An Existential Challenge
There is an economic development battle going on in the United States among regions that, on its surface, is about who can attract vital businesses and the educated work force those businesses seek. But if you look deeper, this battle is really about which regions, and even smaller communities, can develop a rich set of quality of life amenities that today’s “mobile consumer” is seeking. In many cases, this economic challenge is existential for our nation’s smaller cities and towns.
These communities, many in the middle of the country in the rust and corn belts, are struggling to establish relevancy in today’s knowledge and global economy. Yet, the most innovative of them are using their own unique assets to develop quality of life approaches to stake out their place in the market. Today’s businesses, in their efforts to attract and retain highly skilled and motivated workers, are attracted to communities that are strengthening their appeal to a discerning labor force that demands more from the places where they live than a paycheck and a house. However intuitive this seems, this thinking is still beyond the practical reach of many communities.
Bruce Katz of the Brookings Institution says rustbelt communities must reinvent themselves to survive1. But they must do it by “focusing on the fundamentals.” “They have to use their geographical advantages and build as much as possible on “anchor” institutions such as universities and hospitals.” In other words, identify, improve, and leverage their existing resources.
It is somewhat surprising that many struggling communities continue to follow a traditional community and economic development path in the face of increasing evidence that developing quality of life assets is becoming a ‘must-have’ for a community’s successful reinvention. Many talk a good “quality of life” game, but touting quality of life is not enough. Businesses today and the talented work force they seek aren’t buying the old economic development sales pitch, “Hey we’ve got a railroad, come live and work here!” Today’s regional economic development efforts have to start with the question: “Is our community truly a great place to live?” Leaders must deal honestly with the answer to that question and get to work on efforts to develop a dense network of quality of life infrastructure on the ground. Ultimately, the goal is to create a vibrant environment and a brand that can drive both community pride and an attractive regional brand.
Even if they have economic development initiatives in place, many of these struggling communities have economic development plans that focus on work-only efforts, as apparently they believe that the live and play elements aren’t really important in achieving their goals. Or, they don’t fully appreciate the cause and effect that community vibrancy and culture has on the psyche, morale and downright attractiveness that translates into people retention, business growth, and changing the game in their communities. To many, economic development is all about the next factory, tech start-up, or big box retailer coming to town…and yes, that’s part of the picture…but the real challenge is what conditions must be put in place for a community to truly reinvent itself?
As it becomes more difficult to attract business and population from elsewhere, communities must learn how to leverage their existing or potential assets in ways that can help them change their culture in order to break out of old patterns and begin to develop human resources and grow businesses at the grassroots. As the economic environment becomes even more competitive and the industrial recruitment pie grows smaller, communities have to rely on themselves and their own assets for future growth.
While there are an abundance of quality of life strategies that communities can choose to pursue, the development of an integrated active living culture is showing great promise as an effort that can be transformational for struggling communities. The real beauty of an active culture development initiative is the fact that change, innovation, and growth can come from within the community and is not dependent or subservient to the machinations of the corporate industrial market. Every community can’t attract an auto plant, but each can build their own active lifestyle culture that can act as a catalyst for grassroots growth.
Ironically, many of the elements that make up a healthy, vibrant community today are anathema to traditional big-box, corporate focused economic development. What most upwardly mobile Americans are looking for today is local, handmade, natural, green, and active. These are places with cultures that feel welcoming and are easy to brand and differentiate from other places. They are not the miles of strip malls, fast food, and even the “lifestyle” centers. They are indeed places that exhibit unique urban design and regional character in architecture, retail, entertainment and outdoor recreation and in the community’s overall approach to land planning and usages. Communities striving to compete must break out and blaze a different trail.
Livability doesn’t start with the built environment; it starts with the natural assets of the region. It’s the beaches, rivers, forests, hills, creeks, and mountains that define a regional topography. National trends in population shift and regional growth supports the argument that the most important component of community quality of life, and what is really driving growth is how a community leverages its natural resources to create a healthy active culture and brand for itself. There is a reason why many communities from the Rockies west, Mason Dixon line south, and Appalachian east continue to grow at the expense of communities in the middle of the country. Yes, some of that is about how our country was settled and developed; certainly technology and globalization’s impact on the industrial middle is key. The flight from unions to right to work states certainly factors in. Like my home state of Illinois, the Midwestern states aren’t known for dramatic topography, and for the most part are dominated by agricultural land uses that precludes the existence of large scale land conservation as is seen in the mountainous west and eastern Appalachians. The underlying fact is that the continued migration west and south has partly been driven by the existence of highly accessible public lands and the active cultures that great outdoor access engenders. Warmer weather, proximity to mountains, beaches, whitewater rivers, ski areas, and the cultures that emerge are fundamentally what is driving economic growth. And, the statistics support this. From 2010 to 2015, the US Census Bureau found that all but one of the top ten states (District of Columbia is included as it has more population that Vermont and Wyoming) in terms of percentage of population growth were either west of the Rockies or southern states2:
Top Ten Growth States: 2010-2015 –
District of Columbia
That trend continues for the top twenty growth states with 18 of the 20 being in the west or south. Why is that germane to this discussion? Because, for the most part, those same states have the highest quantities of conserved public land, much of it in the form of federal and state parks, conservation and recreation areas. Conservation equals access and access is the opportunity to recreate close to home. For millions of Americans, this represents quality of life.
