“Build a community with people first in mind and they will stay and support your city forever. Build your communities for the money focused and short-sighted companies, and your city will only last as long as they are making huge amounts of money for themselves.”
By Angela Conte, October 8, 2016
Smart growth is about creating healthier more vibrant communities. Some of the requirements to qualifying as a smart city would be things like green technology, sustainability practices, material reuse, outdoor social green spaces, and building with mixed-uses that combine commercial with residential. Many green and sustainable cities also think about things like adequate public transportation to limit cars while encouraging more people powered forms of mobility to enhance health. Current smart cities are also about putting more people, businesses, and infrastructure into smaller denser areas to save money on energy, technology, public services and maintenance costs. While most city officials must now consider green and healthy environments for people and the earth, their bottom-line is still about making/or saving money first and improving people’s lives second. Of course, there wouldn’t be sustainable green development today if money wasn’t a big factor but planners and government officials are too often only about meeting the financial needs of developers, investors, and other financial stakeholders while leaving quality-of-life issues for their people as a happenstance. This means they are only looking at the short-term future while ignoring long-term sustainability and it’s in the long-term planning and development where the real financial returns and city survivability lay. For example, rarely does housing get produced just to keep people in quality affordable housing or to curtail rising home ownership costs so that more people can have shelter plus money to enjoy their lives with. If there is development today, someone must be making an enormous financial profit, or it doesn’t get done. Even banks are staying out of the home building business because there isn’t enough money in it for them. Yet the U.S. is decades behind in housing development which is impacting the GDP enormously through lack of income to sales profits. Why is this? Because city planning and building officials do not always use holistic approaches to designing their city’s economies and if they did they wouldn’t be ignoring their most important means for sustainability: Their people and their people’s need for affordable housing. And instead of thinking about the needs of people, city officials spend too much time focused on obtaining and retaining big business investment, when focusing on quality of life for people pays more and keeps a city vibrant and productive.
A people first focus on city planning means taking a holistic, multi-sectoral approach to community development and with this balanced planning comes housing, businesses, and jobs for local laborers, builders, architectural and engineering firms and sub-contractors galore which are a large part of a communities’ workforce. So when city planners think about housing development it should never think only about developing large expensive homes by high-end national builders with their out of town teams because this is economically one dimensional and doesn’t support their own economic infrastructure. In fact, they could be killing their chance for developing long-term sustainability rather than building the community value they want. They should be thinking about the entire social structure of their city which includes all types of development utilizing local area resources. If developers can’t be found to build these people first projects, cities should find other ways to make it happen as their primary and foremost responsibility for long-term sustainability. Focusing on just the wealthy single home buyer, owner, landlord, or real estate investor while ignoring affordable housing for the middle and lower income majority is how you develop a haves and have-not society that destroys a community and creates a polarized political system which are the very things that much of America suffers from today. If big cities and communities want to change the national inequality trends of today, they can do it without waiting for the Federal Government by investing in housing and people-centric community improvements right in their backyards. Just look at the cost that inequality is having. More money is going into building a police state in the US than in solving the problems that create the instability in the first place. You can’t have a strong functioning community if people can’t find housing or the housing is too expensive so they can’t afford to live life fully after paying their rent or mortgage bills. People need hope to expand their lives and not just physically survive and cities could be doing more to create this human spirit productivity but too many city officials are about resolving things like racial tension, climate destruction, transportation ills and housing shortages only after its gotten out of hand and too much damage has already been done. If they had thought about people first a century ago and not just when it begins to impede on wealth development of the highly vocal and financially powerful, they could have stopped the environmental destruction and/or crime and homelessness so prevalent in many towns and cities today. This is the benefit of utilizing smart planning for people first instead of utilizing it later when wealthy people or chaos dictate it. Housing is not a luxury it’s a human life sustaining necessity and if city officials can’t or won’t create housing for everyone, then they are showing they’re unwilling or unable to do their job no matter what excuses they come up with for why it can’t get done and they need to be replaced by more creative forward thinking problem-solvers. If high-end national builders only want to participate in high return developments than cities need to find creative ways to bring in more non-profit builders, B-corps developers or require the big guys to develop lower and middle-income housing equal to their high-end housing. If builders refuse to do this, cities must say “No, you can’t build here because we need an economically balanced future for all our people and our community’s sustainability”. Unfortunately, city officials find it easier to give in to the big developers and their media hype rather than do what is humanly right. City planners need to understand that if they don’t create this social equality than the high cost of housing will continue to contribute to stress that leads to crime, mental and physical health problems and costly social support programs. The choice then becomes thinking about what a small minority of wealthier people want or the needs of the majority of an entire city of residents need. In one choice they are creating small pockets of wealth in their cities and the other way they are creating a stronger healthier city that all income levels can benefit from.
