The Future of Community, Economic and Education Development
How to grow the wealth of a town, city or region without undermining its vitality and heritage: it’s an on-going challenge because we tend to see economic development and cultural and ecological stewardship as being at odds. But any viable future is going to require us to reconcile this apparent dichotomy.
I’m heartened by an integrated approach that emanates from a shared sense of uniqueness of a bioregion—a shared sense carried by its Story of Place. The story of a place is as old as its land and waterways. It is told and stewarded by native peoples and recent residents alike. Those who are drawn to a place represent it in their metaphors, prose and historical accounts. Story of place is made from the patterns that are apparent only on close observations—patterns that underlie all that is there. A place’s story guides what can and will be possible, whether or not we are aware of it. And, if we bring this story into our awareness, it can guide economic prosperity, community vitality and human learning processes that bring together stakeholder groups for the benefit of all.
Communities are increasingly connecting to their bioregional Story and using it as the source for economic and community development strategies. For example, McAllen, TX, in a recent planning exercise used a Story of Place process to reveal its unique “vocation” and “essence.”
Understanding its story—its core identity and vocation—gives a community a unique advantage in seeking out, attracting and establishing highly valuable businesses relationships that foster healthy and sustainable growth, even with the extreme volatility of larger economic cycles. It provides the basis for coherent strategy for those communities endeavoring to implement the currently popular idea of localizing. It brings forward a logical and self-apparent direction that fits the place and its people. It strengthens the attraction of people to the region, bringing their creative talent as perfectly matching contributors to these growing business clusters. This is a natural link since people are draw to a place for the aesthetics and values that call out to them and their families. People want to work in a place they feel fits them for home and creative employment. The Story of Place serves as a way to Brand the region for business, talent and cultural uniqueness, giving it a step up on less defined regions. Silicon Valley with technology, New York with fashion and finance, and Portland with natural foods and lifestyle show us how powerful the draw can be when discovered.
A Story of Place is always historically, culturally and biologically based. It is not the work of a vision team making up a mission for a region. Rather, it is a discovery process that allows Place to tell us what it has always been as well as how it is seeking to be more true to itself as time goes on. Because each place on the planet is different, it is extremely difficult to copy or displace a region. This is why authenticity can be such a powerful source for economic and social development.
By contrast, communities that chase trends, or the current emerging technologies, leave themselves vulnerable to a fast changing world and an intensely competitive environment. Trend based economic development plans are not tied to a natural, embedded, and authentic fit with place. When a Story of Place is revealed, it cannot be copied. Companies or individuals who can see the advantages of that story want to be there for its sake, rather than for superficial (and displaceable) incentives like tax rebates. They want to be there and will do what it takes to get there. These are the healthiest and most enduring business relationships that a community can attract.
Authentically place-based economic development needs to be held together by an institutionalizing process. Sometimes cities can offer this through Core Teams that guide the planning and thinking. But the political nature of such entities can undermine their stability and integrity over time. Community educational institutions, those that have sufficient durability and continuity, are increasingly stepping into this role. Community Colleges are one likely institution to hold this in a sustainable way. As stewards and containers for making Regenerative Communities come to life and continue to prosper, more and more are likely to establish Sustainability Institutes for their bioregions. The most famous Regenerative Community in the world, Curitiba, Brazil, established a University to be just such a container. Institutionalization of the Story of Place offers almost unlimited opportunity for integration and innovation with regard to the development of communities, economies and education.