Development as Community Strategy

Posted first on the blog of the Edmonton Community Development Company, where I am the Executive Director

In my first three months as the executive director of the Edmonton Community Development Company, I estimate I have had over 100 meetings, most of them being one to one conversations or small group discussions about the communities in which people live and/or work. We talked about community aspirations, community pain, and the plethora of ideas people and groups have and are working on to strengthen communities, in particular the people who reside in them.

I believe that change begins with conversation and that we must have conversations with others who see possibilities others don’t and who view challenges through a diversity of lenses.  One of my major goals has been – and will continue to be – understanding others, understanding what drives them, why they see the solutions they see, and also understanding our differences, and yes, our disparate perspectives on community change. Understanding one another may not always lead to agreement, but I daresay agreement is nigh impossible if we do not understand one another.
meeting-icon-clean1I also believe, based on my experience, understanding our differences is the only way we can resolve them. It’s not easy, is it? After all, don’t we come across others whose ideas rankle us, who advocate for actions we believe are misguided or just plain wrong? The challenge is how to hold up our difference and then work with them in order to find ways for us to move forward together. Roger Martin, who wrote the Opposable Mind, talks about how effective leaders are able to hold opposing ideas simultaneously in their minds and then work with them to foster new or better ideas and courses of action. His research indicates the importance of Integrative Thinking as a key approach to not settling on decisions that are the result of either-or choices. I infer that either-or choices are what create and sustain divisiveness and cause encampments based on rigid ideology.

I work in an environment steeped in history about, and memories of, community development – or in the context of my work, community economic development – that were driven by narrow self-interest or an inflexible devotion to a particular focus that did not gel with others. In the Boyle-McCauley neighborhood, we see how development has impacted area residents. These neighborhoods are where an inordinate percentage of housing stock is social housing, special needs housing, and shelters. The impacts of a high number of human service institutions also being located in these neighbourhoods are significant. Not only do residents experience the symptoms of homelessness (drugs, needles, drunkenness, human waste, vandalism, etc.), the high incidence of these realities deter others from developing businesses or market housing or from otherwise investing in urban core neighborhoods.

nymyism

I have met with and talked with many residents of urban core neighbourhoods and I have not heard anyone suggest that services to the homeless or to others who are living in poverty should not exist. What I do hear is that residents want balance. They want Edmonton as a whole to share the responsibility of addressing social problems. They do not feel they should have to take on the lion’s share of hosting solutions to these problems. I think that’s fair. It is not about Nimbyism and frankly it is not about moving residents to a culture of Yimbyism (i.e. Yes in my back yard!). Nimbyism is typically a pejorative term that those wanting to do development assign to their opposition. It becomes  a broad brush stroke used to paint those who disagree with development as unreasonable, self-serving if not selfish. It fosters a stereotype that avoids the underlying issues that I suggest are worthy of address. Is there not rationale at times for those who do not want a development in their back yard?

And Yimbyism. Here is the risk: that this term reflects a movement to persuade residents to say “yes” to development that they do not want. I recall attending a workshop put on by a group with community engagement expertise. They were promoting how to get residents to say “yes” to development. Without going into all the content, it felt to me like the workshop was more about persuasion, if not manipulation, when community engagement should be about seeking common ground. I realize purists will say this is the purpose of Yimbyism; however, my warning is that all of this could become nothing more than two ideas in opposition to each other that focus more on getting to what “I” want than to what “we should do together.”

Development should be a community strategy, not just the strategy of entrepreneurs. In the context of my work, development in a community should not be what I think it should be. I see my role to be one that is centered on understanding what community wants and what community wants is not just about aspirations, it is also about addressing the pains that community residents are experiencing. What I have been hearing from all those I am meeting and talking to has reinforced my belief that communities require and deserve strategic development in their areas of town.

