Retail Stores Can Revitalize City Neighborhoods”. It described six examples of struggling Chicago neighborhoods that had been revitalized by the opening of new retail in the right place, at the right time.

The inclusion of “strategic” in the title was telling, given the long history of failed attempts to revitalize places via new retail. So, was it the retail or the strategy that revitalized these places? Both, of course: a strategy without action is useless, as is action without a strategy.

These days, leading-edge urban development strategies are multi-agenda: mixed-use; mixed-income; mixed-ethnicity; mixed-age (this applies to both buildings and people). And they renew the society, economy, and environment together as a system.

Countless streetscaping and façade renovation projects go by the name “revitalization”.  If they are, in fact, a tactic/project in a larger revitalization strategy/program, that’s fine.  But if they are just isolated, one-time projects, then citizens will likely be disappointed when the project is over, and revitalization hasn’t manifested. Regeneration is a journey, not a destination.

How are the right strategies created?

Sometimes, an experienced person possessing deep familiarity with a place will be able to intuit the right strategy on the spot (making it look deceptively easy).  Other times, a long series of public engagement, visioning, and partnership meetings is needed for the right strategy to emerge.

“Without a vision there is no strategy.”
– David Rixter, Outreach Manager, U.S. Treasury (personal communication)

In between those two extremes is conducting (or commissioning) a process analysis. A process analysis provides the locally-appropriate perspective and understanding needed for the entire comeback lifecycle: vision, strategy, policies, plan, projects, partners, and program. (This is a key part of my Resilient Prosperity diagnostic service, which helps places create a Strategic Renewal Process that’s appropriate to their specific strengths and needs.)

Visioning is a very different activity from strategizing, and this guide is about strategy. But let me toss in one tip about visioning. A vision that’s inspiring, appropriate, and achievable often derives from asking two questions: 1) Under what circumstances would each problem become an asset? and 2) What opportunities emerge when we combine our problems?

Take Detroit, for example. It’s a huge city (140 square miles), and after half a century of population loss, two separate-but-linked problems emerged: too much vacant land and too few people.

GardenApplying Question #1, vacant land becomes an asset if repurposed to produce food or energy, and low population becomes an asset if reducing food or energy consumption is a goal.

Applying Question #2, Detroit is thus uniquely positioned to become the world’s first food-and/or-energy-independent city. Not just doing some urban gardens (like everyone else), but 100% self-sufficient. That would be an inspiring, appropriate vision.

“Invite people on the journey so they’ll embrace the destination.”
– Chris Grams, President, New Kind

It wouldn’t be an answer to all the city’s problems, of course, but it would dramatically reposition the city in the eyes of the world.

Rather than being an iconic victim of the decline of the manufacturing economy, Detroit would be an icon of the Restoration Economy: repurposing old assets, renewing quality of life, and reconnecting citizens to their food sources.

Communist lawmakers scuffle with right-wing Svoboda ( Freedom) Party lawmakers during a parliament session of Verkhovna Rada, the Ukrainian parliament, in Kiev, Ukraine Tuesday, April 8, 2014. (AP Photo/Vladimir Strumkovsky)

Political negotiations in Ukraine
(AP Photo/Vladimir Strumkovsky)

NOTE: That’s only an example of the visioning process; not an actual recommendation. Detroit is doing a lot of things right these days, and might already be well on the way to becoming an icon of the global Restoration Economy.

A mistake made by many well-meaning communities is engaging the public in every aspect of the renewal process. In fact, only the visioning step requires deep public input. (This assumes that subsequent steps rigorously reference that vision.)

Trying to involve the public in every phase of the renewal process–such as strategy–is a recipe for disaster. It can slow the process to the point where private partners flee (time is money), and changes of political administration either disrupt the process, or kill it entirely.

Counterintuitively, excessive engagement can increase disharmony, as unqualified people try to influence decisions requiring deep knowledge.

Who should create the strategy?

Planners plan, just like writers write. But some writers are also publishers, and so too are some planners strategists. But we must avoid the very common tendency to conflate strategizing with planning. They are two very different processes, and two very different skill sets.

“No battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy.”
– Field Marshall Helmuth Karl Bernhard Graf von Moltke

It’s relatively easy to write a plan if given a clear vision and strategy. So, planning can—and usually should—be a separate process run by different people. Planners have a skillset and perspective (especially if they are engineers by training) that is often not appropriate for strategizing.

Strategy is where the process of changing a complex adaptive system is simplified, and where uncertainty and surprise are expected.

Complex system goalA healthy, living river pulses with periodic floods (surprises) that erode banks in some places, and deposit that sediment in others, so it’s always changing its shape (more surprises). To an old-school civil engineer, a good river is one that never floods and never changes its shape. In other words, an unhealthy, dying river. A basic function of all engineering is to remove surprises from a system. That’s a wonderful skill when building tunnels, roads, buildings, and bridges. But it can be disastrous when redeveloping communities or restoring ecosystems.

Why? Because the ability to surprise is a defining trait of a complex system. Remove it, and you change it from a living system to a mechanical one (AKA: dead). Complex systems have distributed controls; engineers tend to want centralized control. Strategy requires a risk-taking mindset. Engineers are risk-eliminators, not risk-takers.

The good news? A new generation of civil engineers—arising from the modern dam-removal and climate resilience trends—is far more collaborative. They bring in biologists and community revitalization experts who are well-versed in the complexity of living systems. This combination of skills can yield wonderful surprises.

Ideally, strategies should be created by people who aren’t intimidated by complexity or terrified of surprises. They should be intimately involved in the visioning process, and who have a vested interest in the outcome (provided it’s based on a vision of shared community goals). For example, a mayor might lose the next election if her/his strategy fails. Thus, professional managers are seldom good strategists.

The bottom line is that there’s no particular profession that should create the strategy. The important thing is to make sure it’s the right one.

We shouldn’t just toss the job to the first person (such as the planner) who comes to mind. What might be more crucial is ensuring that all stakeholders are invited to help create the vision that the strategy is meant to deliver. The person or organization responsible for executing the strategy must be clearly identified. If everyone is responsible, no one is responsible.

If your community or organization hires a strategy director, know that their job isn’t to sit around dreaming up strategies: it’s primarily a research position. Awareness precedes insight. They must be supremely aware of the environment in which you operate: trends, technologies, players, etc.

I spent 6 years as the Director of Strategic Initiatives for a professional society in the construction industry. The organization had some 14,000 members (architects, engineers, and product manufacturers), but it hadn’t done anything new in 25 years, and was on the brink of bankruptcy.

The new Executive Director wisely knew that he would have his hands full restructuring the organization, and wouldn’t have time to focus on strategic research, so he hired me. A major part of my job was attending industry conferences to get a better feel for where our organization fit in the scheme of things, both present and future. A good strategy is the outcome of greater awareness.

Strategic thinking is a hallmark of real leaders, so it’s vitally important to provide leadership training and a supportive environment for local residents. Like so many important and mysterious elements of life, leadership is an emergent quality of living systems: we never know when or where in the community it’s going to pop up, so we should invest in as many people as possible.

“There have been hundreds of plans, and none of
them have really gotten to the change that we need.”

– Dawveed Scully, urban designer, on revitalizing Chicago’s Woodlawn neighborhood.

If your goal in writing a plan is to go through a visioning, strategizing, and planning process, good on you. But if the goal is simply to have a plan, boo on you. In a stable world, a plan could be a good thing, if well-researched and written by someone with deep insight. But who has a stable world?

Success isn’t just about who creates the strategy: it’s also about who implements it. Personality counts, so don’t become so dependent on your strategy (or process) that you forget to put the right people in charge. Just like football teams, political, business, and non-profit leaders tend to be strong on defense or offense: seldom both.

US Army landing at Anzio on 22 January 1944.

Putting a defensive strategist in charge of an offensive operation can be disastrous, as we discovered in the Battle of Anzio during World War II. The amphibious landing took place on January 22, 1944, and the operation ended June 5, 1944 with the capture of Rome.

On the surface, that would seem to be a success, but the goal wasn’t just to take Rome: it was to weaken German forces and prevent their rejoining their main force. In that, it was an abject failure. It also should have taken far less time and cost far fewer American lives to accomplish what it did. The problem was U.S. Army Major General John P. Lucas. After taking the beach with almost no resistance, he went into defensive mode, digging in on the coast to protect against counter-attack.

He should have taken advantage of the element of surprise and moved swiftly towards Rome, flanking the Germans and cutting them off from support. Instead, the Germans moved their forces to the beach and bombarded the U.S. soldiers mercilessly for weeks. The Army finally sent Lucas home, and brought in Major General Lucian K. Truscott. Truscott had an offensive mindset, and swiftly got the troops moving towards Rome. Truscott wasn’t necessarily smarter than Lucas: he simply had a personality that was appropriate to the job at hand.

How qualified are you to create a strategy for your community?  Maybe more than you think.
While simply having a real strategy sets a community or region apart from most of its peers, it’s not enough to guarantee success. At the risk of stating the obvious, your strategy must be 1) appropriate for your place and time, 2) better than your competitors’ strategies, and 3) well-executed.

Let’s take another quick look at an example from the business world. Three new airlines, all funded with oil money and all with ambitions of global dominance, have arisen in the United Arab Emirates: Emirates (founded 1985), Qatar Airways (founded 1993), and Etihad Airways (founded 2003). As the latecomer to the party, Etihad has been playing a game of catch-up.

In 2011, Etihad’s CEO, James Hogan, decided that the fastest way to catch up would be via a strategy of acquisition, rather than “organic” growth. It made sense, on the surface.

But their timing was bad, due to a drop in oil prices (probably unavoidable), and their execution was bad, in terms of choosing their purchases (definitely avoidable). They spent billions on major stakes in struggling airlines, only to see them become worthless as badly-managed airlines (like Alitalia) filed for bankruptcy, and badly-positioned airlines (like Air Berlin) posted huge losses.

In May of 2017, Ray Gammel became the new CEO of Etihad Airways.

Some public leaders might find this story depressing. After all, if a sophisticated chief executive at a multi-billion-dollar company can screw up a strategy, what chance does a small-town mayor have of getting it right?

A very good chance, in fact. A unique characteristic of strategy is that one’s ability to do it right is highly dependent on one’s intimacy with the players, dynamics, and trends of a specific situation, and far less dependent on one’s education or general experience. In other words, strategy is extremely context-sensitive. Hogan had a background in regional carriers, but the players, dynamics, and trends of the global airline market were new to him.

Timing, Scope, and Starting Point

Farm clean-30The right strategy at the wrong time.
Not all places can be revitalized at any given time. Revitalization is like farming: there’s a time for preparing the soil, a time for planting, a time for harvesting, and a time for resting.

There’s also a time for restoring farmland back to the original ecosystem, and a time for repurposing it, such as for renewable energy production. Of course, not all old assets need to be repurposed, but we should explore any such opportunities before embarking on renewal.

Repurposing can also involve expanding a project’s scope by adding new purposes to a viable current function. For instance, a switch from toxic, soil-depleting industrial agriculture to regenerative agriculture keeps food production as the central purpose. But it adds carbon sequestration, soil rebuilding, and enhanced biodiversity to the mix of goals.

Venice’s mechanical Mose barrier.

The global crisis of rising sea levels offers myriad opportunities to create resilient, multi-agenda projects. In fact, addressing multiple agendas will likely be the only way these huge projects will get financed. Venice, Italy provides a good case in point. Its low elevation makes it a canary in the coal mine for sea level rise, and its status as a global heritage treasure ensured that large sums of money would be thrown at protecting it.

So they built the kind of project environmentalists often categorize as “dumb engineer tricks” (simplistic projects that only alleviate symptoms, but make construction companies rich): the €5.4 billion Mose flood barrier.

A resilient living shoreline proposal for lower Manhattan. (Image courtesy NYCEDC)

The Mose barrier only protects against a 3-meter flood, so it’s virtually guaranteed to fail eventually, as seas rise and storms get more powerful.

