Save it or make it? A strategy for cities.

I’m working on a piece about changes in an East Dayton community. It’s been ignored by the city and the public for too long- virtually written off. It’s where I’m finding signs of the strongest thinking about how to solve problems within “the system” that we’ve created- and lauded (rightly or wrongly) as the greatest country in the world.

We’ve been having a long ongoing discussion on this site about the reach and responsibility of government: what is appropriate for the government to get involved in, and what isn’t. That discussion hinges on if you think of government as something that’s good or bad, with very little gray area. It’s been helping me crystallize my thinking- which comes down to the lack of responsibility of government employees and politicians for taking risks: there is almost zero personal risk involved in failure- which is the same reason our gilded CEO class has failed so many shareholders and stakeholders.

The idea I woke up with this morning is a pretty fundamental strategy decision that should apply to programs for “urban renewal” and “economic development” (which as practiced by government is almost farcical since they’re almost always “the answer” to solving the problems postmortem). How does one revive a dead neighborhood, city, urban core?

There are two basic approaches- the reactive attempt to “save” the community- to somehow regain the life that was sucked out, to revive the dead, to somehow shock the system to restart the heart, which has been the practice in Dayton.

Then there is the more proactive attempt- to make your community more desirable, accommodating, attractive and marketable by making a community- not focused on the physical assets but on providing service and support to people.

It comes down to what’s the most important asset a community has? It’s not bricks and mortar- it’s the social capital and community that’s sharing a vision on how to live. I believe that the best example of a community that gets it is Kettering- with its parks and recreation programs, the Rosewood arts center, revolutionary skate park, a bmx track, the Fraze pavilion and good schools. None of these is a “silver bullet”- but combined they form a strong antidote to American’s ungodly quest for more, newer, bigger and more homogenized.

With all the “plans” we’ve had for “Saving” Dayton- few have really identified serving our citizens as our prime solution to our problems. As we’re about to engage in yet another round of budget cuts, we still are talking about “saving” Dayton instead of setting bold new strategies to make it attractive to people again.

It’s clear as can be to me, after a few hours interviewing someone about their plan to remake a community that if we want to make things work, it all starts with our most basic raw materials in a community: our children. Because if they don’t have a future worth looking forward to, neither will your community, neighborhood, city etc. Create a realistic future of a life better than the one you have now- and make the kids have dreams- and yours may come true.

That’s how we save a city.

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