Here are some examples of what I mean:

Many, if not most, urban core neighbourhoods are lacking in anchor institutions or businesses like mainstream grocery stores, financial institutions. child care, and so on. Many of their main streets suffer from boarded up or dilapidated store fronts or empty lots. In areas of town where lower-income people live are where pawn shops, pay-day lending businesses, and other businesses abound that deliver costly services or products (e.g. mini-marts) to people who face daily financial struggles. Sometimes there are bars along the main street in which drugs are sold and other crimes occur. What residents are telling me is that want help in re-developing empty store fronts, help with building on empty lots, and help with getting rid of unwanted gathering places where crimes take place. They want the development we undertake to be strategic, to address problem properties and reinvent those spaces into developments that not only reflect community interests and aspiration but that result in creating more possibilities for future development.

Food security is a common theme I am hearing about. Residents do not want to live in food deserts. They want more choice than the unhealthy foods offered by mini-marts at expensive prices. They want opportunities to grow food and to see in their neighborhoods the social, health, and economic impacts of a farmer’s market or opportunities to create local enterprises that contribute to enhanced food security. They want to see more jobs in their neighborhoods and more housing that attracts new residents to their part of town.

Residents are telling me they want us to be strategic about what properties we purchase and redevelop. They want us to  redevelop boarded up homes or repurpose a dwelling that takes advantage of its tenants. They want development that adds to the possibility of young people or people of modest means to actually be able to own a home.

The Edmonton Community Development Company was not created just to do development. It exists to be a strategic developer that does its best to act on community needs and interests. Residents don’t want us to come into their neighborhood to sell them our solutions. They want us to work with them to foster development that enriches their lives as a community. And that is exactly what we are committed to doing.

Yeah, I know. We won’t please everyone. There will be limits to what we can pull off, but we are going to try. I promise.

Some Days Are Rich!

Some days are rich. I meet and talk with incredible people, people working hard to make positive change in their (in our) community. Yesterday I met with a delightful woman who is working with others to craft innovative approaches to ending racism. Ending racism is one of the game-change strategies of End Poverty Edmonton. Can you imagine how much better life would be if people celebrated our differences rather than lashed out at them?

I met with another inspiring woman who is leading major development in our city, dedicated to creating change with a clear commitment to, and passion for, doing so in ways that respect and honour the ideas, wishes, and concerns of local residents. Imagine if all major development in our city was founded on authentic community engagement by leaders and doers who believe that all development is ultimately about people.

And I spend two hours with the CEO of a major human service organization. We explored possibilities of partnership and alignment with respect development that would not only benefit their clients but would enrich the lives of the community in which his agency lives. We explored how we might increase food security in the area, create needed child care space, create living wage jobs, and develop or renovate housing, again not just for his clients but for the community: affordable but also market housing.

I drove home at the end of the day, energized and hopeful and even more so committed to undertaking work at my non-profit organization, the Edmonton Community Development Company, that will strengthen neighbourhoods, add to their local economies, while fostering relationships and trust to do more and more of the kinds of development that put people first.

Thanks to those 3 people for inspiring me.

Automobile-Centric Development and Parking Requirements

Cross posted – also available at http://www.edmontoncdc.org
Please consider following that blog if you want to keep up to date on my work at the Edmonton Community Development Company.

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Strong Towns is an American movement that a colleague turned me on to the other day,  and it is not only a provocative movement, it offers an array of new thinking about the rules that cities and towns have when it comes to development, whether housing and business development or the inclusion of city services in an area like a recreational centre.

One thing that really caught my eye was the case made by Strong Towns to abolish parking requirements for new development.

One article provided a bit of a case study around thinking differently about parking in a town called Standpoint. A large bank wanted to build a branch in a neighbourhood that had historical significance. That development, according to the “rules” would have to provide 200 parking spots for the development to be approved. Alternatively, the bank could pay $10,000 per parking space not created. While such payment seems cost prohibitive to a development, the irony is that the parking requirement (apparently in place for the good of the community) could be bought off. This suggests that money trumps what is good for the community (according to the rules) or it could mean that this parking requirement was not all that necessary.