A far more resilient approach would have been a “living shoreline” (multi-purpose levee): a 12-meter earthen wall designed in a way that creates both a beautiful linear park for the public, and restores wildlife habitat, such as for oysters, which would also clean the water. This would boost Venice’s tourism industry, adding a nature experience to the historical architecture attractions. It would help revive Adriatic Sea fisheries, giving local economies another boost.

And, it would be a far more resilient protective barrier than failure-prone machines needing constant maintenance and replacement. Like the Mose barrier, this approach is also expensive. But provides far more public and economic benefit, which opens up many additional sources of funding.

The right strategy at the right time can still fail, if you get the scope wrong.
Too often, scope is taken for granted. An organization focused on downtown will automatically devise a downtown revitalization program. A city or county agency will automatically create a citywide or countywide program. As with the strategy, the scope should be driven by the vision.

Malmo - 30For instance, if your goal is boost quality of life—including air quality, water quality/quantity, human health, recreational opportunities, etc.—that usually can’t be done at a downtown, or even a community level. You’ll need to restore your surrounding watershed, family farms (local food system), green spaces, and so on. That would require at least a countywide scope, if not a regional or even statewide scope.

But even finding the right time and scope isn’t enough if your starting point is wrong.
A good strategy will identify the right focal point to begin the revitalization process. You want to score some quick and early “wins” to boost confidence and gather momentum. Few communities have the funds to repurpose, renew, and reconnect all their assets at once. Much reconnecting is now needed in cities worldwide, after decades of unplanned or badly-planned sprawl. Public transit must substitute for proximity when people are physically isolated.

Acidic runoff water from an abandoned coal mine is blighting this town’s future.

In some places, heritage will be the starting point, such as restoring a historic downtown theater. In other places, remediating brownfield sites should be first, in order to create “shovel-ready” opportunities for developers.

Elsewhere, restoring natural resources–fisheries, farmland soils, watersheds, ecosystems, etc.–will be the obvious first step towards revitalization. All too frequently these days, disasters are the genesis of revitalization and resilience initiatives.

Identifying your ideal timing, scope, and starting point are all functions of a strategic analysis. But maybe the most important thing to remember is that, at any given time, SOMETHING can be done to move your place closer to revitalization.
For both individuals and communities, action is the best therapy for inertia and depression.

Reframing Assumptions
Good strategizing, especially in social situations, often involves reframing perceptions.

For instance, many cities are being redesigned to serve humans, rather than 3000-pound steel projectiles (cars). Creating an effective strategy for making a place safer and more efficient for pedestrians might mean reframing the problem from “pedestrians crossing streets” to “cars crossing sidewalks”. Planner Brent Toderian takes it a step further, and refers to cafes and street seating as “pedestrian parking.” That perspective makes it clear who has priority, which helps keep decision-making properly focused.

Since strategies are driven by vision + challenge (what one wants plus what one must overcome to get it), identifying the actual challenge is crucial: too often, we confuse cause and effect.

For instance, is your affordable housing crisis driven primarily by a paucity of inexpensive residential units? Or is the real problem too many people with low incomes? If the latter, then equitable economic revitalization becomes the primary challenge, not cheap housing.

Or maybe the real problem is that too much of your citizens’ income goes to car payments, car insurance, car repairs, and gasoline. If so, the challenge might be creating more public transit and transit-oriented redevelopment. Don’t start strategizing until you’ve examined your assumptions.

“The nation behaves well if it treats its natural resources as assets
which it must turn over to the next generation INCREASED…in value.”

– Colonel Theodore Roosevelt, President of the United States

John Muir & Teddy RooseveltTeddy Roosevelt (shown with John Muir) was in an ideal strategist’s position when he voiced the vision quoted above.

At the time, many of the U.S. regions that are today well-forested (such as New England) were ugly, barren, muddy wastelands. Over century of rampant, unregulated deforestation to build ships and cities had ensured that outcome.

Too bad Teddy never created a strategy to activate the vision. The U.S. could have started repurposing, renewing, and reconnecting sooner, and could have launched its restoration economy a century earlier.

ReunitedA vision can be written so as to embody (or at least imply) a strategy. For instance, Mark Gerzon’s new book from Berrett-Koehler (publisher of my first book, The Restoration Economy) is titled The Reunited States of America: How We Can Bridge the Partisan Divide.

In it, he describes a vision/strategy for restoring good governance and social cohesion, which would greatly boost socioeconomic revitalization in the United States. He calls citizens and leaders who put the nation’s interests above political interests “transpartisans”.

Here’s his combined vision/strategy:
Transpartisans are open to learning from each other, instead of insisting they already have all the answers. They work respectfully with people they disagree with, instead of vilifying and avoiding them. They’re willing to try new solutions, instead of clinging to the old approaches. And after the campaign is over, they insist their elected representatives come together to govern, not to just continue campaigning.

Riot copsThe renewal process requires constant lubrication to work well, and that lubricant is trust. So, each step should be executed in a way that builds trust in the people and institutions behind the process.

The path to revitalization can be as important as the destination. In communities torn apart by internal strife—or where the citizens don’t trust the government—a long engagement, visioning, and partnering process might be exactly what’s needed to heal and build trust.

Order emerges naturally in a just society. So the first responsibility of a political leader should be to impose justice, not order.


Let’s try to clear the air further. The following “tips” relate to common strategic mistakes and successes I’ve observed. But every place and time is different, so you need to find your own local path to revitalization: these are mostly generalities, not universal rules.

Random insights for creating green, vibrant, equitable, resilient places:

  1. Projects implement plans.
    Plans, programs, policies, and partnerships implement strategies.
    Strategies implement visions.
    A vision is a cohesive set of aspirational goals.
  2. Strategies must be based on verbs.  Adjectives and nouns are for visions.
    Beware of strategies with words like “sustainable”, “inclusive”, “creative”, “resilient”, etc.
  3. 3 ways to boost local tax revenues: 1) Raise rates; 2) Sprawl; 3) Revitalize.
    #1 angers everyone; #2 angers intelligent people; #3 makes everyone happy.
  4. A general who is winning the battles but losing the war changes the strategy.
    So should a city that’s winning at redevelopment, but losing at revitalization.
  5. Revitalization and sustainability success stories usually feature:
    a) A shared vision of the desired future;
    b) A strategy to achieve that vision; and
    c) An understanding of relevant trends, and how similar places achieved similar goals.
  6. Good citizens drive equitable visions.
    Good leaders drive efficient strategies.
    Good partnerships drive effective action.
  7. Strategic public-private partnerships flow opportunity and risk to private partners,
    while flowing resources and influence to public partners.
  8. Mayors often copy the physical product of revitalization in other cities, rather than
    learn from the innovative, inclusive, locally-appropriate process that created it.
  9. Most cities that want revitalization or resilience have no one in charge of delivering it.
    Those goals thus become wishes or dialogues, not programs.
  10. Retail is a sign of revitalization; seldom a cause.  Boost residents via affordable housing + transit, and retail emerges.
    Count pedestrians to measure revitalization.
  11. Tax Increment Financing: An excellent revitalization tool, but it’s often
    1) misused [for sprawl], 2) abused [developer subsidies], and 3) overused [revenue depletion].
  12. Economic development incentives are commodities; Quality of life and confidence in the local future
    are usually the key differentiators when recruiting employers.
  13. To build a tourism economy, design places that delight residents in your region:
    Locals provide year-round revenue, and most tourists prefer authentic, working communities.
  14. A regional strategy can revitalize a community faster than a local strategy,
    thanks to shared natural resources, infrastructure connectivity, and critical mass.
  15. A vision/strategy that can’t be recited during an elevator ride is too hazy or too complicated to succeed.
    If it can’t be remembered, it won’t affect decision-making.
  16. A good vision without a strategy is a pleasant daydream.
    A good strategy without a vision is the right route to the wrong place.
  17. A plan without a strategy is an activity catalog.
    To implement a plan without adaptive management is to be guided by a relic.
  18. Strategy before design: Don’t engage architects and planners too early.
    A specific design for your project—no matter how good—stifles creativity, and closes-off paths to alternatives.
  19. Strategies are essential, fluid, and live in minds.
    Plans are optional, rigid, and (too often) rot on shelves.
  20. For a resilient future, climate adaptation strategies: a) restore green infrastructure;
    b) repurpose energy infrastructure to renewables, c) revitalize today’s economy.
  21. Devastated places can leverage their recovery process to build a new economy
    as a national or global center for restorative education, workforce development, & technology.
  22. Size has a logarithmic dynamic in transit and trail strategies:
    Each new node can double the value of the entire system.
  23. Bilateral strategies reward what you desire and repel what you detest:
    Make redevelopment easier & cheaper while making sprawl harder & more expensive.
  24. Schizophrenic strategies self-destruct, such as urban regeneration that exacerbates economic inequity,
    or policies that encourage both sprawl and redevelopment.
  25. The Circular Strategy: Confidence in the local future attracts resources for revitalization;
    revitalization builds confidence in the local future.
  26. Places that renew the natural, built, social, and economic assets they have today,
    tend to attract the resources they need to renew more of them tomorrow.
  27. The more we revitalize, the more we CAN revitalize.
    The less we revitalize, the less we CAN revitalize.
  28. Adaptive strategies repurpose, renew, and reconnect your existing socioeconomic strengths
    and physical assets (natural, historic, agricultural, infrastructure, etc.).
  29. Revitalization strategies require thought. Magic bullets like a stadium, casino,
    street banners, aquarium, or convention center only require money.
  30. Gentrification and revitalization are not synonymous.
    Gentrification is revitalization done badly.
  31. A good revitalization strategy is simple, but a good vision is holistic:
    Beware redevelopment fads focused on a single attribute or asset type.
  32. Optimize, Don’t Maximize: Many revitalizing traits are devitalizing to cities and nature
    when in excess, such as density, flows, connectivity, nutrients, change, and stability.
  33. Just as green infrastructure helps cities absorb stormwater to reduce destructive flooding,
    regenerative strategies help cities absorb population growth to reduce destructive sprawl.
  34. Good strategies solve problems, tactics cope with symptoms.  For example:
    Armoring streams to fix watersheds is like armoring police to fix society.
  35. 80% of the revitalizing work done by urban planners and civil engineers in the 21st century
    will undo 80% of the work their predecessors did to cities and nature in the 20th century.
  36. If a lumber or mining town (or region) is devitalized due to resource depletion,
    a logical strategy for economic revitalization will be based on resource restoration.
  37. As was the damage and depletion of our world, our revitalized future
    —the global Restoration Economy—is based on investment, not on philanthropy.
  38. Unlike people, cities and nations don’t die of old age. Like people, they die from ignorance, fear, and neglect.
    Constant regeneration produces knowledge, optimism and care…thus yielding the “eternal” city or nation.
  39. On our depleted, fragmented, contaminated planet, the heart of a sustainable development strategy
    is actually restorative development: After all, who wants to sustain this mess?
“The revitalization of Harlem in the 1990s and early 2000s demonstrated that well-designed revitalization efforts, which included programs for small business and job creation, along with low-income housing targeted at local residents, can improve neighborhoods both physically and economically, while keeping the vast majority of residents in place.”
– Glenn Robert Erikson, member, World Policy Institute Advisory Council

Strategic thinking on Main Street:

For over three decades, one of the world’s most successful revitalization programs has been run by the National Main Street Center (NMSC), created by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.


Main Street Shelbyville, Kentucky

From the beginning, they recognized that hundreds of hard-working, well-meaning non-profit groups throughout America were spinning their wheels in efforts to revitalize downtowns via the repurposing and renewal of historic buildings.

What they all needed was a strategy, so NMSC devised a simple, generic strategy that all could apply. They call it the Four Point Approach: Organization; Promotion; Design; and Economic Restructuring.