People first thinking also means investing in small locally owned and operated businesses; equitable city maintenance plans; crime prevention and beautification where they are needed most and not just where wealthier people live. If city officials are more focused on sports arenas, business centers, and higher-end housing in gated communities while ignoring the basic needs in economically challenged neighborhoods than they are not building the financial security of all the people who could be utilizing these sports arenas, businesses, and cultural resources which is not good for everyone. Some cities are doing gentrification facelifts that add more architectural beauty and greenery to entice people and businesses to come to their cities but not because it improves the environment and the health of the people who already live there. In fact, it drives out one group of people for another with multiple ethical issues and racial undertones. They are not thinking about putting in vegetation to develop the health of all people; nor are they thinking about the pleasure and enjoyment of their residents. They’re still crying about costs of social needs while making their city or town look more superficially competitive with other towns and cities to entice wealthy businesses and people to come and create social balance, or is that imbalance? Yes, city planners are actually adding to the social imbalance that destroys cities rather than fixing the problems that create the imbalance. They’ll lure national big box stores and food chains to their towns because they’re told by big businesses that the tax revenue and jobs will come but this tax money doesn’t get distributed equality in the community to all the people, and the jobs are low-wage and eat into the tax base to cover social programs, all of which creates big-box communities with large numbers of poor people. These types of jobs only benefit the businesses and not the community. The number one objective for any smart city development department needs to be on long-term sustainability and making all people’s lives better through affordable housing and economic stimulation for those who need it most because it leads to more stability for the entire community as it saves on civic, medical, social and criminal costs while adding value to the community for everyone.
America was created to represent people instead of monarchies and oligarchs, but cities today are ignoring basic human needs such as affordable housing and small business job stimulation in favor of catering to big business and the wealthy. This is the creation of another oligarchic society and it happens every time cities fear big businesses leaving or not coming if they don’t get what they want which is usually lower taxes and no union or people support. This is a form of economic extortion and far from a realistic threat when you understand community stability and growth is actually depended on the economic needs of all its people and not it’s few big businesses. If a company decides to leave a people focused smart city, then there will always be people focused smart companies to replace them. City managers who think otherwise are short-sited city planners who need to understand that the more productive the individuals in their cities are the stronger their economy will be to improve the lives of everyone equally creating an ongoing cycle of stability that has long-term interest to new and future smart businesses. It’s not that big business or wealth-seekers are bad for a city it’s just they are not the most important element to growing a city’s long-term sustainability. Just look at what smart fast growing millennial companies are looking for in locations to set up their businesses today: Number one is lots of happy, trained employees to fill their labor pools and grow. What city officials are hearing from the big money focused businesses instead are they will move or are moving because taxes are too high, labor is too expensive or the municipality doesn’t do enough for them. That’s just more extortionist scare tactics going on from not so smart companies who need tax breaks to survive. If you want smart strong companies to come to your city then remember they are moving to find the smartest, happiest, well educated, most productive communities of people to relocate to and give it to them because they would prefer to live in a happy healthy economically balanced city rather than move to a place that has low wage poor people, crime and economic instability due to low taxes. If low-wage communities are what they are really looking for they will take their businesses overseas eventually anyways and you’re left with nothing. These dumb companies are looking for fast money and not long-term sustainability so they’re not the kind of businesses smart cities should be depending on. Once people are made happy and healthy, smart businesses follow, then the tax burden can be shared more equally and living wages will show returns from higher productivity and investment in local businesses not matter what size they are. Once a city is solvent and happy, these smart companies know they can expect other smart companies like themselves moving into town to combine resources with. Thinking about people first is a win, win, win situation for everyone. So it’s imperative to design and build communities for the people and the companies will follow; but, build if for the shallower money focused businesses only and the best and the brightest will go elsewhere. The guys who leave a solid sustainable smart city are the types of businesses that leave for cheap overseas labor taking away jobs and money from the very people they expect to buy their products. Not very smart or sustainable. It’s dumb money greedy businesses like this that created the industrial manufacturing rust belt. If a city wants to start building for a strong future in the 21st Century they need to focus on creating livable quality cities for people first to attract quality sustainable businesses. Build a community with people first in mind and they will stay and support your city forever. Build your communities for the money focused and short-sighted companies, and your city will only last as long as they are making huge amounts of money for themselves.
