Let's Do the Time Warp Again

I read a lot about how civilization is coming to an end because we all sit at home with our computers, and downtowns are dying because we shop on line instead of in our communities.  But I never see any real analysis about why.

Here’s my theory.  As I said below, cities need relevant amenities to attract contemporary consumers if they want to be viable.  We just need something to do.  That’s really all placemaking is.  Dated downtowns are like avocado green refrigerators (note the resemblance between downtown Cadillac and the kitchen below).  Obsolete.  Maybe that’s why we sit at home and shop on line.  It’s true in my small town for sure – see how there are more people in that kitchen than in my downtown?  The reality is that a lot of our communities are stuck in circa 1972 and aren’t relevant to people today.  And if you’re not relevant, you’re toast.

Downtown Cadillac, Michigan

Downtown Cadillac, Michigan

Groovy kitchen

Groovy kitchen

If you took downtown Cadillac’s most popular restaurant, Clam Lake Beer Company (below), and put it in the building above – same food, same beer, one block away – would it have as much traffic, or does its building (its curb appeal) contribute to its busy-ness?  The exterior of the dated building says “come in for a nice fondue.” Not “we have fantastic goat cheese pizza to complement your microbrew.” (Poetry completely unintentional.)  The updated Clam Lake building and vibe are part of its brand, and make it relevant.  The interior is contemporary, but has the building’s original brick walls and tin ceilings, and black and white metal prints from Cadillac’s past, honoring the building’s and the town’s history. So placemaking (to stay with the kitchen analogy) is like new cabinets, a stainless steel fridge, and granite counters for your downtown.  

There is a connection between relevance and credibility as well.  It’s probably a little less important for a restaurant than, say, a marketing or tech business, but it also is a consideration in the public sector.  If your product, process, or outcome isn’t relevant, how can you have credibility?

So how do you use a credible process to make a community relevant?  Give a voice to stakeholders.  More and more, placemaking includes non-planners in the planning process.  People expect to have a voice; their opportunity for meaningful engagement adds both relevance and credibility to a plan.

A charrette (a French word meaning “a ridiculously long meeting“) is a way for the public to have meaningful engagement in the planning process.  Members of the public are invited to help plan improvements in their communities. Charrettes may be up to several days long, and people can really have a say in the planning process. But using a charrette or other public meeting as the only opportunity for input can limit participation:

  • A true multi-day charrette is a time commitment that can discourage participation.
  • They could be held at a time that’s only convenient for certain people – daytime meetings exclude some working people, evening meetings exclude others.
  • They could be not truly public – I’ve been to a number of meetings that were really for invited stakeholders like the local Chamber of Commerce, Downtown Development Authority, parks director, council members, etc.  People who, by virtue of their position, do represent certain community interests, but are not really the public.  And they are the ones who have been shaping the community all along, so there aren’t any different voices in the room.
  • People with child care issues, transportation issues, language barriers, disabilities, or who are uncomfortable in that type of setting have a harder time participating in even short, one-time meetings.

There are ways to participate that don’t involve meetings, like phone and on line surveys. Shorter meetings with different levels of input or participation don’t require a major time commitment.  Or instead of having a formal meeting, set up a table at a crowded event and invite people in to talk.  The best process includes multiple ways to be engaged, so that the collaborators choose how much or how little to contribute.

Because those talented workers we’re trying to attract with placemaking are still in Seattle or Ann Arbor or wherever, they don’t have a voice in Cadillac’s planning process.  The participants in the meetings are the ones who already live here and so we’re providing input on what WE really want, and that’s ok.  It’s our place too.  Retention is important.  Otherwise people and their dollars will keep going to dinner in Traverse City instead of Cadillac, or we’ll stay home.  If Cadillac wants to keep the people who live here now, or at least keep their dollars, we need places to go that are an improvement on a laptop and a Lean Cuisine.

What do you think?  Please leave a comment below.


HERE is an article about a Bay Area community that has been experimenting with a concept called Participatory Budgeting. A percentage of the city budget was allocated for projects selected by voters.  Winners included potholes to scholarships (but look for the proposals that didn’t get on the ballot – those are way more fun).  Collaborators self-selected (anyone could come up with a project, anyone over 16 could vote on up to six proposals).

Because I can’t help myself, here’s one more seriously groovy kitchen from the 70s.

Just... wow.

Just... wow.

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