They also offer eight Guiding Principles to guide the implementation of the Four Point Approach: Comprehensive; Incremental; Self-help; Partnerships; Identifying and capitalizing on existing assets; Quality; Change; Implementation.

The result? The states that have well-organized Main Street Programs have seen tremendous economic revitalization.

Kentucky has the oldest state-wide program, and Iowa probably has the best. The 44 communities in the Kentucky Main Street Program reported $76,126,662 of cumulative investment in their commercial downtown districts in 2015. In 2016, it was estimated that the Texas Main Street Program had generated some $3 billion and 30,000 jobs during the course of its existance.


Georgetown, Texas main street parade

Nationwide, the Main Street Program has triggered some $65.6 billion of public and private investment in physical improvements to downtowns since 1980. About 556,960 jobs were created and over 260,000 buildings were repurposed and/or renewed in the process. The return on investment averages about 26:1.

And they’re not resting on their laurels, having recently updated their Four Point strategy.

There’s room for improvement, of course. I find the relationship of the four points and the eight principles to be a bit of a jumble: a future redo could add some much-needed elegance and logic to its organization.

You’ve no doubt also noticed a crucial missing element: reconnecting. They are repurposing and renewing existing assets, but there’s not one mention of the word “connect” on NMSC’s pages explaining the Four Point Approach or the Guiding Principles. Connecting downtowns to suburbs (via corridor revitalization, as mentioned elsewhere in this guide), and to surrounding agricultural regions (thus creating local food systems) can supercharge a downtown.

Downtowns can’t reach their full potential in isolation. The heart needs the body as much as the body needs the heart. But even if you unite body and heart, revitalization is unlikely to succeed without a Strategic Renewal Process.

For instance, many developers complain that repurposing and renewing existing downtown buildings is too expensive, so they focus on sprawl. Most communities directly or indirectly subsidize sprawl, what’s known as “perverse subsidies”.

But the higher cost of reusing an older building isn’t intrinsic to the structures: it’s a by-product of your local policies, regulations and incentives. Change those, and you can make downtown the easier and more profitable place for developers.

Witness the massive explosion of inner city investment that was unleashed by New Jersey’s “Smart Codes” some 20 years ago (described in The Restoration Economy).

What if the sprawl zone is outside your city’s jurisdiction? Create a regional revitalization strategy in partnership with your county, and even neighboring counties. If they’re smart (a big “if”, granted), then they don’t want dead downtowns any more than you do.

Use incentives and disincentives to put your greenfields “off limits” to their developers, and get them to put there’s off limits to yours. Strategies can be cooperative: they don’t have to be competitive.

Strategic thinking in South Africa:

Many metropolises around the world are suddenly realizing that cars kill cities. As a result, they are closing key streets to automobile traffic and are boosting public transit. But many people love their cars, and can’t imagine living without them. So, to boost public support for pedestrianization and public transit, communities are declaring car-free days or weekends. The hope is that, when citizens see how much quieter, cleaner, and safer their neighborhoods are without car traffic, they will support more enlightened policies.

EcoMobility Jburg

Johannesburg’s Executive Mayor Parks Tau is leading urban ecomobility policies in South Africa.

You’ve probably read about the EcoMobility Festivals sponsored by ICLEI. The most recent one took place in October of 2015 in Sandton, a traffic-congested district of Johannesburg, South Africa.

The festival lasted an entire month, which cost millions of dollars.  Why so long?  Strategic thinking.  The vision ICLEI wanted to achieve was lasting change for the better.

If a street is closed for a day, people might visit it out of curiosity, but they’ll probably drive there. If an area is closed to traffic for a week, people needing to get there—such as for a dental appointment—might reschedule the visit to avoid being inconvenienced in their car.  But if an entire district is closed to cars for an entire month, people will have to find another way in. They might take a bus for the first time. Or they might realize how few other options there are, and demand more buses, trolleys, or subways. That can lead to lasting change.

“If you plan cities for cars and traffic, you get cars and traffic.
If you plan for people and places, you get people and places.”

– Fred Kent, Founder and President, Project For Public Spaces

The key was to devise a strategy (“close an entire district to cars for a month”) that would help ensure that the tactic (“shutting down car traffic”) actually accomplishes the goal. Most places just set a goal, and rush right into writing a plan. That plan might be expertly detailed on the best possible ways to close a place to cars for a day or weekend. But it will fail, because nobody took the time to create an overall process (strategy) that optimized the tactic’s ability to succeed.

Strategic thinking in Special Forces:

Special Forces crestThat time element mentioned above is often another differentiation between a tactic and a strategy. When I was with the U.S. Army’s 7th Special Forces Group (AKA “Green Berets”), we were taught how to deal with vastly superior forces. Since Green Berets operate in 12-person teams, and usually behind enemy lines, the best tactic was usually to run away. No strategy needed.

But if a Direct Action mission requires engaging a large force—say a 500-person battalion—a good strategy might employ multiple tactics over time. Sniping a few of them daily, so they are afraid to be in the open. Killing a few in their tents every night, so they are afraid to sleep. Contaminating their food or water, so they are afraid to eat or drink. Setting booby traps, so they are afraid to move. Living in constant fear is exhausting, and exhausted soldiers make mistakes, or give up entirely.
[That scenario is unlikely: the standard Green Beret strategy is a capacity-building mode called Unconventional Warfare, which recruits, trains, and equips locals to do their own fighting.]

Let’s take a moment to use the above example to ensure that you’re really clear about vision, strategy and tactics. For an A-Team taking on a battalion, the vision (goal) might be to render them ineffective as a fighting force. Various strategies could achieve this, two of them being: 1) kill all their officers and senior NCOs; or 2) demoralize and exhaust them. If strategy #2 is chosen, the tactics (“projects” in the civilian world) would be the above-mentioned sniping, poisoning and booby traps.

Green Berets in Uganda

Green Berets and Ugandan troops in 2015.
Photo credit:

Strategies are often more effective if kept ulterior. For instance, U.S. Army Special Forces are working with the Uganda People’s Defence Force to hunt down notorious Ugandan war criminal Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army. Sounds like a simple (not easy) Direct Action mission, right?

But the real mission is to strengthen the U.S. role in Africa, which has been weakened by major Chinese investments in badly-needed infrastructure.

The strategy is to use Unconventional Warfare (instead of Direct Action). That means local citizens and local troops live with Green Berets, get trained by them, and fight alongside them for months–even years–at a time. That forms deeper, more-lasting bonds with the U.S. than handing billion-yuan checks to politicians (especially in the corrupt C.A.R. and the D.R. of Congo, where Kony operates).

Strategic thinking on Gentrification:

OK: back to civilian applications. One compelling reason to learn strategy is to resolve conflicting constraints. Gentrification is a controversial aspect of revitalization these days, to the point where the American public often uses the two terms as if they were synonymous. Much of the heartbreaking social displacement of revitalization is easily avoidable when planners and developers simply care enough to create a strategy to avoid or minimize it.

Many gentrification debates are actually based on two false assumptions:

  • That economic growth and increased affordable housing are conflicting goals; and
  • That higher-income people moving into lower-income neighborhoods is a Bad Thing.

In fact, boosting affordable housing-especially in downtown areas–is a fairly reliable strategy for lasting revitalization. New research by Michael J. Hicks, PhD, and Dagney Faulk, PhD, of Ball State University proved that in today’s economy, jobs tend to move to people, whereas people often moved to jobs in the past. Many communities’ strategies are based on old assumptions, so they launch revitalization with commercial redevelopment, rather than residential. Or, they forget to include sufficient affordable housing, so there are too few employees to attract businesses.

Downtown Las Vegas

Downtown Las Vegas
Photo credit: Storm Cunningham

Affordable housing isn’t just a feel-good social responsibility tactic: it’s often at the heart of successful revitalization strategies. Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh famously sunk $350 million of his own money into revitalizing downtown Las Vegas (which is quite distant from the famous Strip).

He’s had mediocre results so far, largely because he didn’t provide sufficient affordable housing, so the area remains somewhat lifeless. It didn’t help that some of his partners didn’t get the “re” concept.

For instance, the magic of building places out of old shipping containers is that you’re giving new life to something that would normally become trash. One of the few bright spots in downtown Las Vegas is the Container Park. Just one problem: they purchased brand new containers for the project. Maybe they had too much money. That’s a real problem in some cities (such as in China), where their wealth prevents them from valuing the efficiency of reusing existing buildings, leading to destruction of heritage.

Creating economically diverse neighborhoods by inserting affordable housing into wealthy areas is a strategy for greater social health: poor ghettos and wealthy ghettos are both undesirable. Mixed-income, mixed-ethnicity, mixed-age, mixed-use, mixed-transit (foot, bike, car, bus, train, etc.) neighborhoods will define healthy 21st-century cities. While locally-appropriate strategies are crucial, it’s important to remember that some challenges are almost universal. Racial equity is one of these, especially here in the United States.

DiversityAs a result, it’s very likely that another city has already hit on a strategy that will work in yours. Joining organizations like the Government Alliance on Race and Equity helps avoid reinventing the wheel (it’s a national network of governments working to achieve racial equity and advance opportunities for all). That said, the process at arriving at a solution is sometimes more important than the solution itself, so be wary of shortcuts.

Just as injecting affordable housing into wealthy neighborhoods is socially revitalizing, so too is injecting wealthy residents into poor neighborhoods. Gentrification is only bad in excess: it usually brings higher wages, improved infrastructure, and socioeconomic diversity. All of these are healthy, except when the wealthy arrivals flaunt their wealth and keep to themselves. Hopefully, getting to know their neighbors will help them overcome their psychological problems, and thus be individually revitalizing.  Revitalization should lift residents up, not push them out.

“We talk of sustainable development and sustainable economies, but
it is time to move on to restorative development and restorative economies.”

– Richard Chartres, Bishop of London

The still-emerging field of regenerative economics was launched in 2002 with the publication of my first book, The Restoration Economy.

The Restoration Economy was the first book to document the rise of regenerative industries and disciplines.

Some of them were quite new, such as restoration ecology and brownfields remediation.

In fact, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had just launched its revolutionary brownfields program (probably the single most efficient federal program in the nation’s history, in terms of return on investment) in 1995, the year before I started writing The Restoration Economy.

Eight of the book’s twelve chapters created a taxonomy of the restoration economy (as relates to just natural and built assets, not cultural or socioeconomic), categorizing eight sectors of restorative development:

  • Ecosystem and species restoration;
  • Aquifer recharging and waterway/watershed restoration;
  • Estuary, reef, and pelagic fishery regeneration;
  • Regenerative agriculture;
  • Brownfields remediation and redevelopment;
  • Infrastructure renewal;
  • Heritage restoration/reuse; and
  • Catastrophe reconstruction.

Regenerative economics was advanced six years later when McGraw-Hill Professional (a non-defunct division of McGraw-Hill) published my second book, Rewealth.

One way of differentiating the focus of The Restoration Economy from that of Rewealth is that the former was more about the “ingredients” of revitalization (the various types of asset renewal).

Te latter, on the other hand, was more about the “recipe” for those ingredients: how one combines them to create economic growth and increased quality of life (revitalization).

The Restoration Economy was documenting a historic shift in the global economy, so it was more theoretical.

Rewealth contained numerous case studies of places coming back to life in a dramatic and unexpected manner, so it was more practical.

Regenerative economics was advanced again in 2012 by the great Marjorie Kelly with her book Owning Our Future, which was taglined “Journeys to a Generative Economy.” It was published by Berrett-Koehler Publishers, the same wonderful folks who published The Restoration Economy a decade earlier.

Although Owning Our Future is more about ownership models, and didn’t focus directly on “re”, it indirectly did so by categorizing economic activities as being either “generative” or “extractive.” This mirrors The Restoration Economy’s “destructive development” mode (based on sprawl and the extraction of non-renewable resources) vs. the “restorative development” mode (based on revitalizing the places we’ve already developed, and restoring the natural resources we damaged along the way).

