I was thinking about commercial districts yesterday as I finished , by . I was particularly taken with his descriptions of ants, and with no central vision or control. A fully functioning ant mound is created strictly through a series of small local interactions between ants, largely using pheromones. Though the amount of information exchanged in each is tiny, from these local interactions, a higher functioning order emerges.
This is exactly the sort of behavior cities should be encouraging between stakeholders to foster organic revitalization.
Instead, from a city’s perspective, from a planning department’s perspective, and from a development agency perspective, it is often easier to focus on that one big new “catalyst” project that will single-handedly improve an area, rather than encourage many small-scale projects, fostering a bottom up approach. Unfortunately, this desire to renew from above takes a tremendous amount of public capital and doesn’t always work.
Is it possible to consider rejuvenation of a commercial corridor or a downtown from a different, more cost-effective perspective?
Yes, provided that you have decent building stock (and by decent, I mean a continuous run of structures from almost any era) and a functioning grid. From those simple building blocks, you can directly improve what you have, rather than trying to indirectly help it by completing a single large new building. 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.
In Emergence, Steven Johnson writes about the five fundamental principles that a system designed to learn from the ground level must exhibit, as an ant colony exhibits:
More is different. The statistical nature of ant interaction demands that there be a critical mass of ants for the colony to make intelligent assessments of its global state.
Ignorance is useful. It is better to build a dense interconnected system with simple elements and let sophisticated behavior trickle up.
Encourage random encounters. Encounters with individual ants are arbitrary, but because so many of them are in the system, those encounters allow individuals to gauge and alter the macrostate of the system.
Look for patterns in the signs. The knack for pattern detection allows meta-information to circulate through the colony mind. (Smelling the pheromones of fifty foragers in the space of an hour imparts information about the global state of the colony.)
Pay attention to your neighbors. Local information can lead to global wisdom.
Paraphrase: Get all of your stakeholders talking and doing — the more people the merrier. The more projects the merrier. The more activity the merrier.
Or, to put it more formally, if we create opportunities for and catalyze a sizable number of small local interactions, these can bring about positive changes in cities and neighborhoods with minimal monetary investment. And, these interactions and projects will take your city in directions you never imagined, and I mean that as a good thing. “Let sophisticated behavior trickle up.”
Now, meaningfully engaging stakeholders is not easy. It’s much simpler, and more attractive, to focus on big flashy projects with a lot of quantified knowns on sites controlled by the city. But, it doesn’t help create sustainable renewal.
So, how do you stir up the pot? Who do you get interacting? What the heck is Michele Reeves talking about?
Business Owners. Are they talking to each other? Do they have a functioning business association or downtown association? If not, help them. Provide funding, expertise and assistance.
Property Owners. Nothing happens in a downtown or commercial corridor without the property owners. Do they know each other? How do their buildings look? How do they interact with the public sector? 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. In other words, they hate the planning and permit department. Cities need to repair this vital connection between property owners and government before renewal can occur. Get property owners engaged!
Retail Sophistication. What is the level of retailing in the downtown or commercial corridor? Can business owners and property owners benefit from merchandising training? Do property owners and shop owners understand the tie between good design, attractive buildings, and retail performance?
Permits. Does your planning and permit department do everything it can to help small business owners and property owners? Often, the public sector tailors their process toward large development, which makes the path to acquiring a permit nearly incomprehensible to local entrepreneurs and small building owners. Start building connections to these groups and understanding their needs. Create streamlined “cheat sheets” for simple building improvement permit procedures, or step-by-step instructions for restaurant tenants and food cart vendors.
Brand. Is there a unified story or identity for your district? Create your story. Manage your story. Leverage your story. Makes sure everyone is telling your story, the way you want it told.