"Willingness and Ability" as Drivers of Community Development

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The work of planning at some point becomes the work of doing.

Few communities move from planning to executing easily. This is especially notable in weak markets, though it occurs in strong markets too. In weak markets, planning does not typically require anyone to make a commitment. Or to put it more directly, it too seldom requires the community to really make choices.

Every community can be for "strong neighborhoods" for instance. Few communities will come right out and say Grover Norquist-style "we want the poor people in our city to have limited futures." No. What communities will say during planning work is "we want to be sure there's enough affordable housing", and "we want to be sure no one is displaced", and "we want strong property values".

Implementation of course requires a kind of "Come to Jesus" moment though, where the ability of a community to square these and other circles runs right into their willingness to do so. In struggling neighborhoods, most communities we work with genuinely want livability and safety and beauty and good neighborliness and stable and even rising property values. This plus proverbial world peace, or at least a Greek plebiscite run in an adult-like manner.

Yet faced with having to do what's necessary to achieve these aims, at execution time these same communities "suddenly" cannot act. Why?

Sometimes it is a planning process that played it too safe, either by not introducing and modulating competing issues, or by applying insufficient pressure on the community to make hard choices and really prioritize. But just as often it is not merely an inadequate planning effort. Instead it is a failure of leadership to mobilize the community to adapt, both by the community from within, and from planning professionals.

In much of our firm's recent work in distressed inner city markets, we have become increasingly convinced that the issue of "willingness" is a central element shaping the degree to which a community remains stuck or moves forward.

In many Pennsylvania, Upstate NY, Ohio, and Michigan communities for example, communities clearly have sufficient buying power to reinvest in their homes and downtowns. They have the financial ability to reposition their communities. They hem and haw about taxes and utility costs, but our analysis shows they can afford to fix what they choose not to. Their soft market condition achieves a permanence less for economic reasons than because the community hasn't sufficient faith in itself.

Similarly, in struggling inner urban neighborhoods, community norms - noise, trash, loitering (disorder) - weaken market demand, reduce prices, and amplify the conventional wisdom to disinvest, which in turn feeds on itself, as we all know. Changing these behaviors is required. Yet a persistent collusion among the community not willing to change behaviors and the larger city not willing to require that those behaviors change perniciously result in solidified distress.

In a disturbing third example of ability versus willingness, our anecdotal research suggests the "food desert" noise is in many ways, just that.  Yes it is true that Food Lion and Piggly Wiggly are not Whole Foods.  But the least healthy grocery store in the least healthy communities do carry fruits and vegetables.  In one community in particular in the Southwest US where the Native American population suffers from horrendously high rates of Type 2 Diabetes and obesity, the local grocer has a fruits and vegetable section that would make many middle income suburban neighborhoods envious.  Yet the check out lines are a kind of racially segregated version of product alignment.  Inexpensive kale and spinach for some. Costly bread and lard and soft drinks for others.  Here again the ability to purchase what is healthy is not the limiting factor.

And of course in strong markets, there is generally to be found a voice to ensure that affordable housing is in ample supply.  But when it comes to actually making that happen, such housing invariably is to be developed "over there", and "certainly not here".  In these instances, the ability to execute a plan to provide affordable housing runs right into the community's willingness to do it in ways that make sense. 

Residents in many cases can change but choose or feel unempowered not to, just as residents in the first example have the ability to invest but aren't willing to. The best plans invariably hinge on WILLINGNESS.  It stands to reason the best planning processes have far more to do with digging into this than into ability.  

Charles Buki is principal of czb, a Virginia-based neighborhood planning firm specializing in deep dive analysis, strategy development, and implementation of revitalization plans.

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