The Quality of Life Case for Land Conservation
If you look around the country and examine the characteristics of the most vibrant growing regions, the first thing that sticks out is their access to the outdoors. Most of the communities that are known, or emerging, as great places to live are blessed with significant portions of near-by conserved lands. It’s not a coincidence that eight of the top ten percentage in growth states in the last five years are also in the top ten states with the most federally held land, and all are in the top 20 growth states. These states are blessed with thousands of acres of National parks and monuments, US Forests and Bureau of Land Management areas. These lands, many in close proximity to major metropolitan areas, provide great opportunity for recreation access for locals and tourists alike. They are becoming more and more a place where people are moving to live, work, play, and retire. Places like Salt Lake City, Denver, Boise, Portland and Seattle are all located in a sea of public lands that drive local quality of life. And, while federal ownership is most prominent in the west, southern states also have significant federal holdings. Following the spine of the southern Appalachians, communities from Washington DC, south to Richmond, Knoxville, Asheville and Chattanooga, are all benefiting from proximity to terrain conserved by the federal government in the form of national parks, Tennessee Valley Authority projects, parkways, and US Forests. In addition to federally held lands, the nature rich states also hold significant acreage in state and local parks, forests, and conservation areas which add to their advantage.
Top Ten States with Federally Held Lands:
New Mexico 35%
Conversely, eight of ten states with the lowest percentage of land held in conservation by federal state and local authorities are located in the middle of the country, and rank in the bottom half of states by percentage of population growth since 20103.
But, while the west and Appalachian south enjoy land conservation advantages, many Midwestern communities are taking action on their own. They are creating conservancies, conservation districts, land trusts and other public-private partnerships (P3s) to conserve land and connect people to the outdoors. This has the ability to change how residents view their own communities and how others view them.
So how does conservation and good land stewardship support community qualify of life and economic development where leaders are savvy enough to invest in and promote it smartly? In just one example, the Outdoor Industry Association found that in rural western counties with more than 30 percent of their land under federal protection increased jobs at a rate four times faster than rural counties with no federally protected lands4.
To illustrate the link between conserved lands, the active culture that access to land engenders, and the development that is attracted to those active cultures, let’s look at one of the more obvious examples of how conservation drives recreation, leisure, tourism, economic impact and investment in a community: the Colorado mountain town. Skiing and land conservation are inexorably linked. In the early days, the Forest Service worked with mountain communities to develop access to skiable lands and then later to develop ski area infrastructure including roads, lodges, etc. Today, in places like Aspen, Vail, and Breckenridge, we see the culmination of almost 80 years of ski area community and economic development driven by the existence of US Forest Service land conservation. There is no better example of an outdoor driven destination than a Colorado ski town.
In fact, the State of Colorado, as a whole, recognizes this as well, and along with the States of Utah and Washington has opened outdoor industry offices to leverage and grow their advantages in the outdoor market cluster. These three states understand that where there is great outdoor access, there is or can be a dense ecosystem of outdoor gear designers, manufacturers, and retailers supporting and growing the outdoor economy.
The outdoor industry has not missed the gaze of the federal government; recently the Senate passed the Recreation Economic Contributions Act, which requires the Commerce Department to include the outdoor recreation industry in the Federal government’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) calculations. The outdoor industry’s inclusion in GDP will change the calculus of public land uses and initiate a growing understanding of the $700 billion outdoor recreation industry’s economic impact…mostly due to the opportunity to recreate on public land at all levels.
