Book Review — Civilis Consultants

By: Michelereeves  09-12-2011
Keywords: Commercial Corridor

What do elephants, riders, and paths have to do with change?

The case studies on change cited in Switch were besprinkled with examples of written reports and spreadsheets that contained vital information, but were totally ignored by organizations and companies. The conclusion the Heath brothers draw in their book is that dry facts presented in writing do not engage people’s emotions, therefore, they usually fail to influence behavior all by themselves.

While the importance of engaging both heart and mind rings absolutely true, I think the authors missed an important point about how people absorb information effectively. Namely, if you use only a single channel, such as writing a report, to engage your audience about complicated issues, then the intended beneficiaries of your knowledge may be digesting very little of your message, regardless of emotional involvement. I see this in my consulting practice with cities of all sizes. Municipalities that want to revitalize a downtown or commercial corridor usually have an impressive array of reports on the subject already filed away somewhere gathering dust. And therein lies the problem, ALL of this information is contained in a report!

Over the years, I have learned that there are very few people who truly process written information efficiently. And this is particularly true of busy property owners and business owners, who don’t have time to read consultants’ tomes. Since a downtown tells its story through its infrastructure (how it looks), and its ground floor uses (they need to be active), cities must meaningfully captivate and motivate property owners and business owners to initiate renewal, or it will be stopped before it ever starts.

To effect change, cities must engage their constituents, face to face, with voices…with hands-on experiences…with images, in order for people to really learn and connect with information. As in the case of my work, I try to take the rather dry subject of land-use and bring it alive. And, if I do my job well, then a lot of excitement is generated just by bringing focus to people’s intuitions about their downtown environments and how they function optimally.

This idea of engaging all of the senses for learning reminds me of one of the methods that Montessori preschools use for teaching the alphabet: sandpaper letters. The name for the work really does represent exactly what you would think: each letter is cut from fine grain sandpaper and is individually mounted on a hard square backing. Children watch the teacher trace the letter using her index finger (mirroring the same motion you would use to write the letter), while they hear the teacher says the sound the letter makes (not its name). Then, the student copies the teacher’s actions.

This work stimulates a preschooler’s hearing (the sound of the letter), sense of touch (feeling the sandpaper under the finger), and vision (seeing the letter and watching the teacher model the movement of writing it). It is very effective. Montessori preschool students learn to read before kindergarten not because their emotions are engaged, but because all of their senses are engaged.

So, while I am in agreement with the Switch authors that motivating change is much easier when our feelings and thoughts are united behind a goal, I also believe that there are many ways to captivate our thinking selves. And sometimes, as in the case with the sandpaper letters, enthusiasm and animation–our emotions–can be triggered just by neurons connecting and blazing new trails. Thinking begets feeling.

Hear…see…touch…experience…not just read.

Keywords: Commercial Corridor

Other products and services from Michelereeves


Community Building — Civilis Consultants

From the seeds of your downtown or your commercial corridor, you can grow a place, which will then require significantly less, or perhaps no, public money to encourage new construction. Usually, in historic districts that are languishing, there is a complete and total disconnect between some of the long-time property owners and the public sector.


Demographics — Civilis Consultants

In my anecdotal observations, I have noted two trends: 1) apartments with younger partners and a single baby; and, 2) slightly older, divorced single-parent households with multiple children that have a wider age range. I am very curious to see what happens to the younger dual-income-no-kids set that has flocked to our urban cores when … well, when they have some tykes of their own.


Architecture — Civilis Consultants

During said perusal, I learned that Tacoma was the envy of Seattle and Portland in 1873, when it won the race to become the western terminus of the Northern Pacific Railroad, which was chartered by Congress in 1864, and broke ground in Minnesota in 1870.


Cities — Civilis Consultants

People crossing the street creates huge traffic problems and the county was adamant that these problems be solved,” said J.F. Finn, principal and managing director of Gensler in Las Vegas — the firm that led the design team crafting CityCenter. To summarize the layout of Las Vegas, I boil it down to three major rings: There is the glitz and glamor of the Strip and downtown, where visitors are encouraged to walk, but where locals rarely venture.


Commercial Corridors — Civilis Consultants

As you can plainly see, this particular medical building was designed in such a way that it a) does not interact with the streetscape in the least, and b) it creates a two-block blank, which can be a death blow to a retail district, disturbing shopping continuity and becoming a border, beyond which visitors prefer not to venture.