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  • Michael Rogers

The Bold Line Between Planned Development and Grassroots Movement

I’m currently caught between two schools of thought. I’ve thrown around the term “community development” several times lately. To me, those two words are working against each other to the point where true community development is rarely seen. “Community” is taking the role of an advocate for all those involved with little thought of yourself. While the advocate may benefit, many times it is only through the elevation of everyone. To advocate for the needs of a community, you are typically very vocal about those needs so there is no confusion where you stand. It is the grassroots movements that take the longest to materialize but have the deepest impact. “Development” is taking the role of a planner or developer. While the community may benefit, many times there is a “return on investment” conversation along the way by those taking the chance. Plans are only whispered of until the timing is right. Deals are made and business is done with as few involved as possible. Otherwise, someone else may step in and reap the benefit. I know I’m painting with a very broad brush with very specific characterizations… but stay with me.

In most cases, development is filling a true need… but it is too focused in its response. We don’t have enough middle-income houses… let’s subdivide five acres and build eighteen very similar houses. We don’t have enough places to shop… here’s a 50’x150’ metal building we’ll “build to suit”. Don’t worry… we’ll put some stone on the front. We don’t have enough places to eat… you like Mexican food? Development requires risk, financial backing, and a mindset that the “supply” of whatever is being provided will meet a “demand” to the point of paying the note every month. And knowing that the need you’re filling will still be there in a year when your project is complete. Residential development is one of the riskiest of them all. The amount of infrastructure that must go into a property for housing is a huge financial undertaking before even one lot is sold or house built. Having a developer’s mindset is essential to long-term growth.

In most cases, community advocacy is filling a true need… but it is so general that there is no one solution. For every problem, there are a dozen different ways to solve it. So much so, that it’s hard to get a large enough number of people behind one solution for it to make any difference. And even when you get a common goal, change is like the stream caring out the bedrock in a bend. True change is hard. True change is slow. True change is many times seen only by the next generation looking back. But it’s also worth it. Community advocates see problems much bigger than them knowing that anything they do is a drop in the bucket. But it’s the mindset that even that drop makes the difference. Having a community advocate’s mindset is essential to long-term good.

So here I am, an architect and small business owner, observing all those around me who have tried before and are trying now with varying degrees of success in making real change in our communities. Nothing I’m doing is special or revolutionary. I’ve had enough conversations about this to know there are plenty on board. I’m just one of some currently saying it out loud hoping to bring the right group together. And then, I’m hoping another group takes every bit of what they’ll see and does it a dozen more times. I hope to be a bold line between developer and advocate. Providing an avenue for planned developments that serve a grassroots movement in our communities.

Here’s a thought… Why can’t we have nice things? Because most of the time, we simply settle for less. No more talking about how somewhere else has walkable neighborhoods, active green spaces, front porch communities, thriving small businesses, and character that reflects the spaces it creates. As long as there are quarter acre spec home lots selling at top dollar without even a thought of having a better option, the better option will never be provided. As long as talking about a solution makes us feel better about ourselves, the work it takes to do that solution will never be done. We actually have to want this in order for it to happen… and don’t settle for less.

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1 Comment

ZJ Burton
ZJ Burton
Aug 18, 2023

There's so much to unpack in each of these paragraphs, but your point of view in the first paragraph and the last three sentences is worth repeating.

I sense a familiar frustration in your tone and wish to be a voice of encouragement in this time.

The most pivotal point in my career was in a landscape architect class, where we studied dynamic patterns and biodiversity. I chose this class after attending a "Decoding a Landscape" lecture where the department head proclaimed that his job as a landscape architect is to "focus on where the edges meet." It seems that it would do everyone involved in this process—or maybe just you—to approach future discussions in this manner.

After all, you…

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