Here’s a brief excerpt from the Foreword to Owning Our Future by David Korten: “Our well-being, indeed our future as a species, depends on restoring our relationships to one another and with the land, the water, the sky, and the other generative resources of nature that indigenous people traditionally considered it their obligation to hold and manage in sacred trust. The architecture of ownership is key.”

RE: A Prefix-based Strategy for Global Revitalization via Policymaking

The regeneration of our planet could be reduced to change in prefix. We need to replace “de” with “re“. Transitioning to a global (or local) restoration economy happens when we move…
…from development to redevelopment
…from despoilment to remediation
…from depletion to replenishment
…from demolition to restoration
…from degeneration to regeneration.
In other words, we need to stop being degenerates, and start becoming regenerates.

Demolition - GlasgowRegarding demolition:

The repurposing, renewing, and reconnecting of existing natural, built, and socioeconomic assets has long been the foundation of my “restoration economy” approach.

That said, not everything is worth saving. Demolition can, in fact, make way for progress. But demolition without a follow-up revitalization strategy can lead to social and economic isolation.

Some buildings are simply too ugly or too badly-constructed to be worth saving, like the FBI headquarters here in Washington, DC. It could have been declared “blight” the day it was commissioned.

FBIWhile I’m a passionate advocate of historic preservation, I don’t believe trash is magically transformed to treasure on its 50th birthday (50 years is the age a building becomes “historic” in the U.S.; a standard seen as ridiculously low in older nations).

Other buildings have been rendered un-reusable by water damage from poorly-maintained roofs, or by vandals (such as copper thieves).

But in general, planners and mayors often avoid the complexity of repurposing and renewing existing assets, and just go for the simplistic “wipe it all clean and start afresh” approach of mass demolition. This can sometimes make sense in places that desperately need to downsize their infrastructure maintenance budget to cope with a drastically lower population (like Youngstown, Ohio), but only if they have a revitalization strategy and Strategic Renewal Process in place.

Much research has gone into the new science of complex adaptive systems (economies, immune systems, etc.). It answers some of the most important questions, such as how do living systems arise, how do they evolve, and how do they recover after massive disruption. Today, most of the algorithms that run massively complex tasks (financial trading, weather forecasting, Netflix recommendations, etc.) derive in whole or in part from the insights of complexity science.

Bridge to bright futureApplying these insights at the human level is more of a challenge, but it can be done. For instance, politicians wishing to transform their city or nation should know that complex systems are best altered by changing the most basic decision-making rules of the system. These rules should guide individual “agents” in the desired new direction, while being flexible enough to allow decision makers in the field to adapt them to local needs and challenges.

Most urban planning instead tries to make arbitrary decisions for local agents. This is why—of the seven components of the Strategic Renewal Process (vision, strategy, policies, partners, plan, projects, and program)—plans are often the least necessary, and the most potentially harmful. This is not a criticism of the concept of planning, only the practice, which is usually based on strong central, rather than distributed, control.

Sometimes, only one rule needs to be changed. For instance, the struggling downtowns of many small U.S. communities are hampered in their efforts to compete with sprawl malls outside of town by archaic “blue laws” that ban sales of alcohol on Sunday, and prohibit businesses from being open on Sunday. Eliminating those rules might be all that’s needed to bring some downtowns back to life (though it’s seldom that simple).

Two core problems that undermine sustainability and resilience in worldwide are both related to accounting rules: 1) lack of full-cost accounting, and 2) lack of what I dubbed trimodal accounting and policymaking in my first book, The Restoration Economy. The former is a method of cost accounting that traces direct costs and allocates indirect costs by including the environmental, social and economic costs and benefits (AKA: “triple bottom line”). Due to the lack of full cost accounting, natural disasters and fossil fuels extraction go onto the books as economic growth, because we credit the jobs they create without debiting the lost value in damage or depletion.

TrimodalThe latter, trimodal accounting, recognizes that there are three basic modes of development:
1) New Development (sprawl and virgin resource extraction);
2) Maintenance/Conservation (maintaining the built environment and conserving what’s left of the natural environment); and
3) Restorative Development (redeveloping existing communities and replenishing natural resources.

Current government reporting only accounts for the first two modes: we’re inundated with figures like “new housing starts”, but redevelopment and restoration activities are largely invisible (or buried in maintenance as “capital improvements”). We can’t manage what we don’t measure. Restorative development is where almost all of the good economic news resides.

“Humanity has been destroying Earth’s forests for millennia; the 2015 Paris Agreement (calling for massive forest restoration)
means we’ve reached a fundamental turning point in that relationship.”

– Doug Boucher, Director, Tropical Forest/Climate Initiative, Union of Concerned Scientists

Sun above Earth

As we enter the Anthropocene Epoch, restorative development will be—directly or indirectly—the source of most economic growth. Embedding simple rules like repurposing, renewing, and reconnecting into policy is a strategy to accelerate an economy’s transition into restorative development. It simultaneously eliminates the frustration of trying to implement fuzzy concepts like “sustainable” and “resilient” (both are noble dialogues, but not rigorous methodologies).

Calling a design or technology “sustainable” because it pollutes less, wastes less, or does less damage to the planet is dishonest. At best, one could call such innovations “less unsustainable.” Something is sustainable only if it 1) creates NO pollution, waste, or damage, or 2) remediates existing pollution, waste, or damage. Destroying the world at a slower rate is nice, but it’s certainly not sustainable.

Many folks rightfully bemoan the plague of obsolete, decrepit, vacant structures and toxic, degraded, depleted lands and water bodies. A more positive way of looking at: we have a wealth of renewable assets.

These are fueling the $3 trillion/year global restoration economy.

Strategies and processes aren’t just needed to revitalize cities and regions: entire nations require need them.

For instance, Wales has long been an economic basket case. They were heavily dependent on coal mining for almost three centureies, so the shift to cleaner forms of energy, and cheaper sources of coal, hit them hard.

But that’s been the case for decades. During this time, the European Union has repeatedly awarded Wales the highest level of economic aid (called Objective One) in 2000, 2007 and 2014. Since 2000, an additional £5.3 billion has been injected into Wales from the EU, on top of major grants from the British government. But the economic needle hasn’t moved. Why?

I would posit that, while there’s been an unending flow of ideas and tactics designed to revitalize their economy, there’s never been a cohesive vision and strategy.

Ynys Llanddwyn in Anglesey, Wales.
Photo via Adobe Stock

Some good visions have been suggested, such as keeping the focus on energy, but shifting to renewal sources. But none of these visions were supported by a national strategy: we’ve just seen a string of projects.

The turning point for long-suffering Wales will come when it has a Strategic Renewal Process: vision, strategy, policies, plan, projects, partners and program.

And it will need an entity to house that program, because—believe it or not—they don’t have an economic development agency of any sort. So, of the seven essential elements of a renewal process, they have just two: visions and projects.

We often hear economists “explaining” economic collapses, both local and national. Where we seldom see economists is in economic rebirth situations; either during or after the fact. Why is that? Most economists are similar to engineers (see Part 4 above) in both their love of control and their fear of surprises. This is why few degreed economists work in the messy field of community revitalization.

Traditional economics is a never-ending search for the unicorn of stasis, equilibrium, and predictability. It arbitrarily assumes linear, mechanical effects in the system and purely rational behavior in the individual agents. Both assumptions are plainly absurd, but without them, economists wouldn’t be able to create the illusion that they know what they’re talking about.

Like most engineering and reductionist scientific disciplines, conventional economists are loath to recognize that the whole is often more than the sum of its parts. Facing up to that obvious reality messes up the simplicity of their assumptions, and their ability to “explain”. Economists’ inability to make accurate predictions undermines its claim to be one of the sciences.

This is why most economists either 1) teach economics, or 2) work for government agencies and large corporations, where their primary duty is to justify whatever course of action has already been decided upon (or to legitimize a previous action).

Conventional economics is designed by economists for economists, and so has little relevance to the chaos and complexities of reality. But an economy—by definition—encompasses natural resources, infrastructure, agriculture, urban societies, information, technologies, and much more. This inherent holism makes an economics degree a wonderful background for anyone doing useful, high-level work (not economics itself).

The more recent trend towards “complexity economics” is far more courageous. It attempts to understand a world where individuals react to pattern that their decisions have helped create, and how those patterns alter as a result of their reaction, which means the individuals must react again.

Starlings swarming without centralized control or leadership

Whereas traditional economics only acknowledges negative feedback loops (diminishing returns), complexity economics also accepts the reality of positive feedback loops (increasing returns, which is the primary source of economic surprises).

The emergent property known as an increasing returns situation is a synergistic “whole is greater than the sum of the parts”-type behavior, whereby output increases by a larger proportion than the increase in inputs.

Increasing returns has been known of since the time of Adam Smith, conventional economists closed their minds to increasing returns.

In 1939, Sir John Hicks, a founder of modern economics, said that acknowledging the reality of increasing returns would wreck established economic theory.

Brian Arthur at World Economic Forum (2011) Photo credit: World Economic Forum

It robs standard economic models of the two qualities most prized by economists: mechanical determinism and simplicity.

The courageous work of forcing economics to deal with reality was pioneered in the modern age by Stanford economist W. Brian Arthur.

This is similar to the way classical (e.g. Newtonian) physicists choose to believe that the quantum realm can’t affect the physical realm. It’s not due to lack of intellect to grasp the obvious (just two views of the same universe, at different scales), but due to lack of courage to face the ramifications.

Put in quantum terms, one might say that a 3Re strategy and a Strategic Renewal Process helps a community select the probability wave leading to a revitalized future.

Intersection of quantum & classical probability. Image credit: R. Nave, Georgia State University

Increasing returns doesn’t just apply to economics, of course. Witness the small amount of “social currency” issued by individuals like Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, or Gandhi, and amount of such currency that ended up in circulation.

Such movements could be considered “social revitalization”, and they succeed due to the same three dynamics that drive successful economic revitalization: confidence, momentum, and alignment. The opposite of such movements also arise–those promoting fear, ignorance, and separation–and these tend to produce both social and economic devitalization.

Increasing returns makes complexity economics the only form that can deal with the surprising dynamics of revitalization. [Note: I call myself a “resilience economist”, despite lacking an advanced degree in economics, because it’s been my field of study since 1996. And because it’s not taught in any school I know of.]

An obvious factor in devising a successful strategy is basing it on a reasonably accurate perception of the situation one wishes to change. Turning a blind eye to the messy, complex nature of economic revitalization—local, regional, or national—is not an option in the real world, as it is in academia.

In the summer of 1996, Harvard Business Review published one of the most influential articles in its long history: W. Brian Arthur’s Increasing Returns and the New World of Business.

Two decades later, the December 7, 2016 issue of Fast Company magazine featured an article titled
A Short History Of The Most Important Economic Theory In Tech. In it, author Rick Tetzelli says “the theory of increasing returns is as important as ever: It’s at the heart of the success of companies such as Google, Facebook, Uber, Amazon, and Airbnb“.  Business strategists rely on increasing returns, but the theory has yet to make any serious inroads in the field of community revitalization.

The Holy Grail of all revitalization efforts is to trigger an increasing returns situation. That’s what a Strategic Renewal Process can do. Combine an acceptance of increasing returns with the trimodal development perspective plus full-cost accounting, and one has a solid foundation for a new field of study: resilient economies.

Its goal wouldn’t be prediction, which is a silly aspiration in this world of complex adaptive systems. The purpose would be to generate useful insights into the process of bringing places back to life, leading to better strategies and management.

  • Part 8: The 3Re STRATEGY: Repurposing + Renewing + Reconnecting = Resilient Prosperity
“The idea of ‘liveability’ (has) given rise to numerous indices.
In fact, there are now more indices covering…liveability than any other area.”