The bank bought a pizzeria and tore it down, but still did not have sufficient parking, so it began exploring buying a café and other businesses to meet the requirement. In other words city rules indicated that for the bank to be a viable development, other businesses (i.e. small businesses) would be torn down. Not really a desired economic development result, is it? And certainly not indicative of policy and rules that support small business development.

Interestingly there was a city owned parking lot a block away from the bank’s intended site, but that had no bearing on the rules. But my guess is that a bank and its patrons are not all that interested in customers having to walk a block to do their banking. As consumers, we want the convenience of parking right by the places we spend or, in this case, keep our money.

That said, in the Edmonton context, and our collective desire to foster more walkable neighbourhoods, shouldn’t we come to terms with how that goal might conflict with our conventional views of parking requirements? If our environmental concerns are to be actionable, don’t those concerns indicate that actions are necessary to reduce automobile-centric development?

In the end, to keep the story here short (read it all here), creative minds came up with an alternative solution. The parking requirements were reduced to the parking the bank had already created through demolishing the pizza business, without any in lieu payments, and instead the bank agreed to include a business incubator in its development, which apparently is so successful that the bank promotes it as part of its community programming.

This seems like a win-win-win from where I am sitting. The bank gets its development without destroying additional businesses, avoids paying the in lieu of parking penalty, and creates a needed economic service in the area that benefits local entrepreneurs.

While I am not yet decided on where I stand about the abolishment across the board of parking requirements, I suggest we need to tie together goals (like reducing reliance on automobiles and creating more walkable neighbourhoods) and also perhaps be more analytical about parking. For example, during the day many people leave their neighbourhoods to go to work and currently  the far majority do so in their cars. This frees up parking for business that operate during the day. At night these businesses close and the residents return home. In other words, the demand for parking changes with the time of day and should be considered by a municipal government in terms of the rules it wishes to put into place related to development.

Our current requirements of parking tends to favour large developments by large institutions that have the means to include the parking expense in their business development or expansion plans. They can, if necessary, buy up land to accommodate the parking requirements and sometimes in the process destroy other businesses. Small businesses cannot afford to do this. Not only that, small businesses become stuck at their current size because the cost of expansion, which includes creating a place for cars.

In a city where the goal is to improve environmental conditions, advance walkability, and foster more use of public transit, perhaps it is time to review and adapt parking requirements, if not abolish them altogether.

Perhaps seeing a development as a single entity subject to rules only about its own existence, we should be looking at shared parking requirements across developments and consider the demand for parking at various times of the day. Perhaps consumers need to change their expectations of parking at the front door of a bank or another business. And perhaps a rethink of parking requirements will actually foster more development that benefits a neighbourhood beyond the purpose of said development and increases the tax base for the municipal government.

Suggested Reading

What happens when you fill your city with parking? Lots and lots of low value land, and not much else.

Send this video to anyone who needs a crash course in why parking minimums are a major problem for American cities.

My city leaders keep insisting we need more parking. How can I, as a citizen, make the case for less?

We’ve built too much of the wrong stuff in the wrong places and market demand may never catch up or reinvent these landscapes.

Whether you’re a city staffer, nonprofit leader or just a strong citizen who cares, there’s something you can do to advocate for an end to parking minimums in your town.

O Canada and the Mathematics of Change

I just read in the paper Canada is changing its national anthem to make it gender neutral though I prefer “gender inclusive.” Real change means changing our symbols and our icons when necessary to reflect society’s ever changing sensibilities.

I imagine there will be some kafuffle about this. Traditionalists will articulate traditionalist stuff, rationalizing where there is no longer rationale, if there ever was any. The reactions of many others will be something akin to a shrug of the shoulder or a 1-second read on Facebook, a click on Like, and a scroll down to a video of someone’s barking dog.

Some of us will sit before our humongous flat screens and  watch 4-headed debates that are a testimony to the betrayal of the word, “expert.”  I have never really learned anything listening to talking heads, other than the ends to which people will go to not make one whit of positive difference to what is happening in the world.

