Part 1 of this article, “Steps needed to create a thriving community,” which was published in the May 20 edition of the Gilroy Dispatch, covered the first five common characteristics of thriving communities.
This final installment will discuss the remaining four steps and stress why it is so crucial for a community to be unique and a head above other cities if it is to thrive.
1. Seek Quality, not Quantity. Thriving communities understand that all development is not created equal. Just as a developer runs a proforma on a new project to make sure that it is financially feasible, thriving cities do the same, making sure that the new development is profitable over its life for the city. Growing only for the sake of growth is a strategy for financial insolvency. Thriving cities also emphasize code changes and incentives to drive new investment into their core rather than the periphery. In the core, existing infrastructure such as sewer and water lines, streets, public parks, police and fire stations have long been paid for and are already in place. Sprawl, on the other hand, requires costly new facilities and infrastructure.
2. Create Strong Design Standards and Enforce Them. Thriving communities have strong design guidelines that illustrate options, solutions and techniques to achieve the goal of excellence in new development design. Special care is given to properties located in historic districts, adjacent neighborhoods, and city gateways, the first thing a visitor sees. Thriving communities understand that becoming “Anytown USA” full of corporate architecture always results in a community that tourists avoid, young people flee, and no longer instills pride in its residents. Ed McMahon, Chairman Emeritus of Main Street America and a Senior Fellow at the Urban Land Institute writing about design standards, said, “Communities that set low standards or no standards will compete to the bottom. On the other hand, communities that set exacting standards will compete to the top.”
3. Work with Others for Mutual Benefit. Thriving communities faced with the prospect of lowering services or canceling needed projects due to ever-increasing prices can reduce costs by collaborating with nearby cities or their existing cross-jurisdictional agencies. Very few small towns have the financial resources to do everything they want to do. By working together, cities can efficiently share expertise and ideas, pool resources, exploit economies of scale, better flex their political muscle, and plan improvements to services and infrastructure that cross municipal boundaries. The era of viewing nearby cities as adversaries has passed. In today’s interconnected world, the real competition is now between regions.
4. The Right Leadership + Committed Citizens. Thriving communities need strong leaders and committed citizens. Margaret Mead, the American cultural anthropologist, said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” But where do these extraordinary leaders come from? They are often longtime residents upset with how growth has altered what they most loved about their hometown. Other times, they are newcomers who want to ensure their adopted hometown does not develop into the same dismal place as they left. Every community, large or small, has its share of pessimists and naysayers standing in the way of change. Strong leaders make small incremental improvements over time. Over time they pick up more supporters of making their town a better place to live in, look at, work in, and visit.
In his book, “The Great Reset,” Richard Florida, the researcher and author, said that the “post-recession economy is reshaping how we live, work, shop and move around.” He predicts that “communities that embrace the future will prosper. Those that do not will decline.” The last three years of the Covid-19 pandemic have only made that quote more prescient. People and businesses can now choose to live and work anywhere because of today’s technology. “Quality of place” is the new mantra and includes both the physical attributes of a city; the way it was planned, designed, developed and maintained. Just as important are the intangible qualities of a place, such as vibrancy, authenticity and distinctiveness.
The nine steps outlined in this article are not meant to be all-inclusive; there are many steps a city can take on the road to becoming a thriving community. The bottom line is this: In today’s fast-paced world, communities that cannot differentiate themselves by the above measures will have no competitive advantage and will never thrive. Sameness is not an asset but a liability, and as Henry Ford said, “Mediocrity is the worst enemy of prosperity.”
Gary Walton is an ex-banker turned general contractor and is current president of the Gilroy Downtown Business Association and vice-president of the Miller Red Barn Association. The views expressed are solely his own and do not express the views of any other organization he may be affiliated with.