When Malvina Reynolds sang about “little boxes on the hillside,” she was describing the monotony that is created when our homes and neighborhoods fail to reflect the essence of people in a unique place. While the song illustrates this with the image of a housing development, the same observation holds true for businesses.
People intuitively react negatively to big chains that give no consideration to a local community and its distinctiveness. Many cities fight back, trying to stop the flood of commodification of their communities that box stores bring. It is often said that this fight is about losing local businesses, but it may be better said that it is about losing the “essence of place” with which local businesses are more connected.
Communities are fighting valiant battles. These battles would be more effective if they focused not only on slowing or stopping the pace of commodification of their towns and villages, but also on beginning to attract and build what is distinctive to their place.
This is done by growing what we call Developmental Economies—economies based on the unique “Story of Place” for where you live. Growing a Developmental Economy begins with assessment, integrating the diverse aspects (social, cultural, and natural) that make your place unique into a narrative framework that all can understand. unique It then uncovers the unrealized potential implied by that assessment, and sets out to develop the capacity of local business and community infrastructure to cultivate it. This creates an inspiring and engaging framework from which businesses can grow, and with which economic development councils and city councils can hold people’s feet to a fire that warms then, instead of scorching them.