Still others will say the changes did not go far enough. The song remains “Christian” and therefor unrepresentative of the Canadian reality when it comes to religion. A few might argue any reference to religion should be struck out, end of story. Yes, there is more to figure out, but not changing until the change is complete is not how change works. You don’t lose 10 pounds and criticize the change because you have 40 more pounds to lose. It’s the same thing with transformational, societal change, just more complicated.

And many others, thank goodness, will have a little dance, if not raise a fist into the air. It’s about time. How we see one another must change. I know. There has been progress, but not enough; so, there is work to do.  How we talk to, about, and with one another has to  change. Talking for others has to change as well, perhaps most of all. Once the Canada’s gender-inclusive national anthem is official, the flag will wave its Maple Leaf above the same landscape it did the day before. Gender biases, disdain for the impoverished and the different, hatred of Indigenous people — all of that  and so much more like it will rear their ugly heads like monsters in a bad dream that continues even when we wake up.

We are still just waking up. It’s very early in the morning. Let’s greet the decision to change our national anthem as something more than an editorial statement or, worse, nothing more than the sum of so many markups from what we expect these days in an excellent proof reader.  We are not making this change because it is the right thing to do as much as we are making the change because things are not right and most Canadians are tired of it. Most Canadians want to be better than that. Than this.

So, the morning after the legislation becomes effective, sit on the edge of your bed, have a stretch and let loose your morning sigh or groan and take a look out the window to check the weather like you always do. But regardless of the cold front’s persistence or a clearing sky,  that day will be a new day – another new day.

Change is made one act at a time, one day at a time. New days are generative. They create more new days and the more new days we create, the more there are. Ironic, don’t you think? The human change we need and deserve eventually comes down to mathematics.

(Oh, my data-crazed friends and colleagues are going to love this.)

Upside Down Thinking about Funding and Funders

Funders should apply to community agencies to fund them.

Can you get your head around that?

I know. Funders won’t do that, but imagine if they did.

What would that look like?

Why would that approach be more impactful and cost-effective than current practice?

Would this upside down version of funding foster more partnerships?

Would there be a transformative power-shift?

I am as certain as you are we will never have a ubiquitous funding system where funders write proposals to community groups hoping to be chosen to invest in their work. But perhaps innovative ideas have more of a chance when we suspend certainty and embrace a wild idea or allow ourselves a bit of time to consider a heretical proposition. Continue reading Upside Down Thinking about Funding and Funders

Data and Wisdom

When we look to another for wisdom, it is not data that we seek.

We want more than information; we need more.

We deserve more.

Data sends signals, whether standing on its own before us  or alongside of  its counterparts on a trend line or a scatter diagram.

Data may be objective, though I tend to think not. Data on its own is just data; for it to have meaning requires our engagement of it. How could it be “objective”? Continue reading Data and Wisdom

Freedom of Choice and Human Rights

Your freedom of choice (or mine) does not trump the human rights of another.

Human rights are  fundamentally and legislatively enshrined and set the stage for how we live together. Human rights are hardwired into our collective identity. The very act of challenging the human rights of another human being is, in effect, questioning or challenging who you are as a human being living with other human beings.

In Alberta, legislation has been passed that will no longer allow child-free rental housing in the province. The fact that legislation was in effect forced upon the government by a Court of Queen’s Bench judgement is fodder for another posting. However, the fact that Albertans are debating the legislation is disturbing. Continue reading Freedom of Choice and Human Rights

About Collective Impact: Types of Problems, Degrees of Change, Learning Loops, and Methods of Thinking

Collective Impact is multi-sector approach to large-scale collaboration that is authentically inclusive of citizens in its development and implementation – in particular citizens who have life-experience with the big problems or issues being addressed, such as poverty, climate change, family violence, and so many more.