– World Economic Forum, World’s Most Liveable Cities

Several times above, we’ve said that your vision should drive your strategy. While that’s true, it doesn’t mean that every vision should have a different strategy; only that the strategy should serve the vision. In reality, there’s a single strategy works well in almost any place whose vision is to create resilient prosperity of some sort: the 3Re Strategy.

Improving our quality of life (the “livability” of a place) usually boils down to three actions: repurposing outdated assets or institutions; 2) renewing those assets or institutions; and reconnecting those old assets or institutions. Those “assets” might be natural, built, cultural, or socioeconomic. Thus, what I refer to as the 3Re Strategy: repurposing, renewing, and reconnecting.

3Re: The core of revitalization strategies for nature, neighborhoods, and nations.

Sacramento-25 Water is a powerful revitalizer in both the urban and natural environments. Any community that has a significant waterfront, and that isn’t revitalizing, probably isn’t trying very hard. Or they don’t have the right strategy. Or they have an incomplete renewal process.

The key to tapping water’s power is often a “3Re Strategy” (Repurpose-Renew-Reconnect). Sometimes we must repurpose a body of water (such as from serving manufacturing to serving recreation). Sometimes we must renew it (such as cleaning and restoring a river). Sometimes we must reconnect people to it (such as removing or burying a waterfront highway). All three together can yield magic, as we’ll see in a moment.

Prague at night Charles Bridge to the river and the old town center

* Manhattan’s High Line Park
* Atlanta’s Beltline
* Chicago’s Bloomingdale Trail
* Philadelphia’s Reading Viaduct
* Seoul’s Cheonggyecheon
* Detroit’s Dequindre Cut Greenway
* Paris’ Promenade Plantée
* Toronto’s The Bentway
* Jersey City’s The Embankment
* Rotterdam’s Hofplein
* Singapore’s Green Corridor

What do the revitalizing, leading-edge projects listed above have in common? All are based on:
1) Repurposing (adapting) old infrastructure and unused spaces;
2) Renewing and greening those spaces for pedestrian and/or bicycle usage; and
3) Reconnecting isolated and/or distressed neighborhoods.

The same “3Re” approach is also being used to revitalize our natural environment, such as repurposing abandoned farms or golf courses as public parks; renewing their biodiversity & structure; and reconnecting isolated, dying ecosystems (such as via dam removal) to allow migratory activities and nutrient flows.

If forced to use just 3 words, I posit that “Repurpose. Renew. Reconnect.” could serve as a “universal” core for revitalization strategies (or resilience strategies, since both are emergent qualities deriving from similar factors).  Why?  Because worldwide, our cities are plagued by obsolete, damaged / depleted, and fragmented assets.

Repurposing is usually the first step: finding an appropriate new use for an old asset or property attracts funding and public support. That funding and support then enables renewal (restoration, redevelopment, etc.). Finally, reconnecting that asset provides access, which unleashes social and economic vibrance. Repurposing and renewing are mostly done at the local level, but the most important reconnecting can often only be done at the county, regional, or even national levels.

High Line Park

High Line Park

What happens when repurposing, renewing, and reconnecting meet? Magic.

Just look at the High Line Park. New York City planned to spend millions of dollars demolishing this defunct elevated railway. Keeping the ugly relic made no sense, until two local citizens–Robert Hammond and Josh David–envisioned repurposing it as a linear park.

That unleashed funding for renewing the structure as a beautiful green pedestrian space, which more than doubled nearby real estate values. In its first decade, the High Line generated $2.2 billion in new economic activity. The city expects over $1 billion in increased tax revenues over the next 20 years. It’s visited by over 5 million people annually, making it the city’s 2nd most visited cultural attraction.

Hudson Yards

Hudson Yards

But that’s not all. By reconnecting neighborhoods on the lower west side of Manhattan with the Hudson Rail Yards, the High Line enabled the city to do something they had envisioned for decades: cap and develop the space above the rail yards.

This is now happening: the $20 billion Hudson Yards mixed-use redevelopment is the largest real estate transaction in New York City history.   That’s a 3Re-based strategy at work.

Here’s the key lesson from the High Line: Repurposing, renewing, and reconnecting are each powerful and effective on their own. Many communities have been revitalized using just one of these tactics. But the magic occurs when all three are combined to reinforce each other, thus forming a true revitalization strategy.

While repurposing often precedes renewing, it’s not always needed. For instance, restoring vital flows to a place that’s been isolated can trigger renewal of its original function, with no need to repurpose it.

Tampa RiverWalk. Photo by Storm Cunningham

Such flows might be water, nutrients, pedestrians, shoppers, traffic, migrating wildlife, etc. Another example: reconnecting a neighborhood by removing a badly-planned urban highway often triggers revitalization (renewal).

It’s also not unusual for reconnecting to be the first step, rather than the last, as this article about Tampa’s downtown waterfront revitalization argues it sometimes should be.

Even the most successful of current revitalization approaches are usually good at only one or two of the 3Re elements. For instance, Main Street and historic preservation groups have nailed the “repurposing” and “renewing” elements, but tend to be weak at “reconnecting”.

This wastes much of their revitalizing potential. Pedestrian and bicycling trail groups, such as Rails To Trails, are great at “repurposing” and “reconnecting”, but tend to be weak at “renewing”.

Merced RiverReconnecting can be the most effective, least expensive way to revitalize a place. Let’s say you have a degraded riparian ecosystem (such as a stream) and a degraded mountaintop ecosystem.

The biodiversity of both can be restored simultaneously, without touching either. How?
By restoring the land (such as an old farm) that separates them. This reconnects the two systems, allowing seasonal migrations that revitalize both.

One more example: Many downtown revitalization initiatives focus exclusively on the center of the community.

Empty DowntownBut, as mentioned in the Main Street section above, downtowns are the heart of a community, and hearts need healthy blood vessels.

Wise communities also focus on revitalizing the corridors leading to the downtown. This reconnects downtown and suburbs to restore healthful flows of residents, shoppers, employers, and employees.

The 3Re strategic core can be applied at any scale: property, city, region, or nation. For instance, many national economies will need to be repurposed in the coming years. This will most likely take place in countries that are heavily-dependent on unsustainable resource extraction, such as fisheries, old-growth timber, oil, or mining.

Want to see a list of good strategies?

You won’t find it here. That would be like a doctor listing good treatment regimens, without knowing who the patient is, and without knowing anything about their medical history, age, gender, or current condition.

Magic Fountain in Barcelona (Adobe Stock).

If one looks at 100 resilience plans for 100 cities, one can expect to see significant overlap in terms of tactics and principles. Where there shouldn’t be much overlap is in strategy. They might share a few core words, such as “repurpose”, “renew”, and “reconnect”, but that’s about it.

Again: the sole function of strategy is to boost your chances of success. That means it’s dependent on the local situation: politics, history, economy, ethnicity(s), geography, resources, attitudes, mores, superstitions, traditions, expectations, etc. The strategy is what helps ensures that the vision, design, plan, and projects are embraced by the local stakeholders, are properly funded, and are implemented at the right time.

In other words, the strategy for a resilience initiative has nothing to do with resilience: the resilience elements are in the vision, design, plan, projects, etc. Likewise, a strategy for revitalization would have nothing to do with revitalization. A strategy for social justice would have nothing to do with social justice. If you don’t understand that, I’m afraid you still don’t understand strategy. That would be a damn shame, since we’re almost at the end of this strategy guide.

Here’s an example of a common element to be found in most resilience plans: the expansion and improvement of green infrastructure. If one Googles the definition of “green infrastructure”, one gets a large number of variations on a similar theme, and a phrase that’s common to almost all of them is “strategically planned“.

Here’s a composite definition that pretty much represents them all: “Green infrastructure is a strategically planned and managed network of natural areas and other open spaces that conserves and restores natural ecosystem values and functions, provides clean air and water, and delivers a wide array of benefits to people and wildlife”.

Strategy determines location and design, which is what turns a bunch of dirt and plants into green infrastructure.

Sea level rise, ocean acidification, and increased frequency/severity of storms are all in the process of rendering the future of many coastal economies non-viable. Climate change is undermining many once-productive farming regions, which might need to repurpose by switching to crops that do better in hotter, drier climates, rather than abandoning agriculture altogether.

Repurposing, renewing, and reconnecting is the only way many of these places will adapt and survive.

“Those who have never experienced anything but decline
may have difficulty even conceptualizing a different reality.”

– Alan Mallach, Regenerating America’s Legacy Cities (Lincoln Institute of Land Policy)

At the beginning of this guide, I said there are two elements of the revitalization process that are commonly missing. This guide is primarily about one of them: strategies. But I’d be remiss in not at least briefly mentioning the other: programs.

Over the past 14 years (20, if you include the 6 years spent researching and writing my first book, The Restoration Economy), some of the saddest places I’ve encountered are those that have worked hard on revitalizing their city, only to experience a series of emotional highs, followed by disappointments. This can be hard on the community psyche. I call it “bipolar redevelopment”.

One source of the frustration that leads to depression is the previously-mentioned “schizophrenic redevelopment”: implementing polar-opposite development policies simultaneously. Two examples are 1) working on downtown revitalization while allowing (even subsidizing) sprawl; and 2) demolishing vacant homes (and repurposable buildings) while trying to boost affordable housing.


Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

But the primary source of depressing scenarios is a focus on projects, rather than programs. They throw everything they have into projects that revitalize a specific property or area, and then take a few years off. By the time the next big project comes along, the previous one is dead or dying. This same dynamic can apply to landscape-scale environmental restoration efforts.

This stop-start approach creates no revitalizing flow. Without a flow, no momentum is produced. Momentum is what inspires confidence in the local future. And increasing confidence in the local future—as described earlier—is the most important strategic outcome.

Cities don’t build next to ephemeral wetlands: they build next to flowing rivers, flowing estuaries, and flowing tides. Inland communities without major water assets build at the intersections of highways or railroads, where flows of people and commerce are high.

Good redevelopment planners are always looking to restore flows, and the opportunities to do so are endless. Much of the urban planning work of the 21st century is based on undoing the planning work of the 20th century: it was largely based on fragmentation (such as single-use zoning, and single-economic-class neighborhoods), and on serving cars at the expense of people.


Gardiner Expressway, Toronto, Ontario

Look at the best regeneration initiatives going on around the planet, and you’ll see that the restoration of healthful flow is their basis.

Some are removing badly-planned urban highways to restore flows between neighborhoods, or between downtowns and waterfronts. Others are removing obsolete dams to restore fish migrations, and thus economically-vital fisheries.

All such projects are strategic. But to achieve the maximum revitalizing effect, they should cease being isolated, limited-term, restorative projects, and become comprehensive, ongoing revitalization programs.

Ongoing programs are especially important due to a universal behavior psychologists refer to as “recency bias”.

Humans tend to extrapolate the past into the future, but we put extra emphasis on recent events. Investors flock to a stock (or a market) that’s been rising steadily, even though looking further into the past reveals the likelihood of a downturn.

Applied to community economic growth, this means that the $1 million redevelopment of a historic building into a new hotel that opened last week will inspire more confidence in the future of a community than the $200 million convention center that opened 3 years ago. An ongoing program that spawns a constant flow of small and medium-sized renewal projects will likely attract more investment to your city than will large projects that occur once every 5 or 10 years.

Maybe the most important factor in creating a good strategy is creating a good vision. And the key to a good vision is focus: winnowing it down to a few clear goals that reinforce each other.

For instance, too many communities operate their affordable housing and their public transit programs in separate silos. Low-income folks are far more dependent on public transit, yet many cities focus bus service on middle-income neighborhoods.

It’s also common to see affordable housing developments lacking effective public transit. But reinforcing each other, they create a real solution.

The graphic to the left shows the four key strategic elements that the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) came up with. Their concept is that strengthening their communities is the best way to strengthen the nation. Since over 80% of Canada’s population is urban, this makes a lot of sense as the foundation of a national resilience program, and of the federal polices needed to support it.

