In the next few months, we expect our communities to slowly start reopening. While we’re all eager to reboot, we also realize we’re not going back to “normal.” When this is over, the world will have changed in many ways—but we can still be very hopeful about the future. Now is the time to lay the groundwork to create vibrancy in your community. Here are some points to keep in mind:
A healthy community culture is paramount right now. How citizens feel about their community will likely determine their destiny. Communities need to see themselves as pioneers with opportunity, not victims. You need a healthy culture to exchange ideas if you’re to collaborate effectively. If you can’t work together, you can’t possibly solve the big problems, execute on important things, or take advantage of opportunity. The stakes are too high right now for anything less.
One rule for a healthy culture: Don’t allow anonymity or accept wild generalities. Instead, make people carry their own messages. Saying “everyone says” or “everyone feels this way” is rarely true. Keep pressing until you find out who “everyone” is. It might be two or three people.
If you are a leader with a message, say it 13 times. That’s the magic number for it to become embedded knowledge. Sometimes we get tired of saying the same things and assume that others are tired of hearing it. But I encourage you to continue to repeat your messages with a high degree of humility and by starting where people are—with a realization that many are in different places.
On the restart, be flexible and willing to experiment. Use this time as a reset. Those who experiment with different ideas will likely hit on the best solution. Look at your zoning. Does it still make sense for where we are now? Take the lead from the private sector and focus on innovation. Here are some ideas: Consider closing the downtowns to cars to allow for more outdoor seating, try a drive-thru farmers market, turn your unused baseball stadium into the world’s largest open-air restaurant... just try some things you haven’t tried before. You can always call it a “pilot.” If it doesn’t work, that’s okay.
Look to other communities for ideas! Many have gotten really creative and are doing cool things. Keep your eyes and ears to the ground so you can harvest things from other communities, and be sure to share your ideas as well. While we don’t know what will happen on the other side, we do know that people will figure out new (and probably better) ways of doing things—and many already are. You just need the free flow of ideas.
Measurement really matters, and communities want the tools to do it. If you can’t measure, you can’t diagnose. If you can’t diagnose, you can’t treat. Be sure to measure outcomes, not transactions or activity—i.e., don't measure the number of permits issued. Instead consider measuring things like assessed property values or outside investment. Pick the metrics that make sense for your community. It is not a one-size-fits-all. Connect measurement to your specific goals.
Let the results speak for themselves—don’t try to spin them. In Pensacola, our Quality of Life Survey is handled by the Pensacola Young Professionals. This gets them engaged in the community and promotes civic engagement, and the community likes it because they are apolitical and it gives a different level of authenticity. After all, they are going to inherit the community, so the decisions we make now will determine what gets handed to them.
Civic education is more crucial than ever. The only change that will succeed long-term is citizen-powered change. Without widespread and enthusiastic buy-in, initiatives will fail. Civic education gives you a common language and helps people understand the why behind the changes you’re asking them to make.
Healthy small businesses are the backbone of the community. Communities often chase the big whale and try to attract the big companies, but building a community brick by brick with healthy small businesses is a much more sustainable strategy. Do everything you can to help them be successful.
People want fiscal accountability attached to government investment. They want to help companies stay afloat, but want to make sure they are viable in the long run. They don’t want to bail out companies (no matter what size) if they aren’t well-run.
Communities need a leadership bench as much as companies do. One reason Pensacola has done so well with its revitalization is that many different people have been involved in the movement. The more people involved in driving change, the better. It takes lots of minds and voices to build a strong community. Plus, it’s a big job. It’s not likely that a handful of people could really do it well.
Being a small community can be an advantage. You can pivot more quickly and experiment with things more readily. In small communities, you tend to have better access to decision-makers and can move quickly. You also have a better chance of making a difference. Small communities are also incredibly progressive. They are incredibly innovative because they have to be.
Nobody knows what communities will look like on the other side of this, but I’m incredibly optimistic. I’m already seeing innovative ideas and creative solutions being floated. Necessity is the father of invention! Things we have talked about doing for years will get accelerated, and that might not be a bad thing. I’m also seeing a surge in localism, which is always good for communities, and a collaborative spirit that will surely tie us together in a really productive way. PM
Quint Studer is the author of Building a Vibrant Community: How Citizen-Powered Change Is Reshaping America and founder of Pensacola’s Studer Community Institute. Learn more at vibrantcommunityblueprint.com.