Collective Impact is not an approach aimed at creating program changes among a few agencies or undertaking collaboration in order to compete with other community initiatives. Rather, it tends to be focused on efforts to leverage talents, existing services, innovations, and resources in order to effect significant changes to policies and systems and where needed, significant programmatic changes. Such changes might occur within governments or government-run institutions, within education and health institutions, within business, or within service providers.

At recent sessions and workshops I held in Vancouver (Community Change Institute) and in Edmonton (Upside Down Thinking) , I shared a perspective on three types of problems identified by Brenda Zimmerman and how they connect to three types of change, three types of learning, and various types of thinking required in addressing each type of problem. My intent is to help our collective thinking about significant problems/issues facing our communities.

Simple problems are those we can fix easily and are sometimes called kaizen (the Japanese word for “continuous improvement”). Solutions to these kinds of problems are akin to tweaking a recipe or adjusting a process to improve quality or reliability of performance. Typically such changes are incremental. Continue reading About Collective Impact: Types of Problems, Degrees of Change, Learning Loops, and Methods of Thinking

Why are we here?

Such a simple question, four small words that get at the core of our community change work.

It’s not a question confined to a step in a visioning or planning process. It’s place is within us, no matter where we are going or if we are standing still.

It’s not just a question about purpose or vision. It is also inquiry into who we are and how coming together around something that matters to all of us might change us. After all, change of any size is made by people; the changes they make only occur because of the changes within themselves. Continue reading Why are we here?

35 Voices On Collaborative Leadership and Co-Creating Cities of the Future

C lick Paper to Download

In July and August, I sought out individuals in my personal and professional network to contribute to a major paper I was writing on Collaborative Leadership and Co-Creating Cities of the Future. I sought out participation through Facebook, via a survey which I promoted in emails and through Twitter.

The paper was released last week at Tamarack’s Community Change Institute. It’s not a coincidence that it was titled: Cities of the Future: Co-Creating Tomorrow.

I have to say I was so pleased with the participation and the depth and range of responses. The narrative written by participants was so compelling, at least half of the paper is written in their own   words and the remainder is presented in aggregate, through summary commentary. I do admit I might have thrown in my own point of view here and there, but the paper truly is one example of co-creation. Continue reading 35 Voices On Collaborative Leadership and Co-Creating Cities of the Future

Working yet Homeless in Banff, Alberta

Banff, Alberta. Located in one of the most beautiful areas in Canada. People come from all over the world by the bus loads. There is money being made for sure. Nothing wrong with making money, right?

The hotel industry does alright. I perused hotels there via Expedia and most of the rooms available were $400 to $500 per night. Then there’s all the restaurants and bars, the tourist shops, art galleries, the rafting experiences, horseback riding, and on and on.

Life is good in Banff. Good for business people. Good for visitors who can afford to be there. But what about the workers at the clothing stores, or at the restaurants, or the ones who clean the rooms at the $500 per night hotel? Continue reading Working yet Homeless in Banff, Alberta

Disruptive Innovation: a Type of Upside Down Thinking

Upside Down Thinking has a relationship with Disruptive Thinking and Disruptive Innovation, but they are not merely different descriptors of the same thing. You can read a previous posting I did a while back on Upside Down Thinking; this posting is about Disruptive Innovation.

Disruptive Innovation has its roots in the private sector. The concept was first articulated by Harvard professor, Clayton Christensen in 1995 who defined it as “an innovation [that] transforms an existing market or sector by introducing simplicity, convenience, accessibility, and affordability where complication and high cost are the status quo. Initially, a disruptive innovation is formed in a niche market that may appear unattractive or inconsequential to industry incumbents, but eventually the new product or idea completely redefines the industry.” [1]

According to Christensen, there are two fundamental aspects of a disruptive innovation. It either provides a low cost alternative aimed at a segment of the market that the dominate players are not focusing on; or it actually creates a brand new market that is also typically a lower cost alternative in the market place

Consider the disruptive innovation that changed how we “rent” movies. Remember Blockbuster? Continue reading Disruptive Innovation: a Type of Upside Down Thinking