I’ve seen many dedicated professionals throw time and money into creating excellent tools that die on the vine due to lack of programmatic support. Often, there was no training to help leaders and citizens understand the need for the tool. Or no strategy that positioned the tool as a key tactic.

For instance, in April of 2017, a county in Virginia abandoned their Revitalization Map, a smart 2016 effort on the part of their Revitalization Manager. Why? Because a few city council members didn’t want restrictions on which projects they could incentivize. They could only see what the map prevented them from doing; not its strategic value. An ongoing program, as part of a Strategic Renewal Process, helps avoid the heartbreak of wasted effort.

Project Management vs. Program Management

The Project Management Institute (PMI) defines program management as: “A group of related projects managed in a coordinated way to obtain benefits and control not available from managing them individually.” In other words, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, which is another way of describing emergent phenomena. [My thanks to PMI for having me keynote their Global Congress (along with Bill Clinton), where I first encountered this definition.]

An alternate (and more mission-specific) definition of “program” is offered by the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council: “a suite of intrinsically-linked restoration and/or conservation activities that must be implemented together in order to achieve the desired outcome.”

Adaptive Renewal

Resilient Prosperity via the 3Re Strategy.
Copyright 2015, Storm Cunningham.

Just as the world has plenty of planners and too few strategists, so too does it have plenty of project managers and too few program managers. As previously mentioned, revitalization is an emergent quality of a complex adaptive system. It’s the turning point, where a system hits a critical mass of renewal and shifts to a different state.

At that point, revitalization becomes self-perpetuating–revitalization begets more revitalization–and the public leaders no longer need to keep pushing for it.

Thus, revitalization can’t be engineered on a schedule. Reliably reaching the revitalization tipping point means doing the right things until the right time. That requires an ongoing program, which requires a competent program manager.

Such managers need to be comfortable operating “in the dark.” Unlike a simple project with an engineered outcome, a revitalization manager never knows when he/she will bump into the goal.
As novelist William Kent Krueger says in Manitou Canyon, “Sometimes a man walks into the night and does not understand why he cannot see. He blames himself for the darkness.” And so it can be for the revitalization director who is asked “Where are we in the process? When will our city be reborn?

Satya Nadella in 2013. Photo: Le Web Paris.

It’s not just cities that need ongoing regeneration: we thrive on it as individuals, and corporations can’t survive without it (unless they pay politicians to create a monopoly situation for them).

For instance, after decades of reportedly psychologically-abusive management by Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer, Microsoft developed a toxic, fear-based culture. Internal groups were at war with each other, and everyone was so terrified of making a mistake that innovation dried up.

Then, Satya Nadella took over as CEO in 2014, and Microsoft has rapidly been reborn.

The key was creating a risk-friendly environment where people felt free to fail, and where the company’s products and services were regenerated on an ongoing basis. “We needed needed a culture that allowed us to constantly refresh and renew,” he says.

“When you do an organizational redesign…the most important aspect is always the process by which the work gets done.”
– Rex Tillerson, former CEO of ExxonMobil, current U.S. Secretary of State.

Public and private leaders tend to treat regeneration as if it has no essential underlying principles, frameworks, or components. They take whatever approach seems to be dictated by their available human, organizational, physical, and capital resources. Instead, we must adapt local efforts to a proven revitalization process, not alter the revitalization process to fit local limitations.

Production requires process. All production of desired results (such as products and services) requires a process:

  • Farmers turning land into income have a process for planting, harvesting and selling their crops.
  • The seeds those farmers plant have a growth and reproduction process of their own.
  • Every company the farmers’ output reaches has a process for creating, distributing and marketing value-added products.
  • All of those companies are served by professionals and firms that have processes for delivering services.
  • Each of the above steps is taxed and regulated by government processes that provide essential public infrastructure and safety.

Generic process chart (anonymous)

Information is turned into knowledge via process. For instance, when disaster recovery and reconstruction agencies set up their IT (information technology) and GIS (geographic information system) in a post-catastrophe situation, they use a 3-step process: 1) gather existing data to better-understand the situation; 2) collect new data to stay on top of the situation; and 3) use mapping to allocate resources for an effective response.

Virtually every community on the planet wants to boost their quality of life, their economy, their health, and their resilience. In other words, virtually every community wants to revitalize in some manner, even if they’re in good economic shape. But they don’t have a good process for doing so.

I emphasized “good” because most cities use the RFP (Request For Proposals) process to redevelop their derelict properties. While the process certainly has value, many places sabotage that value by being overly-specific as to what they want to see on a redeveloped site. They assume that no one could imagine anything better, and are often wrong in that assumption. They’ll have plenty of time to reject bad ideas later in the process: restricting creativity in the RFP itself is usually a mistake.

Some say that “RFP” stands for “Really Faulty Process”. An example is this article by Nick Halter in the Nov. 30, 2017 Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal titled “RFP: Really Faulty Process. Why cities and counties struggle to develop their properties“. In it, Halter says “At least $600 million worth of development has been promised but not yet delivered, and that doesn’t include the massive redevelopment of the Arden Hills ammunition plant, which also has been delayed and could eventually add hundreds of millions to the Ramsey County tax base.” He blames the RFP process for these delays and failures.

Go to the leaders of any of the tens of thousands of communities that are attempting to revitalize and ask what their process is, and you’ll get a blank look. They will probably start listing their activities, such as recruiting employers, or beautifying the streetscapes, or redeveloping brownfields.

But they won’t have a process that ensures these things are being done in a productive sequence. They are like farmers who don’t know that crops have to be planted before they can be harvested.

That said, the sequence of renewal process described here can be adapted to local needs, but the vision and strategy must always be #1 and #2, respectively. The vision drives the strategy, and the strategy drives the rest.

One important note about visioning: this is the portion of the process where most of your community engagement should take place. If you do a good job of creating a shared vision, and if the citizens trust that your subsequent work will adhere to that vision, then relatively little further public engagement should be needed. This is good, because public engagement at the wrong parts of the process can gum-up the works, causing sometimes-fatal delays.

It’s not just sequence that’s important, of course: not understanding the community revitalization process means that key steps in that process will likely be missing. In that case, these community leaders are like farmers who don’t know that crops must be watered after planting. Witness the number of places whose revitalization or resilience efforts (yours?) lack a strategy. Or lack supporting policies. Or lack an ongoing program.

A factory producing cars has a process. A school producing graduates has a process. All professional managers seem to know that they need a process, except community revitalization leaders.

A community or region wishing to produce economic growth and enhanced livability should have a Strategic Renewal Process if they want to reliably produce revitalization. But most just have activities: a plan here, a project there, and a lot of hope that this will magically result in revitalization or resilience at some point.

While planning can be good, it often brings things to a standstill while it’s happening, and is ignored after its done. A plan is too voluminous to guide decisions. For that, you need a strategy, and that should fit on the back of an envelope.

“I don’t have business plans…I have a back-of-the-envelope idea of what I want to do.”
– Richard Branson, Founder & CEO of the Virgin Group.

Even worse, many people think planning IS the revitalization process. The planning process produces a plan. If it’s done well, it also produces community engagement. And that’s it. A plan is not a community revitalization process any more than a map of the world is the world itself.

In places that do have a semblance of process, it’s often backwards: they try to attract employers by giving away future tax revenues, assuming that more jobs translates to revitalization and better livability. Such incentives often attract low-quality jobs from firms that disappear when the freebies run out. Meanwhile, the city struggles with insufficient revenue, so quality of life declines.

Communities should instead improve their quality of life first. That’s a reliable attractor of good employers, and they get a better quality of life even if the jobs don’t come…a “can’t lose” strategy.

In fact, the over-use of tax incentives by economic developers often leads to devitalization. General revenues dry up because companies are paying no taxes, thus degrading public services (such as infrastructure maintenance) and quality of life.

Further devitalization then ensues, since high-quality employers are primarily attracted by high quality of life and efficient infrastructure.

This “can’t lose” strategy was how Chattanooga became a poster-child of revitalization: they first focused on repurposing their waterfront from industrial to residential and recreational use, renewing their brownfields and air quality, and reconnecting downtown to the waterfront. Then they landed a $4 billion VW plant on one of the brownfields with economic development incentives.

The assumption of most “economic developers” is that attracting a large employer is virtually synonymous with revitalization. How then, does one explain the situation described in this article from the June 15, 2016 issue of Fortune magazine?

spamFor the past 10 years, Hormel Foods (whose best-known product is Spam®) has been on a tear. Revenue has increased from $5.4 billion to $9.3 billion…Earnings have more than doubled, the dividend has almost quadrupled, and the stock has returned roughly 400%.

Austin, Minnesota…is the hometown of Hormel Foods… Nearly everything in Austin owes its existence to Hormel. (but there’s) No Starbucks and no Toyota dealer. The Target closed last year. Staples the year before. The only Airbnb option is a fifth-wheel trailer.

Mayors love “economic development” because successes are visible and failures are largely invisible. And because the strategy is simplistic (not to be confused with simple): “bribe employers to come here with low or no taxes.” But a concise strategy isn’t automatically a good strategy.

Mayors also love economic development because it uses the magic phrase: “job creation.” But stealing jobs from another city or state is a zero-sum game; one place’s gain is another’s loss. There’s certainly no net gain for the nation.

An ad for the city of Atlanta, Georgia in the March 1, 2017 issue of FORTUNE magazine brags that they got Mercedes-Benz to relocate their North American headquarters from Montvale, New Jersey, saying the move created “800 new jobs.” Really? If the headquarters had moved 900 feet to another block in Montvale, would that also have created 800 new jobs? How does moving 900 miles change that?

This insanity was most recently documented in a March 16, 2017 article in the Wall Street Journal.

citypowerNew York City, Columbus, Boston, and Seattle have some of the highest tax rates in the nation, and are all economically robust. Hundreds of other cities have spent decades enticing relocating employers with massive tax breaks, and are in worse shape than ever. “Abandoning local economic development policies is almost politically impossible for local leaders. But it is the right thing to do,” says Richard Schragger, University of Virginia law professor in his new book, City Power (2016).

Employers are just ingredients of revitalization. The renewal process is the recipe. Again, the three key dynamics of revitalization are confidence, momentum, and alignment.

The Revitalization Feedback Loop.

The Strategic Renewal Process described above—properly implemented—should yield all three elements. With the right strategy, a single regenerative project can trigger a “restoration contagion” that ripples out, raising property values and neighborhood health all around it.

Revitalization usually takes far longer to gain momentum than anyone expects. But once it does, it often transforms a place far faster than anyone expected was possible.

This behavior results from the confidence-based revitalization feedback loop: Regenerative projects (“fixes” on the chart) boost confidence, and increased confidence in the future of a place attracts more regenerative projects.

This Guide has primarily focused on strategy. Describing the entire renewal process would require a book, and is the primary focus of my talks and workshops. They help places design and launch revitalization programs properly, to reduce time, cost, and the chances of failure.

You need a complete process, and shouldn’t succumb to the temptation to use only those elements you find familiar, comfortable, and convenient. Why? Because:

  • Without a vision, you won’t achieve the right outcome;
  • Without a strategy, you might not achieve anything at all;
  • Without supportive policies, stakeholders might not be able to do what’s needed;
  • Without partners, you might not have the necessary resources of political support;
  • Without a plan, you won’t know what to do next;
  • Without projects, nothing real actually happens; and
  • Without an program, you might not gather the momentum and confidence needed to reverse a downward trajectory.

Using a Strategic Renewal Process to break down silos.

Silos-15Maybe the biggest obstacle to creating revitalization strategies is siloing: everyone works on the pieces, no one on the whole.

Silos are dysfunctional vestiges of the 20th century, alien to today’s hyper-connected, partnering-oriented, stakeholder engagement world. Strategists usually facilitate the emergence of a strategy, rather than craft one in isolation. With today’s communications technologies, such “emergent strategies” can often be devised, tested, and revised at a lightning pace.