Reinventing the Culture and the Brand
So how do we take the lesson of these naturally blessed regions in the west and south and use it in rural towns and rust belt cities across the Midwest? Much of it is about changing the attitude of residents and leaders in a way that creates excitement, engagement and an environment to try new things. The initial challenge in many of these communities is the negative outlook and inferiority complexes that exist in the community…a sense that change and the good things they see happening elsewhere can’t happen there. Breaking down and overcoming this negative thinking is an incremental process based on small wins. Linking small progress over time in context to a bigger vision, allows a community to build confidence and create new collaborative processes and networks that are essential to meaningful change.
In the beginning, it’s really a matter of stepping back and assessing what components of active culture are present in your community today, and what kind of land based conservation (or urban brownfield reclamation) is in place or could be possible in your area. People can’t be active without a place to be active. These places can become gathering spots and the people using them can become a community’s first activists. As with all planning, assessment is key. Understanding and identifying assets and potential assets that a plan and a vision can be built on is the first step.
Much of the success we see in rust and corn belt communities is not just about land conservation, but about leveraging the negative for the positive. Community design that encourages and allows active recreation close to home…everyone’s home is key. It really takes rethinking how the community is designed and how people move around in it.
While the rust and corn belt will never be Colorado, there are great examples across the middle of the country of communities using their lakes, rivers, wooded terrain and even abandoned railroad corridors and urban brownfields to create fun places to recreate that is exciting to their residents and changing how others view them.
But conserving land, building a greenway or restoring a tired park isn’t the end…it’s the beginning. There has to be a larger vision and a connected strategy that integrates and builds on assets and engages, excites and mobilizes citizenry.
In Dayton, a local conservation agency launched a major outdoor recreation initiative billing Dayton as the Outdoor Adventure Capital of the Midwest. Many laughed, but not long after beginning the effort, it became the centerpiece of a plan to revitalize downtown Dayton, using that early vision as an outdoor destination was a motivator and a guide to make their downtown revitalization happen. But, more importantly, the accumulating successes encouraged residents and leaders to do more, which in turn created bigger wins and an excitement about Dayton’s potential.
This kind of active visioning can help build an integrated initiative, that can help develop a broad set of active lifestyle elements necessary for culture shift. This interdependence of elements points to the need for communities to integrate their community and economic development efforts into one seamless strategy that mobilizes the community toward a set of comprehensive goals, rather than a set of independent actions.
As the foundations of the initiative are put in place and small wins accumulate, community excitement rises and the culture gains strength. Young residents may decide to stay and get involved. Retention begins to be a reality. Typically we see a growth in local initiatives and organization focused on leveraging and pushing progress, if a strong framework has been built. As things progress, attraction begins to happen. The people that decided to stay open businesses; the word spreads and others seek out the rising community.
So the real key to community reinvention and the foundation of a great community brand is the local culture. Culture is the character of the community – it makes it open or closed to new ideas, a collaborative or difficult environment in which to work. Most importantly, when strong active cultures exist in the community, there is an environment that makes positive thinking and action possible. In the end, your community’s culture is your brand, like it or not. In case after case, the impetuous for community change is about getting people out of their houses, into the streets, parks, and trails doing active healthy things and into the cafes and breweries afterward. It is a catalyst for community change. It is a beginning.
Across the heartland many communities are working hard to integrate traditional community and economic development efforts with the development of active lifestyle cultures. These strategies that make communities more livable and attractive are becoming crucial components of long-term efforts to enhance competitiveness. They are a vital bridge to the new economy these communities are striving to reach.
Community sustainability, land and water conservation, green infrastructure, local foods/urban farming, share and maker markets, important bike/pedestrian friendly urban design, access to the outdoors and outdoor recreation are the core tactics that make up an emerging active culture. These initiatives can be a community’s introduction into thinking about community resiliency. In this broader context, community resiliency becomes a multi faceted goal to achieve a state where natural, economic, and cultural assets are in balance for the benefit of the larger community and environment.
Challenges remain, as these cultures, while potentially transformational, can lack diverse participation and is only the beginning of a community’s transformation. Funding can be especially challenging in some areas where state and local governments do not have a tradition or ability to fund cultural and quality of life initiatives. However, quality of life efforts are typically less expensive than other forms of pubic works and much can be achieved through volunteers. Active culture development is as much an attitude and brand adjustment as it is economic development. In my experience, establishing a climate of change is critical for emerging communities to turn the corner towards positive growth and development. A transformed culture is a signal to itself and to the world that this community has shed its traditional skin and is ready to join the ranks of the innovative and progressive.
1 The Economist; Reinvention in the Rustbelt; July 11, 2015
2 US Census Bureau
3 US Census Bureau
4 Outdoor Industry Association