A lot about smart growth technology is common sense. Solar technology makes sense because it’s an unlimited source of clean energy from the sun that’s available to everyone, anywhere, and any time the sun is out. And once the technology is created to harness it, it will be there even when the sun isn’t out. In the new century, solar technology is finally taking off because the value of fossil fuel is not as lucrative, and because the impact on climate change is becoming too expensive to ignore, and not because solar energy was a good idea for people and the environment, to begin with. Money made the difference in the change to solar power in the last twenty years but the issue came too late for the money people and now it will cost society even more than if city governments had invested in solar energy as a benefit to quality of life to their people when it mattered most. City planners must be able to see a good idea and go with it while always keeping in mind that quality of human life must come first if they want to be sustainable into the future. The same issue of lack of sustainability is happening with transportation. Urban Planners have known for decades that population growth would impact the ability for people to get around in population-dense communities that are car dependent. Large cities of the 18th and 19th centuries did well because they were people focused and dense without the hindrance of automobiles. Back then people walked and the diversity of retail goods and services were within walking distance and accessible to everyone. Schools, shops, churches, entertainment, parks, and community services were embedded into the each and every micro-community and within walking distance to homes. People got more exercise and engaged with their communities in active social ways whereas today in America most cities have outlawed the mixing of residential with anything else and thus limiting physical health, social engagement, political discussion and accessibility of resources to those who lack money for cars. If city officials had been thinking about what works for people’s quality of life first they could have avoided these unendurable cultural developments that have led to economic stagnation in many communities in the United States. Now they’re focused on saving “tax” money by privatizing schools, civil services and social programs further taking economic and social power away from their local people and communities. This is not progress and it’s not stable and it’s not people first thinking. These decisions are being made because cities are being lured into thinking there is more money to be made, or “saved”, by doing business with big money national companies and not their own local people first. They are favoring big business to the point of destroying their local citizen’s businesses and the socioeconomic spirit of their residents. There are so many ways cities in their short-sightedness have built communities for the wealthy and big businesses at the expense of their people and its these types of decisions that will eventually destroy their communities. If city officials are thinking about people first they would diversify business within their communities through small business development for the benefit of resident’s quality of life and allow them to set up shop close to where people live. This would mean more small community businesses and their tax revenues staying in the community, also more jobs and the incomes from them to be spent in the local businesses so that they create an internal economic cycle that can survive a 2008 like economic collapse. If you want an example of this type of sustainable community development just look at the small New England communities outside New York and Boston where they have created social and economic diversified villages that are small, walkable, economically interdependent and politically active. They also have two centuries of proven longevity. Their only advantage over most suburban enclaves in the US is their accessibility to larger metro centers for technology, educational institutions and the innovation that comes with them. As our world grows and communication expands these types of institutional resources will become accessible to everyone as long as each community looks to expand access to these resources to their people. Just image where cities would be today if they had focused on balancing the quality of life resources through smart planning and development for all people instead of only fixing major problems when they got too much for people to live with. They would be saving on the costs of healthcare, crime prevention and food and housing support if they focused on people first and made sure everyone had housing that is affordable and jobs leaves them with enough money to give to their local businesses to keep them growing and solvent.
If cities want to grow strong and survive they must begin to ask themselves, where in their plan is the human and social concern that is imperative to their citizen’s survival? And where is the thought and ingenuity to use today’s advanced knowledge and technologies to build better more balanced societies and not just more income for the wealthy? And where is the thinking that comes with working on creating a whole functioning community as a benefit in itself? Because the viable communities of the future will be the advanced smart green sustainable healthy high-density communities that bring people together and are about stable economies where everyone can benefit enough to give back to the social and economic life cycle of their communities. These are people first communities where those who fall through the economic cracks are caught by a support system that picks them up and gets them going again to keep giving to their communities; and where the brightest minds with heart and compassion will want to live and bring up their children because of the diversity, education, and creativity that is available and not because their city is designed to isolate them from the rest of the world and its problems. It’s these communities with healthy happy people with purposeful lives living in balanced economic stable communities that will create the prosperity to build these same communities anywhere in the world and end wars. When planning communities for a stronger healthier world for later generations, planners must start with people first thinking now and if they believe their job is to save money while making developers happy and investors wealthy, they are in for a major future shock. Building only for those who have financial resources while ignoring the rest of the population is never going to get cities out of the economic hole that they are digging themselves into. If city officials and planners want to stand out from the crowd and have a strong future for their communities, they can’t just say they’re into smart green energy and efficient growth because it sounds good they have to start putting the survival of the human race first in everything they do or get out of politics and community service.