For instance, you’d think that employment would be a key component of revitalization, right?

Here’s the reply I got from the CEO of a county economic development council, when asked if he had been involved in any revitalization successes: “Hi, Storm: I am not in an urban revitalization role. We are a non-profit. Our focus is recruitment, retention, expansion, entrepreneurship, workforce development, international trade/FDI, and competitiveness. Revitalization and redevelopment is handled by county staff.” The staff in that same county said that redevelopment and revitalization are handled by developers and non-profit partnerships.

But it gets worse: many economic development agencies are decades behind in their thinking, and still consider sprawl to be the only way to grow an economy. Here’s a reply I got on January 17, 2018 from an economic development agency official in South Carolina, when I asked if they had been involved in any local redevelopment: “Unfortunately I’m not much help. Our services are focused primarily on greenfield opportunities – companies building brand new facilities normally on property that has not been developed before.

“The years of graduate-school seminars and rigorous mathematical training empowers PhD economists to converse with each other in a language all our own [often having no practical value, predictive power, or relevance to reality]. This allows us…to believe that our years of education were worthwhile because we can recognize each other and sneer at the impostors. In the mean time, the rest of the world takes thoughtful advice and opinions from people who sometimes, while not having our illustrious pedigree, have…better ideas.”

– from “What Makes An Economist?” in The Economist (October 2007).

Economic strategy often falls into the interstitial spaces among the silos. Translation: it’s nobody’s job. Folks have talked about the silo problem for decades. Does it still exist? You be the judge: On May 3, 2016, I asked a “Chief Economist” if he had any urban revitalization-related material to contribute to Revitalization News. His answer was “no” because “my work on urbanization is mostly related to economic development and inclusive growth.” Being an academic, the distinction might be useful, so he knows what journal to submit to. In the real world, it’s the opposite of useful.

InsanityReductionism, the belief that we can understand (or worse, control) the behavior of living systems by isolating and analyzing their parts, is a form of insanity. One thing it leads to is isolated specialization of knowledge: understanding the trees, but being clueless about the forest.

Silos are handy when we wish to keep our barley separate from our hops. Beer makers can access those silos and combine their contents to brew ale. But communities aren’t so good at accessing their siloed resources and expertise when they wish to brew community revitalization.

Managing and funding our parks separately from our water infrastructure might make sense, but there must be an effective way for those two agencies to interface and share when a revitalization effort is underway. The right revitalization process taps these stakeholder and resource silos, without requiring established institutions to change their structure or behavior.


Chattanooga (photo by author)

The first silo-busting revitalization processes I studied were those of Chattanooga, Tennessee and Bilbao, Spain. I documented them in my 2008 book, Rewealth (McGraw-Hill Professional).

It’s insane for a revitalization initiative to focus on just one or two realms, whether economy, jobs, society, health, justice, environment, infrastructure, heritage, brownfields, and buildings. But most do.
It might not be insane to revitalize a downtown without including suburbs and surrounding rural areas in the process, but it certainly wastes potential and hamstrings success. That’s like trying to improve the health of your heart while ignoring the health of your body.

But silos tend to contain many resources and a lot of expertise. So, rather than busting silos, maybe the more productive approach would be to effectively (re)connect them. Here’s a quick example of how a good strategy can connect the problems and resources trapped inside two professional silos, to solve the problems of both.


Solar canal covers in Gujarat, India
Photo by Hitesh vip via Wikipedia

All over the world, drinking water and agricultural water professionals professionals have long bemoaned the vast quantities of water that evaporate from canals and irrigation ditches.

Meanwhile, renewable energy professionals have long bemoaned the fact that very large solar arrays usually cover arable land or wildlife habitat (such as deserts).

In the state of Gujarat, India, someone decided that there must be a strategy that would solve all of these problems. That forced them to link the silos, and—sure enough—a simple strategy emerged.

They decided to put to solar arrays over the canals. This greatly reduces evaporation by shielding them from the sun. It also provides almost unlimited surface area—with built-in right-of-ways—without infringing on farmland or ecosystems.

Transient chaos, pulsing, and false alarms.

The Perfect StormThe 2000 movie, The Perfect Storm (based on the 1997 book of the same title), documented the collision of three violent weather systems in 1991. One story (inaccurately told in both the book and the movie) described a private sailboat heading to Bermuda, manned by a captain and two paying passengers.

When the storm hit, the captain did what he was supposed to do: heave-to and go below to ride out the storm.

His two inexperienced passengers mistook his inaction as giving up, and radioed the Coast Guard for help. A brave man lost his life unnecessarily “rescuing” the three off the boat. (The boat was later found, safe and sound.)

Citizens in places undergoing revitalization are sometimes like those two panicky passengers, demanding that leaders abandon their plans when things go wrong, or when things stop happening.

This is often because they don’t understand two key dynamics of living systems that are undergoing change: transient chaos and pulsing.

Transitional Chaos

Transient Chaos graph by György Károlyi

Transient Chaos: When a complex adaptive system moves from one state to another–such as from a devitalized state to a revitalized state–it often goes through a zone scientists refer to as “transient chaos”.

That “perfect storm” was a period of transient chaos: one that could not be controlled or managed, but merely experienced and survived. Just hunker-down, have faith in the process, and don’t waste energy fighting the symptoms of progress. Your goal will often be found on the other side of the disruption. Pain is information: Don’t fear knowledge.

Pulsing: No matter how prosperous a place is, it needs an ongoing pulse of regeneration in order to keep the Good Times going. A place that isn’t revitalizing is devitalizing, because Mother Nature abhors stasis as much as she does a vacuum. This is one of the dangers of the word “sustainable”: it implies a static situation in many folks’ minds. We have almost no cells in our bodies that we had a decade ago: true sustainability derives from ongoing regeneration.

Baltic SeaRevitalization doesn’t come in a constant flow, but rather a pulsing flow. This is important to know, so leaders and citizens don’t mistake the resting stage between pulses as a loss of momentum, and thus become discouraged.

All living flows are actually pulses: our blood pulses; rivers pulse with floods; the ocean pulses with tides; the planet pulses with seasons. The entire universe pulses, according to the latest theories of creation: rather than a single, nonsensical “Big Bang”, there’s a pulse of Big Bangs, with billions of years between the universal heartbeats.

Decline takes places by surprise. Someone asked me “Why don’t more communities take action when they’re on the verge of decline. Why do that wait until the situation is desperate?”

The reason is that–in the absence of some major natural, social, or economic cataclysm–the “verge of decline” is only visible in retrospect. If places could actually perceive that they were on the verge of decline, more would probably take action. Only the decline itself is perceivable, not the verge.

An ongoing “pulse of renewal” (or “pulse of regeneration”, if you prefer) helps prevent such delayed-reaction revitalization initiatives. It might even prevent decline. The goal of the pulse of renewal you create locally should be resilient prosperity for all, wildlife and human alike.

The author restoring seagrasses in Chesapeake Bay in June of 2000.

A personal comment: I’ve been advocating ecological restoration for over two decades. During this time, I’ve frequently encountered pushback from folks who say “Why bother? Climate change is rampant, and the fossil fuel industry owns our politicians, so what difference is it going to make if we restore a wetland today?

I certainly agree that shucking fossil fuels is Job #1. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t other jobs. I try not to let the big picture blind me to the present-day suffering we are causing wildlife. I tell such folks that they should personally participate in an ecological restoration project.

The joy of seeing frogs, fish, and other wildlife flourishing in a previously degraded area is without compare. It might not mean a lot in the greater scheme of things, but it sure means a lot to those particular beings.

Hands-on restoration work is good therapy for those many environmentalists who are too wrapped up in the cold, sterile, soulless world of long-term policy and strategy.

We must not lose touch with the reality of short-term existence on the part of those creatures who are forced to co-habit this planet with us.

Adaptive Management

“You have to be fast on your feet and adaptive or else a strategy is useless.”
– General Charles de Gaulle, President of France

In today’s world, plans produce great stress for those charged with executing them. Each day, the assumptions on which the plan is based diverge further from reality, yet professional managers are usually required to “stick to the plan”. Adaptive management is a healthy new trend, allowing places to implement and evolve plans simultaneously.

Adaptive management arose primarily from the science of restoration ecology (the practice of which is known as ecological restoration), as well as from the study of complex adaptive systems (a.k.a. complexity science).

I was one of the first 250 members of the Society for Ecological Restoration, and was peripherally involved with the Santa Fe Institute, where I met complexity economist W. Brian Arthur (see below) in the late 90’s. I’ve thus been privileged to witness the many ways in which this essential new discipline has benefited our world.

The short story is that adaptive management arose because the rise of ecological restoration quickly revealed our vast ignorance as to how ecosystems arise, how they build and maintain resilience, and how they collapse.

For centuries, we’ve deluded ourselves into thinking we understood nature, simply because we were able to throw a fence around a large wildlands and say we were actively conserving it.

Nothing reveals our lack of understanding faster than the process of trying to recreated a damaged or destroyed ecosystem. The science of restoration ecology has probably revealed more useful insights into the dynamics of living systems in the past two decades than we learned in the previous two centuries.

The obvious response to facing up to our ignorance was adaptive management. Rather than assuming we knew enough to plan the recovery and revitalization of a natural area, we simply put together the best plan possible based on present knowledge, and change it as new information and insights arise.

DC smart meter

DC smart meter (by Kate Patterson, USA TODAY)

Strategies and tactics must adapt to the changes they cause. For instance, free parking might be a good tactic for boosting traffic in a dead downtown.

But years later, that successfully revitalized city center might see its walkability and quality of life degraded by excessive automobiles. Raising the cost until traffic declines to a livable level is then needed.

We now have real-time adaptability, as with demand-price parking meters, similar to Uber’s surge pricing.

Excessive cars can kill a city center. The right number can revitalize it. What revitalizes a dying place might devitalize a vibrant place.

Point Park

Point State Park, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (2016 photo by Storm Cunningham)

Adaptive management is the key to dealing with such evolving challenges and evolving tools, especially when we don’t fully understand the dynamics of the system we wish to revitalize (who does?).

Pittsburgh’s Mayor Bill Peduto is taking an adaptive management approach to its multi-decade river restoration challenge. Let’s hope other city’s leaders are as wise.

With all this adaptation, we need to be careful that we don’t lose sight of the goal. As Steven Covey says, “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” That’s the importance of basing the entire renewal process on the vision.

If one is at the beginning of the process, the main thing is to identify the main thing. The function of a clear vision is to keep an iterative strategy or iterative plan from iterating itself into a hole.

“Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
– Mike Tyson

CLA Framework of USAID

Large institutions seldom announce that they are switching from a “follow the plan at all costs” approach to an adaptive management approach. This is partly because once it’s understood, it makes their previous leadership look less than brilliant. But it’s mainly because the process of adopting an adaptive approach should itself be adaptive.

For instance, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) is the federal agency responsible for administering civilian (i.e. non-defense-related) foreign aid. USAID’s annual budget is about $36 billion.

USAID has recently been embedding adaptive management into its funding mechanisms, but you’d hardly know it if you weren’t directly involved in the process. They refer to it as the CLA Framework (Collaborating, Learning, Adapting).

In their new Program Cycle Operational Policy, they state that one of the three key requirements of funding applications from their international partners is “Learning from performance monitoring, evaluations, and other relevant sources of information to make course corrections as needed and inform future programming.

For those involved in fairly recent disaster-response and/or climate change adaptation initiatives, no such cultural change is needed: any true professional working in those areas knows that adaptive management is not optional.

Maybe the most recent example of this can be found in the draft Adaptive Management Plan, published in October of 2016 by Louisiana’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority.

