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The Ecosystem of Vibrancy

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Keith Reester
August 6, 2018

What makes for a vibrant community? Jobs, parks, transit, no congestion, good schools, elders aging in place or safe streets for kids to play? In the world of technology there is a theory of the self-fulfilling prophecy, in an article by Harry Wilson in Smart & Resilient Cities, he notes “In the West, we’ve believed that robots will come to displace us; in Japan, they’ve been seen as helpful and friendly; in each case technology development has followed the narrative.” Very clearly cities and towns are the same: you get what you believe when it comes to the future of your community.

When evaluating great communities, the underlying characteristics tend to be the same. Many communities developed this vibrancy over time, or in some it appears there was a change that seemed to shift the focus to building a neighborhood not just to live or work into one you want to call “home” and want to invite your friends and family into that home. More importantly, these great towns have been able to sustain success over time even through changing economies, trends, demographics and technology. Like anything, it takes a vision to face the future, picture the change and have the courage to make it there.

To use a term most associated with nature, building a healthy community is like building a healthy ecosystem: it will continually feed itself, infusing new energy and regeneration. I’m sure you can also name a few communities where the ecosystem is in a downward spiral. So, what sets the greats apart? A visionary plan that spans years, leadership changes and shocks to the system – natural or economic.

Ecosystem: A complex network or interconnected system. So, what characterizes successful complex networks in a city?

People – Regardless of race, color, creed or gender, people are at the center of every community. It is a place where everyone enjoys safety and engagement in his or her unique way. In today’s divisive world, it seems harder to build a genuine “tribe” of people that rally around their hometowns.

Business – Successful communities have businesses of all sizes and an interconnected support system that helps locals thrive, working collectively to expand the business’ footprint beyond their immediate market.

 

Innovation – Innovation is elemental to a vision that establishes the future of a community. Positive changes in education, mobility, transportation, business support, and infrastructure are essential. Innovations reflect the spirit of community in permutations of excellence  and display a substructure of willingness to share.

Generosity – The cornerstone of the most viable populace is the willingness to exceed one’s own needs and see the needs of others. The urgency runs deep in our communities today with issues like mental health, addiction, domestic violence and the wellbeing of our youth (to name a few). Strong nonprofits, a deep well of faith-based organizations and the ability to recognize the talents of others to create the most effective and sincere network to integrate services allow communities to support those most in need. The most vibrant communities not only do this through dollars but, more importantly, volunteer time.

Resilience – Dynamic places have a compelling infrastructure. Public works professionals see increased variability in natural events – more significant rains and snows, more frequent fires, substantial swings in heat and weather. The best communities have infrastructure that can withstand these shocks. Part of resilience is also the ability to bounce back after an event, economic, societal or natural, so the community comes together, heals faster and minimizes the brunt of it.

History – The past informs the future. History is not only looking back but learning from the winding path of life. Leaders utilize history to frame what core values exist and what carries forward. Interwoven in a community’s fabric are the colored threads of history and the visionary strands of the future community quilt.

Engagement – The essence of American democracy is about individual citizens participating in their governance, and local government is the closest to this principle. The most vibrant towns not only engage those who show up and share but also those who are often hard to reach. The best embrace the diversity of opinions and allow that to coalesce and inform policy, support community vision and embody the lifeblood of vibrancy.

Like the historic Maypole tradition—of starting with banners strung in all directions around a pole and the families, children and elders grabbing a pennant and circling the pole together until they are intertwined—local government can and should be the pole, bringing together the community, highlighting the many colors of the spokes and engaging the diversity of those colors in the circle. The community visioning and engagement process, the resolute belief in a neighborhood of citizens crafting a self-fulfilling prophecy ensures a vibrant, engaged and robust place that can withstand the shocks of modern reality and come out the better for it at the end. Building the ecosystem is a core role of local government, as leaders, we need to embrace the challenge, energy and opportunity of this responsibility.


Author: Keith Reester is the Public Works & Utilities Director in Littleton, CO and also provides consulting and speaking services through Reester & Associates. You can find more of Mr. Reester’s work in his book, available via Amazon, Define, Measure, Create – Inspiring a Leadership Journey. Keith can be reached at [email protected] and (970) 203-4326.

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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