The switch to adaptive management need not be disruptive. After all, all one is really doing is injecting common sense into the previously rigid, blind-faith-in-the-plan culture. Or, as Divyesh Mistry of the Toronto Transit Commission says: “Cities change. Get over it.

Transition Management: The key to resilience.

This could also be called a “Transition Strategy Guide“. Why? Because how we handle transitions determines our resilience. Resilient prosperity is a universal goal, but transition management is a universal skill that gets us there. An individual transitioning from one career to another wants a resilient profession or business: one that remains relevant and lucrative. A city or nation transitioning from economic base to another (such as from fishing to tourism) has the same goal.


Nakskov, Denmark
Photo by Storm Cunningham

Communities worldwide have brought me in to help them revitalize, or to enhance their resilience. While they all had unique cultures, assets, challenges, and aspirations, they all could be put into two basic categories: 1) those who had failed to perceive and prepare for a transition (or who had failed to adapt to it), and thus needed revitalization; and 2) those who saw a transition on the horizon, and wish to boost their resilience in preparation.

Transitions can thus be either internally (proactive) or externally (reactive) triggered. And they can be either incremental or sudden. The former often chip away at a community for years, but never create enough pain to trigger a response. The latter pounce on a community, such as the loss of the major employer or a natural disaster. But the result is the same: one day folks wake up and realize their future looks bleak. The key lesson is that transitions are constant: only the speed varies. Thus, the need for an ongoing process of repurposing, renewing, and reconnecting.

Coal mine

Coal mine

In other words, there are two basic kinds of transition management: preventive and curative. The former happens when a place prepares for an impending or likely disruption.

The latter happens when they fail to prepare for an inevitable transition (such as from dependence on fossil fuels or unsustainable resource extraction), or when they are hit by an unpredictable disruption, such as civil war or an earthquake.

There are many characteristics that can contribute to a community’s resilience, such as harmony and tenaciousness. But these are relatively unmanageable traits. The essential resilience-enhancing behavior that we can control (to a degree) is transition management. And the most crucial element of transition management is the strategy. Major transitions are fluid and unpredictable. Thus, even the best transition plan is rapidly rendered obsolete (unless it’s adaptive, as we’ll discuss in a moment). Not so a good transition strategy.

Here are some of today’s more common transitions that typically trigger revitalization and/or resilience efforts:

  • From extraction of depleted virgin natural resources to resource restoration;
  • From a socially/politically unstable rich/poor economy to one with a strong middle class;
  • From a raw resource export economy to a value-added manufacturing economy;
  • From a heavy industry economy to a high/clean-tech or information-based economy;
  • From a locally-focused economy to a globally-connected economy;
  • From automobile-centric to a pedestrian, bicyclist, and/or transit-rider orientation;
  • From crime, racial strife, and poor health/education to justice and equal opportunity for all;
  • From disaster and/or climate change vulnerability to reconstruction, redesign, or relocation.

Whatever the motivation, and whatever the goal, two crucial challenges remain constant: transition strategy, and transition management. The key to successful transition management is having a Strategic Renewal Process.

“The goal is not always meant to be reached, but to serve as a mark for our aim.”
– Joseph Joubert, essayist

There have been few points in the history of our world when people couldn’t say “we are beset by crises of unprecedented scale and frequency.”

On top of all the “usual” economic, social, and military crisis, today we have the first truly global crisis of the past 12,000 years (known as the Holocene Epoch): anthropogenic climate change. If there was ever any doubt that we had transitioned from the Holocene to the Anthropocene, climate change seals the debate.

In a world of ubiquitous local and global crises strategies must be more adapative than ever. The November 2, 2017 issue of Strategy + Business (published by PwC) contained an article by Marissa Michel. Its title was “Why Your Company’s Disaster Recovery Plan Needs a Strategy“.

Here’s a brief excerpt: “Strategy development, even in crisis mode, provides critical opportunities. It gives you a chance to hit pause, even for an hour, on the chaos around you. You can take stock of the facts and decide what your values and priorities are. Your strategy keeps you on a path but also enables you to adjust course, and to appropriately and meaningfully shape, expand, or limit your response as the situation unfolds. No crisis starts and ends in the same place; crises are by definition unpredictable and overwhelm your coping mechanisms.

Money can fix some problems, which leads those looking for simplistic solutions to assume it can fix most problems. The reality is far more complex, and can only be addressed with an adaptive, strategic, process-oriented approach. With or without a crisis, the right strategy will boost the effectiveness of your expenditures.

The good news is that local governments are starting to realize how planning without a strategy wastes both resources and opportunities. Where I live, in Arlington County, Virginia, County Board Chair Libby Garvey said (on November 14, 2015) that one of her top priorities is to craft a strategic plan for the county. “We really don’t have one“, she admitted.

In truth, Arlington County doesn’t need a strategic plan as much as most places. Why?

Because of a simple strategy devised in 1968, which can be reduced to a single sentence:
Focus most new development around our subway stations.

Arlington’s Rosslyn-Ballston Metro corridor Photo courtesy: Arlington County

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority originally wanted to route the Orange Line of the DC area’s new Metro system down the median of Interstate 66. This clueless bit of planning would have largely isolated pedestrians from subway access. The County Board rejected that plan, forcing the underground line right through the heart of the county.

The key element of this strategy was to focus almost all new residential and commercial development around 4 of the county’s 6 Orange Line stations. About 25% of Arlington residents now use transit to get to work (national average is under 5%), and 10% don’t bother owning a car. The county has grown dramatically, both economically and population-wise, yet its charming old neighborhoods and many parks remain largely intact. All thanks to a one-sentence strategy.

This has begun to change, with influential developers destroying some healthy lower-income neighborhoods for high-end projects (as is proposed for the historic, mixed-income Westover neighborhood). But that’s not a failure of strategy: only of political will, as this letter attests.

“The truth about a city’s aspirations isn’t found in its vision. It’s found in its budget.”
– Brent Toderian, principal, TODERIAN UrbanWORKS

A Dec. 3, 2015 release from New York state said “Governor Cuomo (designated) 11 new Brownfield Opportunity Areas in communities across New York State. The program helps participants develop revitalization strategies focused on returning dormant and blighted areas into productive communities of economic growth and development.” (emphasis ours) Now, politicians sometimes announce useless strategic initiatives because they’re cheaper than plans. But Governor Cuomo has thrown billions at the revitalization of upstate communities, so that’s not likely the case here.

Beautiful Vista of Portland, OregonSo, what is revitalization? Literally, it would be a return to a state of “vitalization” after a period of devitalization. But in normal usage, it generally means any significant improvement in quality of life, economic vibrance, environmental health, social justice/harmony, and optimism. Ideally, all of those together.

Can a mere tactic or one-time project deliver all that? Not bloody likely, mate. Only the right vision, strategy, and program can really revitalize. That, or dumb luck.

Your strategy can start by improving any one of those qualities. But start it must. If your community isn’t planning to revitalize, it’s planning to devitalize. Regeneration should be budgeted for as regularly as is maintenance; it shouldn’t be merely a reaction to crisis. In fact, the constant repurposing, renewing, and reconnecting of assets is the best form of crisis prevention. The second law of thermodynamics states that the total entropy of an isolated system can only increase over time. Thus the need to reconnect to reduce isolation, and constantly regenerate to restore order.

Better futures are created by better actions in the present. But these days, people worldwide have been demoralized by the relentless globalization of social, economic, and environmental problems that used to appear only locally. The historic climate accord reached in Paris on December 12, 2015 is a rare example of addressing a global challenge at the global level. However, if appropriate levels of action don’t follow quickly, the global gloom will be more intense than ever before.

Virtually all organizations have a stated mission. Few have a strategy to accomplish that mission.
Writing an inspiring mission statement is easy. Writing an effective strategy is challenging.
I hope this guide helps you rise to that challenge.

A Final Recommendation:

Whether you’re trying to make a community or nation more revitalized, more sustainable, or more resilient, all three goals require the same thing: a strategic process of repurposing, renewing, and reconnecting its natural, built, cultural, and socioeconomic assets.

Maybe the most practical way to create an entity to deliver such a process would be to repurpose an existing agency, such as a land bank. Currently, most land banks are fairly transaction-oriented (tactical): they understandably want to dispose of vacant properties in their inventory as quickly as possible.

But such properties are the key ingredients of revitalization. So, repurposing a land bank with a more strategic mission–community revitalization, rather than property renewal–would likely renew a land bank’s growth, and reconnect it to a wealth of new resources and stakeholders.

One of my current clients, the Kalamazoo County Land Bank in Michigan, takes the 3Re approach quite seriously, as their 2016 Annual Report reveals. Let’s hope that municipal and regional agencies all around the world start becoming similarly strategic.

I’ve met many urban planners and economic developers who are creative, caring, green, and effective. That said, places that consistently take uncreative, insensitive, destructive, and/or ineffective approaches to economic growth will most often find the impediments to progress in their planning and/or economic development departments.

The central problem isn’t in the people, it’s in the limited mission and focus of the department. Planning isn’t revitalization. Economic development isn’t revitalization. Revitalization is revitalization. And revitalization is the process of increasing the strength and vibrance of a living system…in whatever way is appropriate to that system. One place might revitalize by increasing social justice, another by adding jobs, and yet another by restoring natural resources. The possible types of revitalization strategies are as endless as the diversity of possible problems.

In the past, I’ve sometimes recommended that communities create an office or department of revitalization, so that someone is in charge of what everyone wants. But that was wrong. “Revitalization” suffers from the same problem as “sustainability” and “resilience”: it’s not a rigorous term. It’s hazy, and would thus allow almost any action to take place under that banner.

Map of thousands of regenerative articles and resources in Revitalization News.

A more practical (if less elegant) name could be something like Office of Repurposing, Renewing, and Reconnecting. Or just 3Re Agency. These are three specific, fundable, measurable actions. When properly coordinated (which would be one of the office’s duties), they reliably move a place in the direction of revitalization, sustainability, and resilience. Even better would be to have state and federal versions, which would help fund and support local activities.

But the crucial factor is not who does it, but what is done. So the ideal solution will be a combination of PC software and a phone app.

We must create a tool that allows any willing organization to (1) inventory and map a place’s natural, built, and socioeconomic assets; (2) identify their condition (reusable, replaceable, or already-productive); and (3) tag them with any needed actions (repurpose, renew, reconnect). I’ll be happy to discuss this further with any interested parties.

Planetary renewal could be the result.

People without hope don’t take action.
The right vision and strategy inspire successful action.
Successful action restores hope by revitalizing our present.
Restoring hope revitalizes our future.

Public and private funding continually flows into most communities and regions worldwide for revitalization or resilience initiatives.
But seldom do the resulting plans and projects actually generate a brighter local future.  WHY?
Because the recipients weren’t trained in a proven process for regenerating their economy, environment and quality of life.

Reliable production of anything requires a reliable process.
So, why don’t cities, regions & nations have a reliable process for producing revitalization or resilience?

Want expert help—on demand—for your strategies, projects, plans, & key presentations? Get it here.

Climate Choice

©Copyright 2017, Storm Cunningham. All rights reserved.
This guide is free, permanent, and constantly updated.
You’re welcome to link to this resource on your website.


Planetary Renewal

Storm Cunningham is the publisher of Revitalization News. He is a keynoter and workshop leader at planning, sustainability, community regeneration, economic resilience, disaster recovery, and natural resource restoration conferences worldwide.

His specialty is inspiring all stakeholders to effectively engage in local revitalization.

Since 2002, his consulting practice has been connecting individuals, institutions, and communities to the opportunities, resources, and practices of the global renewal trend. His clients include federal agencies, mayors, governors, Chambers, community foundations, non-profits, universities, technologists, financiers, policymakers, and philanthropists.

This Guide was excerpted from Storm’s 3rd book, RETECH: The Rise of Technologies to Revive Our World (November 2018).

It reveals the rapidly-emerging tools and techniques for regenerating cities, agriculture, nature and climate.

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